SAMUEL BARBER: Absolute Beauty

SAMUEL BARBER: Absolute Beauty ● Documentary with commentary and performance excerpts, both contemporary and historical ● ZEN VIOLENCE FILMS, available from (DVD: 130:00)

Documentary director: H. Paul Moon

This is a most welcome documentary about American composer Samuel Barber. In a relatively leisurely fashion, it covers the scope of his creative output from Dover Beach through the late Choruses, Op. 42, via generous excerpts of representative works comprising a cornucopia of performances by superb, if less familiar, musicians from the Washington, DC, area, but also a few from notable historical performances. The former include, among others too numerous to name, violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, cellist Stephen Framil, soprano Melissa Fogarty, the respective symphony orchestras of Alexandria, Baltimore, the Washington Metropolitan Symphony, the Cantate Chamber Singers, and IBIS Chamber Ensemble, while the latter include Leontyne Price and the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet. Commentaries by both current notables, such as Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop, and Thomas Hampson, and by important historical figures, such as William Schuman, Gian Carlo Menotti, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland, as well as by the composer himself, collectively create a richly nuanced, and sometimes insightful job of reviewing Barber’s biography and characterizing his artistic contribution, if somewhat less accurate in placing the composer within the context of the musical life of the time. That is, most of the commentators discuss Barber as if he were the only composer of his generation who ignored the compositional fashions of the time in favor of remaining true to his inner spirit. I am moved to point out that Barber was one of many such composers—some blessed by comparable creative gifts—but who lacked the tremendous privileges of affluence, supportive family, and highly placed social connections, as well as connections within the music world, which greatly facilitated Barber’s achieving the success he enjoyed.

Barber biographer Barbara Heyman and French biographer Pierre Brévignon are listed as “consulting producers,” and they provide the lion’s share of the commentary, especially the former, who essentially provides the narrative continuity. The viewer will come away with quite a rich understanding of the scope of Barber’s music, along with the essential elements of his biography, his temperament, and his personality. Even subjects that are often avoided, such as his homosexuality, his long-term relationship with Menotti and its heartbreaking collapse, and the background underlying the internationally publicized failure of his 1966 opera Antony and Cleopatra, are addressed and discussed with satisfying thoroughness.

But along with the enjoyment I experienced in hearing such a generous sample of Barber’s music, and the astute observations of many of the commentators, I also felt a certain frustration that most of what was said is already quite familiar to those who are conversant with the composer’s music. Truly, the documentary is best suited to those who are fond of the AdagioKnoxville, and perhaps the Violin Concerto, but don’t really know much about Barber’s life, his personality, or his other works. Such listeners are likely to find the documentary to be a revelation. Listeners who have never regarded Barber as a significant creative figure comprise another group of listeners who might find the film enlightening. But I think that those who are familiar with the extent of the composer’s output, and need no convincing as to its importance within the canon of American music, are likely to find most of the commentary rather obvious, and even somewhat superficial. Such viewers may feel that the perspectives of the individual commentators themselves are overly dominated by the works they have performed, rather than derived from an understanding of the totality of his contribution.

From today’s standpoint, I feel that it is well established that Samuel Barber was one of America’s greatest composers, and that a substantial portion of his output has carved an enduring place in the standard permanent repertoire, an accomplishment achieved by few of his contemporaries. Indeed, most of his works—the Cello Sonata, the Cello Concerto, the Piano Sonata, the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the String Quartet, and others are—rightly or wrongly—generally considered to be the foremost American compositions within their respective media, perhaps to the exclusion of equally meritorious works by other composers.

All in all, it is good to see the appearance of a documentary that should consolidate a broader awareness of Barber’s contributions. I hope that it attracts considerable attention. H. Paul Moon is to be commended for pulling together so many gifted performers and such revealing historical footage in compiling this multifaceted presentation. 

MUSIC MAKES A CITY: An American Orchestra’s Untold Story.

MUSIC MAKES A CITY: An American Orchestra’s Untold Story ● Owsley Brown III, Jerome Hiler, directors ● 21C MEDIA GROUP (DVD: 1:43)
Additional DVD with more than two hours of interviews with composers, musicians, and related personalities

Dedicated enthusiasts with at least a modicum of interest in American music who were listening actively during the 1950s and 60s are no doubt familiar with the contributions made by the Louisville Orchestra. Others’ awareness may be somewhat more vague, or even non-existent. I discovered the Louisville series of recordings, and became a subscriber to their bi-monthly releases in 1960, when I was in my early teens. So I can say unequivocally that the blazing explosion of interest in 20th-century music that I experienced—American in particular—was fueled by the Louisville recording project. For me this leisurely-paced documentary recounting just how all this came about—virtually unthinkable today—was irresistibly fascinating. And if it had been twice as long and twice as detailed, I would have been just as happy.

