Monthly Archives: March 2015

Reviews of In This Blue Room

Sleeves High Res

Sleeves, by Laura Pritchard

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, David Patrick Stearns reviewed the first of the premiere concerts of In This Blue Room—the cycle setting four poets inspired by the batik paintings of Laura Pritchard—and in the Broad Street Review, Tom Purdom reviewed the second. Purdom had also written up a preview of the concerts in BSR after attending the preview party where four of the songs were presented.

Almost a dozen people have clipped out the Inquirer review to give to me, and almost without fail they say something like, “I’ve read this a couple of times, and still don’t know if he liked it.” You can make up your own mind by clicking the link above, but I’m going to go out on a limb to say that Stearns liked it and seemed to appreciate what it was attempting to do. But he also was somewhat puzzled by it.

That’s okay by me; I’m kind of puzzled by it, too. “Smith…pulled a large rabbit out of the hat: The last thing I expected was a jazz-hybrid idiom.” The songs “functioned in ways familiar to classical art song,” but with elements made up from “Sarah Vaughan-era jazz,” which is exactly right, as I explain in my notes here.

A surprise to me was his reference to “Leonard Bernstein’s late-period Arias and Barcarolles, with its wide range of compositional techniques, vernacular and otherwise.” He may be right; it just hadn’t occurred to me. But this happens all the time. People will hear things in my music completely distant from where I think the materials are pointing. I thought one old piece was right out of Hindemith, yet a friend heard Debussy. Composer colleagues of mine admit to similar experiences.

He noted places where the poems zig and I zagged; precisely so, and captured in one word the atmosphere of one song: “lounge-y.” Perfect!

I think that he was thrown by some passages of fast parlando, the vocalese-like writing mimicking instrumental improvisation, which the singers caught excellently. Laura Ward accompanied brilliantly but maybe I should have allowed her to “let loose” more? Hm.

I’m amused by how some look at my music. I started with vocal music and have written that for years. So it’s funny to me to read “Songs are not what Kile Smith is known for amid a high-concept output that includes sacred choral works and new music for ancient instrument[s].” Of course, I was toiling in relative obscurity, so it could be true that I’m not “known for” that. But it is funny to me, in the same way that people hear recent pieces I’ve written for The Crossing and think that all I write, after decades of writing for amateur choirs, is, well, hard stuff.

Tom Purdom’s preview includes an awfully nice compliment: “His work can evoke torch songs and jazz without actually being either, along with a spectrum of moods and styles that are uniquely his.” In his review, he went on to write that the songs “may or may not be pure jazz but they evoke the spirit of jazz and late-night clubs. The two singers who presented the premiere, mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis and baritone Daniel Teadt, captured that spirit with every bar they sang.”

He also mused over my wrangling of the 17 poems into a narrative of my own making, which sparked some interesting and perhaps humorous questions for him, before he concluded that this was an “unforgettable episode in Lyric Fest’s unpredictable journey through the world of song.”

I can say this without a doubt, which you make take with a grain of salt because the following is my review: with these musicians, this poetry, this artwork, and whatever this music was, the audiences were bowled over by In This Blue Room.

Plain Truths with Lawrence Indik

Plain Truths p4Lucky indeed am I to have seen and heard such a fantastic performance of Plain Truths on Wednesday night, March 11th, at Temple University. This was the original version, five songs with piano accompaniment. Baritone Lawrence Indik, professor at Temple University, with pianist Charles Abramovic, gave a spirited and emotional performance.

It came to me again how much the singer must take on to bring the characterization of these songs across, not least of which is “Oh, Andrew,” where he must sing the boy’s and the girl’s and the narrator’s parts. He also becomes a fiery abolitionist and an eccentric, and must sing my version of a melodramatic salon song. Indik caught the personalities spot on. Abramovic was brilliant, and captured every nuance.

