Remembering Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)
Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)

 

The groundbreaking French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez passed away on Tuesday at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany. He was 90.

Coming of age in post-war Europe, Boulez embraced a modernist zeitgeist which turned its back on the past to imagine new sounds and musical structures. Obsessed with controlled, rational order, Boulez pushed the twelve-tone techniques of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern to their limits, developing a “total serialism.” (In twelve-tone or serial music all harmonic relationships between pitches are erased). He also played a key role in the development of controlled chance and electronic music.

Boulez developed a reputation as an enfant terrible with provocative statements such as, “All art of the past must be destroyed.” Perhaps his closest aesthetic counterpart in the architecture world was Le Corbusier, whose “vision for Paris” involved demolishing most of the city and replacing it with tall, identical “towers in a park.” Alex Ross called Boulez “the last remaining titan of the postwar avant-garde.”

To the casual listener, Boulez’ music may sound like random sounds. But it is actually highly ordered in terms of pitch and rhythm. Structures (1955) was one of his early works. Anthèmes 2, for violin and electronics was written in 1997.

Boulez the Conductor

Pierre Boulez was music director of the New York Philharmonic between 1971 and 1977, succeeding Leonard Bernstein. In contrast to Bernstein, his style was cool and cerebral. His interpretations of Mahler, among other repertoire, were extraordinary. Boulez’ 1999 Deutsche Grammophon recording of Mahler’s First Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra remains one of my favorites:

  • Mahler Symphony No. 1 in D major, Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony- iTunes, Amazon
  • Find other Pierre Boulez recordings- iTunes, Amazon

Beethoven’s Seventh: Five Historic New York Phil Recordings

The music of Beethoven is opening orchestra seasons on both coasts this month.

Next week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will offer an all-Beethoven concert gala. It’s the first in a series of concerts called Immortal Beethoven, in which all nine Beethoven symphonies will be performed between September 29 and October 11, along with chamber music and children’s programs. The LA Phil has even launched this virtual reality tour experience, cleverly called “Van Beethoven,” which takes the music into the community. A downloadable app makes it available to music lovers everywhere.

But first, on Thursday the New York Philharmonic’s season kicks off with the Grieg Piano Concerto, performed by Lang Lang and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, conducted by Music Director Alan Gilbert. The concert will be broadcast on PBS at 9:00 on September 24.Toscanini Beethove

Written between 1811 and 1812 while Beethoven recovered in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice, the Seventh Symphony is a simultaneously ferocious and benevolent animal. It snarls and growls with revolutionary, Romantic fervor. It’s buoyant and fun-loving, with a hint of something slightly terrifying lurking under the surface. The first movement opens with mighty chords- the musical equivalent of massive architectural columns. In between these opening chords, voices gradually emerge and join together. As the movement progresses, it’s easy to sense the music evolving and developing like a quickly growing vine.

The second movement is built on a solemn rhythmic ostinato. It begins as a quiet drumbeat. As we move into a second theme, sliding into major, the drumbeat is still there in the pizzicato, insistent and unrelenting. By the end of the movement, it has grown into a terrifying, all-consuming giant.

The third movement gives us a hint of bubbly Rossini, interspersed with a noble trio section. The fourth movement explodes with ferocious energy (one of the few times Beethoven uses the loudest possible dynamic marking, fff). It moves suddenly from one unexpected key to another. There’s a sense of upward lift, and by the conclusion of the movement we have a strange feeling of transcendence.

British composer, pianist, conductor and commentator Antony Hopkins described Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony this way:

The Seventh Symphony perhaps more than any of the others gives us a feeling of true spontaneity; the notes seem to fly off the page as we are borne along on a floodtide of inspired invention. Beethoven himself spoke of it fondly as “one of my best works”. Who are we to dispute his judgment?

