The Swiss-born American composer Bernard Hoffer turns 81 today.
You may not recognize Hoffer’s name, but chances are good that you’ve heard his music, especially if you’re a longtime viewer of the PBS NewsHour. The NewsHour‘s theme music (originally written in 1975 and, at one point, nominated for an Emmy) has undergone several iterations over the years, but Hoffer’s catchy six-note musical branding logo has remained.
For years, the broadcast opened with that familiar solo trumpet, layered strings rising with exuberance, an emphatic, “no nonsense” resolution, and then a strange, unresolved chord which faded into the headlines, as if to say, “News is never resolved. It’s always about what happens next…” (Listen here). Those rising strings have always reminded me of a vaguely similar passage from the opening of Jupiter, The Bringer of Jolity from Gustav Holst’s 1916 suite, The Planets. (Listen and see if you agree).
Hoffer’s memorable closing music for The NewsHour has the buoyancy, elegance and sense of motion of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Listen carefully to everything that’s happening in this music, from the pizzicato bass line, to the fun rhythmic counter-currents, to the effortless sequence from one key area to another. Not bad for music which is intended to be purely utilitarian and commercial.
Hoffer’s MacNeil/Lehrer Variations liberate this made-for-TV music. The familiar motives are allowed to abandon their assigned roles and freely play and develop. Fittingly, the piece ends with that fading, unresolved chord, only this time Hoffer has a surprise up his sleeve…
This album, released in 2012 and featuring the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra includes three additional works: the Elegy for a Friend, and Elegy for Violin and String Orchestra, music Hoffer wrote following the passing of friends and loved ones, and Symphony “Pousette-Dart,” inspired by the work of New York abstract expressionist painter, Richard Pousette-Dart.
A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Bernard Hoffer’s other memorable scores include cartoon music for Thundercats and Silverhawks.
A symphony, by nature, is always developing, unfolding, finding a way forward. It’s an indomitable process, sometimes filled with struggle, often, but not always, expressed through Sonata form. Just consider those famous opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the way they seem to take on a life of their own, evolving organically over the course of four movements to reach a triumphant and transcendent climax.
In 1914, as Europe descended into the apocalyptic horrors of the First World War, Danish composer Carl Nielsen began to think about the dynamic, inextinguishable power of the life force, the “elemental will to live,” and its relation to music. In a letter to his wife, Nielsen imagined a symphony “which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live … just life and motion, though varied – very varied – yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream.”
That work, completed in 1916, became Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable.” It’s set in four movements, but without looking at the score you’ll have a difficult time telling where one movement ends and the next begins. Opening with a sudden flash of raw energy, as if we’re tuning in to a drama already in progress, Nielsen’s Fourth is one long continuous musical development (Jean Sibelius’ symphonies follow a similar direction, most notably his Seventh Symphony). At the same time, it suggests the eternal. The final movement concludes with a triumphant theme marked Glorioso, which we first hear in a quiet, unassuming moment early in the first movement. At the end, we don’t feel as if we’ve reached an ultimate goal, just a notable mile marker in an infinite stream of development.
For some listeners, Nielsen’s Fourth can be heard as a “war symphony.” In the final movement, a ferocious battle takes place between two sets of tympani on both sides of the orchestra (Nielsen’s score calls for the second tympani to be positioned near the audience at the edge of the stage). But these moments go beyond programmatic references to bombs exploding, as Nielsen’s own description of the work and philosophy of music suggest:
Music is Life. As soon as even a single note sounds in the air or through space, it is the result of life and movement; that is why music (and the dance) are the more immediate expressions of the will to life.
The symphony evokes the most primal sources of life and the wellspring of the life-feeling; that is, what lies behind all human, animal and plant life, as we perceive or live it. It is not a musical, programme-like account of the development of a life within a limited stretch of time and space, but an un-programme-like dip right down to the layers of the emotional life that are still half-chaotic and wholly elementary. In other words the opposite of all programme music, despite the fact that this sounds like a programme.
The symphony is not something with a thought-content, except insofar as the structuring of the various sections and the ordering of the musical material are the fruit of deliberation by the composer in the same way as when an engineer sets up dykes and sluices for the water during a flood. It is in a way a completely thoughtless expression of what make the birds cry, the animals roar, bleat, run and fight, and humans moan, groan exult and shout without any explanation. The symphony does not describe all this, but the basic emotion that lies beneath all this. Music can do just this, it is its most profound quality, its true domain … because, by simply being itself, it has performed its task. For it is life, whereas the other arts only represent and paraphrase life. Life is indomitable and inextinguishable; the struggle, the wrestling, the generation and the wasting away go on today as yesterday, tomorrow as today, and everything returns. Once more: music is life, and like it inextinguishable.