I’ve since added two more songs, optional chorus, and an optional string quartet accompaniment, but in the first version the songs, with piano, are:

1. I am aware (William Lloyd Garrison)
2. Annie Lisle (Henry S. Thompson)
3. Plain Truths (“Lord” Timothy Dexter)
4. Oh, Andrew (Harriett Prescott Spofford)
5. Spirit of Freedom (Garrison)

Also on the recital was David Carpenter’s Job, for baritone, piano, and cello, which were thoughtful and intimate. The cellist and Temple professor Jeffrey Solow played lusciously.

Three Yiddish Songs by the 94-year old Montreal cantor and composer David Botwinik ended the program, and were an absolute treat: heart-rending and optimistic at the same time.

Indik inhabited the character of each set perfectly. I’m so thankful to him for championing my music, and for being such an engaging performer.

Here are notes to Plain Truths.

Seagulls In This Blue Room

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 3 Mar 2014, as Composing “In This Blue Room”]

LambertHendricksRossThey thrill me here, the seagulls. Above the Beneficial Savings Bank building on Broad at Chew Avenue, a block north of Broad and Olney, they weave and mull over a large billboard that sits on top of it. Rather, it’s the metal skeleton of a billboard, with remnants of once-confident ad copy disintegrating, the paper tatters dripping from its ribs, the sky growing in the spaces between, this colossus of conquered limbs astride the roof.

I suppose that the pieces of billboard, ripped by the same winds holding these birds aloft, have just fluttered down and fallen onto the old bank’s windows and ledges and “Available” sign, and blown onto the “Smooth Like That” men’s clothing store and pawn shop storefronts and SEPTA buses and cars and curbs and streets and girls of Girls High ascending stairs from the subway. Maybe workers dismantled the billboard but didn’t get all of it, leaving a few pieces hanging.

Driving by it these years on my way to WRTI, I’ve noticed the building shedding itself with impunity onto the city below, but mainly I’m wondering why the seagulls are here, and why they thrill me.


Broad & Chew. Photo credit: Google Maps

Seagulls, of course, are just gulls; we call them “seagulls” because at the edge of the ocean they’re ubiquitous. But gulls go wherever they like. Wherever they can eat is where they’ll live, and they eat just about anything, dead or alive, animal or vegetable. They scavenge like eagles, forage like juncos, and swipe bugs mid-air like barn swallows. They scoop up detritus from the water, steal eggs or chicks from nests, and drop clams and candy onto rocks or sidewalks to break and eat them.

Seagulls are everywhere. But in upstate New York or at the King of Prussia Mall or yes, in North Philly, I still get this odd shoreline thrill.

And so that’s why I put jazz chords into my song cycle In This Blue Room. I know there’s no such thing as a “jazz” chord, we just call it that. Anything from Cole Porter or John Coltrane you can find in Stravinsky or Debussy or Wagner or even Chopin.

But I don’t kid myself. As there are seagulls, so are there jazz chords, these packets of sound that we recognize as jazz, just as there are jazz styles, swing rhythms, bop feels. Just because there’s been rubato for centuries—where, to stretch the rhythm of a phrase musicians literally “rob” time from one beat and give it to another—doesn’t mean that a Viennese waltz isn’t its own thing, even though a Viennese waltz is just a waltz with rubato.

In This Blue Room has jazz, blues, pop standards, and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross vocalese hovering over it. The chord progressions from “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Come Fly With Me,” and “There I Go, There I Go Again” (which are words to “Moody’s Mood for Love,” which is a sax solo over “I’m in the Mood for Love”) weave and mull during the 45 minutes of the cycle.

JimmySmithI worried, briefly, over whether this type of writing could be seen as beneath a composer who wants to be taken seriously, but two thoughts got me over it. One is that there’s never been a composer in the history of the world who wasn’t the kind of composer who wants to be taken seriously.

And then there was a criticism of a piece of mine from way, way back that scoffed at harmonies that were no more recent than the 1920s, reminiscent, probably, of Elgar. But I knew the music the critic (also a composer) admired, which was Schoenberg’s, a fine composer whose harmonic language is solidly, deliciously, from: the 1920s. And I knew that the critic’s own music was considered seriously modern. If you considered the 1950s modern, that is.

