Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Special Cursive Preview - Adolph Weiss, an Expressionist from Baltimore

While the American Dream can mean a lot of things, it's a sad fact that 90% of achieving it is being born in America - though that doesn't always serve one well.  Case in point, Adolph Weiss, a man who followed his heart and honed his craft, only to see himself never rise above the B-minus list of American composers.

Today's Cursive preview, spotlighting composers featured on Cursive's new program Imagist Alchemy (Thursday, October 6, 2016 at 7:30 at Kenyon Hall, Seattle), focuses on one of the first Americans to study with Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna, Adolph Weiss (1891-1971).  Born in Baltimore a few years before Walter Piston and nearly a decade before Aaron Copland, Weiss inherited his compositional ambitions from his father, who was himself a student of one of Classical music's most accomplished eccentrics, Ferruccio Busoni.  He worked with Schoenberg in the 1920's at the Academy of Fine Arts, eventually settling in New York and flying right out of the gate on a modernist rocket bike.  While most of America wasn't used to music more modern than this, Weiss was composing this:

The Chamber Symphony is a choice genre that gained vogue among a select few composers of the first half of the 20th century and then again in the latter half, which is to say that it didn't really gain vogue but some fabulous people worked in the form, including Schoenberg, George Enescu, Franz Schreker and John Adams.  There's far more to unpack than we have time for here but I'll try to shake out a short version.  This is one of the firmest statements of Expressionism I've heard from an American composer (though at this point still working in Vienna), full of breakneck mood shifts and bursts of mad abandon.  Imitative counterpoint and organic development is the name of the game, though I'd class this as a far cry from Beethoven in that regard.  The woodwinds-heavy texture,  lets instruments get caught in strange loops and zoom around in nutty logic.  This is helped here by a wonderful performance that infuriatingly goes uncredited, even though someone in the comments section has already asked who the performers are, and there's no commercial recording of this piece I know of.  The spirit of expressionism is perfectly captured around 6 minutes in, where icy, spasming flutes accompany a rapturous cello solo - the passionate and the insane, together at last.  It's a brilliant and dense 16 minutes and I can't believe that I have no idea who's performing it here.

One work of his that did get a commercial recording is his Theme and Variations for orchestra, written nearly a decade after the Chamber Symphony and sounding quite a bit more like another American Expressionist, Carl Ruggles.  The statement of the theme is a crowded subway of deeply buzzing chords, hiding the theme itself in the upper lines and creating an impression of spotlights progressively shining up the lengths of skyscrapers.  The pacing is more erratic here, eschewing the blinding arpeggiation of the Chamber Symphony in favor of oblique dramatic statements, and while I can't say that I enjoy it as much as the Chamber Symphony its architecture is certainly compelling and it's a bold and dangerous creature of its time, riding the wave of High American Modernism to the very top before it fell back in the populist wave of the late Depression.

Weiss was among a highly select number of bassoonist composers, and at 16 was even in the Russian Symphony Orchestra of New York, joining the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler the following year.  It's perhaps because of this woodwind-centered background he contributed some highly substantial works to the woodwind repertoire, including this major Trio for clarinet, viola and cello in 1948, a work simply begging to be performed by Cursive.  If the Theme and Variations was too dense and stately for your tastes the Trio gets back to Weiss's roots with a lot of mysterious, liquid interplay between the three voices and an off-kilter, sometimes jaunty sensibility.  It's chamber music at its most intimate, suitable for the living rooms of the excellently demented.  It's in the description of the video for the second movement of this piece, by the way, that I found the best information on Weiss's method in the web, in the form of program notes by possible future Re-Composing subject Lester Trimble:

Adolph Weiss has been referred to as "Schoenberg's first official American student in Germany." He did indeed spend an important period of study with Arnold Schoenberg at the Berlin Academy, which led over the years to an easy camaraderie with the 12-tone system and with serial technique in general -- in short, with the "numerology" of advanced music -- to the extent that his compositions are created first in purely numerical form. They are written in columns of figures on the pages of a simple, loose-leaf notebook. [No Excel in 1948 . . .] Then, when the words have been completed in every detail, they are transcribed upon score paper in conventional notation. It is a startling experience to observe the composer at the piano, playing a new, untranscribed composition from an enigmatic page of small dots, lines and numbers.

This does not mean, as one would assume, that Weiss is straightjacketed by any "logic of numbers." On the contrary, he finds freedom and endless stimulation toward new musical ideas in a tone row, and, as his attitude toward composition is unusually fun-loving and spontaneous, his musical fantasy remains unfettered. Somehow, in his career as a composer, he has acquired an uncanny facility with numbers. He can work in them more conveniently than in conventional notation, and, concomitantly, finds his thiking dis-encumbered from traditional habits of five-line staff writing. The music, however, is "heard" before it is written; numbers and notes are simply the graphics of sound, and Weiss employs them as such.

The Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Cello is formed in two movements, marked respectively Andante and Allegro Molto. Both movements are characterized by a high degree of compositional complexity, with intervallic leaps accounting for much of the melodic movement. The Allegro Molto is, in character, a Scherzo. It remains in 2/4 meter throughout, with cross-accents and fast imitative interplay imparting an almost breathless quality to the music. Occasional disguised references are made to thematic material of the opening movement, while several of the rhythmic motifs have a distinctly retrospective flavor. Here, as in the Andante, the linear approach predominates.

Never in my life would I have guessed such a bizarre method from music that sounds so, well, not written with numbers first and notes at the very end.  For example, one piece of his to get commercially recorded that hasn't made its way to YouTube is his "Scherzoso Jazzoso" American Life, available to listen here in the form of a 30 second snippet.  As jazzy as it undeniably is Weiss still obeys his Expressionistic sense of phrasing and eruptive gestures.  A piece that has no recording whatsoever, especially not a commercial one, is the work that Cursive is performing this Thursday night, the 1930 Sonata for Flute and Viola.  While I don't want to spoil too much you can expect a lot of bewitching modalities, imitative counterpoint, virtuosity and occasional rude shrieking.  And what better way is there to use the flute/viola combo than rude shrieking?

Well, maybe that was the problem, as Weiss's obvious talent and passion never materialized in much public exposure.  The serious lack of commercial recordings is sad but understandable, as the American market never fully supported music like this, even in the heady years between the Wars.  Weiss kept on keeping on until his death in 1971 and with a little elbow grease and access to Interlibrary Loan services we might be able to unearth more forgotten gems by America's first Second Vienneser.


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