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Essays:
Kurt Weill in America

Lindbergh Flight Inspired Hundreds of Musical Works

by Kim H. Kowalke

 

 

 

Sunday, February 27, 2000 at 3pm

Lindbergh...

 

Night Flight, Op. 19a
SAMUEL BARBER

Born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania
Died January 23, 1981, in New York

Like most composers, Samuel Barber did not wish to be represented to the public by compositions that were less than his best. When World War II was over, he looked at his Symphony No. 2, composed as part of the war effort, and instructed his publisher to withdraw it and destroy all the scores and parts. "Such times of cataclysm are rarely conducive to the composition of good music," he wrote, "especially when the composer tries to say too much." One wonders whether Barber exempted such wartime works as Shostakovich's Seventh ("Leningrad") Symphony, Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, or Copland's Third Symphony, based on the "Fanfare for the Common Man." In any case, the "cataclysm" style did not come as naturally to Barber as it did to those other composers. Shostakovich's "Leningrad," for example, quite believably represents a German panzer division bearing down on his home city, and his countrymen's resistance to it. Barber, by contrast, was a master of poetry and intimate emotions, of American landscape, and of the abstract arts of counterpoint and bracing rhythm.

Even his wartime assignment, to the Army Air Force, was literally "above it all." Although the composer did not see combat, he flew in the airplanes, and in his Second Symphony he tried to express what the pilots, men much younger than he, told him about "the sensations of flying, the unrelieved tension...the discovery of a new dimension."

Barber withdrew the symphony, and it was not heard again in its entirety during his lifetime. A few years after his death, however, a set of parts turned up in a warehouse in England. The conductor Neeme Järvi, a tireless exponent of symphonic Americana, recorded it with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1993. By then, Barber was a "classic," and a case could be made for being curious about what his war symphony sounded like. Who wouldn't, for example, want to sneak a peek at the dozens of string quartets that Brahms wrote and then destroyed?

Thanks to that recording, we can know that Barber was, in a sense, right about that symphony; he does sound uncomfortable in the role of musical propagandist. For all its fine ideas and skill in orchestration, its heroic gestures seem a little strained, and the composer is constantly drawn back to the personal world represented by lyrical ideas and dance rhythms. Only the second movement of the three-movement work, suggesting the loneliness of the flyer in the night, guided only by a peeping tone from a radio beacon (a repeated note A on the high E-flat clarinet), expresses intimate emotions in the way Barber did best.

After withdrawing the symphony as a whole, Barber revised and reissued the second movement, because, as he wrote in the score's preface, "the lyrical voice, expressing the dilemma of the individual, may still be of relevance." To mirror "the feelings of a lonely flier," Barber wrote, he borrowed the title of a celebrated book, Vol de nuit, by the aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "who has expressed this better than anyone else." Night Flight was first performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell on October 8, 1964.

The composer appended this quotation from Saint-Exupéry's book to the score of Night Flight:

The pilot could mark night coming on by certain signs that called to mind the craters of a harbor--a calm expanse beneath, faintly rippled by the lazy clouds. ...A single radio post still heard him. The only link between him and the world, was a wave of music, a minor modulation. Not a lament, no cry, yet purest of sounds that ever spoke despair.

-David Wright


Der Lindberghflug (The Lindbergh Flight)
KURT WEILL

Kurt Weill in his backyard in upstate New YorkBorn March 2, 1900 in Dessau, Germany
Died April 3, 1950 in New York

Text by BERTOLT BRECHT
Born February 10, 1898 in Augsburg, Germany
Died August 14, 1956 in Berlin, Germany

The transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh in May 1927 was acclaimed around the world as the dawning of a new age, a heroic victory over nature by human ingenuity and technological progress. A "common man" stepped out of his fragile plane to the reception of a Superman, and Lindy became an overnight media star. Within days of the flight, dozens of Tin Pan Alley publishers rushed into print with songs in tribute -- prompting the team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, in a contrary mood, to compose "This Song Is Not about Lindbergh." By then Gilbert & Baer's "Lucky Lindy" was already sweeping the country. They had finished their hit-to-be just as news of a safe landing at Le Bourget came over the radio on May 21. That same night it was performed to great acclaim in several Manhattan clubs. It was printed over the weekend, on sale Monday morning, and on the marquee of the Paramount Theater by Tuesday. In the two-year period following Lindbergh's flight, the U.S. Copyright Office recorded three hundred applications on Lindbergh songs. Thirty carried the same title, "Spirit of St. Louis," and a dozen were dubbed just "Lindy."