So, I haven’t worried since. Everything is dated, everything is past. The music of today is past as soon as “today” is spoken. Modern music, relevant music? I’ve thought about it a lot and to this day I have no idea what that is.

The poems for In This Blue Room and the paintings they’re based on have colors and character that called for a feel that’s both sweet and bitter. “Remembering, remembering,” sings the mezzo-soprano, “What darkness enfolds these planets,” and “On the 11th midnight bluest evening,” and I heard Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. The baritone sings “You are perplexed by sadness” or “In this blue room shadows swallow woven light” or “Eye shadow painted on with time” and it’s Jon Hendricks or Eddie Jefferson or Johnny Hartman or Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.

KentonSilhouetteIt’s a world I know but don’t know at all, modern days from the ancient, relevant time when I was born and just before, the world of a moon-faced Jackie Gleason grinning over a reverberating Honeymooners theme of a million shimmering violins, the world of LPs my parents had and that I have now, of “The Incredible” Jimmy Smith, smiling from the rungs of a freight car, suitcase in hand, who I thought I ought somehow to be related to, of Harry Belafonte svelte and striding the stage of Carnegie Hall, of the very LP I now see leaning against blessed Bob Perkins’s desk at WRTI: a rumple-shirted Stan Kenton silhouetted against a black abyss, reaching to the sky…

Where, I may suppose, the seagulls are. These jazz chords, these swing rhythms, are my seagulls. I know, seagulls are everywhere: Coltrane, Chopin, King of Prussia, everywhere. But I put them in this blue room because, when I see them over an empty billboard and when I hear their keening, there I go again: I hear the surf and, even at Broad and Chew, see the edge of the ocean.

At the American Choral Directors National Conference

ACDAlogoI couldn’t be there, but my music could, thanks to The Crossing and MusicSpoke. The American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) National Conference just concluded in Salt Lake City, and was a huge success by all the reports I’m getting. And these reports are not just from people familiar with my music, no, no, but are also from, you know, normal people.

MusicSpoke is “a marketplace committed to musicians. We don’t publish pieces of music. We find gifted composers that we believe in and give them the tools and freedom to promote themselves.” They are a brand-new and exciting venture for composers and I’m honored to be included in their first wave. They’re growing quickly and are part of the new world of music distribution. They go on:

We provide an easy way to find high quality sheet music. Our platform makes it easy to search by composer, ensemble, theme, and other tags. Each score has its own page allowing users to hear and see the entire piece. Scores are available for immediate digital download and printing, based on the number of licenses purchased.

And it’s true; it’s quick, easy, and there’s lots of wonderful pieces there from very gifted composers I’m happy to be getting to know. My anthem Holy Mountain was included in a MusicSpoke reading session at ACDA. So far, I have five choral pieces with them: in addition to Holy Mountain is the anthem God So Loved the World and concert works And Good in Every Thing (Shakespeare), The Chambered Nautilus (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.), and How Do I Love Thee? (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for girls choir).

You can look at entire scores and hear the works by going to this page.

The Crossing also had a presence at ACDA, and had me along with a few other composers represented. Here is the page they created for the works of mine they’ve performed; I should get them to take over my website as this is so cool.

The Consolation of Apollo (with percussion), The Waking Sun (with Baroque ensemble), Where Flames a Word (a cappella), and Vespers (with Renaissance instruments) are all described, and for parts of Apollo and Where Flames they’ve created video with music, where the score turns pages by itself as they sing. I don’t know how that’s done or if it’s easy to do, but it is definitely the coolest thing.

Thanks, MusicSpoke and The Crossing!

