Charles Martin Loefeler - Leo Orstein - Dane Rudhyar
( Originally Published 1929 )
CHRONOLOGICALLY, Horatio Parker and not Charles Martin Loeffler succeeds MacDowell. But the order of American music is not strictly temporal. The place of Parker is farther on, closer to the center of the vortex. The place nearest MacDowell's is occupied by the relatively junior Loeffler, since of all the noteworthy compositions emergent in America, those corresponding most nearly in point of intensity with the Norse sonata and its brethren, are A Pagan Poem and its kin.
Externally, there is as wide a difference between the one group and the other as there is between the soft old velvet jacket of arch-bohemian days, and the most correct of morning-coats mounted with a carnation and surmounted with a tile. The music of the gentleman from Russia, Alsace, and Medford, Massachusetts, is barbered, meticulous, even Brummell-like. The simplicities and languors of MacDowell appear very provincial, a little rustic even, beside its mauve and glittering urbanities, its evident wit, polish and sophistication. Basically, nonetheless, the difference between the two expressions is not very great.
Loeffler's music is frequently called cosmopolitan. Now, to be truly cosmopolitan, free from provinciality and pertaining to the world as a whole, is, as Strawinsky has said, "to have a passport," and passport establishing the identity of the bearer is precisely what the songs and tone-poems, rhapsodies and choral-pieces of the worthy recluse of the Bostonian suburbs want most. The present writer once heard Loeffler's string-quartet described by a member of the audience which had just heard it, as a "musical trip around the world"; and the spry phrase has recurred to him listening to other of this composer's works; so moth* is their jewelled style, so reminiscent of many races and backgrounds, personalities and æsthetics. Loeffler is both broad and diatonic in the German, Straussian manner, and precious and pentatonic and nasal in the French and Debussian; La Bonne Chanson lying more to the east, and A Pagan Poem to the west, of the spiritual Rhine. The themes of Music for Four Stringed Instruments have a distinctly Russian cast. Hora Mystica suggests adherence to the Schola Cantorum's cult of Franck. Not that one reproaches the composer for being neither Teutonic nor Gallic and not fitting into some accepted national category. What one does miss is a strict autonomy. Loeffler's music doesn't even constitute a sort of artistic Alsace, uniting several romantic, impressionistic, oriental musical strains in an individual synthesis. You can search his work in vain for the decided idiom, the integrity, never perhaps broadly exhibited by a great master's music, but nonetheless never absent from it; suffusing it as blood the body. Even Beethoven's Russian themes became Beethoven under his treatment, just as in our day Ravel's Spanish and jazz-American themes have for better or for worse, become Ravel under his. But there is little intrinsically Loeffler in the mosaic of curious coloured bits of his music. An intelligence is evident, somewhere offstage. From the wings comes the glitter of an ambiguous regard and the suaveness and ironism of urbanity. But the style itself? Something anonymously Wagnerian and Brahmsian crossed with pentatonic French acridity; given to block-chord successions like Debussy's, but never pure. Even the composers of the Schola group in Paris, d'Indy, Magnard and the rest of the Wagnerizing Frenchmen temperamentally akin to Loeffler, have more individuality of diction, fundamentally hybrid like his although their styles remain. Loeffler is perhaps more cultivated, less narrow a mind than Magnard was or d'Indy is. (In an age familiar with the lettered, cultivated composer, he is quite eminent for the excellence of his literary taste: his choice of lyrics revealing a sensitiveness to poetic merit as sure as that of Brahms, for instance, was unsure.) Still, d'Indy is the better composer. If his music is often stiff, it is never unfelt. And after all, intensity is the organ of individuality.