As the New York Philharmonic prepares to play Beethoven’s Seventh this week, let’s explore five landmark performances from the Philharmonic’s past. These clips, spanning forty years, will give you a sense of how the piece can change depending on the conductor, as well as how the orchestra’s playing has evolved:

Arturo Toscanini, 1936

Here is the first movement from Arturo Toscanini’s 78rpm/Victor recording, made on April 9 and 10, 1936. (This scratchy, at times barely audible, 1933 live concert recording of the first and last movements is also worth hearing. In 1931, under Toscanini’s leadership, the New York Philharmonic became the first orchestra in the country to offer regular live radio broadcasts). Toscanini, who debuted with the New York Philharmonic in 1926, served as music director between 1928 and 1936. He was noted for the laser beam precision of his baton technique.

According to the New York Philharmonic’s website,

 In 1930, Toscanini led the Philharmonic on a highly successful tour of Europe. The following year, he was attacked and beaten while in Italy for his refusal to play the Fascist anthem, and he later made public his opposition to Nazi persecution of the Jews. Many saw in Toscanini’s Beethoven cycle with the New York Philharmonic during the 1932-33 season a musical repudiation of tyranny that matched his public opposition to Hitler.

Artur Rodzinski, 1946

Artur Rodzinski was the Philharmonic’s music director 1943 to 1947, succeeding English conductor Sir John Barbirolli. Rodzinski was considered to be an “orchestra builder,” shaping a clean, modern sound:

Bruno Walter, 1951

German-born conductor Bruno Walter turned down an offer to become the New York Philharmonic’s music director in 1942. In 1947, following the resignation of Artur Rodzinski, Walter briefly accepted the position until 1949, but changed his title to “Music Advisor.” In this clip you can hear him rehearsing the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, emphasizing the buoyant dance-like rhythm.

Leonard Bernstein, 1958

Leonard Bernstein was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, and served as Laureate Conductor until his death in 1990. As a young assistant conductor, he rose to prominence after stepping in as a substitute for Bruno Walter with only a few hours’ notice. Bernstein made two recordings of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with the Philharmonic. This is the first:

Pierre Boulez, 1975

Pierre Boulez succeeded Leonard Bernstein as music director, serving form 1971 to 1977. This clip from a live concert doesn’t have the best audio quality, but Boulez’ interpretation is worth hearing:

…and here’s a taste of what you’ll hear on Thursday: the current New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert:

  • Find Toscanini’s recording at Amazon.
  • Find Walter’s recording at Amazon.
  • Find Bernstein’s 1968 recording at iTunes, Amazon.

Rated R: Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin

It’s one of the scariest pieces ever written. Both shockingly violent and erotic, Béla Bartók’s “pantomime grotesque” ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, was met with “catcalls, stamping, whistling and booing” at its premiere in Cologne, Germany in November, 1926. The ensuing scandal, which whipped up the fury of Cologne’s clergy and press, among others, caused the mayor, Konrad Adenauer (later the first chancellor of post-war West Germany) to ban the work on moral grounds.

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

The ballet’s plot, based on a story by Hungarian writer Melchior Lengyel, involves three thugs who exploit the seductive powers of a beautiful young woman to lure men into their den, where the victims are robbed. The thugs force the girl to stand in the window and dance provocatively. In Bartók’s score this seductive dance, musically depicted by the solo clarinet, occurs three times. The first two men who are lured into the trap are thrown out of the room when the thugs realize they have no money. Then, the exotic Mandarin enters. As the Mandarin is entertained by the girl’s dancing, the thugs rob him. In an attempt to kill the Mandarin, they smother him with a pillow and stab him, but to their horror he remains alive, unaffected by the wounds. Finally, the thugs release the Mandarin. He embraces the girl and, his longing fulfilled, he dies.

Bartók began work on the score in the summer of 1918. He offered this description in a letter to his wife:

It will be hellish music. The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium… the audience will be introduced to the [thieves’] den at the height of the hurly-burly of the metropolis.

