BUECHNER: Essay 1. Old Swedes Church. Erlkönig: Suite No. 1. American Civil War: Blue and the Gray. Flight of the American Eagle. John Varineau conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Georg Schmöhe conducting the Nürnberger Symphoniker. NORD-DISC Nord-2030 [DDD]; 75:05.
BUECHNER: Phantomgreen: Suite No. 2. Elizabeth: Pas de deux; Suite No. 2; Suite No. 3 (“The Well-Wishers”). Erlkönig; Suite No. 2. Georg Schmöhe conducting the Nürnberger Symphoniker; with Susan Anthony, soprano; James McLean, tenor. John Varineau conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. NORD-DISC Nord-2032 [DDD]; 73:10.
Margaret Buechner has received a good deal of coverage in Fanfare during the past couple of years. There was an informative biographical profile by Royal S. Brown in 16:1 (pp. 38ff), two generally favorable reviews by David Hurwitz (15:4, p. 168; 16:2, p. 214); quite an enthusiastic one by Robert McColley (16:4, pp. 137-39), and a less favorable one by William Zagorski (17:2, p. 202).
To summarize her background for those who don’t have back-issues at hand: Margaret Buechner was born in Hannover, Germany, in 1922. Intensely drawn to music–especially orchestral music—in her early teens, she learned to play the piano, then went on to study composition with Hermann Zilcher at the University of Würtzburg. After doing some teaching and conducting, she moved to the United States in 1951, seeking opportunities for performance of her music. After her arrival here, she studied privately with Otto Luening. Believing that the possibilities for classical forms had been exhausted, yet wanting to reach general audiences, she hit upon the idea of writing program music—full-length narrative ballets, in particular—in an accessible, Romantic style. She was heartened when her first such effort—The Key—proved successful.
In 1959, Buechner moved from the East Coast to Michigan, where she continues to live. She founded the Michigan Composers League, taught, and did several radio series, while continuing to compose, concentrating on these large-scale programmatic orchestral works. Several of her ballets have been staged, and seem to have won some success. Now, during the past couple of years, considerable resources have been expended in an attempt to gain wider exposure for her work through recordings.
The aforementioned notices in Fanfare had piqued my interest in Buechner’s music, but these two CDs represent my first actual exposure to it. Initially, I was made somewhat skeptical by the voluminous program notes accompanying each CD, which ramble on circumlocutiously from one awkwardly phrased overstatement to the next. (Having “learned all she needed to know about composing symphonic music,” she “developed her own contemporary melodic style of symphonic music manifested by her characteristic eloquence of the many passages of the full sound of the orchestra.”) But I know how difficult it is for a composer to gain exposure and attention from a complacent public that believes it already knows what’s good and doesn’t want to make the effort to find out otherwise, and I was determined to give Buechner a fair hearing.
Having listened thoroughly to both CDs, I have decided not to discuss each piece individually, because essentially, they are very, very similar, although one disc is supposedly concert music, while the other is explicitly ballet music. Furthermore, a look at the headnotes of this and the prior reviews reveals that a lot of the same music is involved, excerpted, mixed, and matched in various ways.
Perhaps the most favorable thing one can say about Buechner’s music is that it is vividly and sumptuously scored, according to a post-Wagnerian conception of orchestral sonority. It is also rooted in a post-Wagnerian notion of rhetoric, with a propensity for grand, heroic gestures. However, the music does not sound like Wagner, or like anyone else really, either, for the simple reason that it has very little-thematic content that might give it an identity—either its own or a reminiscence of someone else’s. This is its fundamental shortcoming, and it is a big one, I am afraid. A digression is in order—a thumbnail history of “symphonic” and “program” music, terms used copiously and rather promiscuously by the program annotator.
Music—especially of the traditional, orthodox variety, which Buechner embraces—is based on ideas that are developed—melodically, contrapuntally, harmonically, and rhythmically. A piece has form: there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and as it moves from one point to another there is a reason for everything that happens, and this reason should be evident in the music itself. Another way of saying this is that everything in a piece is related to everything else. If it isn’t, it doesn’t belong there. The principles of melody, harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm provide the means of achieving this coherence, for which the “classical forms” evolved as successful organizing strategies. If a composer believes that the possibilities for using classical forms have been exhausted, then he or she must find other ways of achieving this coherence. Nineteenth-century composers turned to programmatic conceptions as alternatives to classical forms in their search for novel ways of achieving musical coherence. This entailed using a literary or other nonmusical idea as an organizing principle. The only trouble was that the listener had to be privy to information outside the music in order to perceive its meaning. So the better composers who pursued this approach used the principle of the leitmotif, translating nonmusical ideas into musical motifs that could then be treated autonomously to achieve organic coherence. The nonmusical idea then functioned as an epiphenomenon—a means of stimulating the listener’s imagination in one way or another. However, this formal autonomy is not as essential for music whose intended context is a collaboration with another artistic medium–e.g., a film, an opera, a ballet—because in such cases the collaborative entity is the “work”—not the music, and it is this entire entity that must be coherent. Nonetheless, it is possible in such collaborations for the music to achieve coherence apart from the other elements; this gives it viability as an independent experience. Collaborative music that is not structured in this way—for example, most film scores—is less successful as an independent experience. But this is all a matter of degree: music can achieve some degree of formal integration and be moderately successful within a more casual context. For example, most ballet music that endures in the concert hall is thematically conceived and integrated, if only within individual sections.
The point is this: I hear little understanding of these principles in Buechner’s music. Perhaps it succeeds as a sonic backdrop to the ballets for which it is intended. But to be engaging as an independent listening experience, on even the most casual level, music needs well-shaped melodies directed by a sense of harmonic motion. These pieces do not have the level of musical substance found in a John Williams film score, with which they share a general aesthetic affinity. Frankly, I do not understand how David Hurwitz could have described this music as “symphonically constructed, tuneful,” or how Robert McColley could have called it “endlessly melodic,” and justified its lack of structural integration by pointing to Ein Heldenleben. I hear no real melodies in this music (except in those few instances in which pre-existing tunes are quoted), I hear no symphonic construction, no harmonic direction. I suggest that my colleagues sit down and listen to Ein Heldenleben and one of Buechner’s pieces of “program music” in succession. Or how about her Essay 1 alongside Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 1? Some fundamental differences are readily apparent. Without musical ideas there can be no structure, no emotional expression, no character, no style. There may be loudness (and there is plenty), but no climax; there may be triads, but no resolution.
I take no pleasure in disparaging Margaret Buechner’s compositions and I recognize the effort and resources expended in creating them and attempting to gain exposure for them. But to whatever extent Darwinian principles operate in today’s music world, these works will not prevail.