About this Recording
8.559642 - BAKER, C.: Glass Bead Game (The) / Awaking the Winds / Shadows / The Mystic Trumpeter (Saint Louis Symphony, Slatkin, Vonk)
English 

Claude Baker (b. 1948)
The Glass Bead Game • Awaking the Winds • Shadows: Four-Dirge Nocturnes • The Mystic Trumpeter

 

The Glass Bead Game (1982, rev. 1983)

In 1943, the German novelist and philosopher Hermann Hesse completed his last and (excepting Narcissus und Goldmund) greatest novel, Das Glasperlenspiel. Winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature, this book, the sum and summit of Hesse’s thought and one of the most truly relevant books of the era, was translated into English in 1969 and brought out first with the title The Glass Bead Game and subsequently as Magister Ludi (Master of the Game). To understand the imaginary (and not-so-imaginary) world that Hesse creates, a world that really permeates all his novels, it is helpful to know a little about his life. Born in Calw near the Black Forest in 1877, Hesse underwent a personal crisis that turned him away from the religious life intended for him by his family. In his novels, he explores the conflict between the attainment of monastic serenity that draws some people into a blissful life of ordered thought and behavior and the doubts and psychological undercurrents that draw others to a lonely search for meaning in life, into flight and wandering. Shakespeare set the same theme as the contrast between the urban and the pastoral; like Shakespeare, Hesse concludes that the best life will blend both the mental and the physical, the flesh and the spirit, but that the balance is not easy to find. It is in fact only in the search for that balance that there is meaning in life.

In The Glass Bead Game, the “ideal” world is Castalia, a closed society of scholars who devote their energies solely to the development of the mind and the attainment of mental perfection. “The Glass Bead Game” itself is a highly difficult exercise in which the most elite develop these attributes through the construction and solution of ingenious musical and mathematical complexities. Through the game, the most gifted players achieve a trance-like feeling of self-completion. But what is significant is that the Game uses only already-existing knowledge—fugues by Bach, fragments of Leibniz, Gabrieli sonatas. Nothing new is created; perfection is attained through a complete consumption and exhaustive analysis only of the fruits of the past. Such a society, says Hesse, no matter how elite, how intellectual, how esoteric, must stagnate, wither and die.

Claude Baker is saying much the same thing in his three-movement musical piece based on The Glass Bead Game. His work, bearing the same title, is far more than a programmatic reflection of Hesse’s novel; it is, remarkably, like the novel, a philosophical mirror as well, in which Baker utilizes Hesse’s methods and imagery to comment on artistic and social values of the twentieth century.

Like Hesse, Baker begins his work in the “Age of the Feuilleton,” a period of “art for art’s sake” trendiness in which knowledge of minutiae was an end in itself and during which the general public delighted in trivial matters that found their way into daily newspapers, “were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture.” These amusing anecdotal articles (“Friedrich Nietzsche and Women’s Fashions of 1870”), popular crossword puzzles and the like defined an age that was, to be sure, “by no means uncultured; it was not even intellectually impoverished. But… that age appears to have had only the dimmest notion of what to do with culture.” In the first movement, Baker thus depicts the age with a canon that is serially organized and given to twenty-four solo strings. The four-part perpetual canon, although meant as a serious piece, is also intended to demonstrate the expressive limitations of the serial compositions of the 1950s and 1960s, which Baker believes to have been too limited in emotional range. The canon is also an expression of the intense preoccupation of the “Age of the Feuilleton” with numerology, a preoccupation that would become a religion in the new order of Castalia. The numbers six and four are the numerological basis of the canon. It uses twenty-four (six times four) strings, is stated four times with exactly sixty-six notes in each statement, uses a rhythmic structure based on the Fibonacci number series and retrogrades after the sixth rhythm. As the canon comes to an end, the note “B” begins to disperse it and dominate the movement, and Baker introduces the “Music of Decline.” The loud, violent outbursts in the winds and percussion signal the end of the “Age of the Feuilleton.”

“…Old age and twilight had set in…the ‘music of
decline’ had sounded…it raged
as untrammeled and amateurish overproduction
in all the arts.”

The “Age of the Feuilleton” tries limply to reassert itself, but the music signaling its decline is irresistible, and the age dies, as in the words of TS Eliot, “not with a bang but with a whimper.”

The second movement is entitled League of Journeyers to the East. Castalia, the ideal world of the mind, has been established. One of the forces that made possible this scholarly society, despite the emptiness of the “Age of the Feuilleton,” was a group of zealous protectors of spiritual sanctity called the “League of Journeyers to the East.”

