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© Rachel Kolly d’Alba
“I wondered whether — had it not been for the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas — music might not have been the sole example of a means of communication between souls.” These words from Marcel Proust effectively sum up the way I feel about American music, which has developed from such a range of intermingled origins and cultures and which seems to discourage any choice between highbrow and lowbrow music, so powerfully does it express one key concept — fellowship. All kinds of different music coexisted in the States throughout the twentieth century, and the boundaries between different styles simply vanish when it comes to works such as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess or Bernstein’s West Side Story. Their origins are secondary: what matters is the message they convey. Music becomes a melting-pot in which all colours combine, literally and figuratively. The idea of not having to choose between art music and “entertainment”, between musical theatre and works for the concert hall, was something Gershwin dreamt of, drawing on myriad sources of inspiration and reflecting the ideal of multiracial integration in his music. Bernstein lived and breathed that same open-mindedness as conductor, composer and teacher, and his former pupil, John Axelrod, who accompanies me on this recording, shares his attitude. The same principle applies to Waxman, too, a man who first established himself as a worthy successor to Strauss and Webern, and later, along with other composers forced to flee Nazi Europe, helped create the “Hollywood” sound.
America’s musical spirit.
The absence of tradition appears to have given American music a greater sense of freedom. This isn’t the place for complex analysis, but I’d just like to sketch a brief outline of its history.
The music of the American continent grew out of three historical ethnic elements: Anglo- Saxon and Mediterranean colonists, the Amerindian indigenous population and slaves of African origin. The early European settlers established themselves far and wide, and little of what musical tradition there existed before their arrival has survived, although immigration did mean the introduction of an abundance of different genres of folk music. By contrast, America seems to have produced a greater quantity and variety of modern music than anywhere else in the world, with a wide and diverse range of styles developing from different sources in the nineteenth and, notably, the twentieth century: blues, jazz, ragtime, rock, salsa and even rap.
If we were to use the term “traditional”, it might perhaps be with reference to the “American music” that evolved from African American work-songs and eventually led to the creation of jazz. A new style had emerged at the end of the Civil War: the blues. This blend of Anglo-Saxon ballads and African music became a way for plantation workers to express the hardship of their daily lives, a situation that had not substantially changed, despite the abolition of slavery. The blues conveyed a sense of melancholy, despair, desperation, but also, at times, a message of love, with songs usually cast in poetic form and dealing with issues such as poverty, racism, alcoholism, abuse and heartbreak. It’s worth remembering that Dvorák suggested that composers take inspiration from and acknowledge the beauty of plantation songs.
In compiling the programme for American Serenade, I was keen to showcase the complexity of American music. Although many are inclined simply to equate the country’s classical output with pop music, I see it as containing infinite riches. For example, its character is always clearly defined, be it one of high-energy dance or of revelation; it boasts an abundance of virtuosic writing; and, beneath its apparent ease, there is a requirement for flawless technical ability from instrumentalists. This is music that displays all the skills of harmony and orchestration possessed by the composers of Central Europe, whose New World counterparts were clearly highly aware of everything going on around them, as well as being inclined to inject a dose of humour at times to bring audiences a little extra pleasure and escapism. In so doing, they succeeded in engaging with the public, rather than shutting themselves away in vain and solitary intellectual pursuits, distancing themselves little by little from the wider world.
“Love conquers everything — Omnia vincit amor” (Virgil)
Love as guiding inspiration unites the three American composers presented on this disc. Despite being represented in very different ways in each of the works featured, love, generally speaking, calls to mind the idea of profound feelings of tenderness towards another person. Within this broad definition, however, it can encompass anything from passionate, ambiguous and obsessive desire (Carmen) to romantic and sustaining love, or the tender, innocent intimacy of familial love (certain passages in the Gershwin), or from platonic love to the spiritual devotion of religious, even philosophical love (Bernstein). In its various forms, this emotion plays a key role in our social relationships and in human psychology, making it also one of the most common themes in art. Central to opera, it is less often evoked in instrumental music.
