72nd Ojai Music Festival
Across Time, Part 1
William Byrd – Fantasy in C Major
Henry Purcell – Fairest Isle from King Arthur (arr. Anthony Romaniuk)
Johann Sebastian Bach – Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach – Fantasy in F#
Dmitri Shostakovich – Prelude in A minor
Dmitri Shostakovich – Fugue in C Major
Bela Bartok – First Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos, Book VI
George Crumb – Twin Suns from Makrokosmos, Book II
Gyorgy Ligeti – White on White from Etudes, Book III
Henry Purcell – Fantasia No. 10 in C minor
Anthony Romaniuk, piano and harpsichord
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin | JACK Quartet
by Christopher Hailey
We improvise with what is in our grasp, by shaping that which is; we mourn with empty hands, reaching out for that which was. This concert in two parts explores presence and absence, the self-sufficient ‘kingdom of the mind’ and the exile of grief.
The fantasy, prelude, fugue, and etude all have roots in improvisation, the capacity to elaborate, ex tempore, on an idea, a theme or motif. William Byrd created the template for the keyboard fantasy in late Renaissance England, a form described by Thomas Morley as a piece in which “a musician taketh a point at his pleasure, and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seeme best in his own conceit.” Henry Purcell, without a doubt the finest English composer of his era, influenced Benjamin Britten, among others, with his operas, including King Arthur; his fantasias for viol consort, on the other hand, look back to Byrd and Morley and were among the last of their kind. Less than half a century later J. S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue represents a significant expansion upon Byrd’s and Purcell’s model, combining elements of both toccata and recitative in the fantasy and improvisatory freedom in a three-voice fugue on an extended and highly chromatic subject.
The emotional intensity of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue is unusual for Bach, but wholly characteristic of his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who, like his father, was renowned for his keyboard improvisations. Charles Burney, after a visit with the younger Bach, described an impromptu after-dinner concert during which Bach “grew so animated and possessed, that he not only played, but looked like one inspired. His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance.” The Fantasy in F minor is a late work, whose remarkable expressive range inspired tonight’s free adaption for keyboard and violin.
Dimitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues pay homage to the 48 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier through numerous direct and indirect allusions.
In the etudes that follow, the instrument at hand is both subject and medium, the musical idea cloaked as a technical challenge. Béla Bartók’s six books of Mikrokosmos, composed between 1926 and 1939, are pedagogical in intent. The first number of book VI, “Free Variations,” features mixed meter rhythms derived from Bulgarian folk music. “Two Suns,” from the second book of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos (another act of homage), explores piano resonance through direct manipulation of its strings. In György Ligeti’s White on White, from his unfinished third book of etudes, a tranquil opening canon is followed by a frenzy of polyrhythms; only at the end do black keys intrude upon the white-key expanses.
70th Ojai Music Festival
KAIJA SAARIAHO’S La Passion De Simone
Julia Bullock, soprano
Joana Carneiro, conductor
Peter Sellars, director
ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble)
Roomful of Teeth
by Christopher Hailey
That may depend on which Simone. Simone Weil was many things: a brilliant philosopher, a wayward Marxist theoretician (and sparring partner with Trotsky), trade union activist and factory worker, dedicated teacher, linguist, controversial cultural historian, Jewish anti-Semite, pacifist, altruist, anarchist, front-line soldier for the Spanish Republic, ascetic Catholic mystic, member of the French Resistance … “I envied her,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir, “for having a heart which could beat right across the world,” adding elsewhere:
Her intelligence, her asceticism, her total commitment, and her sheer courage – all these filled me with admiration; though I knew that, had she met me, she would have been very far from reciprocating my attitude. I could not absorb her into my universe, and this seemed to constitute a vague threat to me.
The threat is real because Simone Weil was a woman of radical consequence. Throughout her short life every cause, every revelation entailed a course of action; her intellectual, emotional, and spiritual convictions were inscribed in the fiber of her physical being, leading, in the end, to the extinction of that very self.