“They fostered piety and reverence…and contributed to new insights into the nature of [Castalia’s] culture and the possibilities of its continuance, not so much by analytical and scholarly work as by their capacity, based on ancient secret exercises, for mystic identification with remote ages and cultural conditions.

Among them, for example, were itinerant instrumentalists and minstrels who were said to have the ability to perform the music of earlier epochs with perfect ancient purity…When an orchestra of the Journeyers first publicly performed a suite from the time before Handel completely without ‘crescendi’ and ‘diminuendi,’ with the naiveté and chasteness of another age and world, some among the audience are said to have been totally uncomprehending, but others listened with fresh attention and had the impression that they were hearing music for the first time in their lives.”

In that spirit, Claude Baker bases his second movement on a paduana (a slow, courtly dance like a pavane) from Johann Schein’s landmark Banchetto Musicale of 1617, one of the first thematically integrated instrumental works written in Germany. But Baker does not simply quote the Schein work; rather, he alternates it with his own somewhat atonal music, thus making the seventeenth-century music seem like a dream, like yesterday’s sunlight recalled from behind the veil of memory. And in true Journeyer fashion, Baker is careful to have the strings bow the Schein work in the pure unornamented style of the early seventeenth century. Our understanding of one age is therefore enhanced by juxtaposition with and interpretation through another. In the spirit of Castalia itself, the present is strengthened by the past, and the past is understood through the present.

But the scholars of Castalia have ceased trying to vie creatively with the past. Through “The Glass Bead Game,” they seek, albeit ingeniously, only to assimilate, reassemble and reproduce knowledge that already exists, to express and establish “interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines.” In the third movement, the composer himself plays “The Glass Bead Game” in a tour de force in which he combines the work of six composers in an unforgettable collage. The Variazioni per Orchestra of 1954 by Luigi Dallapiccola was, like Baker’s work, commissioned and premiered by The Louisville Orchestra. Four other twentieth-century composers are brought into the movement—Schoenberg (Variationen für Orchester, 1928), Vaughan Williams (Symphony No 4 in F Minor, 1935), Shostakovich (Symphony No 10, 1953), and Penderecki (The Passion According to Saint Luke, 1965). Why these particular works? For the answer to that question, we look back to the nineteenth century and the last quoted work, the great Phantasie und Fuge über das Thema BACH by Franz Liszt. The fact is that portions of all of these pieces relate to the famous four notes that form one of the subjects of the final unfinished fugue in The Art of the Fugue (1748-50) by Johann Sebastian Bach. That subject actually spells out Bach’s name (B-flat, A, C, B is equivalent to B-A-C-H in German notation), a name that

Thus, Baker plays “The Glass Bead Game” most eloquently, interpreting this century through the past, understanding the composition of today (including his own) through the music of yesterday. And he mirrors the humor and irony that characterize the literary style of Hermann Hesse’s novel. But while Baker delights in this magic musical game in which hardly a measure goes by without some variant of the B-A-C-H motive, he, like Hesse, reminds us that a society that no longer creates is doomed. The last measures of the piece seem to echo the “Music of Decline,” warning us that such a society is but a museum, peopled by curators instead of creators.

Marshall A. Portnoy

Awaking the Winds (1993)

In Awaking the Winds, I consciously pursued a very different aesthetic direction from that taken in most of my compositions written before and since. Perhaps a first-time listener would, therefore, find it enlightening—in view of the work’s raison d’\—to learn what I attempted not to do.

My music in recent years has often been highly programmatic, typically drawing its inspiration from literary sources. Despite the rather evocative nature of its title, Awaking the Winds is, on the other hand, decidedly “absolute”; that is, it contains no extra-musical associations.

Musical borrowing has also played a significant rôle in my instrumental compositions for over two decades. The tonal language of those pieces involving quotations has been determined in large measure by the tonality of the borrowed fragments around which the entire work or a single section was built. Thus, my music has tended to be quite eclectic, mixing atonal passages with those based firmly in the major-minor tonal system. Awaking the Winds utilizes no conscious quotations, and the tonality—best, if vaguely, described as “freely chromatic”—is consistent throughout.

The majority of my pieces have been characterized by a delicacy of gesture, a sensitivity to timbral subtleties, and an “eastern” approach to the handling of time and space. As a consequence, they have been essentially monophonic and have relied heavily on a large and exotic collection of percussion instruments to initiate and sustain events. By comparison, this anomalous composition is primarily polyphonic in conception and employs no percussion whatsoever, not even timpani.

