Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Echoes of Music Past

In the past few months, aside from not blogging a lot, I’ve had the opportunity of coming back into contact with two works that were very influential to my creative upbringing, works that I didn’t really hear for a long time, now. As if rediscovering these works, I also kept hearing things that I’d written “under their influence,” so to speak, in some cases music of mine I’d completely forgotten about.

This past weekend, I saw what is still one of my favorite operas, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, though I can’t say I’ve sat down to listen to it (much less see it) in probably a couple decades. I had discovered it through the recording at the Harrisburg Public Library when I was in high school, after my music teacher had introduced us to opera through an experience that involved first of all familiarizing yourself with the plot, listening to a recording with the score (good for a musician) and then seeing the opera, in this case in a film.

Before that, I can’t say I cared much for opera, having tried to deal with the Met Opera radio broadcasts but feeling totally lost because of the lack of the visual element and usually missing the plot synopsis given before each act by the radio host. So after being grounded a little better with my “first opera,” Puccini’s La Boheme, a bunch of us drove down to Philadelphia to see the Met on tour with Puccini’s Turandot (seeing Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli battling it out in the “Anything you can sing, I can sing higher” duet) and then Bizet’s Carmen (one of the operas I remember giving up on the year before).

I remember also reading about Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron which was actually the first opera recording I bought, the old Columbia LP conducted by Hans Rosbaud (I believe this was of a 1954 live radio broadcast performance, released in 1957 which I picked up in 1966 or so). Not familiar with Schoenberg’s language at the time, I found it a dramatic disappointment though not necessarily a musical one. It wasn’t until I started digging into Britten’s first opera that I discovered – aside from, aha! English, which I can understand – something that combined dramatic sense with appropriate music. That then allowed me to get the gist of what other composers were doing in their own languages and musical styles.

A few points struck me, while watching Peter Grimes on the big movie-screen in the Met’s HD broadcast at the local cinema:

In the first scene, the inquest investigating the death of fisherman Grimes' apprentice, the opening woodwinds clucking away personify the citizens of the Borough gossiping back and forth (as Nico Muhly described it in his essay on Grimes at the Met’s website, “like insects bothering a cow”). The questions to the witness are placed in straightforward recitative which Grimes then proceeds to answer at a slower tempo, interrupted by the lawyer continuing in his original tempo.

This musically represented the difference between Grimes’ own personality as opposed to the people of the Borough, the outsider versus his community, better than any statement that could have been sung by some character telling us “Grimes is an outsider, here: we don’t like him.” This is what writers are advised when they begin to write prose: show, don't tell.

Britten had used this device one other time to accentuate the separation between Grimes and the Borough. During the big storm, everyone has gathered at Auntie’s, the local pub, but after Grimes makes an unexpected entrance, someone tries to revive their spirits with a song, “Old Joe has gone fishing,” a round which Grimes then obliterates when he joins in, singing in a completely different key and slower tempo. On the surface, it’s as if somebody who can’t carry a tune or find a beat in a bushel basket wants to sing in the choir, but the division between protagonist and antagonist (depending on your viewpoint who is who) is musically clear.

It’s interesting that this is reversed in a climactic scene in the second act when Grimes comes to take his new apprentice out fishing on Sunday and his meeting with the schoolteacher Ellen Orford, one of two people in the Borough who wants to help Grimes, turns into a confrontation when Grimes’ temper flares: while fragments of this scene float disjointedly through Grimes’ “mad scene” in the final act, the turn-around actually comes in a sequence of lines where Ellen is asking Peter if they were wrong to, essentially, try rehabilitating him in the community’s eye: she sings long, lyrical lines, but he cuts her off with short declamatory counterattacks in a faster tempo - the reverse of the trial scene.

How many times had I used this musical trick? I thought it was my later discovery of Ives’ music and subsequently Elliott Carter’s that my interest in “contrapuntal time” evolved from, the idea of strands of music sounding as if they’re in different tempos. But perhaps it all began here, with Peter Grimes and his outsider-ness?

But this “trick” was not necessarily Britten’s own: he got it from Verdi – pick almost any ensemble in a Verdi opera where characters are defined by their independent rhythms and melodic lines – and also from Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, most obviously in the disparate worlds colliding in the opening of the third act, when the lively dance-music from inside Auntie’s pub intrudes on the slow, chilling night music of the moonlit sea interlude. Which, in turn, one could say came from Mozart’s three dance bands in Don Giovanni, each one a different dance and meter.

