Charles Ives (1874–1954) achieved considerable fame as the author of Life insurance with relation to inheritance tax (1918). But That’s Not Important Right Now. His music (mostly written before 1927) took much longer to be appreciated.
His style, At a Time When it was Neither Profitable Nor Popular, offers a most distinctive American take on playing out the clash of cultures, in a random montage of dissonant soundscapes—hymn tunes, town bands, and so on. See e.g. the ever-perceptive comments of Alex Ross (The rest is noise, pp.140–46, in a chapter aptly titled “Invisible men”) and Richard Taruskin (The danger of music, pp.51–9, 186–90).
Mahler, then being fêted in New York, admired Ives’s music—indeed, they shared a taste for incorporating popular soundscapes. Later, insiders like Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, John Kirkpatrick, Nicolas Slonimsky, Lou Harrison, and Bernard Herrmann began to promote his work, before it was popularised by Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s. John Cage, with his affinity for the random, was another fan:
I doubt whether we can find a higher goal, namely that art and our involvement in it will somehow introduce us to the very life that we are living, and that we will be able, without scores, without performers and so forth, simply to sit still to listen to the sounds which surround us and hear them as music.
Apart from the way that Pierre Boulez made us listen to 20th-century classics, his own works are remarkable. I’ve hardly listened to his Le marteau sans maître (1955) since my teens, but returning to it now, it remains a formative and beguiling aspect of a changing sound world (see e.g. these reflections by S-S-Simon Rattle).
The chamber ensemble comprises contralto with alto flute, viola, guitar (recalling Ravel and Debussy), xylorimba, vibraphone, and other percussion—whose varied combinations create a most exotic timbre.
The xylorimba recalls the African balafon; the vibraphone, the Balinese gamelan; and the guitar, the Japanese koto. Boulez had long been attracted to non-European cultures. Over the winter of 1945–46 he immersed himself in Balinese and Japanese music and African drumming at the Musée Guimet and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. “I almost chose the career of an ethnomusicologist because I was so fascinated by that music. It gives a different feeling of time.” Still, in Le marteau “neither the style nor the actual use of these instruments has any connection with these different musical civilisations”.
Pierre Boulez, 1958.
Indeed, the influence of world music (as it came to be called) is much less obvious in Boulez’s music than in that of his teacher Messiaen. The sound world of Le marteau even recalls jazz, a more unlikely influence.
Here’s Boulez with Hilary Summers and the Ensemble InterContemporain in 2002 (Le marteau avec maître!):
Indeed, Le marteau has generated a vast amount of agonised discussion about cerebral comprehension and sensuous engagement. As ever, notation is a double-edged sword—best not to let it distract us at first. Analysis, while unnecessary, can be instructive—for Mozart, Indian raga, Beatles, Chinese shawm suites, and any music; in this case, again, I find it rewarding to listen without such benefit.
Punctuating the instrumental sections, the challenging, vertiginous vocal movements are settings of poems by René Char:
L’Artisanat furieux La roulotte rouge au bord du clou Et cadavre dans le panier Et chevaux de labours dans le fer à cheval Je rêve la tête sur la pointe de mon couteau le Pérou.
Bourreaux de solitude Le pas s’est éloigné le marcheur s’est tu Sur le cadran de l’Imitation Le Balancier lance sa charge de granit réflexe.
Bel Édifice et les pressentiments J’écoute marcher dans mes jambes La mer morte vagues par dessus tête Enfant la jetée promenade sauvage Homme l’illusion imitée Des yeux purs dans les bois Cherchent en pleurant la tête habitable
Within the niche of modern WAM, Le marteau was, and still sounds, revolutionary; yet it can hardly compare with The Rite of Spring, which has attained wider popularity even while retaining its power to shock.
When Le marteau sans maître was created in 1955 the German school of percussion was relatively weak. People were accustomed to playing with two sticks. Today, it is done with four and the playing is very much easier. Ought one, on the grounds of authenticity, to return to playing with two sticks? Certainly not. This example really does show us what absurdity there is in the notion of authenticity.
Much as I love Boulez, it really doesn’t. I’d like to read this debate. Boulez’s point is about technique, not choice of instruments or style; indeed, if the result sounds the same, then it’s an underwhelming argument. But supposing the instruments, mallets, and timbres have changed since the 1950s, surely it would be revealing to play the piece now using those earlier versions. If a time comes when performers are estranged from Boulez’s aesthetic world, then it would be interesting to hear the piece played taking account of his own vision.