Finally, recent works have frequently consisted of a series of individual and relatively short movements, each of which was complete in itself. Awaking the Winds, however, is a single-movement composition dominated by several diverse ideas that evolve organically throughout.

Such a radical departure from an aesthetic I have long embraced should by no means be seen as a repudiation of my other efforts, nor, certainly, did it signal a permanent philosophical shift. In writing Awaking the Winds, I sought only to eschew that which was comfortable and familiar and to explore compositional techniques and procedures that, while certainly not innovative, presented new challenges for me in my growth as a composer.

Shadows: Four Dirge-Nocturnes (1990)

Shadows provides non-verbal commentary on four haiku texts of rather macabre imagery. A haiku is a very short, seventeen-syllable form of Japanese verse that is intended to evoke a wealth of thoughts and emotions. Because of its brevity, the haiku must depend for its effect on the power of suggestion and a deliberate elusiveness: the reader must “fill in” the outlines that have been drawn.

The music of Shadows seeks not only to reflect the moods suggested by the poetry, but also to amplify the implied meanings present in each haiku, and even to create additional associations. This is accomplished in part by the allusion to and quotation of passages from well-known vocal works that echo the spirit and content of the haiku selected. Formally, there is an attempt to parallel the classic structure of the haiku, transferring the special characteristics of the written art to sound. For example, the numbers five and seven, corresponding to the alternation of five and seven syllables in the haiku, are used as the numerical basis of the work. Further, motives that serve the musical function of kigo, or “season words,” are developed and expanded. These words or expressions denote the time of year, and their inclusion in the haiku is an almost inviolable rule. Each movement also exhibits an essentially binary construction, reflecting the “principle of internal comparison” that is so frequently employed in haiku writing. This technique creates a division of the poem into two or more parts that are to be equated or compared, and it should always be looked for.

The poems from which the piece gains its programmatic impetus are given below in English translations (the first three translated by Harold G. Henderson, the last by Peter Beilenson), each followed by a brief description of the respective movement. Since each of the four haiku refers to a different time of the year, the movements they inspire are laid out in a “four-seasons” sequence, from spring to winter.

I. Cool the moonlight:
shadow of a tombstone,
shadow of a pine.

Shiki (1867-1902)

Upon first encountering this haiku, I thought immediately of the text of Der Abschied, the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and in particular of the passage that reads, in translation:

O see, like some tall ship of silver sails,
The moon upon her course, through heaven’s blue sea.
I feel the stirring of some soft south-wind
Behind the darkling pine-wood.

Herein is described the death of the day, when the sun sets and the world falls asleep. Midway through my first movement, after disjointed references to other elements in Mahler’s song, there appears an altered quotation of the music that underscores this text. Now, however, Mahler’s orchestral fabric is reduced to a string quartet, and the lines emerge as if recalled in distant memory.

II. A graveyard: low
the grave mounds lie, and rank
the grasses grow.

Shiki

This movement is an oblique parody of the Dirge from Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings. Britten’s song, based on an anonymous fifteenth-century text, utilizes an ostinato in the voice combined with a fugue for the strings and (ultimately) horn. In lieu of a single melodic ostinato, my music consists of three simultaneous and overlapping rhythmic ostinati, or taleae. This texture is punctuated intermittently with brief points of canonic imitation that are independent of the repeated rhythmic structure. The instrumentation of the movement also is a mirror of Britten’s work and calls for two horns, low strings, and percussion.

III. Grave mound, shake too!
My wailing voice –
the autumn wind.

Basho (1644–1694)

The pitch materials for this movement (and indeed, for the entire composition) are derived almost exclusively from permutations of the five-note row that serves as the basis of Igor Stravinsky’s In Memoriam Dylan Thomas for tenor, string quartet, and four trombones. Stravinsky selected as text for the Song (the principal section of his work) the poem Dylan Thomas composed in memory of his father, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” In my own movement, there are two modified quotations of the Song’s brief refrain, that portion of Stravinsky’s music written to the words “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The movement is scored for the full orchestra and is the dramatic and structural climax of the complete piece.