In This Blue Room

Sleeves High Res

Laura Pritchard, The Sleeves

In This Blue Room is a 17-song, 45-minute song cycle commissioned by Lyric Fest on poems of Julia Blumenreich, Susan Fleshman, Siobhan Lyons, and Donna Wolf-Palacio, which are based on the batik artwork of Laura Pritchard. It premieres 13 and 15 March 2015 with mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, baritone Daniel Teadt, and pianist Laura Ward. The complete text is below these notes.


Here is the premiere performance from 15 March 2015 at the Academy of Vocal Arts. The music begins at 18:40 (video start time for each song is listed below):

John Thornton put together a very nice 12-minute video of me, speaking before that performance. There’s less of me talking, so that in itself makes it better:


Jazz, blues, pop standards, and vocalese à la Lambert, Hendricks & Ross hover all around In This Blue Room. The color blue suffuses the paintings and the poetry; that and the syntax of the poems all suggested that a jazz sound-world might be an appropriate approach.

WatermelonEyesExcerpt“Watermelon eyes” jumped out at me first, and became the piece for me. I heard a woman’s low voice, like Sarah Vaughan’s, singing those words, kind of scooching and dragging into each note. I heard quarter-note triplets—lazy triplets—three notes in the time of two. It was swing rhythm that came in and took over, which is (more or less) triplets. And that’s when I decided that the whole cycle would come out of jazz, out of swing and blues.

1WatermelonEyesExI first planned to use a promenade—as Mussorgsky does in Pictures at an Exhibition—between the songs. When I started composing #1, “Watermelon eyes” (18:40 in the video above) I began it with these trodding bass notes, like someone walking through a gallery, looking at the paintings. But it took on a life of its own as the beginning to this one song.

So I left it alone, and, since two poems were based on the one painting, 56, I combined them into a duet, which is now #11, “Like lost beads / Watermelon eyes,” with the idea that it could serve as duet, mezzo solo, and baritone solo. The voice and piano parts are exactly the same each time they come around. The trick was to have them not only fit together but also work separately, and, of course, interesting enough so that you could stand listening to them over and over.

11DuetExThe mezzo solo, therefore, is #1 and begins Part 1, the baritone solo #6, “Like lost beads” (32:49), begins Part 2, and then the duet, which I composed first, begins Part 3 as #11 (49:35).

#2, Reading Others (21:25) needed to sound busy and inward-looking at the same time, with the most expansive music accompanying the confiding in her “leather-bound journal.” The baritone attempts to soothe her in #3, “Dull your senses” (23:21). This is an infrequent instance where I repeat words (maybe not that infrequent), and place them in a different order, so that instead of ending with “you should be giving the directions,” his final advice is “you should be.”

There are two octatonic, or 8-note, scales. These alternate half- and whole-note steps, and they’re a favorite of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and many other composers. I have never knowingly used an octatonic scale in my life until #4, “So I can find myself in a crowd” (26:32).

5EyeShadowExThe persona of the crooner inhabits #5, “Eye shadow” (27:40); those descending chromatic triplets I took from, among uncountable arrangements, Del Paxton’s fill to Guy Patterson’s “Spartacus” at the end of the movie That Thing You Do.

After the baritone’s “Like lost beads” (32:49), the introduction to #7, “Diary 1” (35:30) resonates very much with the excessively chromatic, reverberating violin sound of Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners theme and so many Mantovani arrangements. The song itself is inspired by the voicing of a Sarah Vaughan torch song; the tempo marking is “Slow torch.”

8PerplexedExThe baritone then sings #8, “You are perplexed by sadness” (39:35). The chords come right from Eddie Jefferson’s “There I Go, There I Go Again” (which are words to “Moody’s Mood for Love,” which is a sax solo over “I’m in the Mood for Love”). This is a song that has haunted me all my life. #9, Wings (42:45) is all irrevocable parallel 7th chords—fauxbourdon from Debussy and Dunstable—relieved by a fughetto at “As if on cue two angels.” Then the baritone, not to be denied his octatonic scale, gets one in #10, “The Sleeves” (44:30).