This opening cacophony is unleashed with wild scales in the violins, outlining the striking interval of an augmented octave. This is music that sounds like the twentieth century, in all of its mechanized, mass-produced, dehumanizing glory, and that’s one reason it’s so frightening. We hear something similar in the relentless fugue at the end of the piece (beginning around 16:10), which growls like a nightmarish factory conveyer belt. Listen to the way the clarinet enters in a low, ugly register and then shrieks with increasing intensity (16:46) in this passage.

The musicologist József Ujfalussy offers this analysis in his biography of Bartók:

European art began to be populated by inhuman horrors and apocalyptic monsters. These were the creations of a world in which man’s imagination had been affected by political crises, wars, and the threat to life in all its forms… This exposure of latent horror and hidden danger and crime, together with an attempt to portray these evils in all their magnitude, was an expression of protest by 20th-century artists against the… obsolete ideals and inhumanity of contemporary civilization. [Bartók] does not see the Mandarin as a grotesque monster but rather as the personification of a primitive, barbaric force, and example of the ‘natural man’ to whom he was so strongly attracted.

There’s a hint of the exotic sounds of Eastern European folk music scattered throughout the score (Listen to the cellos at 1:30). In the years before writing The Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók traveled throughout the backroads of Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, recording and notating the distinctive and ancient sounds heard in folk villages.

At moments, Bartók’s score evokes the quiet, unrelenting terror and sense of anticipation that you might feel as you watch a horror movie. Listen for moments of irony and dark humor (the comic dance at 5:14 and, later, the use of the usually elegant waltz). Close your eyes and listen closely and you may have the sense that the instruments are coming alive, each suggesting its distinct persona.

Here is Sir Georg Solti’s recording of The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Op. 19 with the Chicago Symphony:

Additional Listening

Virtual Wagner: Worth the Price of Admission?

violin playing robotA firestorm of controversy has erupted surrounding plans by the Hartford Wagner Festival to perform Wagner’s Ring Cycle with a digital “virtual orchestra.” The festival’s founder, Charles M. Goldstein, has entered sampled sounds of orchestral instruments into a musical software program, which will be played using 24 speakers in the pit. The sounds were provided by a company called the Vienna Symphonic Library. The first opera of the cycle, Das Rheingold, is scheduled for August. In 2004 the Opera Company of Brooklyn attempted a similar performance with Mozart’s Magic Flute, but was forced to cancel amid protest. In response to criticism, Hartford Wagner Festival, which should not be confused with Hartford Opera Theater, put out this statement.

If the production goes on as planned, Hartford audiences will pay around $100.00 a ticket for a less-than-live experience. With so many excellent, well mixed recordings available, featuring experienced singers as opposed to this production’s young cast, it’s hard to understand why patrons wouldn’t instead opt for their home entertainment system. Why get in your car and pay for parking when you can listen to recorded music through speakers in the comfort of your own home?

Of course, a recording is no replacement for a real live performance. We continue to value live performances because of the power, presence and immediacy of the sound and the unpredictable excitement of (in the case of Wagner) a hundred or more musicians spontaneously reacting to each other and to the moment. Each performance is a unique event, which will never occur exactly the same way again. Live performance isn’t possible without the human element. The way the horn player shapes and colors a musical line feeds the drama onstage and influences and inspires the singers who, in turn, inspire the orchestra.

A Wagner Festival without an orchestra is all the more ironic because Wagner wrote “symphonic” operas, rooted in orchestral color. In his essays, Wagner described his philosophy of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”, -a blending of many art forms into one. This seems far removed from the kind of bizarre operatic karaoke dreamed up in Hartford. Goldstein points out that smaller companies often put on these operas using two pianos in the pit. That approach might work if you’re presenting The Fantasticks, but in the case of Wagner, if you aren’t prepared to invest in a real, live orchestra, why bother?

It’s hard to imagine the Hartford performances being anything but cold, dead and soulless. Even if audience members delude themselves into thinking they can’t tell the difference between a virtual string section and a real one, they will still feel the difference on a subconscious level. In the end, music is about feeling rather than analyzing. Let’s hope there are no young people in the audience looking for their first taste of opera. At a time when we should be celebrating and promoting the excitement of live performance, the Hartford Wagner Festival is shamefully and fraudulently devaluing a great art form.

