By Peter Rutenberg
While 1930s America was searching for the proverbial chicken in its Depression-era pot, and wiping away the unremitting residue of the Dust Bowl, a different kind of hunt was taking place in Europe, a different kind of cleansing tormenting its populace. Hollywood became the unwitting beneficiary of Nazi aggression in the pre-war exodus of composers who found their way to the land of orange blossoms - and of movie moguls whose production machines had an insatiable thirst for their musical elixirs of passion and perfidy. Together with their American- born colleagues, they gilded an entire age, positing Los Angeles the center of the musical world and bequeathing to later generations an important collection of concert music that was Made in L.A.
For Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), life as an émigré Frenchman had lost some of its luster by the early 1930s, and with the threat of war then a palpable reality in France, he followed his growing popularity as a composer to the United States, settling in Hollywood in 1940. Rummaging around a secondhand music store here, he chanced upon some masses by Mozart that played into his already nascent desire to write a "real" liturgical setting of the Roman Catholic Mass, suitable for performance in church. Limiting the scoring of his Mass to mixed chorus and double wind quintet (in actuality, two oboes, English horn, two bassoons, two trumpets and three trombones), Stravinsky set the Kyrie and Gloria in 1944, completing the remaining movements in 1948. Soon thereafter, it was premiered at UCLA by the A Cappella Choir under Roger Wagner, founding director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, who subsequently directed a performance during a noon Mass at St. Joseph's Church some weeks later (with a certain Paul Salamunovich singing Propers, and the composer kneeling throughout!). In all, Maestro Wagner led eight readings of Stravinsky's Mass with his choir of men and boys. Ernest Ansermet conducted the European premiere at La Scala, Milan, on October 27, 1948. Stylistically, the work draws on the music of the Ars Nova (14th century), Renaissance (16th century) and Russian chant for inspiration, while keeping the chorus as its forward exponent of expression. Asymmetric rhythms, densely-colored harmonies and dissonance, persistent punctuation, and melodic abstruseness all intermingled with moments of repose and classically proportioned sonorities - familiar attributes of Stravinsky's idiom - are in evidence.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) had led the development of Twelve Tone Music and Serialism from the 1920s, and was a prominent composer in Vienna by the time he moved to Berlin in 1925, where he completed his opera Moses und Aron. In early 1933, with the precipitous rise of the antisemitic tide, the Schoenberg family fled to France. It was there that he reclaimed his Jewish birthright, having abandoned it for Lutheranism at the age of 17, and a formal reconversion was celebrated. By the next year, the family had left Europe altogether, and, after a brief stint in the eastern United States, had taken up residence in Hollywood. Beginning in 1935, Schoenberg was a Lecturer at USC, then a Professor at UCLA from 1936. The horrors of the Holocaust and the postwar growth in anti-Semitism fed his spiritual introspection for the remaining 16 years of his life. With composers like Brahms, Mozart, Schütz, and Lassus, the approach of death brought a reassessment of one's life, or a desire to reaffirm one's faith - often with profound musical results. For Schoenberg, a request to contribute a Hebrew Psalm to an anthology for the Jewish Agency of Palestine provided a fortuitous occasion to draw inspiration from Hebrew melodies and texts and, indeed, from their ancient traditions. It was the last work he would complete - a setting in Hebrew for six- part a cappella chorus of Psalm 130 (Out of the depths I cry to thee) - dating from the summer of 1950. Schoenberg dedicated it to the then-new State of lsrael out of admiration for its people and cultural achievements. Serge Koussevitzky, who had commissioned a work from him for the first King David Festival in Jerusalem, was asked to regard this Psalm as the composer's most fitting contribution. Its evocative use of speaking and whispering voices amid angular melodies, reminiscent of group prayers in an Orthodox Jewish service, demonstrates the composer's final gesture of "return" - closing as it does with a gut-wrenching and very personal cry for the redemption of Israel.
The year 2000 marks the centenary of native Angelena Elinor Remick Warren's birth (1900-1991). She was an accomplished concert pianist and sought-after accompanist for many prominent singers of her day, but her first love as a musician was composition. As annotator Diana Burgwyn recalls, Warren "lived a storybook life in a spacious Italianate home of pink stucco in Hancock Park," but managed to maintain the discipline of an artist, even as she raised three children. Two critical successes from the World War II era brought her national and international acclaim: her tone poem The Crystal Lake was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1946 and subsequently performed by both the NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic. "But it was with The Legend of King Arthur," Ms. Burgwyn continues, "premiered in 1940 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic [under British conductor Albert Coates] that Warren began to gain an international reputation, with such conductors as Pierre Monteux, John Barbirolli, Andre Kostelanetz, Wilfrid Pelletier, and Alfred Wallenstein performing her music." From this choral symphony arose another opportunity for a major work for chorus and orchestra - the Requiem - written at the urging of Roger Wagner who was to become a champion of Warren’s music. "Three unremitting years" later, as the composer would characterize the term of the work's creation, the Requiem was complete. Elinor Remick Warren went on to become one of the Founders of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 1964.
