Friday, October 2, 2015

October Masterworks: Morton Gould Meets Ernest Chausson

This weekend's concerts, opening the new season with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony, features one very popular work – the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto with Van Cliburn Competition finalist Di Wu – and two relatively unknown symphonies, the 2nd “American Symphonette” by the very American composer Morton Gould from 1938 and the only symphony by a French romanticist from 1890, Ernest Chausson.

The performances are at the Forum Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with a pre-concert talk an hour before each concert and a post-concert talk-back Q/A immediately afterward.

You can read more about the Tchaikovsky – and see an amazing performance with Van Cliburn recorded in Moscow in 1962 – in this previous post.

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In the case of the program's first piece, it's probably not quite accurate to say “relatively unknown” as I imagine a number of heads will start bopping along once the second movement starts and then, after it ends all too soon, adding a light chuckle.

Morton Gould, 1939
Before the term “cross-over” existed, Morton Gould was combining elements of jazz and the Big Band music of the '20s and '30s into his music that was meant to appeal to both classical and pop music lovers, working as a conductor and arranger at WOR Mutual Radio in New York City. A prodigy whose first published work was a waltz written when he was 6 (I suspect the publisher gave it the title “Just Six”), Gould was 19 when he became a staff pianist at Radio City Music Hall (so named because one of the building's tenants was the Radio Corporation of America) which opened to the public in 1932 with a lavish presentation that included Ray Bolger and Martha Graham, speaking of cross-over. Unfortunately, the production was not a success – too long, with some of the acts “lost in the cavernous hall” which sat nearly 6,000 people. Still, two weeks later, the theater found its successful formula – a film with a live-stage spectacle (complete with the already legendary Rockettes, previously known as the Roxyettes from their stay at the Roxy Theater).

Now, that may seem like a side-bar to a post about this weekend's concert, but consider this fact: Morton Gould composed a piece he called his “American Symphonette” (No. 2, to be exact) in 1938 (though his own website's biography lists it for 1932). At the time, he was working in radio and designed four such “symphonettes” to fit the on-air format with a style that could be appealing to “pop” and “serious” music lovers. Think back to those early days of cross-over at the Radio City Music Hall... and the Rockettes.

Now, in 1925, someone came up with the term “dinette” to indicate a small dining area for informal meals just off the kitchen, separate from the more formal “dining room” with its larger scale, more “serious” furniture. Suddenly, American homes were awash in smaller-than-usual rooms like kitchenettes, even laundrettes (probably for the bachelors of New York) as a way of conserving space. (I suspect we were stuck with the less imaginative half-bath or "powder room" because toilette already meant something else.)

And here was Morton Gould, former child prodigy, being a staff pianist living in New York City, surrounded by the dancing feet and long-legged kicks of the Rockettes writing what a European composer would've called a “sinfonietta.” The idea of a “small symphony” called a symphonette sounded more American even with that French -ette tacked on.

The second movement would go on to become Gould's best-known and most often performed work. He called it a “Pavanne,” not a Pavane, adding the second 'n' ostensibly to distinguish it from Ravel's popular “Pavane for a Dead Princess” but also, as he later explained, because he was concerned the typical listener, seeing the unfamiliar European term, would pronounce it “puh-VAIN,” rhyming with “Main.”

Technically, a pavane is a “stately dance for couples in a courtly procession with music in slow duple time” dating back to the Renaissance.

If you're already familiar with Gould's “Pavanne,” his sense of the dance sounds more saucy than stately and is by no means “slow.” Here's is the composer himself (complete with his own personal orchestra) conducting his own “light orchestra” arrangement of it, recorded in 1942.

Definitely more of an American saunter than a staid Old-World procession – like you're swinging your hips down Broadway.

In this more recent recording with the Albany Symphony conducted by David Allen Miller, it sounds a little more... well, “pavanny.”

As well known as this jazzy little dance became in the '40s, later inspiring numerous jazz legends like John Coultrane and Dizzy Gillespie, there are still two other movements to Gould's little American symphony: while the first movement is marked “Moderately Fast,” the last is “Very Fast – Racy.” How American is that?

If Morton Gould is new to you – beyond his “Pavanne” and his arrangement of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” in his American Salute – you should check out another of his “little symphonies,” the Latin-American Symphonette, the very different ballet for Agnes deMille based on the story of Lizzie Borden, Fall River Legend, as well as his march-filled “West Point” Symphony for Wind Ensemble.

I wish I could locate a link for his 1979 “Burchfield Gallery,” which I've always admired, but can find nothing of it on-line.

