Month: September 2019

The notes of truth

I met with Christopher Rouse exactly once. It was in the summer of 1997, when Rouse was composer-in-residence at Tanglewood, and I was working for the BU Tanglewood Institute, playing piano for the vocal program and being a teaching assistant for the composition program. The high-school composers and the Tanglewood fellows got together a couple of times, and somehow it came out that I played the accordion, and soon I got a call from Rouse. He was writing a piece with accordion in it (I don’t recall him divulging any details about the piece, but I’m guessing it was Kabir Padavali); could I come over and show him how it worked?

So I hauled my accordion over to Hawthorne Cottage. To be honest, I don’t think Rouse got very much out of it. For one thing, I was and am, at best, a barely-competent accordionist; for another, it soon became apparent that Rouse was thinking of a classical-style, button accordion, in which the buttons correspond to individual tones, rather than my stradella-type accordion, in which the left-hand buttons play bass notes and chords. Still, even after finding that what I had was not what he needed, he continued asking questions, requesting demonstrations, pulling whatever knowledge he could from me.

I still think about that meeting. I think about Rouse’s zeal for information, about the insistence and even impatience to know that kept breaking the otherwise polite surface of his personality. It helped bring into focus something about being a musician. It’s an argument I had heard mostly in negative terms: a musical career is a difficult and capricious undertaking; if you don’t want to know every last thing there is to know about music, why do it? Rouse, I realized, embodied the positive version of that calculus—that if you did have that obsessive desire to know, that if the possibility of learning some musical fact or technique or piece, however trivial, was what got you out of bed every morning, then just maybe there was a place for you to create something.

Without this beat my life would fall apart

This month’s Score column was bumped for space, but I wanted to post it somewhere in the scholarly interests of Benno Sachs, as biographical information about him in the literature is fragmentary and sometimes inaccurate.

On September 8, at the Gardner Museum, the Boston-based chamber orchestra Phoenix offers an relic of an exclusive club: Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”), arranged for 11 instruments by Benno Sachs. The arrangement was intended for Arnold Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Club for Private Musical Performances), an outlet for that singularly adamant composer’s evangelical fervor. From 1918 to 1921, the Verein offered Viennese audiences the latest in modern music, under the most high-minded and uncompromising of conditions. Programs were rehearsed extensively, even obsessively; works would often be played multiple times on the same concert, the better to appreciate new and complex scores. And the Privataufführungen were, indeed, private—only club members could attend, a firewall against hostile critics and audiences that had marred performances of Schoenberg’s own music.

Schoenberg appointed a handful of his students as the group’s “performance directors”: composers Alban Berg and Anton von Webern; pianist Eduard Steuermann; violinist (and future Schoenberg brother-in-law) Rudolf Kolisch; conductor and editor Edwin Stein; and Sachs. He might not have enjoyed as high a profile as his fellow directors, but Sachs—who had studied law before turning to music*—had directed choruses at opera houses across the pre-World War I German Empire, practical experience that translated well to the Verein‘s exacting standards and schedule. His version of Debussy’s “Prélude” was intended for the group’s ambitious fourth season, but the season never transpired. Instead, the Verein was forced to disband—done in not by critical hostility or audience indifference, but by catastrophic hyperinflation that gutted the Austrian economy.

Sachs became an editor, proofreader, and occasional arranger at the Viennese music publisher Universal Edition until 1938, when the Anschluss brought Austria under Nazi domination. The following year, Sachs and his wife Elly emigrated to the United States. As Schoenberg had done a few years earlier, Sachs made his way to Boston, where, unlike Schoenberg (who promptly resettled in Los Angeles), Sachs stayed.