The Sanctus movement of Warren’s Requiem, which includes the Benedictus, opens with a sweet, mellifluous subject uttered in turn by divided sopranos and altos. The tenors and basses join for the broad invocation of “Lord" leading to a climax at "Sabaoth." In a minor key, an unaccompanied duet intones "Full are the heavens and earth" which is immediately echoed by the women's chorus. The baritone sets up the next climax at "with thy Glory" as the chorus drives to a full cadence, now in E major. Antiphonal exchanges between various voice groups alternate with majestic declarations of "in the highest." Now in B-flat major, the tender Benedictus is sung by the baritone, accompanied by the men's chorus in mostly hushed tones. The final Hosanna begins softly but with steadily growing excitement toward the entrance of the full chorus, which delivers a regal, sustained, D-major cadence.
Long an important fixture on the Southern California music scene, Halsey Stevens (1908-1989) was Professor of Composition at the University of Southern California from 1948 and later Chair of that department. He contributed a wealth of works for chorus, orchestra and chamber ensembles, and authored the preeminent resource in English about Bela Bartók. Stevens' Ballad of William Sycamore from 1922, based on 19 quatrain verses by Stephen Vincent Benet, was written for USC's 75th anniversary and first performed in the Diamond Jubilee Concert on October 6th, 1955, with Ingolf Dahl conducting the University Symphony Orchestra and Trojan A Cappella Choir. Stevens' gifts for melody, color, dramatic sweep, and refined emotion figure prominently in the Ballad which bears a Coplandesque patina. The work was a personal favorite of the composer's, while musicologist-conductor Nick Strimple calls it "one of the most significant choral works to have been composed in Los Angeles."
Composer-in-Residence Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium won immediate acclaim upon its world premiere, given at Christmas, December 18, 1994, by Maestro Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The work was commissioned by LAMC founding board member and then president Marshall Rutter in honor of his wife Terry Knowles. In a note prefacing the published edition, the composer revealed the impetus for selecting this subject: "For centuries, composers have been inspired by the beautiful text, depicting the birth of the newborn King amongst the lowly animals and shepherds. This affirmation of God's grace to the meek and the adoration of the Blessed Virgin are celebrated in my setting through a quiet song of profound inner joy."
O Magnum Mysterium has gone on to become one of the most frequently performed and recorded works in the contemporary choral repertoire, while the printed score continues to sell at a record-breaking pace. In response to many requests, the composer has arranged the motet for men's chorus - the version we hear today in its premiere performance.
William Grant Still (1895-1978) was first and foremost a gifted composer. The fact that he was also a black man in a white world surely made for a difficult road, but his pioneering accomplishments were undoubtedly the sweeter for it. Considered the dean of African-American composers, Still was the first to have a major work played by a leading William Grant Still orchestra - his AfroAmerican Symphony by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931; he was the first to conduct a major orchestra - the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936; and, he was the first to have an opera performed by a major company - the New York City Opera in 1949. An important arranger as well, he learned the art first hand with W C. Handy, Paul Whiteman and Artie Shaw. A recipient of many awards of distinction and honorary degrees, it was the Guggenheim Award that brought Still to California where he met his future wife, Verna Arvey - herself a concert pianist, journalist, and frequent collaborator, who wrote his biography in 1984. Although Still's musical style was predominantly neo-Romantic and often based in various American folk styles including the Spiritual - he had been thus encouraged by an early mentor - his individual voice brought a freshness and vigor to everything he wrote, including A Psalm for the Living from 1965. Scored for chorus and orchestra, the "prayer" by Arvey is a modern paraphrase of - with notable departures from - the traditional Our Father. The unaffected majesty of the music underscores the honesty of its text: "Our father who art on earth, hallowed be thy name ... In the quiet of the forest we feel thy presence ... but thou standest by our side in the city, too ... It is thy hand that guides the statesman, the artist, the scientist, and creates human achievement. It is thy love that dwells around us ... and tells us all men are brothers." Indeed it is a prayer of thanksgiving at once profoundly personal and universally appealing.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) embraced the lush musical trappings of Romanticism for his entire life. Born in Brno, Austro-Hungary (now the Czech Republic), and pronounced a "genius" by Mahler in his youth, Korngold was honored with tremendous balletic and operatic successes by the age of 23. In 1934, the Anschluss forced him to move to Hollywood where his fortunes continued in a number of important film scores (including two Academy Awards) and a variety of concert works. Although his compositional style was subject to growing criticism by the modernists of the post-war years, a New York revival of his opera Die tote Stadt in 1975 served to reestablish his reputation with enduring esteem. Korngold's only choral work, Passover Psalm, was composed in Los Angeles in 1941 and premiered twice by the Synagogue for the Performing Arts at the Hollywood Bowl in 1944: following the first performance, Edward G. Robinson reportedly stood up and said, "Do it again," and so they did!