Elliott Carter (1908) - 'A Symphony of Three Orchestras' - New York Philharmonic, dir. Pierre Boulez (Sony Classical SMK 68 334 CD)
Edgar Varese (1883-1965) Deserts, Ecuatorial, Hyperprism
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Elliott Carter was commissioned to write A Symphony of Three Orchestras by the New York Philharmonic, under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, for the celebration of the American Bicentennial. It was dedicated to Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic, who gave the premiere performance on 17 February 1977 at Avery Fisher Hall.
Carter refers to his work as one of three orchestras, rather than for three orchestras, because he wanted to stress the idea of the ensembles sounding simultaneously, rather than antiphonally. The ensembles consist of the following forces: Orchestra I contains brass, strings and timpani; Orchestra II, clarinets, piano, vibraphone, chimes, marimba, solo violins and basses and a group of cellos; Orchestra III, flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, violins, violas, basses and non-pitched percussion.
This complex work typifies Carter's sophisticated manner of coordinating instrumental groups. Each orchestra plays four "movements" of differing characters, as in a traditional symphony. Each movement, however, is sounded while another orchestra is finishing its movement, creating one twelve-movement structure of continuously overlapping sound. In his preface to the score, Carter wrote:
The listener, of course, is not meant, on first hearing, to identify the details of this continually shifting web of sound any more than he is to identify the modulations in Tristan und Isolde, but rather to hear and grasp the character of this kaleidoscope of musical themes as they are presented in varying contexts.
More than simply a technical tour de force, this approach is an attempt to reflect a fluid and complex reality in music:
I do not want to give the impression of a simultaneous motion in which everybody's part is coordinated like a goose step. 1 do not want to write the kind of music that just marches on and marches off. I want it to seem like a crowd of people, or like waves on the sea - all things that signify a much more fluid and, to me, more human way of living. (Quoted in Charles Rosen, The Musical Languages of Elliott Carter, 1984)
The Symphony fulfilled Carter's longstanding desire to write a work based on the poem "The Bridge" by American poet Hart Crane (1899-1932). (Incidentally, Carter is not the only American composer to have been inspired by this poem - it is also the source of the title of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring.) Carter first encountered Crane's poetry while at Harvard in the 1920s, and used it as the basis of other works, such as Pocahontas (1936) and Voy-age (1943).
"The Bridge" begins by describing the Brooklyn Bridge and New York harbor, and proceeds to examine the paradoxes of industrial America in the 1920s. Carter believed that Crane's America, "for all its fascinating modernism, would eventually prove a paralyzing wasteland, depriving him of his poetic gift, even destroying him completely". (Quoted in David Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter, 1983) Crane committed suicide by throwing himself over the side of a ship into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Symphony, like the poem, suggests a continual descent. The music begins in the highest registers, and begins to fall at the sound of the solo trumpet:
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest The seagulls wings shall dip and pivot him, Shedding white rings of tumult, building high Over the chained bay waters Liberty -
Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes As apparitional as sails that cross Some page of figures to be filed away; - Till elevators drop us from our day...
Just prior to the conclusion of the Symphony, the music is interrupted by a series of violent crashes ("The forked crash of split thunder parts...") after which the opening of the work is mirrored by the lowest registers of the tuba and double basses.
Early in 1909 the young Edgar Varese introduced himself to the novelist and musicologist Romain Holland (1866-1944). At that time, unbeknownst to Varese, Holland was writing his magnum opus, Jean-Christophe, a lengthy fictional biography of a composer. Holland was impressed with Varese's music and personality, and the two men became close friends. Holland was convinced that the innovative and uncompromising hero of his novel now existed in the person of his visitor (in fact, both Varese and the fictitious Jean-Christophe were simultaneously composing symphonic poems titled Gargantua).
Typical of Jean-Christophe's attitude towards the conflict between innovation and tradition is this passage:
The difficulty began when he tried to turn his ideas into the ordinary musical forms: he discovered that none of the conventional molds were in the least suitable: if he wanted to fix his visions with any sort of fidelity, he had to begin by forgetting all the music he had ever heard, everything he had ever written, make a clean sweep of all the formulae he had ever learned, and the traditional technique; fling away all such crutches of the impotent mind, the comfortable bed made for the indolence of those who lie back on the thoughts of other men to save themselves the trouble of thinking for themselves. (Romain Holland, Jean-Christophe, trans. Cannan, 1913)
The esthetic stances taken by Holland, through his fiction, helped to shape Varese's iconoclastic vision of a new art of "organized sound"- his preferred term for "music." When compared with the following statements of Varese, the similarities are apparent:
Nothing has changed fundamentally, or is likely to change in art. Methods of expression, however, have changed and must change... Why we should be so conservative in music it would be difficult to explain. Stringed instruments are still the kings of orchestras, despite the fact that the violin reached its zenith in the early part of the eighteenth century. Why should we expect this instrument, typical of its period, to be able to cany the main burden of the expression of today! The rest of the conventional orchestra of today precludes the exploitation of the possibilities of different tone colors and range... It must not be forgotten that the division of the octave into twelve half-tones is purely arbitrary. There is no good reason why we should continue to tolerate the restriction... In order to explore the art of sound (i.e. music) we shall require a new medium of expression. We certainly should forget forthwith the pianoforte and all the arbitrary mechanical restrictions which it has imposed...
Music is antiquated in the extreme in its medium of expression compared with the other arts. We are waiting for a a new notation - a new Guido d'Arezzo - when music will move forward at a bound. (London Evening News, 14 June 1924)
The three Varese works recorded here trace the composer's innovations, particularly in the realm of orchestration, over a span of more than thirty years. The premiere of H;yperprism, on 4 March 1923, was one of the most discussed performances among New York's avant-garde community. Varese himself conducted the four-minute work, after which most of the audience broke into either laughter or hisses at the siren and lion roar effects from the percussion section. (Varese, egged on by his supporters, responded to the uproar by immediately launching into the work a second time.)
Ecuatorial (1934) reflected Varese's strangely contradictory interests in the distant, primitive past and the possibilities afforded by recent experiments with electrophonic instruments. The text is a prayer from the sacred book of the Maya Quiche, the Popul Vuh (in Spanish translation), and the score includes important parts for two ondes martenots (a keyboard-activated, amplified tone generator), particularly at the work's conclusion.
Deserts (1954), is widely considered to be one of the first compositions to utilize electronic music, with sections where sounds from a two-track tape are to be interpolated.
Ultimately, Varese's legacy of a mere dozen compositions (he destroyed a significant numher of others) has heen one of experimentation - of pointing toward new directions. Perhaps it is a measure of his suecess that so many subsequent composers, from Boulez to Stockhausen, have acknowledged his influence.
-Robert Adelson (1995)