It is a large intensity that is wanting Loeffler's musicianship: as it is wanting MacDowell's. The magnificence, the lapidary ornamentation, the strange tone-colour and jewelled arpeggios do not conceal the tightness and finickiness of the underlying conceptions. Little careful distillations made in lurking fear of a banality, an indiscretion and looseness that really inheres in them, (the waltz-like horn-theme in A Pagan Poem quite gives the game away) these conceptions, motives and moods and significations recall not so much a great reality as drugs and concoctions at the apothecary's; little curious crystals, and green and violet liquids, corked in flasks and ranged on shelves. Or, because of the composer's predilection for the macabre and sinister, for the ironic isolation of popular and liturgical ref refrains—a la Villette in Le Vilanelle du Diable, and the Lorraine marching-song in Music for Four Stringed Instruments—and because of the mystical hocuspocus and veiled "blasphemies," they are as likely to lead the imagination to the representations of medieval laboratories, with their little retorts, their dried lizards and bats suspended from the beams, their skulls and skeletons and other objects terrific to the simple, The fundamental tightness and preciosity is never so apparent as in Loeffler's attempts to cope with the large and cordial; particularly in his curious setting of St. Francis's Canticle of Brother Sun for soprano voice and orchestra. To the passionately affirmative, divinely ten-der strophes of the first modern poets, Loeffler has married a jewelled symphony of petty, literal musical ideas; incrustated with all the precious colours and timbres of the orchestra; and suggestive of a nicely curled and perfumed "poor little man."
Of all Loeffler's carefully chased works, it is A Pagan Poem, with its admirable piano filagree, its acrid trumpet triads and precipitous rhythms, that leaves one least conscious of finicky tightness. This Virgilian rhapsody, the tenderer one on Verlaine's La Bonne Chanson; the sincerely feelingful Easter section of Music for Four Stringed Instruments, and perhaps one or two of the songs, are responsible for Loeffler's appearance in the order of American music. For, after all, Charles Martin Loeffler cannot be counted a European composer, close as his work lies to music made in the old world and expressive of it; and slight as is its development beyond what has been produced there. Not that it is American merely because of the composer's long domestication among us. We cannot, for example, call the music composed by Ernest Bloch since his American residency, our own. But we do find Loeffler's standing in a relation to the soil on which it has hatched different than that of either the suite or sonata or concerto grosso of the former Genevese. Boston, we feel, with its museum-culture overlying fear of life, gave Loeffler's preciosity its opportunity, providing the favorable environment for an over-careful, ironic and half-sinister art. While the music expresses perhaps nothing generally American, it remains exquisitely representative of the Bostonian condition. That gives it its place in the American ranks; what situates it immediately beyond MacDowell's being the fact that, small as its impulse is, Loeffler's music nonetheless possesses a magnificence of texture superior to his predecessor's. It far surpasses MacDowell's in its goldsmithlike workmanship.
American music, then, begins undecidedly, not strongly individual, with a sharp leaning toward eclecticism. And a good deal of it, including the work of very eminent musicians, has actually continued on that level of creation. Indeed, al-most half of American music constitutes a minor variant of European music, mixing original motives and manipulations with others accepted because of the practice of the past as "beautiful" and "expressive"; never quite achieving purity of style; invariably showing signs of the limited impulsion and feeling for life that accompanies and perhaps causes eclecticism.
The work of Leo Ornstein is another example. Still nothing demonstrates the rapidity of the impetus toward a pure American music more vividly, than the fact that the step immediately in advance of Loeffler's careful music is occupied by the young Russian-American pianist's. Here indeed is an interval! For Ornstein's atonic melismas have the dynamism, the frank lyricism, the touch of the grand style, never quite caught by the music of the Medford man. Ornstein's pieces are the reverse of finicky; at times almost too extremely so. His esthetic is one of spontaneous, uncalculated, virginal response; of indifference to systems and habits; and shrewdest attention to the rhythmic processes, waves of chemical reaction and bodily resonances set up in him in contact with the world. He rose on the musical horizon about 1914 as part of the international "cubistic," "abstract" movement of craftsmen convinced that art embodies the meaning things have for the artist and remains a record of what they "do" to him; and he has remained of that faith, at least in the best of his more recent hours. And incomplete and undistinguished as some of his pieces are, turgid of substance and disagreeably exciting, they nonetheless have immediate infectiousness. To some degree, they make us feel the charge in which they were created. Doubt of the clarity and strength of those charges, may be inevitable. But there is always an impetus, natively directed towards its metallic medium.