Composed “to Glorify God in the Beauties of His Creations; from the colours of the earth and the songs of the birds to the colours of the stars and the Resurrected Ones in Heaven”, it was inspired by the canyons of Utah. It features a vertiginous solo horn part (notably the sixth movement “Interstellar call”) alongside piano cadenzas with Messiaen’s signature birdsong. The mystical intimacy of “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran” makes a tranquil centrepiece, akin to the enchanted Jardin du sommeil d’amour in Turangalîla.
Again, short of staging it at Bryce Canyon itself, the Royal Albert Hall makes a rather suitable venue. Given the work’s cosmic dimensions, it uses quite modest forces, with percussion prominent—notably xylorimba and glockenspiel, aeoliphone wind machine and geophone sand machine, with impressive solos from Nicolas Hodges (piano) and Martin Owen (horn). Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra really know their way around this kind of music. Indeed, the orchestra did the first UK performance under Boulez in 1975.
Here’s a 2002 recording conducted by Myung-Whun Chung:
And here are the titles in English:
What is written in the stars
The white-browed robin-chat
Cedar Breaks and the gift of awe
Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks
The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran
The wood thrush
Omao, leiothrix, ‘elepaio, shama
Zion Park and the celestial city
First Wagner—the Wesendonck lieder. Here’s Janet Baker with Reggie Goodall in 1971:
Anne Sofie von Otter is just as wonderful:
Then Berg, exploring a path opened up by his mentor Mahler. The Seven early songs(which I got to love at our 1971 NYO Prom)—here’s Jessye Norman with Boulez (with helpful Japanese subtitles):
and his (five, nearly as early) Altenberg lieder—to picture-postcard texts (Ansichtskartentexte, another entry in our lexicon of German mouthfuls)—fin-de-siècle Viennese haiku? Here’s Margaret Price with Abbado in 1970:
The third song is haunting:
Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus Hattest nie Sorge um Hof und Haus Leben und Traum von Leben—plötzlich ist alles aus! Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus
After the menacing whisper of “plötzlich ist alles aus!” (plötzlich is officially my favourite word),find me a singer who can diminuendo from pp up to that final top C—Nina Hagen, perhaps?!
The version of the sardine joke handed down to posterity in the orchestral biz (which beyond Gary’s own recollections has some further effective, if fanciful, detail) goes like this:
Once (this must have been in the mid-70s) he was on tour in South America with the London Sinfonietta, doing the, um, challenging Eight Songs for a Mad King.
So Gary’s at this fancy British Council reception after the gig in Buenos Aires or somewhere, getting quietly pissed in a corner on his own, and this posh bird comes up to him and goes,
“I say, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced—weren’t you playing in the concert? I did so enjoy your delightful rendition of that charming work!” [that’s a nice touch, by the way, if you know the piece, “but that’s not important right now”].
“Do please remind me,” she goes on, “what was it you were playing?”
“Oh, I fool around a bit on the drums, luv,” goes Gary—”So wot you doin’ ‘ere then?”
“I’m here with my husband.” she replies loftily.
Gary goes on, chummily, “An’ wot does your old man do then, darlin’?”
“My husband’s in oil!” she exclaims, proudly.
Gary goes, “What is he, a fuckin’ sardine?”
I like the details here. And the punchline is a good instance of the importance of the word “fuckin’ ”—not least for rhythm and euphony. The story also reflects musos’ own delight in “deviating from behavioural norms”.
Keen as I am on the ancestry of texts (my book ch.11), just as one does in exploring the relation and transmission of Daoist texts (well, I say “one”…), I wonder: Gary’s not sure, but could he have heard it from Tom O’Connor, or did they both get it from someone else, and so on (zzz)?
The Tom O’Connor version is less personal and less funny—which is precisely what makes it a suitable victim for Stew to mangle, a banal ground-bass lying prone for his endless florid divisions, a Goldberg variations from hell…
A tribute to the great Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (1931–2018)
We musos may be critical of conductors (cf. Norman Lebrecht, The maestro myth: great conductors in pursuit of power), but don’t get me wrong, we deeply admire great ones—such as Boulez, Tennstedt, Gardiner, Rattle (unlikely bedfellows…).
Apart from Boulez, another highlight of depping regularly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was working for Rozhdestvensky (known in the trade as Noddy).
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky—conductor or conjuror? (Bruno Monsaingeon, 2003) is a wonderful film:
In a work that otherwise requires little imaginative filming, do watch the brilliant scene from 32.40—the traffic cop Marcel Mehala should take a bow too.