Simone Weil (1909–43), born in Paris into a loving, well-to-do agnostic Jewish family, had all the benefits of culture and education. She was a brilliant student of philosophy and embarked on a teaching career, which she interrupted to spend a year working in a factory to experience firsthand the workers’ plight. With the rise of Hitler she engaged more directly in contemporary politics, writing essays, leading demonstrations, and joining a fighting brigade against fascism in Spain. While recuperating from a serious accident, a mystical experience led her to embrace Catholicism (without, however, joining the church), after which issues of moral and ethical philosophy began to dominate her thinking. With France, and in particular its Jewish citizens, under threat she accompanied her parents to safety in America, before returning to Britain to serve the French government in exile. Already weakened by tuberculosis, she died, it is said, from self-starvation born of her deep empathy for the suffering of the French people under German occupation. Amin Maalouf has written:
At the age of 34, between the ages of Jesus and Mozart, a young woman decided to leave this world. The time was August 1943, and humanity had just reached a summit of barbarity. Simone Weil passed away without a sound, as if by silent protest, in the anonymity of a small English hospital. Her choice to die speaks to us of her rejection of any form of submission – to violence and hate, to Nazism and Stalinism, but also to a dehumanising industrial society that deprives individuals of their substance and leads them into nothingness. Simone’s writings, most of which were published after her death, are an attempt to find a way out of this nothingness. Her passion is a discreet but powerful signpost in our misguided world.
La Passion de Simone is the result of a collaborative interchange between Maalouf, Kaija Saariaho, and Peter Sellars, who first suggested Weil as a subject for what would become a “Musical Journey in Fifteen Stations.” These collaborators each brought to the project his or her Simone Weil. Saariaho recalls:
… together we chose the different parts of Weil’s work and life for the libretto before I began composing. Whereas I have always been fascinated by Simone’s striving for abstract (mathematical) and spiritual-intellectual goals, Peter is interested in her social awareness and political activities. Amin brought out the gaping discrepancy between her philosophy and her life, showing the fate of the frail human being amongst great ideas. In addition to Simone Weil’s life and ideas, many general questions of human existence are presented in Amin’s text.
Each of the text’s fifteen stations – a structure that recalls the Stations of the Cross of the medieval passion play – presents an aspect of Weil’s life and thinking, though largely seen from the perspective of a narrator, a soprano who represents an imaginary sister – older? younger? we are never sure. In any event this narrator is rooted in a sensibility closer to our own, as she considers Weil from perspectives that are now critical, now puzzled, here accusatory, there awed.
The original version of La Passion de Simone, premiered in Vienna in 2006, is scored for full chorus and orchestra with electronics. In the chamber version, created in 2013 and heard here in its US premiere, the orchestra is reduced to 19 players without electronics and the chorus has become four solo voices. This reduction of forces serves to accentuate the exquisite delicacy of Saariaho’s score, while at the same time introducing an element of astringency to its rich colors and textures. The effect is of a slowly turning cushion of sound that supports both the sinuous line of the narrator’s voice, as well as the dry precision of Weil’s own words, which are interspersed as spoken text.
La Passion de Simone is a work that both lures and cautions. Saariaho’s score is sensuous and enticing – a striking contrast to the prickly sensibility of a woman known for her limitless capacity for compassion, but notoriously averse to physical contact. Maalouf’s narrator invites us to engage with the life of this remarkable woman, but makes clear that she is ultimately unknowable. We approach the unapproachable through a music of crystalline beauty, a text of hesitant astonishment. Simone Weil rushed into possession only to relinquish her hold; we can only follow at a distance.