But Der Lindberghflug was no "Lindy." Tin Pan Alley's interest in Lindbergh had all but dissipated when Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, still aloft from the phenomenal success of their Threepenny Opera, were commissioned in late 1928 to write a radio cantata for the prestigious contemporary music festival in Baden-Baden the following July. In his multi-section poem in unrhymed, irregular verse, Brecht, as was his custom, lifted certain passages verbatim from the German translation of the pilot's own account of the flight. Weill's other commitments during Spring 1929 (the Mahagonny opera and Happy End) apparently prevented him from composing the entire score, so he shared the task with Paul Hindemith, his chief rival, thereby extending the festival's theme of "communal music" to the process of composition itself. But the composers wrote independently -- as competitors, not collaborators. Weill finished 7 1/2 numbers, Hindemith 5 1/2, and three additional texts were spoken without music. Even before the premiere, Weill instructed his Viennese publisher to place a notice in newspapers that he planned to set the entire text himself. In Baden-Baden the joint version was performed twice with Hermann Scherchen conducting, once as a radio broadcast and once as a regular concert. Thereafter, both composers withdrew their contributions, with Weill explaining publicly: "We were quite aware that, with our differing natures, no artistic unity could come about." But privately he was less tactful: "Hindemith's work on Lindberghflug was of a superficiality that will be hard to surpass. It's been clearly demonstrated that his music is too tame for Brecht's texts."

By November Weill had completed his own setting, deleting one section of text, expanding the instrumentation, and writing for three male soloists (a tenor Lindbergh) and mixed chorus. Otto Klemperer conducted the first performance at the Berlin Staatsoper in December 1929. Weill reported that "the performance created a great stir" and predicted that "a large number of concert societies in this country and abroad will perform the work." That was indeed the case. Leopold Stokowski conducted a negatively reviewed nationwide broadcast of the American premiere (probably the first performance of Brecht in America) with the Philadelphia Orchestra in April 1931 in a translation by George Antheil. When Weill heard the piece for the last time in 1937 at Antheil's art gallery in Los Angeles, however, he wrote his wife, Lotte Lenya: "It's amazing how good that music is and how fresh an effect it still has after almost ten years." Shortly before Weill died, Brecht unilaterally changed the name of his own radio-play version to Ozeanflug and directed that all references to Lindbergh be deleted because of Lindbergh's political activities during the war.

Soon after its publication by Universal Edition in 1930, Weill had sent Lindbergh a copy of the piano-vocal score, inscribed "Dedicated to Charles Lindbergh with great admiration by Kurt Weill." But Weill's cantata is not a straightforward celebratory homage to Lindbergh, but rather a strangely "distanced" commentary on the historical significance of the event. The flight of Lindbergh becomes the stuff of myth and ritual, as the topical and contemporary are universalized and historicized as in an epic "learning piece." From a classical orchestra, Weill draws many diverse combinations, ranging from a cappella chorus to full orchestra alone. Because the chorus seems more a protagonist than the title figure, any romantic notions of the "heroic" are downplayed. Only rarely, as when Lindbergh talks to his motor in No. 11, does the music probe psychologically. Except for the foxtrots lurking beneath Lindbergh's introdcution (No. 2) and the mephistophelian "Sleep" (No. 7), the musical idiom is resolutely "un-American." The three-part Bachian invention in the "Fog" chorus of No. 5 is only the most obvious of many neo-classical references which run parallel to the historical perspectives of Brecht's account. Even the orchestral sinfonia (No. 14) which greets Lindbergh's arrival in Paris presents a sober view of his triumph, which is further deconstructed in the final movement. Returning to the same material with which he opened the cantata, Weill grounds Lindbergh almost as a mere modern-day Icarus. And Brecht declares, "For a thousand years everything above has fallen back to earth...But at the end of the milennium man has found how to raise himself up with steely persistence, showing what is possible -- without allowing us to lose sight of the unattainable. To this is our report dedicated." Technological progress may, in the end, only encourage the human race to fall from greater heights. Lindbergh's flight reminds us of what has yet to be achieved.

-Kim H. Kowalke


Songs for A.E.
LAURIE ANDERSON

Laurie AndersonBorn June 5, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois
Now living in New York, NY

Songs for A.E. is a series of pieces based on Amelia Earhart's last flight, her attempt to fly around the world in June of 1937. The text is taken from her diary, flight logs and radio transmissions. Additional texts are from letters, telegrams, speeches, and reports written on her brief stops and cabled to the Herald Tribune, which published them in series during the flight.

While many of her flight notes are typical of a pilot's log, almost illegible technical notes scrawled in the cockpit as the engine vibrated, others are quick impressions of clouds, deserts, oceans and observations (and reservations) about navigator Fred Noonan.

In 1937 Amelia Earhart held many speed and distance flight records. In 1932 she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. "A.E." Earhart's nickname for herself is characteristic of her telegraphic writing and jaunty speaking style. As a celebrity, she was an outspoken and dedicated advocate of women's rights. Her highly publicized career was greatly aided by her manager/publicist husband G.P. Putnam.

