This is festival week at Borusan, and a large number of concerts by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, plus three performances by the Borusan Quartet, have appeared on their website. To access the concerts you will need to sign in to borusansanat.tv. You are advised to make haste and listen to anything you fancy on their site as soon as you possibly can, as they have a policy of removing a previous recording every time a new one is added. The Borusan Quartet’s superlative performance of Pēteris Vasks’ String Quartet No 4, for instance, has already been axed, which is a great shame. So first, an open letter to Borusansanat:
Dear Borusansanat Administrators,
You have organised, and financed, some great concerts by superb musicians. These performances deserve to be listened to not just by the current music-loving public but by future generations of music-lovers. So please realise the immense and lasting value of what you have created, and make previous concert recordings available online – if not on your main web page, at least somewhere on the internet.
The last concert to take place before the festival started was one in which the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Garrett Keast, played works by the American composers Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, plus a piece written by Igor Stravinsky during his residence in the USA. We hear two orchestral suites by Copland (Rodeo and Appalachian Spring), Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat major, subtitled Dumbarton Oaks.
Houston-born Garrett Keast, the orchestra’s conductor for this concert, is perhaps best known for his performances of opera and ballet. Currently based in Berlin, he is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Berlin Academy of American Music. His website tells us that this is ‘a newly-created organisation composed of top Berlin musicians who share an enthusiasm for the discovery and performance of American music’. During Ms Nisan Ak’s interview with him (available on the ‘Bifo & Garrett Keast’ page – click on ‘Pre-Talk’ at the lower right-hand side), Mr Keast speaks of his early development as a musician and describes his personal feelings about the works played in the concert. This interview is worth watching, and I will have more to say about it in due course.
The first item on the programme is Hoe-Down, from Aaron Copland’s 1942 ballet, Rodeo. A ‘hoe-down’, for those who don’t know, is a fast dance in 2/4 time. Wikipedia tells us that it is ‘associated with Americans in rural or southeastern parts of the country, particularly Appalachia. It is… most likely related to the jig, reel or clog dance.’
Aaron Copland (1900–90) was the son of Lithuanian parents of Jewish origin. While his father was in the process of emigrating to the United States he spent two or three years working in Scotland to earn his passage to New York, and it is believed that it was during this time that he changed his surname from ‘Kaplan’ to ‘Copland’ – although he never told his children what the family name had originally been. His son Aaron decided to become a composer at the age of 15, after listening to a concert by the Polish pianist and composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski – a man who had in fact been his country’s first prime minister after it achieved independence in 1919, and was thus a rare combination of musician and politician. (Could the order in which I have arranged these two professions be of any significance, I wonder?) At first Copland took lessons in harmony, theory and composition from Rubin Goldmark, a noted teacher who had briefly taught George Gershwin; then, in 1921, he went to Paris to study at the newly founded summer school for American musicians at Fontainebleau.
It was there that he heard about the great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. On interviewing him, she immediately recognised his talent, and accepted him as her first American student of composition. In fact, she taught him for three years. Copland said of her: ‘This intellectual Amazon is not only professor at the Conservatoire, is not only familiar with all music from Bach to Stravinsky, but is prepared for anything worse in the way of dissonance. But make no mistake... A more charming womanly woman never lived.’ He also found her broad musical taste appealing: her open-minded attitude to musical idioms that were routinely frowned on in academic circles is demonstrated by the fact that she refused George Gershwin’s request to be taught by her, telling him that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style – something she had no problem with.
When Copland eventually returned to the United States he did so with a new commission under his belt: Nadia Boulanger had asked him to write an organ concerto for her forthcoming American appearances. In fact, he composed the piece while working as the pianist of a hotel trio at a summer resort in Pennsylvania. (In a little while, Nadia Boulanger will reappear in the role of conductor; one wonders if there was anything this remarkable lady could not do.)
