Schoenberg: Moses und Aron Boston Symphony Orchestra / Levine October 28, 2006
I think Moses und Aron might be one of those rare pieces of music that absolutely has to be experienced live. It hasn’t been well-served by recordings; the few extant examples, for all their skill and conviction, come off like interesting experiments, spare-no-expense 12-tone concept albums that inspire, at best, polite admiration. But to hear it in person, as a near-capacity crowd did last Saturday, with James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony and an accompanying mob, is to be swept up in its inexorable force. It’s the operatic equivalent of a David Lean movie: a thrilling intellectual drama played out on the grandest possible stage. And like David Lean movies, you need to see it on the big screen.
Here’s an example. In the opening scene, Schoenberg’s orchestration of the voice of God has been much remarked upon: six solo voices, spread throughout and doubled by the orchestra, and a chorus of men and boys, speaking against the voices’ singing, declaim God’s words in counterpoint with each other. On paper, it’s studiedly unconventional; on record, funneled into two-channel stereo, it’s a diverting babble. In performance, it so arrestingly puts the listener into Moses’ shoes that it’s uncanny. Words drift into perception like wind gusts, from every direction at once, a swirl of command on the edge of comprehension. And when the scene shifts to the wasteland, where Moses enlists his brother Aron in his mission, Schoenberg suddenly drops the instrumentation to a solo flute, a solo violin, and a couple of horns, in quiet but uneasy counterpoint: an empty landscape, crackling with tension. The microphone flattens it into merely an interesting choice. But to physically experience the sudden stage distance between the component sounds is magical.
The Sunday school version of the relationship between Moses, the lawgiver, and Aron, the communicator, is one of fortuitous complementarity, a Hebrew Bobby and Jack Kennedy. Schoenberg’s dramatic masterstroke was to make them antagonists. Moses understands the “idea” but can’t express it; Aron tries to express what he can’t understand. And each resents their dependence on the other. As Moses, John Tomlinson was as a man possessed, an implacable pillar gripped by a deathly fear of cracks. His Sprechstimme veered closer to singing than most, giving the impression of someone whose voice has been appropriated by another, racked by thunderous words that suddenly, haltingly spill out.
Philip Langridge’s performance as Aron was so finely shaded and paced that he inadvertently pointed up the one dramatic flaw I sense in Schoenberg’s design: the ease with which the crowd intimidates Aron at the opening of Act II. In the first half, Langridge carefully and slyly traced the degrees by which Aron’s confidence (and pleasure) grows as his oratorical sway over the crowd takes hold. In scene 4, the way his voice dropped to a stage whisper on the words “Schließet die Augen, verstopfet die Ohren” (“close your eyes, and stop your ears”) was seductive and sinister, not inappropriately reminiscent of the emcee in Cabaret. By the end of the act, he had Israel eating out of his hand, which made all the more jarring his sudden Act II acquiescence to the crowd’s demands for an idol. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way: one of the recurring themes of the opera is the frightening unpredictability of the mob.
The mob took a while to come into focus. The biggest casualty of a concert, as opposed to a staged, performance of Moses is the protean character of the chorus. In their first big scene, rumors of possible liberation race through the people, factions form and dissolve, and conventional wisdoms are settled upon and then cast aside. With the chorus a massed block at the back of the stage, Schoenberg’s careful delineation of the desperation and fickleness of each requisite group was largely a wash. Hearing the Tanglewood Festival Chorus this past summer in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, my sense was that they were struggling to adjust to Levine’s minimalist, undemonstrative conducting style. That uncertainty seemed evident in the first act of Moses as well; thrilling sounds (particularly from the women) were in abundance, but so were lagging tempi and blurry rhythms. But a few minutes into Act II, everything clicked into place, and the chorus suddenly began to peal forth. Their cry of “Juble, Israel” (“Rejoice, Israel”) at the initial appearance of the Golden Calf was filled with a sure beauty as well as a chilling fanaticism.