72nd Ojai Music Festival
Friday Late Night
JOHN LUTHER ADAMS Everything That Rises
by Christopher Hailey
John Luther Adams has a special relationship with Ojai. Since 2009 eight of his works have been performed here, including three West Coast premieres (Inuksuit in 2012, and Sila: The Breath of the World and Become River in 2015). Ojai is a natural fit for a composer so sensitive to pulse of nature. From the icy expanses of the Alaskan tundra to the naked clarity of the Sonoran Desert, Adams has set out to find “a new music drawn from the light, the air, the landscapes, and the weather” of the environments in which he has lived. These environments in turn have shaped the language and syntax of the music he makes.
Adams is perhaps best known for works written for orchestra or larger ensembles that are characterized by prismatic colors and complex, interlacing lines. “I never imagined I would write a string quartet. Then I heard the JACK Quartet, and I understood how I might be able to make the medium my own.” His first two string quartets, The Wind in High Places (2011) and untouched (2015) featured natural harmonics and open strings. In the third, Canticles of the Sky (2015), adapted from the choir work Canticles of the Holy Wind, “the musicians finally touch the fingerboards of their instruments.” These three works, roughly twenty minutes each, were followed by Everything That Rises, of which Adams writes:
This fourth quartet is more expansive, both in time and in space. It grows out of Sila: The Breath of the World − a performance-length choral/orchestral work composed on a rising series of sixteen harmonic clouds.
Over the course of an hour, the lines spin out − always rising − in acoustically perfect intervals that grow progressively smaller as they spiral upward . . . until the music dissolves into the soft noise of the bows, sighing.
The quartet consists of two principal elements, a fundamental tone in the cello and, in the upper strings, arrayed across the overtone spectrum, gently ascending gestures inflected by trills. Over the course of the piece these elements gradually rise from the deepest to the highest registers, each instrument seemingly independent, the intervals, drawn from ever higher partials of that fundamental tone, becoming ever smaller, a rainbow unfolding, growing ever brighter in tranquil, invisible radiance.
Adams shares with Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, Horaţiu Rădulescu, and Georg Friedrich Haas a fascination with the natural harmonic series, both for its inherent beauty and as a way out of the constrictions of languages—whether tonal or serial—based on twelve-note equal-temperament. Theirs is music as a natural phenomenon in which dissonance and consonance, tension and release, departure and arrival are redefined or even abandoned to move beyond polar dichotomies, away from linear narrative toward a new kind of motion, a different sense of time, space, and scale. In Everything That Rises John Luther Adams brings that new sensibility to Ojai at a time of healing and reflection.
73rd Ojai Music Festival
Friday Night, Part II
CLAUDE VIVIER Lonely Child
Aphrodite Patoulidou soprano | LUDWIG | Barbara Hannigan conductor
Program notes excerpt
By Christopher Hailey
There can be no question that much of Claude Vivier’s music is intensely autobiographical and that is especially true of Lonely Child. Vivier was adopted from an orphanage and never learned the identity of his birth parents or the circumstances of his own conception and birth. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Montreal and was sent as a teenager to Catholic boarding schools to prepare him for the priesthood, though he was eventually told that he was temperamentally unsuited to religious orders. It may have been his homosexuality, which he never sought to hide, or his all-consuming passion for music that would lead into composition. The two were thereafter intertwined in a life that was lived recklessly, dangerously, fully. He was murdered at 44 by a young man he had picked up at a Paris bar.
At the time of his death Vivier, whose Ritual Opera Kopernikus was performed at the 2016 Ojai Festival, had already created a body of work that assured his legacy as one of the most distinctive voices of the 20th century. Although that legacy has been slow to reach a wider audience, several works, including Lonely Child, have now earned a firm place in performance and recording. Vivier’s formative influences included the European avant garde of the 1960s, studies with Stockhausen (“the true beginning of my life as a composer”), travel to the Near and Far East (Iran, Japan, Thailand, Bali), and friendship with the pioneers of French spectralism, Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. His music often has a ritualistic quality and centers on universal themes of death and transcendence. Vivier has described Lonely Child as “a long song of solitude” composed “without using chords, harmony, or counterpoint,” a homophonic texture that becomes one single, “intervalized” melody:
Thus, there are no longer any chords, and the entire orchestra is then transformed into a timbre. The roughness and the intensity of this timbre depends on the base interval. Musically speaking, there was only one thing I needed to control, which automatically, somehow, would create the rest of the music, that is great beams of color!