Morton Gould
More than “just a cross-over composer,” and once described as a “star of the classical world who got his start in vaudeville,” Gould won a Pulitzer Prize for his “Stringmusic” in 1995; won a Grammy for conducting a recording of Charles Ives' Symphony No. 1 in 1966 (he would receive 12 Grammy nominations during his career plus a lifetime achievement award); was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1994; and served as president of ASCAP for 8 years lobbying for the intellectual rights of performing artists as the internet was becoming a force that would greatly impact ASCAP's members. In 1978, he made some of the first records using the new digital recording technology.

During the witch hunts of the McCarthy Era, Gould was asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee which would get another quintessential American composer, Aaron Copland, in political hot water along with many other public figures. Even though he declined, turning down subsequent potential commissions and recording contracts in return for his testimony, he was soon moved “from the 'ask' list to the 'black' list.”

Seems a far cry from the jaunty music on this weekend's program...

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While Morton Gould wrote four symphonettes as well as four symphonies, Ernest Chausson wrote only one symphony, a grand three-movement work in the French late-19th Century tradition, inspired by his teacher Cesar Franck's lone symphony. In fact it was in the summer after hearing Franck's new symphony that Chausson decided to try writing his own.

It's true that Chausson did not write many works – only 39 opus numbers in his catalogue, mostly because he'd gotten a fairly late start as a composer, not writing his first work until he was 22 – unlike Morton Gould's waltz at 6 – and because he was so painstaking with each work, concerned about claims of amateurism since his financial situation meant he didn't need to work for a living. Plus he also died young, killed in a freak bicycling accident at the age of 44, losing control of his bike on a hill and slamming into a wall. By the time Mozart was 22, he had already composed his 31st Symphony and Schubert, at 22, had completed his “Trout” Quintet, the 667th individual work in his catalogue. On the other hand, Chausson also outlived both Mozart (who died at 35) and Schubert (who died at 31) but just barely.

Ernest Chausson, c.1885
As many people will raise their hands when asked “Have you ever heard Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto before,” there probably won't be too many people at the Forum who will have had a chance to hear Chausson's Symphony live before. Though I'd heard the piece through recordings since I was a college student, I've never heard it live, unlike the symphony that inspired it, Franck's D Minor Symphony, which was one of those works that seemed to haunt me on symphony programs wherever I went, hearing it live for the first time in 1964 with the Harrisburg Symphony under Edwin McArthur: it had been performed four times that decade; ten times in 35 years or basically once every 3½ seasons. I must have heard it four times in the two years I lived in New York City on the programs of touring orchestras coming to Carnegie Hall.

The last time it was performed by the Harrisburg Symphony, however, was under Stuart Malina just last season but then, thanks to an unexpected snow storm, it was heard by only a brave few... That was one reason why I regarded the potential appearance of a hurricane during this first concert weekend with some concern.

(You can read more about Franck's Symphony from my blog-post for last season's February performance with the HSO, here.)

Chausson's music appeared only four times on HSO programs between 1930 and 1990, according to my program archives – and that was his most popular work, if anything of his is “frequently performed,” the Poeme for Violin and Orchestra which former concertmaster Odin Rathnam performed with the HSO more recently in 2000 as part of then-conductor-candidate Stuart Malina's “audition concert.”

Curiously, I've heard Chausson's next most popular piece, the Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet four times in my life since 1975, three of them here in Harrisburg, one of them again with Odin Rathnam as part of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic in a very hot, very crowded mill.

So, for no other reason, I am looking forward to hearing Chausson's Symphony live for the first time.

Like the Franck that inspired it, Chausson's is a three-movement work using what was a common fingerprint of late-19th Century French style, called the “cyclical form” though it's not really a form. It means themes from earlier parts of a large-scale work are brought back near the end to tie the whole thing together. Not that this is a necessarily French invention – Beethoven used it several times, most notably in his 5th and 9th Symphonies; Bruckner employed it frequently in his symphonies because, hey, Beethoven had used it in his 9th.

Turns out there are few videos of Chausson's Symphony on YouTube as well, but fortunately this one conducted by French master Jean Fournet, here with the NHK Symphony of Japan, would be an excellent introduction if you've never heard it at all.

The first movement opens with a lengthy slow introduction setting up the lively main part of the movement (just as the Franck did):

The second movement is the slow movement, perhaps one of Chausson's most poignant if not outright tragic movements. Like the Franck Symphony, there is also a role for the English Horn though not as pronounced, doubling a solo cello.

