Saturday, March 07, 2009

Programme notes: 7 March 2009

Michael Torke (b. 1961)

Bright Blue Music

One of the characteristics of much music composed in the last 30 years or so is a new sense that the bitter arguments about musical style that have characterised the history of music in the 20th century are now an historical irrelevance. A composer need no longer feel weighed down by dogma, and can employ whatever techniques and styles he feels suit whatever it is he wants to write. This is an attitude that the grandfather of modern American music, Charles Ives, would have approved of: he once wrote, “Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good I can’t see. Why it should always be present I can’t see. It depends, it seems to me…on what one is trying to do, and on the state of the mind, the time of day or other accidents of life.”

This brings us to Michael Torke and Bright Blue Music, a piece filled with startlingly straightforward harmonies. He came to public attention early, with two pieces – Ecstatic Orange and The Yellow Pages – written while he was still a student at Yale. These were the first two parts of his series of pieces collectively known as Color Music, and the reader will need no further prompting from a programme note to deduce that Bright Blue Music also belongs to this sequence.

Torke gives two reasons for his strategy. One is that by using the simplest, most obvious harmonies he is freed to concentrate on other things: “Once this decision was made and put in the back of my mind, an unexpected freedom of expression followed. With the simplest means, my musical emotions and impulses were free to guide me. Working was exuberant: I would leave my outdoor studio and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed a bright blue.

“That bright blue color contributed towards the piece's title, but in conjunction with another personal association. The key of D major, the key of this piece (from which there is no true modulation) has been the color blue for me since I was five years old.” The result is a ten-minute burst of uninhibited exuberance and joy, or as the Chicago Tribune’s critic John van Rhein puts it, “like John Adams getting stoned and listening to Der Rosenkavalier.”



Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Decoration Day

When the young Charles Ives scoffed at John the village stonemason’s off-key singing in church, his father corrected him: “Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music.” George Ives was an inveterate experimenter who encouraged his son to open his ears to sounds outside the scope of conventional music theory. Ives recalled his memories of his father leading the singing at camp-meeting services that were a feature of the revivalist Christianity prevalent in New England at that time: “Father…would always encourage the people to sing their own way. Most of them knew the words and music (their version) by heart and sang it that way. If they threw the poet or composer around a bit, so much the better for the poetry and the music. There was power and exaltation in these great conclaves of sound from humanity.” The clusters of sound and wayward harmonies and rhythms that fill his music reflect these childhood memories.

Decoration Day is the second of four pieces that together are known as the Holidays Symphony. Ives wrote on one of the sketches, “Symphony, but not called Sym.”, and on another occasion remarked, “These movements may be played as separate pieces. These pieces may be lumped together as a symphony.” The holiday that it portrays commemorates those who died during the Civil War of 1861-65. As with much of Ives’ music, it has its roots in earlier works: in this case an organ piece of his own based on the hymn tune “Adeste Fidelis” (better known nowadays as “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”), and the Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard March by David Wallis Reeves. A number of other popular and hymn tunes of the time can also be heard by the attentive ear.

The villagers gather and the parade forms and marches to the graveyard, where the graves are decorated and hymns sung. Then all march back to the village to the strains of the Second Regiment, below which can barely be discerned the sombre thoughts of the soldiers. Finally, “in the silence the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the town, and the sunset behind West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the day.”


George Gershwin (1898-1937)

An American in Paris

“George Gershwin is the only songwriter I know who became a composer,” noted Irving Berlin in 1961. Crossover is a discredited concept now, but Gershwin stands almost alone in having achieved a genuine cross-fertilisation of different genres.

He drew rather less complimentary reactions from most of the American classical establishment. “Nauseous claptrap” was the verdict of the New York Telegram on An American in Paris at its premiere in December 1928. Hardly less dismissive was the Evening Post, whose critic declared, “For those not too deeply concerned with any apparently outmoded niceties of art, it was an amusing occasion… To conceive of a symphonic audience listening to it with any degree of pleasure or patience twenty years from now, when whoopee is no longer even a word, is another matter.”