The work begins softly, the texture spare, gradually adding layer upon layer before returning to the peace of the opening. The French text, a soothing lullaby, speaks of maternal love, guardian fairies, magic, visions of paradise, and eternal peace in the afterlife. There are also lines in Vivier’s own invented language – phonetic sounds he developed from various real and imagined sources – that can be traced back to the unanswered questions of his birth: “Not knowing my parents enabled me to create a magnificent dream world,” Vivier said shortly before his death. “I shaped my origins exactly as I wished.”
73rd Ojai Music Festival
SCHOENBERG String Quartet No. 2 in F# minor, op. 10 (1908)
“Entrückung” sehr langsam
Barbara Hannigan soprano | JACK Quartet
The Schoenberg String Quartet was the last part of the Friday, June 7 concert that paired the work with Debussy, Debussy, and Ravel.
The latter two movements of the Second String Quartet are set to poems from Stefan George‘s collection Der siebente Ring (The Seventh Ring), which was published in 1907. The translated poems can be viewed here.
By Christopher Hailey
Poetic imagery, painting, and nature served to stimulate Debussy’s imagination, as did his encounter with non-Western music. In Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (And the moon descends on the temple that was), a title suggested by the sinologist Louis Laloy, one hears in its suspended stillness elements of the music of Bali, which Debussy first heard in the 1889 Paris Exhibition Universelle. Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan (A boat on the ocean), the third of his five-movement Miroirs, is a study of motion, captured in surging arpeggiated currents. Un reflet dans le vent (A reflection in the wind) is the last of Messiaen’s eight Préludes, a set written while he was still a student of Paul Dukas. Their descriptive titles may suggest Debussy, their crisp textures Ravel, but these preludes already bear the hallmarks of Messiaen’s distinctive harmonic and rhythmic language.
It was the pestilence of 1579 that got dear old Augustin. Or so it seemed. Actually, Vienna’s beloved ballad singer was stone drunk when he was mistaken for a plague victim and tossed into an open pit. When he awoke the next morning, he had a song to sing: “Augustin, Augustin, lie down in your grave! O, you dear Augustin, it’s all over!” It’s a catchy tune and when it popped up uninvited in the second movement of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet the audience took note. The uproar – it was December 21, 1908 – seemed to confirm Augustin’s dire prognostication: Alles ist hin, this really is the end.
At a century’s remove it may be difficult to understand the fuss. The quartet is relatively short, its textures and formal layout clear and transparent. The impassioned first movement is an abbreviated sonata form; the second, a fidgety scherzo, interrupted, of course, by the sudden appearance of the sweet triviality of Augustin’s refrain. But the third movement delivers an unprecedented shock: a soprano voice. This setting of Stefan George’s “Litanei” (Litany) does double duty as a series of variations that act as a kind of delayed development section for the truncated opening movement. It has the feel of a single arching line reaching its gripping climax with the words “Kill the longing, close the wound! Take my love away, take from me love” – here the soloist takes a dramatic downward leap – followed by this hushed appeal: “and give me your joy!”
Release comes in “Entrückung” (Rapture), which begins “I feel air from another planet.” Schoenberg’s ethereal introduction is so exquisitely inviting that even today many are unaware that this movement marks Schoenberg’s own radical leap into atonality – the original velvet revolution. It is doubtful that the first audience had any clue one way or the other because by this point in the evening the music was being drowned out by a phalanx of vociferous rowdies convinced that they were witnessing a catastrophe only slightly less calamitous than that long-ago plague. Most critics were ready to toss the work into a mass grave for failed experiments, but the quartet, like Augustin, proved remarkably resilient and soon found more congenial company in the standard repertory.
