Category Archives: Fleisher Collection

The Stealth Populism of William Schuman and Jaromir Weinberger

This Saturday at 5 pm on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection

PROGRAM:
William Schuman (1910–1992). New England Triptych: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings (1956)
SchumanSymphony No. 7 (1960)
Jaromir Weinberger (1896–1967). Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper (1926)

We heard Charles Ives by way of William Schuman last month on Discoveries, so it’s appropriate that we should hear Schuman on his own this month. You may remember that Ives had composed Variations on “America” for organ in 1891; William Schuman orchestrated it in 1964 and it’s been in the repertory ever since.

williamschuman.jpgIves is the epitome of an American-ness flowing through American music, but we could go back another century to a composer who is really the fountainhead—William Billings (1746–1800). Schuman’s 1956 homage to the shape-note composer, New England Triptych, uses three Billings tunes: “Be Glad Then, America,” “When Jesus Wept,” and the hymn-turned-marching-song “Chester.” These are strong and beautiful melodies, fresh with the spirit of a new country. Schuman’s treatment of them is brilliant.

But William Schuman was also a symphonist of great originality. His seventh out of ten (he withdrew the first two) is from 1960, a commission for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. Here Schuman is at the height of his power, composing music that is both aggressively rhythmic and deeply romantic. It is a large-hearted American symphony.

There is an irony: William Schuman is known mostly as a composer for his Billings and Ives forays into Americana. But this president of Juilliard, this president of Lincoln Center, this winner of Pulitzers and multiple awards also composed music inspired by the Sears-Roebuck catalog, wrote dozens of pop songs, and as a teenager played bass in his own wedding and bar mitzvah band, Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra. And he was, like Ives, a huge fan of baseball, even writing an opera called The Mighty Casey.

weinberger.jpgPrague-born Jaromir Weinberger studied composition with Vítězslav Novák and counterpoint with Max Reger, but his many works overflow with a love for folk music. His opera Schwanda the Bagpiper was an immediate and huge hit in 1926; the Polka and Fugue from it was introduced in concert four years later. The opera and the concert piece are still played today and are why most know Weinberger’s name.

He taught at Cornell and at what is now Ithaca College, returned to Czechoslovakia, then fled the Nazis after they started banning his music. He came back to the U.S. and received citizenship in 1948.

Schwanda and its Polka and Fugue were something of a curse for Weinberger, haunting him with the fact that nothing else rose to that level of popularity. Weinberger’s music, like Schuman’s, could be as strict and sober as might be expected of honored composers. As exciting and profound as their output could be, though, it was the populism that stuck. That bothers some composers more than others. For us listeners at this remove (Schuman died 25 years ago; Weinberger, 50), we’re happy they were here to produce all they did. Be glad then, America.

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Charles Ives and Independence

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection July 1, 5–6 pm:
Charles Ives (1874–1954). Variations on “America” (1891), arr. William Schumann
Ives. Symphony No. 2 (1901)

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection starts the Independence Day weekend with that most independent of American composers, Charles Ives. His music is wild, grand, humorous, poignant, and, at times, ornery. Most of all, though, it is shot through with that very American streak of independence. It isn’t a non-musical independence, like a personal or a political statement would be, but goes deep into the grain of music. The independence of Charles Ives is that stubborn willfulness to grab a moment—any moment, no matter how exuberant or plain—and shake it until all artifice drops off and all that’s left of the moment is, well, its momentousness.

His Second Symphony is a perfect example. Composed when Ives was in his 20s, it’s his breakout symphony. The First is well done, but even with sharp corners here and there, it’s a little too schooled, too European.

With the Second, you hear “Turkey in the Straw,” “Camptown Races,” “America the Beautiful,” “Long, Long Ago,” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” They rub shoulders with, almost riot with, strains of Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’s First, Bach, and Wagner. And then Ives tosses in hymns, spirituals, reels, and more: enough to expand it into a five-movement symphony.

Like many Ives pieces, the Symphony No. 2 wasn’t premiered until years after its creation; 50 years, to be exact. Leonard Bernstein conducted the premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1951. Ives, in ill health for much of his life, listened to the broadcast at home with his wife Harmony, on their cook’s radio. He was surprised by how much the audience clapped at the end.

Some of Ives’s earlier organ music made its way into this work. He was an accomplished organist, playing in churches from age 14, and one such work came to light because the organist E. Power Biggs asked him, in 1949, if he had anything Biggs might play. They uncovered Variations on “America.” Biggs then edited, published, and performed it. The composer William Schuman orchestrated it in 1963, and again the New York Philharmonic stepped up for the premiere, in 1964, with André Kostelanetz conducting.