Copland experimented with jazz rhythms for a while, but soon fell under the spell of Igor Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism. Then, in the mid-1930s, he went through a complete change of stylistic direction. Some critics have attributed this to the Great Depression and the resultant need for music that would lift the spirits of the common people. He himself said: ‘During these years I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer. It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum.’ At the same time he was very much aware of the influence of new media such as the radio, the phonograph and film scores. He therefore embarked on a new phase during which he simplified his music (though it is still possible to detect in it the influence of Stravinsky) and gave it a ‘consciously American’ flavour, producing Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944), all of which were ballets based on American folk material.
The first performance of Rodeo, subtitled The Courting at Burnt Ranch and danced by the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo (a company that had been formed after the death of Sergei Diaghilev and the demise of his Ballets Russes), was a great success: it received 22 curtain calls at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The choreography was by Agnes de Mille, niece of the Hollywood director Cecil B DeMille, and she also danced the lead role – that of a cowgirl who seeks, and eventually gains, the approval of her male counterparts by demonstrating her skills as a roper. Shortly afterwards Copland produced a symphonic suite containing four of the ballet’s five movements. Hoe-Down is the last of the four, and its main theme is based on the American folk song ‘Bonyparte’, or ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’.
At this point I fear that a cloud must pass over the sunny landscape of the Wild West. Some may indeed find the music’s style refreshingly exuberant, but I personally find it simplistic. Dare I say that it teeters on the edge of the banal? Copland has adopted Stravinsky’s use of the major seventh to pep up his chords, and I cannot blame him for doing so: although slightly dissonant, these sevenths do bring a sense of novelty. However, his bare, unresolved open fourths are just as musically unsatisfactory in the context of a knees-up at the ranch as they are in the works of the Turkish composers of the early Republican era – their primitivism contributes, I fear, to a general air of shallowness. When listening to Copland’s music of the period from 1935 to 1950 I soon tire of the wide open spaces of the prairie, with their endless promise, and long for something with a tad more subtlety.
Having given voice to these sentiments, I must now reassure American readers that I will have some very complimentary things to say about Samuel Barber’s Adagio when the time comes. I will even be throwing in some praise for Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony, in a belated attempt to redress the balance.
The Borusan Orchestra’s performance of Copland’s Hoe-Down is well coordinated under Garrett Keast’s skilful baton, and the rhythm is nice and feisty. I particularly enjoyed the violin solos that begin at 02:34. Whatever caveats I may have on the subject of the composer’s style, it remains true that this piece makes a good concert-opener.
In the next piece on the programme – Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat major, commonly known by its subtitle, Dumbarton Oaks – we have one of the major works of the composer’s Neoclassical period. This phase in his development was described at length in my blog on a previous Borusan concert; it is entitled ‘Now You Hear It, Now You Don’t’.
Dumbarton Oaks is in the form of a concerto grosso (Italian for ‘big concerto’). Wikipedia describes the concerto grosso as ‘a form of baroque music in which the musical material is passed between a small group of soloists (the concertino) and full orchestra (the ripieno / tutti…). This is in contrast to the solo concerto, which features a single solo instrument with the melody line, accompanied by the orchestra.’ The most famous composer of concerti grossi was Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), and he in turn had a strong influence on Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741).
Concerto in E-flat major (‘Dumbarton Oaks’) was commissioned by Mildred Barnes Bliss, the wife of a distinguished American diplomat by the name of Robert Woods Bliss, for the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary. The person who swung the deal with Stravinsky for them was none other than Nadia Boulanger, and it was she who conducted the first performance. This took place in the Music Room of Dumbarton Oaks, the palatial Bliss residence in Georgetown (Washington, DC) on May 8, 1938. The composer was unable to conduct the work in person as he was in a sanatorium in Switzerland, receiving treatment for tuberculosis. In fact, at this period in his life the poor man was having a dreadful time, as he himself recalled in his description of how he came to write the piece – which (as he admits) is heavily influenced by Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos:
My Concerto in E-flat... was begun almost immediately upon my return to Europe… in the spring of 1937. I had moved from Paris to Annemasse in the Haute Savoie to be near my daughter Mika [Ludmila] who, mortally ill with tuberculosis, was confined to a sanatorium there. Annemasse is near Geneva, and [conductor] Ernest Ansermet was therefore a neighbor and also a helpful friend at this, perhaps the most difficult time of my life. I played Bach regularly during the composition of the Concerto, and was greatly attracted to the Brandenburg Concertos. Whether or not the first theme of my [first] movement is a conscious borrowing from the third Brandenburg, however, I do not know. What I can say is that Bach would most certainly have been delighted to loan it to me; to borrow in this way was exactly the sort of thing he liked to do.