The myth of Syrinx is the story of a chaste nymph transformed into river reeds to escape Pan’s pursuit. Pan, in turn, creates from these reeds the pipes with which he laments his loss. Debussy’s piece for solo flute, scarcely three minutes long, serves as the prelude to another work of transformation: Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night).
73rd Ojai Music Festival
Terry Riley IN C
LUDWIG | Steven Schick, Percussion
By Christopher Hailey
There you have it, In C, the first minimalist piece. Its gradually shifting repetitive patterns influenced generations of minimalist and process composers, including Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. In fact, Reich (along with Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick) was among the performers at the work’s premiere at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (it was Reich that had suggested the steady pulse of C’s). Riley never thought of this music as “minimalist”; to him it was psychedelic (this was San Francisco after all), not repetition and process, but mind expansion. Oliveras has described the experience as “a cloud of birds tacking the sky with unplanned unanimity” and Michael Tilson Thomas, who did it a few years later at Tanglewood, said it was like being “inside some kind of big improvisation”. The loose, improvisational feel of In C comes from jazz, a major influence on Riley’s music, and, as in jazz, freedom and improvisation are based on listening, on fitting your piece into the larger puzzle. Performing In C requires what Riley called “developing a group dynamic.”
Back in 1964, Riley originally called In C “The Global Villages for Symphonic Pieces.” Not a great title, you’ll admit, but the “global” and “village” bits suggest why this piece has had such wide resonance. Riley has recalled that the first performances of In C were “big communal events where a lot of people would come out and sometimes listen or dance to the music because the music would get quite ecstatic with all these repeated patterns.” This is what John Adams was getting at when he said that with In C “the pleasure principle had been invited back into the listening experience.”
Each performance of In C creates its own blissful global village. It’s a festive ritual, a celebratory group experience. This was perhaps the newest, most radical aspect of Riley’s piece, not its repetitions or its “in C-ness,” which many read as a slap in face of all doctrinaire serialists. Tonality forever! In fact, the piece isn’t really in C at all, since its open-ended modal patterns hint at E and G, as well. But that tonal transparency, those interlocking patterns, were something identifiable, something we could follow, and something that re-imagined both composition and the concert experience. Riley, incidentally, also upset all notions of creative ownership when he published the In C score and its instructions on the first LP recording. So much for copyright. But why not? It’s perfectly in keeping with what Riley calls the “community idea” of music.
73rd Ojai Music Festival
RACHMANINOFF & MARK ANTHONY TURNAGE
RACHMANINOFF – The Isle of the Dead (arr. Thomas Beijer)
LUDWIG | Edo Frenkel conductor
MARK-ANTHONY TURNAGE – Twice Through the Heart
Part One 1. No Way Out 2. Inside (part 1) 3. Love
Part Two 4. By the Sea 5. Inside (part 2) 6. Four Walls
Part Three 7. Interlude 8. Landslide 9. China Cup
Kate Howden mezzo-soprano | Stephen Gosling piano and celeste |
LUDWIG | Edo Frenkel conductor
By Christopher Hailey
This is a concert Oliver Knussen would have loved. He was a champion of new music, including that of his student and close friend Mark-Anthony Turnage, but he also loved the delectable harmonies and rich orchestral textures of such late Romantics as Sergei Rachmaninoff. A third passion was the art of transcription, be it the overblown glory of Stokowski’s Bach or the ascetic chamber reductions by Schoenberg and his circle.
Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead was inspired by a hauntingly evocative painting of the same name by the Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin, which the composer had gotten to know in a black and white reproduction. This may account for the somber cast of the orchestration because as the composer later wrote: “If I had seen first the original, I probably would have not written my Isle of the Dead. I like it in black and white.” The work is both pictorial – from the outset one hears the heavy strokes of the oarsmen making their way, their cargo a coffin, toward the looming island – and fraught with musical symbolism, including quotations of the 13th-century chant Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) associated with the Latin requiem mass. This is Rachmaninoff at his most Wagnerian – the Wagner, that is, of Tristan and Parsifal. Thomas Beijer’s arrangement reduces the original concert orchestra – triple winds (and six horns!), expanded percussion, and a full string complement – to 15 players. What is lost in Rachmaninoff’s heavy orchestral mass is gained in transparency and finely balanced colors.
