On December 7, 1975, I went to a concert at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, to attend a concert of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra. At that time I was fourteen years old, playing cello in the Berkeley Junior Orchestra and eager to check out what I considered to be the "big kid's orchestra," which I would in fact join two years hence and go on a European tour with, though I certainly had no idea of that at this time. On this day I was content to listen to the orchestra do a long and wildly ambitious program that included an overture by Robert Muczynski, Saint-Saens's tone poem Phaeton, Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony, and the world premiere of a new symphony (titled Elegiac) by Lou Harrison that I had heard was giving the orchestra a lot of trouble during rehearsals, due in no small part to the composer himself; in fact earlier that very afternoon when they played their final dress rehearsal they found 15 additional measures for the fourth movement stapled to their parts. The symphony was a major work, in five movements, over a half hour long; the earliest sketch for the work is dated October 11, 1942, which means Harrison had been working on this piece for a third of a century. (And he wasn't done yet; he made significant revisions in 1988.) If the orchestra knew that they were taking on the magnum opus of one of the major figures of twentieth century music, neither the orchestra nor the composer acted like it.
There's a Boston connection here: like so many other 20th-century masterpieces, the impetus for this symphony came in the form of a commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation. The passages for two solo double basses in the third movement were intended to be a tribute to Koussevitsky, who in addition to being a conductor was a virtuoso on the double bass. The symphony is dedicated to the memory of both Serge and Natalie Koussevitsky. Another BSO conductor, Pierre Monteux, encouraged the creation of the second and fifth movements.
Despite the dedication, however, it's the deaths of both his mother and his close friend and fellow composer Harry Partch in 1974 that really inform the emotional tone of this work, which incorporates materials from different phases of his career. It can be considered a summing up of his work and influences. The mixture of personal grief and Eastern spirituality that runs through the work is reflected in these comments he wrote about it, explaining the titles of the movements: "The angel of music, Israfel ('whose heartstrings are a lute' - Edgar Allan Poe') stands with his feet in the earth and his head in the sun. He will blow the last trumpet. Six times daily he looks down into hell and is so convulsed with grief that his tears would inundate the earth if Allah did not stop their flow."
Lou Harrison (left) was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1917, and spent much of his life in Northern California. He studied with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, wrote music for modern dance choreographers, and produced percussion concerts involving found objects like automobile brake drums. In the '30s and '40s, his career resembled that of John Cage, and they collaborated together in various contexts. Harrison ultimately took a different path, however. He moved to New York in 1943, where he joined Virgil Thomson as a music critic for the Herald Tribune. He befriended the elderly Charles Ives, editing the never-performed 40-year-old manuscript of Ives's Third Symphony and conducting its world premiere in Carnegie Recital Hall, actions that won Ives the Pulitzer Prize, which he shared with Harrison. (He also wrote music for the Living Theatre, directed by Judith Malina. I did not know this until I wrote music for a couple of Living Theatre productions in the 1990s and heard Judith talk about Harrison, whom she considered one the greatest artists she ever worked with.)
But perhaps Harrison's greatest contribution to the culture is the American gamelan. In collaboration with William Colvig, Harrison meticulously turned scrap metal into instruments that emulated the sound and pure intonation of a Balinese gamelan orchestra. Soon American gamelans sprung up everywhere, especially on college campuses. If you've heard live gamelan music outside of Asia, you have Lou Harrison to thank.
This influence is especially prevalent in the two movements of the symphony, the first and third, that share the title "Tears of the Angel Israfel." Both make use of Balinese pentatonic scales and ancient modes; the third movement utilizes a mode first notated by Claudius Ptolemy in third-century Alexandria. About two minutes into the first movement you hear the sound of a tack piano, a regular piano with tacks pushed into the hammers, giving it a tinny sound that for Harrison evokes the sound of Asian instruments. While Glenn Gould and various rock bands experimented with tack pianos, this piece contains the most serious and significant use of the instrument. The Greek mode in the third movement is played, as mentioned above, by two double basses utilizing their upper harmonics, creating a magical texture accompanied by horn, celesta, harp and muted strings.
In between these two movements is a shorter movement titled simply Allegro, poco presto, one of the movements suggested by Monteux to give the work a more symphonic dimension. The movement, while more animated than the other two, still essentially inhabits a modal sound-world.
The fourth movement, titled "Praises for Michael the Archangel," is quite different in style. It originated as an organ piece Harrison wrote in the 1940s, very much influenced by his work with Schoenberg and his encounter with the music of Carl Ruggles. In the context of the essentially mournful-yet-lyrical style of the other movements, the bracing modernism of this movement stands out. To the extent that this work is an expression of the process of grief, this movement could be said to reflect the stage of anger.
The last movement, titled "The Sweetness of Epicurus," reflects acceptance. The long oboe melody spinning out over the descending line of the Koussevitsky-inspired double basses and the modal intervals of the horns weave all the elements of the symphony together into a tapestry that I will go out on a limb and declare is the most beautiful movement of American symphonic music yet written. This movement was repeated at its premiere; the conductor Denis de Coteau told the audience that he felt that they hadn't done the work justice the first time. He was right; the second performance transfixed the audience, followed by a long silence, then thunderous applause.
In the score, Harrison added two epigrams:
"Where Death is, we are not; where we are, Death is not; therefore, Death is nothing to us." - Epicurus
"Bitter sorrows will grow milder with music." - Horace
I was privileged to hear one other live performance of this work, given by the Juilliard Orchestra, that took place three days before the composer's death in 2003. The performance confirmed for me and for everyone present that this is one of the great American symphonic works. The Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra's own LP recording for the 1750 Arch label is long out of print, but fortunately the American Composers Orchestra recorded Harrison's 1988 revision of the work, which we will hear today, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.
All this month, I have been pairing American symphonies with symphonies from the standard repertoire. I knew that Harrison was displeased with its pairing with the Tchaikovsky at its premiere, so I chose instead Brahms's Fourth Symphony, which also seems to speak of grief in an indirect language. Brahms wrote the last movement in the form of a chaconne, with a bass line borrowed from one of Bach's earliest cantatas, BWV 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, or "Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul." We'll hear the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Carlos Kleiber.
More Classical Music/99.5
Bill commented on 02.14.11
Thank you very much for your article on Lou Harrison's Elegaic Symphony. You're right that it's an American masterwork that deserves much wider recognition. Here are a couple of details that I wanted to add. Lou was influenced by and composed for the Javanese gamelan, not the Balinese variety (with a couple of exceptions). For the most part, he didn't care for Balinese music. Neither Balinese nor Javanese gamelan use just intonation (or "pure" intonation), although Lou sometimes argued that some of them did. In any case, the tunings he used were of his own invention, although in the general "families" of pelog and slendro (the two Javanese tuning systems) and were, as you point out, in just intonation. I like the Denis Russell Davies CD and am glad I have it. However, the double bass harmonic solos are missing on it, whereas they sound wonderful on the (sadly unavailable) LP. Thanks again for the article!
James commented on 01.31.11
Thanks, Patrick. I wrote music for "...and the heavens closed", which was directed by the late Hanon Reznikov, written by and starring Joanie Fritz Zosike and produced by Judith Malina, who also acted in the production, playing a wise matriarch as only she can. The play was based on the memoirs of Gluckel of Hamelin (1646-1724), which were written in Yiddish and provide a remarkable portrait, and a rare female perspective, of life among the so-called Court Jews in Prussia in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. We performed the play at La MaMa (the storied theater founded by the recently deceased Ellen Stewart) and at the Jewish Museum in NYC. I played cello in that production; after one performance an audience member came up to me and said that my cello sounded "like a cross between a viola da gamba and a crying Jew," which to this day is the greatest compliment I've ever received, since that was exactly the effect I was going for. I also directed the music and wrote some new music for their ongoing "Not in My Name" project, a performance piece about the death penalty that was performed extensively in the US and Europe in the 1990s, and I worked on their production of "Utopia" at the Vineyard Theatre.
Patrick commented on 01.31.11
Great article. What Living Theatre productions did you write music for?
James commented on 01.31.11
Thanks for your faith in my recommendation, Gary! It feels so good to introduce this piece to new listeners. In his write up Walter Simmons makes an interesting point that the elegiac quality of this work differs from what he calls the "highly personal, Samuel Barber-like sense." I actually think this symphony IS highly personal, but that his language for expressing grief comes from a synthesis of musical styles, and that these styles are inextricably tied to their respective cultural philosophies and attitudes toward death. As an expression of collective grief, I think this symphony could be an effective alternative to a setting of the Requiem Mass or the passionate strings of Barber and Mahler or the sorrowful minimalism of Gorecki and Part. Without disparaging any of that music, there does tend to be a quality of remoteness or theatricality about much of it that's completely missing in this work. There's something universal and recognizably human about this symphony. Harrison's immersion in Asian musical styles was so complete that his use of them is completely integrated into his means of expression without a hint of exoticism; as a result the symphony carries little specific cultural baggage. It creates a space for us all while still telling its own story.
Roger commented on 01.30.11
A profound thank you for playing this beautiful work. I was introduced to Harrison through the radio, and as a fan of the gamelan loved the way these sonorities were combined with Western classical music. To hear this magnum opus gives new perspective to that experience. The oboe is just gorgeous, the tack piano creates an exciting sound, the gamelan is peaceful and moving. Thank you also for this wonderful write up.
Gary commented on 01.29.11
Well given your write up, I didn't wait, and put my order in for this CD at Arkiv. They also have quite a write up from Walter Simmons of Fanfare. So given two raves, I guess I had better like this piece, although I have not heard it as yet!