The narrative, enriched by interviews with some of the composers, musicians, and local figures who were involved at the time, and accompanied by a soundtrack consisting exclusively of music recorded by the orchestra, and by documentary footage as well as more recent, impressionistically related photography of the general locale, is spellbinding. The story begins with a general history of Louisville, and the devastating flood that nearly destroyed the city completely during the Great Depression. This catastrophe ignited a sense of unity and solidarity among the citizenry that was an essential element in the catalysation of what followed. In 1938, the year after the flood, a group of community leaders formed the Louisville Civic Orchestra. Invited to pull together this ragtag assortment of random instrumentalists—mostly undisciplined amateurs—was the young and inexperienced conductor Robert Whitney, who had no idea what he was getting himself into. Before he could undertake anything like a concert season he had to actually create an orchestra with the basic complement of instruments. The orchestra struggled, on the brink of collapse, for its first ten years of existence.

But in 1948 an exceedingly remarkable individual named Charles Farnsley was elected mayor of Louisville. A follower of Confucius, a proud champion of the Confederacy while a trail-blazer in promoting racial integration, and a glad-handed extrovert, Farnsley was a member of that distinguished fraternity of eccentric visionaries without which our culture would be a good deal poorer. He happened to have a passion for contemporary classical music, and decided that one way for the orchestra to build a local constituency, as well as a broader reputation, was for it to specialize in the performance of new compositions (can you believe it?). (It may occur to some who follow the American orchestral scene that Albany’s Peter Kermani is something of a latter-day incarnation of Farnsley). Farnsley galvanized the enthusiasm of conductor Whitney, as well as that of many of the leaders of the Louisville community, and the plan was implemented. However, the orchestra continued to struggle financially. In 1949 a composition was commissioned from William Schuman, which was to be choreographed and danced as a solo work by the world-famous Martha Graham. By the time that premiere was to take place the funding stream had dried up to the point where there was no money to pay the orchestra. Convinced that this event—with Martha Graham performing in Louisville—would bring the ensemble to national attention, Whitney persuaded the musicians to perform that concert for free. The work was Judith—arguably Schuman’s masterpiece—and Whitney’s prediction paid off. Notables attended the event from all over the country, the work was received with extraordinary enthusiasm, and the orchestra was invited to perform it at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The Louisville Orchestra had garnered the national attention it had been seeking. The sensation thus created provided the necessary impetus for Farnsley to go to the Rockefeller Foundation with an even more ambitious plan: a project to commission leading American composers of all stylistic persuasions to write works for the orchestra, which would then record these works and make them available to the general public by subscription. The Rockefeller Foundation rewarded Farnsley’s efforts with a three-year grant of $400,000. Among the fruits of this project were a number of works that are true masterpieces of American orchestral music: In addition to Schuman’s Judith, which had preceded the grant, there were Vincent Persichetti’s Symphony for Strings and Peter Mennin’s Symphony No. 6—both among the greatest American symphonies to this day. Not only did the recording project spread the reputation of the orchestra throughout the country, but the recordings were broadcast overseas via the Voice of America, providing international exposure as well. However, all was not smooth sailing for the orchestra. The investigations undertaken by the House Un-American Activities Commission into the political backgrounds of composers during the McCarthy period dealt a severe blow to the orchestra, as did the increasingly antagonistic relationships among proponents of competing approaches to contemporary musical composition. On the other hand, the orchestra made a tremendous impact on music education in Louisville, and on the city’s cultural life in general. A sense of pride developed, along with a true cultural and intellectual vitality, throughout the city. When Soviet composers came to the United States on an official visit, they asked to be taken to Louisville.

During the years that followed, the commissioning project was replaced by a program of first recordings. Robert Whitney retired in 1966, and the program’s sense of mission began to dissipate. Most recently the orchestra has suffered as a result of union disputes and financial problems in general, although just a week ago, as I write, an agreement was reached that will save the orchestra’s 2012-13 season.

