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Program Notes


Written for the concert Russia's Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

The history of the Jews in Russia, before and during the first decades after the 1917 revolution, is a complex amalgam of segregation, poverty, exclusion, persecution, and extraordinary intellectual and cultural achievement both within the confines of Jewish society and culture and also outside in the larger non-Jewish Russian world. The significance of Russian Jewry to the development of modern Russian culture, and indeed to the central elements of the modern Russian national self-image, cannot be overestimated.

It is therefore not surprising that from the very start of communism and the Soviet Union, Jews were treated as a distinct nation rather than a religious group, comparable to the Georgians or the Armenians. Jews were given status as such. Yiddish rather than Hebrew was considered the Jewish national language and under Soviet rule (until the devastating purges of the late 1940s during Stalin’s final years), the Yiddish language, and the theatre and music associated with Yiddish culture, received extensive state patronage. The supposed elevation of Jews to a national status, however, was both ambivalent and disingenuous. It was designed to blunt the allure of Zionism and Hebrew, as well as to circumvent, with a fatal embrace, the hope that under communism, anti-Semitism would disappear. The official recognition of Jewish nationality actually insured the persistence of anti-Semitism; after all, on all official documents, including passports, one’s nationality was identified. Every Jew was labeled as such.

All the composers on this program were Russian Jews by birth. The oldest is the piano virtuoso, conductor, and composer Anton Rubinstein, whose fame—particularly in the United States—was legendary. Rubinstein, who taught Tchaikovsky, also was chosen to lead the celebrated Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. His works won wide acclaim. Posterity, however, has been less kind. Despite its once enormous popularity, his “Ocean” symphony has lapsed into obscurity, together with the rest of his orchestral oeuvre. Rubinstein’s family (including his almost equally famous musician brother Nikolai) converted from Judaism when Anton was a young boy. Anton was brought up as a Christian but like so many converts, he realized that baptism was never a cure or antidote for anti-Semitism, since the prejudice was racial and political, not theological: once a Jew, always a Jew. Anton Rubinstein is alleged to have observed, “Russians say I am German, Germans think me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, and Christians say I am a Jew.”

The fact is that more of Rubinstein’s music deserves to be played, as this concerto for cello and orchestra makes clear. Rubinstein’s musical output was enormous. Much of the best music was dramatic music written for the stage. A vast number of dramatic works with a “Jewish” connection appear in Rubinstein’s catalogue, including an opera on the Maccabees, works on the Tower of Babel, and Moses, all alongside works explicitly on Christian subjects (most notably a setting of Paradise Lost). In the late-19th-century debate on what ought to be truly “Russian” music, Anton Rubinstein was unfairly derided as a second rate purveyor of German musical traditions.

Two of the Russian Jewish composers on this program are represented with works written when they were young. Both Krein and Gnesin became prominent for their contributions as explicitly “Jewish” composers. Both men, influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov, celebrated the folk roots of their own specific national origin as Jews. They became leading members of the legendary and seminal St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, founded in 1908.

Yet the works on this program remind us that their distinction and contribution as composers were not limited to the extent to which they utilized their Jewishness in their music. It is easy to overlook the extent of acculturation and symbiosis between the Jewish and the Russian in ways that bypassed the Fiddler on the Roof stereotype; we associate that process of cosmopolitan intermingling more readily with the historical dynamics between Jews and non-Jews in German speaking Europe before 1933. Krein and Gnesin absorbed and extended—as did their contemporaries Joseph Achron, Lazare Saminsky, and Sergei Prokofiev—the influence of symbolism and of Scriabin and Rimsky. Gnesin and Krein, at the time they wrote the works on this program, were Russian cosmopolitan advocates of an avant-garde first and Jewish culture second.

The last work on the program is by a rival and contemporary of Stravinsky’s, Shostakovich’s teacher Maximilian Steinberg. One of the ironies of history is that Steinberg’s ballet Metamorphosen was scheduled for the same 1913 season as the Rite of Spring, and Stravinsky, who was jealous that Rimsky favored Steinberg and that Steinberg married Rimsky’s daughter, did everything he could to thwart Steinberg’s competing work.

Steinberg was the son of a major Hebrew scholar. Despite his extensive background in Jewish history and culture, unlike Krein and Gnesin, but rather more as a latter day Anton Rubinstein, Steinberg did not privilege his Jewish identity in his work and chose a quite eclectic array of inspirations for his music—from Uzbek folk material to the legend of Till Eulenspeigel. As Steinberg’s early symphonies—and the 1913 ballet score—suggest, the talent and facility of the young composer were extraordinary, as was his familiarity with the compositional traditions of Western Europe and Russia.

Steinberg is most often remembered not for his music but indirectly, first on account of his place in Stravinsky’s life, and second, because of his connection to Shostakovich. He deserves more. Nonetheless, perhaps the most admirable indirect consequence of Steinberg’s career derives from the Shostakovich connection, not the link to Stravinsky. Shostakovich was rather the exception among Russian composers in his complete lack of anti-Semitism. Indeed Shostakovich identified with the plight of the Jews. He showed rare courage in his support of the family of Solomon Mikhoels, the great Yiddish actor who was killed by Stalin in 1948, and his protective advocacy of and friendship with the Polish Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, who settled in Russian after 1945. Perhaps it was Shostakovich’s admiration and affection for his teacher that sustained his decency and courage on this issue.

Together, these four Russian composers, whose life and career span the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th—arguably the heyday of classical musical culture—reveal the extent of acculturation, integration, and participation in Russian intellectual and artistic life by Jews. We have the unfortunate tendency to reduce the complexity of the past to stereotypes. The Jews of Russia evoke—legitimately—the image of mass poverty, the shtetl, sardonic humor, klezmer and Yiddish eloquence: a distinctly Jewish culture born out of the unique experience of the Pale Settlement. It is to those roots that Krein and Gnesin—much like the young painter Marc Chagall—eventually turned in search of a unique source for a modern art and culture of their own. By so doing they were following a parallel pattern of discovery that would become audible in the music of Bartók and Stravinsky.

This concert reminds us that in literature, science, art, and above all music, there was a Russian Jewish elite, fully conversant with Russian and European traditions that made seminal contributions to the mainstream of culture and art without foregrounding or even referencing their status as Jews. That remarkable achievement by an extraordinary elite is highlighted on today’s concert program.


Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall. This season’s opening concert addresses a basic and persistent question that has remained the subject of endless debate and speculation. The answer remains unresolved and contested, a fact that inspired Leonard Bernstein to appropriate the title of a work by Charles Ives, “The Unanswered Question,” for his Harvard Norton Lectures on music. This concert invites the audience to explore the character of music through the medium of “classical” (or, as Bernstein once put it, “exact”) music written during the past century and a half.

The program seeks to inspire each of us to ask: How does music mean? What resemblances or divergences does it have to words and images? What did composers intend to communicate and can we know that from hearing the music? Do we perceive or attribute significance in music differently from previous generations? Is listening, like seeing, a human experience that changes over time, rendering listening as an historical phenomenon? Has something changed over the past century in our perception of the musical experience?

The oldest piece in this concert, and its closing work, was written at the end of the 19th century. It is the best known and perhaps the most candidly philosophical work of the four on tonight’s program. Richard Strauss was influenced, as were many in his generation, by Nietzsche’s startling poetic masterpiece, the epic Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). Strauss read literature and philosophy closely. His encounter with Nietzsche informed, among other things, his lifelong atheism and his skeptical attitude to an idealistic view of music as a medium of metaphysical truth. Despite his deep admiration for how Wagner wrote music, he remained skeptical about Wagner’s extravagant claims on behalf of music with regard to philosophy and politics.

As the famous opening of Nietzsche’s poem (and Strauss’ tone poem) make plain, Nietzsche’s ambition is to force us to fundamentally invert our inherited scale of values. It is not a metaphysical God or the Sun whom we should worship and feel beholden to. Rather it is the Sun who should be grateful to the human individual, for only humans create value and meaning. If it were not for someone to shine on, the Sun would have neither purpose nor meaning. It is not God (our invention), the heavens, or our soul that is of greatest value, but the body, the physical, the time bound, mortal character of real human existence on earth that is our greatest gift and merits celebration. It is we, after all, who have invented the idea of the soul. Our very mortality and earth-bound world permit us to love, sense beauty, and think. The glorious, triumphant, and sensual opening (made famous by Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey) of Strauss’ tone poem is not a musical depiction of the sun rising, but is rather the bold expression of an individual imagination that helps vest what we see with a grandeur that is not inherent in what is out there, but exists only in the act of lending experience meaning. What Strauss drew from Nietzsche is the conviction that the making of art, and music in particular, was the highest and most fully human expression of greatness and the most powerful medium by which to define, represent, and conjure human reality and experience. As Strauss traverses Nietzsche’s poem, he displays his unrivaled command of musical thought and sonority to evoke the language, events, and ideas of the text, and to match the poetry with a musical interpretation as moving, beautiful, and dramatic as the literary text itself.

Next in chronological sequence is the late Gunther Schuller’s best known orchestral work, the Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Written in the late 1950s, a half-century after Strauss, Schuller’s concerns were more formalist in nature. Schuller, an eclectic and astonishingly versatile modernist composer, explored the formal parallels between music and the visual arts. By the mid-twentieth century, modernist painting rejected the illusions of visual realism, in which art gave the viewer the sense of seeing some “objective” external reality or seeing how the painter saw external reality subjectively. Consider a portrait, a landscape, or a genre scene. The most aggressive retreat from any such connection between representation and the clearly artificial frame of a painting was abstraction and non-objective art, both of which sought to celebrate the self-referential formal elements of the visual as autonomous and divorced even from an impressionist or expressionist subjective response to the external world. In Klee, Schuller found a painter who sought to do something similar to what modernist composers in the twentieth century hoped to achieve: a distancing from any overt inherited connection between musical rhetoric—the shape of melodies and the use of rhythm and harmony—and ordinary meaning. Music ought not illustrate or represent reality in any manner reminiscent of realist painting. Music had to become free of overt mimesis and create new meaning within the framework of its own elements and practices, using sound, silence, and time. Klee, who was also a fine musician and a devoted listener, found inspiration for his visual creations in music, and Schuller, in turn, took inspiration from Klee’s unabashedly “musical” approach to painting.

Henri Dutilleux, one of the great composers of the late twentieth century, in his song cycle Correspondances explores, as Byron Adams points out, not only the link between language and music, but between the visual and music. Using the tradition of speculation about art centered in Baudelaire, Dutillieux also references letter writing. Dutillieux uses music to augment and divert from linguistic meaning and seeks to work out from language. The letter, as a medium, is the most direct form of communication; it is private writing between two people. Dutillieux explores how composed, written music can create sensibilities and meanings beyond the range of words. In letters there is a writer and a recipient: two subjective voices. In music, a unifying temporal frame is created. The writer and reader meet simultaneously, and share in a transformative reading that extends the boundaries of the text. Music neither represents nor interprets the text. Yet it reveals a nascent presence of something in words that without music never comes into being. The descriptive language about the visual experience only deepens the link between music and words. The irony in the title becomes evident. When we write, do we actually correspond, and match our understandings? Does the reading of a recipient match the intentions of the writer? If that is clearly a complex and open question, might one also ask whether there are correspondences between music and words?

Last but not least, this first ASO concert of the season presents a contemporary work by a celebrated young American composer, Nico Muhly, whose long association with the American Symphony Orchestra dates from well before he came into the limelight. Muhly’s music explores not only the nature of music, but also its potential connections to reality, to the contemporary social fabric, and the cultural conceits and expectations of audiences. What are the unique possibilities facing new music today? What functions can be ascribed to contemporary music written within the classical tradition in the context of the rich varieties of music that flourish today?

Music is not strictly mimetic in the literary sense, particularly as most famously elaborated by Erich Auerbach’s classic book Mimesis. But it is clearly in some sense mimetic of the human experience, of memory, joy and suffering, tied to concrete realities that disappear, fade, and dissolve. Music does so in a manner that neither falsifies nor hides the more familiar physical and historical dimensions of the external world. Music’s temporal nature, its capacity to be remade, reheard, and recreated, its distance from but affinity to the linguistic and the visual, may ironically make it the most profoundly mimetic, with respect to the human experience, of all the arts.

George Perle at 100

Written for the concert American Variations: Perle at 100, performed on May 29, 2015 at Carnegie Hall. George Perle was a unique figure within the world of twentieth-century American classical music. He was part of a “second” generation that followed the pioneers of the 1920s, which included Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Carl Ruggles, Roy Harris, Edgard Varèse, and Henry Cowell. With the exception of Cowell and Ruggles, the others were all linked closely to European influences; they either trained in Europe or studied in America under the tutelage of European masters. But one of the ambitions of this first generation of post-World War I American composers was to create a distinctly American voice. On today’s program the work by William Schuman powerfully represents that goal.

At the same time, these American composers and their successors sought to take their rightful place within a modernist movement whose aesthetics were free of clear markers of the national. Copland’s 1930 Orchestral Variations, originally for piano and presented here in its orchestral version, is a case in point. The Orchestral Variations may be Copland’s most abstract and angular work. It was the piece that young college student Leonard Bernstein played for Copland at a memorable encounter that was the starting point of a lasting close friendship. Not surprisingly, George Perle greatly admired this work.

Although influenced by the work of the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern (Perle studied with Ernst Krenek), Perle charted his own path. He did not attempt to express a musical nationalism. But he also did not imitate or adopt Schoenberg’s technique of “serial” composition. He was not a twelve-tone serial composer. He developed his own version of how to use a 12-note series, primarily as a basis of harmony and counterpoint, and not as a source for musical motives. Using “cycle sets” he crafted a modern musical language that was translucent, expressive, and lyrical. There is an elegance and eloquence in his music that never fails to reach the listener on first hearing. Perle also kept his distance from a more abstract, dense, and often brutal anti-expressive characteristic of mid-twentieth-century avant-garde modern music. As a result, his music has a warmth, intensity, and beauty evocative of Classical and Romantic practice, without any hint of a sentimental nostalgia.

Perle was, in addition, a scholar whose pioneering work on Alban Berg will remain as the foundation of all subsequent writing on Berg. Indeed, Berg’s own adaptation of Schoenberg’s 12-tone strategy was Perle’s inspiration. Like Berg, Perle found the means to write music that communicated emotion and meaning in a manner that was adequate to modernity, yet within a tradition that went back to Bach and the masters of the first Viennese “school” of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. And like Berg (as opposed to Schoenberg), the legacy of late romanticism, particularly of Mahler, left its mark.

Perle’s writings are, like his music, a model of economy, clarity, and insight. It was he who unraveled the “secret” program of the Lyric Suite. His two-volume analysis of Wozzeck and Lulu are without peer in terms of clarity, detail, and deep original insight. Likewise, his 1962 book on the Viennese school Serial Composition and Atonality, his 1977 Twelve Tone Tonality, and his 1990 volume The Listening Composer are classics. They will long remain among the most essential readings for musicians, particularly composers. Perle’s writings reflect the significance of his career as a teacher. For more than twenty years he taught at Queens College of the City University of New York.

Perle represents, therefore, the best of American musical modernism. I had the honor and pleasure of getting to know him towards the end of his career. Walter Trampler, the distinguished violist, repeatedly urged me to program Perle’s Serenade for viola and chamber orchestra from 1962. He and his wife, Shirley, a terrific pianist (and lifelong close friend of Leonard Bernstein’s), introduced themselves after a Bard Music Festival performance of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri, a work they had known about but never heard live. The Perles and I became friends. They were unfailingly curious and generous. In subsequent years I had the honor of recording Transcendental Modulations with the ASO, and performing the 1990 1st Piano Concerto with the Bard Conservatory Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall (with Melvin Chen as soloist).

The pianist Arthur Rubinstein once quipped about Bernstein (who admired Perle as a musician and a man) that he was the “greatest pianist among conductors, the greatest conductor among composers, [and] the greatest composer among pianists.” The same could be said about Perle using his trio of accomplishments as composer, scholar, and theorist. If that weren’t enough, Perle was himself a fine pianist. Perle was among the first composers to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” Award.

In this concert Perle’s place in music history is framed not only by Copland—the dominant and consistently gracious “dean” of 20th century American music—but also by the contrasting and parallel careers of two contemporaries, both of whom shared with Perle achievements apart from composition. Lukas Foss, the startlingly gifted pianist, was distinguished as well as a composer and conductor. William Schuman was not only a major figure as a composer, but an eminent administrator. Schuman served as president of Julliard and subsequently as the first president of Lincoln Center. The music of Foss and Schuman is quite distinct and different from Perle’s and offers the listener a glimpse of the rich, vital, and varied musical culture of the American twentieth century.

More than in the other arts, in music we have developed the bad habit of neglecting the achievements of the past. Too much of great twentieth-century music, particularly American music, has fallen away from the repertory. Some composers were strikingly prolific (one thinks of Martinu and Milhaud, for example). Perle’s output may have been restrained in quantity, but it is rigorously consistent in refinement and quality. His music—the orchestral music, the music for piano, for the voice, for solo instruments, and the chamber music—deserves to prevail in the twenty-first century alongside his remarkable contributions to music history and music theory.

