A Note on Text (program note for A Commonplace Book)


A Note on Text

(A Program Note for A Commonplace Book)

I often think about Stravinsky and the enormous change of direction in his music in the 20’s. What led him to move away from the Russian themes of his most famous pieces as well as those which most radically rejected the music which preceded him? What was it, apart from a maker’s pride, that would lead him to say that Mavra was “the best thing I have done”? Richard  Taruskin has explained the shift from PetrouchkaLe Sacre and Svadebka as an indication that Stravinsky understood his Parisian audience was no longer infatuated with the reflection of a peasant culture which had murdered its royal family and thus the composer turned to a Russian bourgeois subject to reengage their sympathies. The violence of the Russian Revolution was part of a greater conflict acutely felt in France in which more than seventy percent of its eight million soldiers were killed or wounded in The Great War. Is Mavra then also an attempt to restore to music the ‘divertmento’ aesthetic of the 18th C. as a kind of balm after the terrors of the war?

If Weill’s Dreigroschener Oper is the signature satirical reflection of the Roaring 20’s, then Mavra its most benign. Mavra was also Stravinsky’s last work with a Russian text  which strongly suggests he realized his exile would be permanent. If there was anguish in this realization its expression is entirely absent from this thirty minute opera buffa. This disassociation of historical events from their reflection in Stravinsky’s work is even more marked in the music he composed during the Second World War. The divertmento nature of Scene de ballet, Danse Concertante, Tango,Ebony Concerto,Sonata for Two Pianos give no indication of the titanic struggle going on in Europe. Only the Symphony in Three Movements, completed in 1945 reclaims something of the tremendous energy and force of the early ballets. For those, like Messiaen and Boulez ,who felt that Stravinsky had lost his way, The Rake’s Progress, his longest piece, premiered in 1951 was the final proof of Stravinsky’s decline. I once asked Boulez if he admitted to liking any of Stravinsky’s Neo-Classic music. He responded without hesitation, “Only one piece, Symphonie des Psaumes, and only the last movement.”

However, I must confess that I love virtually all of this music, especially The Rake’s Progress. And this has a lot to do with A Commonplace Book, which you are hearingthis evening . What should a text be about in 2014, specifically for this piece? Perhaps the world is not quite in the complete turmoil of 1914-1918 or 1940-1945 but the constant state of unrest and instability, of death and destruction  which so many people awake to daily affects one even in the sleepy, peaceful, leafy suburb where I live.

Debussy, whose death occurred eight months before the Great War’s Armistice, spent the war years in nearly constant pain from the cancer which would kill him in March 1918. The war suffuses his late work in a number of ways. The second piece of En Blanc et Noir, is dedicated to the memory of a friend killed in the war and introduces ‘Ein feste burg’ in battle like music in which this symbol of German culture is ‘defeated’ by a joyous ‘French’ fanfare. He also composed a Berceuse for a Belgian charity drive and in 1916 wrote  the words as well as the music for his Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons ,that is, a carol for the homeless children. This is the text in English:

We have no more house nor home

Enemies took all we had; all gone, all gone,even  our own little bed!

The school they burnt; they burnt our teacher too.

They burnt the church and also the Lord, Jesus Christ,

The poor old beggar, too, who could not get away!

Surely Papa has gone to fight,

Poor Mama is in Heaven died and did not see all this.

O, what should we do now?

Christmas, little Christmas! ,do not go to them;

Don’t go back to them ever, punish them all!

Avenge the children of France!

The little Belgians,the little Serbians and the Polish children too!

Yet should we forget some, pray forgive us.

Christmas, Christmas! No toys, we want no toys.

But may we please get back our daily bread.

Christmas! listen to us, we have no more our wooden shoes,

So please give victory to the children of France!

Now there’s a text for its time! But certainly not one destined to be popular in Germany, not in 1916 and likely not now either. One is reminded of Schönberg’s World War II piece, A Survivor from Warsaw, composed in 1947 in which Schönberg imagines a revolt of Jews being herded to the gas chambers breaking into the Sh’ma Yisraeil. Here is that text:

I cannot remember everything. I must have been unconscious most of the time.

I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if prearranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years – the forgotten creed!

But I have no recollection how I got underground to live in the sewers of Warsaw for so long a time. The day began as usual: Reveille when it still was dark. "Get out!" Whether you slept or whether worries kept you awake the whole night. You had been separated from your children, from your wife, from your parents. You don't know what happened to them... How could you sleep?

The trumpets again – "Get out! The sergeant will be furious!" They came out; some very slowly, the old ones, the sick ones; some with nervous agility. They fear the sergeant. They hurry as much as they can. In vain! Much too much noise, much too much commotion! And not fast enough! The Feldwebel shouts: "Achtung! Stilljestanden! Na wird's mal! Oder soll ich mit dem Jewehrkolben nachhelfen? Na jut; wenn ihrs durchaus haben wollt!" ("Attention! Stand still! How about it, or should I help you along with the butt of my rifle? Oh well, if you really want to have it!")

The sergeant and his subordinates hit (everyone): young or old, (strong or sick), quiet, guilty or innocent ...

It was painful to hear them groaning and moaning.

I heard it though I had been hit very hard, so hard that I could not help falling down. We all on the (ground) who could not stand up were (then) beaten over the head...

I must have been unconscious. The next thing I heard was a soldier saying: "They are all dead!"

Whereupon the sergeant ordered to do away with us.

There I lay aside half conscious. It had become very still – fear and pain. Then I heard the sergeant shouting: „Abzählen!“ ("Count off!")

They start slowly and irregularly: one, two, three, four – "Achtung!" The sergeant shouted again, "Rascher! Nochmals von vorn anfange! In einer Minute will ich wissen, wieviele ich zur Gaskammer abliefere! Abzählen!“ ("Faster! Once more, start from the beginning! In one minute I want to know how many I am going to send off to the gas chamber! Count off!")

They began again, first slowly: one, two, three, four, became faster and faster, so fast that it finally sounded like a stampede of wild horses, and (all) of a sudden, in the middle of it, they began singing the Shema Yisroel.

Sh'ma Yisraeil, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

V'ahavta eit Adonai Elohecha b'chawl l'vav'cha uv'chawl nafsh'cha, uv'chawl m'odecha. V'hayu had'varim haeileh, asher anochi m'tsav'cha hayom, al l'vavecha. V'shinantam l'vanecha, v'dibarta bam b'shivt'cha b'veitecha, uvlecht'cha vaderech, uv'shawchb'cha uvkumecha. Ukshartam l'ot al yadecha, v'hayu l'totafot bein einecha. Uchtavtam, al m'zuzot beitecha, uvisharecha.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

Since the Allied and Axis countries which fought each other in World War II have now become friends again, it has become customary to perform this piece in conjunction with one thought to be concerned with reconciliation. In 2010, Simon Rattle, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, began a concert with it, going immediately into Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

So, again, what about a text for this piece? A scabrous poem by the Roman dialect poet G.G. Belli “That’s the way the world goes” is followed by a textless evocation of Abruzzi pifferari, then a short excerpt from St. Augustine’s Confessions , then a Shaker exorcism song, then two verses of Martin Luther’s hymn, Von Himmel Hoch and finally to conclude this heterogenous collection, a Norwegian folk song. This is certainly not the stuff of historical engagement.

I need to get back to Debussy one more time. In his last piece, and he knew it was his last piece, the Sonata for Violin and Piano, he starts out the last movement, after a reference to the opening of the first movement, in a kind of tarantella which seems to promise after the bittersweet and ironic second movement the customary function of the classical finale, to dispense with deep thought. After about a minute though, the tone shifts to a kind of very sad café waltz. This ends, but the thought is planted…which direction is the piece headed for?  Here’s where Stravinsky and Debussy link up. While admittedly very different composers, their music tends towards vitality rather than anxiety. In the final pages of his last piece, Debussy rises from his sick bed, from the anxiety of the war and ends with a giddy flourish as though to say, a hundred years from now, you won’t care about my health, about what I was going through…so get up and go!






January 6, 2016