The finale gets off to a robust start followed by a chorale-like second theme before climaxing with a majestic sweep that gradually transcends into an unexpectedly reflective conclusion, harking back one more time to the 1st movement's introduction.

After the first rehearsal Thursday night, HSO Assistant Conductor Gregory Woodbridge posted on my Facebook page, "it sounds so huge and lush!! It won't disappoint!"

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When Ernest Chausson arrived at the Paris Conservatoire in 1879 at the age of 24, one of his teachers was Cesar Franck whose own only symphony wasn't premiered until 1889. By then, Franck was hoping to ride his new-found success after a fitful and often disappointing career into a new style-period. Several recent works, going back to the Piano Quintet of 1879 and including the Symphonic Variations for Piano & Orchestra, Psyché for chorus and orchestra, the Violin Sonata, the Symphony and now a new String Quartet he had just completed, pointed toward a new phase in his creative accomplishments when he died from what might have been complications following an accident when his cab was hit by a trolley in July of 1890: he died about four months later at the age of 67.

Ten years later, Franck's student Chausson, a hale and hearty 44-year-old, died while riding his bicycle one spring afternoon when he too was just beginning to realize new directions toward what might be called his “mature style” given the new confidence of his Symphony, the Concert, Poeme and several recent chamber works. Unfortunately, we'll never know.

Chausson is often described as a bridge between the French Romanticism of Franck and the next generation of composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. He had been influenced by Wagner's music but mostly the sensuous music for Kundry in Wagner's final opera, Parsifal (Chausson and his wife spent part of their honeymoon at Bayreuth so the composer could hear its premiere).

Chausson turns pages for Debussy
This familiar photograph could have been taken at Chausson's home where he held frequent salons with guests from every artistic walk in Paris, painters, authors, performers and composers. Here, it is Chausson turning pages for a young Claude Debussy at the piano as other guests listen in.

According to the Grove Dictionary, near the end of his life he’d begun to apply “the rule which corrects emotion... to achieve that supreme [unflagging effort] that renders the thought loftier, the image clearer,” combining in some context a balance between form and content, structure and emotion, classical and romantic, the sort of quest of artists who begin dealing with more mature issues rather than just purely creative ones.

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In his program notes for the Chausson, Dr. Richard Rodda includes quotes from letters I've not seen before which the composer wrote to his brother-in-law (who had suggested he should try his hand at a symphony if he was so impressed by his teacher's): it was during the summer he worked on his new symphony and they give us an interesting insight not only into the creative process in general but how it goes when a composer lacks a certain self-confidence. It's not just dashing it off in fits of inspiration.

After settling in the coastal town of St. Jean-de-Luz just north of the Spanish border in the Basque region of France, a popular resort much loved in the next generation by Maurice Ravel, Chausson picked up the sketches he had begun in Paris for the first movement.

“Your confounded Symphony is throwing me into a fine state indeed. I have at last finished the Andante, or nearly so, but by a difficult means. I went through a torture that you cannot imagine in order to write the middle section with a phrase I did not like but whose general aspect fitted the movement. Then I played the whole thing over, and I saw very clearly that the middle section was not only detestable, which does not amaze me, but also perfectly useless. I shall simply have to cut it out, make a skillful bridge, if I can, and smooth out the ending. You will have made me spend a terrible time. Pray that I find something good for the finale; otherwise I shall insult you by letters, by telegrams, any way I can.”

The finale did not go smoothly, either.

“I have been working like a slave and I am still stuck on one measure! I return to my manuscript as to a vice. I can think of nothing but that one measure! I loathe getting up in the morning, thinking of the frightful day I am going to spend. Most horrible of all, what I am about to write is very good. No doubt about it.... I have an idea, but just can’t write it down. I can’t continue this sort of life.”

He decided to take a break – first, a day-trip to a near-by town, the site where the events of one of the great medieval poems, The Song of Roland, took place. After his return, he “threw himself into” studying Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. Having cleared his head, the finale gradually “revealed itself” (as inspiration tends to work) and he completed the full score early the following year.

The work was not a success at its premiere the next year, though that could be partly the fault of Chausson's conducting. Six years later, Paris audiences revised their response after hearing it played by the visiting Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of the legendary Artur Nikisch, now regarding it as “Chausson's masterpiece.”

Not quite two years later, Chausson had that fateful outing with a bicycle on a country road, leaving several works incomplete at his writing desk, including plans for a second symphony.

- Dick Strawser