As you listen to Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, enjoy the moment and allow yourself to get lost in the sound. At times you may be reminded of the brooding Scandinavian chill of Sibelius…the mysterious play of light on a snow-covered landscape. For example, listen to this passage from the first movement. Amid a gradually building collage of sound, a wandering string line and colorful woodwind interjections are layered on a static bass.
There are moments of rude interruption which disrupt the status quo: the strange, sudden snarl of the violas, or this passage where the flute and bassoon awaken as the strings fade out. The second movement begins as an elegant seemingly predictable dance, which suddenly turns in unusual harmonic directions. In this extraordinary passage in the third movement, the interruption comes in the form of a chant-like motive which breaks out in the woodwinds, eventually building into a climax in the brass. These are the moments which push the Symphony’s relentless development forward and thrust us into new musical landscapes. Change and development occur through disruption.
And now, let’s listen to the entire piece. Here is Herbert Blomstedt’s 1999 recording with the San Francisco Symphony:
Aaron Copland’s 1944 ballet score, Appalachian Spring, has already been the subject of two Listeners’ Club posts (here and here). But let’s return to this American masterwork once more and listen to Leonard Bernstein’s 1982 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. You would be hard pressed to find a more exciting and soulful interpretation of the Appalachian Spring Suite, including Copland’s own rendition and Bernstein’s slightly faster “definitive” 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic.
Appalachian Spring begins and ends with two overlapping chords which blend into hazy pandiatonic harmony. It’s a sound which seems to emerge from the American landscape: expansive, fundamental, and eternal. Time seems suspended. But then a new, blindingly bright voice suddenly enters, jolting us out of our daydreams (3:09).
Bernstein’s performance is infused with a sense of dance, rhythmic intensity, and sparkle. We hear this towards the end, around 20:13, as Simple Gifts develops into a sparkling rhythmic motor. There are also moments of sensuous repose. Listen to the way the music takes us into new, distant territory around 17:20. A few moments later, we turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves back at the opening. But this time, there’s a sense that the opening pandiatonic chords are reawakening and trying to remember. After the final climax of the piece subsides, we’re left with a moment of veiled introspection (22:24).
These are a few of the details which place this performance a few notches above so many other excellent recordings of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Take a few minutes and listen. Then, if you feel inspired, leave a comment in the thread below and share your own thoughts.
Apart from the question of technique, these Études will be a useful warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands….
This was Claude Debussy’s warning to students who dared attempt to play his twelve fiendishly difficult Études for solo piano. The short pieces were even technically daunting for Debussy, who described them as “music that soars to the summit of execution,” and requires you to occasionally catch your breath, “as after climbing a mountain.” Each étude was designed to showcase a different set of finger gymnastics, from thirds, fourths, sixths, and octaves, to chromatic passages, ornaments, and dissonances.
Beyond the thorny technical challenges lie extraordinary music. The first étude, marked sagement (“well-behaved”), opens with a reference to the finger dexterity exercises of Carl Czerny. A five-note scale motive is interrupted by gleefully raucous outbursts which eventually take over the music completely. There are echoes of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassumfrom Debussy’s Children’s Corner. We hear a similar sense of wild humor in the “eight finger” Perptuum mobile of the sixth étude. The mercurial fourth étude (For Sixths) swings erratically from one key area to another and ends up awash in jazzy impressionism. Regarding this music, Debussy wrote to his publisher,
For a very long time, the continuous use of sixths gave me the feeling of pretentious demoisselles seated in a salon sulkily embroider- ing, envying the scandalous laughter of mad ninths…yet I am writing this study where the at- tention to the sixth organizes the harmonies only with aggregates of these intervals, and it’s not ugly! (Mea culpa…).
Tomorrow, Debussy’s Études turn 100. He began working on them on July 23, 1915 at a sea-side chalet in Dieppe in Normandy. Fear of an impending German occupation of Paris had driven him to the countryside. He was beginning to show signs of the cancer that would take his life three years later. The ghosts of past pianists seem to have been looking over Debussy’s shoulder. He considered dedicating the Études to Couperin, but instead chose Chopin. (He had just completed a new addition of Chopin’s works for his publisher, Durand).
You can hear Mitsuko Uchida’s great 1990 recording of the complete set of Études here.