Music and the University

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall. Music has long held a particular pride of place as a subject of formal education in the Western tradition. Part of the “quadrivium” of the seven liberal arts, alongside arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry, already from medieval times music was part of the indispensable training in thinking, and therefore a core constituent of true philosophical education. Knowledge of music was viewed as essential to the examined and just life. It, as an art, demanded that one command knowledge of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, the “trivium” that prepared one to master music, mathematics, and science represented by the remaining four liberal arts.

In comparison to the visual arts—with the possible exception of architecture (which is often compared to music)—music has therefore been held in high esteem in the university, the academy of higher learning. In the United States, it was the first of the arts to become a permanent faculty in the university. But within the arts and sciences university the teaching of music took on a quality quite distinct from the way music was taught in conservatories, music’s institutional equivalent of an arts academy, a place where one trained in a practical manner to become an artist. In the university, music was considered a core constituent of the Humanities.

The way music became defined in the American university was nonetheless not analogous to the way art history now has a place in the curriculum. The first professorship in music within the Ivy League was at Harvard. John Knowles Paine, a fine composer of orchestral music (and an ardent critic of Wagner) was its first occupant. He taught more than music appreciation. Horatio Parker taught at Yale and Edward MacDowell at Columbia. They too were composers and major figures in American musical life. Although learning to play an instrument was looked down upon (Harvard until recently did not give credit for instruction in instruments or performance), composing new music was not. As the late Milton Babbitt (the distinguished and exacting modernist composer who served on the Princeton faculty) is supposed to have replied when asked why no credit was given towards a degree in music at Princeton for studying an instrument: “does the English department give credit for typing?”

The proper subjects of study in music within the university therefore included history, theory, and composition. But from the very start of the career of music departments in our leading universities, particularly the Ivy League, music appreciation for the non major, and the support of voluntary amateur performance organizations, from choral societies and singing clubs, to orchestras and musical theater organizations designed to offer public opportunities to students to perform, were at the heart of the place music assumed at Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn, and Brown.

When we lament the decline of audiences, we often neglect to cite as a cause the sustained failure of music departments in these elite universities to maintain, after the 1960s, a once honored tradition of music appreciation. In part as a consequence of a desire to professionalize music history, the kind of sweeping and often “easy” general survey course once associated with Harvard’s G. Wallace Woodworth, Cornell’s Donald J. Grout, and Columbia’s Paul Henry Lang has vanished, and with it the chance to nurture interest among unwitting undergraduates in the joy of music. It is interesting to note that Cornell was the first American university to hire a professional musicologist (Otto Kinkeldey) and the first to grant a doctorate in composition.

The Ivy League has had its generous share of distinguished musicians from its undergraduate alumni, including Charles Ives from Yale, and Leonard Bernstein and Yo Yo Ma, both Harvard alumni (as is ASO’s longtime composer-in-residence, Richard Wilson). But each of these institutions now boasts impressive departments that give Ph.Ds in musicology, music theory, and composition. They have taken on an indispensable role in the preservation and furtherance of musical culture.

Given that an alternative model of institutionalizing the teaching of music also thrives in the United States—the conservatory—as a free standing institution (e.g. Juilliard, Curtis, the Manhattan School, the New England Conservatory), or a unit of a large state university (e.g. at Indiana and Michigan), or a separate school within a private university (e.g. Eastman at the University of Rochester, Peabody at Johns Hopkins, and for that matter, the graduate Yale School of Music), the question might be posed: what has been the impact of the teaching of composition within the university, and outside of what by comparison some might deem a “trade” school, the music conservatory.

It should be remembered that within the history of music, the institutionalized teaching has not always been viewed with approbation. The word “academic” is frequently used as a pejorative when speaking about art, including music. In Europe institutionalized teaching gained an unequal reputation, mostly as a barrier to innovation. In France, Berlioz ran afoul of institutions of formal instruction and the conservatism and moribund character of the Paris Conservatoire at mid century led to the establishment of rival institutions. In the Vienna Conservatory, Bruckner taught counterpoint, not composition; Mahler as a student failed to win the coveted Beethoven Prize for composition. History (and even the ASO) has long forgotten a long list of winners. Perhaps the most successful record in terms of conservatories with respect to nurturing composers can be found in Eastern Europe from Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In America, however, the existence of new concert and so-called “art” music in the twentieth century, particularly after World War II owes a special debt not only to the nation’s conservatories but also to the comprehensive university. Aaron Copland may have gone to Julliard, but Bernstein, Adams, Babbitt, Carter, Glass, Crumb, Husa, Krenek, Schoenberg, Sessions, Luening, Mason, Moore, Wuorinen, Hindemith, Shapey, Blackwood, Wernick, Piston, Milhaud, Richard Wilson (and all the composers on this program) as well as dozens of other major composers of the twentieth century (including Druckman, Tower, and Tsontakis at Bard) have owed either their education or a significant part of their livelihood to the faculties of arts and sciences at colleges and universities, not conservatories.

The inclusion of composition in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum of these non-conservatory institutions of higher education has fostered a closer link between new music and other disciplines, from mathematics to literature. It has helped sustain whatever broader consciousness and appreciation of music still persists in the educated public. In that regard, from the ear of Parker and Ives to today the presence of composers on the faculty has provided the amateur music groups within the university a contemporary repertoire, much in the spirit of Thompson’s Alleluia. Furthermore, the university has protected and nurtured a spirit of experimentation and the avant-garde in contemporary music. In the best sense, it has acted as a bulwark against crass commercialism. This last achievement has been accomplished in a manner complementary to a respect for music’s historical legacy, the great tradition of Western classical music.

So much for the past! Classical music, new and old, has never thrived as a business. It has been dependent on patronage from the 17th century on. It cannot compete as a dimension of the contemporary marketplace of entertainment that earns profits. In the decades ahead, the university, especially the well-endowed private universities—notably the Ivy League—will face the ever-increasing obligation to nurture, protect, and preserve a sophisticated (in the best sense) musical culture that is not commercially viable and not even popular. That protection will involve the research in and teaching of music’s past and theoretical underpinnings. It will involve also the education of future generations of composers. And it will require the support of the public performance of classical music, new and old, by amateurs and professionals alike.

A living and vibrant culture of classical music will increasingly be dependent on the university. The halls of academe will emerge as a refuge, a shield against a society increasingly governed by the rules and mores of “business.” Let us hope that those who govern our universities and those who support it will embrace that task and will prove equal to it. As the ASO joins with Cornell University to celebrate the founding of that great institution, we hope that the next 150 years will prove to be as fruitful and productive at Cornell with respect to music as the century and a half that preceded the year 2015 have been.

The Stolen Smile

  This concert performance of Max von Schillings 1915 Mona Lisa is the latest installment of a series of concert performances of rare operas the ASO has pioneered since the mid 1990s. The list of operas performed by the ASO in New York City includes French works: Bizet’s Djamileh, Lalo’s Le Roi D’Ys, Magnard’s Bérénice, Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus, Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe Bleu, Chabrier’s Le Roi malgré lui, and D’Indy’s Fervaal. The ASO also has featured Russian works: Rimsky Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri and Dargomizhsky’s The Stone Guest. The German works in the list include four one act operas by Hindemith (Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, Sancta Susanna, Nusch-Nuschi and The Long Christmas Dinner), Marschner’s Der Vampyr, Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang, Schmidt’s Notre Dame, Strauss’s Feuersnot, Die Liebe der Danae, and Die ägyptische Helena, Weill’s Der Protagonist, and two full acts of The Eternal Road, and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg and Eine florentinische Tragödie. We have also offered Ethyl Smyth’s The Wreckers (which will have a full staged production this summer at Bard’s Summerscape), and Dallapicola’s Il Prigioniero and Volo di Notte.

Mona Lisa fits this series. It is the second “Renaissance” opera from the early twentieth century, a work that can be placed in the same category as Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie. What defines the ASO’s long list is the judgment that there are dozens and dozens of great operas from the 19th and 20th centuries that deserve to be heard live, not merely on old or new recordings, or DVDs or pirated videos. Opera is the one medium from the past that resists technological reproduction. A concert version still represents properly the sonority and the multi-dimensional aspect crucial to the operatic experience. One ought not judge an opera from sound or video documents any more than one can judge a work of architecture from photographs or even a sophisticated computer simulation and video tour.

The plain fact is that the opera, which thankfully is experiencing some vitality as a medium for contemporary composers, possesses an enormous treasure trove of great works that are condemned to silence. Not all may be “original” in style. Many can be regarded as “eclectic.” But greatness and power in any art form, particularly opera, are not contingent on “originality.” Consult any guidebook to opera published before 1950 and one will be astonished at how many operas are described, with plots, as presumed constituents of an active repertoire. Then check on the active repertoire today. Look at what we are missing and how distorted our connection to the history of opera has become. One will be dismayed to find that most operas worthy of performance have vanished from view, except for a small community of cognoscenti. No opera the ASO has performed so far is unworthy of a staged production; and not one could ever be considered “obscure” or second rate. And there is a list of works that remain be done that could take us another half-century to perform at the rate of one each year.

Schillings’s Mona Lisa falls squarely in the group of deserving operas. Its obscurity dates from 1933. Schillings died in July of that year, just months after the Nazis took power. Furthermore he was an ardent nationalist who signed on to the Nazi cause. His leadership of the Prussian Academy of the Arts under the Nazis permitted him to dismiss, with some relish, Jews, socialists and communists from their posts, including Schreker and Schoenberg. Schillings had earned respect before 1933 as a composer but even more as an administrator. He served as head of the State Opera in Berlin, and had been active as a conductor. He was, by all accounts, a martinet, stiff, unpleasant and nasty. But he was nonetheless an accomplished composer of several operas. His early works showed a high degree of craft and were successful, although viewed as too explicitly derivative and neo-Wagnerian.

A bit like Leoncavallo, Schillings however managed to write one operatic “hit”: Mona Lisa, in 1915. It was a runaway success and experienced in the successive decade and a half well over 1200 performances, including a production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in St. Petersburg in the 1920s, alongside Wozzeck and Der Ferne Klang. The international rage for Mona Lisa came to an abrupt halt in 1933; Schillings’s death placed the work on the periphery in Germany, and a revival there after 1933 was unthinkable.

Bad people and anti-Semites have written great operas, as the case of Wagner amply illustrates. Despite the bad odor surrounding its composer (who died well before the onset of the most heinous atrocities) Mona Lisa is a terrific piece of music and theatre. Its style is far less Wagnerian than Schillings’s other operas and in fact it reveals a shift toward the Italian style of verismo, befitting not only its subject matter, but the taste of the public in 1915. It is not “original” in the sense of Strauss or Puccini. It is simply inspired—beautiful, effective and engaging—much like the best works of Korngold and Zemlinsky.

Part of the allure and potential of the work as more than a rarity and period piece rests in the subject. Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait, known mostly as “La Gioconda” (a title that bears no relationship with the plot or subject matter of the opera of the same name by Giordano) was a well known small portrait by Leonardo that hung unobtrusively in the Louvre alongside many other Renaissance Italian paintings, a work purchased by Francis I of France from the painter himself. What turned the “Mona Lisa” into the most famous painting in the world was an event that occurred in August 1911. The painting was stolen. The thief was an obscure Italian workman. He simply walked out with it at 7 am on a Monday. The crime was a sensation and captivated the entire world. Picasso was accused, briefly, of the theft, as was Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, who was held in custody for a week. The case remained unsolved for two and a half years baffling the police around the world.

The notoriety of the theft was enhanced two and a half years later when the thief reappeared and clumsily attempted to sell it to an art dealer in Florence. The dealer contacted the Uffizi in Florence, and together they retrieved the painting and apprehended the thief. Its recovery, its display in Italy, its return to the Louvre and the trial of the thief were headline news. The story of the theft, the analysis of the culprit and his motives have remained the subject of articles and books ever since.

After its recovery it was put on temporary display in Florence. Over 30 thousand people showed up to view it, creating a riot. From the moment of its return, the portrait has remained the most reproduced and visited work of art in the Western world. More startling is the fact that between 1911 and 1913 more people went to the Louvre to gaze at the empty spot from which it had been stolen than had ever visited the painting when it was there. It has inspired painters, poets, and pretentious mystery writers. The Mona Lisa remains far and away the main reason tourists go to the Louvre today. It was always a masterpiece, but it became the most famous painting in history only after the 1911 theft and its miraculous return in 1913.

The sensation surrounding the theft of the “Mona Lisa” was the reason Schillings had the idea of writing an opera about the painting. He saw an opportunity that could not be missed. The extensive journalistic coverage of the whole affair included an extensive account of the painting’s merit and substance particularly the enigmatic smile of the subject, and of course, her beauty. The intense scrutiny of the painting invited fiction: who was the subject? What sort of personality was she? And, above all, what is it with that smile?

The librettist Schillings chose was an Austrian poet, actress and writer of children’s literature, Beatrice von Dovsky (1870-1925). She acted in the Raimund Theater, playing soubrette roles—the ingénue, the mischievous flirt. She went on to write specifically Viennese character pieces marked by humor and sentimentality. Her most lasting achievement (apart from having a small street named after her in Vienna’s 13th district) is the libretto of Mona Lisa.

Dovsky’s genius was to invent a somewhat mystical and supernatural framework. The lot concerns a contemporary couple. They are visiting, on their honeymoon, the palace of the “real” La Gioconda, Mona Lisa, in Florence. The opening scene—which parallels the close of the opera—makes brilliant use of the familiar discourse about Mona Lisa’s smile and sexuality. Dvosky’s opening text is suffused with contemporary notions concerning desire and marriage. The tourist couple is a young beautiful woman and a bored rich older husband, now on his third marriage. She is sad and introspective. She cares not for pearls and jewels, but for happiness. He is bored; she is mesmerized by the visit to the home of a legendary enigmatic beauty where the unusual events took place in, of all years, 1492—the year the Spanish expelled the Moors from Europe and Columbus made his voyage to the New World.

In a brilliant theatrical gesture, their guide, a friar, begins to recount the events in 1492 that unfold scenically to the audience. A tale of an unhappy marriage and jealousy, of greed, cruelty and romance unfolds, framed by the competing claims of the Dionysian—revelry and abandon—and the Apollonian—reserve and ascetic religiosity (represented by the followers of Savonarola). The clue to the husband’s jealousy and Mona Lisa’s adultery is her smile—that rare sign of her desire and happiness that periodically shatters her otherwise icy exterior. Lover and husband in the tale die, but Mona Lisa survives.

The story explains the painting’s subject and the painter’s representation of Mona Lisa. When the story ends, we are returned to the present. The audience is left alone with the visiting couple and the friar. As the curtain falls, it becomes apparent that the young bride is herself Mona Lisa, a reincarnation, or perhaps the immortal living person of the original Mona Lisa.

This fabulous and utterly operatic plot brought the very best out of Schillings. The opera boasts crowd scenes, affecting melodies, a colorful and not overwhelming orchestral texture and high drama. Mona Lisa possesses a great, timeless and an accessible story and beautiful music. So why should it not regain a place in the operatic repertory, alongside the warhorses from that same era that are so overexposed that the music that initially made them famous is diminished in favor of bizarre productions and lame attempts at modernization? The warhorses now function best as vehicles for succeeding generations of divas and divos. This opera, ironically in part because it is entirely forgotten, makes its case directly as music and drama; it requires no gratuitous directorial ingenuity to captivate today’s audience. After all, everyone knows the “Mona Lisa.” We are still entranced by her smile and under the spell of the unique aura of the painting and the painter.

The Long Christmas Dinner

by Leon Botstein
Written for the opera The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center. MORE

Marriage Actually


by Leon Botstein


Written for the concert Marriage Actually, performed on October 15, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.


The musical language of late Romanticism, its rhetoric and vocabulary, were inspired in part by the 19th century’s fascination with what music as an art form could accomplish relative to other art forms. The 19th century witnessed the development of the realist novel and of historical and genre painting; art was being used to evoke idealized versions of an imagined past, a threatened present, and real and familiar objects and events. It was inevitable that the nature of music would be interrogated with a view to finding out whether music too could weave its own illusions of realism, tell a story, and communicate emotions. Could music be used as a form of narrative, or were its beauty and content simply formal in character? Could music actually illustrate or portray something, or was it purely an abstract art form?


These philosophical musings occupied the first generation of Romantic composers, particularly Mendelssohn and Schumann. Mendelssohn famously argued counter-intuitively that music was more “precise” than language. These issues became contentious in the 1850s and 1860s as a rift grew between the defenders of the formalist traditions of the 18th century and the practitioners of “program” music, composers who rejected forms such as the quartet and traditional symphony in favor of instrumental “tone poems” with literary titles, and, predictably, music with words, notably opera. Liszt and Wagner, the leaders of the “New German” school, were characterized by the formalists as debasers of the high art of music, apostates who abandoned the unique formal possibilities of music and turned it into a cheapened illustrative medium.


But this division was more ambiguous than it appears. Wagner’s grandiose theatrical ambitions inspired him to use repetition and musical signature motives to generate a clear narrative arc in his music. But at the same time, Wagner’s love of myth and philosophical pretentions led him to ascribe a metaphysical dimension to his music, idealist properties beyond its purely descriptive function. In this sense he was much closer to Mendelssohn and Brahms in his recognition of the special power of music than the surface of the conflict suggests. And Mendelssohn and Brahms, for their part, may have worked within the traditional framework of forms such as chamber music and symphony, but they had no doubt as to the collective emotional power of music, which worked by evoking musings and memories, sensations and experiences, just as poetry and painting did.


