Saturday, March 1, 2014

Opium Dreams - the Grand Illusions of Gabriel von Wayditch

The term "outsider artist" is as annoying as it is difficult to define - thrown around far too often, constantly shifting the line between outsider and simply unique, and ultimately a marketing buzzword.  There's simply no exact demarcation line for when an artist qualifies as an outsider, and oftentimes what people mean by "outsider" is "talented, determined and mentally ill".  The term comes from the study of the art of asylum inmates, and all the qualifiers for the "genre" come from these artists.  The general idea is that these artists are disconnected from reality just enough so that they make art but have no need to follow pre-existing forms and conventions, and it's easy to see how people could label anybody sufficiently left of the dial as an outsider.  This problem will only get worse as the years pass, as it is easier these days not only for anybody to create art but even easier to distribute it to a global audience, making the inside/outside demarcation even fuzzier.  That doesn't mean that the outsiders aren't trying, and before the Grand Hooie that is the internet and digital self-publication came about Gabriel von Wayditch (1888-1969) spent his life crafting 14 grand operas that to this day remain largely unperformed.  Perhaps the answer lays in the fact that they range up to eight-and-a-half hours long and can take place anywhere from Jerusalem to Venus.

Wayditch was the child of a Hungarian inventor, Dr. Aloysius Wayditch von Verbovac, and a Prussian Baroness, Helena von Dönhoff, and among the former's accomplishments were a deep-sea thermometer and the concept of 3-D film in 1913.  The concept of 3-D movies in the 1910's makes my head explode, but his concept was deemed impractical and never implemented, his contributions unrecognized when 3-D did eventually become popular 40 years later.  He was trained in piano, composition and conducting at the National Hungarian Academy of Music (now the Franz Liszt Academy of Music) under Emil von Sauer and Hans von Koessler.  While I don't expect anybody to recognize the latter, he ended up being the teacher to arguably the most important generation of Hungarian composers ever, a class including Bartók and Kodály.  Those guys went on to develop what we think of as Hungarian, and to some extent Eastern European, classical music (with help from plenty of others), so Wayditch's proximity adds a fascinating note not only to his biography but also to his music.  The problem with asking the Influence question is that Wayditch moved with his father to New York in 1911, the second year into work on his first opera, Opium Dreams.  His family's fortunes ran out, but Wayditch kept on composing without any promise of performance or even understanding, separated from Hungary but still steeped in its culture.  Opium Dreams, featuring his own Hungarian libretto and a 110-piece orchestra, lasted four hours and was never performed then and is still unperformed today.  He pulled a couple of orchestral suites out of it, as well as a performably short piano piece, Reminisces from Opium Dreams.  Of course, that doesn't mean any university holds a copy of that score, or any Wayditch scores, because history has a way of making me angry.  The rest of his compositional career was spent in near total isolation in the Bronx, and each piece following Opium Dreams was enormous on nearly every level.

The next two operas he wrote were uncharacteristically short, 90' and 45' respectively, but were still in Hungarian and required huge orchestras - The Caliph's Magician and Jesus Before Herod.  One can see a pattern emerging with the subjects of his operas: they all revolve around fantastical, exotic, ancient or even alien lands and peoples (especially intriguing is Venus Dwellers).  While this is nothing new, Wayditch upped the stakes by having frequent scene changes and complex plots, making narrative clarity an absolute top priority for anybody attempting to stage these things.  In fact, for his entire operatic oeuvre, Wayditch only saw one opera staged in his lifetime, Horus, in 1939 by the Philadelphia La Scale Opera Company.  While we have no recording of this performance, assessing it is even more difficult because of its review by the notoriously anti-modern Henry Pleasants, author of the anti-modernist diatribe The Agony of Modern Music.  The performance was later included favorably by Nicolas Slonimsky in his book Music Since 1900, an encyclopedia of important musical events of the 20th century (what he saw of it, anyways), but that wasn't enough for anybody to revive it.  His biggest opera was his last, The Heretics, an eight-and-a-half-hour epic to presumably be spread across multiple evenings, and he died while writing page 2,850 of the full orchestral score.  Before I found out about this, I thought that nobody in the 20th century even came close to Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji in terms of the sheer volume of music written, and while Sorabji's collected scores most likely eclipse Wayditch's in page count alone I don't think anybody else has hand-written a single piece 2,850 pages long, let alone an opera.  That is, except for the Guiness World Records holder for the longest opera, Robert Wilson's 13-and-1/2-hour The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, though that piece's legitimacy as an opera is extremely questionable.