Death is also the central theme of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Twice Through the Heart – but whereas with Böcklin and Rachmaninoff it is veiled in symbolic mists, with Turnage it is raw and graphic, literally “ripped from the headlines.” Turnage’s source was a real-life incident involving a woman who murdered her abusive husband, stabbing him twice through the heart with a kitchen knife. In the trial that followed she resists her lawyer’s advice to bring up the subject of her abuse (out of misplaced loyalty to her dead husband) and is given a lengthy prison sentence. The libretto by Scottish poet Jackie Kay is based on her 1992 television documentary on the trial. Turnage writes of his goals for his musical adaptation:
I wanted to write a simple voice that was not poetic, literary or polemical. I wanted the voice to be so every day it would be banal: the language to be flat and ordinary. I wanted to contrast the heightened drama of such domestic violence with plain, unpoetic speech. I was captivated with the idea that both the home and the prison were forms of incarceration for the battered wife. That there was no place she could be free. That the battered wife received a double sentence: the first from the husband and the second from the judge.
Such subject matter is characteristic of Turnage’s penchant for gritty topics (he made his 2001 Ojai debut with the chamber work Blood on the Floor). Twice Through the Heart is a monodrama whose three parts explore the wife’s memories and reflections upon her abusive husband, her trial, and her present incarceration. The instrumental texture, now harsh and aggressive, now tender, occasionally inflected with jazz idioms, is transparent throughout. The vocal writing, often reminiscent of Alban Berg, is direct and affecting. Twice Through the Heart is a bleak work, but also a work of profound compassion for those whose voices are so often hidden or silenced. Amelia Rossiter, on whose trial this story is based, was eventually freed after her conviction was reduced to manslaughter with a plea of provocation.
73rd Ojai Music Festival – Grand Finale
STRAVINSKY Pulcinella (complete)
HAYDN Symphony No. 49 “La Passione”
GERSHWIN Girl Crazy Suite (arranged by Bill Elliott)
Kate Howden, mezzo soprano
James Way, tenor
Antoin Herrera-Lopez Kessel, bass
Barbara Hannigan, conductor and soprano
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 49 “La Passione” (1768)
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Girl Crazy (1930); suite arr. Bill Elliott (2016)
I GOT MUSIC
Program notes by Christopher Hailey
Haydn never contested his paternity. “Papa” planted seeds aplenty, but in ground he tilled, toiled, and harvested himself. Moreover, he provided the offspring of his fecund creative imagination with generous child support, annuities he called the sonata, symphony, and string quartet.
Haydn’s DNA is embedded in the musical language of the later 18th century, a language, as Charles Rosen has written, of extraordinary “coherence, power, and richness of allusion.” It was nothing short of a revolution, a new way of hearing and organizing musical material. But revolutions don’t happen overnight. They are gradual, prepared by ideas and practices that slowly coalesce around a body of work that is rarely, if ever, that of a single individual. Nonetheless, in the course of one long life, Haydn witnessed and contributed to virtually every stage of forming what we know as the Classical Style.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 49, composed in 1768, exemplifies that process in which old and new huddle together at the threshold of change. The orchestration is conventional and the structure, with its opening slow movement, harkens back to the 17th-century church sonata. The content, however, is new. Its tonality – F minor throughout – establishes an ominous tone that is combined with unprecedented emotional turbulence: dynamic extremes, dramatic melodic leaps, unexpected accents and silences, agitated string tremolandi. One is tempted to regard this as Romanticism avant la lettre, but it was very much a phenomenon of the 1760s and ’70s, as evident in literature as in music (Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774 comes to mind). Indeed, this period took its name from a 1777 play by Maximilian Klinger: Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress). In “La Passione” (the title was given much later) these aspects are most evident in the brooding Adagio and the tempestuous Allegro and Presto finale (the minuet, though somber, is more traditional, its trio downright genial). The Sturm und Drang moment passed, but what remained, at least in music, was a new capacity for channeling such unruly passion into a balanced style. Charles Rosen again:
“Not until Haydn and Mozart, separately and together, created a style in which a dramatic effect seemed at once surprising and logically motivated, in which the expressive and the elegant could join hands, did the classical style come into being.”
