at Goodspeed Recital Hall

November 12


at Orchestra Hall

December 16

As we enter the last decade of the 20th century, it is only natural to rethink the place of some of the century’s most important composers. Two recent concerts offered a rare opportunity to compare one of the century’s most underrated composers, Charles Ives, and one of the most overrated, Igor Stravinsky.

Thirty-five years after his death, and more than 50 since he was actively composing, Charles Ives, America’s first truly experimental composer, looms ever larger as one of the great enigmas of modern music. A well-known and highly respected insurance executive by day, he wrote his music in obscurity and neglect at night. Early on he gave up any idea of his music being a means to make a living, and he had no desire to compromise his aesthetic ideals and pioneering spirit by worrying about how audiences or performers might view his music–early experiences with both taught him to not even bother. Besides, Ives the husband and father felt his family shouldn’t starve for his dissonances. So he founded and developed New York’s Ives & Myrick Co., one of the most successful American insurance agencies of the 20s, and wrote music in the evenings, on weekends, and during the summer at his Connecticut home overlooking the Danbury hills. Ives couldn’t have cared less if his music was performed, or if it appealed to those he termed little old ladies of both sexes. He was simply compelled to write it. He scrawled out one revolutionary manuscript after another, haphazardly leaving them around the house, taped to bathroom walls, shoved in closets and underneath clothes in dressers, and even stacked up outside in his barn.

While family, friends, and business associates knew that “Charlie” wrote music as a hobby, nobody thought too much about it. On the rare occasion when Ives was persuaded to play some of it, the listeners virtually always interpreted the experience as a practical joke.

The major turning point in the recognition of Ives as a major composer came in a now-famous concert in December 1939, by pianist John Kirkpatrick. The 50th anniversary of that concert was recently celebrated by the University of Chicago’s New Music Ensemble with an all-Ives program, an unusual event, even today. The centerpiece work on the 1939 and U. of C. programs was the Second Piano Sonata from 1919, subtitled by the composer: Concord, Mass., 1840-60.

I must admit I wasn’t expecting very much from this concert, all the performers being either students or faculty in the U. of C. music department. But I am so drawn to the works they chose I figured even a bad performance might be interesting. I was in for quite a surprise with the sonata.

Graduate student Gordon Marsh did an absolutely spectacular job with the Concord Sonata, bringing it off as effectively as I have heard it in performance or on record (Kirkpatrick’s own recording included). Marsh was not only up to the most fiendish technical demands of the piece (it is a monster), but also managed to reveal the subtlety, poetry, and riotous humor that are so often lacking. Concord performances tend to be stiff and serious, and are almost always overdone.

The sonata’s opening movement, titled “Emerson” after the great American poet, began fast and furious enough, but not excessively so. It formed a nice contrast with the softer sections. There were lots of contrasts of dynamic colors and tempo shifts, and Gordon was never afraid to take chances with the music. The transformed “fate knocking at the door” motif that Ives borrowed from the opening of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony was nicely done, and the movement concluded with a viola in the balcony taking the final hymn quotation, with pious church-bell-like piano accompaniment.

The “Hawthorne” movement features ferociously rippling tone clusters, playful ragtime syncopation, and a variety of quotes from patriotic songs and hymns, all woven together in a seamless tapestry so typical of Ives. It was all quite nicely brought off by Marsh, who managed to keep his tongue firmly inside his cheek during the movement’s funniest moments. By the end of the canon and wild series of variations based on “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” it was obvious that Marsh was getting slightly fatigued but he quickly recovered.

The “Alcotts” section presents the Beethoven Fifth motif in a slightly more traditional guise before the texture becomes dense again. The entire movement has the effect of a short, more Romantic interlude between the insanity of the other movements. The finale, “Thoreau,” is a more introspective study of quiet atonality, with a flute given the final “fate” motif, alternating with low and high chimelike piano. All in all, a memorable performance of a work that seldom gets its due. I’m sure we’ll be hearing Gordon Marsh’s name after he graduates.