Schoenberg’s portrayal of public opinion in Moses und Aron walks a fine line between spontaneous joy and calculated agitation. This performance tended toward the latter, creating unmistakable echoes of Schoenberg’s own experience in Nazi Germany, not to mention nervously contemporary accents. When one of the Israelites (Sanford Sylvan, deftly handling multiple supporting roles) exhorted the crowd, “Alles für die Freiheit!… Erschlagt die Fronvögte!” (“All for freedom! Kill the taskmasters!”), the tone was less hope for the future than the clipped certainty of an experienced demagogue; it gave the immediate agreement of the old priest (the magisterial Sergei Koptchak) an uneasy air of self-preservation. The projected translations made the most of the political overtones. When Aron changes Moses’ staff into a serpent, the crowd is suddenly in its power, and they sing what they’re commanded to do. “Kommt hierher, geht dorthin,” they cry. “Come here; go there.” This was wittily rendered as “move to the left” and “move to the right,” making explicit the ideological promiscuity of the mob.
One common way to hear Moses is in the light of Schoenberg’s own aesthetics. In this interpretation, Aron represents “accessible” art while Moses remains uncompromisingly focused on the “idea.” There’s undoubtedly something to this: when Aron tries to explain to the crowd, “Erwartet die Form nicht vor dem Gedanken” (“You cannot have form before idea”) it’s almost as if he’s giving them a masterclass in composition. But Schoenberg complicates the issue by not picking sides; both Moses and Aron are equally flawed and stubborn. When Moses comes down off the mountain to find the orgy around the Golden Calf, the expectation of a righteous, old-testament smackdown is palpable. But the speed with which Schoenberg has Aron turn on his brother, unleashing a full arsenal of guilt, rationalization, and lethal reasonableness, catches both Moses and the listener off guard. Moses is maddening and impractical; if Aron compromises in the short term, what’s the harm, as long as the ultimate goal remains the same? Schoenberg never pretends to have the answer—that thorny uncertainty is the dramatic engine of the piece.
At the end of Act II, Moses is a defeated man; Schoenberg never finished Act III, in which Moses would have brought Aron to justice for his idolatrous transgressions. It makes for a more pessimistic ending, but a more human one. Most commentators think that Schoenberg ultimately decided that Act III was beyond music, but it’s just as possible that the ending we have had more resonance for Schoenberg, exiled in a populist wasteland, struggling to write, a lost and confused prophet. Schoenberg died having heard the bulk of Moses und Aron only in his head. I haven’t mentioned the Boston Symphony itself yet; after Saturday night’s performance, the best compliment I can give the players is that, no doubt, the orchestra Schoenberg must have heard probably sounded a lot like them.
It’s the weekend. You’re going out. You’re going to see people. You’ll be expected to make small talk. If only there were a goofy little factual nugget out there that you could use to enliven the conversation. If only.
On a totally unrelated topic, the word on the street is that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s next musical will be an adaptation of Anna Karenina. Just thought you might like to know.
Yesterday, Randy Nordschow had a fine rant (that’s sincere, by the way; a good rant is not as easy as it looks) over at NewMusicBox about the relative pretentiousness of classical and rock music. Go read it; it’ll get you thinking about comparisons between the two genres. Of course, me being me, after a few hours, my brain settled on the most tangential comparison possible:
What’s the classical equivalent of a one-hit wonder?
Which is not as trivial a question as it might seem. Let’s define terms: I’m calling a one-hit wonder a singer/act/composer that comes up with one piece that makes a big enough splash to become part of the common culture, after which he/she/they never do much of anything again. We have to be careful: there are plenty of composers who are only remembered for one piece, but that doesn’t mean they were one-hit wonders in their own time: as a quick example, Fromental Halévy is known today solely for his opera La Juive, but the man actually had over 30 others staged in Paris. We won’t count composers who died young, and those cut down on the cusp of fame by madness (I’m thinking of Hans Rott and his amazing Symphony in e minor) rate only an honorable mention.
