Archives for posts with tag: Richard Strauss

Fifty Modern Classics I saw a live performance of Sinfonia by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop at the Royal Festival Hall last Friday, part of the Rest Is Noise Festival, on this occasion focusing on music from the 1960s. It featured vocals from the Swingle Singers, for which the piece was originally written. The singers are of course from a new generation, but the group has continued without a break since it was formed in 1962, with the remaining members holding auditions for replacements every time an individual member leaves.

The third movement of Sinfonia (according to the Modern World website, from which the graphic above also comes) is “possibly the most exhilarating twelve minutes that modern music has to offer.” I’d certainly agree with that, but there is the question as to how much of that is down to Berio himself and how much is inherited from his sources – particularly Mahler’s scherzo from the second “Resurrection” Symphony – that holds the movement together. The piece is chock full of quotations (ranging from Bach to Beethoven to Ravel, Richard Strauss and Boulez), but Mahler provides the narrative thread – a “river of sound” – that is sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, and which is easily diverted by the introduction of other material. Alex Ross, in the book that inspired the festival, points out that the use of devices such as collage, pastiche and quotation gave contemporary European composers the opportunity “to commandeer tonal music without committing the sin of writing tonal music, as such.”

I agree that Mahler’s material is very central to the piece – even more so when we realize that the scherzo itself is a re-working of earlier material, a song from the cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The song recounts how St Anthony of Padua, discouraged by an empty church, preaches his sermon to the fish. They pay rapt attention (as in the original retelling of the miracle). However, the poem goes on to point out that, while the sermon has pleased the fish, the words themselves make no difference and they carry on exactly as before – the crabs still walk backwards, the pikes continues thieving, the carps remain greedy etc. We don’t hear any of St Anthony’s words directly, instead they are portrayed musically in a series of downward sequences, like bubbles descending into the water past the uncomprehending creatures and dissipating. Berio provides a flood of words on top of his river of music, some of them original, some from Samuel Beckett’s 1957 novel The Unnamable, but all of them striving to comprehend a “meaning” that may not exist. The text is humorous and self-referential as well as sometimes bleak, and like the music, it is woven into the texture as a whole so that the fragments are sometimes only partially audible.

Berio takes maximum advantage of the Mahler scherzo by bringing it to the surface of his texture at its most heightened moments, such as the plaintive slow descending passage for brass over strings towards the middle. And he introduces other very recognizable quotes – from Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, for instance, or his ingenious combination of Strauss and Ravel waltzes – to comment ironically on the text. But it’s the pure sound of the Swingle Singers’ vocals, who contribute to the musical material as well as narrating the text, which really transforms the original Mahler material into something quite different. Berio clearly loved this type of vocal sound, as he used it elsewhere in various other works such as A-Ronne (1974) and the classic 1958 electronic piece Thema (Omaggio a Joyce).


Lost Chords The iconoclastic composer Edgard Varese wrote his symphonic poem Bourgogne in 1907 and its first performance in Berlin three years later caused a scandal. Most of his other early scores were lost, but Bourgogne survived, only to be destroyed 40 years later by the composer himself in a fit of depression. Could the work have provided some early evidence as to how the Varese of the later radical experiments in sound came to be?

As things stand, we know little about the early development of Varese. Other than a single song, the earliest work of his that survives is Amériques, which was composed in 1921 when he was already 38 years old. It was the first piece he composed in New York, after leaving Europe in 1915. Varese described the work as a new start in a new idiom and publicly rejected the 15 or so named compositions he had composed earlier in Paris and Berlin.

What happened to those pieces? Incredibly, most of them were destroyed by a warehouse fire at his publishers in 1918, during the Berlin uprisings that marked the end of the war. Only Bourgogne, and a single song, Un grand sommeil noir survived, because Varese had kept the scores with him. Bourgogne was written in 1907 and premiered at the Bluthner Hall in Berlin three years later –it was the first of his compositions to be performed in public. And it caused a riot – the original of many riots caused over the years by Varese first performances.

Varese had studied in Paris between 1904 and 1907, where his teachers were Vincent D’Indy, Massenet and Widor. Although D’Indy was initially supportive, the gap between the two inevitably widened – D’Indy wanted to create disciples, and Varese would have none of it. He later told Stravinsky “The teachers [in Paris] were all ruled like music paper”. Others were more sympathetic. The poet and librettist Hugo von Hoffmannstahl, the composer Richard Strauss, and the novelist Romain Rolland used their combined influence to help secure the first performance of Bourgogne. Busoni was in the audience for the premiere, and Debussy corresponded with Varese sympathetically both before and after the event.

Inspired by the wild area of Burgundy where he grew up, the symphonic poem seems likely to have included some impressionist and romantic influences, in spite of the composer’s resistance to turning into “a little D’Indy”. Reviewing the performance, however, the Berlin music critic Bruno Schrader described it as “an infernal din, mere caterwauling”. On the other hand Alfred Kerr thought it “full of fascinating beauties”. The audience rioted far more than they did at the performance of Schoenberg’s Pelleas et Mellisande, which was played in the same week. In any case, by 1913 Varese was a veteran of such scandals, to the extent that he could sit through the famous premier of Le Sacre du printemps on May 29th with no surprise. “He simply thought of the Russian composer as having done his duty”, says his biographer, Fernand Oullette.