The era of rewritten music
Nino Pirrotta cautioned us about the fact that the history of Western music is “the history of written music”. He said this in order to state that, unfortunately, we know almost nothing about the vast universe of oral tradition. To paraphrase him, one could rightly say that ours is also a “history of rewritten music.” We all have experience today of the process of remaking, of a certain polystylism that – be it serious, witty or provocative – excerpts texts and stylistic features from the past or from any other mediatic, cultural, geographical “elsewhere”, and then mixes, combines, actualizes, transfigures them in the most varied fashions. A re-creation whose variety seems to obey an ancient Latin saying: non nova, sed nove, “not new things, but in a new way.” – just as happens with Wendy Carlos’s Bach, but also Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, to name but one.
Such practices, which can be traced back to the broader sphere of so-called crossover, are usually looked upon as the most typical fruit of postmodern taste. But this is an error. Pilgrims heading to the Eternal City who sang O Roma nobilis, orbis et domina in the 10th century were unaware that they were singing a melody that originated as a homosexual love song, O admirabile Veneris ydolum. From the countless medieval contrafacta to Renaissance parodies, to Bach rewriting Vivaldi, to Mozart and Da Ponte parodying serious opera in their comic masterpieces; or even to Ravel, who in one sens studded his scores with blue notes and references to jazz, while in another sense reinvented Mussorgsky (as Keith Emerson would do after him), memorable examples would likely form an endless list. Whether it is a mixture of sacred and secular, ancient and new, academic and popular, in fact, rewritten music represents an ongoing journey and perhaps even a pillar of this ultra-millennial history of ours. Reworking or reinventing Monteverdi or Beethoven, Gregorian chant or Gustav Mahler is not a matter of postmodernism or of something akin to it. It is simply the continuation of that established practice that prompted Josquin Desprez to take a love song and turn it into a Mass, or Brahms to choose a capriccio by Paganini to build a monument of piano art on top of it.
A telling sign of today’s awareness, found among scholars – but by now also among the public –, about the significance of this aspect of compositional work is the eye-catching appearance (in the 2001 monumental reissue of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians) of an unforeseen and entirely new entry: Borrowing. It is no coincidence that the author is American, or that his name is J. Peter Burkholder, the president of the Charles Ives Society for nearly two decades and the foremost expert about this composer, who was too atypical and too ahead of his time. Even now he is very underappreciated, in spite of being undoubtedly the masterful pioneer of a modern, uninhibited practice of rewriting and collaging that still has few terms of comparison for its originality, radicalism and evocativeness. Burckholder’s extensive analytical study of Ives and of his kaleidoscopic art of borrowing and reworking has a very explicit title: All Made of Tunes.
While, indeed, that of musical rewriting is doubtlessly a long, long history, it still has a before and after. The pivotal turning point coincides with the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, namely with that sheer technological and cultural tsunami brought about by the dazzling success of sound reproduction and the proliferation of new musical genres. First and foremost among them, if only for its importance, jazz and its descendants.
We still lack an authoritative synthesis and assessment capable of embracing the 20th century in its broader, and objectively revolutionary, historical reach. A century at whose core is a great and tormenting passing of the baton: European art music, at the end of its undisputed multi-century supremacy, gradually hands over the role of the new historically and culturally dominant subject to a music industry capable of imposing globally a multicultural congeries of new musical genres, such as jazz and that mutant galaxy formed by popular music, world music, etc.
In this new landscape, the contamination of different eras, genres, and languages re-emerges as an almost intrinsic trait of any musical practice, with a very different meaning than in the past. The almost unavoidable encounter/clash between jazz and “high” European music happened very early. In this regard, thoughts immediately run to the Third Stream (Gunther Schuller, late 1950s), founded on the assumption of the total interchangeability and of the equal aesthetic dignity of jazz and classical music, composition and improvisation, extemporaneity and formal thought. Only, this highly intellectualized purpose had been anticipated by much more empirical practices, produced, on both sides, as early as the first blooming of this new reality. Jazz itself was already in itself a mezcla milagrosa (a term actually coined for the Argentine tango): the miraculous, seductive outcome of the crossing of different cultures and musical traditions. these traditions were not just two, African-American and classical-European, but, we now understand, also Caribbean, Hispanic, Balkan, as well as diasporic such as Yiddish and Romany.
