Thursday, May 05, 2011

Ze Next Beethoven Vill to Colorado Go!

I'm not much interested in Atlas Shrugged but I'm really interested in modern classical music from the mid-twentieth century. And reading about Ayn Rand's fake composer Richard Halley, I thought, OK, clearly this music more or less exists somewhere. Because if there's anything you can say about twentieth-century music, it's that there's a ton of it in basically every style. It's just got to be a question of finding it! And I think that's possible in good faith.

What we know, largely based on this snazzy-looking recent Richard-Halley-themed website* and the ever-trustworthy Conservapedia, is that the music sounds intellectually tough and unsentimental, at least enough to deny it popular understanding; but it's melodic and inspiring and ultimately blazingly triumphant. And you ideally want the composer to be an American too.

So that points to the rich vein of "great American symphony" composers in the 1930s and 40s, which is a little bit behind Atlas times (mid-1950s) but not too badly. You've got William Schuman and Roy Harris, among others, working out broad-shouldered, self-consciously heroic works with what Virgil Thomson acidly identified as the "masterpiece" tone. It shouldn't be as derogatory a description as Thomson makes it. Good composers can deploy the tone well: Sibelius was all over it, for one.

So I'm going to suggest Samuel Barber's First Symphony, a single-movement affair he wrote in 1935 on a declamatory, sharply profiled theme that's memorably turned into the ground bass of a seriously heavy-duty passacaglia in the last few minutes. It's not really a triumphant conclusion, but it packs a wallop and ought to point the new, bold way forward as much as anything else does. William Schuman's Third Symphony (1941) is also very good, tilting further to the unsentimental/intellectual side and putting some strikingly angular themes through the contrapuntal works. Roy Harris's Third (1939) is the best of that generation of American symphonies, but it has a surprisingly bleak ending. It's a better symphony for it, but it's not Halley.

What you'd really want for the task is Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, which is where this American sound gets alloyed with a human relatability and a genuinely triumphant mood. His Third Symphony, which integrates the fanfare into its conclusion, would be perfect; except, obviously, we're held back by the "common man" part. You know Richard Halley would be all like, Go write your own fanfare, looter. So Barber it is.

I'm assuming that Ayn Rand meant to talk about symphonies, and not "concertos" per se (I gather there's some muddiness), even if Halley's big showstopper was his Fifth Concerto. If you really prefer a piano concerto you could take Bohuslav Martinů's Fifth Piano Concerto, which obviously has the right number and premiered just a year after Atlas Shrugged. It's a fine piece, and with its own rugged touch of Halleydom. Martinů was Czech, but he did spend much of the 1940s in America, and his later music frequently has something of the striding openness of symphonic Americana. Also intriguing: Martinů, somewhat like Halley, had absconded by the late 1950s to a kind of mountain-country getaway at the behest of a charismatic patron. But in his case it was Switzerland at the invitation of Paul Sacher, who wasn't fighting the world economic order but rather had married into a pharmaceuticals fortune. I'm not sure if that counts as looting.**

For a final option, and the best title match, the Italian modernist Goffredo Petrassi's Fifth Concerto for Orchestra was premiered in Boston in 1955. Now by my lights that's the kind of brusquely gestural, harmonically dense, abstractly rarefied orchestral opus that would be taken as a declaration of independence from the world's looters. But we all know Ayn Rand wouldn't have realistically thought this way. Actually, Ayn Rand apparently hated Beethoven and liked Rachmaninoff a lot, so who knows how the hell she actually did think about this stuff.

*You can get anti-Obama/pro-Shrugged bumper stickers there too! Remember, Barack Obama is completely responsible for a social welfare system that's been in place for half a century, a turn of events which has prevented America from ascending as a globally unprecedented sole superpower, probably. I don't have time to look that up right this moment.

**Sacher commissioned basically the entire neo-baroque golden age of the late 1930s to 1940s: Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Martinů's Double Concerto, Honegger's Second Symphony, Frank Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante, and Stravinsky's Concerto for Strings in D, plus a half century's worth of music after that. So no actual knock on the man.


Blogger Pete said...

I gotta say, I'm really enjoying this whole "Looters!" thing. Totally new to me. Mostly, the Tea Baggers make me feel sad and cynical, because they are difficult to empathize with (I think, lately, I find myself analyzing them as victims of serious mental trauma and psychological abuse, who have to make up crazy ideas to cope with the violence that they've internalized, but that's sympathy, not empathy). But this "Looters!" epithet just brings the joy back into the insane populist-reactionary-fascist evil Americana game. Hoo-ray!

5/06/2011 11:53 AM  
Blogger nate said...

That's the Colorado Symphony playing Harris' third that you linked to too -- extra appropriate, except as you say it's insufficiently heroic for Halley.

Excellent follow-up here, and a bunch of this stuff is going to be my workday listening. I'm trying to decide whether it's just the historical context of the Fanfare for the Common Man that gives it such a WPA-era lefty vibe, or if there's an intrinsic embrace-of-humanity quality in the music that makes it anti-Rand regardless of Copland's personal politics.

I agree that an actual Halley would have to have something of that Schuman/Harris/Barber/Copland Americana to him, though I suspect that's overthinking it, in terms of what was in Rand's mind -- I figure she was just looking back squarely at Rachmaninoff.

Based on the Halley site stuff you linked, it sounds like Halley didn't make it into the film, which disappoints. Don't tell me the significance of American symphonic music is a bigger anachronism than the damn railroad industry.

5/06/2011 1:15 PM  

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