The foregoing account is just a brief overview. Space does not permit more details, nor do I wish to spoil the fun for potential viewers. But if you have read this far, I think you may enjoy the entire documentary, enlivened by comments from the likes of Elliott Carter, Harold Shapero, Chou Wen-chung, Joan Tower, Gunther Schuller, Lukas Foss, and Norman Dello Joio (the latter two having died since the interviews were recorded), as well as from others associated with the orchestra and the community at the time.

In addition to the documentary, the package includes a handsome booklet with short essays discussing the creation of the film; there is also an additional DVD with extended excerpts from the interviews with the aforementioned distinguished personages. I can imagine that when the idea for this documentary was hatched, the producers realized that they had to act quickly, as the actual participants in the story were rapidly dying off. The interviews seem to have been undertaken around 2006-08. With some exceptions, those interviewed were in their 80s and 90s. My own greatest regret is that so many of the best composers commissioned by the orchestra were no longer alive at the time the interviews were done. William Mootz, music critic of the Louisville Courier-Journal during the orchestra’s heyday, offers priceless recollections recounted with vivid animation. The booklet informs us that he was seriously ill at the time, and was made presentable for the interviews, but passed away shortly afterward. Community leader Curtis Dewees speaks eloquently about the impact of the orchestra on the city’s cultural life during the 1950s and 60s. And Jorge Mester, who succeeded Robert Whitney as conductor, discusses the difficulty he faced in selecting repertoire to record. He was aided in this, he says, by gaining access to an enormous collection of recordings amassed by “someone named Paul Snook” [of Fanfare fame]. Of considerable assistance to the producers was a doctoral dissertation written by Sandra Fralin, entitled The Role of the Louisville Orchestra in the Fostering of New Music, 1947-1997.

America’s cultural life can often seem depressing: the pandering to the lowest common denominator in an endless quest for ever-bigger profits, the elimination of music education from so many public school curricula, the rejection of anything smacking of “elitism,” the vulgar attempts to sell classical music by marketing musicians as “show-biz celebrities.” The Louisville Orchestra, a product of America’s mid-western heartland, demonstrated how a dedicated commitment to a noble vision could actually succeed on an international scale.


“O THOU TRANSCENDENT”: THE LIFE OF RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS ● Tony Palmer, director; Natl O of Hungarian Radio, Tamas Vasary, cond; Natl Youth O, Sian Edwards, cond; et al. soloists and commentators ● TPDVD 106 (DVD: 148:00)

This is a documentary that all admirers of Vaughan Williams will want to own—or at least, to see. Released in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the great composer’s death, it is a leisurely overview of his life, enriched by substantial excerpts from some of his most significant works, heard in superb, sympathetic performances. Offering their own perspectives on his creative work, his habits, and his character are a wide range of individuals who knew him and/or worked with him and his music. There are also numerous photos and filmclips of the composer himself, and even a running commentary that appears to be in his own voice. For those who consider Vaughan Williams to be one of the greatest half-dozen composers of his generation, as I do, the foregoing overview will be sufficient stimulus to run out and acquire the DVD immediately; many other admirers of his work may feel the same as well.

How earthshaking the actual content of the documentary is will depend on the viewer’s familiarity with the composer’s background. Although I was already familiar with a good deal of the information, I found it an unalloyed delight to watch, if for no other reason than the simple pleasure of hearing what the likes of Sir Adrian Boult, Michael Kennedy, Ursula Vaughan Williams, Imogen Holst, Michael Tippett, Harrison Birtwhistle, Andre Previn, and even American composer John Adams had to say about him, and to see them say it.

Tony Palmer, who has devoted much of his career to documentaries on musical subjects, has his own particular point to make: that, rather than a rumpled, benevolently avuncular old codger who composed nostalgic musical depictions of the English countryside, Vaughan Williams was a dashing ladies’ man in his youth, and a deeply pessimistic, free-thinking agnostic later on, who lived through the two World Wars, in the first of which he volunteered to serve, witnessing the gruesome carnage first-hand; that he stood by his first wife, wheelchair-bound for most of their marriage, with loyal devotion for 56 years, but perhaps expressed his rage at this fate in his Fourth Symphony. Though these biographical details may be unfamiliar to some, most admirers of Vaughan Williams’ music are well aware that there is a good deal more to it than benign pastoralism and folksong rhapsodies, lovely as those may be.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of bloopers, such as the implication that the Fourth Symphony is based on the Dies Irae motif, which it decidedly is not; in fact, what it is based on is much closer to the B-A-C-H motif, but it is not that either. Secondly, pop music figure Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys talks about the revelation he experienced upon discovering the Tallis Fantasia while in grammar school, at which point we then hear the Fantasia on Greensleeves. And in his zeal to emphasize the horrors that the composer faced as part of his wartime duties, Palmer includes some clips of shockingly grisly carnage for which some viewers may not be prepared.