Join the Facebook group, Musicians Against Hartford Wagner Festival here.

Contact the Hartford Wagner Festival directly here.

UPDATE: June 16, 2:00 pm ET. The Hartford Wagner Festival has just released a statement announcing that it is postponing the Das Rheingold performance.

Becoming one with E-flat major

The expansive opening of Das Rheingold starts with a deep rumble and slowly develops on a single E-flat major chord, hinting at the epic proportions of what is to come. One of opera’s most dramatic preludes, this is music which forces us to confront the power of color and pure sound, with all of the rich overtones which can only be created by an orchestra. Here is a Bayreuth performance conducted by Pierre Boulez:

Mahler the Titan: Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler described the opening of the First Symphony as “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.” A seven octave deep “A” emerges out of silence, slipping into our consciousness on the level of pure sound. The high harmonics in the violins seem as natural and fundamental as the white noise of insects in a forest. The motive, which forms the bedrock of the symphony, slowly, searchingly takes shape in the woodwinds. As the music progresses, we hear bird songs and the echoes of distant fanfares in the clarinets and offstage trumpets.

Mahler’s music speaks to us on a deeply psychological level, evoking complex, indescribable emotions. It embodies heroic struggle and can alternate between moments of transcendence and the vulgar street sounds of a bohemian village band. Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” The sense of paradox in Mahler’s music is captured in a story of Mahler as a child, frequently running into the street to escape his father’s violent abuse of his mother, and suddenly being met with the cheerful sounds of an organ grinder.

The First Symphony grew out of Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a WayfarerIt was originally conceived as a five movement symphonic poem. Mahler later cut the second movement, Blumine, and dropped the subtitle, “The Titan”, which was a reference to a novel by Jean Paul. The piece requires a greatly expanded orchestra (seven horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba and an expanded woodwind and percussion section). At times, instruments are used in strange new ways, playing out of their normal range to create mocking, demonic sounds. In the second movement we hear the distinctive, raspy sound of stopped horns.

Mahler was a prominent conductor (and champion of Wagner’s operas) and his scores were meticulously marked with words and phrases intended to guide future interpreters. Common musical themes reappear throughout Mahler’s nine symphonies and in some ways these works can be heard as one massive symphony. The bewilderment of the audience at the 1889 premier in Budapest is a testament to the revolutionary nature of Mahler’s vision. The music would come to be embraced by audiences of the twentieth century. Today, performances of Mahler’s symphonies are often the dramatic high point of an orchestra’s season.

Here is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, performed by conductor Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Listen carefully to the distinct voices of the instruments (for example the horns at 10:44). What personas do they suggest? How does the final movement resolve the symphony as a whole?

  1. Langsam. Schleppend 00:00
  2. Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell 16:00
  3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen 22:48
  4. Sturmisch bewegt 33:28

Did you feel a sense of growing anticipation in the first movement? Go back and listen to the opening with those sustained “A’s” (the dominant in D major). It isn’t until around 4:06 that the music settles into a resolution in D major. We can relax and breathe easily. But at 7:59 we’re back where we started in the opening and this time it’s more ominous. All of the raw energy and tension, which has been building from the beginning, is released in one frighteningly explosive, but ultimately heroic climax towards the end of the movement (14:18). We’re left with crazy, giddy humor and a musical cat and mouse game in the final bars.

The Huntsman's Funeral
The Huntsman’s Funeral

The third movement was inspired by a children’s wood carving, The Huntsman’s Funeral, in which a torch-lit procession of animals carry the body of the dead huntsman. At the end of the movement, the sounds of the procession fade into the distance. You probably recognized the folk melody, Frère Jacques. Here it’s transformed into minor and played by the double bass, an instrument rarely featured in orchestral solos. Consider the persona of the double bass sound. The bizarre interjections of Jewish band music give this movement its ultimate sense of paradox and irony.