IV. The Mourning Father
Deep under ashes…
Burning charcoal chilled now by
his hissing tears.

Basho

The final section is both a “coda” to the third movement (confirming its ultimate tonality of “D”) and the orchestrational “inverse” of the second. The instrumentation here calls for two flutes, “high” strings, and percussion, with the strings, rather than the percussion, now dominating. As befits the title given the haiku by its translator, the movement draws its material from the last song of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Mahler’s composition is a setting for voice and orchestra of five poems by Friedrich Rückert, written after the death of the poet’s own children. Although typically Mahlerian gestures are employed in the construction of the lines within my music, the only literal quotation occurs at the conclusion of the movement, where the final measures of the Mahler cycle are echoed in the violins. Thus, with the quotation of a fragment from Der Abschied in the first movement, Mahler’s music frames my own and brings to full circle the seasonal changes of the haiku.

The Mystic Trumpeter (1999)

The Mystic Trumpeter offers musical commentary on two poems by Walt Whitman: “The Dalliance of the Eagles” and “The Mystic Trumpeter.” The work is an outgrowth of Flights of Passage, a solo composition I wrote for the marvelous pianist, James Dick. It was he who suggested several poems from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as the literary basis for that piece. The Mystic Trumpeter expands the penultimate and closing movements of the earlier keyboard work in a setting for full orchestra.

The composition is cast as a single movement consisting of two unequal sections, each inspired by Whitman’s verses. The first, a musical evocation of “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” can be viewed as an introduction to and integral facet of the second (and main) portion of the work, joining it without pause. The poem describes what Whitman assumed to be eagles mating in mid-air (actually, what he witnessed was an act called “taloning”). The poem itself provides the best description of the music, for this opening section, this “gyrating wheel” of orchestral sound unfolding in “tumbling turning clustering loops,” constitutes a clear and obvious example of “tone-painting.”

The second section treats the long poem, “The Mystic Trumpeter.” The poem’s theme is music’s inspiration. The first five stanzas summon forth the “immortal phantoms” of past musicians, particularly those from periods of history that are associated with idealized or chivalric love (the “amorous contact” in “Dalliance” here blossoms into something deeper). But in the sixth stanza, a contrary theme is introduced—the heralding of war, with its “deeds of ruthless brigands, rapine, murder.” In the final canto, however, after enduring “measureless shame and humiliation,” humankind is redeemed, “a reborn race appears,” “war, sorrow, suffering” are gone, and all is joy.

The music of The Mystic Trumpeter is a collage of sorts, incorporating quotations (some distorted, some literal) from four existing works: Charles Ives’ short tone poem The Unanswered Question; the sprawling piano piece Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (Twenty Meditations on the Child Jesus) by Olivier Messiaen; Music for the Magic Theatre by the late American composer George Rochberg; and Reis Glorios (Glorious King), a song by the medieval troubadour Guiraut de Bornelh. Each of these quoted compositions entails distinct parallels, either musical or literary, with Whitman’s poem. Ives’ The Unanswered Question also imagines a kind of mystic trumpeter, for it is a trumpet that repeatedly poses “the Perennial Question of Existence” in that composition’s programmatic scenario. Rochberg’s work evokes the “Magic Theater” of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (a novel that includes the line “I saw Moses, whose hair recalled portraits of Walt Whitman”). The duality of human nature (animalistic vs. spiritual) expressed in the final cantos of “The Mystic Trumpeter” is also chronicled in Steppenwolf. More significantly, the central figure in the “Magic Theatre,” as in Whitman’s poem, is the presence of music (“music of the immortals”), music that is inherent in all life, nature, and even memory.

Whitman’s invocation of love and joy (in the fifth and eighth stanzas, respectively, of “The Mystic Trumpeter”) resonates with Messiaen’s vision of divine love in the last of the Vingt Regards. Whitman’s phrases “no other theme but love…the enclosing theme of all” have a musical complement in the Thème d’amour (Love Theme) of Messiaen’s piece, and the utopian vision of a humanity redeemed and joyful that is set forth in the final stanza of the poem finds kindred expression in Messiaen’s Triomphe d’amour et de joie (Triumph of Love and Joy). The citations of these fragments from Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus in my own work are particularly appropriate in light of Whitman’s view of himself as the “American Jesus” and the prophet of a new “American religion.”

Less oblique, perhaps, than the aforementioned references is the appearance of an actual troubadour melody underscoring, in a very concrete way, Whitman’s vision of medieval splendor in the fourth stanza of his poem. The text of this song by de Bornelh is a prayer beseeching God to guide the poet’s companion safely home—a beautiful metaphor for Whitman’s life and work.

Claude Baker


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