Of the composers of the generation after Wagner and Brahms, Richard Strauss was the most representative of a synthesis of the two opposing camps. Strauss was, for a composer, among the most sophisticated of readers and the keenest of observers. Influenced by Nietzsche, he had little use for religion. As much as he admired Wagner, he eventually became disenchanted by Wagner’s mythic and philosophical claims on behalf of music. Strauss was suspicious of grandiose metaphysical and political dreams, in which music was required to play a role, though at the same time, he was never in doubt about the power of the Classical and Romantic traditions to depict and illuminate the human experience.


Strauss began his career as a young composer sympathetic to Brahms. He then turned to opera and embraced the Wagnerian. But ultimately the composer he most revered throughout his career was Mozart. Of Strauss’ contemporaries, the most distinguished was Gustav Mahler, who was, for much of his career, an avowedly confessional composer whose symphonies had specific programs, some drawn from his personal life. Tonight’s program reveals how Strauss used the personal, but, in contrast to Mahler, not in a confessional, psychological sense. The “characters” in Symphonia Domestica may be his own wife and child, but in Strauss’ hands the experience of daily life, from the quarreling to the lovemaking, are rendered believable but accessible and familiar through music to the audience; they are human archetypes built out of the detail of Strauss’ everyday life. In this sense, the predicaments that unfold in Symphonia Domestica resemble, as a source, the universal sensibilities that are evoked by Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.


Using a huge and highly differentiated orchestra, Strauss manipulates every sonority and technique available to a symphonic composer. A Liszt-like illustrative strategy is integrated with traditional formal procedures of thematic development, as was the case in many of Strauss’ famous tone poems. But in Symphonia Domestica Strauss reveals his sense of humor. He pokes fun at all those who seek to elevate music as an abstract, profound experience “above” the mundane. What he desires to show instead is that music, like all great art, must (in the late Arthur Danto’s words) “transfigure the commonplace” in its own way. The ordinary life of people can be the basis of art, because real human life is the only subject worth examining through art. The work contains triumph, heartbreak, love, remembrance, aspiration, and suffering within its epic proportions. Strauss makes it plain that a composer does not have to resort to gods and heroes to ascend to the height of meaning. No wonder the radical realism of Strauss’ writing in Symphonia Domestica infuriated Charles Ives, among others, who found it brash and vulgar.


Symphonia Domestica premiered in 1904 in New York during Strauss’ tour of the United States (which also permitted the photographer Edward Steichen to make a stunning portrait of the composer). It also received two performances a month later in Wanamaker’s department store in New York, which somehow seems fitting, given its domestic subject matter.


This work, one of Strauss’ last major orchestral compositions, forms the basis of tonight’s concert. When it was written, Strauss and his wife were still a youngish couple with an infant son; thus the narrative draws its episodes from the daily life of a young family. The Intermezzo interludes and the parergon were written much later, in the 1920s. By then Strauss was already regarded as an old master and possibly an outdated one. He resented this bitterly. He was shunned by a new generation of modernists because he never lost faith in tonality and in the possibilities of the grand musical tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Like Brahms before him, Strauss developed a bittersweet nostalgia about the world in which he lived. He thought of himself as a witness to a dying golden age. He came to suspect that he was the last exponent of a grand tradition.


Strauss was unusually consistent, productive and disciplined as a composer. He hated the social delusions and pretensions of “artsy” bohemian artists. He portrayed himself explicitly as an unapologetic bourgeois who was shamelessly absorbed with making money, copyrights, card playing, and his comfortable life at Garmisch. He made no apologies for his egotism and had no doubt about his own superior talent.


One aspect of his domestic life that never ceased to puzzle his friends and followers was his deep devotion to his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, whom very few people seemed to have liked. She badgered and criticized him, was imperious and thought herself socially superior to her husband, the descendent of a brewer. She was offended by Intermezzo. But something worked between them; Strauss and Pauline were married for 55 years, and she survived him by only 8 months. That Strauss was truly a family man, devoted to Pauline and to his son and daughter-in-law, there can be no doubt.


But behind this veneer of unremarkable middle class respectability—Strauss’ mask—was a perceptive and deeply solitary man whose happiest moments were not playing cards but when he was composing or reading. Strauss was the heir to Mozart, who also displayed wide contrast between his visible social self-presentation and the complexity, subtlety, and humanity audible in his music. There are indeed few composers who have written instrumental music that illuminates and penetrates the contradictions, shortcomings, and sufferings of the human condition as consistently and persuasively as the music of Strauss and Mozart.


In this concert we hear Strauss’ reflections over a twenty-year period on marriage, love, family, human frailty, and jealousy, as well as the fear of death. The music is personal and becomes personal for the listener. But it betrays no intimacies. Rather, Strauss’ personal experience inspired him to create a musical commentary on life. Through music Strauss transcends his mask by using it and pays tribute to the woman he loved and the relationship that gave him the stability to realize his genius to the fullest extent.

Forged in the War

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

It has now become commonplace to call the 19th century the “long 19th century,” owing to the fact that its beginning and end are marked not by round years but by events that defined its character and culture. The century is often thought of as beginning in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. The Revolution and its aftermath changed not only the perception of monarchical power that stretched back to the middle ages, but the nature of politics and our sense of history. The 19th century came to a close somewhere between 1918, at the end of the First World War, and 1919, the year of the negotiations at the Versailles Peace Conference.

2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Most Americans, when thinking about the history of the 20th century, focus on World War II as the defining and perhaps most brutal event of the century. The reasons are obvious. For the United States, World War II had fronts in Europe and Asia. It lasted approximately four years. But World War I was, for America, a relatively brief experience: the U.S. entered it only in 1917. American casualties were 117,000, as opposed to 417,000 during the years of fighting in World War II. But for Europeans, it was the First World War that was shocking, traumatic, and transformative, not only because both sides in Europe lost millions (England and France suffered more military deaths than in World War II) and the war delivered an experience of horror and death hitherto unprecedented in history, but also because, as Sigmund Freud noted as early as 1930, it laid the foundation for the next horrific war. For all the pacifism of the 1920’s, World War I was followed by economic instability, the depression, and fascism, lending little hope for a world at peace. World War I also made possible the October Revolution in Russia that brought in communism and ultimately the Soviet Union of Stalin.

If there is a legitimate notion of a “just” war, the Second World War might qualify. The Allies fought against obvious aggressors (Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany) and in at least one case—Nazi Germany—an unambiguously evil regime. Despite the devastating consequences of the Allied nations’ “blind eye” to the dangers Germany posed after 1933, it was soon crystal clear that Nazism was a radical and innovative incarnation of barbarism. The First World War, by contrast, began for reasons that still remain difficult to explain. What could have remained a minor conflict—reprisals for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—exploded because of an intricate web of pacts, treaties, royal family relations, imperial conceits, and economic ambitions that meant little to the ordinary people who ended up doing the fighting and dying. Yet the populations on all sides were initially fired up by patriotic fervor. They embraced a jingoistic rhetoric of honor and glory, defending a constructed sense of national singularity against nebulous threats defined for them by massive propaganda campaigns that even evoked widespread enthusiasm among intellectuals and artists in France, England, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Russia. In 1914, everyone expected the war to be short. But the glories of God and country rapidly lost their allure in the wake of the senseless destruction experienced in trench warfare. The war led to the “lost generation” and shattered ideals and cultivated hopelessness.

Although today the actual causes of World War I are still the subject of intense debate among historians, the analysis by the victors immediately following the war was revealing. World War I was of course laid at the feet of Germany’s imperial ambitions, and that country was humiliated economically (to the consternation of wiser heads such as John Maynard Keynes). Large parts of Central and Eastern Europe that were formerly in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were broken out into nations. Some were more heterogeneous than others, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. But the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Wilson’s emphasis on self-determination, gave a boost to a triumphant and essentialist nationalism in a reconstituted and independent Poland and a crippled Hungary—stripped, after the Treaty of Trianon, of what most Hungarians regarded as their legitimate territory.

Nationalism thrived, despite the carnage of the war, not only among the victors, but also among the defeated. Europe did not embrace Woodrow Wilson’s vision of international cooperation explicit in the League of Nations. The United States never even joined. Nations new and old in the 1920s internally cultivated political solidarity based on race, ethnic inheritance, religion, myth, and territory. While some celebrated the restoration of identity and autonomy once subsumed by dynastic empires (e.g. Poland), others burned with resentment about lands and resources taken from them. This outcome gave some historians pause, and a new revisionist assessment of the causes became widespread, in which the blame was shared. After World War II, new research shifted the blame back to Germany. But once again, after the fall of communism in the 1990s, historical opinion has shifted back to placing the responsibility on all the major European powers.

Very few foresaw the consequences of the war and its aftermath. Most of the resistance to the war at its start came from the left. From a Marxist point of view, the masses had little to gain and everything to lose from a war that was only about chauvinism and national rivalries. But not surprisingly, among those who were enthusiastic for war were the elites of those ethnic and national groups subordinated by the monarchical imperial political structures that dominated Europe for nearly two centuries before 1914. The minorities in the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire welcomed the war; it gave hope to their nationalist aspirations. For the Jews of Europe, the rise of nationalism after 1848 accentuated anti-Semitism, and the futility of establishing a place of safety and equality in Europe for Jews. The outlook for political and social equality dimmed throughout Europe, from England to Russia, and only seemed to deepen as the century turned. But World War I unexpectedly offered a ray of hope in two contradictory ways: by offering an opportunity for Jews to demonstrate their loyalty to the nations in which they lived, and by lending Jewish nationalism, in the form of Zionism, legitimacy.

Tonight’s concert explores the transformation of European culture that began with the outbreak of World War I. By the 1920s, in addition to a renewed nationalism, an entirely new cultural landscape was visible. The seeds of reaction against Romanticism, already present since the 1890s, blossomed into everything from Dadaism, Constructivism, and atonality. The poetics of Tennyson were displaced with those of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; the novel as perfected by George Eliot was supplanted by the achievement of James Joyce. This massive cultural shift was accelerated and in part inspired by the experience of the war. Indeed it might be said that in cultural terms, the 20th century can be understood as having been forged in the crucible of World War I. That claim holds true for music.

In order to illustrate this argument, tonight’s concert begins with a musical mirror of the power of patriotism among the populations within all the combatant countries. Max Reger’s Eine vaterländische Ouvertüre is no longer played because of its embarrassing political intent. Reger was one of the most celebrated composers at the turn of the century. He displayed an unrivaled mastery of counterpoint. He was considered, alongside Richard Strauss, as the great hope of German music. If Strauss was the heir to Wagner, Reger was viewed as the heir to Brahms. Reger’s complex, lush, and densely scored music has had its fierce partisans, including Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin. Yet it has receded undeservedly into the shadows, in part because Reger died suddenly in 1916 and because, as a patriot, Reger was unapologetic concerning his conceit that in music, Germany’s superiority over all other nations and cultures was undisputed.

Following Reger’s overture, Ernest Bloch’s Israel Symphony will be performed. Bloch was by birth a Jew from Geneva, Switzerland. Early in his career he came to the United States, where he taught and wielded enormous influence. Roger Sessions was among his students. Inspired by Wagner, Bloch tried to emulate the Master of Bayreuth’s success in expressing the German spirit through music. Bloch, beginning in 1913 and through the war, sought to write music that would exemplify a shared national identity among Jews. The Israel Symphony was finished just before 1917, when in the context of rising nationalism and plans to rewrite the map of Europe and the Middle East dominated by the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, Zionism found its most powerful source of international legitimacy: the Balfour Declaration. Balfour made clear to the world Europe’s intention to support the building of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The rapid growth of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century throughout Europe in the face of rabid anti-Semitism crystallized during the war. England and other countries had an interest in sending its Jewish population elsewhere, and Jewish national aspirations concurred. These aspirations found their way into Bloch’s music. The Israel Symphony (along with Bloch’s other famous “Jewish” works: Schelomo, Three Jewish Poems, and the later Sacred Service) reveals a synthesis of European compositional traditions and a Jewish national sensibility located in liturgy and folk tradition.

The program then turns to Charles Ives, the eccentric, radical, modernist insurance executive who also was America’s most innovative and iconoclastic compositional voice from the early 20th century. Ives trained with Horatio Parker at Yale, but like Gustav Mahler (who was curious about Ives’s music), Ives developed a musical strategy that allowed him to use fragmentation to create a sort of musical assemblage, creating layers of contrasting sounds that juxtapose past and present and are often evocative of nostalgia and childhood. Inspired by the sinking of the Lusitania, Ives wrote the Second Orchestral Set, a startlingly courageous essay in musical form, one that in its third movement highlights America’s exceptional status and dramatic entrance into a transformative historical event. Ives, a sharp critic of politicians, became a fierce advocate of Liberty Bonds and called on fellow Americans to “fight this war out in a democratic way.”

The concert closes with the Third Symphony of Karol Szymanowski. Szymanowski saw himself as the true successor to Frederic Chopin. Indeed, Szymanowski became the musical voice of the Polish nation that was created after 1918. He became director of the Warsaw Conservatory. Szymanowski helped shape the vibrant modernist culture in independent Poland. Poland had been partitioned in the late 18th century by three monarchies: Germany, Russia, and the Habsburg Empire. The most significant public partisan on behalf of an independent Poland on the eve of World War I was another musician, Ignaz Paderewski. Poland may be the only nation ever to have had a great musician as its president (though Paderewski’s success in politics did not rival that of his musical career).

But it was Szymanowski, not Paderewski, who would define the cultural renaissance of Poland after the war. Szymanowski’s early music reveals the enormous influence of Richard Strauss. But Szymanowski moved on and incorporated into his musical language the sonorities and strategies of Scriabin and Debussy. During the First World War he perfected his own distinctive musical voice. The Third Symphony is one of Szymanowski’s wartime masterpieces (others are Myths and the first Violin Concerto) and reveals a decisive shift in harmonic language and the sense of form from his less well-known but equally impressive Second Symphony. Among those who believed deeply in Szymanowski’s importance and originality as a European composer were his close colleague, the violinist Paul Kochanski, who spent many years teaching in New York; the violinist Roman Totenberg (a younger protégé); and the great pianist (himself an ardent Polish patriot) Artur Rubinstein—all (ironically) highly assimilated Polish Jews.

This concert therefore reveals how politics and art interacted during a period of intense suffering, violence, and change. The First World War ushered in a new era. The effects of that era can still be seen in the politics of Europe today. And its echoes can be heard in the music on this evening’s program.


by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Moses, performed on March 27, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Bruch’s Moses is a powerful and beautiful oratorio, filled with drama, lyricism, intensity, and color. Its relative obscurity has many sources, not the least of which is the fact that the oratorio genre in which Bruch excelled—especially oratorios based on Old Testament subjects—was, by the time Bruch wrote Moses in 1895, considered to be old fashioned. The oratorio has since become, if not obsolete, then marginal. A few classic works such as Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1847) persist in the repertoire, but practically nothing from the vast and fine repertoire from the second half of the 19th century and even fewer from the 20th survives in active use. Amateur choral societies, like opera companies, stick to a small list of popular works that seems to begin and end with Handel’s Messiah (1741). In addition, owing to the extraordinary popularity of choral music in which amateurs could participate throughout England and German-speaking Europe during the 19th century, Bruch wrote an extraordinary number of fine oratorios, as Christopher Fifield points out in tonight’s concert notes. Moses is but one of several Bruch oratorios worthy of performance. Furthermore, although Max Bruch’s name is familiar, he is known for a few instrumental works—primarily the overplayed G minor Violin Concerto (1868) and Kol Nidre for cello (1881)—and not much else. The most important reason for our lack of familiarity with Moses lies in the brutal fact that it represents Bruch’s most ambitious foray into a 19th-century cultural conflict over the nature and character of music as a dramatic medium in which Max Bruch was distinctly on the losing side.

It is hard for modern listeners to imagine the depth of the divide between the adherents of Richard Wagner’s music, Wagner’s theories on drama, and his notion of music as a progressive force in history on the one hand, and Wagner’s opponents, who championed the legacy of classicism and early romanticism and what has come to be regarded as a more “conservative” approach to musical form and communication, on the other. Although by the time Moses was written Wagner had been dead for more than a decade, his influence was hardly on the wane. It was greater and more widespread than it had been during his lifetime. The most prominent living composer who opposed Wagnerian aesthetics during the early 1890s was Johannes Brahms. Though dismayed by Bruch’s decision to write this particular work, Brahms supported Bruch’s ambitious effort to revitalize a large-scale dramatic form that was not operatic or theatrical and which stood in explicit opposition to all things Wagnerian, particularly what they saw as the music drama framed by incessant leitmotifs continuously elaborated through chromaticism meandering over long stretches of time.