Which leaves—who? The only viable example I could come up with was Paul Dukas, who wrote one honest-to-god brilliant, astonishing, magical, all-time masterpiece, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and only fourteen other published works, none of which gained any real foothold in the repertoire. (Apologies in advance to all the Ariane and La Péri fans out there, but in objective terms, it’s true.)
I’m sure I’m forgetting some obvious candidates, but the point is, they’re comparatively rare. One reason springs to mind immediately: popular music is far more beholden to market forces than classical music, which means the business is far more cutthroat. A past hit isn’t going to get you very far with your record company if your current effort isn’t selling. And given the relatively low overhead for producing a single, there’s far more incentive to try somebody new. The pop music industry is based more around product than people: the personality of the artist may be a marketing tool, but the popularity of the song is the bottom line.
It’s easy to see why, at one time, the classical music industry would have been based more around the composer than the music itself. Before recordings, there was much more effort required to sample a composer’s wares. After an initial hit or two, the composer’s name would have functioned much like a brand, a signal to the concertgoer or music purchaser of a certain expectation of quality. The real question is, why has this system persisted?
Partially it’s because the classical/”new music” community is small and powered by personal relationships. Partially it’s because classical marketing departments have no idea how to market new music, so they market the composer instead (leading to a situation very similar to the old days). But one reason is not so obvious: the fact that most classical concerts are planned at least a year in advance, and usually much farther out than that. You need to pin down your conductor and your soloists, and you need to have the program decided in time to appeal to your subscribers. And I think that’s killing the market for classical one-hit wonders.
Let’s think about the Pulitzer prizes for a minute. Supposedly, it’s given to the best new piece of the year. In reality, that hardly ever happens; it’s much more of a distinguished career award. (Ned Rorem certainly deserves a Pulitzer, but does anybody ever play Air Music? Same thing with say, Harbison and The Flight Into Egypt.) Nevertheless, once a year, the Pulitzers are dished out, and, for a bit, a particular piece of contemporary classical music has some buzz attached to it. But by the time any classical organization gets around to fitting said piece into their schedule, that buzz is long gone. Neither Adams’ Transmigration of Souls nor Stucky’s Second Concerto have made it to Boston yet, and I would bet last year’s Boston-premiered winner (Wyner’s Chiavi in mano, which I missed, but which all the reviews made out to be that modern rarity, a highbrow crowd-pleaser) won’t show up anywhere else for two or three seasons. By that point, the buzz around the piece will be forgotten, which leaves the marketing department to fall back on their standby, promoting the composer.
I know that the idea of an apprenticeship is more important in the classical world, that you should build up a solid career bit by bit, rather than aim for sudden, one-time success. There’s something to that, but I think the lack of any possible flashes-in-the-pans does classical music a disservice. The great thing about one-hit wonders is their very unpredictability; think of all those killer singles by obscure bands that became everybody’s favorite song for a particular summer. Isn’t there some classical equivalent for that?
(P.S.: I thought this post up this morning while walking through the woods with critic-at-large Moe. We get back to the car, flip on the radio, and guess what’s playing? The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Freaky.)
One of my favorite ways to procrastinate is to use the power and breadth of the Internet to dredge up ephemera. (As if you hadn’t noticed.) But I have to say, the Internet is letting me down on at least one search: pianists with more than ten fingers. I’ve been looking into every dusty corner of this worldwide web for any evidence of such a phenomenon. And I’m more than a little surprised to come up empty-handed.
Mind you, there’s no shortage of fictional extra digits out there. There’s the 12-fingered fellow from the movie Gattaca. There’s this journalistically suspect 14-fingered prodigy. The Marvel comic The New Defenders (an X-Men spin-off) briefly featured a 12-fingered mutant pianist named—wait for it—Adrian Leverkuhn Castorp (why they didn’t just throw “Krull” and “Aschenbach” in there while they were at it, I’ll never know). On a more serious note, there’s Ben Fountain’s haunting short story “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” which features two eponymously polydactyl characters.
But nary a real pianist to be had. I found a guitarist (the marvelous “Hound Dog” Taylor), and there’s at least a couple of references to violinist Giuseppe Tartini’s alleged supernumerary appendages (his Wikipedia entry mentions the possibility).
