Tribute and Legacy: Erik Lotichius’ Anaitalrax (Solaire Records)

“To D. Scarlatti (1685–1757) with apologies”—so composer Erik Lotichius (1929–2015) dedicated his Anaitalrax: Twenty-five virtuoso piano studies. Yes, the work’s title—Anaitalrax—is Scarlattiana sounded backwards, but this sly wink is indicative of a deeper, more layered operation at the core of Lotichius’s work. Many of the etudes are personally dedicated to friends and loved ones. All bear the mark of Lotichius’s desire to escape the verfremdungseffekt of the European modernism that surrounded him for so much of his musical life. Instead, Lotichius heard the expressive immediacy of jazz and blues as equal to that of past musical masters. And here the title’s enigma reveals itself: perhaps for Lotichius liberation from an aesthetically desolate present came by way of retracing the past. In a new recording on Solaire Records, the first of the complete Anaitalrax cycle, pianist Ralph van Raat captures Lotichius’s layered meaning with playing as technically brilliant as it is heartfelt and personal.

On first hearing, the twenty-five studies may seem outmoded, as if they were composed of simple musical borrowings from the classical and popular past. But, each etude confidently transcends pastiche with a percipient nod and a musical twist. Anaitalrax 3 (dedicated to Roelof B.) is possessed of a nonchalance reincarnated from Debussy’s piano music. Van Raat’s pedal work creates a sonorous and humid atmosphere that quickly evaporates with each brief but persistent chromatic invasion. Anaitalrax 6 (Ragtime) transforms the carefree syncopations of its early-twentieth century cousin into rhythmic anxiety looming in van Raat’s left hand articulation. Anaitalrax 11 (for Alessandro M.) bursts with poppy, almost disco-like exuberance heightened by van Raat’s metallic treble work. Anaitalrax 17, dedicated to the Brazilian pianist Eliane Rodrigues, is a delightfully graceful habanera to which van Raat’s colors and articulation bring delicate intimacy. Anaitalrax 23 shuffles along like an over-caffeinated Jelly Roll Morton tune, but it is shaped like a Bach invention. Van Raat’s aggressive approach to the keyboard sharpens each subject entry’s claws as he allows the voices to vie for dominance prior to the final, hard-hammered cadence.

Despite Anaitalrax’s many styles and the thirty years over which the etudes were composed, the cycle is remarkably unified. This is certainly attributable in part to van Raat’s performance, which serves to link musical gestures separated by time and music (listen, for example to the subtle changes from the opening of Anaitalrax 4 to that of 16). But, Anaitalrax’s true unifier is Lotichius himself. Tobias Fischer’s equally illuminating and tender “biography in ten parts” that accompanies the two-disc set reveals Lotichius to have been insecure about the public reception of his work. So much so that when the composer finally left Amsterdam for rural Belgium, he attempted to put his “unworthy” scores on the street with the trash only to have them heroically rescued by Hantzen Houwert, the late composer’s widow, who remains the steward of Lotichius’s artistic legacy. The seeds of public insecurity, however, flowered in private composition. The etudes could just as easily be portraits of their recipients rather than gifts to them. The composer-to-listener immediacy Lotichius desired from music for his entire career is readily apparent in Anaitalrax, even if it is paradoxically hidden under layers of shapeshifting composition.

As it would seem with all things Lotichius, this record goes deeper than its two hours of enjoyable listening. Fischer’s biographical essay, notes from van Raat and producer Dirk Fisher, beautiful photography, and commissioned sketch-portraits of Lotichius and van Raat are all prefaced by an affectionate note from Hantzen Houwert. The whole is less a record than it is a tribute to the quiet, lifelong work of an underserved, underperformed, underknown composer who is—deservedly—emerging from obscurity.

DISSERTATION – The Economic, Aesthetic, and Nonprofit Organization of Professional Vocal Ensembles

Download full text here.


Professional vocal ensembles have few published resources to assist their managers in navigating the economic and societal currents of the performing arts. Yet, professional choral performance is growing across America. This study seeks to theorize and codify the practices of professional vocal ensembles as they balance musicianship with organizational efficacy and financial security. Theoretical concerns of today’s performing arts are addressed in the areas of economics, aesthetics, audience relationships and development, organizational structure, and strategic management. Discussions in these areas are necessarily interdisciplinary because so are the professional performing arts. Conclusions are drawn to suggest successful practices and philosophies professional ensembles can adopt to better their operations.

This study utilizes a combination of resource-based research and field observation with five anonymous ensembles, all of which are exemplars of professional vocal ensemble performance. After an introduction, chapter 2 deals with matters of professionalism in choral performance. Chapter 3 presents basic economic concerns and offers a new definition of economic output in the performing arts. Chapter 4 works within that definition by quantifying and qualifying aspects of the presentation of artworks and developing audience relationships. Chapter 5 suggests means of structuring professional ensembles through designing effective performance events. Finally, chapter 6 closes the study by applying theories discussed in chapters 3–5 to the practical and strategic management of professional vocal ensembles.

BLOG – A Review of Paul A. Epstein: Piano Music – R. Andrew Lee, piano

Paul A. Epstein: Piano Music

R. Andrew Lee, piano
Will Robin, program note
Irritable Hedgehog Records

1) Drawing No. 5 (Triangles)
2) Drawing No. 3 (Slow Title)
3) Drawing No. 4 (Triangle, Broken Horizontal and Vertical Lines, Rectangles, and Parallelograms)
4) Changes 6
5) 72: 7/11/13
6) Changes 3: Palindromes
7) Landscape with Triads
8) Drawing No. 6 (Horizontal and Vertical Broken Lines)

Pianist R. Andrew Lee champions new music for the piano, continually performing and recording important if under-heard contemporary piano works. He is an unabashed proponent of minimal music, having recorded William Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes and Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano to name but two. Lee has also realized and recorded Kyle Gann’s reconstruction of Dennis Johnson’s proto-minimalist marathon, November, a project for which he has garnered well-deserved acclaim. Lee’s newest record, Paul A. Epstein: Piano Music is a welcome addition to the pianist’s already-impressive discography.

Paul A. Epstein (b. 1938), Professor Emeritus of Music Theory at Temple University, has been described as “‘the postminimalist Babbitt’ because of the ingenuity he expends twisting…logical constructs into an obvious-sounding but elusive series of processes.”[1] The piano music recorded here provides excellent proof of Gann’s assertion. Take, for example, the composer’s Drawing series, reflections on the work of Sol LeWitt, four of which are heard on the record. Each “drawing” (according to Lee’s program note to his 2013 Café Oto performance) is composed of motives that Epstein rotates “such that pitches become rhythm and vice versa,” presenting all possible combinations thereof. The result is a pointillist, often linear, contrapuntal music ever on the cusp of revealing itself.

Changes 3: Palindromes provides, by contrast, this album’s most audible process. The piece is composed in an unwavering, even joyous, D Major. Its melodic cells (as the title might suggest) retrace their own steps through pitch-additive machinery. The key is cycled through during the first half of the piece, each addition providing structural demarcation, with one note conspicuously missing. The final note of D major—the remaining C sharp—is added to the texture well beyond the halfway mark. The listening experience is one of built-in, audible expectation and satisfaction whether or not we are aware of the piece’s deeper palindromic operations.

Similarly, 72: 7/11/13 is built on a 72-16th-note, chiastic figure that slowly disintegrates and simultaneously highlights itself through new melodic orderings every 7, 11, and 13 notes. The structure’s arithmetic hides in the shadows of the musical surface, but the feeling of its presence is undeniable. This phenomenon is perhaps the hallmark of the record (and a testament to Lee’s performance): we are subconsciously aware of music’s processes even when they are not overtly audible.

If Epstein’s structures and processes are an ever-present, subliminal feature of his music, Lee accentuates them through his ordering of the works on the album. Of the four Drawings that appear, Nos. 5, 3, and 4 respectively, open the record; No. 6 closes it. 72: 7/11/13, the record’s centerpiece, is flanked on either side by Changes 6 and Changes 3: Palindromes. The commonality among all these works is the musical linearity their processes yield. It is contrapuntal interaction that creates much of the record’s harmony and verticality.

Landscape with Triads, the album’s penultimate work, is entirely different and creates an almost Joycean epiphany of listening. It cycles through major and minor chords, serializing dynamics and randomizing articulation and duration. Will Robin’s liner notes describe it as “the album’s most unsentimental system.” Up to this point, the music has been so linear—and Lee’s playing so suggestively lyrical during even the most jagged textures—that to hear simple chords of specific duration punctuated by abrupt releases and pointed silence is a revelation. The return to Epstein’s Drawing paradigm following Landscape with Triads causes the record to recycle itself as Finnegans Wake does, or perhaps more aptly here, as Epstein’s processes often do. Lee’s programming incites us to rehear the record and continually rewards us as we do.

Post-Landscape, Lee’s playing takes on a sheen that was surely always present but disguised in Epstein’s counterpoint. Poignancy of tone, revelatory articulation, and textures now snarled, now transparent, are the sublime outcomes of Lee’s renderings of Epstein’s musical strictures. In the composer’s own words, we are ushered into “a rich array of possibilities out of which [we] may construct an experience of the piece.”[2] Lee’s ordering manages to confront certain possibilities on first hearing and opens the floodgates thereafter, holding Landscape With Triads as the parallax. The record commends his estimable technique, his knowledge and love of new music, and his creativity deploying them together.

* * * 

Paul A. Epstein: Piano Music is available from Irritable Hedgehog Records, along with the rest of R. Andrew Lee’s recordings. All are available as CDs or as digital downloads, both of which include insightful and often extensive program notes.

* * *

[1] Kyle Gann, “Metametrics, Postminimalist Version,” PostClassic: Kyle Gann on Music After the Fact, February 19, 2006

[2] Paul A. Epstein, “Pattern Structure and Process in Steve Reich’s ‘Piano Phase,’” The Musical Quarterly 72, (1986): 497.

BLOG – A Review of Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble’s Realign the Time


  • Realign the Time – Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble
  • October 2014
  • –––––––
  • Three Madrigals – Max Grafe
    1. Bantams in Pinewood
    2. Tea
    3. Fabliau of Florida
  • 4. Squarepushers – Amanda Feery
  • 5. Le Salève – Jonathan Sokol
  • 6. Decantations for voices – Ravi Kittappa
  • 7. Hommage – David Grant
  • so evenings die – Morgan Krauss
    1. I
    2. II
    3. III
  • 11. Communiqué – Anthony T. Marasco


Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble approach singing with fervor and abandon, and they continually work to influence composition for the voice as fearless advocates for its composers. On the group’s debut recording, Realign the Time, text dissolves, reforms, disintegrates. Vocal timbres interweave with non-sung sounds. Bits of improvisation flow seamlessly in and out of strict composition. The album is brilliantly programmed to allow individual works to contextualize and support one another. The result is a fascinating combination of inviting vocalism, abstract sound, and beautiful narrative shining with musicality and interpretive acumen.

Max Grafe’s Three Madrigals vigorously opens the album with a display of Quince’s paradoxical ease of unanimity and individuality. The piece reformulates the madrigal’s traditional exploration of text, exploiting the already-musical, onomatopoetic qualities of Wallace Steven’s poetry. In setting the work’s final word, “surf,” is particularly effective. The word and the musical-poetic meaning of its sounds grow in inverse proportion. As the word itself dissolves into sound, its true meaning takes shape.

Three Madrigals, Fabliau of Florida

“Realign the time,” the short, repeated text of Amanda Feery’s Squarepushers, is both the album’s title and mantra. The phrase emerges out of a placid, water-like chorus of humming and becomes an instruction as we listen. If we follow, the work acts as a portal from the relatively syllabic setting of Grafe’s madrigals to the many sounds, colors, and textures that follow.

As if to emphasize the point, Jonathan Sokol’s Le Salève practically presses reset. The piece’s opening sibilants recall the stuttering “ch-ch-ch-ch-Chieftain Iffucan” from the record’s first ten seconds. Rather than exploding into poetic declamation (as do the Three Madrigals), the sounds of Le Salève reveal a seemingly random magnetic poetry of S words. The alliteration is essential to Sokol’s structuring of multiple musical directions with the close, even quarter-tone, harmonies and sliding chromaticism of a recombinant barbershop quartet.

Le Salève benefits from the album’s production. The pop-like presence of the voices brings the non-sung sounds into relief, even if, on the record as a whole, there are moments where a more classical production might allow harmonies to better swim within themselves. Still, the sheer variety of sounds contained in the first three pieces of Realign the Time are made all the more impressive because they result from combining only voice and text.

When in Decantations by Ravi Kittappa instrumental and electronic sounds do appear, it is as if they emerge from the voices’ vast and already-established sonic palette. At the outset of Decantations, the shruti box drone, which accompanies Tamil-texted unison singing, betrays the influence of Indian classical music. But, Kittapa questions its typical layered melodies and repeating, ornamented rhythmic patterns by building Decantions on virtually rhythm-less, increasingly lush vertical sonorities. Electronics gradually transform the acoustic sound, and wide vibrato calls periodic attention to individual voices. Quince’s ability to seamlessly transition in and out of textures of four-in-one vocal quadrinity, trio-supported soloist, or equal and individual four-part polyphony is one of the highlights of this record.

This skill is nowhere more apparent than in David Grant’s Hommage, where brief, playfully accidental encounters with solo voices give way to an exultant chorus of pulsed Ahs punctuated by moments of silent breath. This oft-hidden yet essential part of singing rises to the surface in the following piece, Morgan Krauss’s so evenings die, lending an almost bodily rhythmic atmosphere to the music. The entry of the text is the work’s—and perhaps the whole album’s—defining moment, as if the music were gathering the last of life’s energy, its final breath before the ecstatic dying utterance: “Beauty is momentary in the mind — / The fitful tracing of a portal; / […] / The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.” In Krauss’s setting, Wallace Steven’s words are a potent swan song.

so evenings die, III

Communiqué by Anthony T. Marasco seems to summarize the record. Straightforwardly presenting text, as do Grafe’s madrigals, Communiqué shares the improvisatory nature of Squarepushers, the consonant-derived sound effects of Le Salève, and the non-vocal and electro-musical textures of DecantationsCommuniqué’s electronically shaded sung texture, which supports the spoken narration, aptly illustrates the geographical and emotional distance between the anonymous narrator and Karen, who flees her life in America for Europe.

Likewise, Quince traverse unafraid the vast, imaginary expanse between abstract sound and a beautifully told story. They test the voice’s under-tapped potential in contemporary composition, and they leave no question that its musical possibilities are innumerable. Realign the Time is a strong debut from a group sure to play a big role in reconceiving vocal composition in twenty-first-century music.


Realign the time is available from Quince’s website, from iTunes, and from cdbaby. Digital liner notes are available here.  Quince’s debut album, Realign the Time, was made possible by the generous support from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music.

BLOG – Coming to Terms With Strauss – Part 3 of 3

This is my final post on Strauss in preparation for tomorrow’s concert, and I thought it would be appropriate to take some troubling aspects of Strauss’s biography, specifically his complicated relationship with the Nazis prior to and during World War II.  Additionally, I will introduce some musical aspects of Strauss’s Sonatina No. 2 in E-Flat, which is the piece I’ll be conducting for the South London Chamber Concerts tomorrow evening.  The concert is at 7:30 p.m. at the St. Mary Magdalene Church on Munster Square.  I hope if you are in London and available that you’ll come to hear.

* * *

Strauss reputation has, since the end of World War II, been under repair. The composer of Rosenkavalier, as he referred to himself when he met the Allied soldiers who had come to occupy his home, has received much criticism for his involvement with the Nazi party. He was the first president of the Reich Chamber of Culture, and he occasionally wrote fanfares and other short pieces for Nazi events, most notably the 1936 Olympic games.  However, documents now available show him to have been out of favor with the Nazis, especially Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda.  He was often under threat, as were his grandsons, Richard and Christian, whose mother was Jewish.  If this is the case, why did he stay in Germany? Many German artists (and not only the Jewish ones) fled the country for safer environments, why not Strauss?

There are two compelling answers to this question. First, Strauss was in a unique position: He was the greatest living musical figure in Germany during the 1930s.  This position made it possible for him to call in favors and exercise a certain power in order to protect his friends and family. It is clear now that it was Strauss who prevented Alice, his Jewish daughter-in-law, from being arrested throughout the Third Reich period.  He also made deals to protect his grandsons and to keep friends out of prison. In 1940, for example, at a reception for the composer’s birthday, Strauss asked the newly appointed governor of Vienna to release his friend Manfred Mautner Markhof from captivity.  He told the governor “it was all he wanted on his birthday,” and his wish was granted. [1]

The second possibility as to why Strauss may have stayed in Germany is that he felt deeply responsible for continuing the tradition of German music that had passed from Mozart through Beethoven and Wagner.  Strauss felt this culture so deeply that Michael Kennedy, Strauss’s most recent biographer, claims it to be the “mainspring of his being.” [2]  Strauss wrote upon accepting his post in the Reich Chamber of Culture that he “hoped to do some good and prevent worse misfortune if from [then] on German musical life was going to be…‘reorganized’ by amateurs and ignorant place seekers.” [3]

Perhaps the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler best summarized the feelings of Strauss and many other artists when he said:

All those who became emigrants, or demanded that one should emigrate, have relieved Hitler of having to prove a thing: his claim that he was the true representative of the German Nation.  They thought that they had to leave a Nazi Germany, but this is wrong.  Germany was never a Nazi Germany, but a Germany subjugated by the Nazis. [4] (Kennedy, 271)

The result of the Nazi years on Strauss composition is audible. After Daphne, his pieces grow decidedly smaller and more personal. Of the works listed as having been composed after 1937 by Norman Del Mar in his three-volume Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works, none requires the forces of his previous work. [5] The late works for winds (of which the Sonatina No. 2 is one), Metamorphosen, and the oboe concerto require a chamber orchestra or smaller. Only the Vier Letzte Lieder is composed for a typical Strauss orchestra, and of the four Frühling and September use reduced brass and percussion sections.

Certainly, this can be a sign of the composer’s advanced age, but the war took its toll. We can hear Strauss’s style shifts as well. For example, Metamorphosen, though thoroughly Romantic in its harmony, is almost Bachian in its counterpoint. The oboe concerto uses a Mozart orchestra and, along with the late works for winds, veers toward Mozartian style.

Sonatina No. 2 in E-Flat is structured like a Mozart symphony, including the third movement minuet and trio, which had long since fallen out of use by Strauss’s time. The outer movements use sonata form, and the second movement is a lyrical andante. This is perhaps not unusual in and of itself, but it stands apart in the context of Strauss’s work for one main reason: there is no program or libretto.

In fact, of the pieces composed after 1937 only one is an opera (though the Vier Letzte Lieder obviously set text).  The majority of these works are non-programatic and organized by musical principles alone.  This, coupled with a tendency towards Mozartian style, can be seen as representative of a composer longing for a simpler time, trying to compose a way out of the atrocities of the Second World War.

In fact, Strauss was not the only German artist to attempt such a reversal of time.  To extrapolate from Dr. Faustus, we might say that Thomas Mann viewed the German Idealism and humanism as precipitating the Nazi takeover.  When Mann’s composer, Adrian Leverkühn, writes his final piece, he uncomposes Beethoven’s ninth symphony in order that it be “taken back.”  He wants to make it so that it never was, and so in the context of his own The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus Leverkühn composes an “ode to sorrow.” [6]

Strauss, perhaps uncharacteristically, is not quite so heavy handed.  In Metamorphosen, perhaps his own “ode to sorrow,” Strauss composes an in memoriam for the whole of Germany and German culture to a quotation from the funeral march from Beethoven’s third symphony.  Can we not see this as Strauss’s own uncomposing of Beethoven, as Strauss returning to the spirit of Mozart?

Stylistically speaking, this was Strauss’s trend in the final decade of his life, especially in the years following World War II.  Sonatina No. 2 is perhaps the best indication.  In it he composes his relief at the end of the war, and he finds solace in the style of Mozart.  Finally, almost as hint to every future player and listener, Strauss dedicates the piece “to the spirit of the divine Mozart at the end of a life full of thankfulness.” [7] This is how we should hear the piece, and how we will do our best to play it on Saturday.

* * *


[1] Michael Kennedy, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1999), 319.

[2] Ibid., 270

[3] Ibid., 281

[4] Ibid., 271

[5] Norman Del Mar, Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works. London: Barrie and Jenkins (1972), 496-498.

[6] Thomas Mann trans. John E. Woods, Dr. Faustus.  New York: Vintage Books (1997), 501.

[7] For a brief discussion of the dedication and how it relates to World War II and Mozart, see Kennedy, Richard Strauss, 365-366.

BLOG – Coming to Terms with Strauss – Part 2 of 3

This is the second of three posts I am writing in preparation for the South London Chamber Concerts performance on Saturday, September 28, 2013. As a disclaimer, let me say that I know that this post is far too short to adequately deal with Adorno’s critique of Strauss or with Strauss’s position in the changing musical landscape in the first half of the twentieth century.  There is very little offered in the way of musical proof for my claims here, though I do believe that there is plenty that could be cited, albeit in a more appropriate place.

My goal is to offer an idea, namely that Strauss’s typical position in twentieth century music—that of the end of the old guard—needs reevaluating in terms of the greater project of twentieth-century music.  The list of references below is short, but I hope they are sufficient to offer a taste of some of the issues.  As always, if you wish to challenge anything I have written below, please feel free to comment here or to email me.

 * * *

Richard Strauss enjoys a strange place in twentieth century music.  His operas have become standard repertoire. Salome was not only theatrically scandalous, but musically tested the very limits of tonality. Daphne, to take a much later example, is theatrically distilled.  Even if the orchestra is of typically Straussian size, there is not an extraneous character or line in the piece, and the opera’s finale my be the only instance in the composer’s output that his tone-poetic form was put to use in the theater where it arguably always belonged.

Yet, it is his tone poems, and the way that their form pervades Strauss’s work, that have gotten Strauss into trouble with twentieth-century critics, most notably Theodore Adorno. Adorno attacks Strauss’s composition as being empty, but for effects and sonic simulation, and he indicts Strauss as the great traitor to the musical tradition the composer so dearly loved.  Adorno cites as his evidence that Strauss’s music, in particular the tone poems and operas, is organized by principles entirely outside of the music itself, and that in so organizing, Strauss manipulates the listener rather than creating musical truth value.

However, I would argue that Adorno’s critique fails to recognize certain trends in twentieth-century musical aesthetics that are now widely accepted. His view of Strauss is that the composer writes old music in the era of “the new music” of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. He writes that “had Richard Strauss never existed, contemporary music might long ago have ceased to call itself new.” [1] Rather than the late-Romantic sound of Strauss, Adorno believes Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance” to be the key (so to speak) of music’s future.

Retrospectively, we can see that this was only one of the twentieth century’s “emancipations.”  Edward Venn claims that the ideas behind Luigi Russolo’s “Art of Noises” represent the “emancipation of timbre.” [2] Both of these concepts, the emancipations of dissonance and timbre, separate certain elements of music from the specifically musical. Twelve-tone composition dislocates pitch from its previous hierarchical compositional use. Russolo’s ideas for the use of noise and his “noise harmonium,” which influenced the likes of Stravinsky and Varèse, separated timbre from its traditional, instrumental-vocal orientation.

By Adorno’s own words, Strauss’s musical organization is non-musical when compared to the nineteenth-century German compositional tradition, about which Lydia Goehr writes:

Musical form was no longer to be thought of as following the text or the shape of some ‘extra-musical’ occasion, but as independently designed and independently coherent…musicians with both theoretical and practical interests began at this time to give utmost consideration to the development of purely musical forms. [3]

Strauss’s compositional technique, then, can either be viewed as regressive, i.e., as turning to pre-nineteenth-century compositional practice, or as forward-thinking, as resulting in the emancipation of musical form from the purely musical.

In order to understand the sides of this debate, we should first come to an understanding of why musical form holds such an important place for Adorno. To put it simplistically, Western composition was synonymous with German composition as perfected by Beethoven. He holds this view in large part because Beethoven, as a composing subject, bent to his will objective material (form) while maintaining its identity as such.  Objective material, in Adorno’s terms, is essential as a transmitter of cultural truth and identity.

This explains why, for Adorno, Schoenberg was the successor to Beethoven, and Strauss was a music-for-theater composing dilettante. Schoenberg was able to create new music by treating dissonance and consonance as equals, thereby eliminating the need for, while still maintaining and developing, inherited, purely musical formal relationships. Strauss, on the other hand, abused inherited music by using its tonal-melodic principles with no regard for their supposedly concomitant organization.

Yet, for Adorno, Strauss’s formal abuses go beyond neglect. Adorno paraphrases Alban Berg in his Aesthetics, saying:

When Alban Berg answered in the negative the naïve question whether Strauss was not to be admired at least for his technique, he pointed up the arbitrariness of Strauss’s method, which carefully calculates a series of effects without seeing to it that, in purely musical terms, one event emerges from, or is made requisite by another…Music organized in such temporal-dynamic fashion as that of Strauss is incompatible with a compositional method that does not coherently organize temporal succession. Ends and means are contradictory. [4]

It is the extra-musical manipulation of musical material that offends Adorno most. Strauss’s music is a well-planned series of events that play at being spontaneously composed. Adorno writes:

Strauss’s technique frees itself from the subject matter and confronts it as an independent entity.  It prides itself on being equal to every situation within the composition.  Parallel to this is the objectification of what now falls under the control of technique: the emotions.  The one pole of traditional music, evanescent invention, is cultivated at the expense of everything else…thus music’s richness of nuance is immensely increased, as is its ability to nestle into the psychological stream by means of ‘turns.’ Inversely, however, the fixating gaze falsifies that which has its essence in its very evanescence, and the other, objective dimensions of composition are perniciously neglected. [5]

Thus there is a falsehood created on both sides of the musical object.  The listener receiving it is forced to confront a musical object without objective and a composing subject with only the semblance of ego, only a façade of the self.

But, this collapsing of composition into the musical event is Strauss’s very contribution to the musical trends of the twentieth century. In terms of style and surface aesthetic, Strauss’s composition was not new, just as Adorno says.  However, Strauss’s formal freedom enabled music to incorporate more into its self-definition. Following Strauss’s formal innovations (with no claim to direct influence, only that of a similar trend) are the Stravinsky of the event-organized Rite of Spring, the Varèse of the timbrally-oriented Amériques, the systematized and extra-musical organization of total serialism, and the Zen-Buddhist-informed organizations (or lack thereof) of John Cage.  And these are only those that appear within Strauss’s lifetime.

More innovations are incorporated as the twentieth century wears on. The century burst at the seams of traditional music as it attempted to incorporate nationalist and non-Western musics, as it accommodated freedom from the consonance-dissonance paradigm, as it reintroduced noise to musical sound, and as it allowed moment-to-moment musical form. Such is Strauss’s place in the trend of twentieth-century music. His music demands a rehearing in the context of the Avant-guard and against Adorno’s German-Idealist critique.

* * *

In my final post, I will tackle Strauss’s difficult relationship with the Nazis, and finally dig into the music of the Sonatina No. 2 in E-Flat for sixteen winds.  We’ll see that Strauss was not the only German artist to retreat to Mozartian times in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War.

* * *


[1] Adorno, Theodor, et al., “Richard Strauss: Born June 11, 1864,” Perspectives of New Music, 4 (Winter 1965), 14-32.

[2] Venn, Edward, “Rethinking Russolo,” Tempo, 64 (2010), 8-16

[3] Goehr, Lydia, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2007), 164.

[4] Adorno, Theodor, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, Aesthetic Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1997), 215.

[5] Adorno, “Richard Struass,” 18.

BLOG – On Classical Music’s Relationship With Its Audience

Recently, a friend shared with me an article in which James Rhodes wrote that classical music needs an enema, not an awards ceremony. He bemoaned musicians’ awkward behavior at the Gramophone Awards, and in so doing shared his opinions on the state of classical music. He claims:

The people behind [the classical music industry] are for the most part stuck in the 1930s and constitutionally incapable of connecting in any way with those born after 1960. The industry has been divided into sharks on the one hand (anything for a buck, even if it involves bastardizing the music to an unrecognizable degree) and the “purebloods” on the other – the Aryan race of the music world where this music is reserved for those who are intelligent and rarefied enough to understand it.

This seems to me to be so unbelievably ignorant of the true project of classical music as to be laughable.

Furthermore, these are the stock claims cited against classical music by those who recognize its social status but not its artistic condition. Such claims are almost always (as they are here) unsupported anti-propaganda. We as the general public misunderstand the problem in reverse. No one who makes these claims would agree that society remains unchanged from the time of Beethoven, or from the 1930s as Rhodes suggests. Why, then, should music go unchanged? The simple answer is that music has changed. Aesthetics evolve with cultures, as we have seen in the multiplicity of musics grown out of the 20th century. But, a changing musical aesthetic is necessarily concomitant with a changing cultural orientation towards music. This is what average classical music slam artists either hides or does not recognize. They only discuss the end result.

Audiences are “disinterested” (Which they are not, but we’ll go there for the moment). Name another relic of the 19th century that people are supposed to engage with as is. Seriously, think of one. Visual art, perhaps, but we can make a long list of film adaptations of literature and theater. The arts are not timeless-placeless despite the tenets of their mythology. To suggest that it is the fault of music (or painting, or theater, or whatever) that culture has changed around it misunderstands music’s bounden duty: to be a looking glass simultaneously exposing what has passed, what is now, and what is yet to come. When, in the 21st century, we hear a piece by Bach, the glass is still oriented toward the 18th century. We can hear the remnants of Vivaldi and Buxtehude, and we can still find it relevant. The fact that its yet-to-come reaches through time to today and beyond is as amazing as it is mysterious.

But, the demand we typically place on classical music is that the looking glass be here and now regardless of when music was composed. I would argue that many concertgoers do not hear Mozart as a piece of history, even a truthful, artistic-aesthetic, present, and meaningful one. Paradoxically, many audience members tend to view music whose looking glass is focused on today as being out of touch.

For me, this is what needs a remedy, not that there might be some self-importance in an awards ceremony. We collectively demand of classical music that it play the same cultural role it played one hundred fifty years ago. This is illogical. Even non-musical institutions that have lasted that long have changed because of pressures placed upon them by society. I think we should encourage everyone…EVERYONE…to ask themselves what they really require of classical music. Make real demands, attend concerts, and understand that with those demands comes a dialogue that could benefit everyone.

This should help classical music – and by that I mean the composers and performers who make it as well as the resulting aesthetics – develop a new counterpoint. Currently I think it is most common to say that classical music is struggling for audiences and funding, it’s struggling for identity (as evidenced by multitude of crossover artists new music composers so intent on marrying classical and pop), it’s struggling for relevance. So, what? Classical music will always struggle for these things.

These struggles are at the heart of an art form that must simultaneously historicize, contemporize, and reach into the future. I hope that some day society will see these struggles for the blessing they are. I hope that some day classical music and (especially) its critics will honestly approach culture with these issues rather than clambering for easy acceptance. Music’s truth, beauty, and transcendence, its very art, can be found in the fact that it is what we make it. We mold its meaning as much as its meaning shapes us. Right now that balance allows for James Rhodes to slam what, despite appearances, is simply a celebration of great music-making in the guise of an awards ceremony. But the celebration is in the music-making, whether it is Varese or Xenakis, whether it is on CD, live at a concert, or deconstructed in the practice room. We should tout that for a change.

BLOG – Coming to Terms With Strauss – Part 1 of 3


Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

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I’ll be writing some on Strauss in the next few weeks.  This is the first of what I hope will be three posts.  If you’re in London, please think about coming to the South London Chamber Concerts September 28th, where I’ll be conducting Strauss’s Sonatina No. 2 in E-flat Major “The Happy Workshop.”  If you’re elsewhere, then I hope reading here can give you a bit of an impression of how I’ll be treating the music.

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To begin, I’ll admit that Richard Strauss has never been my favorite composer. His music has always seemed overwrought, plus program music irks me.  I find what Daniel Albrecht so eloquently calls “laborious and calculated simulations of extra-musical phenomena” mostly annoying (and borderline obnoxious), with a couple of exceptions. [1]  For example, I chuckle a bit when Berlioz’s head plunks down to descending pizzicati in the Symphonie Fantastique (listen for the the whack plus three plucks at about 6:36).  I mostly love Mahler 1 and Mahler 2, as contrived as their connections may be. [2]  However, I have no such feelings for any of Strauss’s programatic works, even if I have a soft spot for the opening of Don Juan.

In the last year or so I have had a few experiences with Strauss that have started to change my feelings of his aesthetic.  First, I attended a course where we workshopped the Oboe Concerto.  This is a very late work of Strauss’s composed at the behest of Philadelphia’s then principal oboist John de Lancie, who happened to be part of the Allied contingent who invited themselves into Strauss’s estate in Garmisch at the end of World War II.  The piece is almost anti-Straussian in its simplicity.  It is light and friendly—though not entirely so to the soloist—and owes, as does the Sonatina No. 2 in E-flat (more in a moment), a large debt to Mozart.

The performing forces are also atypical for Strauss. The piece’s full title is Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra.  Yes, small orchestra. This idea certainly contradicts the maestro’s own statement of just a few years earlier.

“I don’t compose for provincial stages with orchestras less than fifty players, or for traveling shows…I have never had the talent to write what can be performed easily.” [3]

My second Strauss experience happened last June when I heard a performance of Strauss’s Metamorphosen played by the London Symphony at St. Paul’s Cathedral.   The piece is decidedly Romantic, though intimate and contrapuntal, like a Brahms motet but for twenty-three solo strings. That is even fewer than play in the Oboe Concerto!  It was by no means the first time I heard the piece, but in St. Paul’s it took on a more lucid quality than on recording.  So much sound evaporated into the cathedral’s giant dome that each of the string parts was audible. What is usually a wash of counterpoint and string color became chiseled and clear.

Last, I have, for the past few months, been a guest in Strauss’s “Happy Workshop,” that is, his Sonatina No. 2 in E-flat, which I am conducting with the South London Chamber Concerts on September 28th.  I have come to really love the piece, which, at sixteen players, is smaller in forces than either the Oboe Concerto or Metamorphosen.  The Sonatina No. 2 is like Mozart eating steak: fat, happy, and somehow shamelessly elegant.  On top of that, the writing for the winds—and especially for the horns—is absolutely virtuosic.  Strauss, in his lighter style, relinquished none of the demands he places on musicians.  In fact, the demands are greater because the playing requires such delicacy.

While Sonatina No. 2 and the Oboe Concerto stylistically contrast Metamorphosen, all share one important aspect: there is no program in any of the three. Strauss does write “in memoriam” into the Metamorphosen score, underlining musical quotations from the funeral march in Beethoven 3, and the piece does act the part of an elegy.  But Strauss, according to Michael Kennedy, meant the title, “metamorphoses,” as the elderly Goethe did, as work’s progress. [4] It is pure music, with no extra-musical requirements of its listeners.

In preparation for September 28th I have been listening to a lot of Strauss’s music, and the three experiences above have helped me come to the music with fresh ears.  There is something about the non-programmatic, non-operatic Strauss that changes the way I hear his program music and his operas.  They become less gimmicky; I hear fewer “laborious and calculated simulations” and more of the reasons why Carl Dalhaus, in the end, placed Strauss’s music, even the tone poems, in the category of absolute music. [5]

The transparency of style and smaller performing forces elucidate all that came before, like these three works are the filter through which we should hear Strauss’s prior music. I can’t say that I have fully come to enjoy to the size of much of Strauss’s early orchestral works, though I am giving them a serious second chance.  They still sound overwrought and severely Romantic to me, but I am trying to put the surface aesthetic aside in order to listen to musical voice that created it.

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In my next post I’ll tackle the critique of Strauss’s aesthetic and technique that originated with Alban Berg and passed through Theodor Adorno.  It is a little bit thorny, but it’s revealing of twentieth century music and aesthetics.  We’ll see why Strauss, though he lived forty-nine years of it, never really participated in the twentieth century’s music.  In my third post I’ll show how Strauss’s reaction to the War (and all of the horrors that accompanied it) is made manifest in the trend toward Mozartian style, and in his “in memoriam.”  There I will also dig into the music of the Sonatina No. 2 in E-flat. Please leave a comment if you’d like to challenge any of my claims here, or if you’d like to admonish me for secretly not enjoying Strauss all this time.  

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[1] – Daniel Albrecht, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2000), 10.

[2] – Mahler’s first symphony is famously called ‘The Titan,’ in which the hero (Mahler himself, of course) dies at the end only to be resurrected in the Mahler’s second symphony, cleverly titled ‘The Resurrection’.

[3] – Quoted in Michael Kennedy, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1999), 301.

[4] – Ibid., 362.

[5] – Carl Dalhaus tr. Roger Lustig, The Idea of Absolute Music. Chicago: Chicago University Press (1989), 137-138.