Of "Monstrous Sounds" and Music History
“Good art lasts forever,” goes the age-old adage. It was in pursuit of the elusive recipe for timelessness that parodist and literary critic Cyril Connolly penned his 1948 Enemies of Promise, a how-to manual on creating immortal art. The primary ingredient, he concluded? Ugliness. That is, art that has in itself the seeds of longevity rarely keeps with contemporary aesthetics; “[c]ompetent artists are almost always insignificant artists,” he writes. Instead, most perennials sprout as iconoclasts, awaiting delayed-onset recognition. In the meantime, says Connolly, the novelist with the promise of timelessness accepts their place in the shadow of past greats with the hope that a future generation will pick up their work and identify with it.
By nature of its medium, music poses its composers the added variable of performance in the formula for publication. After all, what is a constellation of dots and lines on a page to a listener? Alongside every successful composer, there must be performative forces willing to confront audience expectations and question the hegemony of a canon to deliver new works. More times than one, The Cleveland Orchestra has played this part, providing a voice of international renown to offbeat musical vanguards. As one of Cleveland’s most treasured institutions embarks on a new season, we should not take for granted the process by which many of the works featured in this season came to become staples of the orchestral repertoire. In this case, I speak of Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók, each a controversial composer of the Twentieth Century in whose trajectory from iconoclasm to greatness the Cleveland Orchestra has participated in no small measure. It is my hope that the brief reception history that follows provides new significance to the enduring recognition of these works.
*All textual and photographic citations from press clippings contained in The Cleveland Orchestra Archive’s scrapbook collection
“Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second. We should always remember that sensitiveness and emotion constitute the real content of a work of art.” – Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel arrived in snowy Cleveland in 1928 to conduct The Cleveland Orchestra in a concert comprised entirely of his own works, among them the Rhapsodie Espagnole, included in this season’s concert schedule. In the weeks leading to Ravel’s concert, newspaper headlines heralded the arrival of one of “Europe’s greatest composers” and “an inheritor of Debussy’s great tradition” (unnamed local news source, dated January 25, 1928). The reviews of Ravel’s performances, however, were markedly less flattering. Far removed from the thematically expository music of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German traditions, the vaporous transience of Ravel’s works was perceived as “impervious to monotony…unmistakably brittle and short-breathed” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 27, 1928). One critic for The Cleveland News wrote that “[t]he composers whose music can successfully withstand the fierce light that beats upon a program made up of works from a single pen, are few. And it does not seem to me that M. Ravel is one of them” (January 29, 1928). Underlining a general disconcertion with the French composer’s unusual musical language, one reporter wrote that “Ravel shuns all attempt at emotional expression” (The Cleveland Press, January 26, 1928).
For more details on Ravel’s visit, see: https://www.clevelandorchestra.com/from-the-archives/from-the-archives/2015-4-14-ravels-conducting-debut/
“I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing.” – Béla Bartók
In 1940, Béla Bartók arrived in Cleveland to perform his own piano concerto (No. 2) under the baton of Artur Rodzinski. Recognized as an ethnomusicologist as much as a composer-performer for his pioneering efforts to popularize Hungarian folk tunes, Bartók’s arrival garnered excitement for the rare glimpse into the provincial countryside of his native land that the concerts promised. That one article assured its readers that “Maestro Rodzinski has included true brilliance and romance in the rest of the program” reveals at once the exotic allure of Bartók’s work (The Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 5, 1940). Remarks following the concerto, however, speak to an audience on whom the piece was largely lost: fragmented paraphrases of Hungarian folk song were addled by “monstrous sound, barbaric thunderings, savage syncopations, pipings, and bewildering modulations,” wrote one reviewer for the Plain Dealer (December 6, 1940). To quote another in the same publication, “[t]hose who went to the concert expecting to hear Pianist Bartok express himself in tuneful and charming Magyar folk songs of which Composer Bartok is master, were mistaken.” Praises of the concerts were contained to the pianist’s “limber digits” and “prodigious technique,” saving graces of an otherwise “rather empty and shrill little number” (Plain Dealer, December 6, 1940).