At the end of World War I, Ives privately published a volume entitled 114 Songs, which he distributed free to libraries, performers, journalists, composers, and “any interested parties.” He was against the idea of copyrighting his music, figuring that it should be available to anyone adventurous enough to hear or perform it on their own–he did little to encourage public performances of any of his music. Composer Aaron Copland, one of the recipients, later remarked that the sheer diversity of styles and subjects was bound to create considerable confusion about the purpose of the collection. But today there is little doubt that Ives was one of the great art-song composers of all time.

Seven of the 114 were sung by baritone and New Music Ensemble assistant director Philip Rose, accompanied exquisitely by Gordon Marsh. It was a great pleasure to hear these autumnal, patriotic, and New England vignettes. Unfortunately, Rose was constantly overly dramatic and operatic in his presentation, when these songs call for, above all, clear diction and pure tone. Between his exaggerated vibrato and his swallowed consonants, it would have been almost impossible to know what was being sung if the texts had not been mercifully provided in the program. Marsh, however, created the perfect sense of expectation and surprise in these songs; he even provided the shouts marked on the score and helped lead the audience in a chorus of “Rally ‘Round the Flag,” which closes Ives’s World War I anthem “He is there!”

The program closed with a Rose-conducted performance of Three Harvest Home Chorales, originally set for choir, brass quintet, and organ, here reduced to a chamber choir of eight, synthesizer, and piano. The timbre of the piano and pseudo-organ synthesizer did not really work together, and the chorus was extremely unbalanced, with screeching sopranos drowning out the other sections. The overall sound was scattered and uneven, while the text was virtually indecipherable. All in all a great shock, considering that these are presumably music students. Even so, enough of Ives shone through to indicate yet another ingenious aspect of his unparalleled originality.

I have a vivid recollection of a form and analysis seminar for which we each chose pieces for the class to perform and dissect. Someone brought in a song called “The Owl and the Pussycat.” “Wait a minute,” said the professor. “Where did you get this crap? Is this a piece of your own?” “No,” was the humble response. “Well, it’s a good thing, because if any of you ever handed in anything this lame, it would be an instant F.” The objection, quite rightly, was that the piece was using the 12-tone technique of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern in a way that made clear that the composer had little idea what that technique was all about. The composer was Igor Stravinsky.

This was the same Stravinsky who so redefined new music in the early part of the century that he caused fistfights and riots in as artistically liberal a city as Paris. But “The Owl and the Pussycat” was the product of, as we used to say, the “senile” Stravinsky, that is, the Stravinsky after the death of Arnold Schoenberg in the mid-50s. It seems that Stravinsky, already being celebrated by himself and the world as the greatest composer of the century, bar none, had an identity crisis after the death of the 12-tone master. Having been Schoenberg’s arch rival throughout the century, Stravinsky embraced serialism with a vengeance after his death and remained more or less a serialist until his own death in 1971.

The shift to serialism was more than just trading in one compositional technique for another; it was an entire shift in aesthetic perspective. The new Stravinsky was actively critical of the old Stravinsky, and the principles that governed his most beloved pieces were now seriously called into question. At issue was whether music should be considered primarily emotional or cerebral (as if it were an either/or debate). The earlier Stravinsky was an exponent and practitioner of the emotional view; the older, many would say colder, Stravinsky took the cerebral view.

Clearly the early Stravinsky won over the late, since those later pieces are virtually unknown today. Even Stravinsky’s own recordings of the works are now long out of print. (Those performances were actually conducted by Robert Craft, but Craft and Columbia Records let the old guy–to say nothing of the public–think he was actually doing it.)