Again, no pianists. Why not? Polydactyly is not that uncommon: most web sources (like this one) estimate that it occurs in 1 out of every 500 children. Now, most of those extra fingers are non-functional, lacking adequate bone and muscle structure, but not always. Given those odds, I would expect at least a handful of examples in the five centuries or so of western keyboard music. So what’s going on?
There’s the very real possibility that most poor polydactyl children had their extra fingers hacked off before they had a chance to crack open their Hanon. Today, the standard medical recommendation still seems to be surgical removal, even in cases of functional digits. You can probably imagine how much more pressure there would have been back in the day, when people could still get irrationally worked up about witchcraft and satanic possession. (Yes, “back in the day.” So I’m an optimist.)
But more than that, while most people would assume that hands that go to “11” would be a boon in playing the piano, I’m not so sure. The piano repertoire is specifically designed for ten fingers. It’s comfortable for ten fingers. When it’s not comfortable, there’s centuries of tradition on how to get around the trouble spots—using ten fingers. This all goes back to something I’ve frequently pondered—the fact that human physicality is so intricately worked into the fabric of the music we have that we don’t even think about it. Fiction writers might think that eleven or twelve fingers would make piano technique easier (and it sure makes for a great metaphor), but seeing as how that technique is nothing more that the collective wisdom of countless boringly ten-fingered pianists, it’s just as possible that the extra digits might make playing our idiosyncratically engineered piano terribly awkward.
Actually, when I said I couldn’t find a single pianist? I lied: I did track down one. Unfortunately, I don’t know his name. He was a German-born machinist living in Boston sometime in the 19th century.
[He had] one index finger, two middle fingers, two ring fingers, and two pinkies. … [T]his rare genetic malformation is called a mirror hand. The lower arm beneath the elbow is also symmetric. Whereas a normal lower arm is composed of two bones, a radius and an ulna, this lower arm has two ulnae and no radius. While this impeded the turning motion of the man’s lower arm, he did not let it stop him from enjoying his favorite hobby—piano playing!
That’s from the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University. That’s right, they still have this man’s hand. And heck, yeah, there’s a picture. (WARNING: above link contains image that may seriously gross you out, unless you’re an 11-year-old boy, in which case it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen.)
Still, I’m convinced he can’t be the only one out there. Anybody else? Just stop playing for a minute and raise your hand. I can count.
How many conceptual links does it take to get from Charles Darwin to the father of chance music to my old hometown of Chicago? Would you believe one?
From Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary: Darwin discovers the origin of graphic notation.
[June 7th, 1835; Guasco]
I called in the evening at the house of the “Governador”; the Signora was a Limerian & affected blue-stockingism & superiority over her neighbours. Yet this learned lady never could have seen a Map. Mr Hardy told me that one day a coloured Atlas was lying on a Pianoforte & this lady seeing it exclaimed, “Esta es contradanca”. This is a country dance! “que bonita” how pretty!
Which is pretty much exactly what John Cage did 143 years later with his piece A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity. (Cage had already done a similar piece about New York; hey, we wear that “Second City” badge with pride.) From the description in the online Cage catalog:
The concept of this work is to go to the places (in Chicago or any other city, by assembling a chance determined list of 427 addresses, grouping them in 10 groups of 2, 61 groups of 3 and 56 groups of 4) and either listen to, perform at and/or make a recording of the sounds at those locations.
(Hence the dances: quicksteps in 2, waltzes in 3, and marches in 4.) This is Cage’s map, from the website of Peter Gena, who produced the first realization of the piece for the 1982 New Music America festival:
Between 2001 and 2003, Robert Pleshar did a new realization of A Dip in the Lake, which you can listen to over at UbuWeb. The waltzes are my favorite, but only because they boast the greatest concentration of sites in Niles, where I grew up. The whole thing is typically Cagean, that is to say, totally unassuming, yet at the same time, completely and unexpectedly absorbing.