In the 1870s, the rage for Wagner had reached new heights from its already powerful beginnings in the 1850s. Brahms’s reaction in the 1870s to the rage for Wagner, especially among a younger generation that included Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler, was to turn his attention away from a nearly exclusive focus on chamber music towards writing large-scale symphonies. Bruch, after Brahms, was the next most prominent figure in the anti-Wagnerian camp, and an ally of Brahms. They had a mutual friend in the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim. Bruch chose to make his stand against Wagner with the oratorio. The thought was that, as with the symphony, music cast in a traditional manner, following models dating back to Mendelssohn and Handel, could remain the primary medium of an emotionally charged aesthetic experience for the concert going public, even when music was used to set words. In Bruch’s hands, the oratorio was not designed to become a “total work of art,” but rather to validate how music augments words and delivers a unique experience to listener and participant alike, distinctive in itself and explicitly evocative of a normative classical tradition of composition dating back to Bach. The aesthetic principle guiding the music-text relationship in Bruch’s oratorios derives in part from the art song, a genre brilliantly developed by the composers of Romanticism, from Schubert to Brahms.

That being said, the challenge represented by Wagner’s spectacular achievement left an indelible mark on Bruch’s music. In comparison to Moses, Bruch’s Odysseus (1872), his first successful attempt at the oratorio, (and one performed by Brahms in Vienna) is far more explicitly restrained in terms of drama and reminiscent of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Moses, in contrast, confronts Wagner explicitly with pseudo-Wagnerian means. Moses is quite operatic. The character of Moses is Bruch’s answer to Wotan, and Aaron might be heard as his Siegfried. The text and subject matter, as was the case with Odysseus, pay homage to a noble ideal of learning and culture (in German, Bildung) so cherished by the middle classes, the members of which formed the many choral societies, and grounded in a profound respect for biblical and classical sources rather than Germanic mythology. It is not that Bruch was not a German nationalist; like Brahms he displayed more than his share of cultural chauvinism. He was not particularly philosemitic, (a fact listeners find hard to believe given the popularity of his Kol Nidre). And neither was he (counter to a common assumption) Jewish. But Bruch and Brahms had a more liberal ideal—in the English sense—of what Imperial Germany ought to become than that cherished by Wagner and his supporters. This national liberal sensibility was shared by the author of the text of Moses, the brother of one of Bruch’s closest friends, Philip Spitta, the famous biographer of Bach.

Despite the fact that Bruch adheres in Moses to quite conservative compositional practices and retains a structure comprised of discrete numbers—arias, recitatives, and choruses—he nevertheless betrays, in a startling manner, the extent to which, despite himself, he absorbed Wagner’s redefinition of musical drama. This oratorio verges on the music drama, in a manner only suggested perhaps by Mendelssohn’s Elijah but realized in Moses—to great effect—in a way that reminds one of Wagnerian strategies. Bruch’s decision to choose episodes in the story of Moses that are not ones of triumph but of conflict and renunciation is suggestive of the trajectory of Wotan’s role in Der Ring. Although the people of Israel reach the Promised Land, Moses is denied. As in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (1932), a great deal of emphasis is placed on the golden calf episode; and some of the finest music in this work, as in Schoenberg’s operatic fragment, is inspired by the rage and anger of Moses. The beauty of Aaron’s role is perhaps more closely comparable to that of Siegmund rather than Siegfried; but it is hard not to hear that it offers an explicit alternative to the sound of the Wagnerian “Heldentenor.” It is only in the handling of the chorus, which is masterful, that Bruch relies exclusively on the great non-Wagnerian oratorio tradition of the 19th century.

By the time Moses was performed, Richard Strauss had already become world-famous and Gustav Mahler was well on his way to joining Strauss as a representative of a new post-Wagnerian modernism in German music. The audience and supporters on whom Bruch counted, the enthusiastic amateurs and music-lovers in England and Germany who were not content to be relegated to the role of passive spectator as Wagner defined it and who appreciated the explicit historicism in Bruch’s work, were already finding themselves in the minority and outnumbered by the philistine pro-Wagnerians of the Germany of Wilhelm II (so brilliantly parodied by Heinrich Mann, the great novelist who will remain forever in the shadow of his more famous brother). Although the music of Moses seeks to accommodate late 19th-century Wagnerian musical and aesthetic expectations, it was already behind the times when it appeared.

For audiences in the 21st century, however, the cultural wars of the second half of the 19th century over music seem, if not inexplicable, then arcane. It is hard for us to fathom why there was so much enmity and conflict between the followers of Wagner and of Brahms. Nevertheless, Moses is a reminder of how sophisticated and important musical culture was, and how much seemed to be at stake in terms of issues of morality, ethics, and politics in quarrels over the nature of musical art. With the distance of time, we can put outdated polemics aside, and savor the brilliance, elegance, and the poignant drama of this powerful and moving rendering of one of the greatest of all biblical narratives. In Moses we confront a compelling and masterfully written synthesis of 19th-century musical rhetoric and expression that, long forgotten, merits a revival, particularly now, in the midst of an oversupply of excessive, CGI-adorned cinematic trivializations of the ancient stories from Homer, Herodotus, and the Bible.

Beyond Britten: English Music in the 20th Century

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert This England, performed on Jan 31, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

The American concert-going public tends to acknowledge only two English composers after Henry Purcell: Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten. Britten is the one English composer after Elgar who has secured a place in the repertory with a wide-ranging representative selection of works. In another category are unaccountably neglected composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose fame as an orchestral composer in the U.S. rests largely on a handful of works performed repeatedly by American orchestras. Consistent with its mission, the ASO has therefore chosen four eminent but even less well-known 20th-century English composers for this program. They frame the century that separates Edward Elgar from George Benjamin (one of England’s finest living composers) and mirror the powerful and rich heritage of English music that is today underrepresented in the concert repertoire, even in Great Britain.

As this concert will make apparent, it is unclear whether national categories are either justified or really descriptive of music, especially in the 20th century. Is there anything “English” here beyond the blunt facts of birth and citizenship? National stereotypes in music are hazardous at best and always the object of intense debate and conflict within nations—as the cases of Russia and France in the 19th century suggest. Why do we need them or use them in music, an art form whose materials cannot be differentiated quite as readily as languages are one from the other?

The case of England sheds a special light on this troublesome subject. For most of the 19th century in England—the most powerful economic nation in the world and the European power with the largest empire—Felix Mendelssohn was, with Handel, one of that nation’s most beloved composers. From the English perspective (including that of Queen Victorian herself), Mendelssohn represented the finest in all of “German” music. His status as a “Jewish” figure in English circles superseded his reputation as a German only at the very close of the 19th century. Liszt, Schumann, Bruch, Grieg, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Dvořák, and Wagner all were central components of English musical life in the 19th century without causing the English undue anxiety. After all, the British ruled the world and felt entirely at home consuming and adapting the finest things from all over the world. The made everything their own from tea to music. The suggestion that the composer Charles Villiers Stanford overtly emulated Brahms was as much a compliment as a criticism; it showed his discernment and taste. The English were not in need of a defensive nationalism until the beginning of the 20th century, when the hegemony of the Empire began its protracted decline. That reality and its attendant sensibility emerged with considerable force in the wake of the hard-won victory in 1918.

As the novels of Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Eliot reveal, music flourished in 19th century England. As the novels of E.M. Forster attest, music continued its important cultural position into the early years of the 20th century. Its choral tradition was unrivalled, as were its orchestras and concert life. The composers on today’s program sought to make their careers in a vibrant and eclectic musical culture. Frank Bridge—the eldest in the group—never achieved public recognition his musical merits, even though his work consistently won the admiration of his colleagues for its craftsmanship and integrity. The next eldest, Arthur Bliss, was far more successful in his lifetime, but his posthumous standing has become modest at best. Most famous of the four was William Walton. A very few of his works remain in the repertory and, as Byron Adams observes in his fine program notes, Walton witnessed in his lifetime a striking and depressing decline in his reputation and popularity. The most obscure figure is also the youngest: Robert Simpson. His writings—notably on Bruckner—have consistently overshadowed his very substantial output as a composer.

Two of the four pieces on this program were written in 1934, at the beginning of what Churchill would later term the “gathering storm” that culminated with World War II. England had lost an entire generation in the trenches of World War I. A horror of war and an allegiance to pacifism were widespread. Frank Bridge and Robert Simpson shared these convictions, as did Bridge’s student Benjamin Britten. The works of Bridge and Bliss contain an element of unease if not anxiety regarding the prospect of yet another massive conflict—albeit not in the direct way Vaughan Williams’ 4th symphony from 1934 does.

William Walton’s second symphony was finished and premiered in 1960 during the era of visible and rapid decline in England’s importance in world affairs, after the 1956 Suez affair, during the de-colonization of Africa but before the Beatles—an era filled with an admixture of resentment and nostalgia. And the newest of the works, Simpson’s Volcano, was completed in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, at a time that many regard as the nadir in Britain’s post-war history.

The genres on this program are as varied as are their musical styles. The program opens with an essay in film music, at a time when music promised to be more than a subsidiary illustrative medium in films, and when there was considerable optimism about the possibilities of film music. We then confront a variation on the idea of a piano concerto—a work with a suggestive title and program—written in a committed, tightly-argued, and personal modernist musical language. We then encounter Simpson’s essay in sonority. The concert closes with an ambitious and eloquent symphony, one that should be more often heard. But outside of England, even Elgar’s two superb symphonies have had a hard time getting their proper due until recently.

In the end, is there anything distinctly “English” about this music? Yes, perhaps, and perhaps no; it all depends on what one thinks is and sounds “English.” Rather, this music suggests the powerful variety of expression in 20th-century music, the vitality of English musical life and the prodigious skill of these English composers, each of whom appropriated and adapted the influences around them to fashion music well worth hearing.

Our first concert of 2014 raises basic questions about the fundamental mission of the ASO. In concert after concert, our audiences (and also our critics) want to know how we program our concerts. Why do we choose the works we play? And if most if not all of them are not in the standard repertoire, either because they were never in it or fell out of it, what justifies reviving them? These questions are particularly apt at a time when a fantastic array of works can be found on the Internet, on YouTube, and on CD recordings. Is it the case that everything “really great” is already out there, played often, and well known, and that works that require revival are somehow lesser and fall short of being first rate, and therefore less deserving of repeated performances? Is not therefore the standard repertoire simply the best music written? And if you can hear so called “lesser” works on recording, why play them? Is the ASO on an elaborate buried treasure or scavenger hunt, where the reward is the off-chance that we will stumble on an unknown work that will become standard and hailed as a masterpiece? (The answer to this is obviously no). Or is the ASO seeking to challenge the logic of contemporary concert life today, particularly its distortion of history—a distortion that robs the audience of the pleasure of encountering the vast riches of the musical past?

The answer to this complex set of questions is quite simple. First, a work of music, in order to be appreciated, has to be played and heard in real time and space. A recording is to a piece of music what a small photograph in a book is to a work of art or architecture. Second, the act of listening does not demand that the listener assume the role of judge in some sort of “beauty” contest that seeks to select winners in a virtual contest for the “greatest” works of music. Why compare one against another by some vague criterion of greatness? We do not read that way and we do not look at visual art that way. Lots of music merits frequent revisiting because all music, even the most popular, suffers from too much repetition. And extreme neglect of all but a few works narrows our habits of listening.

The question is not whether any of the works on today’s program is a “masterpiece” in someone’s opinion. Rather it is whether the music, much like a fine book, deserves to be revisited—played and heard—and whether it captures the imagination of listeners. In some cases, a work will do so with unexpected power sufficient to propel it into today’s repertoire. In other cases, a work will be rewarding to hear and cast new light on the era in which it was written and remind us of the immense unperformed worthy repertoire that has accumulated over more than three hundred years of musical culture.

The growing habit of erasing the past through ignorance or lack of curiosity should be resisted at all costs. All of the music the ASO programs was once admired by the greatest of composers and performers. In bringing neglected works to the stage, we do honor to their judgment. The Britten centenary has come and gone, but why leave the shores of Albion so quickly? British music has much more to offer.

Strauss: Self-Portrait of the Artist

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Strauss: Self-Portrait of the Artist, performed on Dec 15, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Our conception of a composer’s life and career does not always correspond to the image the composer has of himself. The discrepancy is particularly acute in the case of Richard Strauss. Conventional wisdom has it he was a Philistine, a superficial man endowed with an incredible musical gift. Posterity has praised him for the music he wrote toward the end of the nineteenth century that was once considered modern and daring. That period in Strauss’s compositional life is understood as coming to an end with the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier (1911). The pinnacle of Strauss’s achievement in this view is Elektra (1909). After that, Strauss was regarded as an aging master repeating himself, someone who achieved only glimpses of his former brilliance, mostly during an “Indian summer” after 1945 when he produced a few acknowledged masterpieces.

It is quite clear that Strauss harbored no such view of himself. And in fact the conventional account is mistaken. The one-act opera in this afternoon’s program is key to a more accurate and perceptive understanding of the composer. The historic neglect of Feuersnot (1901) is in part responsible for the prevalence of the distorted view of the composer described above. In the first place, Strauss’s aesthetic remained quite consistent. Mozart, not Wagner, was always at the core of his ambition and his notion of beauty in music. Second, like Haydn and Mozart, Strauss was incapable of writing inferior music. Just because the music he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s was out of fashion when it appeared should not prevent us from perceiving its power and worth.

Feuersnot has remained obscure in part because its libretto seems so provincial, and the fairytale tradition with which it is associated seems so terribly German. Furthermore, although Strauss perfected the form of the one-act opera of a duration sufficient for an entire evening in Salome and Elektra, this work is just short enough as to render it an orphan on the opera stage. This is a pity, since the work is at once brilliant, funny, and affecting. Unlike Weber’s Der Freischutz, there is nothing in the plot that is unfathomable. More importantly, the opera represents the moment when Strauss openly signals his affinity to Mozart.

Perhaps the most helpful way to approach the work of Richard Strauss is indeed to consider the striking similarities between Mozart and Strauss. Both excelled in writing for the stage. Yet both were equally successful at composing instrumental music. This quite rare achievement resulted from the fact that Mozart and Strauss both possessed an uncanny and startling facility in the handling of musical materials. They were virtuosic in their ability to think with music. Although Strauss never exhibited the same level of precocity, there is little doubt that like Mozart he thought first in music, through its grammar and syntax, and then in language. Mozart may now be thought of as profound and Strauss still derided in some quarters as a superficial “note spinner,” but we should remember that there was a time in the nineteenth century when Mozart’s music was dismissed as largely decorative.

But what links the two composers above all is their sense of humor, exceptional within the pantheon of composers. Haydn certainly displayed a sense of humor, but it was largely confined to music and it remains subtle if not dry. Beethoven seemed to have no humor at all. One suspects that the only people who found Wagner funny were his family and inner circle. Mozart and Strauss possessed more than mere comicality. Because they perceived the world first not through the mechanism of language but through the temporal structures of music, they developed a sharp but forgiving sense of human fallibility and a deep sense of irony. Their capacity for humor, as expressed in music, was laced with a humane capacity for lightness. They delighted in satire. In their music, they revealed an understanding of forgiveness, a sense of longing and a sympathetic recognition of the human condition. The last scenes of Der Rosenkavalier have their mirror image in the closing sections of The Marriage of Figaro.

Mozart and Strauss are two composers who possessed true wisdom. They shared with their listeners the ability through music to cope with the disappointments and sufferings that come inevitably with mortality. Although Wagner’s ghost inhabits Feuersnot, this rarely performed one-act opera already reveals the direction Strauss would take during his long career, and his basic artistic credo. Owing to the influence of his father (as Christopher Gibbs suggests in his note on today’s concert), but also to that of Hans von Bülow (who converted from Wagner into an ardent proponent of Brahms), Strauss’s fundamental instincts as a young man leaned toward the classical style. He was indeed always more like Mozart than like Wagner. This should come as no surprise. Wagner possessed genius but little in the sense of sheer facility. Strauss, like Mozart, possessed facility and like Mendelssohn (Wagner’s arch rival in his own mind), displayed both facility and genius.

Although it is undeniable that Strauss came under the influence of Wagner and recognized Wagner’s extraordinary creation of a musical language adequate to the demands of narration and sufficient to meet the expectations generated by the aesthetics of realism, Strauss remained skeptical regarding the explicit philosophical and implicit metaphysical claims about music and its power and meaning that Wagner popularized. For all of the evident aspects of Wagnerian influence, the allures of sonata form and thematic transformation dominate the famous tone poems of the 1890s. In Feuersnot, the compositional technique owes as much to Brahms as it does to Wagner; the musical logic relies on strategies distinct from Wagner’s use of repetition and harmonic color. Strauss pokes fun at Tristan und Isolde in Feuersnot, and he pokes fun at the need in the Wagnerian ambition to appear profound and its reliance on potions, magic, and myth as elements of the drama.

Strauss adored Wagner’s only successful comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868). But in truth there is very little to laugh at in that opera except in a cruel, bullying way. Die Meistersinger is a comedy only because it has a happy ending. Wagner, unlike Strauss, was incapable of laughing at himself. Feuersnot takes aim at many things, but among its targets are not only Wagnerian pretensions about opera and music but Strauss himself.