It is a mistake to think of these Variations as satire. Ives never satirizes. It’s closer to the mark to listen to these as a young boy might, a boy who grew up with fervent bands of amateurs playing music as if their honor—or the honor of their country—depended on it. Ives’s father directed such bands. Young Charlie played in them. He is in love with this tune, and that is one secret to the strange pull and influence of Ives on American music.

The other thing to remember, and which gives context to these Variations, is that when Ives wrote it, as organist in a Brewster, N.Y., Methodist church, and played it at the July 4th celebration (after trying it out first in February—can you imagine what the congregation thought of that?), he wasn’t that far removed from the boy at the parade. Charles Ives composed Variations on “America” when he was 16.

The Dance of Ravel and Satie

Satie, Moulin de la Galette (“The Bohemian”), Ramon Casas, 1891

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday June 6th, 5 to 6 pm… In the last Discoveries we took a snapshot of Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Poulenc from 100 years ago. Each was from a different world of French music. Camille Saint-Saëns was old: older than the old guard, older than the director of the Paris Conservatory Gabriel Fauré (his student and Ravel’s teacher), and older, even, than Fauré’s predecessor Théodore Dubois.

Ravel was a great and rising success in 1917 in a rapidly changing mainstream. Debussy (d. 1918) had long since upset traditional tonality and conservatory-approved fugue and forms. Rather than lining up easily charted chords, he composed washes of incalculable harmonies pinwheeling as colors.

Ravel traveled in that same landscape, if not along the same musical road. Even though he gathered many admirers for his lustrous yet precise scores as the years wore on, many still held him at arm’s length. And he still smarted over having been turned down for the Paris Conservatory’s Prix de Rome, not once or twice, but five times. Dubois lost his job as director after the last time and an outcry over l’affaire Ravel broke—all the finalists turned out to be students of Dubois—but the hurt remained.

Francis Poulenc would lead in the next generation. Around 1917 the iconoclast Erik Satie called him and five other composers the Nouveaux Jeunes. Later, a critic coined Les Six. Satie would fall out and in with them, but he, even though older than Ravel, was in many ways their spark. They wanted to be new, not like Wagner, not like Debussy, and not like Ravel.

Maurice Ravel

But what they and Satie and Ravel had in common was dance. Large orchestral works became much more difficult to mount during and well after the Great War. The likes of Ravel’s mammoth 1912 Daphnis and Chloe would not be feasible for a long time. But impresarios like Diaghilev were making a good business of ballet. Artists like Picasso and Cocteau ripped up boundaries and reimagined spaces and angles. Dancers and choreographers created theater (and word-of-mouth) like never before. And composers made music from beat-up pianos, drums, and whatever instruments were at hand.

Exotic stories and myths were popular, as in Daphnis and Satie’s Mercury, but so was nonsense and non sequitur. Each minute-long section of Jack in the Box is in C major. Satie wrote it for piano, then lost it (on a bus, he thought). He died and it was found in his cluttered apartment, behind a piano. One of Les Six, Darius Milhaud, orchestrated it. Dance, and the worlds of French music, lived on.

PROGRAM:
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937): Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 1 (1912)
Erik Satie (1866–1925): Mercury (1924)
Satie: Jack in the Box (1926), orch. Darius Milhaud
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2 (1913)1999

Poulenc Couldn’t Believe What Ravel Said about Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM… One hundred years ago, 18-year-old Francis Poulenc was looking for a composition teacher, and being recommended by the pianist Ricardo Viñes to Maurice Ravel, went to meet him, scores in hand. Ravel was already well-known, having composed much of the music for which he is famous today.

He was also part of the new breezes blowing through French music at the time of the First World War. Generations were traveling in new directions with Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Ravel, and others, away from the German symphonic tradition and away from the 19th century. Viñes and Ravel were part of a group, in fact, that met regularly to play for each other and to discuss these very issues. “The Apaches” they called themselves, the name not only of the Native American nation, but also a French word meaning “The Hooligans.” How apt for the young Poulenc, just starting, to learn from Ravel, a master in this new world.

The young man played some of Ravel’s music at the piano, but Ravel quickly stopped him to look at Poulenc’s own music. Criticizing it, he suggested he ought to consider the music of someone who was a genius: Camille Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns?! That old man, was he even still alive? Yes, he lived to 86, dying in 1921. Saint-Saëns, that curmudgeon who detested everything new, who called Debussy’s music noise, who after The Rite of Spring called Stravinsky insane? Saint-Saëns, who churned out music without effort and without depth and without soul by the truckload? And worst of all, in 1917: Saint-Saëns, that most German of French composers? Ravel recommended Saint-Saëns?