Ornstein is one of the first American composers with a strong musical background. As none before him in the country, he gives the sense that music is his native language, and that he inherited facility with it as naturally as he inherited facility with human speech. What remains uncertain is merely the intensity of the native direction. Ornstein too has his limits; is not as remote from musicians of Loeffler's sort as would at first appear. He burst upon the view as an extremely violent and dissonant young piano composer (something to be distinguished sharply from a merely atonic one such as Strawinsky or Schoenberg or Bartok) , feeling himself a creative urge in an environment that seemed half to invite and half to threaten him. Possibly Ornstein found the harmonization of his earliest world, the past alive in him, and the raw, mechanical, flat America difficult merely because he was born in Russia and transplanted to New York's lower East Side in sensitive youth. In any case, the responses characteristic of Ornstein during the years in which he first fascinated and outraged the musical world, referred to a painful, rude, and powerful reality, wildly energizing the composer. All was pressure of stone and metal tons, convulsive dances of hard masses, voluptuousness in the sinister shadows. The vehement Preludes, Moods, Poems, and Dances of Ornstein's first creative period, Debussian in the thickness and richness of their steely harmonies, but oriental and Yiddish in their wailing melodies, their abruptness and dismalness, were heavy with unrelieved tension; full of violent, almost animal cries of anger and pain and fear, threats, defiances, frenzies and ocasionally, a well-nigh epileptic joy. Built of short stubby rhythmic phrases and precipitous sequences of chords of close lying notes (later called tone-clusters by Henry Cowell), they rarely transcended the fragmentary, exhibiting a helplessness very inharmonious with their boldness and harsh disdain of the sweet and pretty.
All this was to be accepted as the sincere, discordant gestures of a young musician measuring himself against the alien reality of industrial America. But maturity has been slow in developing. Ornstein's intensity has not materially increased since those exciting hours of début. The aesthetic of spontaneous, uncalculated, virginal response has made way for one of greater dependence on other music. No doubt Ornstein's recent quartets and sonatas and quintets are better put together than the Poems of 1917, say. The composer has acquired a certain ingenuity in developing themes. The transitions between various ideas are fairly well managed; and each of the new works contains some sincerely passionate pages, and many instances of happy pianistic color and technique. There is always some dynamism. Even the most plebeian and sugary of Ornstein's compositions "goes." But what was thrilling about his earlier pieces was their sensitivity, their approach toward a style expressive of the age of steel, their "feeling of today", and the new pieces are less fresh in quality than their predecessors, and are expressive of some state that, rich and poignant at moments, for all its richness and fluidity, isn't of the first liveness. While the themes and ideas are more shapely, less harsh and rigid than the earlier ones, they are also less distinguished from each other, and more conventional and second-hand. Ornstein's first motives were very evidently developments, half of the undulant, synagogic chants and plaints and half of the "Russian" style of Tchaikowsky; but these latter seem less like developments than continuations of those idioms, after the experience of Strawinsky and Scriabine. Ornstein's dolorous lyric passages in particular recall the Symphonie Pathétique and its deflated kin; without adding new experience. Other themes and rhythms suggest that Le Sacre du Printemps has passed this way; but do not build on Strawinsky as Strawinsky himself built on his master Rimsky-Korsakoff. Still others have the sugary orientalism characteristic of both Russian and Russian-Jewish music. Now, all of these themes might be the subject of interesting and important developments, and occasion music of the first water. Many are intrinsically interesting. But what Ornstein does with them has some of the curious second-handedness of the idiom and thematic material itself. The manipulations are never significant; and in all the new quartets and sonatas and quintets we have the haunting sense of not being launched in fresh experiences at all. The contrasts of manic moods; the opposition of fierce sounds and themes, are somehow unsurprising. But while the ideas and forms are with a certain labour to be distinguished from each other, the feeling, the sorrow, anger, tragedy, what you will, of all of them, is scarcely to be distinguished at all. The conviction that these works are indeed modelled upon some semi-conscious emotional formula, some fixed point of view, is unavoidable. We cannot believe that all Ornstein's brio is passion, or that his regularly, monotonously alternating motory wild dances and inconsolable lamentations, flow from immediate feeling of the world.
There is a revolutionary formula, after all, just as there is a polite one. An academy has been based on Dostoievsky, or rather on a misconception of Dostoievsky; quite as dogmatic, notwithstanding the fact that its æsthetic is one of energy and not of elegance, as any ever based upon Raphael or Scaliger. We feel its influence throughout Andreyev, with . his stubborn preconception that everything must be violent, terrible, strong, and utterly black. It is present no less in the style of Waldo Frank, full of "energizings" and violent and clangorous words that have been preferred merely for their "strength" and without regard for their fitness. Max Weber would seem to be the revolutionary academician among painters, since so many of his shapes and lines have but one burden, one ejaculation; and that, an unequivocal Oi Yoi Yo. Ornstein is not as naïve as Frank or Weber. And yet, can we acquit him, either, of a charge of attempting to wear the pants of his grandfather, Dostoievsky; and of making everything properly strong, lurid, tragic, black, overwhelming, and very unconsolably dismal, in the approved; revolutionary-academic fashion?