But these quibbles are indeed minor matters. The composer’s many admirers are more than likely to find this documentary to be as boundlessly fascinating as I did.


COPLAND: FANFARE FOR AMERICA ● A Film by Andreas Skipis ● ARTHAUS 101 573 (DVD: 60:00)

This is an excellent overview of Copland—his life, his musical style, and his place in the history of American music. Many subscribers to this publication who read the foregoing sentence are likely to think to themselves, “I already know all that.” This DVD is not designed for those readers.

The visualization comprises some historical footage, as well as on-camera commentary by conductor Hugh Wolff, also seen conducting generous excerpts from some of Copland’s best 
known pieces, played by members of the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra; and by Howard Pollack, musicologist at the University of Houston and the author of an important recent biography of the composer; there is also some commentary by the composer himself. Pollack contributes some of the most interesting insights into the composer’s personal history and character. His remarks are set in a variety of venues that proclaim “New York City.” The excerpts of Copland’s music are also accompanied by footage of New York City, including the Brooklyn neighborhood where the composer grew up. At first it was a little disconcerting to hear “Hoe-Down” while watching a scene of traffic on the FDR Drive, until it occurred to me that perhaps this is underlining the point that Copland’s evocations of cowboys and the Wild West, of Appalachian pioneers, of Mexico, et al. were all conceived by a lifelong resident of New York City. The footage of the musicians is also enhanced by some unusual visual effects. 

Perhaps the aspect of the documentary most interesting to more knowledgable viewers is the fact that this is a German production, and thus provides a German perspective on Copland and his place in American musical history. Although the on-screen commentary is presented in English by Americans, there is also the voice-over narration in German, presumably written and perhaps spoken by the director Andreas Skipis (with optional sub-titles in English, French, or Spanish). The bias is most apparent toward the end when the anonymous narrator states, “Along with Ives, Gershwin, and Bernstein, Copland represents the American chapter in the history of music.” When I picked myself up off the floor, I reflected on what a short and largely peripheral chapter that would make, within a German history of music.

My other quibble involves a point made by Hugh Wolff, during a segment on Copland’s Third Symphony. Wolff points to the influence of Mahler on this work. Not only is this true only if one assumes that all grandiose 20th-century symphonies are influenced by Mahler—a ridiculous assumption—but it also overlooks several important factors: 1) that Copland’s Third was not unique, but one of dozens of grand American symphonies composed during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s; 2) that the Third Symphony (composed just a few years after Shostakovich’s Fifth) was really Copland’s attempt at creating an example of symphonic Socialist Realism, American style. If one wants to argue that Mahler was an influence on Shostakovich, that is a legitimate point—but that doesn’t necessarily make him an influence on Copland.

In summary, this is an informative introduction to Copland and his music, probably most appropriate for non-Americans, whose general background regarding American music may be limited. Most Americans who care about Copland will probably be familiar with this information, while those Americans who aren’t probably don’t care about Copland.

LANGGAARD: Antikrist

LANGGAARD Antikrist • Thomas Dausgaard, cond; Sten Byriel (Lucifer); Anne Margrethe Dahl (Spirit of Mystery); Helene Gjerris (Mystical Voice); Camilla Nylund (The Great Whore); Poul Elming (Mouth Speaking Great Things); Morten Suurballe (Voice of God); et al. soloists; Danish Natl S O & Ch • DACAPO 2.110402 (DVD: 95:00)

