by Walter Simmons
ROSNER: Piano Concerto No. 2 (Peter Vinograde, piano); Gematria; Six Pastoral Dances; From the Diaries of Adam Czerniakow (Peter Riegert, speaker). London Philharmonic; David Amos, cond. TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC-0368
During his fifty-year compositional career, the American composer Arnold Rosner produced a body of a work that combined diverse influences into a powerful, distinctly personal musical voice. His catalog contains compositions in nearly every genre, including three operas, eight symphonies, numerous works for orchestra and band, several large-scale choral works, and many chamber, solo, and vocal pieces.
Rosner’s musical language was founded upon the harmony and rhythmic devices of pre-Baroque modal polyphony. To this he added a 20th-century freedom of modality and triadicism, and combined this harmonic language with the orchestration, drama, and scope of 19th century romanticism. What makes Rosner’s music worthy of serious consideration, rather than being merely a homogenization of earlier styles, is the way he shaped his unusual language to embrace an enormous expressive range—far broader than one might imagine possible—from serene beauty to violent rage, with many points in between. And despite its fusion of seemingly incongruous elements, most of his music is readily accessible even to untutored listeners. This remarkable expressive range is well illustrated by the four works presented here.
Born in New York City in 1945, Rosner took piano lessons as a boy, and soon developed a voracious interest in classical music. Certain sounds in particular appealed to him—juxtapositions of major and minor triads, as well as modal melodies—and before long he was working these sounds into music of his own. His family—fully aware of the remote prospects of success offered by a career in classical music composition—encouraged him to pursue more practical endeavors. So he attended the Bronx High School of Science, whence he graduated at the age of 15, and then New York University with a major in mathematics. But all the while he was composing—sonatas, symphonies, concertos, etc.—not that anyone else was especially interested in hearing the fruits of his labors. His composer-heroes at the time were Alan Hovhaness, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Carl Nielsen, and their influence is evident in much of his creative work.
Graduating from NYU before he turned 20, Rosner then spent a year at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, continuing his studies in mathematics. But, no longer able to resist the inner drive to pursue musical composition as his primary activity, he entered the University of Buffalo the following September, with a major in music composition. This was 1966, when the serial approach dominated university music departments, and young composers were often coerced into adopting it, either directly or indirectly. Rosner was adamantly opposed to serialism and refused to embrace it. He often recounted how the Buffalo faculty dismissed his creative efforts with varying degrees of contempt. Later, in describing his educational experience there, he wrote that he “learned almost nothing” from these pedants. While his peers may have capitulated to the pressure to embrace the style du jour, Rosner stubbornly refused to accept a view of music that violated his most fervently held artistic values. And so, in response, his department repeatedly rejected the large orchestral work he had submitted as his dissertation. Realizing that they would never accept the kind of work he considered legitimately meaningful, he gave up the notion of a doctorate in composition, and decided instead to pursue a degree in music theory, with a dissertation—the first ever—on the music of Alan Hovhaness. He completed this successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York.
Rosner devoted the rest of his life to writing the music that represented his personal aesthetic ideals, supporting himself through academic positions at colleges in and around the New York City area. His most enduring position was as Professor of Music at Kingsborough College (of the City University of New York), which he held for thirty years, until his death. During the course of his compositional career, his musical language gradually expanded from its idiosyncratic and intuitive beginnings, broadening and deepening its expressive range. Arnold Rosner died in Brooklyn, NY, in 2013, on his 68th birthday.
Rosner composed his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 30, in 1965, shortly after graduating from NYU, and before receiving professional instruction in composition. As such it is an excellent representation of the roots of his musical language; it is also quite unlike any other piano concerto in the literature. Among its unusual features are its use of a scherzo as an opening movement, its lack of focus on virtuoso showmanship, and its avoidance of the sense of opposition between soloist and orchestra that characterizes the standard concerto. Instead it is dominated by melody—melody that resembles no other music, yet is readily accessible, irresistibly memorable, and instantly identifiable for those familiar with his music.
The first movement, Scherzo: Allegro, is oriented in the key of G, with a strongly mixolydian flavor, and conveys a sense of joyful exuberance. The harmonic language is almost completely consonant, with interest generated by a free use of chromatically-related triads. Although the movement begins softly, its volume level reaches considerable peaks. This opening section is followed by a Trio: Allegretto. Relatively subdued at first, this section is based on a modal melody that hovers around G minor, and reveals some intervallic reminiscence of the scherzo melody. The tempo presses forward as a variant of the melody leads to a huge climax. A hushed transition then leads to a re-statement of the scherzo.
The second movement, Largo, begins very slowly and softly with another melody, again largely consonant, but in constantly-shifting modes. This melody is developed contrapuntally, and some striking major-minor dissonances are heard as it proceeds. Its serene, almost religious, character is transformed as the movement builds toward a gigantic climax with violent tone-clusters in the piano. As the climax recedes, the movement concludes as it began, in quiet serenity.
The third movement, Presto, returns to the lively, high-spirited tone of the opening movement. A loose rondo design, it is based on a syncopated modal melody that hovers around a tonal center of E. A secondary melody of similar character follows, leading back to a variant of the initial theme in triplet figuration. The solo piano introduces a second section, with a ponderous theme in triple meter, strongly related to the main theme of the first movement. Once this theme reaches a climax, a transition leads to a modified return of the first section, which then evolves into a variant of delicately ethereal character, featuring a continuous pattern of arpeggios in the piano’s high register. A fragment of the theme highlights its major-minor features in thundering octaves and triads. This builds to what feels like the work’s final peroration, as the delicate variant heard earlier is now stated with monumental grandeur. The movement’s main theme returns briefly in a form similar to its initial statement before leading to a coda based on yet another variant of the theme, which builds once again to a grandiloquent conclusion.
