I Care If You Listen
Matt Mendez
December 11, 2013

History is a relentless homogenizer. What begins life as a blooming, buzzing confusion, continuously evolving in manifold and unpredictable directions, once passed through the coarse sieve of history, becomes calcified, reified, downgraded from a vital, animate organism into an abject fossil. Time as one part petrification, one part putrefaction. Take the great late Renaissance polyphonists, Lassus, Palestrina, and Victoria. Whatever the trivial “national” attributes separating their work, today’s non-specialist listener is hard-pressed to distinguish one Congratulamini mihi omnes from the others. Now pooled together under monolithic genera like the “final flowering of the prima pratica,” in their day, the notion that their Counter-Reformation styles were homologous would have been as ludicrous as the suggestion that the cities in which they worked, Munich, Rome, and Madrid, respectively, were more or less interchangeable.

Although the course of history has become ever more ruthless, a similar process has distorted our absorption of the American uptown music produced from 1950-85, a style variously known by the epithets “Columbia-Princeton School,” “PhD Music,” and the “Twelve-Tone Evil Empire.” Yet as with our mannerist trio, to posit an equivalence between the dramatic lyricism of Donald Martino, the hard-as-nails maximalism of Charles Wuorinen, and the brainy math games of Milton Babbitt, is not only to commit intellectual perfidy, it’s to shrug off the work of a number of unsung but no less worthy composers without having sampled so much as a note of their music. Nowhere has this tendency been more detrimental than to the legacy of Arthur Berger, whose meticulously crafted, immaculately “heard” output has languished in relative obscurity for decades. (His centennial went by last year without so much as a whimper.) Sure, some of this is a function of Berger’s distaste for self-promotion, a personality trait he picked up in spite of – or perhaps precisely on account of – his twenty-plus years as a newspaper music reviewer. Even so, we subsume Berger under the banner of the “serial mafia” at our great risk. Years before Wuorinen, his comparatively undersized output achieved the once-unthinkable, systematically developing a resolution to the great musical standoff of the first half of the century, namely: Stravinsky or Schoenberg?

Arthur Berger: Words for Music, Perhaps on BMOP/sound kicks off with the unassuming Words for Music, Perhaps (1940), three settings of late Yeats. As one of the first works to be written after an early compositional impasse – Berger couldn’t reconcile his interest in Schoenbergian techniques, first kindled after a 1930 performance of Die glückliche Hand, with the New Deal populism then in vogue – it’s not particularly characteristic. Still, it remains tempting to find harbingers of Berger’s real voice in the repeated musical shapes and occasional wide melodic leaps, and because an absolutely sure technical hand is already in evidence, the settings come across pleasantly enough, a light apéritif before the rest of the disc’s substantial meal. Fast forward, then, to 1956’s Chamber Music for 13 Players and the elements of Berger’s mature manner are all in place. A specimen of what Berger dubbed his “twelve-tone neo-classicism,” the technical concerns here are not altogether dissimilar from those of such transitional Stravinsky works as the Septet, the Shakespeare songs, and Canticum sacrum. The piece actually stands as one of Berger’s few bona fide dodecaphonic works, though already the system takes a back seat to an exploration of more general serial organizational procedures. Indeed, one is struck that the single technical conceit that would guide Berger’s practice for the rest of his career, the division of the octave into hexachordal pitch “fields,” is already basically in evidence. The emphasis is on chromatic trichords, though as Rodney Lister, the leading expert on the composer, observes in his invaluable notes, Berger rarely employed such pitch collections in cluster form. Rather, octave displacements are used to generate wide spacings, giving Berger’s chords a distinctly Stravinskian piquancy. (So that on those rare occasions when Berger does confine the melodic trichords to a single octave, as happens halfway through Collage II, the effect is utterly startling.) Even in its own time, though, the music stood askew from trends, a point hammered home most clearly in the first variation movement, which features a totally démodé repeat sign. All the same, Chamber Music is a fearsomely compact, supremely tasteful creation. It arguably stands as its author’s masterpiece.

By the time of the Septet (1966), Chamber Music’s relatively traditional phrase lengths and melodic shapes have been pared away. Instead, they give way to a rigorous pointillism that holds sway even during the second movement’s tangle of morse-code rhythms. Though it’s clear that the Septet was a piece Berger needed to write, it is in certain respects far more system-bound than any of the twelve-tone compositions, for the requirement that all the hexachordal sets be completed begins to lend the music a certain predictability. Even so, the work is not without its attractive elements, which include its restrained inside-the-piano sonorities. As with Berger’s “conversion” to serialism, which had its roots in the composer’s early brush with Schoenberg, the adoption of novel piano sonorities was the ramification of a Depression-era encounter with Cage. In any case, once we reach Diptych: Collage I & II (1990) and Collage III (1992), the Septet’s technical gains have long been consolidated, but now married to a newfound melodic fluency that offsets the previous music’s tendency towards excessive fragmentation. Both compositions are actually rewrites of slightly older pieces, incorporating interpolations, elaborations, and contrapuntal additions. They exemplify Berger’s view, essentially out of step with the mandates of mid-century university composition, that “a piece is never finished […] that I do not believe in the inevitability notion: ‘it couldn’t be any other way.’ That’s why I always feel I can return to a piece and improve it.”

Berger is plainly a Gil Rose speciality, with this being the second disc his Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) forces have devoted to the former Brandeis University professor. Curiously, BMOP’s packaging doesn’t mention that three of the five works compiled here have never been commercially recorded. Of the two that have, Gunther Schuller’s 1960s run-through of Chamber Music is undoubtedly more characterful than the new one, but BMOP’s crystal-clear sound proves a distinct advantage over the antiquated Columbia sonics, evening the score. As for the Septet, there’s little to choose between Rose’s interpretation and Arthur Weisberg’s slightly hard-edged account. All in all, the playing here is of a very high standard indeed, with highlights coming in the form of the trumpet (Terry Everson) and clarinet (Michael Norsworthy, Amy Advocat) contributions – to make no mention of Krista River’s creamy mezzo, a source of considerable enjoyment during the Yeats songs. Above all, though, the palm must go to Rose, who takes great care in preserving the grande ligne in Berger’s fitful sound-structures. And not only that: without Rose’s countless hours of grunt work keeping BMOP afloat, we wouldn’t have this new document of Berger’s precious gems.