Vienna’s Classical Style and its attendant forms persisted into the 20th century but its legacies had become attenuated, first through cliché, later by distension. Haydn’s inheritance was threatened by an inflation of scale, means, and meaning. Ever-larger orchestras, ever-longer works freighted with literary and philosophical ballast, and tonality – the foundation of the style – stretched to the breaking point by chromaticism. It is easy to regard the eruptions of the early 20th century, atonality, rhythmic ferocity – Pierrot lunaire, Le Sacre du Printemps – as attempts to break the logjam, just as many hailed the Great War as the necessary end of an oppressive peace. The reaction that followed this ghastly carnage likewise has its logical – or at least psychologically plausible – explanation: away with Wagner, hothouse Romanticism, and the excrescences of the long 19th century. Back to 18th century, to balance and clarity.
Neoclassicism, like Haydn’s Classical Style, was not an overnight phenomenon. The gavottes and minuets of the 19th century are legion, but that was costume-ball nostalgia. Neoclassicism was something else, a new way of hearing that filtered flirtation with the past through the prism of contemporary idioms.
Pulcinella is a commedia dell’arte ballet interspersed with songs. It is not, of course, an homage to Viennese Classicism; its models are not Haydn and Mozart, but Pergolesi (or at least what Stravinsky believed was Pergolesi):
“I knew that I could not produce a “forgery” of Pergolesi because my motor habits are so different; at best, I could repeat him in my own accent. That the result was to some extent a satire was probably inevitable – who could have treated that material in 1919 without satire? – but even this observation is hindsight…. A stylish orchestration was what Diaghilev wanted, and nothing more; my music so shocked him that he went about for a long time with a look that suggests ‘The Offended Eighteenth Century’.”
What Stravinsky achieved in this collision with 18th century was in some senses a continuation of the witty and lucid textures of his recent works, including L’Histoire du soldat. He certainly didn’t intend to reinstate the past, but rather to create in its echo new perspectives for the present. The music is not Stravinsky’s, but its freshness and vigor are, qualities that would nourish his musical imagination for the next three decades.
Neoclassicism was an international phenomenon, as popular in America as it was in Europe. But when Stravinsky arrived on these shores, he was confronted by another musical culture that had its roots not in 18th-century Austria or Italy but in the rich mélange of contemporary American experience – new energies of jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and Broadway theater; in short, the world of George Gershwin. Girl Crazy, premiered in 1930, featured an all-star cast that included Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers, and a pit orchestra teeming with such luminaries as Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, and Jack Teagarden. Bill Elliott’s Girl Crazy Suite enfolds the show’s hits – “But Not for Me,” “Embraceable You,” and “I Got Rhythm” – in a series of droll arrangements that extend from gauzy impressionism to brassy Broadway swagger.
Stravinsky admired Gershwin, as did Schoenberg. They recognized a colleague who knew as well as they how to make the present exist. As Schoenberg once wrote of his friend: “He is a composer – that is, a man who lives in music and expresses everything, serious or not, sound or superficial, by means of music, because it is his native language.” Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and for that matter Haydn, all lived long enough to know that style is mutable, that language evolves. That music, like Heraclitus’ river, is in constant flux, a medium for ever-widening arcs of creative expression that both reflect and challenge existing modes of perception. And with their colleague George Gershwin, they knew, too, that music, to thrive, must always be about the joyous urgency of now.