Apart from certain nineteenth-century pioneers, such as Louis Moreau Gottschalk, it was first the Europeans who fell in love with dances and musiques nègres. This happened especially to the French, partly thanks to the two great éxpositions universelles of 1889 and 1900, which for the first time unveiled the allure of musiques pittoresques to the wider public. In the years of the Cakewalk Craze, as it became known, it was Erik Satie who first took hold of these exotic stylistic devices with his irresistible Le Piccadilly (1904), followed by Debussy with Golliwog’s Cakewalk and Le petit nègre (1908 and 1909 respectively). But the most prolific laboratory of these “contaminations” was, by its very hybrid nature, the world of ragtime, where adaptations (ragging) and parodies were soon on the agenda. In 1909 a rag entitled That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune was written by Irving Berlin. Three years later we find Ragging the Träumerei, a ” Schumann-esque” rag being the first known composition by a 14-year-old genius: George Gershwin. We might recall another neglected minor genius, Felix Arndt, who passed away before his thirtieth birthday and left us some funambolic rags, forerunners of a kind of collaging worthy of John Zorn. An Operatic Nightmare: Desecration Rag no. 2 dates from 1916. Its title is already a little masterpiece in itself, in the manner of the Marx Brothers and where no less than 11 quotations from Verdi, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Gounod, Offenbach, Saint-Saëns, Leoncavallo, and Bizet are woven together in a swirling three-minute succession.
Properly, jazz did not start moving until after the end of the Great War. James Reese Europe, whose name almost predestined him, had been in Europe during the conflict, leading the legendary all-black military band of the Harlem Hellfighters. In 1919 Pathé released one of his Russian Rags that “blackened” Rachmaninov’s celebrated Prelude in C# minor Op. 3 No. 2. And finally many people like Jimmy Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, and so on, entered the scene: from Art Tatum to Miles Davis, from Glenn Miller to the Modern Jazz Quartet, to those musically “hybrid” composers and groups, so to speak, such as Jacques Loussier, Claude Bolling, The Swingle Singers, Friedrich Gulda, but even Leonard Bernstein himself, or, in more recent years, Uri Caine.
Such lists, however, do not convey the idea of the vastness and variety of this insatiable musical exchange, always at the crossroads of kitsch and parody, tribute and genius. Lately there has been an interesting new development. The Recomposed series launched in 2005 by Deutsche Grammophon could be considered a significant indicator. Musicians of the most diverse backgrounds – none of them with a “strict” jazz training – were commissioned to rewrite, very freely, masterpieces of the past. The result was a set of ten albums of various genres: ambient, house music, electronic, future jazz [sic], but also new scores for classical orchestra, as in the case of the most successful title, Recomposed by Max Richter. Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, released in 2012.
In addition to its undeniable appeal, the success of Richter’s score owes something (or rather a lot) to a precedent of a distinctly pop flavor. Similar to what happened a few decades ago to the Mozart of Symphony no. 40, cooked up by Waldo de los Ríos, or to the Strauss of Also sprach Zarathustra latinized by Eumir Deodato, there is a Vivaldi piece that, replicated in dozens of covers, has been going crazy in compilations halfway around the world, ever since in 1997 violinist Vanessa Mae, accustomed to top forty dance and pop, released Storm. This album’s title track was, precisely, the third movement (Presto) of Vivaldi’s Summer presented in a version between dance techno and heavy metal.
All along, rewriting a classic has required a lot of talent and just as much courage. In the past it was necessary to confront a certain academic fundamentalism, but today the task is even more demanding. For one, this means dealing with relentless mechanisms of commodification, with the ubiquity of a production that has no more qualms about turning even the most sublime page of the classical repertoire into a summer hit. Yet, when faced with such risky and trap-scattered terrain, the challenge of creativity cannot and must not retreat. For, as Egon Schiele said, it is doomed to be eternal: “Kunst kann nicht modern sein. Kunst ist urewig,” that is, art cannot be modern, but always returns to its origin.
Giordano Montecchi © 2023
JAS, Jazz Acoustic Strings, is an ensemble conceived in 2016 as a project by Cesare Carretta and consists of a string quintet with drums composed of musicians from the Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana.
JAS ensemble explores that broad and little-known musical territory between the world of cultured 'classical' tradition and the typical language of jazz and improvised music, also known as Third Stream.
The six members are accomplished musicians with many years of concert experience that has led them to collaborate with many Italian and international artists such as Stefano Bollani, Richard Galliano, Trilok Gurtu, Lee Konitz, Jan Garbarek, Astor Piazzolla, Enrico Rava and Fabrizio Bosso.
They recorded an album with pianist Enrico Pieranunzi featuring pieces by John Lewis (Modern Jazz Quartet).