12AuroraExAfter #11’s duet (49:35) is the mezzo’s #12, “Aurora” (52:23) which surprised me by its resonance of either 1969’s “Love Can Make You Happy,” the one hit by a group called Mercy, or The Association’s 1966 hit “Cherish”; I’m not sure which, and I can’t put my finger on why it reminds me of either. I’ve become extremely fond of this song. My plan for #13, Strata” (55:05), was for the two hands of the piano to move in opposite directions, but the right hand’s top G refused to budge, so there it stayed.

#14, “She Sees She Dresses In Her Subjects” (58:57) uses, almost verbatim, the chord progression from “Moonlight in Vermont,” a song with one of the most mesmerizing bridges I’ve ever heard. I repeat words out of order in this, too. #15, “Anima and Animus” (1:02:03) cried out to be a duet, and is one of the examples in the cycle of my writing what I hoped would sound like an improvised walking bass line, which turned out to be incredibly difficult to get right, if I did get it right. I am a former mediocre jazz bassist, and perhaps I was trying to exorcise some ghosts here.

Nothing but a 12-bar blues is #16, “Looking Over the Wall” (1:03:40), with some interpolations, and a middle-section waltz built on the chords of “Come Fly With Me,” which is not a blues of any sort.

17DuetExI used the duet/solos of #1, #6, and #11 a fourth time for the finale, #17, “Diary 3 / Like lost beads / Watermelon eyes” (1:07:00), when I worked a third poem in. I knew I was going to finish with “Diary 3” and that it was going to be a duet, but when I got to the end I thought about seeing if I could fit it into that first duet (and if I could stand hearing the music a fourth time). I tried it, and liked it. Some of “Diary 3” fits in at the beginning, during the “promenade” music, and then I extended the duet at the end with new music. For the very last bars, I repeat part of the promenade music, but bumped up a third from E dorian to G lydian. I felt that the echo of the “promenade” was a good place to finish, after the singers end in octaves on “We want answers, at least alignment.”

Here’s my take on the piece for the Broad Street Review.

Here are reviews of the premiere performances.

In This Blue Room
Although the poems are separated into three parts, the cycle should be sung without a break.

Part 1
1. Watermelon eyes (Siobhan Lyons, 56), Mezzo-Soprano
Watermelon eyes
Point Point-planting pupil seeds
Gravity babies

2. Reading Others (Susan Fleshman, Diaries), Mezzo-Soprano
So many
coffeeshop thoughts
caffeine schemes
latte plans.

Let me tell you
leather-bound journal
spiral notebook
looseleaf sheet
about that one
sitting over there.

in a mug
and disconcerted
by indecipherable secrets
written in her own clear hand.

3. Dull your senses (Siobhan Lyons, Come Festively), Baritone
Dull your senses
be blue

your hair wrap
tangles of wisdom

you should be
giving the directions.

4. So I can find myself in a crowd (Susan Fleshman, Tattoo), Mezzo-Soprano
So I can find myself in a crowd,
these swirls and fancy fishbones
like a daisy in a buttonhole
say, Here I am, the one
I came to meet.

5. Eye shadow (Siobhan Lyons, Come Festively), Baritone
Eye shadow
painted on with time—
you need only to close your eyes—
lids locking the environment.

Today is for
satisfying rest,
a festival of memories,
we know.

Part 2
6. Like lost beads (Donna Wolf-Palacio, 56). Baritone
Like lost beads
of a broken necklace,
images gather
in the corner
and unroll like film.
In this blue room
shadows swallow
woven light
in a storm of straw
and slant
as if retrieval
were still possible.

7. Diary 1 (Donna Wolf-Palacio, Diaries), Mezzo-Soprano
What darkness
enfolds these planets?
Even happy dreams
bring worry.
We know that messenger
all too well.
He comes at darkness,
leaves by light.
He is as wide
as the ribbon of language.
On the other side,
more light.
The mask shows us
the gap of dying
in the details.
The immortal root
is holding up
the shadowy moon.

