Hugh WolffNew England Conservatory's Music: Truth to Power programming offers music by "revolutionaries" who addressed social and political conditions in some cases, and in others the musical status quo. On March 12, for his concert with the NEC Symphony, NEC's Calderwood Director of Orchestras Hugh Wolff has programmed works by composers who overturned established musical conventions, as he explains in these notes.

Musical Game-Changers

This year at New England Conservatory we have been exploring revolution and music under the rubric “Music Speaks Truth to Power.” This evening we will perform four works, all revolutionary from a purely musical point of view. With Tristan and Isolde, written between 1857 and 1859, Richard Wagner extended harmony into new chromatic territory, profoundly influencing several generations of composers. Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question is one of the first experiments in having musicians on and off stage playing in different meters. And in the 1920s both George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel pioneered integrating the sounds of jazz into the classical language. Ravel’s unusual Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is one of the first concertos (and arguably the greatest work) written for Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who lost his right arm in World War I.

It is hard to overstate the impact Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde had when it was premiered in 1865. Wagner exploded traditional harmony with this music, redefining what was possible with altered chords and chromatic voice leading. The Prelude and Liebestod are the first eleven and final seven minutes of a five-hour opera. In these eighteen minutes of music there is just one full cadence—plagal rather than perfect—at the very end. One is hard pressed to find a perfect cadence anywhere in the entire opera. Tristan and Isolde is much more about longing than fulfillment, so deceptive cadences and chromatic alterations replace traditional cadences, and the old syntax of musical phrases and paragraphs is superceded by endless melody. These innovations opened the door for the unmoored harmonies of Debussy, the chromatic music of Bruckner and Richard Strauss, and ultimately the language of Schoenberg, where the hierarchy of pitches is eliminated entirely and twelve tones become equal.

Charles Ives’s short tone poem The Unanswered Question is one of Two Contemplations written in 1908. Like much of Ives’s music, it lay unperformed for decades while Ives earned his living in the insurance business. Elliott Carter organized what is thought to be the work’s premiere in 1946, though Ives may have arranged an amateur performance as part of a theatrical production at the time of its composition. There are three elements to the music—the strings, the trumpet, and the flutes—and they function independently from each other both tonally and metrically. Ives wrote his own note of explanation:

“The strings … represent ‘The Silence of the Druids—Who Know, See and Hear Nothing.’ The trumpet intones ‘The Perennial Question of Existence,’ and states it in the same voice each time. But the hunt for the answer, undertaken by the flutes, … becomes gradually more active, faster and louder. ‘The Fighting Answerers,’ as time goes on … seem to realize a futility and begin to mock ‘The Question.’… After they disappear, ‘The Question’ is asked one last time, and ‘The Silences’ are heard beyond in Undisturbed Solitude.’”

Ives says the “string orchestra, if possible, should be off-stage,” a request we honor in this performance, creating music that comes from three different directions.

When Maurice Ravel visited the United States in 1928, he heard Paul Whiteman’s jazz band, African-American singers and dancers, and George Gershwin playing his own Rhapsody in Blue. These made a deep impression on Ravel, and the music he wrote after returning to France—his two piano concertos—is strongly influenced by the jazz he heard. In the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, Ravel ingeniously solves the problems of writing for one hand. Using the full range of the piano keyboard, voicing melody and bass line as the top and bottom of arpeggiated figures, and demanding the pianist master treacherous large leaps, he creates the illusion of two-handed music that satisfies our expectations of virtuosity and even includes two cadenzas. As if to acknowledge the usual place of the left hand in piano music, the piece starts deep in the low register with basses quietly playing their open strings and the contrabassoon emerging as if at some prehistoric dawn with a dotted rhythm melody. This rhythm binds the outer slow sections of the concerto together; the middle is a rollicking 6/8 scherzo fully of jazzy melodies with ‘blue’ notes, virtuoso riffs, and even a couple of faux-oriental phrases.

Almost immediately after meeting Ravel in New York in 1928 (and while Ravel continued a four-month tour of the United States), George Gershwin traveled to Paris. There he worked on a commission from the New York Philharmonic, which he titled An American in Paris. Gershwin wrote:

"My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere." With the slow trumpet solo "our American friend ... has succumbed to a spasm of homesickness." But, "nostalgia is not a fatal disease." The American visitor "once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life" and "the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant."

Among the “street noises” he heard were Paris taxicab horns. To include their characteristic (and now charmingly dated) sound in his tone poem, Gershwin brought a set of taxi horns back to New York to be played by the percussionists.

Both Ravel and Gershwin wanted to give jazz a place in the concert hall. In a sense, both men were outsiders at this task. Ravel’s interest in jazz was that of an intrigued European: jazz was new, exotic, and potent. Gershwin was the wildly successful jazz musician approaching the classical music world from the outside and seeking affirmation. That both men succeeded magnificently can be heard in the vitality and originality of the their works performed tonight.