If you have just seen your first opera—La Boheme, let’s say, or La Traviata—then Antikristshould definitely NOT be next on your list. In fact, the biggest and most misleading error is in referring to Antikrist as an opera at all. It does not belong in that category, as the term is customarily understood—a musical “mystery play,” perhaps; what it really is, is a metaphysical cantata concerning the moral issues that were facing civilization during the post-World War I period. There is no action, no dialogue, no plot depicting a sequence of events. Divided into two “acts,” it is a series of tableaux, each addressing a particular flaw in the character of humanity.
Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was one of those fascinating, if somewhat pathetic—even paranoid—characters who regarded themselves as outcasts, outsiders to their country’s musical activities, unwelcome prophets who saw the truth and were ostracized for their superior visions. Often, however, a closer look at their biographies reveals that they were actively instrumental in ensuring their own obscurity. (Other examples include Allan Pettersson and Kaikhosru Sorabji.) Langgaard was raised in a fanatically religious and devoutly musical household, in which composers were viewed as prophets—the links between humanity and God. Langgaard was taught to see his role as the last gasp of piety in an impious world. The opposing forces—the forces of Antichrist—according to this construction, were modernism and materialism, and the arch villains were none other than Carl Nielsen and Richard Strauss, while the “true” path had been carved out by Liszt, Wagner, and Bruckner. Growing up within this cultural mileu, Langgaard proceeded to embark on a course of self-fulfilling prophecies. He managed to antagonize and repel the powers that were to such an extent that his work was, indeed, disregarded, and he was dismissed as some sort of inept crackpot.

Subsisting on his income as a church organist, Langgaard composed hundreds of works, centering around 16 symphonies. However, in many ways Antikrist may be viewed as his magnum opus. He had contemplated it for years, composed most of it while in his late 20s (1921-23), then spent the next decade or so revising it, often in wholesale fashion. In it he incorporated elements from some of his other most significant works, notably Music of the Spheres and the Symphony No. 6, “Heaven-Rending.” According to the extensive and fascinating notes by Langgaard expert Bendt Viinhold Nielsen that accompany this package and provided me with some of the more esoteric information presented here, Antikrist “constitutes the essence of [Langgaard’s] whole creative capability and distinctiveness.” Langgaard fashioned the largely incoherent text himself, although he supposedly based it on a dramatic poem by P. E. Benzon. The program notes astutely point out that the issues that underlie the work are much the same as those that motivate Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947). Although it purports to address pressing issues in philosophy and theology, Antikrist—according to B. V. Nielsen—was really about music, which for Langgaard represented the apotheosized fusion of theology and philosophy. In this connection, the work achieves a more complex fascination when one considers that much of it resembles the music of some of the composers Langgaard anathematizes. For example, as much as he demonized Carl Nielsen, Denmark’s contemporaneous musical hero, Langgaard was reportedly drawn irresistibly to his countryman’s Fourth Symphony, “Inextinguishable.” This then makes Antikrist more than simply a conservative manifesto, a diatribe against modern values, but rather an examination of the agonizing internal conflict between attraction and revulsion. In that sense, the work calls to mind Ken Russell’s foolishly under-rated film Crimes of Passion, with Anthony Perkins’s clergyman as the analogue of Langgaard himself.

So much for the ideas underlying Antikrist; what about the musical experience? At the risk of being glib, I would say that the work inhabits an aesthetic world where the philosophical approach of Scriabin and the musical language of, say, Strauss and Pfitzner intersect with the psychodynamics of Bruckner. In this sense, Antikrist is musically conservative for its time, but Langgaard pushes the envelope until he crosses over into something extreme enough to fit within the culture of the 1920s. I would assert that listeners whose tastes favor pieces like Scriabin’s Divine Poem, Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony, or Delius’s Mass of Life are likely to find Langgaard’s work worth their effort. I do not believe such listeners will be disappointed. Musically, within its Parsifal/Bruckner idiom, it is really quite intriguing and often surprising. Personally, I would sooner listen to it than, say, to Pfitzner’s Palestrina. 

Although the composer labored indefatigably to interest various parties in mounting a production, the work was never performed until 1980—long after Langgaard’s death—when it was presented for radio broadcast. Six years later it was performed in concert. The work’s first actual staging took place in Innsbruck in 1999. The DVD at hand derives from a 2002 production in Copenhagen. This performance—and its packaging—are rewarding on all counts. All the vocal soloists are excellent, as is the orchestra. The staging achieves the virtually impossible, in providing a relevant visual component that supports the meaning of the work while offering some creative ideas of its own (one of which has got to be seen to be believed). In addition to the complete work, the DVD includes historical and analytical commentaries, subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, and Danish, and even a brief silent film clip showing a few seconds of Langgaard conducting. And, as mentioned before, the accompanying booklet offers extensive, informative, erudite essays by the aforementioned Nielsen, as well as another by Jørgen I. Jensen. In summary, those who have followed me this far are encouraged to give Antikrist a try.