John HeissSince 1967, John Heiss has taught NEC students the roots of 20th-century modernism both in the classroom and as a conductor and coach. Each year Heiss recruits students interested in performing 20th- and 21st-century music to join the NEC Contemporary Ensemble. On January 28, the group performs works that overtly respond to the theme of NEC's Music: Truth to Power festival, with references to the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the more recent abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison. Along with these works, Heiss has programmed modernist works from the past century that broke through the concert-music conventions of their times. In these notes, he writes about his personal responses to this music, then and now.

Schoenberg: Phantasy

The Phantasy began as a complete piece for solo violin, with the piano part added later, demonstrating a linear conception in its origin. It is a late work which has the passionate intensity of Schoenberg in that period, connecting it to the Ode to Napoleon, String Trio, and Survivor from Warsaw, all powerful masterpieces. But it is rarely played. I still treasure a vivid memory of Jordan Hall performances by Rudolf Kolisch and Russell Sherman here in the 1970s, a memory which has been reignited by the fine work of Robert Anemone and Katie Balch. (They proposed the piece to me, rather than vice versa.)

Berio: Opus Number Zoo

Here the performers narrate poems by Rhoda Levine, so the piece becomes a double quintet with five actors and five musicians! The mood is primarily humorous, even uproarious (though not in movement two, where a fawn contemplates the obliteration of life). But the fox, chicken, grey mouse, and two tom cats take us on a joyous romp. When Berio was here at NEC in 1994, we worked closely with him, and the Taiyo Quintet gave him a spellbinding performance, one that he called “the best ever” in his life.

Berio: O King

I had the joy to perform this work (as a flutist) in the early 1970s when it was almost brand-new. Its evocative power, evident then, has never diminished over the past forty years. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, a moment as riveting to Berio as to all Americans. The piece at first sets only the vowels of the one simple line, progressing towards word-clarity only at the climax near the end! He asks that the singer be among the instruments, never louder! The intense sfs that punctuate throughout are characterized by Berio as “bullets.”

o ah- ee u- eh ng
O Mar-tin Lu-ther King!

Heiss: Wanderings

Wanderings was composed in June and July of 2004 at the suggestion of oboist Peggy Pearson. She asked for a prelude on a Bach chorale of my choice. I selected O Lamm Gotttes from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Bach affects us in unforgettable ways. The G Major apparition of children’s voices in the opening movement of the St. Matthew Passion has always moved me profoundly. Here the note G, its triad, and its tonality, are a touchstone for hope, optimism, and redemption.

In my small homage to this moment, G goes in search of different values—as a pedal point (Introduction), as a bold melodic trigger (March), as a traditional tonality (Chorale, where Bach’s two settings, somewhat adjusted, argue back and forth), and as a newly understood reference point in the larger harmonic universe (Coda). The languages of Bach’s day and ours may speak to each other in ways that illuminate both.

Britten: Serenade for Tenor Solo, Horn and Strings

Britten composed this work for the tenor Peter Pears and horn player Dennis Brain, two great artists with whom he had lifelong collaborations. He sets, brilliantly, poems by six extraordinary poets from over five hundred years. Diverse as these texts are, the Serenade has a remarkable sense of unity and continuity. This is partly due to the prevalence of nocturnal images, vivid word-settings, delicious harmonies, and the varied responses of the two virtuoso soloists. But something else is at work, too. I think we feel a dramatic instinct coming forth, from a young composer who is soon to write distinctive and powerful operas.

Detailed observations (in brief)

  • Prologue: the horn plays natural harmonics, making the “out of tune” sound correct.
  • Pastoral: the tenor revels in a beautiful dolcissimo.
  • Nocturne: the night can be radiant and brilliant.
  • Elegy: we sway in a 12/8 meter, while the tenor realizes how dangerous this can be.
  • Dirge: the tenor, frozen into a six-bar passacaglia, survives despite overwhelming odds.
  • Hymn: we dance, hunt, and make day of night.
  • Sonnet: the tenor treasures the release provided by midnight.
  • Epilogue: the horn, off-stage, reminds us where we were a while ago and of where we may be next.

By 2014, the year after Britten’s centennial, we can now see clearly his unique beauty, integrity, and staying power. This was not so clear in the avant-garde orientation of the 1940s–1970s. Now, perhaps like Bach, Ives, or Stravinsky, Britten seems to be getting better and better, with no end in sight!