Gershwin: groundbreaking synthesis
I hear the spirit of American music loud and clear in Alexander Courage’s Fantasy on Porgy and Bess for violin and orchestra, a piece which gives voice to all the characters in the opera: melodies rise from the violin to speak of love, cradle a child, weep for a dead husband or express a view of life, all in an entirely new harmonic idiom. In the work of George Gershwin (1898–1937), all opposing forces miraculously coexist. Thus, in the harmonic haze of “Summertime” we hear Berg (Marie’s lullaby in Wozzeck), a composer whom, incidentally, Gershwin met during this period and whose scores (Wozzeck and the Lyrische Suite) he then studied — lively exchanges and mutual admiration between the two men ensued. In the curve of an elegant line from “Bess you is my woman now” I glimpse Ravel (whom Gershwin also met) and his attention to phrase and detail. The presence of leitmotifs throughout the opera, introducing the characters or symbolising the “Wheel of Fortune”, is another example of the complexity and many levels involved in reading this work. Gershwin’s artistry was built on firm bases and shaped by the greatest European masters. Soon regarded as the great new hope for American classical music, he wrote songs which have become familiar to us all, enduring across the generations. Porgy and Bess, his opera portraying the lives of African Americans in the fictionalised “Gullah” neighbourhood of Catfish Row in the 1920s, had its first performance in 1935, but wasn’t recognised as a “real opera” in the United States until the 1980s.
Gershwin always gave performers plenty of space to interpret his music in their own way, allowing them to bring to it their own nuances and inflections. Jazz musicians of course were quick to write their own versions of these sublime songs, and it therefore seems quite natural for Alexander Courage to have fashioned this instrumental fantasy in which the violin, like a singer, is given plenty of expressive and poetic freedom to reimagine them, without, however, changing their essence. Whether in the lullaby “Summertime” or in the declaration of love that is “Bess you is my woman now”, the characters are a powerful presence in this twenty-minute piece, with its virtuosic, sombre and tender episodes. John Axelrod and I were keen to give each of them his or her own tonal colour, achieved through different, contrasting vibratos and expression.
In Porgy and Bess, which has moments of humour as well as high drama, Gershwin felt he was creating something unique, an opera based on a groundbreaking synthesis of European orchestral technique, American jazz and popular music. In spite of his faith in his own work, however, it was not an instant success. Debates have raged ever since its premiere: is this serious music or has it crossed over to the popular? This attempt to draw a dividing line has dogged all the composers on this recording — the truth is, if we try and pigeonhole them, all we do is detract from their uniqueness and their message and, in the end, limit the full impact of their music.
Bernstein: a philosophical programme
Love was truly the meaning of life for Leonard Bernstein (1918–90). As John Axelrod recalls, for “Lenny” there was no “serious” or “non- serious” music. Only good or bad music.
A composer, writer, teacher, conductor and pianist, he wrote three symphonies and two operas among a great many other works. What is astonishing about Bernstein is his facility at moving from one style to another: from jazz (West Side Story, Wonderful Town) to gospel blues (Mass), with hints of twelve- tone technique included (Divertimento). His Serenade for violin, strings, harp and percussion (“after Plato’s Symposium”) was written in 1954, and he himself considered it his best work. This is sophisticated, complex music which, unusually, is inspired by a philosophical programme: as Bernstein wrote at the time of composition, its five movements “are a series of interconnected exaltations to love”, each declaration being made by a philosopher–orator of note, as follows:
I. Phaedrus: Pausanias (Lento — Allegro): “The duality of lover and beloved”. Phaedrus expounds his theories on love in pompous fashion, before Pausanias holds forth in scintillating fashion.
II. Aristophanes (Allegretto): “The fairy-tale mythology of love”. The gods play amongst themselves, one minute affectionate and mischievous, the next more serious and tender.