8. You are perplexed by sadness (Donna Wolf-Palacio, The Queen Takes A Walk), Baritone
You are perplexed by sadness,
hoping for a twin.
When you succeed,
such muted joy,
as if that grave persistence,
that triumph over sadness,
were a throne.

Dark green butterflies
free themselves from stems,
swim against the sky.

Among floating cells,
remnants: being held
and holding.
You lean to the side, tipping
with the undissolving world.

9. Wings (Julia Blumenreich, Angels), Mezzo-Soprano
On the 11th midnight-bluest evening
where clouds reshape as hardwoods,
an arch of eccentrically colored wingless parakeets
harmonize whatever the listener wishes to hear.

As if on cue
two angels with hair
the plumage of their missing wings
surf into magenta and crimson
the arteries and veins they used to know.

10. The Sleeves (Donna Wolf-Palacio, The Sleeves), Baritone
In mathematics,
even the invisible
breaks away.
The twin of this bridge
of pearls circles
like a tunnel
while whorls and spinning caves
float out
to a floral sea.
The fish again.
The eye betrays us.
So many nets and shells
And bloated waters.
Two halves
between the lakes
of angel hair and seaweed.
Are we full yet?
This is wisdom.

Part 3
11. Like lost beads / Watermelon eyes (“Like lost beads,” Donna Wolf-Palacio, 56, “Watermelon eyes,” Siobhan Lyons, 56), Duet
Like lost beads
of a broken necklace,
images gather
in the corner
and unroll like film.
In this blue room
shadows swallow
woven light
in a storm of straw
and slant
as if retrieval
were still possible.

Watermelon eyes
Point Point-planting pupil seeds
Gravity babies

12. Aurora (Julia Blumenreich, Come Festively), Mezzo-Soprano
Dear moon
setting in the finger song
of the dawn.

Remembering, remembering,
sterling lilies swallowing light
rooting in a sea of blue-purple asters,
a couple of lopes
climbing the farthest hill.

Cobalt my thoughts surrounding
my swimming aquamarine scarf
my window painting the day.

13. Strata (Julia Blumenreich, Fossil Face), Baritone
The totality of fossils,
both discovered and undiscovered
how the orchard’s shadows marked
your face like a red-tailed hawk’s wingspan
careens across a pounding fury’s heart.

There is no escape just the
luxurious traces: four pine-green and blue spruce
mandalas in your hair,
one wide eye keeping score
while the stories gather mineralized,
footprints that return to stay.

14. She Sees She Dresses in Her Subjects (Julia Blumenreich, Charlie’s Chin), Mezzo-Soprano
Tightly woven turquoise leaves
backdrop faceless weavers
unexpected brocade patterns (those anonymous fingers)
gold thread drapes her body
this robe.

She takes her sash to wrap her
famously queenly hairline,
until the wind
blows her view sideways while
a koi lifted from the pond just misses her.

The koi’s radiance
her upended thoughts mix.

15. Anima and Animus (Susan Fleshman, The Sleeves), Duet
On the one hand, masculine flowers
softly armored in delicate spikes,
good-intentioned tendrils holding on
to dear, dear life, and slippery spirits
stunned by liberating rootedness.

On the other hand, galloping need
to kick up dust on an open plain,
stuck for a while by this folding in
of flesh less impatient, contractions
letting loose with a tightening grip.

16. Looking Over the Wall (Donna Wolf-Palacio, Looking Over the Wall), Baritone
There is no real madness
except the madness of the spirit.
all is voices
and the stunning flame
of the rising sun
and blades of grass
that shimmer.

17. Diary 3 / Watermelon eyes / Like lost beads (“Diary 3,” Siobhan Lyons, Diaries, “Like lost beads,” Donna Wolf-Palacio, 56, “Watermelon eyes,” Siobhan Lyons, 56). Duet
Gather all the doodads from the junk drawer.
list your favorite tears,
the best laughs.

