Ernst Senff Chor Berlin
Steffen Schubert Chorus Master
Symphony No. 4 for piano, orchestra and mixed chorus
Pierre-Laurent Aimard Piano
A Jazz Symphony (1955 version)
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
In co-operation with Berliner Festspiele / Musikfest Berlin
Ever since the middle of last century, the United States has had the reputation as the country of unlimited possibilities, also in terms of music. Whether jazz, rock, pop or classical music, it is impossible to imagine the musical world map without America – but this was not always the case. It took a long time before the former New World produced its own musical traditions with international appeal. One of the pioneers of American music was Charles Ives, born in 1874. However, his music did not set trends despite what even today is seen as its striking modernity – it is too complex, and even the compositional and aesthetic bases of his music are sometimes contradictory. His Fourth Symphony, composed between 1909 and 1916 and only given its premiere more than a decade after Ives’ death, is one of the most enigmatic works by this long-underrated composer.
George Antheil also made a significant contribution to an original American musical style. Initially making a name for himself as a controversial pianist who enjoyed provoking his audiences, he later focused on composing. His interest in all things technical and his fondness for ragtime and jazz are also reflected in his works, including the orchestral piece in this concert, A Jazz Symphony.
For many lovers of classical music, George Gershwin is regarded as the American musician par excellence. As Ives already did before him, he worked diverse influences into his music. In his 1932 Cuban Overture, Gershwin took his inspiration from the rousing rhythms of the Caribbean. Whether this gorgeous piece is popular or serious music is no longer debated. As Leonard Bernstein said, who is represented in this Berliner Philharmoniker concert by the Symphonic Dances from his ever-popular West Side Story : There is only good or bad music…
Conductors can make musical history with their interpretations or by discovering and championing great composers. Ideally, both happen at once – and sometimes much more, as was the case with Leonard Bernstein. Without him, the world of classical music would sound different today. The 21-year-old’s thesis dealt with the question of whether and how the folk music of African Americans, native Americans and Latinos could be integrated into new American music: “The thesis tries to show how the stuff that the old boys turned out (Chadwick – Converse – Shepherd – Gilbert – MacDowell – Cadman, etc.) failed utterly to develop an American style or school of music at all, because their material (Negro, American Indian, etc.) was not common – the old problem of America the melting pot. Having ruthlessly revealed the invalidity of an Indian tune surrounded by Teutonic development, etc., I will try to show that there is something American in the newer music, which relies not on folk material, but on a native spirit.” Bernstein numbered Gershwin and Copland, in particular, among the composers of this “newer music”, but also Charles Ives, Roy Harris, Walter Piston and William Schuman. He remained loyal to these masters until the end of his life, frequently led the premieres of their compositions, conducted their works at home and abroad and recorded them. Nearly every American conductor adopted Bernstein’s canon. The Boston classicists and the folklorists of the Dvořák school went into the archives, Gershwin, Copland and Ives to Olympus.
Bernstein’s attitude towards George Gershwin was full of contradictions. He regarded him as merely an arranger with inspired ideas but loved the Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and Porgy and Bess. His Gershwin discography is conspicuously slender and does not include the Cuban Overture. The work was composed in 1932 after a journey to Cuba, “two hysterical weeks” which Gershwin spent for the most part in dance clubs. He slept little and did not compose at all. It was perfectly natural that a combo turned up and played rumbas under Gershwin’s hotel window immediately after his arrival – and just as natural that he took up the idea and used Caribbean rhythms and instruments in his next orchestral work.
George Antheil paid homage to jazz more or less in parallel with Gershwin. Paul Whiteman, who had premiered the Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, commissioned a work in this style from Antheil shortly afterwards. The premiere of A Jazz Symphony did not take place until 1927, however, and the work met with little success. As was often the case, Antheil’s self-characterisation as the “bad boy of music” (also the title of his autobiography) proved to be his undoing. Nevertheless, the composer was extremely satisfied with his work and wrote: “Even Gershwin’s best friends assure me that it will put Gershwin in the shade – it is a tour de force of America of today.” Incidentally, the man put in the shade was present at the premiere and remarked: “I really can’t compare Antheil’s jazz with mine. He deals in polytonalities and dissonance and follows Stravinsky and the French.” The fundamental difference lies in the fact that a hint of old New Orleans still wafts through Antheil’s music while Gershwin comes closer to Broadway and the big band sound.
Another difference with Gershwin was even more important for Antheil’s posthumous reputation: Bernstein never conducted his works or even mentioned him. Not being conducted by Bernstein was a death blow for American composers during the 1950s and ’60s. In fact, Bernstein and Antheil were not altogether different, if one considers their somewhat circus-like lifestyles, nor were the two composers, both of whom lived in New York, that far apart artistically. Antheil’s ballet Capital of the World, based on a story by Hemingway and premiered in New York in 1953, even seems to be a musical and dramaturgical precursor to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. The idiom, vigour and symphonic texture of Bernstein’s musical make it stand out from the masses of stage productions of that time and in general, however. A few core motivic units dominate all the musical events, which, in contrast to Broadway conventions, make use of abrupt modulations, dissonant chords and a fugue. Thus, it was not a crime against the spirit of the work when Bernstein, together with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, prepared a suite of nine Symphonic Dances drawn from it in 1960, three years after its sensational premiere.
It was also Bernstein who initiated the belated rehabilitation of Charles Ives. With the premiere of Ives’s Second Symphony, which was already 50 years old, in mid-February of 1951, he presented American music with a founding myth: a composer whose works were naïve and primitive but also highly complex, provincial in their use of hymns, marches and rags, yet at the same time universal and idealistic in their message. In this respect, it was of no consequence that Ives’s most important work, the Symphony No. 4, which was composed between 1909 and 1918, was not performed complete until eleven years after his death.
First movement: A primal motif played by the piano and basses opens the Maestoso, followed by a warning trumpet call. A quiet passage begins immediately afterwards, during which strings and harp quote fragments from the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as though from afar. The chorus then sings “Watchman, tell us of the night / What its signs of promise are”. Both hymns, composed around 1830, are by the church musician Lowell Mason, who is sometimes referred to as the most influential North American composer of the 19th century.
Second movement: This section evokes another hero of American culture: the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and his story The Celestial Railroad from 1843. A man travels by train to the Celestial City, passing through both terrifying and tempting places, until he finally awakens from his nightmare. Hawthorne’s parody of Yankee materialism is illustrated with pounding locomotives and every conceivable kind of infernal urban cacophony, which Ives knew from his many years as an extremely successful entrepreneur in New York’s insurance industry. At the close of this enormously complex movement, a march celebrating the Fourth of July represents the awakening, which is not exactly quiet, either.
Third movement: A fugue on the missionary hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” provides an overdue sense of distance from the annoying events of the present. Filled with rapture, this is one of those profound, confessional string settings that put even the most cheerful atheist in a contemplative mood.
Fourth movement: The finale takes us to a mystical realm. While in the first movement the distant chorus wanders through the score like a constant companion, here it is the percussion, symbolising the inexorable circling of the stars and only dying away at the very end. All the principal themes of the work are combined and reconciled; wordlessly, the chorus evokes the Bethany hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee”. The end of time is revealed in an ecstatic vision, or – in Ives’s humanistic interpretation – “a kind of glorified or transcendent democracy”.
The Fourth Symphony, situated in a spiritual outpost of the musical universe, is one of a kind. Neither Ives himself nor any other American symphonist could produce anything comparable to it. Nevertheless, Bernstein did not particularly like the Fourth Symphony. He always preferred the Second – only God knows why …