Tuesday, October 21, 2014

One-Offs of the Damned - Aaron Copland's Grohg

Yes, it's been quite a while since these blogs trembled with excitement, and as Halloween is the time when spirits walk the Earth once more there's no time like the present for a resurrection.  I love Halloween and all things horror but, like I mentioned in my articles on Abel Decaux's Clairs de lune and Tina Davidson's 7 Macabre Songs classical pieces themed on horror are few and far between.  The handful of horrific pieces that get regular play (Night on Bald Mountain, Danse Macabre, Erwartung and Wozzeck, the Witch's Sabbath movement of Symphonie Fantastique) are fine but we've heard them so many times that the real horror is the realization that the classical repertoire has crept into a soul-crushing stasis.  That's why I'm using the rest of this month to spotlight some hidden frights in the unknown rep, and why not start things off with the biggest name I could muster, Aaron Copland.

The earliest of Copland's work dates from the 20's and his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and in 1922 a German film escaped the legal attack of Bram Stoker's widow to be released to an entranced public - F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu.  A pioneer in location filming and Expressionistic design, the film made a huge impression at the time and has continued to scare and inspire to this day, due not only to the continuing success of its parent novel Dracula but to the creation of one of the most striking and original movie vampires ever, Count Orloff.  Copland was among the film's admirers and in the following few years created a one-act ballet drawn from the film called Grohg, a fine made-up vampire name if I ever heard one.  Started as an exercise, it was completed in 1925 after his return to America and was later recycled to make the Dance Symphony, the only work to be recorded by RCA Victor's Composer's Competition out of its five winners (more on that in another article).  I'm sure that you're curious as to which one is better, but as Halloween is the season of surprises I'll let you track down the much-more-common Symphony and join me in savoring the original recipe.

The scenario of Grohg, written by Copland's filmmaker friend Harold Clurman, reads like a choreographer's first attempt at combining the words "dance" and "horror" but it somehow manages to be just right.  The eponymous Grohg is a sorcerer who uses the evening to summon the dead in order to...get ready...dance.  First the dancers are just the coffin bearers, an image ripped from Nosferatu's chilling scene of a plague overtaking the town Count Orlok takes residence in (but with dancing, of course).  Grohg enters after a bit and the dancers pay him their respects.  Grohg then revives a teenager who is frightened by the sorcerer, so Grohg strikes him dead (after a xylophonic dance, of course).  Next up is an opium addict who sways to a smoky jazz tune, and apparently this act is enough for Grohg to pity the man so much as to undo the spell and let him rest.  No good vampire (?) story would be salacious enough without a sex angle, so Grohg resurrects a prostitute, one so good at her job that the presumably immortal sorcerer is smitten with the first hooker he brings back from the dead (really puts a whole new meaning into "necromancer").  As their dance draws into an embrace he starts hallucinating and believes the corpses are laughing at him, and let that be a lesson to you, young impressionable men - sexual insecurity can last you centuries if you don't get over yourself.  Grohg joins in what is now a massive danse macabre, getting so worked up as to throw the prostitute into the crowd.  The dance dies down (heh) and Grohg is left alone on stage in a beam of light, his form receding as the music reprises the opening grave chords (heh heh).

One of the most striking things about Grohg is how many of Copland's signature tics, such as gravely suspended stacks of polychords, bell-pinging motor rhythms and deft synthesis of jazz elements, are already present in a score this early in his career, a mark of a strong artistic personality resistant to the idea of compromising one's creative fingerprints for the sake of getting pieces finished.  Sure, it's not exactly Appalachian Spring 0.5 but who wants that, anyway?  The obvious influences of the breathtaking revolutionaries of modern ballet saturate the score but are invigorating rather than overbearing.  The orchestration is inventive and enriches Copland's musical ideas rather than smothering them, especially touches like a prominent English horn part, the traditionally skeletal timbral combination of piano and xylophone and the novel dead-skin timbre of strings played col legno (struck with the wood of the bow).  While Copland's resolve and imagination hadn't yet fully grown (or gained confidence) his music is always charming and engaging, even in its more canned, even entombed (heh heh heh!)* moments.  

I can't say that any of it is particularly scary, lacking the titanic savagery of The Rite of Spring and the searing psychological terror of the Second Viennese psycho-triumphs, but in a way that's just fine for Halloween.  As I alluded to in my article on the electronic project Slang Halloween isn't about being truly scary but rather as a way to use concocted specters as harmless representations of true horrors so we can laugh in the face of death and spend millions on candy.  Let's be perfectly honest - when was the last time you were actually frightened on Halloween, outside of some excellent horror movies and the poor excuse for fear elicited by being startled?  In fact, most Halloween stuff is geared to put grins on faces, and a lot of it is openly funny.  Grohg is a sustained celebration of that mood, and some moments (especially the prostitute dance) are pretty funny, almost quaint in their idea of horror.  The wildest music is the "mocking" section, and Copland really lets the clarinets and trumpets rip with guffaws.  In that sense Grohg ultimately pays much more homage to Danse Macabre than Wozzeck, putting a savory veneer on the soul-freezing oblivion of death.  I can't say it has much of anything to do with Nosferatu or Dracula or even vampires, but there are other Dracula ballets and that dang Philip Glass score so those hang-ups can take a hike so the rest of us can enjoy Grohg's little ritual bal.  In case you're wondering why the piece hasn't made it to your local ballet company's program, Grohg was shelved after Copland reworked it into the Dance Symphony and was thought lost until a full score was found in the Library of Congress, and the orchestra version was premiered in 1992, getting recorded by Oliver Knussen and the Cleveland Orchestra along with a couple other Copland rarities for the sadly defunct Argo label.  What's not defunct is YouTube and a bright star uploaded the work in full along with the section names, and that's the kind of generosity that I can claim inspires memories off trick-'r-treating and hopefully rake in the cash like everybody else this time of year.  All joking aside, Grohg is a warm and gooey confection, a Ballet of the Living Dead you can wrap like a scarf around your Halloween night, and hopefully I'll let some more Pieces that Go Forte in the Night out of the bag before the month is up.  Stay tuned and, hopefully, scared.



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