by Walter Simmons
ARNOLD ROSNER. Five Ko-ans for Orchestra; Unraveling Dances; The Parable of the Law. Nick Palmer, cond. Christopher Burchett, baritone; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Nick Palmer, cond. TOCCATA T0CC-0464
During his fifty-year compositional career, the American composer Arnold Rosner (1945–2013) produced a body of work that combined diverse influences into a powerful, distinctly personal musical voice. His catalogue comprises compositions in nearly every genre, including three operas, eight symphonies, numerous works for orchestra and wind band, several large-scale choral works and many chamber, solo and vocal pieces.
Rosner’s musical language was founded upon the harmonic and rhythmic devices of the polyphonic music of the Renaissance and early Baroque periods. These roots can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, in virtually all his music. To them he added a free triadicism and exotic modalities, intensified in some works by more contemporary harmonic dissonance, combining this language with the lavish orchestration and emotional drama of late-nineteenth-century Romanticism. What makes Rosner’s music worthy of serious consideration, rather than being merely an integration 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. The works featured on this recording reveal, perhaps to a greater extent than any previous recording of his music, the vast range of expression achieved by his remarkable creative personality. And despite its fusion of these seemingly incongruous elements, most of his music is readily accessible even to untutored listeners.
Born in New York City in 1945, Rosner took piano lessons as a boy, and soon developed a voracious interest in classical music. Some 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, and so he attended the Bronx High School of Science, whence he graduated at the age of fifteen, and then New York University with a major in mathematics. But all the while he was composing: sonatas, symphonies, concertos and more – not that anyone was especially interested in hearing the fruits of his labors. His composer-heroes at the time were Hovhaness, Vaughan Williams and Nielsen, and their influence is evident in much of his earlier creative work.
Graduating from NYU before he turned twenty, 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 in 1966, when serialism was the dominant style in university music departments, and young composers were often coerced, directly or indirectly, into adopting it. Rosner often recounted how the Buffalo faculty dismissed his creative efforts with varying degrees of contempt. Later, in describing his educational experience there, he would say that he ‘learned almost nothing’ from these pedants. Although most of his peers capitulated to the pressure to embrace the style du jour, Rosner was adamantly opposed to serialism and 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 music he considered 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 task successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York.
He 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 Community 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, as the mature works on this recording illustrate. Arnold Rosner died in Brooklyn, in 2013, on his 68th birthday.
Rosner composed his Five Ko-ans for Orchestra, Op. 65, in 1976, during what was probably the most fruitful period of his creative life, and it is one of his most important works. A note in the score, provided by Rosner, defines the Zen concept of Ko-an as a “riddle, action, remark, or dialogue not comprehensible by rational understanding but conducive to intense or prolonged meditation (literally, from Chinese Kung-an, ‘public statement’).” The five movements that comprise the work may thus be viewed as musical statements whose meanings may be inferred and understood via intuitive perception. Entitled “Music of Changes,” “Ricercare,” “Ostinato,” “Music of Stillness,” and “Isorhythmic Motet,” the five pieces also serve as representations of five aspects of Rosner’s compositional personality. The first, “Music of Changes,” serves as both an introduction to and a summary of the work, as its eight minutes feature a contrasting array of psychological and musical visions: an eerie evocation of abject terror, ethereal serenity, tightly interwoven polyphony of Medieval martial cast, unearthly inscrutability, delicate folk-like simplicity, swirling gusts of chaos from which emerges a stern chorale, solemn reflection, an aggressive, frantic onslaught of vigorous activity, finally concluding in somber mystery. “Ricercare” is based on a polyphonic style that flourished during the early 1600s. This movement, evocatively spiritual in character, is closest to the origins of Rosner’s style. “Ostinato” (literally, “obstinate”) is built around a consistent, percussively emphatic pattern of crotchets (quarter-notes) in quintuple meter. “Music of Stillness” is a remarkable oasis of mysterious tranquility, centering on an enigmatic phrase that recurs throughout the movement, initially stated by the flute and vibraphone. “Isorhythmic Motet” is based on a technique used in Medieval music which Rosner adapted to his aesthetic needs in several of his works, such as his String Quartet No. 4 and his Cello Sonata No. 2. In essence, his adaptation of the isorhythmic motet comprises variations on a recurrent rhythmic pattern that embraces all the instruments. The rhythms remain unchanged, while the dynamics, pitches, and resulting harmony are altered freely. In this movement the isorhythmic pattern is thirteen measures long, and repeats seven times.