Sadly, Stravinsky’s daughter Ludmila passed away in late 1938, but his misfortunes did not end there: he lost his wife in March 1939, and his mother two months later.
A more detailed account of the commissioning, composition and performance of the Concerto in E-flat (‘Dumbarton Oaks’) is given on the Georgetown mansion’s website: ‘Music at Dumbarton Oaks’. The website also describes the house’s library and archives (the place is now a Harvard University research institute), as well as its role as a centre for Byzantine studies – for this, click on ‘Research’; there are also some attractive photographs of the garden. https://www.doaks.org
Herbert Glass, writing on the Hollywood Bowl website, gives us the following brief analysis of Stravinsky’s piece:
The three movements are played without pause. The first is a bubbly affair, mostly in 16th notes, with the solo winds (all the instrumentalists are in essence soloists) bounding and bouncing everywhichwhere. The opening theme of Bach’s Third Brandenburg is concealed – in plain sight, so to speak – in the viola part of the opening measure, but becomes more obvious as the movement progresses. Eight measures of quiet chords join the first movement to the second, a lyrical Allegretto ‘of an intense purity of line where the different instrumental strands... stand out with startling three-dimensional clarity in their atmosphere of enveloping silence,’ in the words of Stravinsky biographer Eric Walter White… This movement is joined to its successor by slow, quiet chords, leading into the finale, launched by the marching horns, cellos, and basses as prelude to some zesty counterpoint for the entire ensemble, with a smart fugato climax.
In the recording by the Borusan Orchestra, Dumbarton Oaks starts at 04:26. Here I feel duty bound to draw attention to the unfortunate fact that there are infelicities of intonation throughout their performance, but especially in the first movement. (To be fair, this may be partially accounted for by the unusually large distance between the musicians, which diminishes their ability to hear each other.) Furthermore, the conductor feels obliged to mark the beat in order to prevent any misunderstandings between the various sections of the orchestra with regard to timing. These misunderstandings do occur, in spite of his efforts, so I think he is wise to do as he does. If I may be forgiven a somewhat disrespectful cowboy reference, I will say that on occasions the orchestra have trouble straddling their Stravinsky. By contrast, in the Barber Adagio that follows, Mr Keast feels confident enough to leave off acting as metronome and revert to his main role as a conductor – that of interpreter of the music.
Oh dear! I wish I could find something nice to say about Dumbarton Oaks, which was on the B side of a record I bought in my early teens, but the truth is that I cannot, whatever Garrett Keast may say in praise of it in his interview with Nisan Ak. I admit that I am obliged to agree with Laurie Shulman when (writing on the Jacksonville Symphony website) he says that ‘Vibrant rhythms and quirky, colorful instrumentation mark this work as Stravinsky’s own.’ But for me, it is not the instrumentation that is the problem: it is the lack of a convincing harmonic style. The next paragraph is a rant – you have been warned!
One of the features of Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism that I found unacceptable when I was 14, and still do today, is his tendency to fill up the inner parts – that is, all the instrumental parts except those containing the melody and the bass line – with chords that are intentionally meaningless. Unfortunately, in later years, lesser composers who had not had Stravinsky’s training (he was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov) took this idea and ran with it, the result being that the works of many modern composers entirely lack harmonic subtlety – one gets the impression that it doesn’t actually matter what notes the inner parts are playing – while at the same time failing to create an atonal aesthetic. Rather than invent an original harmonic style of their own, tonal or otherwise, many modern composers have taken the easy way out, and resorted to what are called ‘non-chord tones’ that do not, and are not intended to, make any musical sense.