In the period immediately following the composition of Feuersnot, Strauss turned to myth but not to Germanic myth. Working with the literary genius of Wilde and Hofmannsthal, he found a way to create a searing human drama in Salome and Elektra. In his instrumental music, the Symphonia domestica and later An Alpine Symphony, he pushed music’s potential as an instrument of realist narration to its farthest limits. And then, in 1911 with Der Rosenkavalier, he without reserve embraced the eighteenth century and its pre-romantic aesthetic of clarity and grace. For the rest of his career, it was not Wagner but Mozart who became his explicit model. And it is ironic that it was Mozart whom Brahms (Wagner’s antipode) also revered. In his last operatic works, Die Liebe der Danae and Capriccio, Strauss mused on the nature of music and its relation to language and everyday life. He also made one last effort to render myth human and accessible in a way that Wagner never did. If Tristan hovers over Feuersnot in an affectionate and admiring manner, Tristan also is the object of contrast in Strauss’s last attempt at grand opera, Die Liebe der Danae, whose subject is—as is the case in Feuersnot—love and desire.

In order to understand Strauss’s personal idea of love, one has to consider that although he was inexplicably devoted to his wife Pauline (despite the fact that she was universally regarded as overbearing), the great love of Strauss’s life occurred before his marriage, in the person of Dora Wihan, a young woman of Jewish extraction who was married to the cellist Hanuš Wihan, a friend of Strauss’s father. Needless to say, Strauss’s parents disapproved of this liaison. Strauss’s trip to Egypt seemed to have coincided with an abrupt break with Dora. All the letters between them were destroyed, and the entire affair is shrouded in mystery. Strauss’s unabashedly autobiographical Intermezzo (1927), which contains a depiction of his wife that she along with many others found unflattering, may suggest that after this searing but traumatic passion early in his life, reminiscent of Tristan and other star-crossed lovers, Strauss, like many artists, could express the intensity of love and desire as well as the sense of loss and longing only through music. This allowed him to make peace with an unapologetically conventional life style.

It is the Mozartean sense of humor, the Mozart-like recognition of the delightful and painful self-delusions surrounding love, that explains the composer’s lifelong regret at the neglect of Feuersnot. This work is more than a harbinger of Strauss’s later achievements. It is the first full-blown and successful example of Strauss’s greatness as an opera composer. It reveals his capacity to use modern, musical language and technique to achieve Mozartean grace, irreverence, formal beauty and unspeakable eloquence.

As is the case with all great comedies, Strauss in Feuersnot is deadly serious. The expectations that surround love and desire and the place of the artist play a central role in the comedy. Far from being a Philistine, Strauss was deeply reflective. He was a keen reader of literature and philosophy, and was possessed of a skepticism that helped justify egotism, detachment, and a callous disregard of the political evil around him. The mask behind which he hid is suggestive of a deep pessimism about modernity. Yet In Feuersnot we encounter a passionate young Strauss whose capacity for affectionate irreverence speaks volumes for who he was and how true he remained to himself as a composer until his death at the age of 85.

Elliott Carter: An Appreciation

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Elliott Carter: An American Original, performed on Nov 17, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

If there was ever a persuasive instance for thinking about the appropriateness of the analytical category of “late” style it can be found in the case of Elliott Carter. His longevity and vitality were extraordinary. Few have been blessed with such a dignified and productive old age. Much has been written about Carter. It is hard to avoid being intimidated by the length, consistency, versatility, and centrality of the composer’s career. He was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music, certainly in America, and for decades was considered by many this country’s greatest living composer. What made Carter’s career so central and interesting, however, is the extent to which it stands at the crossroads of a century-old fractious and intense debate about the nature and place of music in the modern world.

That debate began as the “long” nineteenth century came to an end, during Carter’s early childhood. It has been commonplace to locate the public recognition of a generational reaction against the compositional practices, musical culture, and habits of listening developed between 1750 and the end of the nineteenth century in the year 1913, when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was premiered in Paris and a “scandal” concert took place in Vienna on which music by Mahler, Schoenberg, and Berg was performed. It is ironic that after World War I, when the emergence of competing approaches to writing new and “modern” music deemed adequate to a radically changed world became most evident and apparent, the pioneer of American musical modernism, Charles Ives, had for the most part fallen silent as a composer.

For Elliott Carter, the initial encounter with the music of Ives (whom he met while still in high school), Stravinsky, and Schoenberg would be crucial in the development of his approach to composition. But in contrast to Roger Sessions, his older contemporary (whom he admired) and fellow Harvard alumnus, Carter exhibited few signs of his genius and talent early. He was no prodigy, no wunderkind in the way many other great composers, from Mozart to Korngold, were. What Carter did reveal from the start was the remarkable and wide range of his intellectual abilities. He taught at St. John’s College in Annapolis, where he was required to teach not only music but also Greek, philosophy, and mathematics. In the impressive set of collected essays by Carter, there is an affecting and eloquent defense of music as a crucial component of liberal learning. Carter displayed a natural affinity to literature and language. He credited his interest in addressing through music the competing constructs and experiences of time to Proust and Joyce. Poetry held a central, if not growing role as a constituent of his musical imagination.

With uncanny discipline and patience Carter pursued his compositional career. Although he taught composition, on and off, at Peabody, Columbia, Cornell, Yale, Queens College, and Juilliard, Carter devoted his time essentially to composing. His leap to prominence took place in the 1950s with the First String Quartet. From then on a series of commanding works followed, including the Variations for Orchestra (1956), a second quartet (1960), the Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961), the Piano Concerto (1967), the Concerto for Orchestra (1970), a third quartet (1973), the Symphony of Three Orchestras (1977), and Syringa (1978), as well as many smaller works. All this was done before he turned 70.

Carter, like Copland, was generous to colleagues. He accumulated a wide range of colleagues and friends, ranging from nearly contemporary composers (including Wolpe, Piston, Sessions, Petrassi, Boulez, and Lutoslawski) to performers (Charles Rosen, Ursula Oppens, Fred Sherry, Gilbert Kalish, Daniel Barenboim, and James Levine), composer-performers (Heinz Holliger and Oliver Knussen), and younger composers (Frederic Rzewski, Richard Wilson). Between age 70 and age 100, an astonishing series of works came into being, including songs, chamber works, an opera, and concertos for oboe, the violin, and for horn, as well as numerous works for orchestra.

Throughout all these years Carter sustained the modernist project that came into being in his youth. That project was to extend but yet confront the inherited traditions of musical composition in ways that seemed consonant with the distinctive and seemingly discontinuous features of modern twentieth-century life. Modernism sought to continue musical culture and musical expression and communication along a trajectory that was understood to be progressive in the ways in which it corresponded with, or perhaps responded to, the historical moment. That moment, from 1913 to the mid-1970s, when modernism began its retreat, witnessed a mix of tragic and transformative events. In the light of modern experience, Carter’s impulse was never either restorative or nostalgic, even during the period between 1939 and 1944 when he wrote the ballet Pocahontas and the Holiday Overture. Neither was his approach rigidly ideological.

If there was something quintessentially American about Carter it was his pragmatic approach to influence. As if by trial and error, he absorbed and adapted ideas around him to generate a unique way of composing. By teaching himself and resisting the role of being someone else’s disciple and heir, he fashioned the means to lend his music a distinctive character. From Ives he took the fascination with the experience of simultaneous hearing and the intersection of aural memory and experience as well as the practice of combining discrete contrasting but continuous elements, not mere fragments, and weaving them into a single fabric within the frame of a composition. In one Carter work, the listener confronts disparate and changing constructs of time and of regularity and irregularity.

From Schoenberg and his followers Carter adapted the idea of construing all the pitch elements of the tempered scale as equivalent to one another and without normative priority and therefore without implied hierarchical relationships. He accepted the idea that tonality had run its course and that the dissonance had been truly emancipated. What he developed was an elaborate and intricate catalog of note sequences that could be combined into chord groupings, ranging from three to twelve. These could be manipulated in ingenious and nearly inexhaustible ways. For those not given to cowardice, one can find these pitch groupings painstakingly outlined and analyzed in Carter’s book on harmony. Carter seemed to select a particular pitch grouping as the raw material for a single composition. In the most dense of the orchestral works, a twelve-note grouping often defines the material.

Varèse’s influence on Carter can be found in Carter’s attention to sonorities. Stravinsky left his mark in the interaction between materials and form in relationship to elapsed time. And Bartók’s impact might be found in the vitality of rhythmic patterns and development and Carter’s acute sensitivity to time duration within clearly defined movements. Inspired by all three of these masters, Carter pursued the intimate connection between pitch groupings and particular sound color, developing correspondences between structural elements in pitch and rhythm and the specific use of instruments in a single work. In the end, however, Carter invented himself without propagating a school, a system, or training a group of imitators. He was a meticulous builder, an engineering experimentalist with an uncanny sense of practical utility.

The respect accorded Carter has not been without controversy. Together with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt, he was heralded as a composer concerned with the possibilities of new music as a self-contained logical system, a self-referential act of the human imagination distinct from ordinary language and meaning. In Richard Taruskin’s five-volume tour-de-force account of Western music, Carter’s music is understood as not carrying any intent to express some “extra”-musical meaning—to narrate or illustrate to one’s public in one’s own time. There is as little residue of the Wagnerian in Carter as there is in Stravinsky. Rather, as Carter suggested in a 1984 interview, he saw himself as a contemporary analog to Haydn, a composer whose powers of musical invention per se were prodigious and who wrote for an audience that could follow the intricacies of musical thought and did not expect or require any presumed translation into verbal narrative or visual imagery. Carter knew that the audience he faced was by and large unable to respond to him the way Haydn’s audience could to every new work.

Indeed, as Charles Rosen has argued, Carter wrote for a select few, primarily musicians and those who are willing to learn how to understand and follow music. The task of the listener is not to reject what seems at first encounter irritatingly “unintelligible,” but rather to stick with the new as if it were a new language, and learn its order and logic and then derive pleasure from it. For Rosen, all great music demands this kind of time and energy if it is to be understood and loved. But for Taruskin this notion is quite possibly inherently meaningless, in the sense that the distinction between the purely musical and the extra-musical is artificial and a conceit. If music is a form of life, which it is, it has an inevitable connection to speech and sight. The writing of music that demands close study, seems impenetrable and meaningless, and is dauntingly counterintuitive and complex, may be an act of elitism, requiring the creation of an exclusive club of cognoscenti and true believers who share a common delusion. If appreciation depends on exclusive and arcane knowledge, we must abandon, either tacitly or explicitly, the commonplace claims regarding the social importance of music, its universality, its humanistic essence—all claims held dear by many who would argue how central the traditions of concert music are to culture and society. In any event, the public is dismissed as a legitimate arbiter of quality. American musicians and composers, most notably Copland, inspired by the populism of the New Deal and the artistic and democratic vision of Walt Whitman, rejected the extreme conceits of modernism. Accessibility and comprehensibility became requirements of the craft of composition and not markers of debased cultural standards.

The debate between Rosen and Taruskin over the character of Carter’s music may in fact not be as central as the protagonists believe. Whatever may be true of other modernists, perhaps Carter’s music, despite its aggressive allegiance to modernism, like the music of Berg, can win the affections of the public. Whether one speaks of Bach or Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin, Stravinsky or Bartók, or Ives or Copland, there are many different but compatible ways of listening to and enjoying the music. Each of the aforementioned composers has won adherents and admirers from among the entirely untutored and the literate professionals in the public. What the late music of Elliott Carter suggests is that even the most dense and complex of Carter’s finest mid-career works can succeed with the wider audience because his music works on many levels.

Take the Concerto for Orchestra, which is among Carter’s most demanding scores. I have had the honor of conducting this work before with the American Symphony Orchestra at a concert that the composer attended. At a distance, taken as a composite experience, the work engaged and reached an audience that most likely “knows” nothing about music in Rosen’s sense. Given the acoustic environment we live in and the unparalleled eclectic range of musics we hear unintentionally and willingly, the work strikes listeners as dramatic, arresting, original, powerful, and lyrical. And for those curious to dig deeper, there are certainly depths to plumb. The culture wars of the 1950s and 1960s, which Taruskin discusses so deftly and insightfully, are long over. They have receded into history, together with the Cold War. No doubt, Taruskin is right when he observes that there was at a minimum an irony in the anti-Communist Cold War-era support for a forbidding modernism celebrated by a very few. Today’s audiences are beyond these quarrels. The eclecticism of the last thirty years has spawned an unusual tolerance among listeners. Young players now listen to all kinds of music, be it Western, non-Western, rock, or classical music. Old-time snobbery is on its way out, and there is no more persuasive sign than the success of Alex Ross’ And the Rest Is Noise.

What drove audiences of the past mad, beginning with the pre-World War I concerts featuring the music of Schoenberg, was the sense that they, members of the audience, were being insulted. For decades after that, it was fashionable for composers to heap contempt on the musical judgment of avid amateurs and music lovers and to deride the taste of the bourgeois concert-going public. The traditional audience of the past felt at best condescended to. This dynamic has, with the passing of generations, largely vanished, in part because today’s audiences are neither so conceited nor so invested in their connoisseurship. Managements may be conservative but audiences are not. They are far more relaxed and catholic in their tastes. Given the types of things they hear and listen to, they are unlikely to be startled and put off. They are happy, in a world that celebrates near subjectivity with alarming ease as a sufficient basis for action, to make what they can of something they hear on first encounter and to find a way to enjoy it. Because there is so much genuine richness in Carter’s music, it has a real chance for success with the audiences of today and tomorrow.

Perhaps what makes Carter great is that he, through painstaking discipline and concentration, invented music that works the way the music of the great masters from the Classical era did and that reaches across a wide range of listeners. Carter’s music has, in the end, an emotional necessity behind its existence. It is therefore neither academic nor polemical. Its surface of modernity is not artificial but human in a unique introspective, dramatic, and elegant manner: what is unexpected and seemingly unintelligible has emerged in an uncompromisingly modern manner akin to Mozart, Haydn, and Chopin, leading listeners to trust what they hear.

The suspicion that this might be the case emerges not exclusively from the music. The materials of Carter’s biography reveal integrity, kindness, and an almost naïve generous enthusiasm for and devotion to music as a vital medium of personal expression. Carter’s response to the predicaments of a life fully engaged in the paradoxes and contradictions of modernity was to write music honestly, from within himself. That disciplined candor, ambition, and obsession are and will remain audible and alluring no matter how difficult Carter’s music appears or may be to perform. But has there ever been any music to which we wish to return that, in the end, is easy to perform?

Echoes of the Armory Show: Modern Music in New York

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert New York Avant-Garde, performed on Oct 3, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

The Armory Show of 1913 may have been a watershed moment in the history of American visual arts—the moment when European modernism burst onto the scene, even if its influence was not immediately apparent. However, as far as the musical culture of New York and America was concerned, its Armory Show moment, when the public and the newspapers in New York confronted an “ultramodern” radical assault on accepted canons, occurred only after World War I, in the early 1920s. That 1913 did not witness a transformative event in New York’s or America’s musical life is ironic. In the history of music in Europe, 1913 was a momentous year. In the spring of that year, two unrelated events revealed to the public what appeared to be an audible assault on nineteenth-century inherited aesthetics. In March, a legendary concert took place in Vienna that resulted in a near riot and intervention by the police. Held in the city’s main concert hall, the Musikverein, the concert featured, alongside a work by Gustav Mahler, music by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern, the triumvirate of the so-called Second Viennese School, whose music would exert a significant influence in America first in the 1930s, and even more so after 1945. In May, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had its premiere in Paris with the Ballets Russes. The performance caused astonishment and open conflict (largely on account of the choreography, not the music). The media circus surrounding it assured Stravinsky lifelong notoriety and fame. However, a decade would pass before the more adventuresome music of the Rite, with its stylized evocations of the primitive, was heard in New York.

Perhaps the 1913 Armory Show and the furor it generated concerning new developments in the visual arts set the stage for comparable breakthroughs in music during the 1920s. Alluring as this might sound, what the absence of synchrony in the careers of art and music in New York reveals are independent and distinct historical trajectories of development, obvious points of comparison notwithstanding. The art world of New York in which the Armory Show came to occupy a legendary status was smaller than the city’s world of high-art musical culture. Art connoisseurship was more restricted to an elite of wealth than was the parallel involvement with and attachment to music. Since the 1880s, New York boasted a thriving music scene, framed by a busy concert life, many venues for music instruction, music publishers, instrument manufacturers, an opera season, and resident orchestras that reached an astonishingly wide segment of the population of the city, including but extending beyond an elite of patrons, a few of whom were also leading art collectors.

The public, critics, and patrons in New York who flocked to the Armory Show in February 1913 (including those who bought work from the show) were, if not concert goers, at least opera enthusiasts. There was a substantial overlap between art and music in terms of the public, far greater than that which we encounter today. However, as the design of Carnegie Hall, New York’s primary concert venue, suggests, the distribution of the audience for music was tilted in favor of a middle class. They constituted the backbone of an extensive civic musical life. Carnegie Hall had 2,800 seats, a minority of which were expensive parquet and box seats. A similar distribution was visible in the cavernous horseshoe auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera. And yet these venues were filled night after night, for nine months of the year, year after year.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, New York had established itself as a vital center of amateur music making and a prized destination in the international concert circuit. The leading virtuosi, conductors, and composers of Europe either came to New York or had their music performed there. What we now amalgamate into the misleading rubric “classical” music helped define the public realm of nineteenth-century New York. This mirrored the extensive amateur activity, patronage, connoisseurship, and criticism that emanated from the massive immigration from Europe to New York, primarily from German-speaking and eastern Europe. William Steinway, of Steinway & Sons, whose forebears from the 1850s typified the German immigration to New York, was prominent in civic affairs and part of an elite that laid the foundations for much of the city’s economic and cultural life.