But there is evidence that Sachs never really found his American footing. He published a few piano arrangements and light works under the New-England-ish pseudonym of “Edward Stanton.” (One such number, a little polka called “Dresden China,” is a long way from Schoenberg’s atonal intricacies, but nevertheless shows the clean, conscientious musical craft Schoenberg desired from all his students.) For a couple of years, he taught music theory at the Boston Conservatory. But after his wife’s passing in 1950, Sachs seemed to almost completely disappear from the record, turning up only as an accompanist for intermittent musicales organized by local German teachers. He died in Cambridge in 1968; today, only his resourceful Debussy arrangement abides in the repertoire.

—Matthew Guerrieri

The Phoenix Orchestra performs music of Wagner, Ives, Debussy/Sachs, Roberto Sierra, Julia Wolfe, and Jonathan Bailey Holland, September 8 at 3pm at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (tickets $15-$36; 617-278-5156;

*I found multiple sources referring to Sachs as a medical doctor, but this seems to be conflating him with a slightly older Benno Sachs, a Viennese dental surgeon who also, confusingly, emigrated to the U.S. sometime in the 1930s.

Dreadful marches to delightful measures

Tonic and Bitters stoptime_0003

Guerrieri: Tonic and Bitters (2019) (PDF, 109 Kb)

Guerrieri: Hopeful Monster Rag (2019) (PDF, 119 Kb)

Guerrieri: King Richard Stomp (1995) (PDF, 146 Kb)

The first two double bars to emerge from the newly-relocated Soho the Dog HQ find my compositional astrology once again ensconced in the house of ragtime, so I thought I would pull an older effort out of the files and dust it off for 21st-century consumption. Seeing all three rags lined up like this, I am realizing that the collected reference points—Richard III, somewhat obscure scientific controversy, and cocktails—epitomize a disconcertingly large portion of my personality.

The Time Warrior

Terrance Dicks, the prolific British writer of genre television and novels, died last week, at the age of 84. His most enduring work was his decade-and-change association with Doctor Who, as both a screenwriter and script editor. Most classic Who fans have at least one Dicks-associated episode among their favorites. My debt runs a little deeper: I like the Dicks-penned 1977 serial “Horror of Fang Rock” so much that I wrote an entire book about it.

Dicks evolved as a writer over that decade. One of his early scripts, the 10-episode epic “The War Games” (co-written with Malcolm Hulke) drops Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor into an extensive and expansive piece of world-building, somewhat leisurely explorations within deftly sketched borders. The scripts Dicks wrote after his five-year run as script editor lean much more on the deftness, paring away anything that would hold back humming engines of character and atmosphere. Dicks’s plot mechanics and science-fiction contrivances usually came with a bare minimum of explanation, which gave his scripts an effect reminiscent of a well-written piece of music: as a viewer, you accepted each turn of events not so much because of any logical justification, but because of its congruence with the established grammar of the story’s telling. The virtues of Dicks’s scripts were musical virtues—rhythm, tone, forward motion. That efficiency extended to the novelizations of Who episodes published by Target Books, of which Dicks wrote the considerable majority. His brevity could be bracing. His novelization of his own “Fang Rock” script clocks in at a mere 126 not-very-tightly-spaced pocket-paperback pages; you could probably read it in less time than it would take to watch the actual broadcast. But the pithiness could have a paradoxically rich effect, outlining the stakes and structure with a high-contrast clarity that let you hold the whole thing in your imagination, turning it about and filling in texture and interpretation.

Like most U.S.-based Who fans of a certain age, I read dozens of Dicks’s novelizations, filling in the show’s lore at a time when broadcasts were happenstance and videotapes were scarce. I occasionally have wondered whether that reading was a symptom or a cause of my longtime fascination with forms of musical translation—not just transcriptions and arrangements, but also the myriad of ways in which scholars and critics have used language to describe music, from the driest technical analyses to the most florid poetic impressions. Even if it didn’t directly seed such obsessions, my many hours spent with Dicks’s renditions scratched that particular itch to an extent that very probably helped guide me toward my wayward creative path. Hail and farewell.

UPDATE: Two more smart appreciations from Ethan Iverson and Elizabeth Sandifer.