The project 'Le Mezze Stagioni' involves Cesare Carretta as violin soloist and arranger of a number of pieces from Vivaldi's Four Seasons alternating with famous and well-known carols and standard jazz songs.
Antonio Vivaldi: (b Venice, 4 March 1678; d Vienna, 27/8 July 1741). Italian composer. The most original and influential Italian composer of his generation, he laid the foundations for the mature Baroque concerto. His contributions to musical style, violin technique and the practice of orchestration were substantial, and he was a pioneer of orchestral programme music.
George Gershwin: (b Brooklyn, NY, 26 Sept 1898; d Hollywood, CA, 11 July 1937). American composer, pianist, and conductor. He began his career as a song plugger in New York’s Tin Pan Alley; by the time he was 20 he had established himself as a composer of Broadway shows, and by the age of 30 he was America’s most famous and widely accepted composer of concert music.
Joseph [Kozma, Jozsef] Kosma
(b Budapest, 22 Oct 1905; d La Roche-Guyon, 7 Aug 1969). French composer of Hungarian birth. He studied at the Liszt Academy of Music (1926–8) then worked as a répétiteur and assistant conductor at the Hungarian State Opera. He began composing scores for Hungarian films in 1929, the year in which he went to Berlin to study with Eisler, and was active in performances staged by the Young Communist Group (known as ‘the Red Megaphone’). With the rise of Nazism, Kosma (who was Jewish) fled to France where he first found work as a café pianist. His meeting with the poet Jacques Prévert led to an engagement at the cabarets Le boeuf sur le toit and La folie de Lys Gauty, where he accompanied the singers Marianne Oswald, and Lys Gauty. Oswald, much admired by the poets Jean Cocteau and Raymond Queneau, made a lasting impression with her performances of Kosma's earliest settings of Prévert, La chasse à l'enfant and La grasse matinée. The director Jean Renoir used one of the Kosma-Prévert songs, A la belle étoile, in his 1936 film Le crime de Monsieur Lange, where it is sung by Odette Florelle. This began a long association between Renoir and Kosma, interrupted by World War II (when Renoir was in Hollywood), but re-established when he returned to France in the mid-1950s.
Kosma chose to remain in France during the war years, when he was obliged to spend much of the time in hiding, and what little music he composed was used by film makers either anonymously or under pseudonyms. His music for the pantomime scenes in Marcel Carné's Les enfants du paradis (1944) eventually led to his first postwar works for the stage, the ballets Le rendez-vous (with choreograhy by Roland Petit, a curtain by Picasso and sets by the photographer Brassai), and Baptiste, a reworking of material from Les enfants du paradis, which was staged by Jean-Louis Barrault in the first seasons of the Renaud-Barrault company. Later, the leading role was mimed by Marcel Marceau who collaborated with Kosma on three further pantomimes.
Vernon [Dukelsky, Vladimir Alexandrovich] Duke
(b Parfianovka, nr Pskov, 10 Oct 1903; d Santa Monica, CA, 16 Jan 1969). American composer of Russian birth. He studied with Reyngol’d Glier (1916–19) and Marian Dombrovsky (1917–19) at the Kiev Conservatory and then fled the Revolution with his family, settling first in Constantinople (1920–21) and then in New York (1922). There he wrote a piano concerto for Artur Rubinstein. From 1924 he was in Paris and was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev to write Zéphr et Flore, a ballet based on his concerto, which was performed by the Ballets Russes at Monte Carlo and Paris in 1925. In London he wrote music for the stage (c1926–9) before returning to New York, where he studied orchestration with Joseph Schillinger (1934–5). He became an American citizen in 1936. In 1948 he founded the Society for Forgotten Music. His first successful popular song, ‘I’m only human after all’, was included in The Garrick Gaieties of 1930. At George Gershwin’s suggestion he adopted the pseudonym Vernon Duke for his popular songs and light music, continuing to use his Russian name for his other works until 1955. Duke developed two styles, one for his choral works, operas, ballets, and orchestral and chamber compositions, which were championed in the USA and Europe by Koussevitzky, and another for his revues, musicals and film scores, for which he was best known. His most successful work was the musical play Cabin in the Sky (1940), which was performed on Broadway by an all-black cast that included Ethel Waters and was choreographed by Balanchine. In many of his concert works Duke used a contrapuntal style; in his songs the melodic style is expansive, almost rhapsodic, and uses chromaticism and wide arpeggios. In addition to an autobiography, Passport to Paris (Boston, 1955), he wrote Listen Here!: a Critical Essay on Music Depreciation (New York, 1963) and Russian poetry published under his original name (Munich, 1962–8).