About this Recording
8.559442 - GENESIS SUITE (1945)


A Musical Collaboration






ERNST TOCH: The Covenant (The Rainbow) *


* Orchestrations reconstructed by Patrick Russ

In 1944, one of the 20th century’s most audacious musical enterprises came to fulfillment among the celebrated community of European émigré composers living in Los Angeles.  Nathaniel Shilkret, director of “light music” at RCA Victor Records, conductor and noted film composer, invited six other composers to collaborate with him on a large-scale musical pageant for orchestra, chorus, and narrator that would portray highlights from the Book of Genesis.  The creative partners, each of whom contributed one movement, included several of the musical luminaries of the time: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, self-exiled from Italy, Darius Milhaud (France), Alexandre Tansman (Poland and France), Ernst Toch (Austria), and the two diametrically opposed, acknowledged leaders of 20th-century music, Arnold Schoenberg (Austria) and Igor Stravinsky (Russia).  (Dress rehearsals of the work had to be arranged so these two “arch enemies” would not meet, but the unthinkable actually occurred and the principals stood on opposite sides of the hall!)

This singular work, entitled Genesis Suite, was performed only once, in 1945, by the Janssen Symphony Orchestra at the Wilshire Ebel Theatre in Los Angeles; the following week, a privately-funded recording was made at RCA in Hollywood.  More than a decade later, a catastrophic fire in Nathaniel Shilkret’s home destroyed all the performance materials.  Only Stravinsky and Schoenberg kept copies of their individual movements; the scores and instrumental parts for the five remaining sections were presumed lost forever.  Over the years, however, interest in this unusual historic work was kept alive, and in 1998 the Milken Archive investigated rumors that some of the Genesis manuscripts had been rediscovered.  Musicologist James Westby had, in fact, found handwritten orchestral scores of the Milhaud and Castelnuovo-Tedesco movements filed at the Library of Congress, as well as condensed musical sketches that only partially indicated the instrumentation for the contributions by Shilkret, Tansman, and Toch.  The Milken Archive then commissioned Patrick Russ, one of Hollywood’s most respected orchestrators, to reconstruct those three fragmentary movements, using the sketches and the original private recording to discern the composers’ intentions.  Finally, the five “missing” movements were fully prepared in a performance edition by the Milken Archive and “re-united” with the existing Stravinsky and Schoenberg scores.  The entire historic work was then recorded in Berlin with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and the Ernst Senff Chor, with actors Tovah Feldshuh, Barbara Feldon, David Margulies, Fritz Weaver and Isaiah Sheffer performing the narration.

As Mr. Westby, whose commentary is included in the liner notes for this recording, remarked: “It was a project in which the "high art" of European émigré composers converged with the dynamo of American popular culture—art negotiating with kitsch . . .  In retrospect the work does have a surprising historical cohesion.  It can be seen as a representation of mid-century sensibilities—the buoyant optimism of America just at the end of the Second World War and before the advent of the cold war. It was an artistic and historical moment that was ripe for unusual confluences… ”

Genesis Suite, which the original program note characterizes as “a partly descriptive, partly psychological” illustration of biblical text, begins with Schoenberg’s Prelude, an atonal vision of primordial chaos that ultimately resolves to C major, and proceeds with the stories of the creation of the world (Shilkret), Adam and Eve (Tansman), and Cain and Abel (Milhaud). A dramatic highpoint is reached in The Flood by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, with its unmistakable parallels with the cataclysmic international situation in 1944.  The following movement, The Rainbow/The Covenant by Ernst Toch, expresses the spirit of hope, and the work concludes with Stravinsky’s vision of The Tower of Babel and the dispersion of peoples across the earth. 

Although the movements were composed independently of one another and the contributing composers represent divergent musical styles, the work displays an overarching unity imposed by the spoken narrative, as well as by its evocative atmosphere.  Musical symmetry is present as well, ironically provided by the two declared “enemies.”  In Schoenberg’s Prelude, the chaotic pre-Creation world is ordered by a 12-tone row, and builds into a double fugue which, according to the composer, reflected the difficulties of creation.  In the Babel movement that concludes the work, Stravinsky contrapuntally constructs the Tower and then destroys it, returning to the chaos with which the work began nearly an hour before.  

Contributing composer Alexandre Tansman recalled that Shilkret, who commissioned Genesis Suite, clearly conceived of work "cinemagraphically, as an external synchronization of a text with a musical atmosphere."  Indeed, several of the composers who participated in this project wrote extensively for film after settling in Los Angeles: Toch earned several Academy Award nominations for his nearly 20 scores; Castelnuovo-Tedesco had a 15-year association with major studios and taught such noted contemporary film composers as Henry Mancini, André Previn and John Williams; and Shilkret produced several dozen film scores.

While all participating composers except Stravinsky were Jewish, they varied widely in the degree of their connection to and active participation in their ancestral heritage.  It is generally agreed, however, that several of them experienced feelings of recommitment to Judaism after arriving in this country, and were moved to create both sacred and secular works with Jewish connections during their American years. 

The underlying themes of exile and destruction that anchor several of the Genesis stories―the expulsion from Eden, the alienation from community in Cain and Abel, and the destruction of man’s earthly home in the Flood―paralleled the experience of these composers forced to leave their homelands and cultural milieu, with the promise of redemption in the sanctuary offered by the new world.

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