III. Eryximachus (Presto): “bodily harmony”. Here is sterile love, dissected from a physician’s viewpoint through a magnifying glass.
V. Agathon (Adagio): “All aspects of love’s powers, charms, and functions.” Through its ostinato, this movement makes us aware of the passing of time in a meaningful relationship, one which wholly subsumes us and connects us to something greater than ourselves by the love we feel for another. It reminds me at times of Mahler and the potent spirituality which emanates from certain of his works. Bernstein was one of the great interpreters of Mahler, and was undoubtedly inspired by his music.
V. Socrates: Alcibiades (Molto tenuto — Allegro molto vivace): “Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love [only to be interrupted by] Alcibiades and his band of drunken revellers.” Socrates’ solemn speech is rudely interrupted by his inebriated friends, telling him that he is much too serious ... love should be all about action and pleasure, not theorising...
The Serenade concludes in lively, euphoric style, with a burst of recognisably exuberant Bernsteinesque rhythms. There are so many different facets to this most unusual of masterpieces, and yet its subject matter is handled with real depth and poise!
Waxman: Hollywood and more
The Carmen Fantasie (1947) is a virtuoso composition for violin and orchestra, and was originally part of the soundtrack written by Franz Waxman (1906–67) for the film Humoresque. This dazzling piece, based on a selection of themes from Bizet’s Carmen, was an instant hit and had soon been recorded by all the great violinists of the age. It also became more popular than the earlier Carmen Fantasy created by the violinist Sarasate, which uses fewer themes from the opera and omits the darker sequences in order to create a succession of rapid, brilliant variations.
Waxman (originally Wachsmann) was born in Germany. As early as 1930, while he was still studying composition, he was employed to orchestrate the score for the film The Blue Angel, and he went on to write original soundtracks for several German films. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Waxman worked briefly in France, before emigrating to the US in 1934. His first original score in Hollywood was for Bride of Frankenstein, and he soon began working with Hitchcock, among others, later adopting US citizenship. His artistry, combined with that of fellow exiles from Europe such as Steiner, Korngold and Schoenberg, was instrumental in creating what came to be known as the “Hollywood Sound”, or, to quote John Axelrod, who is also Music Director of the “Hollywood in Vienna” gala concerts, in establishing a kind of “Third Viennese School”.
I hardly need to say that for Waxman, there was no line in the sand between “serious” and “popular” music, as demonstrated by his foundation in 1947 of the Los Angeles International Music Festival. He directed this event for twenty years, during which time it hosted the world and US premieres of eighty major works by composers such as Stravinsky, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich and Schoenberg.
A conductor to take the baton
Working with me on this recording is John Axelrod, a writer, a composer and a conductor of international renown who directs the world’s finest ensembles in the classical repertoire. He makes no bones about the delight he takes in making “good music”, and is equally at home in jazz, rock and contemporary music too. This unique “360-degree” profile reveals his desire to bring together different cultures, different generations: to be inclusive rather than exclusive. He believes strongly in revitalising classical music for the twenty-first century by attracting new audiences and creating more interactive forms of participation, and works tirelessly to introduce the repertoire to as wide a public as possible by means of inventive, innovative programming. A pupil of Bernstein, the first work he studied with the maestro back in 1983 was ... the Serenade. What better person, then, for me to work with on this endlessly rewarding project.
I’ll end by going back to Gershwin’s dream about not being made to choose between classical music and entertainment, rejecting the narrow categorisation of different kinds of music. Berg shared his views on the subject with Gershwin when they met, telling him, “Music is music”. There is no genre distinction — Bernstein had the same vision, and the atypical career paths of musicians such as John Axelrod and Franz Waxman are evidence of that same inclusive attitude. Seen this way, music is something that unites us rather than divides us. It attunes us to the message passed down to us by Beethoven: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder (All men shall become brothers)”. I hope this recording conveys that message, too.
TEXT : Rachel Kolly d’Alba
Translation from the french: Warner Classics
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