Lieder mit Worte

I had a chance on Friday to go to a free lunch/press conference with James Levine at Symphony Hall, to coincide with the announcement of the Boston Symphony’s 2007-08 season. (Jeremy Eichler explains it all for you here.) Levine must be the easiest interviewee in the world: ask him a question, no matter how innocuous, and he’ll talk for fifteen minutes. (He spent five minutes explaining why he wouldn’t answer one question.) The big highlight: Berlioz’s Les Troyens, presented in two parts for two weekends in the spring—and both parts performed back-to-back on May 4, 2008. If you want to find my Berliozophile self on May 4th, you know where to look.

But here’s something interesting that I noticed later: two out of the four commissions being premiered are symphonies that involve voice, John Harbison’s Fifth (with mezzo-soprano and baritone), and William Bolcom’s Eighth (with chorus). Obviously the Harbison owes a debt to Das Lied von der Erde (which it’s being performed with), and the Bolcom puts one in mind of both Beethoven and Mahler. “Symphonies” that involve voices tend to come at transitional points in music history, but also have a tendency to take on political overtones, even if only by association: Beethoven’s Ninth, for example, right on the line between the Classical and Romantic eras, but also, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unofficial national anthem of anti-totalitarianism. Or think of Mahler’s huge vocal symphonies, humanistic paeans to God and nature in the midst of a decaying imperialist world—and the dissolution of Romanticism. Or Shostakovich’s Thirteenth and Fourteenth. Or Bernstein’s Third (the ultimate 60s happening). It’s as if history reaches a point where abstract music just isn’t enough, and composers feel the need to tell rather than imply.

So for fun, let’s take the position that the appearance of these two new entries at the same time isn’t a coincidence, that it’s indicative of some confluence of the zeitgeist that’s bubbled up to the surface. What’s the significance? Is it political—American artists finally absorbing a) the end of Western hegemony, b) rapidly fraying American imperialism, c) the latest upturn in the historical cycle of violence, d) a pivotal clash of incompatible cultures, or e) the current hell-in-a-handbasket of your choice? Or is it one of those final, grand pronouncements on a fading style? Which begs the question: which style? American academic composition? Eclecticism? The idea of a symphony itself?

I don’t know—maybe no significance at all. But I like to think this way every once in a while. What’s the big shift going on in the world right now that, looking back, will sum up the era a hundred years from now? Even better: what if it’s something that we don’t even notice? (Cue quietly dramatic music from basses and bassoons.)

Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered what they actually feed the press at a press lunch: sandwiches. Dressed with inordinate quantities of mayonnaise. Outstanding cookies, though.


  1. Booking my <>Troyens<> plans…now. I’m going to posit Option F, which is that in a world filled with clamoring voices from a variety of media, and numerous ways to access it, Harbison and Bolcom are simply trying to be heard.

  2. I’m going to go with the impending subjugation of instrumental music by vocal music. Movie soundtracks have become more and more song-oriented… every “touching” TV show has a song at the end… the overarching obsession with the Interdisciplinary has led to literature being more and more involved in new music… Yep, I’d say vocal music is poised for world domination. (I’d say I’m about 60% kidding and 40% serious, for the record.)

  3. Last (this) season, I was jealous that I couldn’t be in Boston for all these cool concerts. I’m not so jealous for the next season.

  4. Very few of the great composers in history have NOT created major works for voice(s) and orchestra. So no, not a trend.As for all the political catastrophes you enumerated, I’d say “most of the above, and then some.”

  5. Mike: You’re right about the chorus-orchestra tally; I shouuld have been more clear that what interests me about these two pieces is that they’re not like the vast majority of that repertoire, which is either liturgical or dramatic (in the tell-a-story cantata sense) in concept. Interesting also to consider all the composers who <>never<> wrote a symphony involving sung texts, who made sure that all their big vocal concert pieces were either sub-symphonic in scope or had an extra-musical <>raison d’etre<>: Brahms, for instance, or Schumann, or Copland. Still, I think you’re right: not a trend. (If it turns into one, though, I’m in on the ground floor!)

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