Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is, like his friend Franz Liszt, an exemplary subject for the Bard Summer Music Festival: his world was large, and he was vitally connected with it. He was recognized as an important composer—the most important French composer—through most of his maturity. He studied with important teachers. He had many friends, many enemies, and many students. His musical output was encyclopaedic. Uncharacteristically for a French composer, he wrote in virtually every form there was to write in. His compositions are in many cases linked to prominent contemporary issues in politics, the arts, and science. He prepared an historical edition of the works of Rameau and revived works by Lully and Charpentier.
The numerous offerings that make up the comprehensive 22nd annual Bard Music Festival, “Sibelius and His World,” take place during SummerScape’s two final weekends: August 12- 14 and August 19-21. Through the prism of Sibelius’s life and career, this year’s festival will explore the music of Scandinavia and examine the challenges faced by those who continued working within a tonal framework after the revolutions of musical modernism. Sibelius’s orchestral mastery was exceptional; his compositional output includes one of the most revered and beloved symphonic cycles since Beethoven’s and the most frequently recorded violin concerto of the 20th century, besides such favorites as Finlandia, Valse triste, and Tapiola.
Scandinavia’s rich cultural heritage, and the question of artistic conservatism in the modernist age, will be explored at the eighth annual Bard SummerScape festival, which once again features a sumptuous tapestry of music, opera, theater, dance, film, and cabaret, keyed to the theme of the 22nd annual Bard Music Festival. Presented in the striking Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts and other venues on Bard College’s bucolic Hudson River campus, the seven-week festival opens on July 7 with the first of four performances by Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company, and closes on August 21 with a party in Bard’s beloved Spiegeltent, which returns for the full seven weeks. This year’s Bard Music Festival explores Sibelius and His World, and some of the great Finnish symphonist’s most fascinating contemporaries provide other SummerScape highlights, including New York’s first fully-staged production of Richard Strauss’s 1940 opera Die Liebe der Danae; Noël Coward’s chamber opera, Bitter Sweet (1929); Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama The Wild Duck (1884); and a film festival, “Before and After Bergman: The Best of Nordic Film.”
In the second weekend of the Bard Music Festival “Berg and his World” there emerged more clearly a reevaluation of Berg’s historical position. It could be paraphrased this way: Berg’s true spiritual and musical father was Mahler rather than Schoenberg; he was also strongly influenced by Schreker and Zemlinsky, both of whom were more connected to Romanticism than Modernism. While Schoenberg’s role as mentor and colleague was crucial, Berg’s aesthetic sympathies were with tonal opulence, melodic expressiveness, musical eroticism, and formal expansiveness, even though he sought to downplay this throughout his life in order to placate Schoenberg. The larger historical consequence of this view is a revision of the narrative about Modernism: its advocates, including followers of Schoenberg and Webern (i.e. atonalists and dodecaphonists) saw it as the main line of artistic evolution, a music of the future that would last a century and ensure the greatness of German music. This view dominated the historical narrative until the 1970’s, but was never borne out by audience acceptance and/or popularity. On the other hand, the new, emerging narrative has it that Berg was a conservative sustainer of Mahler’s vision, and achieved success that worked alongside the post-1960 Mahler revival and the emergence of Neo-romanticism. In Friday’s day-long panel, Klara Moricz went so far as to classify Berg’s use of tone rows as an occult, mystical and therefore musically arbitrary elements unrelated to expressiveness and musical effectiveness or value. The implication was that while this mystical side of Berg’s personality resonated with that of Schoenberg and many other Viennese contemporaries, it played no role in the aesthetics of the music as experienced by the audience.
Tonight’s much-anticipated and touted performance of little-known Austrian composer Franz Schmidt’s magnum opus, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals), was nothing short of startling, and more than a bit revelatory. Being fashioned as a dramatic oratorio, the mystifying and unsettling text of The Revelations of St. John the Divine becomes, in Schmidt’s hands, a terrifying and sensational virtuosic musical juggernaut. It was clear from Leon Botstein’s program notes that this evocatively dramatic work is one his favorites; in his program notes, he wastes no time in dubbing it one of the twentieth-century’s greatest choral works.
The theme of Bard’s retrospective “Berg and His World” was clearly stated and restated: Berg needs to be liberated from the so-called “Second Viennese School” and seen in a wider context of Vienna and beyond. Too long has he been seen primarily as a student of Schoenberg along with Webern; this perspective masks his individuality as well as his stature, which, if anything, is as great or greater than that of his beloved “master.” The gauntlet was laid down right away by Leon Botstein, who gave the first pre-concert talk: Berg gives us the best of both worlds, the expressive, content-oriented approach to composition as communication, and the formally strict, self-contained structural world of the music for its own sake. Implication no. 1: Schoenberg and Webern over-emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. Implication no. 2: other composers and artists than Schoenberg had powerful influences on Berg’s urge to compose expressively (read “romantically”). Implication no. 3: Berg was as much a romantic as a modernist. Result: Berg became by far the most popular (hence, successful) composer of the three.
This year Bard College’s Summerscape program is focussing on the composer Alban Berg “and his world,” which means the inclusion of an opera sometime prior to the retrospective itself. As has happened several times since the Fisher Center with its state-of-the-art operatic facilities opened in 2003, Leon Botstein and the ASO this year have chosen to perform a relatively unfamiliar opera which has a significant relationship to the main subject, but by another composer. (In festivals devoted to Janacek and Shostakovich, it was possible to find less well-known works within the composers’ own oeuvre, while for the Prokofiev festival, an unfamiliar version of a familiar ballet, Romeo and Juliet, filled this role.)
It is the long-standing custom of the Bard SummerScape Festival to present an important neglected opera, closely related to the composer around whom the Festival is built, but not by the composer himself. In my recollection, Schumann’s Genoveva, Zemlinsky’s Eine Florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg, Szymanowski’s King Roger, as well as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots were all important, of very high quality, and significantly related to Liszt, Elgar, Prokofiev, and Wagner. This year’s opera, Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang, is no exception, in fact, as a neglected opera, it is especially important, because in its time it was one of the most often staged contemporary operas in Germany.