But let us change the subject: as a postscript to my railings on the subject of Dumbarton Oaks, let us enter a world in which music and politics coincide (or collide, as the case may be). It may be of interest to the reader to know that Robert Woods Bliss played a part in the founding of the United Nations. Wikipedia tells the story:
Robert Bliss was instrumental [sic!] in arranging for a series of important diplomatic meetings to take place at Dumbarton Oaks in the late summer and early fall of 1944. Known as the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, these meetings hosted delegations from China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. The delegates deliberated over proposals for the establishment of an organisation to maintain peace and security in the world, and their outcome was the United Nations Charter that was adopted in San Francisco in 1945.
And so we return to the real world – that of music. The next piece on the Borusan Orchestra’s programme (it starts at 21:57 in the concert recording) is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, originally written as the slow movement of a string quartet. Here I heave a sigh of relief: at last we have a work by an American composer that I can with honesty describe as a first-rate piece of music!
Samuel Barber (1910–81) was a Piscean born on March 9, and Pisces – along with Cancer and Scorpio, the other two water signs – is known for its emotionality. The Adagio for Strings, composed in 1936, has a special appeal for Turkish musicians and Turkish audiences for the simple reason that water vibrates in sympathy with water. Let me explain: the Turkish Republic was ‘born’ at 8:30pm on October 29, 1923, with its Sun in the water sign of Scorpio, and watery Cancer rising. In consequence, citizens of the Turkish Republic respond well to anything that appeals strongly to the emotions. (The Turks are in any case a Scorpio race – thus their ability to withstand things, such as 10 years of war between 1912 and 1922, that would collapse other folk. The decision to found the Turkish Republic during the Sun-in-Scorpio period may not have been a conscious one on Atatürk’s part, but the timing was certainly appropriate from the astrological point of view.) It is no surprise, therefore, that the Borusan string players excel themselves in this part of their programme.
And it is indeed its emotional depth that sets this piece apart from all other works by American composers – a category in which, unlike Mr Keast, I do not place Stravinsky. After all, what other ‘American’ composer had Rimsky-Korsakov for his teacher? To my mind, Barber’s Adagio bears comparison with Mahler’s Adagietto from his Symphony No 5, and that is no small compliment.
Here is part of Wikipedia’s description of the music of Samuel Barber:
Principally influenced by nine years of composition studies with Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute and more than 25 years of study with his uncle, the composer Sidney Homer, Barber’s music usually eschewed the experimental trends of musical modernism in favour of utilising traditional 19th-century harmonic language and formal structure that embraced lyricism and emotional expression. However, elements of modernism were adopted by Barber after 1940 in a limited number of his compositions… Adept at writing both instrumental and vocal music, Barber’s works became successful on the international stage, and many of his compositions enjoyed rapid adoption into the classical performance canon.
Of the Adagio itself, Anastasia Tsioulcas has the following to say on the NPR / American Anthem website:
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one of the most recognisable pieces of classical music in the world. It’s become America’s semi-official music for mourning, used at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral and after JFK’s assassination. But somewhere along the way, it went from an anthem of sadness to one of joy.
The Barber Adagio has been recorded dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Three of those have been made by conductor Leonard Slatkin. ‘This piece starts just with a single, very long melodic line in the violins,’ Slatkin explains, ‘which then goes over to the violas and then goes over to the cellos. It reaches a very strong climax, followed by what seems like an interminable silence. And then the music reappears for one last time and we hear, at the very end, two chords that might as well be saying Amen.’
The Adagio for Strings arrived at the right moment, when America was still hurting from the Great Depression and Europe was sliding into war. The piece had its debut on November 5, 1938, on an NBC radio broadcast conducted by Arturo Toscanini, who had already seen many European Jewish colleagues murdered.