For more details on Bartok’s visit, see: https://www.clevelandorchestra.com/from-the-archives/from-the-archives/2016-04-08-bartok/
“I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.” – Igor Stravinsky
In 1947, Igor Stravinsky, a composer whose music had already enjoyed repeated performances in Cleveland, arrived to conduct the world premiere of his own revised Petrouchka. The suite premiered in its original format in the US as a part of the Ballet Russes’s first ever American tour in 1916, the Musical Arts Association’s inaugural project. Little mention was made of the music, however, as the dazzling spectacle promised by Sergei Diaghilev and Léon Baksts’s production assumed the foreground of anticipation. And on all accounts, the productions exceeded expectations, enjoying more performances in Cleveland than in any other city on the company’s tour. But the music, “[a]h, therein lies the rub,” wrote one James M. Rogers in an unnamed publication (March 30, 1916). While the music remained largely in the shadow of the spectacle it accompanied, one reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal described it as “a compendium of atrocious dissonances and unrelated thematic material the ear of normal man never heard” (March 2, 1916). When the so-called enfant terrible arrived to conduct the revised Petrouchka some 30 years later, this time without the context of Baksts’s ravishing staging, his music did not escape harsh criticism: “[w]as this really rhythm, this diabolical but somehow monotonous juggling of meters?” one reporter questioned (The Cleveland Leader, March 19, 1916). Another joked that “If one could wildly imagine the Cleveland Orchestra playing any of these unintentionally, one might get some intermittent enjoyment from it all;” in any case, “music certainly it was not, in the generally accepted term of it” (Ohio State Journal, March 5, 1916).
For more details on Stravinsky’s visits to Cleveland, see: https://www.clevelandorchestra.com/from-the-archives/from-the-archives/2015-4-22-stravinskys-petrouchka/
In Ravel, Bartók, and Stravinsky, we have examples of three composers who, in their day, were perceived as autotelic rebels, irreverently writing in objectless and random idioms. The quotes that precede each paragraph serve to reveal the incongruity between each composer’s intentions and the reactions they garnered. But even if these works were often programmed as peregrine entr’actes to “true brilliance and romanticism,” there is something to be said for an orchestra and its patronage that refused to accept the canon as absolute. Acknowledging the strife of the nonconformist, The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini has urged audiences to endorse fresh works and applauded Alan Gilbert for unapologetically championing world premieres with the New York Philharmonic in a 2016 article; “[i]f a new piece baffles you, even bothers you, what’s wrong with that?” the music critic asks. With almost uncanny likeness, one reporter of The Cleveland Plain Dealer augured Tommasini’s remarks a century earlier:
“That there should be controversy about new music is natural, healthy, and inevitable…The virtue of having it performed is giving audiences their right to reject, a privilege badly in need of exercise. Nobody is going to suffer if we disagree in our opinions about music. But we ourselves are going to suffer, intellectually and morally, if we hear nothing new on which to exercise our judgement, or even our prejudices for that matter. The bogey of intolerance intimidates us all to a point where we shun the responsibility of judging anything … let us have as much new music as a well-balanced program will hold. And let us fight about it stoutly and agreeably like civilized human beings” (The Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 23, 1916).
Bartók, Stravinsky, and Ravel fulfilled Cyril Connolly’s prophecy: once with bleak prospects of timelessness, their oeuvres now buttress the canon. But their success was not without an orchestra and community willing to absorb new sounds. If, as Tommasini suggests, it is performers who, as the arbiters of composers and audiences, write music history, The Cleveland Orchestra has contributed in no small part to that history.
Please be sure to visit the exhibit in the Humphrey Green Room, where you can explore these interesting personal stories of the relationships between Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, and Igor Stravinsky and The Cleveland Orchestra.
Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise, (London: Routledge Press, 1938), 16.
Tommasini, Anthony. “Just Why Does New Music Need Champions?” The New York Times (New York, NY), Nov. 4, 2016.
Michael Quinn is a research fellow with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives during the 2018-19 season in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the M.A. in Historical Performance Practice at Case Western Reserve University.