Unraveling Dances, Op. 122, was Rosner’s final orchestral work, composed in 2007. It is almost unique in his output — a high-spirited orchestral showpiece. The distinguished composer Carson Cooman, who was Rosner’s chosen archivist, provided a note that appears in the score: “The inspiration for Unraveling Dances came from both the slow-tempo Spanish/Latin dance of the bolero and Rosner’s own experience with heart arrhythmia. He initially conceived of the idea of an arrhythmic or ‘mad’ bolero in which the basic pulse is not kept completely steady but rather is subjected to a variety of transformations throughout. In the resulting work, the underlying pulse never changes, but the rhythmic groupings continue to get longer and longer, beginning in bars of 3/8 and ending in bars of 7/4.” That is, there are eleven variations of the theme, the meter of each successive variation one quaver (eighth-note) longer than the previous one. Through modal changes, the character of the variations embrace many of Rosner’s favorite compositional inflections, including suggestions of the Renaissance and early Baroque and of Middle-Eastern music, finally introducing a fragment of Ravel’s own Bolero. Much like that piece, “the overall progression of the work moves from the quiet stasis of the beginning to the fierce orchestral grandeur of the end. The title has several layers of meaning: 1) the music unravels with the extra 8th-notes added from one variation to the next; 2) any group of dancers would go crazy if trying to actually dance to it (the composer imagined them ‘unraveling their clothes’); 3) the embedded reference to Ravel, composer of the most famous of orchestral boleros.”
In 1993 Rosner composed a setting for baritone and orchestra of a portion of Franz Kafka’s enigmatic 1915 novel, The Trial, known as “Before the Law.” Rosner’s work is entitled The Parable of the Law, Op. 97, and depicts the quintessentially “Kafka-esque” plight of a man who spends years in senseless futility, awaiting entry to “the Law.” Though the entry door is intended only for him, he is never admitted, until it is finally closed forever. Rosner’s setting captures the futile persistence displayed by the man as he attempts to overcome the senseless refusal of the doorkeeper. The baritone soloist recounts most of the story with the eerily impersonal detachment so characteristic of Kafka’s terrifying tableaux. The work develops several motifs that are stated near the outset. Shortly after the beginning, the primary four-note motif is introduced with subtlety by the lower instruments, followed a few measures later by the horn, then by the clarinet. This motif dominates the work, which maintains a mood of ominous, grim foreboding throughout.
Parable of the Law
Before the Law there stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance unto the Law. But then the doorkeeper says that he cannot admit the man at the present time. The man, on reflection asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later on. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the present time.” Since the door leading into the Law stands open as usual and the doorkeeper steps to one side the man bends down to look; the man bends down to peer into the entrance and when the doorkeeper sees that he laughs and says: “If you’re so strongly tempted, just try to get inside without permission. But note that I am powerful. And I am only the lowliest doorkeeper! From hall to hall, keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other. And the sight of the third man is already more than even I can stand.” These are difficulties which the man from the country has not expected to meet. The Law he thinks should be accessible to any man and at all times, but when he looks more closely at the doorkeeper he decides that he had better wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. There he sits waiting for days and years. He makes many attempts to be allowed to enter and wearies the doorkeeper with his importunity. The doorkeeper often engages him in brief conversation asking him about his home and other matters but these questions are put quite impersonally as great men put questions, and they always conclude with the statement that the man cannot be allowed to enter yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, parts with everything he has, however valuable, in the hope of bribing the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts it all, saying, however, as he takes each gift, “I take this only to keep you from feeling that you’ve left something undone.” During all these long years the man watches the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets about all the other doorkeepers and this one seems to him the only barrier between himself and the Law. In the first years he curses his evil fate aloud; later, as he grows older and as he grows childish, he only mutters to himself. Finally his eyes grow dim, and he does not know whether the world is really darkening around him or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. But in the darkness he can now perceive a radiance streaming inextinguishably out from the door of the Law. Now his life is drawing to a close. Before he dies, all that he has experienced during the whole time of his sojourn condenses into one question which he has never yet put to the doorkeeper. He beckons the doorkeeper, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend down so as to hear him, for the difference in size between them has increased very much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives to attain the Law,” answers the man. “How does it come about then that in all these years no one has come, no one has come seeking admittance but me?” The doorkeeper perceives that the man is nearing his end and that his hearing is failing, and so he bellows in his ear: “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you, and only for you. I am now going to shut it.”
Walter Simmons, musicologist and critic, has written extensively on American composers who maintained an allegiance to traditional musical values. He is the editor of a series of books, ‘Twentieth-Century Traditionalists’, published by Rowman and Littlefield. He wrote the first two volumes himself (under the Scarecrow Press imprint): Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (2004), which treated the lives and works of Barber, Bloch, Creston, Flagello, Giannini and Hanson, and Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin (2011). As a staunch advocate of the music of Arnold Rosner, he is deeply familiar with much of his output; he and Rosner were close associates for more than forty years