Occasionally, a virtuosic sense of the medium accompanies eclecticism; and Ornstein is one of those musicians like Rubinstein and Richard Strauss, who in spite of a dependence on the past, have a natural love of sumptuous sound and a brilliant facility in producing it. Ornstein writes magnificently for the piano. The treatment of the strings in his chamber-music may be thick and resourceless: in the piano-quintet they play almost continually as a body against the solo instrument. But his piano style is the fruit of a sense of the steely nature of the instrument as happy and full, one is tempted to affirm, as any that has existed. Ornstein's characteristic sonority is half metallic and half warm and soft, with the consistency of steel and the iridescence of silky fabrics. Certain chord-sequences call to mind juicy metal fruits torn apart like ripe peaches. Much of this richness is due to Ornstein's extraordinary harmonic sense, permitting him to hear dense, subtly differentiated complexes of tone; and to keep a mass of sound, as thick as any that has ever been given to the pianoforte, steadily running. In this, the piano of Ornstein is the equal of the orchestra of Strauss. Like Strauss, Orntein's detail is anything but the finest, always lacking in the first distinction. Still, like Strauss's, his powers from time to time focus on some one problem, some one expression, and produce his equivalent of a Don Quixote or a Sinfonia Domestica. Works such as the Double Sonata for Pianoforte (later transformed into a Concerto for Solo Piano and Orchestra) , the slow movement of the piano quintet, and the opening movement of the new string quartet, develop a momentary largeness of expression, a heroism and a plangency, quite beyond the personal and full of world-feeling. Certainly, nothing more virtuosic than these pages was produced in the America which preceded them. Very little that has followed them, however much finer in quality and purer in style, has released sheer gorgeousness of sound more lavishly.
Meanwhile, there is a parallel to Ornstein's music; the work of another composer about equal to his in point of independence of the European past, and point of pianistic style. This is the music of Dane Rudhyar, an American of some dozen years' standing, but to be counted among the workers in this country. The relation of Rudhyar to Scriabine is somewhat the same as that of Ornstein to Tchaikowsky and Strawinsky. Scriabine is Rudhyar's father in
music. The younger man's first pieces: Ravishments, (1918), Dithyramb s (1919), Surge of Fire, (1920) are Scriabinesque not only in their titles. They stem directly from the later sonatas and poems of the mystic Muscovite. And while the recent Rudhyar has developed a machine-like power quite beyond the earlier one, and quite overflowed the harmonic, rhythmic and emotional limits of Scriabine's art, the filiation is still evident. Rudhyar inherits the coolly aristocratic idiom, built on Scriabine's "natural" scale of overtones; finds the climate of music at the pitch of ecstasy; and recovers the Russian's erotically surging form. He continues not only Scriabine's sensitive, exquisite, trilling idiom, ritualistic elevation and flighted beat. The mantle of the mystic is upon him, too, through fascination with the Absolute, "that which was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be" and a tendency to identify himself with it. A number of Rudhyar's piano compositions indubitably contain records of mystical unions with the basal forces of the universe. In instances, the fleeting, ecstatic and somewhat painful experiences take the form of feeling of barbaric power. In others, they come as gropings in the darkness, stirrings of blind hunger passive and submissive. Sometimes the quiet tides of the abyss move stilly: the waters before the spirit brooded over them. Sometimes, fires stream upward in joyous vehemence, changing worlds in their fierce ascent. Occasionally, in a certain number of Rudhyar's piano pieces (for like Ornstein he is determinedly the man of the great individualistic medium) the contact is vague, the spark is faint; and then he irritates one with the hysteric aspirations and sick indeterminate intensifications characteristic of much unsuccessful "cosmic" poetry. Still, a good number of his pieces are sufficiently filled with wild power, sufficiently stirring, to constitute a kind of mystical art legitimated in the age of steel.