Extra bonus material! Charles Darwin, music critic:
[June 14th, 1832; Rio de Janiero]
Dined with Mr Aston; a very merry pleasant party; in the evening went with Mr Scott (the Attache) to hear a celebrated pianoforte player. – He said Mozarts overtures were too easy. I suppose in the same proportion as the music which he played was too hard for me to enjoy.
Update (10/26/06): By sheer coincidence, Marc Geelhoed reports that Peter Gena was just awarded the Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French government in recognition of his distinguished career in arts education. Félicitations!
In other churches, having lost every vestige of sanctity, music is regarded outright as one of those forms of moral amusement in which men may indulge without sin, in the church, and on the Sabbath; and they plunge their hands into their pockets and pay for professional singing. Then King David finds himself in the hands of the Philistines. The unwashed lips that all the week sang the disgustful words of glorious music in the operas, now sing the rapture of the old Hebrew bard, or the passion of the suffering Redeemer, with all the inspiration of vanity and brandy….
… And thus music, that should nurse hymns upon its bosom, abuses them, like a cruel step-mother, and thrusts them away. Hundreds of hymns have been served worse than Herod served the innocents—for he killed them outright; but a hymn cursed by musical associations, cannot die, but creeps along like a crippled bird… … Are trouble and music twin brothers? Is there no way of edification through music, or must we regard and endure it as a necessary evil?
I hear and read this (or some variation) a lot coming from venerable classical performance organizations: We have a strong commitment to new music. Here’s the New York Philharmonic’s version:
Placing newer compositions alongside established classics has historically been one of the Philharmonic’s responsibilities to its community.
This season, the Philharmonic has two world premieres and one American premiere. The National Symphony::
By adding new works to the repertoire, the National Symphony Orchestra insures a legacy for future generations.
How are they doing? Five world premieres this season. Not bad by comparison, but that’s still out of over 100 programmed pieces. How about the home team?
Continuing the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s proud and longstanding tradition of introducing new music from the world’s most important composers, the 2006-07 season will feature the world premieres of four new works…
As you can tell, the standard commitment to new music consists of four or five new pieces a season (if that many) and a few old-school “modern” works tucked into programs as preludes to standard fare. If you mention the rather paltry smorgasbord of contemporary sounds, the usual response involves money, more specifically, its scarcity.
So what would it cost to make a real commitment to new music? I’m talking about an ensemble-commissioned piece on each concert. Sound daunting? Not really.
Let’s take the Boston Symphony, for example (since I have their schedule handy). They do about 30 concert programs a year. So here’s what you do: commission ten pieces a year. Let’s say each commission is $15,000. That might be a little cheap for the BSO, but throw in a promise to perform the piece once more within the next three seasons. So if we call the first-year commissions Y1, this is how we start off:
Year 1: 10Y1 Year 2: 4Y1 Year 3: 3Y1 Year 4: 3Y1
But then you’ll have ten second-year commissions (Y2):
Year 1: 10Y1 Year 2: 10Y2+4Y1 Year 3: 4Y2+3Y1 Year 4: 3Y2+3Y1 Year 5: 3Y2
See where this is going? Starting in the fourth season, you have 20 pieces getting their first or second performance:
Year 4: 10Y4+4Y3+3Y2+3Y1=20 concerts
What about the other ten? Well, a contractual obligation with each commission will be that, after the program’s been running for seven or eight seasons, the other ten concerts have to include a piece commissioned under the program. (You have to put it in the contracts, otherwise the marketing people will weasel out of it.) Music director’s choice: this lets you re-visit commissions that have been particularly successful or interesting or popular. We’ll call these Ywc (wild cards). So Year X looks like this:
So what’s this going to cost? Each year’s commissions will total $150,000. Assuming a 4% rate of return, that would require an endowed fund of $3,750,000. Let’s round it up to a cool $4 million until we see whether Bernanke has any clue about this whole inflation thing. So there you are: $4 million to have a commissioned piece on every concert. In perpetuity.