He found a more receptive audience in Europe: when he toured his Piano Concerto there earlier the same year, Ravel, when asked what he would like as a birthday present, declared that he wanted to meet Gershwin. The ensuing meeting, where Gershwin asked Ravel for composition lessons (as he was wont to do to almost every major composer he met, so self-conscious was he about his lack of formal training), resulted in Ravel’s observation, “why be a second-rate Ravel when you are a first-rate Gershwin?”

It was during this European visit that Gershwin bought a number of car horns in Paris. The results of his experiments with them can be heard at the outset of An American in Paris. Described as a “Tone Poem” on the manuscript, it presents a lively sequence of events, from the opening street scene to the grand romance of the slow central section. Freed from the formal constraints imposed by traditional orchestral genres, the piece proceeds in a rhapsodical, almost stream-of-consciousness manner that perhaps, along with such touches as the car horns, puts him closer in spirit to Ives than is generally recognised. One more European who recognised his significance was Arnold Schoenberg, who wrote after Gershwin’s untimely death: “I know he is an artist and a composer; he expressed musical ideas; and they were new – as is the way in which he expressed them.”

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Symphony No.3

  1. Molto moderato - with simple expression

  2. Allegro molto

  3. Andantino quasi allegretto

  4. Molto deliberato - Allegro risoluto


From Ives’s use of hymn tunes and marches, through Gershwin’s ambition to take jazz and Tin Pan Alley to the concert hall, to Torke’s appropriation of rock dynamics, American composers seem to be consistently concerned with how music for mass consumption and more academically-minded sounds might relate to each other. This is not something that is so common in Europe, where until very recently there has been an unspoken consensus that, the odd essay comparing the Beatles and Schubert aside, the two shall never meet.

Aaron Copland brings all these cultural issues into sharp relief. A Jewish New Yorker like his contemporary Gershwin, he studied in Paris with the most influential European teacher of the first half of the twentieth century, Nadia Boulanger. This elicited suspicion from many back in America: a composer steeped in old-world traditions composing modernist music. But he attracted as much disdain from the European elite when he turned his attention to writing deliberately populist works like El Salón México, a clever and deceptively simple piece that convinced most of the avant-gardists who might have been his allies that he had irredeemably debased himself.

This is more a reflection of differing political and social concerns on either side of the Atlantic than anything else. While depression in the 1930s made Europe a place of gathering storms as Nazism and Fascism rose up, in the United States a relatively optimistic air was building thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and this sense of rebuilding the nation was reflected in the arts generally. It is surely not coincidental that as Copland perfected his “American” sound in the early 40s with his ballets Billy The Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, Rodgers and Hammerstein were doing much the same with Oklahoma, which premièred in 1943.

This resurgent sense of national pride went hand in hand with a renewed interest in the grandest musical forms, and the symphony became a fashionable medium for an American composer to express himself in; the 1930s saw a slew of grand orchestral declarations. When it became known that Copland was engaged in writing a symphony the expectation was for something epic. He himself would later wryly admit that he “certainly was reaching for the grand gesture.” Work began on the symphony in 1944 and continued for two years.

The grandest gesture in what is Copland’s largest orchestral work is probably his most famous music: the Fanfare for the Common Man, which heralds the finale. In fact the fanfare existed before the symphony, written to a commission for the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942. It is sometimes suggested that the fanfare is bolted on to the symphony, but this is unfair: Copland had it in mind as the symphony’s climax very early on. The extraordinary fame that it has achieved since gives us a warped perspective on it. At the time it would have seemed to Copland that it was just an occasional piece that would soon be forgotten, but too good an idea not to use in a new context.

The fanfare’s contours are reflected in the whole work, from the grand opening, which gives that sense of wide open spaces that Copland had perfected in the ballets he had written in the early 40s. Anyone familiar with Appalachian Spring will recognise the dancing rhythms and pastoral interludes that characterise the second movement. The third movement reflects some of the concerns of the opening, beginning with a brooding version of a theme heard on trombone in the first movement, before gradually speeding up to a central climax so dramatic that the listener could be forgiven for thinking that it marks the start of the finale. But things die down again, and when the finale does follow on directly, it begins tentatively in the flutes before the full brilliance of the fanfare breaks out. From here the music takes flight before reaching a conclusion whose grandeur and significance was summed up by Leonard Bernstein: “The Symphony has become an American monument, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial or something.”


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