Opening amid a life and death struggle and ending in triumph, the final movement forms the climax of the symphony. Amid birdcalls, the bassoon recaps a familiar fragment (45:23) and for a moment we hear echoes of the first movement. The haunting motive from the opening of the first movement is transformed into a heroic proclamation in major. You may hear a slight, probably unconscious, similarity to Handel’s equally triumphant Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In the score, Mahler asks the seven horns to stand for the final statement of the theme, “so as to drown out everything…even the trumpets.”

For some interesting links, watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert, Who is Gustav Mahler? and Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas.

 Recordings, old and new

There are many great recordings of this piece. Here are a few which I recommend. Share your favorites in the thread below.

Ravel Writes the Blues

1920's ParisFrench impressionist composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) found inspiration in the American jazz, which was sweeping Paris in the 1920s. At a time of prohibition and racial discrimination in the United States, many African-American jazz musicians settled in Paris, enjoying its liberating cosmopolitan energy. Additionally, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and other young American composers came to study with eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.

Here is what Ravel said about the potential of the new musical language of jazz:

[quote]The most captivating part of jazz is its rich and diverting rhythm…Jazz is a very rich and vital source of inspiration for modern composers and I am astonished that so few Americans are influenced by it.[/quote]

Let’s listen to two of Ravel’s jazz and blues influenced pieces from the 1920s:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Piano Concerto in G major[/typography]

Here is the Piano Concerto in G major performed by Krystian Zimerman and the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez. The piece opens with splashes of bright color. Pay attention to the way Ravel combines the instruments of the orchestra and the colors created throughout the piece. Around 0:45, you’ll hear blues chords which might remind you of Gershwin. In the opening of the whirlwind final movement, listen for the jazzy conversation between the screeching clarinet and the trombone. Do you hear comic elements in this movement?

  1. Allegramente (0:00)
  2. Adagio assai (8:38)
  3. Presto (18:09)

Now that you’ve heard the whole piece, go back and listen again to the second movement. (8:38). In character, this Adagio assai seems far removed from the exuberant outer movements. The long, dream-like solo piano opening almost makes us forget we’re in the middle of a piano concerto. Consider how the music is flowing. The three simple beats in the left hand of the piano suggest Erik Satie’s static, almost expressionless GymnopediesBut while Satie’s music remains a numb, out of body experience, Ravel’s long melody restlessly searches and builds expectation, offering up one surprise after another.

Can you feel a sense of tension and anxiety slowly build as the movement develops? Maybe something ominous and unsettling was lurking slightly below the surface from the beginning? Listen to the frightening chord at 14:53. It’s a glimpse of terror which forms the climax of the movement and then quickly evaporates.

At 16:54, think about where you expect to hear the music resolve and then listen to the resolution Ravel gives us. For a moment we enter a new world. What new musical colors do you hear and what instruments does Ravel use to create them? Does the music remind you of the hazy dreamscape of a Monet painting?

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sonata for No. 2 for Violin and Piano[/typography]

The second movement of Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 also is influenced by the blues. In the opening, it’s easy to imagine a sultry day in Louisiana. Here is a performance by violinist Janine Jansen and pianist Itamar Golan:

  1. Allegretto (0:00)
  2. Blues. Moderato (8:00)
  3. Perpetuum mobile. Allegro (13:20)

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]La création du monde[/typography]

Ravel wasn’t the only French composer to be influenced by jazz. Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde (The Creation of the World), written between 1922 and 1923 is a ballet depicting the creation in African mythology. Here is a performance by Leonard Bernstein and the National Orchestra of France:

  1. Overture 0:00
  2. The Chaos before Creation 3:55
  3.  The slowly lifting darkness, the creation of trees, plants, insects, birds and beasts 5:32
  4. Man and woman created 8:48
  5. The desire of man and woman 10:48
  6. The man and woman kiss (Coda) 14:54

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