Four million dollars is a lot of money. But remember, it’s a one-time expense. And that’s for the BSO, which has an annual operating budget of around $70 million and an endowment of over $300 million. So in that case, we’re talking about a capital campaign to increase their endowment by a little over one percent. The smaller the ensemble and/or season, the smaller the capital you’d need to raise. Let’s say you’re a chamber group that does a 12-concert season. You’d need four new works every season. To commission four pieces a year at $5,000 per piece:
How about a community chorus that does three concerts every year? You’d only need one new piece per season:
Now, heaven knows there’s enough composers in the world to fill out even the largest iteration of this scheme. And it would give enough freedom so that every school and idiom and persuasion would get their innings. But it’s still a quantum leap from any current big-ticket classical (as opposed to specifically “new music”) organization’s programming. Do I think any of the old-line ensembles are going to take me up on this? I’m not holding my breath. But it’s at least a way to put commissions and premieres in financial perspective: the next time you hear sombody touting their commitment to new music, you’ll know just how much money they’d need to put where their mouth is.
Apparently, this blog has generated enough traffic that today, the first bit of spam showed up in the comments. Thank you for your support! In honor of the milestone, here’s a special weekend episode.
Last week, Phil over at “Dial M” had a great post about the tricky business of trying to bend one’s critical mind around the whole idea of sampling, and he expressed proper skepticism about the tenuous theory that hip-hop artists choose their beats and samples with a sense of “ironic distance.” I always assumed that it was pretty much the same thing we all do when we find a really wicked piece of music and immediately begin pestering everyone we know to listen to it. You have to hear this. And the more I thought about it, the more I decided that the whole concept of “ironic distance” was dissing hip-hop musicianship. Because real musicians are hardly ever ironic.
Phil illustrated his his post with a neat video of the Beastie Boys’ Mixmaster Mike doing his thing. (If this is all new to you, watch this video of Mixmaster Mike and Q-Bert tossing off a string of object lessons in old-school scratching.) The Beastie Boys have always been my favorite hip-hop group. Why? Because they’re nerds like me, essentially.
Actually, no. I doubt they’re anywhere near as nerdy as I have been and still am. But there’s still nerdiness there, in the best sense of the word. Take my favorite album of theirs, Paul’s Boutique. Throughout the album, there’s a recurrent riff on the common trope of rappers’ boasts, a series of variations on the formula:
There’s more to me than you’ll ever know And I’ve got more hits than Sadaharu Oh
This is transcendent nerdiness. In order to get the joke, you have to be enough of a baseball trivia junkie as I am. But the reference is so far out that, if you don’t get it, you’re not even aware of what you’re missing. If they were trying to be smarter or more hip than their audience, the Boys would have had to drop a name that the listener wouldn’t have thought of, but nevertheless could recognize once presented with it. But Sadaharu Oh? That’s just a nice piece of candy tossed out to fellow baseball nerds.
The great thing about being a nerd is, you’re guilelessly generous and enthusiastic about whatever it is you’re a nerd about. Irony doesn’t even enter into it. In his post, Phil includes this quote, from Prince Paul, asked whether he was being ironic in his sampling of a Hall and Oates song:
PP: Wow. That’s pretty deep. But I think the bottom line is just: that was a good song! . . . We didn’t consciously think of “Hall and Oates,” “Resurrecting,” you know, “Postmodern.” We was just like, “Wow. Remember that song? That’s hot!”
Non-musicians may see irony in music, but musicians? We’re all music nerds. We keep pestering you to listen to whatever piece we happen to have just discovered, and we don’t give two hoots about whether other people think it’s cool or corny or what. I’m forever grateful to the fellow musicians who got me hooked on Viennese operetta, Myron Floren, Whitney Houston, western swing, and Sammy Davis, Jr.’s cover of the theme from “Shaft.” (Especially that last one. Thanks, Jim.) Let’s call it Guerrieri’s Law of True Musicianship: real musicians can be identified by their temperamental inability to keep their guilty pleasures to themselves. In fact, they’re not even all that guilty about it. Their eyes light up, and they get this big smile on their face, because they know that they’re about to play you something that’ll make your life just a little more dazzling. You have to hear this.