Participation in the most elite aspects of musical culture did not require great wealth, only enthusiastic amateurism. Musical literacy followed on the heels of the expansion of general literacy. The interest in playing music, in reading about music, and the resulting importance of music extended well beyond those who had access to the thousands of public concert seats available each week during the concert season. New York’s two concert seasons before and after the Armory Show (in five major venues), 1912–13 and 1913–14, reveal the vast scale of New York musical life, as well as its dominant German and Central European character. In 1913, the Metropolitan Opera had a full season with world-class artists from Europe, guest conductor Arturo Toscanini first and foremost among them. The seven-month concert seasons in the years 1910 through 1914 included events by a Russian symphony orchestra as well as dozens by German-language choral and concert societies. New York was home as well to a lively array of German-language light opera and musical theater venues.

The Armory Show’s roster of artists reveals the striking contrast between the French-centered art world and the Central European sources from which the concert life of New York and America took inspiration. The Armory Show had no examples of the work of German artist Max Klinger or Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, and no representatives of the Secession movements in Munich, Berlin, or Vienna. But their equivalents in music—Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Felix Weingartner, even Edward Elgar, an English composer highly influenced by German traditions—had a considerable presence in New York by 1913. Although the leading composers of the fin de siècle in France, represented by Jules Massenet, Vincent d’Indy, Ernest Chausson, and Claude Debussy, had made their way to New York by 1913, they remained in the shadow of their German contemporaries.

When the Armory Show opened in 1913, New Yorkers already believed that they had confronted the “modern” in music. The modernism they had heard was Russian and, above all, German, and only peripherally French. The hallmarks of this fin de siècle modernism were advances in harmonic usages (for example in the music of Alexander Scriabin), the distortion of surface structure (in Mahler), and the extensions of orchestral sonorities in the service of an extreme realism in musical illustration (in Richard Strauss). The only French modernism that had made headway in New York was a perceived attenuation of formal expectations in favor of color and atmosphere (in Debussy), highlighted by the New York premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Manhattan Opera House in February 1908.

What differentiated musical culture from the visual arts in the years leading up to 1913 was that the “new” music from Europe had already earned the epithet “modern.” It was defined by the music of Mahler, Max Reger, Strauss, Ferruccio Busoni, and, to a lesser extent, Scriabin and Debussy. The high point of the first generation of musical modernism was the 1907 New York premiere of Strauss’s opera Salome. No doubt, as in the case of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), the subject matter and content of the opera produced the most astonishment. But the harmony, the sonorities, and the formal innovations in the composition did not go unnoticed. The second most memorable facet of this early form of the “modern” in music was the almost three-year tenure of Mahler at the New York Philharmonic, from 1908 to 1911, during which his programming of his own music as well as that of his contemporaries sparked dissent.

Despite the controversy Strauss and Mahler garnered, their modernism was understood as a manipulation rather than a rejection of the rhetorical conventions of late Romanticism. Indeed, the music of the entire first wave of modernism was received as ultimately compatible with an allegiance to the power of the late-Romantic idiom audible in the works of Saint-Saëns, Elgar, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. These latter composers’ works could be heard with regularity in New York in the decade in which the Armory Show was held. Their popularity helped consolidate a widespread attachment to the grammar and syntax of a nineteenth-century musical prose that was assumed by an enthusiastic educated public to be normative, and certainly the musical equivalents of late Romantic realism in painting and sculpture. American composers before World War I were overwhelmed with new European achievements. They struggled to overcome a lingering sense of backwardness and fought to be heard in concerts.

A comparable revisionism in music—a movement away from the German to the French—started with the musical modernists of the 1920s. These composers were organized into the League of Composers, which came into being in 1923, and the International Composers’ Guild, organized by Edgard Varèse in 1921. Though pitted against one another, the two organizations represented the key advocates of a new brand of avant-garde music. Their concerts and publications inspired contempt, enthusiasm, outrage, and a discourse of partisanship regarding tradition, modernity, and the nature of beauty in music comparable to the controversy surrounding the Armory Show.

Overt rejection of the fundamental premises of Romantic musical procedures and classical forms in the 1920s arrived not exclusively in the music of Europeans, but equally in the work of Americans such as Ives and Carl Ruggles (who was also a painter), whose idiosyncratic and quirky landscapes of sound seemed to have no European precedent. The 1920s also brought into public view America’s first international success in music: jazz. Jazz, whose evolution had been audible in the popular culture before World War I, became wildly popular and found its way into the concert music of younger Americans and Europeans. This second wave of musical modernism in New York of the 1920s may have been radical, and most closely analogous to the aesthetics of the Armory Show. But its most striking aspect was that it was assertively American, and if indebted to European influences, to French not Central European traditions. Modernism in the 1920s connected music, for the first time in New York, to the visual arts.

By 1930 the defense of the new and modern in music assumed a posture of superiority and progressiveness (as it had in 1913 in art). Attacking contemporary music was condemned as a philistine allegiance to German Romantic and classical traditions. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the compositions of a new generation of homegrown American “moderns” such as Ruggles, Cowell, Virgil Thomson, George Antheil, Copland (the last three with close ties to Paris), and Ives (although he was a much older figure) were heard as signs of progress. But the counterintuitive surfaces of the new music—the absence of easily comprehensible continuity, the distortion or rejection of tonality, and the angular sonorities—never became popular within the audience for music. The high modernism of the 1920s began as, and remained, the passion merely of an elite. This would spark an aesthetic crisis of conscience for many young modernists, including Copland and Cowell, who in the 1930s retreated from the radical stylistic break with tradition with which they had started their careers. Motivated after the Crash of 1929 (as were contemporaries in Europe and the Soviet Union) by socialism and progressive politics, they came to view the idea of a principled formalist and radical musical aesthetic that had no resonance within the broad public as repugnant.

What makes the Armory Show an important historical moment in the history of musical culture in America, however, is the fact that the exhibition and its modernity marked the beginning of a century-long rise to dominance of the visual arts in American culture. Music was displaced gradually from the center of New York’s cultural life as visual modernism in painting, sculpture, architecture, and photography created a truly mass audience for art. Despite its heralded and momentous appearance in the 1920s, modernist music failed to create among Americans a new or expanding audience. To the contrary, the modernism of the 1920s accelerated a process of disengagement and alienation that had begun before 1913 and by the end of the twentieth century pushed “classical” music to the margins of American culture. In art, the modernism first widely visible in 1913 at the Armory Show soon came to be accepted by the general public. In music, the equivalent second wave of modernism of the 1920s played a decisive role in reversing the expansion of the audience for concert music; it fundamentally challenged the audience’s conceits and its amateur habits. Musical modernism helped create a widening division within American musical culture. The audience for music slowly split in two, with one large sector in which anything new, even of a conservative character, assumed a marginal place, and a far smaller segment committed to contemporary and modernist developments. In the vacuum created by the marginalization of musical modernism in classical music came the burgeoning world of American popular music, from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, forms that exploited the habits of entertainment shaped by late nineteenth-century musical traditions.

Modernist music from the first quarter of the twentieth century failed to win the hearts and minds of the public for music. No equivalent in musical life and culture of the Whitney Museum of American Art or the Museum of Modern Art came into being. A century after the Armory Show, the paintings and sculpture that created the greatest furor are considered priceless; and when they are on display, they draw millions of viewers. Their most exact musical counterparts, whether in terms of chronology (in America), or aesthetic agenda remain at the margins of what people listen to today. They are, with singular exceptions (such as Stravinsky), at best accorded respect and sustained by scholarly attention. Cowell and Antheil, for example, are largely forgotten.

Musical modernism from the early twentieth century, except for jazz, has still not become beloved by the mainstream of enthusiasts of art and music. After World War II, in the wake of the movies, television, and color photography, visual culture replaced the dominance of musical culture once maintained by music as an arena of passive cultural spectatorship and amateurism and assumed a prestige as high art in the world of the economic and social elite, particularly in New York.

Classical musical culture around 1913 therefore may be regarded as a precursor to the centrality achieved by visual culture and high art during the twentieth century. That rise to popularity of the visual was led, from the Armory Show on, by modernism.

The full version of this essay may be found in the New York Historical Society’s catalogue The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution (ed. Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt) for its exhibit The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution.

Hungary Torn

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Hungary Torn, performed on May 2, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

The consequences of the rise of fascism in the 1930s and the Second World War have continued to command our attention, despite the passage of time. The reasons are largely obvious. During the war, millions of civilians were systematically selected by racial criteria, brutalized, and murdered. The destruction of the population and culture of the Jews of Europe was the result of fascism (particularly Nazism) and the war. The German initiative and widespread European complicity stand as reminders of a specifically modern barbarism. It revealed how hollow was the character of what was once understood as progress. The perpetration of violence and hate against innocent men, women, and children was the work of civilized, literate individuals living in an advanced industrial civilization. Terror, death, and dehumanization were justified by highly educated individuals, ranging from jurists to scholars, artists, university professors, and musicians. Dissent and resistance were minimal.

In recent decades attention has been given to what happened to musicians who suffered, died, and were persecuted. There have been many studies of emigration and exile. There has been also a systematic excavation of the music of composers who died in the concentration camps. The names Viktor Ullmann and Erwin Schulhoff have now become somewhat familiar to concert goers and performers.

The focus of these investigations has not only been on victims, but on patterns of collaboration. It is odd that some cases quickly became quite well known—as in the examples of Hans Pfitzner, Richard Strauss, Walter Gieseking, and Wilhelm Furtwängler—while equally egregious cases were left in relative obscurity and led to no consequences in the post-war years—as in the cases of Karl Böhm and Carl Orff.

However, as the above list indicates, the primary focus has been on events in German-speaking Europe. Tonight’s concert goes beyond that frame, to Hungary and its history between the wars and during the Second World War. For most Americans, Hungarian history (with the exception of the Revolution of 1956) is less known. The Hungary that emerged from World War I was not only broken away from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in its post-1867 legal incarnation, but it did not include all Hungarian-speaking peoples. Like Germany, a reduced Hungary felt betrayed by what were regarded as punitive peace settlements, particularly the Treaty of Trianon of 1920.

By the late 1930s, in order to appease Nazi Germany, Hungary had passed its own restrictive laws against Jews. In the interwar period, Hungary witnessed its own brand of fascism in the form of the Arrow Cross movement. In 1940, the Hungarian government became allied with the Axis powers. In 1944, German troops occupied Hungary and the Arrow Cross took control. This led to the rapid deportation of Hungary’s Jews and mass killings, as well as the heroic efforts at rescue by the legendary Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

In 1918, Hungary’s capital, Budapest, was legendary for its high percentage of Jewish inhabitants. (It still boasts the largest Jewish population of any city in central Europe outside of Russia.) The percentage of the population in 1918 that was Jewish reached 23%, inspiring German-speaking anti-Semites (German was the city’s second language until 1945) to dub the city “Juda-pest,” the “Jewish plague.” Yet Hungarian Jews, particularly in Budapest, assimilated with relative ease within Hungarian culture and society in a manner comparable to the German Jewish experience before 1914. Their contributions to science, art, and culture were disproportionately high.

For tonight’s concert, the young musician and scholar Péter Bársony has unearthed from the archives music by four Hungarian composers who suffered in this history. Three of them perished in the war. One, Ödön Pártos, emigrated to Palestine where he played a major role in the development of the musical life of Israel. And it should be noted that after 1945, Hungarian Jewry continued to contribute to the nation’s musical culture, as the post-war careers of Leó Weiner, György Ligeti, and György Kurtág, Hungary’s greatest living composer, suggest.

Most concerts of music by victims of the Holocaust become memorials. The ASO wanted to honor the music of these lesser-known victims by placing it in a concert format that went beyond the status of a eulogy for the composers as victims. For that reason, we have chosen to end the concert with a great unknown work by perhaps the least-known figure within the legendary triumvirate of Hungarian composers of the 20th century. That triumvirate consisted of Béla Bartók, Zoltän Kodály, and Ernő Dohnányi. Bartók emigrated to America in 1940. He was a staunch opponent of fascism and resented the attempt during the 1930s to appropriate his path-breaking ethnographic work on folk music and his uses of folk sources in his own music on behalf of a racialist nationalism which he, a true patriot, did not share. Kodály remained in Budapest, sought to protect Jewish colleagues, and was arrested by the Gestapo, but lived to become Communist Hungary’s most celebrated composer and a pioneer in music pedagogy.

Dohnányi, the oldest of the three, suffered from a mix of bad luck and poor judgment. He stayed in Budapest until late 1944, when the city became a war zone. He was photographed shaking hands with the notorious head of the Arrow Cross movement. He concertized during the war in Germany. But he was truly a man of little political sense. He opposed anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s; but he wished to remain as long as he could in his homeland as a practicing artist, despite the politics.

After the war, Dohnányi went through a trying de-Nazification investigation. He was not only a truly gifted composer but a great pianist and conductor. However, his reputation was damaged and he was forced to leave Europe. After a sojourn in Argentina, he relocated in 1949 to the University of Florida in Tallahassee, where he worked as a teacher until his death in 1960. Ironically, he died just as his career as a pianist was enjoying a renascence as the result of his remarkable recordings of the late Beethoven sonatas. But his standing as a composer still awaits its proper recognition. Over the years, the ASO has pioneered in this effort, performing in concert his two symphonies and his Konzertstück for cello and orchestra, and recording his Harp Concertino with ASO’s own principal harpist, Sara Cutler.

The placing of Dohnányi’s magnificent Mass as the final work on tonight’s program is intended to return the music of those who were victims to its proper context—as part of a noble 20th-century tradition of high art music within Hungary, a country with a keen national sensibility, and a Catholic majority, as well as a significant Calvinist minority. The Mass, composed in 1930, also points out the vulnerability of traditional culture, religion, and communal feelings of national solidarity when faced with the aggressive, reductive, and cruel politics of prejudice and xenophobia, and with the rejection of democratic practices that secure freedom and dissent and which protect us from the tyranny of the majority and of a single ideology.

One might have hoped that these dangers would in the 21st century be merely matters of historical memory. But apparently the lessons of history have not yet been learned quite as well as we might wish in contemporary Europe, including in the new democracies that came into being after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War.

The Vampire

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Vampire, performed on March 17, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

The great novelist Vladimir Nabokov ridiculed the common impulse to find symbolic meaning, particularly of a Freudian kind, in any narrative or witnessed event. But he might have made an exception for the long-standing fascination in Western culture for vampires. Of all the manifestation of the supernatural, vampires have had the most enduring and adaptable symbolic value for the last two centuries. Without accounting for this utility, it would be difficult to understand why otherwise intelligent people would be so obsessed by what Bram Stoker called the “undead” : individuals who have been infected by like-minded individuals with a need drink blood, who rest by day in coffins, are afraid of light and (in some versions) of garlic and mirrors. They can be killed (or re-killed) only by driving a stake through their heart or by exposing them to the light of day.

The vampire stories are a clear case in which the symbolic completely trumps any literal meaning. It is possible to trace the various features of the legend to popular (and not unwarranted) fears, such as being buried alive, the mysterious powers of blood and of the moon, etc. But the development of the story through the 19th century suggests that first and foremost it is about the connection between sex and death. It reminds us that our sexual drive, when realized, forces a confrontation with our own mortality. In the Christian narrative, the loss of innocence triggers two forms of consciousness: the recognition of mortality and the recognition of desire and sexuality. In Western culture, love and death are strange but inseparable bed fellows. Therefore, love and death are not surprisingly the only subjects that make for great opera. Whatever the operatic plot may be, the potential for love and death must be present even if not realized. Despite its obvious adaptability to the worst kitsch and the silliest of teenage entertainment, the vampire story has, like opera, offered a powerful analogy to our complex responses to love and death, two of the most powerful sources of meaning in life.

Another analogy offered by the figure of the vampire, especially after Dracula, is our ambivalence toward those who are outside society, either because they possess unique qualities or because they romantically suffer from a tragic affliction. They are greeted with both desire and fear. The magnetism of the ordinary person to the vampire is an attraction to taboo-breaking freedom, deviance and dissent from the usual rules. Much like the “other,” the non-European that Europe created in fanciful tales of the East, the vampire is compelling precisely because his or her presence calls into question the vapid, oppressive rules of society. It is no wonder that the vampire’s most compelling embodiment, Dracula, was a product of the Victorian age, and that in refining his vampire, Stoker decided to displace the folktales of his native Ireland to Romania, then a remote border region next to the Turkish empire. For 19th-century Europeans who were dulled by routine and industrialized urban life, the vampire is the ultimate figure of the artist and thinker who doesn’t play by the rules and is impossible to ignore. In that respect, the dangerous vampire offered the same vicarious, passionate experience that audiences sought in the operas of Wagner, full of larger-than-life figures who suffered, created, used magic, and dared the gods. The rebellious power of the vampire is perhaps nowhere better acknowledged than by the dictator Ceausescu’s banning of Stoker’s book in Romania. The Romanian government found the novel to be insulting, but clearly a story about breaking the rules and defying conformity would not find favor with the tyrant. Incidentally, Dracula was one of the first books translated into Romanian after Ceausescu’s fall.