Some of these later pieces were recently exhumed by Leonard Slatkin and the Chicago Symphony for a concert called, borrowing from Mircea Eliade, “Stravinsky: The Sacred and the Profane.” Slatkin opened the concert with a series of remarks about how “forgotten” most of Stravinsky’s music is, despite his reputation as the greatest composer of the century. What Slatkin forgot to mention is that Stravinsky’s reputation and influence is far less today than it was while he was alive. Part of the problem is that Stravinsky lived so long. Another is that his genius, though unarguable, is only found in a portion of his output. In this respect he stands in marked contrast to Bartok, for example, who is emerging more and more as the 20th-century genius Stravinsky was once considered to be–precisely because everything Bartok wrote, from his orchestral pieces to his string quartets to his piano music for children, is the cream of the genre. Stravinsky was far more uneven in his output, as Slatkin and the CSO recently demonstrated.

The “sacred” half of the program began with Choral Variations on “Von Himmel hoch,” an instrumental transcription of the Bach organ piece, complete with chorus. There is little to say about this work, except perhaps that Bach’s own version is far more interesting, or that a good organist who understands the art of registration can offer far more color. Slatkin kept things unmercifully slow, and I can’t imagine why this piece was included, apart from it having been the Christmas season.

The Requiem Canticles is one of Stravinsky’s last large pieces, and makes use of the Schoenberg device of sprechstimme (speech set to rhythm, in this case with a chorus), the principal interest of the piece. In one of the few literalisms to be found in late Stravinsky, trumpets can be heard in the “Tuba mirum,” which was nicely sung by bass Richard Cohn. Compare this work with the nonliteral and much more meaningful finale of Stravinsky’s beautiful Symphony of Psalms, a setting of the 150th psalm in which God is praised through various musical instruments. The poetry, grandeur, and beauty of this work is nowhere to be found in the Requiem Canticles. As for the performance, the other soloists were adequate, and things were kept tightly together by Slatkin, whose tempi and dynamic levels were appropriate to the music.

Mass was originally written for use within the Roman Catholic liturgy, not as a concert mass as were so many pieces of this genre. Unfortunately, since Vatican II the disuse of Latin makes liturgical performances of the work quite rare. This piece dates from before the senile Stravinsky and has much that is remarkably beautiful, especially because of its simplicity and economic means of expression. It was by far the most worthwhile piece on the program, though it was not a very memorable performance. Soprano Deanna Lang was painfully flat, and the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus was simply not up to the piece harmonically or rhythmically.

The “profane” Stravinsky began with “Preludium,” a fragment of a never-completed jazz suite. It’s a two-minute militaristic interpretation of a small jazz combo that has little direction or purpose. Including it was digging, to say the least. Tango, the next work, was originally a piano piece, although Stravinsky also made an instrumental arrangement. It is extremely repetitious and boring, with its brass riff punctuated by the bass clarinet.

Rag-time is a cut above these pieces, in that Stravinsky seemed to have a clear sound and purpose in mind, roughly the sound world and bouncy rhythms of The Soldier’s Tale. It also has a sense of humor, and avoids the ponderous nature of many of his experiments with popular-music idioms. In 1915 Stravinsky heard a cimbalom in a Swiss nightclub and began incorporating it into some of his music; it figures predominantly in this score. The ensemble was well balanced, and the score’s full color and contrasts were in sharp relief.

The last two pieces on the program, Scherzo a la Russe and the Ebony Concerto, were originally written for jazz bands–the scherzo for Paul Whiteman’s band and the concerto for Woody Herman’s–although there is little that is jazzy about them, save their instrumentation. (The scherzo became more widely known in a later arrangement for symphony orchestra.) The chief feature of the Ebony Concerto is the use of the clarinet, which is, however, given very little to do. The part was originally played by Herman himself and was played here with clarity and style by John Bruce Yeh. The problems with both of these pieces are the same as with virtually all of Stravinsky’s “jazz” pieces. While there’s little question that Stravinsky’s fascination with jazz is a great tribute to its importance, his attempts to approximate it lack its fundamental components: swing and improvisation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Steinmetz.