When I was in college, I began setting Ibsen’s drama “Ghosts” as an opera – for some reason, I had re-titled it “Through a Small Glass Darkly” until I decided I liked that title better for my next opera, and since I never got around to writing the second half of the Ibsen, it didn’t really matter. But there were several fingerprints from Peter Grimes that showed up: even though the self-righteous carpenter Engstrand is only one person, not a whole borough-ful of them, I used Britten’s nattering woodwinds and similar passages to represent the pettiness of characters like the Lawyer Swallow or the Rector Horace Adams to develop his musical characterization. In the discussion between the officious Pastor Manders and the free-thinking and strong-willed Mrs. Alving, I used differences of “perceived tempo” (keeping the actual beat the same but having it sound as if one was moving in a slower tempo, simply by expanding the pulse) to point up their differences of opinion.

Curiously, it was one of these scenes that I had copied out and actually sent to Britten in 1971 when I was thinking about emigrating to England and hoping perhaps to study with him or work for him (in much the same way he wanted to study with Alban Berg in Vienna). I got a very nice reply back from him which remains one of my treasured possessions: he was very kind in advising me how difficult it was in England to make a living as a musician though he would make every effort to meet me and offer what help he could, but “you must remember how very busy I am,” not saying “yes” but not saying “no” either. (At the time, he was perhaps already working on Death in Venice and, little did I know, the next year putting off heart surgery for fear of not being able to finish what would become his last opera: I keep the letter in my vocal score of that opera.) So here I was, fresh out of college and either going to Eastman or to England, but I wasn’t strong enough, money aside, for the unknown adventures that awaited me if I decided on England. Whatever may have happened to me there, it would be a different me sitting here now, and that game of “what if?” was something occasionally playing through my mind while watching Britten’s opera.

There was another moment that sent me into a swoon of recognition: when the men of the Borough leave to go to Grimes’ hut in Act II, Ellen Orford, Auntie and her two nieces (who usually sing as one voice just a little apart) are left behind to sing a quartet of rapturous beauty, full of freely interweaving, high arching lines with close harmonies producing delicious dissonances that resolve amazingly. The emotional impact of this music – which I had forgotten about – was something that I imitated in my Requiem: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed (which was also hugely influenced by his War Requiem), in passages in another opera, The Trojan Women, and frequently in instrumental music as well, in sections of the more recent String Quartet, the Symphony and now the climax of Evidence of Things Not Seen which I’m the process of realizing from sketches, where it’s more the solo voice sliding through the instrumental harmonies and rubbing up against them before their resolution. In fact, thinking about this piece, I would describe the voice part, singing against standard triads in the orchestra, as singing practically every pitch except those in that triad, something Britten often did not only in Grimes but also in Death in Venice. And so the influence persists and this continuity from the past (in fact, following a long hiatus, connecting my present with my past) was comforting.

These cribbings might be more integrated into my own style now, more successfully than some imitations I had committed in my earlier works when, infatuated with this piece or that piece, I went less for the detail and more for the overall effect, writing something that sounded a lot like Vaughan Williams (I had fallen in love with his 5th Symphony) or Bernstein (mostly his Jeremiah Symphony and the Chichester Psalms) or, in a more short-lived sense, Stravinsky (primarily Les Noces).

Sitting at the Kimmel Center for a concert by to the Philadelphia Orchestra – I had gone to hear Jennifer Higdon’s “The Singing Rooms” – I confronted another one of these past voices while listening to them play Bernstein’s first symphony, his “Jeremiah Symphony.” This is a work I also had not heard much in the past 20 years, maybe once or twice but not really “listened” to the way one sits in a concert to actively involve yourself in the music. Though I can’t recall too many specific moments where it cropped up in my own music – beyond, at least, the Requiem – I recalled several unfinished works or projects where I borrowed this bit or patterned something after that bit. I think mostly what I was recalling was how much I was listening to this piece then, back when I was in high school and college. But the elements I cribbed or that inspired me to write certain passages in the Requiem, oddly enough, where those more exotic details that define Bernstein’s sound as a Jewish composer – scales and turns of phrase borrowed from Jewish cantillation, the liturgical chant of the Temple, and dance rhythms (especially in the middle movement, “Profanation”) that prove Bernstein was Jewish and Saint-Saens, in his Bachannal from Samson & Delilah, was not. Not being Jewish myself, I had to laugh a little at this borrowing which has nothing to do with my own heritage, wondering how this made my own music sound.

Listening the other day to an interview with Elliott Carter in which he talked about his early influences from – surprisingly, I think, for most listeners – jazz, I suddenly realized I can hear this translation that continues to resonate in the music he’s writing now, getting ready for his 100th Birthday this December. And I wonder if a composer ever escapes these early influences or how he (or she) transforms them (or not) into what becomes an original voice?

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