We’ll multiply everything by two
and flip faces for pairs.

Do memories mean
we’re a match?

You’re obsessed with flipping
the same hurtful square
You’re obsessed with flipping
the same hurtful square—

We want answers,
at least alignment.

All Viola on Now Is the Time



The spotlight is on the alto of the string section on Now Is the Time, Saturday, March 7th at 9 pm. John Harbison’s sumptuous Viola Concerto starts the program off, and then duoJalal percussionist Yousif Sheronick turns a Philip Glass solo viola work into a Duo for Solo Percussion and Viola, just as he would have when he played in the Philip Glass Ensemble. Glass and Jennifer Higdon were both flutists, and the Higdon Sonata for Viola and Piano is influenced, she says, by some of the flute literature she knows. We end the program with a work for viola alone, the Tonoi I of Nickitas Demos.

from Philip Glass: Duo for Solo Percussion and Viola 

John Harbison: Viola Concerto
Philip Glass: Duo for Solo Percussion and Viola
Jennifer Higdon: Sonata for Viola and Piano
Nickitas Demos: Tonoi I

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. Just go to and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM-HD2, or find all the frequencies here, from the Jersey Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Delaware. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Karl Goldmark Had Character Enough

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, March 7th, 5-6 pm.

Karl Goldmark (1830–1915). Overture to Penthesilea (1879)
Goldmark. Violin Concerto No. 1 (1877)

GoldmarkKarlContinuing our survey of the year 1915, we find one of the few people of the time—composers, critics, or audience members—who liked both Brahms and Wagner, and that’s Karl Goldmark. A Hungarian composer trying to make his way in Vienna, he took on other jobs in and related to music. One of those jobs was music criticism. He had good things to say about each of the two titans of the time, who were heralded by disciples (usually more zealous than their supposed leaders) as the only way forward in music. Goldmark had character enough to look beyond the warring schools of taste, beyond the Brahmsians and Wagnerites forever excommunicating each other from the world of accepted culture. He saw the real music in each.

Karl Goldmark was born in 1830 and died in 1915, and although he studied the violin and supported himself playing in theater orchestras, he seems to have taught himself composition just as he had taught himself to play the piano. The first concert of his own works in the blinding light of Vienna—the musical capital not just of Austria but of the world—was a bust, and he left town for two years, returning to his home country and studying the scores of Bach, Mozart, and others. Then he came back to Vienna, and this time he stayed. Within a few years Goldmark wrote three works that made his career and made him famous. One of those we’ll hear today.

His opera The Queen of Sheba, on an invented plot built on the biblical story of the queen visiting King Solomon in Jerusalem, was an immediate success in 1875. He had been working on it since the early 1860s, but his libretto and musical struggles paid off. He even changed the happy ending to a tragedy, and audiences loved it. The Queen of Sheba was an international success, and stayed in the Viennese repertoire decades after his death.

That same year he composed the Rustic Wedding Symphony; it premiered in 1876, was also a hit, and is still played today. Brahms, on a hike with Goldmark after the premiere, and months before Brahms’s own First Symphony premiered, said, “That is the best thing you have done; clear-cut and faultless, it sprang into being a finished thing, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter.”

Goldmark then wrote the work that was to be his most-performed piece during his lifetime, the Violin Concerto No. 1. After his death it fell out of the repertoire, but a number of fairly recent recordings have brought it back into favor. Its resurgence is well deserved, for it combines technical brilliance with lush melodic writing and a bubbling orchestration.

From just two years later, the Overture to Penthesilea is based on the dramatic retelling by Heinrich von Kleist of the Trojan myth of Achilles and the Amazon queen, Penthesilea. It is filled with color and orchestral fireworks, yet has clear form and exact, careful writing for the instruments. Listening to Penthesilea, we may be forgiven if we consider this the kind of music one might compose if one liked both Wagner and Brahms.

József Lendvay plays the 3rd movement of the Goldmark concerto: