Roger Sessions, Adolph Weiss, Virgil Thomson, Carl Ruggles, And Others
( Originally Published 1929 )
ROGER SESSIONS follows Rudhyar; and allays an uncertainty inevitable in view of the fact that Loeffler, Ornstein, and Rudhyar are all three deracinated men, transplanted from the old world to the new. This, is the doubt whether the eclecticism of much American music may not flow from the early and therefore strong European associations of many of its authors? Rudhyar was a youth, Loeffler a. fullgrown man when they arrived in the States. While Ornstein was only nine in the year of his hegira, he was a small boy bristling with experience not merely of the Russian Pale, but of the St.Petersburg conservatory sphere as well.Where then is the illogicality, one hears oneself arguing, if these individuals are divided and their music hybrid? What indeed would be more natural than that their work should constitute a variation of contemporary European music rather more than an independent and American thing? During formative years they were in contact with the old world soil; and might it not be possible to declare that integrity of impulse and purity of style are inextricably connected America with American birth, perhaps with descent from long acclimatized stocks; in any case with adolescence in an environment superficially, linguistically, germane to the growing artist?
This argument falls flat before the phenomenon of Roger Sessions. Sessions comes of the oldest Puritan New England stock; and still neither Loeffler nor Ornstein nor Rudhyar is essentially more eclectic in his ideas and forms than he. (Later, Copland, Chavez, and Varese will supply other disproofs of the contention. of those tempted to identify integrity with hundred percentism, or pretend that America is not the native soil of anyone who feels it to be his.) Meanwhile, it is important to observe how frankly Roger Sessions has done his recent severely simple, perhaps most valuable work in the shadow of the later Strawinsky. Indeed Loeffler is not a bit more the sectary of the Wagnerizing Frenchmen, or Ornstein the sectary of the earlier Strawinsky, or Rudhyar of Scriabine, than Sessions of the composer of the Symphonies for Wind Instruments, the Octuor, and CEdipus Rex. Not that this young old New Englander has duplicated Strawinsky, or made literature of him. In these respects he is sharply to be distinguished from several other young men, among them one George Antheil, a great composer in Parisian literary circles. Antheil's well-advertised Ballet Mechanique is a skyscraper built of girders synthesized from Les Noces, Le Sacre and Petrushka, and dependent for support on associated ideas. At best it is a clumsy musical illustration; a simile for factories, downtown New York streets, the beat of American life or the experience of subvia dolorosa; devoid of the freshness of impulse or the structurality that gives such humble musical illustrations as the tone-poems of Smetana their charm. And though a certain musicianliness is evident at many turns of his work, the creative force of the signor Antheil remains as yet too embryonic to be clearly discerned. No, Sessions has not had to call on flashy literary associations to give his helpless efforts significance and cohesion. His symphony, for example, is an independent, selfdefinite structure, working as music and not as a little auxiliary power-house or subway-train. Indeed, there is reason for holding the second movement of this composition superior to any of the instrumental pieces of Strawinsky that so largely helped de termine its form and manner. There is more warmth and necessity in it than in the Octuor or the Concerto or any other of the experiments of the archaizing Russian. Only, we cannot help feeling that while Sessions at present figures conspicuously in the field of music, he nevertheless does so as a winsome young pachyderm shambling in the lee of its parent.
The influence of Strawinsky on Sessions is two-fold. One part of it bears on general æsthetics, and is antireligious in tendency. All attempts to continue in the exalted and ecstatic style begun by Beethoven, developed by Wagner and perhaps abused by Strauss, Mahler, Scriabine, and the twentieth century romanticists, are condemned by it as bad, at least as unrealistic. To such elevated, excited expressions it instinctively prefers the humbler, dryer and more disabused manner of much eighteenth. century music. There has always been a strongly eighteenth century cast on the music of Strawinsky, ever since "Petrushka": something of clarity, pertness and levity; but the ascendency which the antireligious, hard boiled aesthetic has recently and most sensationally gained over him is to be attributed to the strongly collective trend of present society under the leadership of the U. S. S. R. and the U. S. A.
The hard-boiled aesthetic is essentially an expression of collectivism. Feelings of humility, anonymity and helplessness bring man out of his conceit and into sympathy with and understanding of his fellows; hence collectivism's abhorrence of all grandiosity, exaltation and sumptuousness of style. Like all radical tendencies, this æsthetic of Strawinsky's had been gathering momentum long before its assumption of power m our day. Its father, at least its parent as far as the present is concerned, is Moussorgsky, himself roughly contemporary with Wagner. The style of Boris Goudonow is as humble and popular as that of Tristan is exalted and emphatic; and characteristically gives the conspicuous rôle not to beplumed and clanking heroes and heroines, but to the great anonymous chorus. Already in the eighteen-nineties, coincident with the rise of Richard Strauss and the titanism of Ein Heldenleben, this abhorrence of the heroic and unreserved, and preference of the unemphatic and unpretentious, was exerting its influence on Debussy in Paris. A stage of its progress indubitably is to be found in the simplicity and relative taciturnity of Pelleas et Melisande, mixed though it is with ultra-romantic jewelry, dreaminess, and feeling of rarity and aloofness.
Then it triumphed in Strawinsky, in all his uncertainty one of the most uncompromisingly determined musicians of our time. (While the effect of Satie must be allowed, it cannot be aligned with that of Strawinsky, for the reason that while Satie was a very charming musician, he had neither the Russian's freshness or strength.) Beginning as the most promising pupil of Rimsky-Korsakoff—Strawinsky is spiritually the descendant of Moussorgsky's group—and as a composer of somewhat religious leanings, Strawinsky steadily evolved in the hard-boiled direction. Petrushka is significantly popular and humble in style; Le Sacre du Printemps expresses the strata of man where he is still the unindividuated herd-being; and in the uncompromisingly polytonic Renard, Les Noces and L'histoire du soldat, the disabused, dry asthetic dominates. In the more recent concerto, sonata, octuour, serenade, and the cantata CEdipus Rex, an archaicizing tendency, often the companion of an antireligious one, puts in its appearance.
It is precisely these later works of Strawinsky that have so profoundly impressed Roger Sessions. Sessions's symphony, to date his largest, most affecting and engaging work, is eminently "music for everyday" in the spirit of Renard and L'histoire du soldat; and as such dis tinguished from all preceding pieces of American music, predominantly exalted and grandiose in their conceptions. One doesn't feel the temple-dome over it. It seems to live in the atmosphere of weekdays, serious, sober, but never ritualistic. There are no hot clashing colours, no heavy emphasis, no Wagnerian intensifications and ardours and exaltations in this symphony. The material is stark and the outline strong. Session's polytonality and polyphony are uncompromising, and sometimes harsh; his whole manner is abrupt and somewhat uncouth.
Certainly, the bare fact that Sessions has written a piece of music eminently dry in spirit does not mark him as a follower of Strawinsky. Asthetics are everybody's; and hard boiledism is probably the most appropriate to American life. What does couple Sessions with Strawinsky, is the fact that his little symphony pays homage not only to Strawinsky the prophet but to Strawinsky the technician. We have called the Russian's influence on Strawinsky two-fold; and if one part bears on general æsthetic matters, the other bears on methods of composition. Several of Sessions's typical processes resemble tactics personal to Strawinsky. Now, a tendency to eschew chromaticism and orientalism in melody; and a practice of letting counterpoint bear the brunt of composition, are not in themselves sufficiently exclusive to Strawinsky, characteristic of him though they are, to warrant our calling all other composers exhibiting them partisans of his. But when they appear in company with the very Strawinskian strategy of using unit groups of eighth notes irregularly divided, we cannot help feeling that the musician combining them has more than gone to school to the classicizing Russ. Besides, eclecticism is an attitude familiar in Sessions. He began under the wing of his master Ernest Bloch. The work which won him his first renown, the incidental music to Andreyev's Black Maskers, was full of the warm passion, vehemence, and sardonic grimaces characteristic of the composer of Schelomo. This homage was not at all remarkable since nearly all composers begin as scholars of some older man: Bach as Buxtehude's, Beethoven as Mozart's and Haydn's, Wagner as Weber's and Meyerbeer's. What nonetheless was singular, was the circumstance that when Sessions broke away from the dominance of Bloch, and should, by rule, have gone his own and solitary way, he merely exchanged one influence for another, substituting the overlordship of Strawinsky for that of the vehement late-romanticist. His eclecticism embraces not only contemporary musical forms. If the symphony shows the presence of Strawinsky, the Three Choral Preludes for Organ and the piano-sonata have a decided archaistic cast: the former pointing back to Bach and verging on the scholastic; the first and third movements of the latter bearing a disquieting resemblance to the nocturne-style of Chopin. And while a pervasive passion might conceivably make one overlook the eclecticism of these pieces, none is present to any satisfactory measure.
Still, if Sessions is an eclectic composer, he is also an admirable one. All his pieces have some personal imprint. Even where he is closest to Strawinsky, he has more robustness than ever comes the way of the somewhat chiorotic Russian. There is a certain "sitting on the notes" that is very characteristic of everything Sessions writes. The Black Maskers had a grim mournfulness and morbidity characteristic of a race, recalling the fact that the most celebrated scene of British drama is that of Hamlet with the skull of Yorick and that the favourite poem of eighteenth century England was the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Besides, Sessions is a very able musician. The twenty-eight or nine instruments for which the Andreyev music was cast were handled with a skill remarkable in an American; and all the Three Choral Preludes, the sonata, and symphony have an elegant structurality, an honest bareness and logic, that command respect, however unintegrated the pervading spirit may appear. As for Sessions's symphony, it is not only the sturdiest, most forceful and intricate of his compositions, it is rounder, more inevitable and texturally continuous than any other symphony written by an American, the brilliant one by Aaron Copland pot excepted. While the second movement, with its antiphonal string choirs is perhaps the most spontaneously fluid of all three, as a whole the work represents an integrity certainly as great as Ornstein's and perhaps even greater (the line is cleaner) . And in giving Sessions his place in the advance of American music, it suggests the course a development of his powers might take. Sufficiently fortunate, it could scarcely fail of producing an American Brahms. To be sure, the distance between a merely eclectic composer, no matter how sturdy a one, and one who, like Brahms, (while scarcely enlarging the medium, and developing no new methods), nonetheless strikes traditional material with his own effigy, is indeed a large one. But it is not unnegotiable; and the "sitting on the notes" of Sessions is suggestive enough of Brahmsian robustness to make the possibility of the progress seem not at all remote.
Meanwhile, the compositions of a number of other young musicians corroborate the testimony of Sessions concerning the relation between eclecticism and immigrant psychology. Noteworthy among them are the strong quarters, piano preludes and chamber symphony of Adolph Weiss, himself a native of Baltimore. The dependence of these works on Schoenberg is even more pronounced than the dependence of the Sessions symphony on Strawinsky. Not that the resemblance of Weiss's music to the great Viennese sciolist's is slavish, any more than that of the New Englander to his prototype's. Compressed, abrupt, excitingly pitched as they are, Schoenbergian in their nervousness, their piercing emotionalism and trembling eroticism, they still exhibit a vein of individuality which, while perhaps smaller than Sessions's, is nonetheless definite. Weiss's music has a stronger relation to diatonism than to the atonality so characteristic of Schoenberg's; and his expression is more simply lyrical, more innocently human, than Schoenberg's fiercer, tortured one. While Weiss is Schoenberg's pupil, it is said that "the master," questions his own right to claim this talented American as a disciple, granting him an independence of method not frequently found or easily tolerated in his group. Besides, no piece of Weiss's fails to strike some expression from the depths, and bring exquisite flashes of music, jewel-like crystallizations in tone. But while recognizing his integrity, we must find Schoenberg's verdict the utterance of an unusually jealous god; one who will not only not permit his children to have another god before him, but disowns, when he finds he cannot own them. To us, Weiss seems a most gentle but nevertheless most passionate adherent of Viennese method. Schoenberg's school is fanatically devoted to certain contrapuntal norms, certain kinds of canonic imitation, especially crab-form inversions of the sort used by Beethoven in the Hammerklavier sonata; and Weiss's music at times seems fuller of crabs than Chesapeake Bay. Not that this contrapuntal craft of Weiss's is not admirable in itself. He has a very eminent skill in conserving his material through the art of thematic variation; and some of his fugues are marvels of compression and interfusions of theme and divertissement. If we gird at his tricks, it is because their frequency in his work make them seem not so much responses to the pressure of life seeking its form, as acts of faith in the Schoenbergian revelation. Besides, Weiss's chromatic material is not strictly autonomous, and has a strong family likeness to that of Berg, Webern and the rest of the Viennese coterie.
We must of course be a little wary in insisting too strongly on an eclecticism in speaking of Weiss. The relationship between his music and Schoenberg's is to some extent accidental, the result of a common background and spiritual kinship. Weiss is a Baltimorian, and the city of H. L. Mencken remains something of an outpost of the Vaterland. Besides, Weiss like Schoenberg, belongs tempera-mentally on the religious side of things, finding the climate of music at the pitch of ecstasy, and preferring the more reverend, more earnest and elevated moods to the lighter and more ironical. Hence, it was almost inevitable that Weiss like Schoenberg should develop the tremendously excited vein of music associated with Wagner and present in their blood; and that we should find certain of Weiss's preludes, the extension of certain Tristanesque moods. (No. 4, in spite of its relative innocence and jocundity, seems like a new expression of the agitation felt by the wounded hero at the approach of his queen.) Nevertheless and in face of this blood-kinship, the relationship ineluctably appears more a dependency than a parallelism. Together with the sectarianism in form and treatment, Weiss's music displays the tenuity of feeling, the inclination from the American soil, invariably accompanying an eclectic style. And that, finally, decides the vexed question.
Then there is the American following of Satie, most conspicuously represented by Virgil Thomson. Now, his fascination with the musical expressions of the urban populations, and his cultivation of the light and café chantant note, do not in themselves affirm Thomson a disciple of Satie's; characteristic of the good master of Arcueuil as were distaste for the "respiration of Bayreuth," and a preference for an easy vulgar art, full of the graces of the music-halls, and as readily sung as popular ballads are. After all, the distrust of the classic forms, and the desire to refresh musical art in the demotic bath, are both post-war phenomena. The music of the young Kansas City composer assuredly has an individual cast. But it is neither strong nor unclouded; and the relation to the café atmosphere of Paris is evident in themes and treatment. The flippancy so specially Satie's and his progeny's, the Parisian Six, plays a large rôle in Thomson's art. His Valse Grégorienne and his half absurd, half grandiose settings of the lyrical but nevertheless preposterous verses of the Duchesse de Rohan, charming as they remain, are bits of Gallic clowning. (It is significant that most of Thomson's songs set French and not English verses.) The one American poet he has distinguished is Gertrude Stein; but his musical arrangement of her opera on St. Theresa and St. Ignatius, and her cantata Capital Capitals, are ultimately jeux d'esprit. To be sure, both works are musically effective; and the fourth act of the opera, with its processional and its chorus Dead as Dead, has a real worth. The vocal patter-writing is noteworthy; the words being chanted very rapidly to an original kind of monody. Indeed, Capital Capitals resembles a Gregorian mass; one, of course, written by a spoiled priest. Still, the music in these works is to be found chiefly in Gertrude Stein's wonderfully melodious prose; Thomson having contented himself, particularly in the opera, with the purveyance of a mere accompaniment of willfully banal chords and arpeggios, and simple figures comically emphasized. Both works resemble inverted Italian operas: since instead of words as a pretext for music, they give us music as a pretext for words.
Thomson began by writing some tangos in the style of Satie's best disciple, Milhaud (Thomson's were much better than Milhaud's, too) . And one of the most respectable of his pieces, the Sonata di Chiesa for clarinet, trumpet, viola, horn, and trombone, is still suggestive of Satie's influence. Thomson not only places a tango between the chorale and a fugue; but strives for and attains the simplicity of line and purity of expression of Satie's serious works. Some more recent compositions, the Symphony on an American Hymn Tune, and the four variations and fugues for organ on "Come, ye disconsolate," "There's not a friend like the lowly Jesus," "Will there be any stars in my crown?" and "Shall we gather at the river?" are more radical and original. All of them have a primitive naïveté; and the symphony attains the quaintness of a Currier and Ives print. The style is angular and archaic with a distinct quality, a mixture of the severe, homely and delicate. Indeed, the symphony is pervaded by a mysterious feel of the American soil and past; and with the organ pieces suggests that in Thomson, too, the eclectic may eventually make way for the earth-born,
Space permitting, additional evidences of the prevalence of eclecticism among native born American composers might be gleaned from the music of Ruth Crawford of the Rudhyar Scriabine faction, Quincy Porter of the Bloch party, Louis Gruenberg the pupil of Busoni, Frederick Jacobi the pupil of Dukas, Avery Claflin but late of the Satie school; and from the works of such older friends as Arthur Foote, the late Charles Griffes, Emerson Whithorne and Harold Morris, and such younger corners as Douglas Moore, Colin McPhee and Theodore Chanler. And it is a pity that the prescribed limits of this essay do not permit some further examination of the work of these musicians; some consideration of the merits of the Arthur Foote Quintet, the Griffes Piano Sonata, the Morris Trio or the Chanler Violin Sonata; some discussion of such engaging questions as whether Douglas Moore is not the most competent and tasteful composer of incidental music among the Americans; whether Ruth Crawford is not the most distinguished woman-composer in the younger ranks; and whether anything that Avery Claflin has done as a pupil of Satie's and a brother of the Group of Six, is worth his setting, for woman's a-capella chorus, of the Cummings poem, written by him as a Puritan and a devotee. But they do not; and we must content ourselves with remarking the prevalence of the eclectic tendency among these and even other unmentioned musicians; and go on to a consideration of the work of Carl Ruggles. And this consolation is possible: that no matter how much space would be at our disposal, it would still be with a word on Ruggles's compositions that the discussion of the unavoidable subject of American eclecticism would come to an end. For Ruggles's music is a borderline phenomenon; and as such the link between the works we have just been examining and those which, both integral and intense, stand on the free ground beyond.
In fact, it is difficult to say which camp his music favours more. Ruggles's harmonic schemes are of the greatest distinction. This quality, neither rich nor magnificent, and nonetheless exquisitely refined, and new to harmonic writing, ineluctably associates itself with early American furniture and Hartley's colour, Portsmouth doorways and Hawthorne's prose. His instrumental timbre is equally this Cape Cod American's own, particularly when confined to instruments of a single family; trumpets in the middle section of Men and Angels; strings in Portals, and in the middle section of Men and Mountains. The feeling of all Ruggles's more recent, rounder compositions is intensely local. The melancholy and smothered passion of the eloquently weaving violin-music in Lilacs, middle section of Men and Mountains, is as characteristic of the New England country-side as anything by Robinson or Frost. So, too, is the harshness of certain of Ruggles's brazen sonorities; and in instances his acrid trumpets and trombones preach and dogmatize ministerially at imaginary congregations.
At the same time, there is a noticeable tenuity and inarticulacy in his frequently ejaculative, but always sincere creations. The music labours, slightly. The line at best is only competent, built as it is of short repeated phrases effortfully varied and intensified. The check of preconceptions is equally obtrusive: Ruggles like Schoenberg has a tendency to construct his works on formulas. He will tell you that he never doubles a note in his harmony, nor repeats a note nor its octave in the melody nor in the inner parts, until the passage of from seven to nine different notes has taken place. Now, while it is not to be doubted that certain extra-ordinary pages of music exhibit this heterogeneity of elements, mere heterogeneity of elements does not constitute music; and the attempt to force it on material involves a violation as destructive as any flowing from other preconceptions. The strained quality sometimes apparent in Ruggles's scores, and the unusual slowness with which he produces, are quite attributable to it.
It is this feeling of a slightly impeded impulse, that, together with the vaguely Tristanesque or Schoenbergian cast which Ruggles's music frequently wears, makes it straddle the line dividing the more eclectic American music from the more original. This position on the fence is signified by the ease, never the best of conditions with which one places Ruggles in the ultra-religious camp of musicians. Ruggles is all elevation, seriousness, apocalypse. Music for him is an expression of the depths, an explosion, a scattering of the seeds of revelation. To "Men and Mountains" he prefixes a quotation from Blake, "Great things are done when men and mountains meet"; and over the symphonic ensemble, Portals, there stand Whitman's lines:
"What are they of the known
But to ascend and enter the Unknown?" Hear Lawrence Gilman: "Mr Ruggles ... is a natural mystic, a rhapsodist, a composer who sees visions and dreams fantastic dreams. The wild, gigantic, tortured symbols of Blake's imagination, his riotous and untrammelled excursions in the world behind the heavens, are all of a piece with Mr. Ruggles's thinking. There is a touch of the apocalyptic, the fabulous, about his fantasies. He is the first unicorn to enter American music. He is the master of a strange, torrential and perturbing discourse." . . . But here, again, we must be wary. While Ruggles is to be placed in an already well define category, it must be confessed that he manages to move about in it restlessly enough. This idiom, alternately naïve and childlike, and violent and prophetic, is never either derivative or imitative. Warm and vibrant, embodying the characteristic "romantic" surge and aspirations remains robust and reserved. The aching violin music of Portals may come thrust out by a Tristanesque storm of feeling, and rise in steep tumultuous waves; and proceed with great warmth of accent and vibrancy of sound. The polyphony may have a tapestry-like richness, the harmonies a singularity and mysteriousness, the thrilling sequence of single notes left to vibrate and die away in the coda possess mystic seductiveness. Nevertheless, muscularity, and freedom from languor place Ruggles's work apart from its kin; and we feel that with but one more degree of purity, this music would indeed be indisputably individual; and that if there are any American compositions actually more autochthonous than that of this Cape Cod Yankee, a force from the soil like a charge, must have sent them into the world.