For those interested in reading the full article, which describes the use of the piece in the 1986 Vietnam war film Platoon and gives details of its various reworkings (including electronic remixes), here is a link.
Barber finished the Adagio while on tour in Europe, and sent it to Arturo Toscanini in the hope that he would approve of it, and perhaps even perform it. Toscanini, however, returned the manuscript to him without comment, thus causing Barber to experience a great deal of despondency. But the story has a happy ending: it later transpired that the reason the famous conductor had sent it back was not that he had not liked it, but that he had memorised it. Indeed, it was he who eventually popularised the piece both in Europe and in the United States.
And so to the final work on the Borusan Orchestra’s programme: Aaron Copland’s orchestral suite Appalachian Spring, which begins at 32:27 in the recording. This is another of the pieces Copland produced during his ‘consciously American’ period. Originally commissioned as a ballet by the choreographer and dancer Martha Graham – a highly important figure in the development of modern dance – it was first performed in October 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC; Graham herself danced the lead role. The work proved to be very popular (it still is), and it led to the composer being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. Also in that year Copland arranged most of the music for the ballet as an orchestral suite; then, in 1954, he produced another arrangement that this time included the whole of the ballet music.
It was Martha Graham, in fact, who suggested the title Appalachian Spring, a phrase from a poem by Hart Crane. Copland himself had not thought of a title for it, referring to it simply as ‘Ballet for Martha’. Wikipedia notes that ‘Because he had composed the music without the benefit of knowing what the title was going to be, Copland was often amused when people told him he had captured the beauty of the Appalachians in his music.’
The work tells the story of a spring celebration by American pioneers of the 19th century following the building of a new farmhouse in Pennsylvania. The central characters are a bride, a groom, a pioneer woman, a preacher and his congregation. It is divided into eight sections. Copland himself described the various scenes as follows:
- 1. Very slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light. (A major)
- 2. Fast/Allegro. Sudden burst of unison strings in A major arpeggios starts the action. A sentiment both elated and religious gives the keynote to this scene. (A major)
- 3. Moderate/Moderato. Duo for the Bride and her Intended – scene of tenderness and passion. (B-flat major)
- 4. Quite fast. The Revivalist and his flock. Folksy feeling – suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers. (B major)
- 5. Still faster/Subito Allegro. Solo dance of the Bride – presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder. (E-flat major)
- 6. Very slowly (as at first). Transition scene to music reminiscent of the introduction. (A-flat major)
- 7. Calm and flowing/Doppio Movimento. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by a solo clarinet, was taken from a collection of Shaker melodies compiled by Edward D Andrews, and published under the title The Gift to Be Simple. The melody borrowed and used almost literally is called ‘Simple Gifts’. (A-flat major)
- 8. Moderate. Coda/Moderato – Coda. The Bride takes her place among her neighbors. At the end the couple are left ‘quiet and strong in their new house’. Muted strings intone a hushed prayerlike chorale passage. The close is reminiscent of the opening music. (C major).
In the Borusan performance we hear some excellent playing, especially from the string department. By this time the members of the orchestra have sorted out most of their earlier intonation issues, and though their coordination is still slightly ragged on occasions, in general they cope well with the changes of tempo. Their entry into the second ‘scene’ at 35:18, for instance, is perfectly executed – clean and crisp – and by 35:57 the whole orchestra is really getting into its stride. I find the part between 39:04 and 40:35 one of the most musically interesting parts of the whole piece (there are hints of Bartok), though it is admittedly not one of its wackier moments. However, I find what happens afterwards considerably less palatable, especially when flute solos are accompanied by dodgy chords at 40:57 and 41:15.
Then the wackiness takes over again, announced by the clarinet at 41:53, and I regret to say that at this point I am tempted to put my hands over my ears, especially when the piano comes in to add to the general jollity. I only wish that distraction in the form of dancing on the stage was there to mollify my Saturnine peevishness. I will therefore refrain from making any further comment on the music until things settle down again at 44:28.