The most resonant and complicated taboo symbolized by the vampire, however, was and is sexuality. In earlier vampire stories such as Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Stoker’s countryman, the vampire is female, and clearly represents a familiar story about the fear of female sexuality. But later accounts often have a central male figure who may or may not have female companions trailing behind him. Scholars such as Eve Sedgwick have argued that this shift in focus to male vampires suggest that the real sexual tension in vampires stories is not between the vampire and his female victims, but between the vampire and the mortal men who defend the women. In other words, the focus of sexual fear for an implied male reader has moved from female sexuality to male sexuality. Modern readers familiar with Dracula films are often surprised to find that the novel is mostly about how the vampire invokes a deep bond between the male characters pledged to protect the nearly invisible young woman. The vampire of our opera, Lord Ruthven, is, as Thomas Grey points out in his fine notes to this concert, a relative of Don Giovanni, whose devastating attractiveness derives from his aesthetic refinement and poetic sensibilities. Ruthven-Giovanni mirrors late 18th- and early 19th-century notions of the masculine, in which aesthetic sensibility, refinement, and elegance were more important, as they were for Lord Byron, than brawny insensitivity and a disposition to warlike behavior, a distinction to the ideal of masculinity which we have inherited from the later part of the century. Marschner’s libretto also points forward particularly to Wagner in its emphasis on the relations between men. Nominally Tristan und Isolde is about the love between Tristan and King Mark’s intended bride. In order for Tristan to love Isolde he must betray King Mark, but that betrayal is made possible only by a magic potion, not Tristan’s free will. Tristan’s transgression is in his unfaithfulness to his male friend (thus the greatest music—between King Mark and Tristan—comes at the end of Act II). In today’s opera, Aubrey’s seemingly incomprehensible adherence to an oath made to Ruthven even to the point of endangering his fiancée suggests how compelling the male relationship is.

The vampire story can invoke such possibilities and offer tantalizing alternatives to staid, acceptable European mores, but in the end, those mores and the rules of society must prevail, and so the vampire must die. But he has shown that he will always return. He has been embraced as an enduring image in popular culture over generations, especially in cinema and television. This may explain why he has not been seen more in operas like this one, where he perfectly embodies so many of the themes and symbols so cherished in operatic stories. Today’s opera is a tribute to the imagination and literary gifts that flourished in the early 19th century. He is too much a favorite of the most puerile media—from Dracula to Count Chocula. But who can tell? Perish the thought, but perhaps someday we may see an operatic treatment of The Twilight Saga.

Musical Expression and the Challenge of Twentieth Century History

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Truth or Truffles, performed on Feb 10, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

19th-century Europe witnessed unprecedented social and economic transformations. Among the most lasting (albeit erratic) of these was the expansion of literacy, most noticeable in Europe’s rapidly growing cities. With the spread of literacy came the standardization of orthography, inexpensive books, lending libraries, public libraries and the emergence of journalism—daily newspapers, weekly magazines, and regular periodicals. A myriad of local and regional public spheres took shape, as did a world of public opinion. These in turn spawned movements and ideologies, not only concerning politics and social questions, but matters of taste and value—everything from fashion to religion.

Notably in German-speaking Europe, literacy in music developed rapidly in the wake of the expansion of reading and writing. That this historical development coincided with flowering of musical romanticism was perhaps more than a coincidence. By the 1830s, the musical culture that was taking hold was increasingly bound up with language. A shared musical rhetoric emerged that came to frame conversations and convictions. It was communicated through the medium of the song, opera, and novel forms of instrumental music, from short works for the solo piano expressive of sensibilities to larger scale instrumental works that assumed an illustrative story telling function.

Inevitably music became the object of philosophic speculation. Was music fundamentally different from language and meaningful in a manner that could not be expressed in language? Or was music inherently tied to linguistic meaning, suggesting what ultimately became a widespread assumption of a parallelism between music and language. Enthusiasm for dynamics between music and meaning was timely, for as the public for music increased so too did the belief that music was especially potent psychologically as a means of expression. Music became invested with a power to convey, in its own way, emotions, ideas, and sentiments we normally associate with language but seem unnaturally trapped by speech and reason.

It was this premium on music’s expressiveness, and on the intense intermingling of music with language against which many early 20th century modernist composers rebelled. Romanticism in music had degenerated into a species of vulgar realism. In an effort to reclaim the autonomy of music and rescue it from the status of sonic decoration, composers turned away from the inherited conventions of 19th century musical logic. Modernism rejected the idea that music was expressive of something other than itself, or that music could give voice to love, desire, regret, heroism, loss, solitude, and community.

What propelled this modernist rebellion most of all was the recognition, after the carnage of the First World War, that the clichés of musical romanticism had turned a noble art form into a handmaiden for a culture that much like the language of cheap journalism had succeeded in rendering inhumanity, cruelty, antipathy, and violence aesthetically pleasing.

This concert takes a candid and controversial look at the musical culture which developed during the 19th century and was bequeathed to the 20th. It sets in opposition to one another two master composers from different generations who died at mid-century. Richard Strauss is arguably the most facile and versatile master of musical traditions and musical thinking. There was nothing in musical composition he could not do. At the same time, he was accused by his contemporaries (rivals and admirers alike) of an excess of ironic detachment, a corrosive cynicism born out of his immense facility. Nothing seemed to matter to him. Everything was done for effect and too often his elegantly crafted and astonishingly appealing music descended into kitsch, an empty sentiment entirely different from the anguished profundity of his contemporary, Gustav Mahler.

In Strauss’s long career, only two moments have escaped critical derision: the period before 1911, during which the famous tone poems and Salome and Elektra were composed; and the so called “Indian Summer,” Strauss’s last years during the 1940s. Strauss’s music from the 1920s has long been regarded as tired, empty, and forgettable. Indeed, given Strauss’s collaboration with the Nazi regime, his music from the 1920s and 1930s came to represent the most corrupt and embarrassing (albeit skilled) example of music as an explicitly expressive medium that manipulated rather than elevated its audience.

To challenge this conventional view, this program features Strauss’s perhaps least-respected score, a piece that was excoriated at its premiere and has remained dismissed as a minor if not tasteless and uninspired venture by even the composer’s most ardent defenders. The work, Schlagobers, is a ballet score modeled after Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. It was written in the midst of the worst economic circumstances in Central Europe in the 1920s. Strauss’s attempt at lightness, humor, delicacy, and charm fell flat. Nothing could have shed a worse light on Strauss the man and the composer.

But is this judgment fair? Perhaps the virtuosity of musical realism and narration that Strauss reveals in this score, the sensuality of the orchestration and the unabashed rehearsal of clichés and tricks tell a different story, one of fantasy, enthusiasm, delight, magical unreality, and the dream of that brief escape into another sense of time and space that the darkest of times call into being. Perhaps Strauss marshaled all the inherited conventions of musical communication to recapture, briefly, the innocent fleeting childlike beauty of the present moment in a manner unique to only to music. In this spirit, we revisit this score without apology and with admiration for its craftsmanship and possibly its outrageously cloaked and unrestrained idealism. It deserves a new look. Perhaps Schlagobers can take its place alongside The Nutcracker and offer some welcome relief from that overplayed score during Christmastime with a delightful ballet that can enchant children and distract their parents, however briefly.

The other work on today’s program dates from the post-World War II era. The ASO has championed the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann over the past 20 years. I regard him as one of the great masters of the 20th century, whose stature and achievement rival that of Alban Berg and Dmitri Shostakovich. Hartmann inherited an ambition regarding the power of musical expression that sought to link ethics with art. He remained, however, a conservative modernist. Influenced by Mahler, Schoenberg, and Berg, Hartmann understood his vocation as a composer as one of conscience and opposition to evil. He was committed to the redemption of musical expression and communication from the vulgar, the commonplace and the complicit. His music and his life were cut from one fabric—a fabric of impregnable integrity, humility, and courage in the face of radical evil. If Strauss was the master of ironic detachment and profound philosophic pessimism, Hartmann was the master of truth telling, and unabashed intensity in music marked by the tireless struggle against despair. The work heard today was Hartmann’s last and is an unforgettable masterpiece in the tradition of Mahler and Berg.

The encounter at this concert is therefore with two seemingly incompatible consequences of more than a century of European musical culture. Drawing on the very same traditions of musical form, shared conventions of musical development and sonority and using the same instrument—the modern orchestra—they both in separate ways seek to celebrate the human imagination through the inherent unreality of the musical experience as an antidote to the everyday experience of suffering, fear, and cruelty. In seemingly disparate ways they both sought to inspire us to realize that if human life matters and time is precious, then music matters too.

What Makes a Masterpiece

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert What Makes a Masterpiece, performed on Jan 25, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

It is rare that one gets to match wits with a distinguished colleague before the public on a subject, and debate a matter of importance. As a reader of the program notes to tonight’s concert will discover, my good friend David Brodbeck and I do not quite see eye to eye. Therefore tonight may, in retrospect, have the feel of a public debate. It is a pleasure to be part of a controversy in an art form that often appears to be so staid.

After all, tonight’s concert was designed to challenge received wisdom about the merits of musical works, and the criteria by which we judge music. The premise of the concert is one that has been responsible for much of the ASO’s programming over the past two decades. We believe that inherited verdicts of quality are too readily accepted, and that we succumb uncritically to the so-called judgment of history. Is what has been handed down to us as canonical and superior really so, or is the standard concert repertory more of a biased and perhaps lax selection from the past? Could the standards that earn a historical work of music a regular place on today’s concert stage be narrow and even arbitrary, and perhaps reveal a distortion of history?

In order to pursue this challenge, highlight the inadequacy of today’s account of our musical heritage, and expose the poverty of the accepted selection of works from the past which are performed all too frequently in concert life, the ASO has chosen to organize a closely argued experiment in the form of a concert. We will perform three symphonies that exhibit common formal characteristics, share aesthetic premises, and are all in minor keys. All three were either composed or revised in the decade of the 1880s by composers who shared biographical connections and one language in common: German.

The three works on tonight’s program are all properly identified in the notes to this concert written by the eminent scholar, David Brodbeck. He acknowledges the program as being made up of an obscure symphony by and obscure composer, a neglected work by a famous composer, and a famous work by a famous composer.

But there is where the debate begins. Brodbeck offers the accepted judgment of history, and therefore the standard view. Herzogenberg’s symphony is judged the work of an epigone, and little more than a pale reflection of Brahms. Its presumed lack of originality has been the source of its obscurity. Brodbeck deems the work “workmanlike” and “cleanly executed” and therefore “from time to time” worthy of being heard. The Dvořák, even in its revision, is judged a failure, except for the two inner movements. The symphony’s merit seems to rest in the idea that these “better” movements prefigure the “mature” Dvořák we all know and love. In other words, the main reason to tolerate Dvořák’s Fourth Symphony is because of our longstanding attachment to the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies (and possibly Nos. 5 and 6). But is this the best that can be said of the Fourth? What exactly is deficient about it?

Brahms’s Fourth is an acknowledged masterpiece the merit of which Brodbeck rightly knows requires no defense or argument. There is indeed no point or purpose in taking issue with the accepted view of Brahms’s E-minor symphony. But is Brodbeck’s comparative assessment of the weakness of the other two—the standard view in the critical and scholarly literature—justified? How can we locate and challenge the presumed objective criteria that render the account of the supposed shortcomings of the other works valid? That prescriptive notion is precisely what this program, in explicitly juxtaposing these three symphonies, attempts to explode.

For do we always listen, look, or read only in a comparative mode, thinking about experiences with works of art that strike us as better or worse? If that were the case, we could conceivably select one kind of novel, one painting, or one film to enjoy and then disregard all the rest. Rather, we enlarge our experience by understanding that, beyond issues of personal taste, what makes a worthy piece or even a masterpiece are not necessarily some immutable objective attributes, but the shifting discriminations within the passing eras of history. Is Dvořák’s Fourth somehow lesser or not worth hearing because we also have Brahms’s Fourth? Is Dvořák’s Fourth somehow “weak” or not deserving of performance because his Eighth and Ninth symphonies have become more popular?

How does Herzogenberg’s Symphony No. 1 hold up now, more than a century after it was written? Brahms was not generous in his assessment, but during his lifetime, Herzogenberg was considered by many to be a composer of stature, albeit in the orbit of Brahms. What caused the difference in the way we hear both of their symphonies? How do our reactions differ from the way their original audiences heard them? Perhaps we should not be guided by Brahms’s well-known harsh opinions. At the age of 60 he destroyed many of his own works, much to the dismay of his most ardent admirers, including Clara Schumann.

This concert exists because we welcome the opportunity for an audience to come to its own conclusions. Faced with these three comparable works, no one expects our collective opinion about Brahms to change. But perhaps the time has come to revisit a less familiar Dvořák symphony—a powerful and ambitious work—as well as to give the Herzogenberg symphony a second chance.

At issue are our reactions to the way musical time is framed by composers from this historical era. What is the character of their musical materials, what is the manner in which they elaborate them, and how do they choose to construct a musical argument? Given a shared musical grammar and vocabulary, what seems to be at stake for each of these composers? Absent an explicit program or narrative, what do these works tell us about musical meaning and communication at the end of the 19th century—the transaction between composer and listener? How have our expectations regarding tradition and innovation in music changed? What are the continuities and discontinuities in our musical culture? How does the meaning of music change over time?

Such reflections are hard for us to engage in if we only play and listen to a few works that have been repeated so often that they have lost all connection to their historical context. They stand, cut off from their roots, as revered relics burdened by their own extensive performance history and a daunting body of criticism.

By placing these three works side by side we invite audiences to find new ways of thinking about familiar subjects. Dvořák is still known primarily for a few works, and for his reputation as a Czech and quintessentially a voice within the concert repertory suggestive of a particular ethnic folk tradition. Placed alongside Brahms, Dvořák may appear to lack the gravitas we attribute to Brahms, even though Brahms would have recoiled at such a judgment and found it ludicrous. Brahms, after all, volunteered to proofread Dvořák’s works for publication, a singular gesture of respect.

And what shall we make of Heinrich von Herzogenberg, whom we now remember largely on account of his wife? Her famous correspondence and friendship with Brahms (who deeply admired her) provide essential clues to understanding that enigmatic composer. The music in this symphony suggests depth and eloquence. It possesses the capacity to reward both player and listener by offering a touching and memorable encounter with music. Is it possible to see Herzogenberg as an artist of distinction rather than a forgettable epigone?

“Such a conjecture does no harm to the belief that Brahms’s Fourth is an exceptional work. In fact, let us hope that hearing these infrequently performed works tonight alongside an acknowledged masterpiece might just stimulate our curiosity to search out other neglected works from the past, and to anticipate with pleasure the prospect of hearing Dvořák’s Fourth and the music of Herzogenberg again soon.

John Cage at 100

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Cage Concert, performed on Dec 13, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

This ASO tribute to John Cage comes barely three months after what would have been the composer’s 100th birthday, and at the end of a year of Cage celebrations all over the world. John Cage fits perfectly into the ASO’s ongoing exploration of the achievement of American composers from the 20th century, which during the past three seasons has featured Henry Cowell, George Crumb, and Walter Piston. But there is a special reason for the ASO to focus on Cage, and it stems from the relationship between the ASO and Bard College, where the orchestra is in residence each year as part of Summerscape.

In 2007, Cage’s longtime collaborator and friend, the late Merce Cunningham, decided that it would be better for the John Cage Trust, which oversees Cage’s archives and performance materials, to be placed in residence at Bard. The director of the archives, Dr. Laura Kuhn, who authored the notes for today’s concert, is now a member of the Bard faculty, and helped curate this program. Three of Bard’s faculty members have linkages to Cage and his legacy: the composer Richard Teitelbaum (who has also been a staunch advocate of the music of Henry Cowell); Kyle Gann, the composer and music historian, whose recent book on Cage was met with critical acclaim; and Joan Retallack, the poet, who has written extensively on Cage. Cage paid a visit to Bard in the late 1970s. One of the most memorable events I have performed in at Bard was the concert marking the installation of the Cage Trust at Bard that included a performance of Cage’s “Lecture on the Weather” with Merce Cunningham, John Ashbery, Jasper Johns, and myself.

The presence of a poet, a painter, and choreographer in a performance of a Cage work succinctly expresses the extraordinary influence that John Cage exerted on all of the arts during the second half of the 20th century. Cage continues to fascinate composers, poets, and visual artists. Perhaps no composer since Richard Wagner has had as great a following outside of music, particularly in the arts and in the realm of ideas, owing to the power of his writings. It is ironic that many more people have read John Cage than have sought to, or managed to listen to his music. And even a larger number (as in the case of Wagner) believe they understand Cage and his meaning and impact without having read Cage or heard Cage’s music.

In its own way, Cage’s approach to music emerges out of a Wagnerian conceit that all of the arts are interrelated. But Cage traveled from that premise along his own path toward exploding the traditional boundaries and distinctions between art and life. He did so in a manner inextricably linked to the events of the 20th century, particularly its challenges to inherited notions of space and time.