For an excerpt, here is the dreamy Étude 11 (Pour les Arpèges composés). Listen to the way the initial musical “stream” of notes flows and develops, taking us on a series of sudden and short-lived adventures, and culminating with a playful splash of sound:
On Friday we explored Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus’ adaptive reuse of a bawdy French song by Jacobus Clemens non Papa. It was an example of a composer recognizing a good melody and transforming it for a completely different setting. But what happens when musical influence becomes much more subtle…so subtle that the composer forgets (or remains unaware of) the source?
American composer Michael Torke’s July grew out of a momentary fragment of the rhythmic groove of an overheard pop song. Torke can’t remember the R&B song that inspired July, written in 1995 for the Apollo Saxophone Quartet. He offers this description:
What fascinates me is that this act of translation seems to completely remove the original reference from my music; sometimes I can’t even remember what the original song was that inspired me and, if I do, it’s hard even to hear the connection. But what remains is the energy…Instead of single-mindedly exploring one color, as in earlier pieces of mine, the music now corresponds to an experience of time- the energy and heat we find in the month of July, as well as cooling breezes of repose that come, perhaps, in the evening.
July explodes with arpeggios that might remind you vaguely of the music of Philip Glass (listen to Glass’ Lady Day), or maybe even Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. We hear hints of Steve Reich’s repetition of patterns over a slow moving bass line. But at the piece’s core is a spirited sense of rhythmic groove. Melodic fragments bubble to the surface and then are gone, like a mirage in the hot desert sun. As with other Torke pieces, the music has a mysterious way of transforming without us knowing what’s happening until after it has happened. We suddenly find ourselves in a new place without knowing exactly how we got there.
American composer, conductor, horn player, writer, educator, and jazz musician Gunther Schuller passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Schuller’s compositions fused elements of jazz and classical music into a style he called “Third Stream.” His remarkably diverse career included principal horn positions with the Cincinnati Symphony and Metropolitan Opera orchestras in the 1940s and 50s, as well as collaborations with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and others. In the 1960s and 70s, he was president of New England Conservatory of Music. He served as director of new musical activities at the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony. More recently, he served as artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington.
Gunther Schuller talks about his musical development and the influence of orchestra playing, Scriabin, Ravel, and Duke Ellington in this 1999 conversation with David Starobin.
Where the Word Ends was written in 2007 for James Levine and the Boston Symphony. In the opening of the piece, ghostly voices emerge out of silence, suddenly thrusting us into a dark world of apprehension. As the piece progresses, we hear faint echoes of the music of Anton Bruckner (9:48), Mahler, Bartok, and Stravinsky. At 21:27, a lonely, jazzy solo horn line briefly emerges. Where the Word Ends is a haunting dreamscape of color and sound.
In this live BBC Proms performance, Semyon Bychkov leads the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne:
The Chamber Music Society Of Lincoln Center’s recording of Octet, written in 1979, first movement:
The bluesy second movement, Passacaglia, from Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959):
Leonard Bernstein’s March 11, 1964 New York Philharmonic “Young People’s Concert,” Jazz in the Concert Hall featured Gunther Schuller conducting his educational narrative, Journey into Jazz:
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)
-Walt Whitman, The Wound-Dresser, 1865
On July 21, 1861, spectators, armed with picnic baskets, eagerly followed the Union army twenty five miles out of Washington into the Virginia countryside to watch what would become the first major battle of the American Civil War. At the First Battle of Bull Run, Northern sightseers (including congressmen) expected to observe a quick, easy, and decisive victory over the Confederates…perhaps the nineteenth century equivalent of “shock and awe.” They intended to indulge romantic notions of heroism and valor. Instead, they got a glimpse of the horrific reality of war. Bull Run was the bloodiest battle in American history up to that point. It showcased the gruesome and unexpected effects of new combat technology. Notions of a quick “summer war” were swept away and for both sides Bull Run suddenly became a depressing harbinger of the struggle ahead. The poorly trained defeated Union army fled back to Washington amid the gridlock of sightseers.
The poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) forces us to confront the human cost of war. “The real war will never get in the books” said Whitman, who dressed the wounds of both Northern and Southern soldiers during the Civil War. But enter the dazed world of The Wound-Dresser and other war poems by Whitman, and you begin to get a sense of the wasteland of the battlefield. Out of this darkness emerges a powerful sense of humanity: the loving relationship between caregiver and dying patient. As Sarah Cahill observes,
There is a powerful tension in Whitman’s poem between the physical and the metaphysical, between bodily sickness, which he records with almost scientific detachment (“From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand/I undo the clotted lint”) and a spiritual transcendence of the corporeal.