Amelia Earhart's dream flight was "to circle the world at its waist" in her Lockheed Electra. From the beginning the trip was an enormous challenge. The last leg, from Lae New Guinea to Howland Island, was especially difficult. Howland Island "a speck in the middle of the Pacific" was a sand bar two miles long and a quarter mile wide. By her own account her chances of finding it were one in ten.

The dream flight began with an accident. Taking off from Honolulu, the Electra careened along the runway, and went into a ground loop spraying sparks and tearing the belly of the plane. Several months later she tried again.

From Oakland she flew from west to east bound for California "by the longest route possible." Oakland, Miami, Paramaibo, Brazil, the south Atlantic, Dakar, The Red Sea, the Sudan, Karachi, Calcutta, Bangkok, Singapore, Port Darwin, Lae, New Guinea, she flew in stretches of up to eighteen hours stopping only for brief rests, repairs and gas. Towards the end of the flight her notes became progressively disconnected, rambling, dreamy.

There are countless speculations about her (presumed) crash: radio failure, poor planning and coordination, a broken chronometer, a drunken navigator, bad weather, exhaustion. Much of the exhaustion seemed to be due to the relentless public relations aspect of the job, meeting the local officials and their wives, playing the role of famous flier, then falling asleep at dinners in her honor and rising at three a.m. for take off.

Earhart's last communications were via radio with the ship Itasca, a Coast Guard cutter in the vicinity of Howland Island meant to guide her in. Running a line north and south over the area she assumed was in the vicinity of Howland she repeatedly tried to communicate on various frequencies and ultimately was unable to make contact or to see the Itasca.

Several of the pieces for Songs for A.E. were written last fall while I was on tour. Working on tour seemed an ideal way to tackle a travel journal. The unsettling, fractured feeling of being in new places every day became part of the working process, resulting in a series of pieces meant to reflect rapidly changing land and airscapes. Technically, one of the advantages of the digital revolution is the extreme miniaturisation of audio equipment. My portable studio included a violin, tiny keyboards, Digital Performer, and a small mixer, all of which fit in a small flight case. Since my instrument is violin, much of Songs for A.E. was composed on violin, usually processed with various digital filters.

Michael Gibbs orchestrated Songs for A.E., Miles Green designed the sound reinforcement, and Ned Steinberger designed my digital violin.

-Laurie Anderson


Act V of "The White Raven" (U.S. Premiere)
PHILIP GLASS

Philip GlassBorn January 31, 1937 in Baltimore, MD

Now living in New York, NY

ROBERT WILSON
Born October 4, 1941 in Waco, TX
Now living in New York, NY

Beginning with the landmark Einstein on the Beach, the operatic collaborations of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson have blended historical fact with the abstract, and non-linear concepts of time to create powerful large-scale allegorical works. About the work, Philip Glass writes:

In 1989, White Raven was commissioned by the government of Portugal in celebration of the decade of "discoveries" by Portugese explorers from 1490 to 1500. Wilson and I, working with the writer Luisa Costa Gomes, constructed a panorama of characters and events inspired by that time and leading up to the present. In a general sense, White Raven along with Einstein on the Beach and The Civil Wars (1984) represents a style of non-narrative music/theater work in which image and movement equally share the stage.

The White Raven uses these devices to examine the concept, process, and meaning of discovery from the expeditions of famed Portugese explorer Vasco de Gama to modern-day missions to the moon, and future exploration of the universe. Based on a libretto by Portugese writer Luísa Costa Gomez, The White Raven takes its title from the Greek myth in which Apollo turns a white crow black for denouncing Cronis' infidelity. The bird becomes a messenger of misfortune and a symbol of lost innocence. In this sense, The White Raven, is not so much a celebration of exploration but an open reflection on the concept of beginning--as Aristotle put it, "that which does not come necessarily after something else, but after which it is natural for another thing to exist or to come to be."

The White Raven is in five acts connected by three brief connecting scenes or "kneeplays." The first performance took place at the Teatro Camões in Lisbon in September 1998, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. The full opera is scored for 16 soloists, including seven women and eight men plus narrator ("the writer"), chorus, corps de ballet, and orchestra.

Act V is scored for "the writer", with soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists in the parts of Raven 1 and Raven 2. The Act opens with the "the writer" as pilot describing the historic first over-water air flight from Lisbon. In duet the Ravens sing, "Nothing, there is nothing out there..., Nothing to fear...Nothing but the danger of beginnings," examining the universal elements in the inception of all exploration. Soon the writer has taken us both forward into the future and back into explorations of the past.

-Robert A. Miles


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