Soon afterwards (at 44:52), the woodwind department shines, and this leads in (at 45:26) to some upbeat rhythmic material. Notice, by the way, how similar in style the passage that begins at 46:00 is to that of Stravinsky in his Neoclassical phase, with a little Wild West ruggedness thrown in – not at all a bad mixture, I have to say, though at times the orchestra’s coordination is not all it could be. By 48:46, however, we are back in schmaltzdom, and the change of key at 49:56 is pure film score, with lots of major seconds and sevenths to tug at our heart-strings. This leads into the final chorale, which is sentimental to a degree that some may well find oppressive: the United States, having come into being on July 4, has its Sun – as well as its Mercury, Jupiter and Venus – in Cancer, the sign of hearth and home. (Here I must respectfully add that Cancerians are known for their somewhat weepy attachment to the past.) And indeed, at this point in Copland’s piece Grandmother’s buttermilk corn bread rules OK – until an element of self-doubt creeps in at 54:20, providing temporary relief with modal harmonies reminiscent of Vaughan Williams. (Notice how good the string department’s coordination has become by this time.) Then, at 56:17, the flute entry signals the final assault on the listener’s tear-ducts.
I do hope that my remarks have not offended American readers, for such is not my intention. A little praise is definitely in order, however, so I will now draw attention to the neglected genius of Charles Ives (1874–1954), a man who earned his living in the insurance business, and regarded composition as a spare-time occupation. Wikipedia tells us the following:
His music was largely ignored during his early life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years. Later in life, the quality of his music was publicly recognised, and he came to be regarded as an ‘American original’. He was also among the first composers to engage in a systematic programme of experimental music, with musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements, and quarter tones. His experimentation foreshadowed many musical innovations that were later more widely adopted during the 20th century.
Forgive me if do not explain the meaning of ‘polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements, and quarter tones’. I suggest that you look them up, however, as they all play an important part in the music of the 20th century.
Ives’s father was a bandleader in Danbury, Connecticut who also conducted choirs and orchestras, and an early musical influence on his son Charles was the experience of sitting in the town square and listening to his father’s band, and other bands on other sides of the square, play simultaneously. He became a church organist at the age of 14 – thus the hymn tunes in some of his compositions. After graduating from Yale, where he played on the varsity American football team, he went to work in the insurance sector. Hardly a typical background for an avant-garde composer, you may say, but in 1906 Charles Ives composed a work by the name of Central Park in the Dark that has been described as ‘the first radical musical work of the 20th century’. On the subject of his career in insurance, Wikipedia tells us the following:
In 1907… he and his friend Julian Myrick formed their own insurance agency. During his career as an insurance executive and actuary, Ives devised creative ways to structure life-insurance packages for people of means, which laid the foundation of the modern practice of estate planning. His Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax, published in 1918, was well received. As a result of this he achieved considerable fame in the insurance industry of his time, with many of his business peers surprised to learn that he was also a composer.
And so I now present to you a work that I personally think is a masterpiece: Charles Ives’s Symphony No 4, written between 1910 and the mid-1920s. This recording is by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, with Ralph van Raat at the piano. As you will see, it involves different groups of musicians, not to mention a chorus, playing and singing in different places, independently of each other – a throwback, no doubt, to the composer’s multi-directional experiences in the town square in Danbury. This weird and wonderful piece sometimes gels, miraculously, into something cosmic, with moments of quite exceptional beauty. (The comments under the YouTube version are worth reading, by the way.)
On a final note, and to return to the business in hand, I would like to express my thanks to the Borusan company for keeping our classical music receptors stimulated at regular intervals, and for providing us with manna in a time of musical famine. If they were to lend an ear to my request, and allow us to enjoy the performances of their musicians and guests for longer than a couple of weeks, they would undoubtedly deserve even more of our gratitude and appreciation.