What is it about Saint-Saëns? We hardly know what to make of him. Some of the best-loved music is his: the “Organ” Symphony, Danse macabre, Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Carnival of the Animals, and piano, violin, and cello concertos. But there are hundreds of works, and he may be the composer who never had an off day (Dvořák is another). His music has an ease that can be mistaken for lack of angst, a refusal to meet emotion head-on. Hector Berlioz (while recognizing his talent) famously said about Saint-Saëns, “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.”

But go past the famous Saint-Saëns and appreciate what might be his real genius. His First Cello Concerto is ubiquitous, but some consider the Second to be even grander. The Organ Symphony, his Third, is justly revered, but the early Second is a deft handling of contrasts and balances. Symphonies and concertos were forms as German as any, and they kept many French composers at arms-length from Saint-Saëns, but we can appreciate the elegance, the clarity, the control of forces. He isn’t baring his soul as much as he is letting us cultivate ours.

We can do that, if we allow ourselves to hear his voice, to open our hearts to Saint-Saëns. “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” is the gorgeous mezzo-soprano aria from the opera Samson and Delilah, and it can remind us that while Poulenc left Ravel disappointed, we might do well to take his advice.

PROGRAM:
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921). Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix, from Samson and Delilah (1877)
Saint-Saëns. Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 119 (1902)
Saint-Saëns. Symphony No. 2 (1859)

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Home at Last

Near the Peterson-Berger home in Frösö, Sweden

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday April 1st, 5–6 pm… It almost seemed as if Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was never at home. Born 150 years ago, he grew up in a small northern Swedish town, Umea, nearer to Lapland than to Stockholm. He felt hemmed in and he longed for the wider world. When he discovered Edvard Grieg’s mix of moody lyricism, myth, and folk culture, he was transfixed. He knew that he must become a composer.

He left Umea for Stockholm, studied organ and composition at the Royal College of Music, and played piano. Still, he chafed against the worldview of teachers who wouldn’t hear of the modernist Grieg, let alone his other great musical love, Wagner. So he moved to Germany and studied in Dresden. He traveled to Bayreuth to immerse himself in the excruciatingly romantic operatic world of Wagner. He wrote a symphony. He wrote an Oriental Dance.

But then, of all things, he became homesick. He went back to Sweden, to Umea, and wrote little piano pieces. He didn’t know it, but they would become the most-loved music of his career. These Flowers of Frösö (named for a town on an island in a lake west of Umea) were everything Wagner wasn’t: small, innocent, at peace. He bought a parcel of land on the island.

And then, off to Germany again, to teach. But his students from rich families didn’t care about music, and he again was frustrated. He wrote pieces about a Stockholm carnival and about hiking through the mountains. He wrote the words and the music. Sweden called again, and in three years he was back, in those mountains.

But not for long. After a few years he was in Stockholm, at age 28, and for the next 34 years he served as the powerful music critic for the Daily News of Stockholm. “Criticism must be ruthless,” he would say, and he was unrelenting. For two years he also produced operas at the Royal Stockholm Opera—at the same time that the conductor was suing him for defamation. He liked Beethoven, Wagner, Grieg, and the modern August Söderman, but he decried what he believed to be the lessening of standards in much of what was current. Sibelius came under fire, as did Saint-Saëns, impressionists (just about anything French, for that matter), Nielsen, Stenhammar, Alfvén, and Schoenberg.

And he paid for it. Alfvén ran a festival, and wouldn’t play Peterson-Berger’s music. Others steered clear. Still, he was performed a little, and he did receive honors, including a knighthood and election to the Royal Academy.

His Third Symphony is his most successful large work. The Philadelphia Orchestra with Stokowski performed it in 1927, and it is still played to this day. Lapland had been a part of Sweden, and Peterson-Berger quotes five Lapp songs. The third movement contains some of the most gorgeous Swedish orchestral music written at the time, and it sounds—dare we say it?—almost French.

Peterson-Berger built a house on Frösö and lived there after retirement until his death. A friend noticed him on a train, heading to the land of the lake and the island. The composer and irascible critic was looking at the landscape slipping by, and wept uncontrollably. He was going home.

PROGRAM:
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867–1942). Symphony No. 3, Lapland (1913–15)
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907). Sigurd Jorsalfar, Homage March (1872)

Mackenzie, Holbrooke, and British Music Coming into Its Own

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, March 4th, 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM:

alexandermackenzievanityfair1904

Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Two British composers populate this month’s Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday at 5:00 p.m. on WRTI. Josef Holbrooke and Alexander Mackenzie were well known and enjoyed success, but they often struggled to gain more than a foothold in performance circles. The reasons, however, were different.