After Wayditch's death, his son Walter was determined to get his music exposed to the world, and in the 70's both The Caliph's Magician and Jesus Before Herod were recorded on the Musical Heritage Society label.  After Walter's death in 2005, all the scores were miraculously delivered to Frank Oteri, a notable rabblerouser of modern American music and one of Walter's best allies.  Oteri has become Wayditch's greatest advocate, writing the Grove Music Encyclopedia for him and re-issuing the MHS recordings on CD, which you can get here and here (the second "here" is cheaper).  He also wrote an article, Enter the World of Gabriel von Wayditch, as part of a Wayditch retrospective mounted at the Brooklyn Museum by the Hungarian Cultural Center that also included a performance of Reminisces from Opium Dreams by pianist Lloyd Arriola and a ballet featuring orchestral excerpts from his pieces.  

Of course, this still has nothing to do with what the operas sound like.  In the liner notes to the CD, Oteri warns that the two operas were written before Wayditch had reached his matured style, but after I snagged the thing and gave it a spin I can safely say that there's not one problem with that.  The operas were written in 1917 and 1918 respectively and sound the part - Wayditch's early language is an intoxicating, dark fairy tale vernacular, much like if Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle wanted to be as emotionally fraught as Strauss's Death and Transfiguration.  Everything is big, from the orchestrations to the dynamics, to the phrasing, and I can only imagine how exhausting it would be to mount even the 45-minute Jesus Before Herod, for the orchestra and especially the singers.  Wayditch was a great student of impressionism and its tricks, though while much of the technical framework will be familiar to fans of stuff like Stravinsky's The Firebird, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Florent Schmitt's La tragédie de Salomé, everything put together is still quite personal.  Wayditch was composing at full strength, and even listening to the operas can be an exhausting experience, though in the best possible sense of the word.  They manage to avoid being too dated despite how old-fashioned they can seem, staying ahead of the curve in terms of imagination and low repetition.  As with all opera recordings the pieces can seem trying simply because one can't see the action as it unfolds on screen, and the performances by the Budapest National Opera orchestra and the San Diego Symphony Orchestra are not exactly perfect, but considering what they have to work with the listener should leave these minor quibbles at the door.

I can tell that some of you are dying to hear them now, and unfortunately no blessed individuals have uploaded them to YouTube.  However, I can give you a taste, but the catch is that it's inside of one of the more maddeningly unfilled holes in Wayditch's possible revival.  In 2009, the documentary studio Normal Life Pictures released a trailer for an in-progress documentary on Wayditch, showing footage of Walter Wayditch showing the filmmakers his father's manuscripts, which are even more intimidating in front of the eyes as they are in the imagination.  Playing behind it are excerpts from The Caliph's Magician and Jesus Before Herod.  Any viewer hearing that ecstatic, wide-eyed stuff and seeing the huge scores would doubtless be interested in seeing the full thing.  Sadly, the page on Normal Life's site has been taken down, and there doesn't seem to be any current information on the project, once again stopping a possible Wayditch revival in its tracks.  That doesn't mean you can't do your part, though.  The scores are out there - Oteri has them all, and perhaps with some support he could commission them to be scanned and copied.  You can grab the CD reissue of the MHS LPs at whatever available price suits you best, listen until your ears fall off, and then start pestering Normal Life Pictures to get to releasing the documentary or at least leaking the raw footage so people like me don't have to camp out in front of their New York headquarters with weaponized Michael Moore DVD's.

Could one describe Wayditch as an "outsider artist"?  He was certainly outside the American musical scene, not only in his heritage and compositional style but also socially, as he had virtually no contact with anybody in the scene during his life.  However, there's no part of me that believes him to be an outsider to classical music itself, and from what I've heard there were plenty of composers with stranger music who were regular fixtures in major musical organizations, such as John Cage and Edgard Varèse.  He was certainly quite sane - it would have taken an incredible intellect and fortitude to write that much music with any kind of focus.  Another term for outsider art is "visionary art", a label often ascribed to art created from subjective religious or spiritual experiences, and while Wayditch's music has nothing to do with a religious experience (such as Arthur Ferris's angelically informed harp-violins) one could call his fantastic settings and grand scopes as "visionary", but that's not particularly helpful.  It is marketable, so if Wayditch ever does get the publicity push he deserves I'd expect to see both "visionary" and "outsider" to crop up quite a bit in the ads.  And really, who cares if they're accurate or not?  Wayditch is Wayditch in spite of labeling, and his music is astonishing in its scope and wonderful to hear, so if anybody reading this is an opera patron I've got a few shows you could suggest for your local company.  They can't do Aida EVERY year.


1 comment:

  1. My father practiced dentistry in the South Bronx in the 1950's, '60's, and '70's, specifically at 401 E. 138th Street, took paino lessons from the composer, Mr. von Wayditch, when he had time. He knew that Mr. von Wayditch wrote impossibly long operas, and never heard a note of them despite my father being an opera buff and a regular at the Met.
    I can only add that the composer also penned a song, "Hudson River", in 1911, his first year in New York City, and published in 1976 by the foundation dedicated to his works. The front of the sheet music states that the song is "An official NEW YORK CITY BICENTENNIAL SONG".