Much nonsense has been written about the intellectual and aesthetic consequences of the discoveries of modern physics, beginning with Einstein’s articulation of the special theory of relativity. But at its core, the revolution in modern physics debunked notions of absolute time and space and the privileging of a single universal frame of reference. No frame of reference had priority as a point of observation and measurement. Much like the deleterious translation of Darwinian thought into popular culture and social theory that has haunted everyday conversations and prejudices about human nature, the dynamics of competition, the emergence of social elites, and invidious distinctions between so-called “races,” the transporting of the precise language of physics into the realm of aesthetics (and more gravely, ethics) has resulted in many soft-headed notions about there being no truth in the world and no criteria for making distinctions or comparisons, just a myriad of subjective perspectives.

Nonetheless, the post-Newtonian science of Einstein and his contemporaries contributed to a cultural climate that emboldened a new generation of composers in the first half of the 20th century to contest what was once held as the natural objective validity of tonality and musical form. It inspired among European and American composers a renewed non-condescending respect for other systems of music outside of the West. This cultural climate of the mid-20th century in which Cage came of age inspired him to think in a shatteringly original way about sound and silence, about the artificiality of the barriers between constructed musical space and ambient sound. His writings rendered the question of what constitutes music into a never-ending, complex, ambiguous, and exciting exploratory enterprise. The same cultural context fueled the opposite tendency—the effort by composers to control musical time more precisely. Stravinsky was attracted, for example, to the pianola by the idea that the intentionality of a work of music could be rendered objectively.

Cage contested the claim that there is a marked difference between our efforts to locate and place every sound in relation to other sounds in a musical composition—which became a near obsession among certain composers of the mid-20th century—and the manipulation of sound using chance, indeterminacy, randomness, or unpredictability. Modernists following in the path of Schoenberg, with whom Cage briefly studied, sought to protect their compositions from the sloppy inaccuracy and romantic expressiveness of performers by using precise metronome markings and elaborate performance indications. Cage charted a different strategy, embracing a more fluid and permeable sense of the perception of time and the creation of musical communication.

The issues and challenges that Cage raised remain alive and actual in our own time. His writings and works have an increasing and not declining following all over the world. No American composer with the possible exception of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin has exerted such a powerful international influence. There is something uncannily American—in the sense of Walt Whitman—about John Cage, his thought, his music, his engagement with other media, and the conduct of his life. His career has shaped our sense of what we mean when we call an artist “original.”

At his core, however, John Cage was a musician and a composer. It is as a composer of larger scale works that we remember him at this concert. His most famous work, 4’33’’ was performed first by one instrumentalist. Furthermore, rather than represent Cage with an evening of all his own music taken from several periods, we decided to honor Cage by placing him, despite his startling individuality, squarely within the history of 20th-century music. For that reason, the program features a work by Erik Satie, whom Cage admired and who can be seen as a direct inspiration. Satie, alongside Alfred Jarry (the author of Ubu Roi), was perhaps modernism’s genuinely avant-garde composer, whose music, with its veneer of simplicity, took on the historicist cultural traditions of the late 19th century. Indeed, in his notes for the performance of Cheap Imitation, Cage connects his imitation of Satie’s Socrate to the I Ching, a text central to Cage’s thought and career.

The Webern on this program links Cage to the one composer out of the second Viennese School who pioneered in the distillation of sound and the explicit use of silence, and the decaying spaces between types of sound and timbres as compositional elements. The Webern points to the common biographical ground between Cage and Morton Feldman, whose work on this program pursues, in a manner somewhat different from Cage, notions of indeterminacy and the varieties of the perception of the musical experience as resistant to standardization. And Feldman shared with Cage a deep interest in the visual experience and the connection between the aural and visual experiences. Framed by one contemporary, Feldman, and two predecessors, the program features a rare performance of the two sets of Etcetera, which date from the last phase of Cage’s career.

Just in case the traditional concert audience harbors the commonplace belief that playing music that is not notated in the traditional manner and which leaves many decisions and choices to each individual player is somehow an undisciplined form of music-making requiring less rehearsal and practice than the rendering of a Tchaikovsky symphony, it should be noted that Cage and Feldman are extraordinarily precise in their instructions. Indeed performing one of these works requires more rather than less rehearsal, because the possibilities of what can be realized are that much greater.

The prejudices against what was regarded as Cage’s form of radical modernism have never been quite erased. It would be foolish to dismiss them as mere philistinism, just as it would be offensive to assume that just because an approach to music represents itself as a radical departure from tradition it is superior owing to its novelty. One can get a succinct notion of how disciplined and serious Cage’s enterprise as a composer was from the closing paragraphs of his notes to the performers for Cheap Imitation:

Not less than two weeks before a projected performance each musician shall be given his part.

During the first week he will learn the melody, at least those phrases of it in which he participates. He is to learn, among other matters, to play double sharps and double flats without writing in simpler “equivalent” notes.

During the second week there will be orchestra rehearsals on each day, each rehearsal lasting 1 ½ hours. If, at anytime, it appears that any member of the orchestra does not know his part, he is to be dismissed. If as a result one of the essential 24 parts is missing, the projected performance is to be cancelled.

John Cage’s legacy will continue to command attention during the 21st century. His stature within the world of performance art, the visual arts, and aesthetic thought is nearly unrivaled. But Cage the composer and his music still require advocacy.

The ASO at Fifty

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Fiftieth Birthday Celebration, performed on Oct 26, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

Tonight’s concert is not just a season opener; it marks fifty years of concerts by the American Symphony Orchestra.

The founding of the ASO was an act of vision by the great conductor and charismatic personality, Leopold Stokowski. In 1962, the New York Philharmonic moved to the new Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, leaving Carnegie Hall, New York’ s historic, endangered, and magnificent concert venue without a resident orchestra. The ASO was formed to fill that gap.

But Stokowski sought to do more than compensate for the loss of the New York Philharmonic. He realized that a period of European hegemony in the training of classical musicians in America had come to an end. In 1962, America resembled the China we see today in terms of classical music. The talent born and raised in the United States was outstripping that within Europe and the rest of the world. But most American orchestras still defined themselves in terms of musicians from Europe and European traditions. Stokowski created the ASO to give young American musicians a chance to launch their professional careers and be part of a new American venture that celebrated American traditions (as well as others) in classical music.

Stokowski also recognized an opportunity to return to his own singular artistic vision as a music director. He had been a pioneer in orchestral programming and created a distinctive orchestral sound during his tenure at the Philadelphia Orchestra before World War II. His international reputation was based in part on his courage with respect to repertoire, not just his ear for sound and his theatrical gifts. He envisioned the ASO as a new beginning.

Stokowski had just turned 80 and he wished to impart to a young orchestra his irreverent sense of adventure and innovation. He wanted the ASO to reach well beyond the standard repertory. The American Symphony Orchestra in its first seasons premiered and recorded many works other conductors rejected. We have continued this practice and gone further by making most of our live performances available for download on the internet. Stokowski made history in 1965. He singled out a work by America’s most controversial and original composer of the early twentieth century, one that had been deemed un-performable: Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony, a work you will hear tonight. Tonight we link that ASO world premiere with one from Stokowski’s Philadelphia years, his celebrated first American performance in 1916 of Mahler’s massive Eighth Symphony (which he repeated in New York at the Metropolitan Opera), a work, despite its monumental architecture, that remains controversial even within the now highly popular canon of Mahler’s symphonies.

In addition to assembling a young American membership and offering cutting-edge concert programming, Stokowski introduced a third dimension into the mission of the ASO. This idea was to offer concerts at prices that could be afforded by all citizens in a democratic society. New York had witnessed many similar attempts at this ideal. But by the 1960s most had disappeared. Only in the summer months were there still wonderful and inexpensive regular outdoor concerts at Lewisohn Stadium at City College. Stokowski’s founding of the ASO was indeed prescient, for the summer series at Lewisohn Stadium would come to an end by the close of the decade. The AS0, with considerable effort, has struggled to remain true to this mission. We honor Stokowski’s intention tonight precisely by offering this concert at the same ticket price as at the opening concert of the American Symphony in October 1962.

Stokowski’s idealism seemed in tune with history. The 1950s and 1960s were years of unprecedented prosperity in the United States. The general economic and cultural optimism (including President Kennedy’s creation of the National Endowment for the Arts) was felt with particular intensity in the business of classical music. With the advent of the long-playing record, advances in radio and broadcasting, and the arrival of television, it appeared as if the traditions of concert music could be extended to a wider audience than ever before in a practical fashion, and that an enthusiastic and sufficient consumer market for it could emerge.

During the Cold War, the Iron Curtain countries had made live concert music affordable to anyone through state subsidy. Concert life thrived throughout the Soviet Empire, though with oppressive state control. By the early 1960s in the United States and the rest of what was deemed the “free world,” it was thought that economic prosperity might produce a similar result in a free market environment. In America, symphonic music had always been an extremely expensive art form requiring patronage from the social and financial elite. But in the decades following World War II, multiple income sources from performances, recordings, and broadcasting seemed profitable enough to carry this expense in a more commercial manner and more independent of philanthropic largesse. That the ASO opened with strikingly inexpensive tickets reflected a widespread belief that orchestral music could be emancipated from dependence on patronage, whether by a monarchy, an aristocracy, or direct subvention from the modern nation state, democratic or authoritarian. In other words, a symphony orchestra could thrive as an open-market commodity in a democratic society.

In the fifty years that have passed since 1962, these premises and ideals upon which Stokowski modeled the ASO’s mission have only partly been realized. The United States continues to produce first-class musicians, but that is because of the excellence of its institutions, its conservatories and universities. The largest source of talent for these American institutions, however, comes now not from North America, but from Asia. Nevertheless, from a global perspective, his instinct was on the mark. There is no question that the quality and number of musicians prepared to play in first-class orchestras today are unprecedented. As in sports, the technical standards of performance have reached the highest levels in history.

Furthermore, Stokowski was prophetic in identifying the need to diversify and expand the repertory. That need, if anything, has become more urgent since 1962. When Stokowski founded the ASO, Leonard Bernstein was the music director of the New York Philharmonic. The New York Philharmonic programs Bernstein presided over reveal a range and enterprise that were exceptional. The same can be said of Bernstein’s immediate successor, Pierre Boulez. Yet the trend from the 1970s on has been increasingly conservative. For many reasons, orchestral programming around the world has become far more risk-averse and conventional than it was in 1962.

But the hope that has most distressingly failed to materialize is the expectation regarding the economic conditions of the orchestra. The changes in technology and communication that were supposed to expand the economic viability and commercial market for orchestra music have, it turns out, undermined it by producing an overwhelming competition in alternative media—cinema, television, video games, internet, mobile devices—in a way that Stokowski’s audiences could never have imagined. Today, technology has altered the very concept of audience, as well as the phenomena of fame, popular demand, dissemination, and critical influence. Instead of developing a wider market for orchestral music, the sea-change in media has put many orchestras in danger of becoming fossilized in a reactionary construct of tradition and a standard repertory, a powerful but distorted representation of the history of music.

Hector Berlioz once lamented that composing symphonic music was an irrational activity because it inevitably required the largesse of a very few people in order to be heard. In the immediate post-World War II years it was thought this circumstance could be changed. But Berlioz has turned out to be right. Already in 1966, William Baumol and William Bowen published their now legendary study on the inherent unsustainability of the orchestra in a market economy. A recent study, economist Robert J. Flanagan’s The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, gives a compelling account of the probable fate of orchestras if forced to operate solely on a commercial earned-income basis. Flanagan makes it abundantly clear that if orchestras are to survive (and many will not), there can be no expectation that they will survive on the basis of ticket sales or standard models of business efficiency. The legitimate requirements of a living wage among musicians have driven the cost of orchestras well beyond what can be reasonably passed on to ticket buyers. If orchestral music is to be made available at reasonable prices to a diverse public in a democratic society today, then orchestral music and opera once again will require, as Berlioz observed, massive patronage, philanthropic largesse from the wealthy, the state, or alliances with not-for-profit institutions that serve the public good.

The challenge facing classical music today is not a depletion of audience or potential audience, or the aging of the audience. The real problem is that the very wealthy no longer consider it their civic responsibility to contribute to the traditions of the symphony orchestra. Their attentions have turned elsewhere. The great patrons of orchestral music, especially in the twentieth century, were often lovers of music and amateurs, but even those who were not felt it their duty to enhance the quality of life in the cities in which they lived. Civic leadership meant the creation of great artistic institutions that would make the city great. It is ironic that one single donor—Samuel Rubin—made the ASO possible in 1962, just as one single donor made Carnegie Hall possible in 1891. When Rubin died, the ASO almost died with him. The tradition of philanthropy that Rubin represented is fading. If orchestras are to survive this century, they will have to build innovative partnerships with like-minded institutions such as universities and foundations, which function to preserve and promote the non-commercial pursuits, discoveries, and accomplishments that define our cultural heritage.

In the face of crushing constraints, the ASO during the last twenty years has sought to perpetuate Stokowski’s vision. The ASO owes a debt to its loyal audience, to its donors, and to those institutions that have partnered with it, particularly Bard College. In the past twenty years we have focused mainly on two objectives. The first is a reconsideration of the rich history of orchestral music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We have brought back unjustly forgotten repertoire. Precisely owing to the changing character of culture and education, the ASO has tried to expand the audience for symphonic music by programming in a new way, highlighting the enormous diversity of all that is out there, rather than simply repeating the works that audiences seem to know best.

In a universe of such wide-ranging repertory, it becomes more difficult to dismiss orchestral music as a remote, arcane field. We believe that rejecting orchestral music because one may not like Beethoven is akin to rejecting reading because Shakespeare seems obscure, or deciding all cinema is useless because one saw a few ghastly movies. The ASO does not passively accept the idea that concert music can be represented by just a few works, or that it is an activity detached from the conduct of ordinary life. Even the greatest music will not be interesting if listeners see no connection between it and their own experience. Therefore the second objective has been to reinstate the link between music and other aspects of culture such as the visual arts, politics, literature, and history itself. ASO subscribers will have a better perspective on the Pussy Riot incident (which, incidentally, took place in the Church for whose dedication Tchaikovsky composed the 1812 Overture) if they saw the several programs we presented on music under Soviet rule. Fans of The Twilight Saga might be fascinated to know that an opera written back in the nineteenth century (Marschner’s Der Vampyr, which will be performed this season) was based on one of the original great vampire stories.

ASO’s aim during the past two decades has been a variation on Stokowski’s original purpose. Our intent has been to show that orchestral music is still connected to many concepts and issues that continue to engage us today. Listeners can get unique insights on such matters (including their favorite standard works) from listening to music framed in its proper and varied historical contexts. There has been, thankfully, a growth in the number of ensembles devoted to new music. Therefore, the ASO has focused on music from the past, with a view that the way we represent history is as much a part of the present as the performance of new music.

At the same time, the ASO has stayed true to Stokowski’s vision of moderate ticket prices to ensure wide accessibility. The ASO also continues to explore new ways of linking performing arts organizations with the university community, particularly by integrating the worlds of scholarship in music with traditions of performance. That kind of relationship has characterized the “early” music field for some time, but only recently has it begun to establish itself in music of later periods. And ASO has actively established award-winning educational programs, collaborations with high schools and middle schools.

As we look back over the last fifty years, it becomes clear that the period of enormous expansion in the number of performances, orchestras, summer festivals, and concert venues is coming to an end. Particularly since the financial crisis of 2008, the prospect of contraction for any orchestra is real and inevitable. These circumstances have given rise to a general sense of fear and pessimism regarding the future of orchestral concert performances. There is a lively, burgeoning world of new music, particularly for smaller ensembles, and to a limited extent in theater and opera. But the daunting scale and cost of orchestral concerts has placed the symphony orchestra and its work on a precarious path. ASO has tried to resist the natural tendency to respond to such fear and uncertainty with increased conservatism and risk-avoidance. Instead, with the enthusiastic support of its musicians, the ASO has continued to pursue the new and the unexplored, in keeping with the spirit of Stokowski. We try to design every concert to be enjoyable for the novice, for the connoisseur, and for everyone in between.

To mark our fiftieth anniversary we are performing Ives and Mahler because both had a unique relationship with Stokowski and therefore the history of this orchestra. But there is more. Ives and Mahler were contemporaries. There has always been a suspicion that on his last trip home to Vienna from New York in 1911, Mahler carried with him a manuscript of Ives’ music. Both composers experimented with music as an instrument of memory and the perception of time. Both evoked memories of childhood and reflected on modernity through the lens of a critical nostalgia. They were concerned with the idea that the past was refracted by missing and distorted memory. Both had a self-conscious reaction to the conceits of late Romanticism and the notion that music should be understood along the lines of a narrative, realistic novel. Both experimented with instrumental sound and symphonic form. That the ASO has been a New York City-based orchestra makes the pairing of these two composers a natural act of remembrance. Charles Ives lived and worked in the city of New York during the years that Gustav Mahler conducted at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. It was during Mahler’s New York years, in 1910, that his Eighth Symphony had its premiere in Munich. Whether Mahler and Ives actually ever met, no one will ever know, but it is certain that these two historic figures—one a central European Jew, the other a Yale graduate and son of a Connecticut bandleader—intersected on a level of influence and memory, just as we hope that by pairing them in performance they will intersect in your memory and experience tonight in a new way.