And like Ornstein's, Rudhyar's music must be classed not as an independent phenomenon, but as a variant of the European music that preceded it. In certain respects, Rudhyar is distinctly inferior to his master Scriabine. There is a motory weakness in his music, many of his compositions moving far more sluggishly than the Russian's frequently languid but never nerveless music. This defect has become more pronounced as Rudhyar has developed; indeed, his recent Paeans are dangerously arhythmical. The marvelously sonorous phrases of which these three pieces are built do not, as the composer would have them, germinate and sprout "into vast trees of harmony." The basic impulse, which ought to carry them like cars on a trolley, seems lethargic. In any case, Rudhyar has always had a tendency to feel life too much as "moment," and not sufficiently as a chain and sequence of events. This of course is part of his innate romanticism, since the ac-cent of romanticism falls on the single perfect moment, which it wishes to eternalize. Proud, solitary, introverted, the typical romanticist sees the world less in sequences and oppositions, in linear and contrapuntal forms, than in a sort of simultaneity; whence his greater interest in chords, his lesser in the classically related chain. But Rudhyar's solipsism has always been a little unbalanced; and instead of acquiring some equipoise, he seems recently to have retired even more deeply into himself, till the rest of creation appears only the idea of his own mind and his own psyche one with the basic forces of the universe. At least, the strong staticity of his new music would seem to indicate as much.
But in other respects Rudhyar builds upon his master's edifice, even surpassing it in the attractiveness of its kind of resonance. Rudhyar's sonorities are harder and more intricate than Scriabine's. Predominantly a homophonic composer, Rudhyar builds up full and prodigiously extended chords, strangely without thickness, and simultaneously steely and rich. Not even Schoenberg piles up subtler, more intricate complexes; and Rudhyar's in their clangorousness are like jewels of the machine era. These complexes are often left reverberating or slowly merged with others, the young hierophant considering the piano "a dynamic instrument belonging to the class of gongs or bells, and destined to produce masses of resonance, homogenized by the pedal"; and very deliberately treating as an instrument of percussion. Frequently, he calls a machine-like thunder out of the piano, a clamour and clangour of metal surpassing anything in Scriabine's predominantly voluptuous scores. Staccato and martellato notes abound; producing the characteristic gong-like and metallic sounds. Zodiacal Birth, one of the series of Moments, demands piano-roars to be gotten only by striking chords of black keys with the entire forearm, after the manner of Rudhyar's Californian neighbor, Henry Cowell. On the whole, Rudhyar varies these percussive sounds with considerable acumen and poetry. The Moments are full of strong, nervous and perfectly legitimate contrasts and changes of mood, sonority and beat; sudden necessary accelerations and agitations, and equally sudden retardations and calmatos. Thunderous effects are obtained through single unsupported voices: No. 2 of the first cycle of Moments has fine examples of such effects. Rudhyar is also to be credited with a delicate, passionate melodic line twisting in arabesque-like mordants.
To be sure, we may not too unhesitatingly identify Dane Rudhyar and his music with American life. The composer was bred in France and is an American of fairly recent standing. Still, his work has little parity with that of his Parisian coevals, influenced by the epochal change of sensibility and unsteadied by the general disappointment. The young French music is marred by an abuse of the grotesque, an attempted substitution of surface feelings for feeling, the introduction of the facts of personality and transient emotions; and by a formalism based on a misconception of Bach and Mozart. But from the beginning of his career, Rudhyar's music was lyrical and provocative of direct feeling. Strikingly Scriabinesque and tinctured with literature though they were, those first Ravishments and Luciferian Stanzas and Dithyrambs of his lay in the medium for which they were cast, and sustained themselves on the high level on which their composer pitched them. And only excessive prudence could prevent us from accepting, in part at least, as products of our own soil, the music Rudhyar has produced on it. The machine-like power in them: might it not well represent the response of a sensitive human nature to aspects of this fuming land? Their fusion of richness and austerity: has it nothing to do with the spirit of America? It has for the present writer; and it is not so much beside Ozymandias in the Egyptian sand that the grandiose clangours and stony weight of such a piece as Rudhyar's King of Kings places him, as beside the mountainous American architecture of recent years. The very rigid grandiosity of this and its companion pieces has American analogies. The Plains awoke something of the sort in the Indians themselves, expressed in the cosmic, elemental names they gave their children; and poets of the cast of Carl Sandburg are unconsciously moved by similar vague influences. And might not Rudhyar's very mysticism spring from the life of Pacific seaboard, where his tent is pitched, and where men look still further to the west, and feel Brahma near?