In John Adams’ 1988 setting of Whitman’s poem, we get a sense of the wound dresser going about his business in a daze. The hypnotic repetition of the opening music and the detached, searching voice of the solo violin in its highest and most ethereal register create the feeling of an out-of-body experience. Surreal new electronically synthesized sounds blend with the traditional orchestra. Suppressed emotion and scientific detachment seem to be the only way to survive the horrific work at hand. But there are also brief moments of intense, soaring emotional release. Later, we hear the searching sound of a distant battlefield bugle (11:02), the same voice we hear in Adams’ haunting, quiet fanfare, Tromba lontana.
John Adams’ vocal lines preserve the rhythmic flow of Whitman’s poem. In an interview with Edward Strickland (American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music) Adams said,
I tried to set the Wound-Dresser absolutely simply and used hardly any melisma, since American English does not lend itself well to that treatment, as Italian or even German does. The best American pop and Broadway music by very great composers like Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin had the ability to treat the text in a very direct way, and that’s the tact I’ve taken in this piece.
Here is a performance by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with baritone Sanford Sylvan:
West Virginia composer George Crumb’s Apparition for Soprano and Amplified Piano (1979) is a setting of Walt Whitman’s famous elegy following the assassination of Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. We float through a strange, cinematic musical landscape with a surprising array of sounds and colors emerging from the piano. William Bland provides this description in the program notes to this recording:
. . . the literary and musical materials focus on concise, highly contrasting metaphors for existence and death . . . death is never depicted as an ending of life. Instead, it is circular, always beginning or an enriched return to a universal life-force . . .
Here are three excerpts performed by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, (for whom the piece was written), and pianist Gilbert Kalish:
Listening to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, it’s easy to get a sense of altered reality. Outwardly, the original six movement suite, written for solo piano, responds to the horrors and devastation of the First World War, a conflict Ravel experienced first hand as a military ambulance driver. Ravel dedicated each movement of the work, written between 1914 and 1917, to the memory of a friend lost on the battlefield.
But, interestingly, we don’t hear the anguish of war in Ravel’s music. There isn’t a hint of the hellish fury of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies or the dazed shell shock and bleak desolation of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral” Symphony. Instead, Le Tombeau de Couperin escapes into an almost childlike world of color and joyful, elegant ambivalence. Like so much of Ravel’s music, there is a sense of detachment which seems to open the door to ultimate, yet indescribable truth. Some critics complained that the music was not sombre enough for its subject matter, to which Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”
Through its hazy, impressionistic prism, Le Tombeau de Couperin also evokes voices of the distant past. Its title references the French Baroque composer François Couperin (1668-1733). In the seventeenth century, Tombeau, which translates literally as “tomb,” referred to “a piece written as a memorial.” Ravel intended to pay homage not only to Couperin, but to the style and ambiance of eighteenth century French keyboard suites. The movements are based on popular Baroque dances. Listen to the rhythm and structure of this Forlane by François Couperin and compare it to Ravel’s Forlane below.
Le Tombeau de Couperin was originally written as a six movement solo keyboard suite. (Listen to Louis Lortie’s excellent performance here). Two years after its completion, Ravel orchestrated the suite, eliminating two movements (the Fugue and the Toccata). Listening to the piano score, the jazzy sophistication of Ravel’s harmonies come across with striking brilliance. But it’s in the final, orchestrated version where the music blossoms with new life through a rich array of colors. The instruments, with their distinct personas, engage in musical conversations and the tonal colors mix in magical new ways.
From the bubbly opening of the Prélude, there’s a dreamlike and illusory quality about the music. It doesn’t go where we expect, and just when we think we’ve arrived at a climax, something firm that we can hold onto, the music dissolves, like a mirage. Throughout the piece, there’s a sense of joy in the rhythm. In the Forlane, notice the buoyant, dance-like quality of the music, especially in the passage beginning at 1:10. The closing Rigaudon is full of jokes and surprises. As in the first movement, we’re pulled in new, unexpected directions.
For me, the Menuet evokes serene beauty, but also a touch of sadness. As the oboe makes its opening statement, listen to the changing colors around this solo voice. Notice the velvety bed of strings, which enters at the end of the first phrase and then passes us along to the next phrase (0:05). Listen carefully to the sudden change of color and parallel harmony beginning at 1:47. I love the way this darker, veiled new world dissolves effortlessly back into the opening theme. At the end of the Menuet, the music pauses at a climactic moment of shimmering sensuality and repose (3:52) before being cut off by the innocent, childlike “laugh” of the woodwind voices, which seem to be saying, “Come on, let’s go.” The final chord fades into a jazzy dreamscape.
One of my favorite recordings of this piece is Charles Dutoit’s 1990 CD with the Montreal Symphony: