Pocket Scores and Patrimony

You could be a stranger alone in a foreign city and still find a friendly face to sit next to by locating the little flash of yellow in the audience and heading for it as, onstage, musicians rehearsed. After a quick whispered greeting (no introductions necessary) you could take a seat next to the partitura's holder, who would, without being asked, share it with you -- possibly even place a finger momentarily on the spot being rehearsed to help you get your bearings. By the end of the rehearsal you would have made a new friend -- possibly for life. Rome, New York, Vienna, or Paris -- the city's name and geographic location were irrelevant: you were a musician, an artist, a citizen of the world, and that flash of yellow, that pocket score, was your passport, universally accepted and valued. 

John Updike called the (now Knopf) Everyman Classics volumes "the edition of record." Hard to dispute. They were designed to fit in the vent pocket of a man's blazer, there to be found while seated alone in a cafe drinking espresso or absinthe or both one assumes; or drawn out whilst seated on a park bench enjoying a good pipe; or to be drawn like a sword by a physical laborer during his break intent on intellectual self-betterment. One can't rekindle, as it were, a conversation with a book or score begun decades before when reading it on an iPad. And, if one's blessed to have had parents who wrote in the margins of their books, then their conversations can continue with you as you come upon them as you read them; at those times it is as though they had never died. 

These thoughts occurred to me yesterday when I drew from the shelf in my studio the yellow Eulenburg edition of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 to study, as a musician does, prior to rehearsing it last night with the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia. As a composer of concert and theater music in his fifties, one of my passions is the symphonic works of Beethoven and Haydn. As devotedly as I study Verdi as an opera composer, I am deadly serious -- particularly after having composed five symphonies myself -- about improving as a symphonic writer: climbing into Beethoven's skull and physicalizing his musical thinking by conducting it is just the thing. 

I turned to the first page and was surprised to find, jotted in the upper left hand corner, "Max Rudolf, 20 September '83, Curtis." I'd completely forgotten even attending the rehearsal. Yet, in a sudden rush (like that episode of "Star Trek" where Spock puts on the Smart Guy Helmet) all of the maestro's comments suddenly downloaded from some sort of musical cloud. I paged forward and found notes I'd taken on the use of "piqué," a bowing technique ideal for setting up the entrance of the first movement's second theme. Later, in the Menuetto, "October 10, '83 -- Rudolf takes repeats in the da capo." And so forth.

Returning to the first page, I read, in the upper right hand corner, "LB, 1986 -- 'longest continuous fortissimo in classical music'," from a masterclass Bernstein had given at Tanglewood.  "Rare forte-fortissimo at 190," and, later, comments about the "empty" measures in the first movement (bars when nobody plays) pointing out Beethoven's defining of musical structure through negative space (read: silence). Suddenly I recalled the humid Berkshire morning in it's entirety -- me, 25 and hung over, watching the young conductors sweat bullets, my yellow score on my lap, learning. 

Returning again to the first page, written above the title, the words "NOT VACATION" in capital letters. Above them, in parentheses, the name Masur. That rehearsal I recalled. Maestro had mentioned to the Philharmonic sometime during his tenure there that Beethoven is said to have finished the 8th while still composing the 7th, the magnificent choral 9th still nascent in his imagination. There was nothing "light" about a piece many call one of the lighter symphonies. My notes above the trio in the Menuetto, for example, note Masur pointing out that the writing clearly foreshadowed Brahms. "It's like he was seeing into the future," I said to the orchestra last night as we rehearsed the section again. "This time, play it like Brahms," I said, "and you'll see!" They did. We did. 

I have written often over the years of matrimony -- the many things ("all of the good things," as my father once admitted, without a trace of sentimentality) that my artist mother taught me. I'm acutely sensitive to the concept of "hegemonic masculinity" in music history. It's wrong, from our historic perspective, that women composers' works have been sidelined by the men programming concerts and writing the history books. I've worked to change that during my life in music. I do understand, also, that young composers of all gender identifications are understandably eager to wriggle out from beneath not just their professors' thumbs but from the demands placed upon them by the perceived excellence of prior generations' artistic achievements.  The repertoire forces us to come to terms with the troublesome, ultimately inescapable demands of Acquiring Craft, and of Continuous Study. These facts of musical life are, to me, gender non-specific. 

I went to sleep last night with Beethoven's music in my muscles, and his way of thinking in my brain, confident, excited by the fact that the study beforehand and the movement during rehearsal, the activity of transforming with my brothers and sisters in the orchestra the master's notes into sound would somehow rewire my own thought processes during the night. I awoke this morning changed -- better, humbler, intensely grateful for the opportunities that a life in music has given me to reconnect with a past that is smarter and wiser than my own. I'm launching at last into a multi-year project to rehearse every Haydn symphony with the orchestra. I am ready to draw his scores from the shelves of my studio and learn. 

This piece has also appeared in the Huffington Post. Click here to see it there. Learn more about the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia by clicking here.

Stands a Boxer

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 6 August 2015. Click here to read it there.

Daron Hagen and Laura Jackson discussing the "Sky Interludes from Amelia" at the Wintergreen Festival in August 2015. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Daron Hagen and Laura Jackson discussing the "Sky Interludes from Amelia" at the Wintergreen Festival in August 2015. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

As conductor Laura Jackson conducted the Wintergreen Music Festival Orchestra the other night in the “Three Sky Interludes” from Amelia, my 2010 opera for the Seattle Opera, there were several times when she cued the players with what shall have been for a boxer a lethal uppercut. Wiry, and as precise in her movements as a boxer, she was as accurate as a surgeon; the musicians under her baton responded with enthusiasm to her beat’s clear precision. Wielding the baton sometimes like a rapier before the massive sound that I had called for, and sometimes like a matador’s cape, she coordinated and shaped the combined efforts of an all-star orchestra comprised of professionals from orchestras all over the country. She did it on 36 hours’ notice, at fellow conductor and festival artistic director Erin Freeman’s invitation, filling in for a conductor unable to appear.

When the players then went into the ring with the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, I felt as though my heart would break. The terror of those opening bars, the music sounding so like fists crashing on a closed door, visceral in the extreme; my seven year old son, attentive, tucked under my arm, had never heard the piece before. His eyes shon as he whispered to me, “Papa, did you write that?” Beethoven wrote it, I told him. He’d been brought back to life by the men and women we had gotten to know and make music with during the past two weeks at the music festival. “Why?” asked my son. He wants to talk to us, I replied. He wants us to share his feelings, the things that were best about him. Listen, I told him, and, if you’re ready to hear what Beethoven has to say, you’ll hear him. 

I blame the whole “Artist as Hero” trope on the writers like Romaine Rolland who fashioned Beethoven into the Pugilist shaking his fist at Destiny many imagine him today as having been. Poor composer Anton Rubinstein, who had the bad luck to follow Beethoven by only half a generation, and who is said to have physically resembled him. Comparisons were inevitable. Every composer since has been saddled with comparison to the Great Fighter.

At this point in my life as an American composer of concert music and opera, I feel as though I’ve gone more rounds than I can or want to remember. An entirely new generation of sparring partners surrounds me — new arts administrators who were in grade school when I had my first bout with the Philadelphia Orchestra; punch-drunk mid-career composer and performer colleagues whose fists are still moving as they take blow after blow from a culture that seems no longer to value what they do; young composers to whom history is irrelevant and the idea of being a gladiator for one’s art narcissistic or naïve. 

Walk away, I tell myself, when another board knocks down or guts an opera company or orchestra because a new business model (usually something better suited to commercial art or manufacturing, and always about goosing the box office and paying artists less) is needed. And then I hear Beethoven lay it down with any number of his pieces and, shamed, I get back in the ring. Knocked down by the simple facts of life of the contemporary music world, I’ll read about a foundation that has decided to pour millions into reviving opera as an art form, and I’m not so much given hope as given a kick in the behind. I get up. I think about the people who buy tickets to concerts, or help support their local performing organizations. Acknowledging the hubris and futility of assuming even the stance, I begin another piece.

I’m too old now, I’ve got too much invested, have gone too many rounds, to walk away. Of course there is tenderness, and there is solace, and communion, in art; but the ones who make it are assumed too often, it seems to me, to be “playing,” to not be serious, to not understand business, to be overgrown children in need of handling. If only we’d gotten real jobs. 

It is regrettable that so many smart critics and composers elected at some point to adopt the defensive, (even passive) artistic stance that meandering note spinning is aesthetically superior to writing soulful melodic lines. Maybe the whole extended metaphor occurred to me just now because to my left at the concert sat the dozen young composers who had come to study with me this summer. I observed them as my piece unfolded; I watched them thrill to Beethoven’s stirring soul, summoned up for us by the conductor and orchestra. I thought about how I must seem to them (I don’t teach; I’m a full-time composer — a concept completely alien to them) when I talk about the struggle during the 80s between composer practitioners of Modernism, Minimalism, Romanticism, and Post-Modernism. “Do you fight about the future of music?” I asked them, realizing that they, by and large, actually don’t. 

The fight, in any event, should never have been about style. What were we doing back then, fighting with each other as the audience listened in, bewildered? And it should go without saying that the fight should never have been taken to the audience. The fight was and remains a struggle simply to survive, to make art while raising kids, paying mortgages, caring for elders.

This summer’s dozen young composers have not yet entered the ring. They’re free. To them, all art is equal. I spent my time with them trying to give them the skills they’ll need to stay that way. Keep swinging, I tell them. As it turns out, my pep talk is premature. They haven’t yet begun to take a beating. I’m afraid they’ll have to learn for themselves that making Art is not about fighting to live an Examined Life; it’s about fighting to survive. Making art is not a competition between artists, but our culture loves to celebrate winners, and where there are winners there are the others. Being told you’re a loser by your culture is a blow, whether it is true or not. Surviving as an artist shouldn’t be an exercise in taking it on the chin, but it is.

Stands a boxer.