Believing in a kind of spontaneous combustion, and trusting his players to match his own mastery, taking risks together, Noddy was renowned for his aversion to rehearsal—greater still than that of orchestras. Once, turning up for the first of a couple of whole days’ scheduled rehearsals for a fiendishly difficult and unfamiliar modern piece, he conducted the first few bars and then told the band nonchalantly, “Good, see you at the concert”. In a rare reversal of the musos’ philosophy of “It’ll be all right on the night”, the leader took him to one side and asked him if he wouldn’t mind just taking them through the whole piece once.
Even on stage, his style doesn’t look like much—inscrutable, even casual, his gestures by turn minimal and flamboyant (in the film, from 22.24, he explains his economical solution to conducting the opening of the Symphonie fantastique (cf. Yet more conducting). But his concerts were electrifying. Doing Petrushka, it was as if we were all composing it, living it, together with him. And the Scriabin piano concerto with his wife Viktoria Postnikova was exquisite too—here’s an audio recording:
We can also relish them together in Rachmaninoff’s 4th concerto:
In Historical ears and eyes I feature Noddy conducting Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous 2nd symphony. And do listen to his Tchaik 6. The documentary ends with an illuminating sequence where he rehearses and reflects on Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. If only we could see more of the archive footage below—the curious camerawork shows him only briefly, though with characteristic gestures:
Monsaingeon’s Notes interdites (aka Red baton) also features another film in which Noddy reflects on the political vagaries of the Soviet system.
“Knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”, 1913. “When they cocked their heads against their hands, someone yelled, ‘Get a dentist!’
and someone else yelled back, ‘Get two dentists!’ ” (cited here).
Though The Rite of Spring has become standard, a classic, since the 1970s, it remains overwhelming today, whether or not you’re familiar with it. Playing it in 1970 with the National Youth Orchestra, conducted by Boulez, was one of the great experiences of my life (see also here). For a 2022 Rite at the Proms, click here.
Among endless discussions, Tom Service gives a succinct introduction. Alex Ross (The rest is noise, p.57) nicely (sic) compares the “riot” at the 1913 première with the release of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. Gertrude Stein’s detailed account of the event is curious:
We could hear nothing. One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music.
Curious, as she wasn’t actually at the premiere (supposing that she had lived long enough not to actually attend the premiere of The sound of music either, she might have said, “One literally could not hear the rite of spring.”)
I’ve cited Richard Taruskin’s fine expression “lite Rite”—“Is nothing Sacred?”, as Keats and Chapman might say. In his stimulating article on Bartok and Stravinsky (The danger of music, pp.133–7; see also pp.421–4), he observes Bartok’s identification of The Rite’s “folk” elements that Stravinsky later disowned:
Even the origin of the rough-grained, brittle and jerky musical structure backed by ostinatos, which is so completely different from any structural proceeding of the past, may be sought in the short-breathed Russian peasant motives.
Alex Ross is also very much on The Rite’s case. In a crowded field, his comments in The rest is noise are very fine, with vivid context in his chapter “Dance of the earth” (pp.80–129), citing Taruskin’s definitive 1996 book Stravinsky and the Russian traditions.
I take Taruskin’s point that the darker energies of The Rite have been “resisted, rejected, repressed”, but even in the most polished performance it’s both exhilarating and disturbing.
Swan Lake it ain’t. Remember, at the 1913 Paris premiere the ballet was just as shocking as the music. You can see a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s own choreography here, and the recreation (from 25.40) following this documentary gives an impression:
Stravinsky once joked that the dauntingly high-register bassoon solo which opens the piece should be transposed up every year to stop players getting complacent about it. He wanted the effort to register.
But “it’s complicated”—see also here (and note the ritual wind instrument connection). I’m not sure about the dudka, but if it’s really related to the Armenian duduk, then there’s a link to the guanzi of north Chinese ritual bands! There’s a wealth of discussion of that opening solo in bassoon blogs.
sounded like someone driving through the jungle in a Mercedes with the windows up,
then good for him.
And then there’s the “original instrument” debate—the “lite Rite”, as Richard Taruskin called it:
This version for organ, far from silly, is just awe-inspiring:
A harpsichord rendition has also appeared on YouTube. Jazz tributes include the Bad Plus arrangement:
In her recent exploration of The Rite, Gillian Moore also observes:
My feelings of creeping feminist unease in writing a book on a ballet about the sacrifice of a young woman created by three men were at least partly relieved when I came across the Russian folk metal band Arkona and their frontwoman Masha Scream.
On a lighter note, here I imagine the Danse sacrale as a suitable riposte to the haka.
BTW, Ravel’sDaphnis and Chloe, less revolutionary but no less captivating, must have suffered by its proximity.