When the opportunity for a performance of one of his earlier works appeared, Rosner would typically review it to eliminate impracticalities and other symptoms of his inexperience. For this reason, before this concerto was recorded, composer-organist Carson Cooman edited it to adjust details of orchestration and piano figuration.
Rosner composed a number of works that suggest the spirit of music from the Elizabethan period, such as his Five Meditations, Op. 36, and A Gentle Musicke, Op. 44. These have become among his most popular compositions. Six Pastoral Dances, Op. 40, scored for woodwind quartet plus strings, mines a similar vein, while incorporating a few distinctly modern touches. The opening “Intrada” sets the Elizabethan tone. The “Waltz” that follows is built upon a slightly mischievous melody heard first in the clarinet. In the middle a distinctly Rosnerian use of chromatically related triads is heard. The stately “Pavana” is richly polyphonic, with much use of suspensions and appoggiaturas that resolve in a manner reminiscent of music from the 17th century. The movement concludes with some piquant chromatic dissonances. The “Gigue,” is built around continuous triplet patterns, and is probably the movement with the most modern flavor, featuring perky dissonances and unorthodox parallelisms. However, the central section brings forth a more strongly Elizabethan touch. The final cadence is quite uncharacteristic for the composer, ending quizzically on a sub-dominant triad in second inversion. The warmly polyphonic “Sarabande” returns to the spirit of a 17th-century motet, leading directly into the finale, “Galliard and Reprise.” This lively movement begins with the composer’s characteristic treatment of triadic consonance, leading directly into a triumphant but abbreviated restatement of the opening “Intrada.” Six Pastoral Dances was composed in 1968, and was first performed the following year by the Bronx Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Spierman, to whom it is dedicated.
Conductor David Amos discovered Rosner’s music during the early 1980s, and soon became one of his most vigorous champions. Conducting the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Amos led the first recording of Rosner’s orchestral music. Between 1986 and 1993 he commissioned four works from the composer, each of which he premiered with his own Tifereth Israel Orchestra of San Diego. The first of these was From the Diary of Adam Czerniakow, Op. 82. As will be evident to the listener, this work represents considerable maturation of Rosner’s musical language. He provided the following note, included at the front of the score:
Adam Czerniakow was the chairman of the Judenrat, or Jewish local government in the Warsaw ghetto from 1939 (the beginning of the German occupation and administration of the ghetto) until 1942 when he took his own life during the time of mass deportation of the population to death camps in the east. In this capacity, Czerniakow kept a secret diary which recounts considerable detail about the ghetto and its history, and also reveals the growing awareness and torment in Czerniakow himself as the Nazis moved deviously, carefully, and inexorably towards including the Jews of Poland in the “final solution.”
The unique artistic opportunity conveyed by the Diaries is its combination of two otherwise irreconcilable perspectives—the viewpoint of a mass of victims, which portrays the magnitude of the events, and that of a single tragic individual, which better portrays the human pathos of those events. Czerniakow was, after all, both a very tortured victim in his own right, and in a very real sense, a conduit—sometimes in spite of himself—between the oppressors and the thousands of Jewish victims in occupied Poland.
The work … is scored for full orchestra and one narrator, reading Czerniakow’s words. These diary entries are spoken only; there is no singing in the entire piece. The music is in one continuous movement, befitting something of an extended stream of consciousness, and the actual style migrates from symphonic, to coloristic, to cantorial, according to the spirit of the historical events.
The English translation of Czerniakow’s material was made by Raul Hilberg and Stanislaw Staron, in collaboration with Josef Kermisz of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The composer has applied for and received permission from all of these for the use of the material…. [The text has been further edited for concision by Walter Simmons.]
The first performance of this work took place in 2010. The score bears a dedication to Lee and David Amos.
The second of the Amos commissions is Gematria, Op. 93. During the early 1980s Rosner began exploring an approach he called stile estatico. Partly influenced by the “minimalism” that had become a popular style among living composers, but which Rosner felt was not sufficiently developed by any of its most prominent practitioners, stile estatico entails the simultaneous use of multiple ostinati. But these repeated ostinato patterns each follows a rhythmic cycle of its own, and are thus of different durations; hence the patterns overlap each other, as each starts and stops at different points. While these ostinati are unfolding, a more distinctive element may appear in the foreground. Gematria, composed in 1991, is probably the work in which Rosner employed the stile estatico most fully and with the greatest complexity. Of course the greatest challenge in composing a piece of this kind is to achieve meaningful overall coherence as each ostinato pattern repeats according to its own individual rhythmic cycle. In a note that appears in the score, Rosner writes:
Although found elsewhere, Gematria is most fully developed as an esoteric aspect of Judaism, particularly of Kabbalah mysticism. Numbers are systematically substituted for letters, resulting in complex hidden ideas, cross-references and double-meanings in otherwise apparently straightforward texts. This work does not apply a similarly schematic approach to music, but attempts a fitting mood and richness by means of complicated cross-rhythmic overlays of colors and harmonies. This work was commissioned by David Amos and the Tifereth Israel Orchestra of San Diego.
The premiere of Gematria took place in 1992. The work is dedicated to the members of the Tifereth Israel Orchestra of San Diego.