Holbrooke was also a critic and writer. His opinions about music, especially music from outside of England, both rankled and were seen as self-serving. Mackenzie for almost four decades was busy running the Royal Academy of Music, which left him little time to compose. Nevertheless, he helped begin the renaissance of 20th-century British music, of which Holbrooke was a beneficiary.

Mackenzie’s musical family included a violinist father and grandfather. Young Alexander played in his father’s orchestra from the age of 8, and two years later he was studying in Germany. At 14 he was an employed violinist in a German orchestra. He later lived in Italy, and along with becoming fluent in German and Italian, he would become good friends with Liszt, von Bülow, Sarasate, Joseph Joachim, Clara Schumann, Gounod, and Dvořák.

He led the Royal Academy of Music from 1888 to 1924, bringing it to international stature. He conducted British premieres of European works, helped English composers, and among many official honors received the adulation of a 24-year-old Elgar, who said that meeting Mackenzie was “the event” of his life. But for all his national and international success, Sir Alexander Mackenzie was moved by the music of his beloved Scotland. His “Scottish Concerto” is a lively dissertation on folk tunes, a pleasant introduction to this affable composer.

josefholbrooke

Josef Holbrooke

“Affable” is the last adjective many people would be inclined to apply to Josef Holbrooke. Like William Henry Fry in America, Holbrooke complained often and loudly about the adulation of foreign composers at the expense, he thought, of homegrown ones. He pulled two of his works from a concert (something his career could ill afford), because the typeface of the foreign soloist’s name was larger than his on the posters.

And yet Hans Richter, Thomas Beecham, and Henry Wood conducted his music; Granville Bantock and others were his friends. He could be humorous and ebullient, but rarely did an opinion form in his brain but that he did not give it out.

His music is filled with sweep, color, and intricacy. Ironically, for all his bemoaning of foreign influence, his work is largely Wagnerian and Straussian. But there is an English warmth and—might we say—an affability to it that is endearing. Mackenzie at the beginning of a new English music, and Holbrooke in the next generation, are two composers who should fascinate us today.

PROGRAM:
Josef Holbrooke (1878–1958). Pantomime Suite (Ballet from Pierrot and Pierrette) (1908)
Alexander Mackenzie (1847–1935). Scottish Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1897)
Holbrooke. The Girl I Left Behind Me, Symphonic Variations (1908)

Charles Koechlin and the Law of the Jungle

koechlinOn Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection this Saturday, February 4th, 5 to 6 pm on WRTI…the music of Charles Koechlin is not performed much; that much is certain. We may even call it, in this, the 150th anniversary of his birth, neglected. While there are logical reasons his legacy may have suffered, we also can’t fully understand why.

The French composer worked at a time when the composers of every European nation were creating, in one way or another, music particular to their countries. There have always been regional colors in music—the Spanish Renaissance is tinted differently from the Italian—but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries nationalism was bubbling up all over Europe. It was fueled by political realities, by the re-discovery of folk cultures, and by Romanticism, which reigned in art, literature, and philosophy.

In France, the standard-bearers of a new French sound were Debussy, Ravel, and then the new generation who followed the modernism of Satie. Where did that leave Koechlin? His music is not the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. It has been called impressionistic, and while it is lovely, it is darker and cooler. Sometimes it is Bach-like in the inner workings of its voices. It is also modernist, but it isn’t the French modern of his time. A German piquancy of atonality runs, like allspice, through Koechlin’s music.

Its being hard to place may explain why it isn’t performed so much. But here’s where we may not understand the neglect of the music of Charles Koechlin: It is downright gorgeous.

Rudyard Kipling wrote his series of The Jungle Book stories in the 1890s, and it grabbed the attention of Koechlin. Today we’ll hear three of his stand-alone Jungle Book works, in reverse order of their completion, although he worked on them over decades. The Law of the Jungle is not the me-first nihilism it has come to mean now. For Kipling and Koechlin, it is Baloo the Bear laying down the governing precepts of civilization to Mowgli the man-cub. It is Confucius rather than Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” A holy man’s mysticism and sacrifice informs The Meditation of Purun Bhagat. Spring Running, the longest, is in four sections: Spring in the Forest, Mowgli, The Running, and (when Mowgli leaves the jungle) Night.

Throughout these Jungle Book works and all of Koechlin’s music runs the aspiration to color (with exquisite orchestration) and concision that is, yes, very French. There is much else, also, leaving us still pondering his neglect.

PROGRAM:
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950). The Law of the Jungle (1939)
Koechlin. The Meditation of Purun Bhagat (1936)
Koechlin. The Spring Running (1908-25)