Thursday, August 20, 2015

‘Music: The Rose and the Cross’

Among the symphony orchestras performing in New York City, the American Symphony Orchestra is the experimental, eccentric one. That is its reason for being, as it aims to give life to music of diverse sources and inspirations that otherwise linger in silence. Based at Carnegie Hall, the ASO will launch its 53rd season soon; included on the calendar this fall will be the New York debut of an obscure Russian work that I suspect would be of interest to the initiated ear.

From the publicity:

Russia’s Jewish Composers
American Symphony Orchestra

Thursday, December 17
7 p.m. Conductor’s Notes Q&A
8 p.m. Concert

Carnegie Hall
Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage
881 Seventh Avenue


Aleksandr Krein:
The Rose and the Cross (N.Y. Premiere)

Anton Rubinstein:
Cello Concerto No. 2

Mikhail Gnesin:
From Shelley (U.S. Premiere)

Maximilian Steinberg:
Symphony No. 1 (U.S. Premiere)

I know nothing of any of these pieces of music, but of course this edition of The Magpie Mind concerns the Krein composition. ASO says: “Krein was one of the leading Russian modernist composers of the early 20th century. This work was inspired by settings from Aleksandr Blok’s last play, The Rose and the Cross.” Nor do I know Blok’s last play—and, frankly, Russian modernist music is not my thing—but I do know Rosicrucianism has a long history in Russia. Paradoxically perhaps, but it has been there for centuries.

In his The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason (essential reading!), scholar Christopher McIntosh traces Russian Rosicrucian origins to the 1780s, when Germany’s Rite of Strict Observance fell into decline in Russia, and Rosicrucians there recognized an opportunity to attract spiritually inclined Freemasons. McIntosh writes:

“At his home in Moscow, [Freemason Johann Georg] Schwarz held a series of Sunday lectures, whose theosophical tenor places him firmly in the Rosicrucian tradition of thought. The doctrines conveyed by Schwarz included…the notion of the creation of the world through a series of emanations from God, and the idea of an invisible hierarchy of spirits…. From this standpoint, Schwarz attacked the French philosophes and helped to swell the reaction against the influence of French rationalism in Russia.”

The author continues with a timeline that shows an influential Rosicrucian publishing house, their creation of a hospital and pharmacy that served the poor, Rosicrucian-organized relief for the victims of the 1787 famine, and ultimately the government oppression of the movement.

But back to the music.

The ASO assembles this December 17 program thusly: “These Russian Jews exploded ethnic stereotypes by refusing to be known only as Jewish composers. These works identified them more with their homeland than their ethnicity.”

Krein composed The Rose and the Cross in 1917 for a large orchestra. The piece runs 20 minutes, and is constructed in five movements. It incorporates plenty of woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, harp, keyboard, “other plucked strings,” voice(s) treated as instruments, and—and I’m eager to hear what this means—“electronic tape.” Its alternate title is “Symphonic Fragments for Symphony Orchestra after Aleksandr Blok.”

Aleksandr Krein
Aleksandr Krein (1883-1951) was born into a family of klezmer musicians. (Seven of the ten children in this family became professional musicians.) At age 13, Aleksandr entered the Moscow conservatory to study cello, and he began to compose music to accompany Russian and French symbolist poetry. He would embark on a career in music that made him pivotal to Jewish music in Russia (and later the Soviet Union). His Zagmuk, a story of the Jewish revolt in Babylon, would be the first Russian opera staged at the Bolshoi, and his Second Symphony is his musical expression of Jewish suffering from ancient times through the Holocaust, so I don’t get ASO’s downplay of his Jewish life. His career also included politically reliable work (e.g. a funerary ode for Lenin), as communist orthodoxies tolerates nothing else, and he was made an Honored Artist of the Soviet Union in 1934.

Aleksandr Blok’s drama The Rose and the Cross, the literary inspiration of Krein’s musical composition, was published in 1913, but it never has been staged, even after hundreds of rehearsals in Moscow. It is written in verse. The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama says it is “one of the finest plays of the symbolist era.” In Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement, Simon Alexander Morrison writes:

“It constitutes the most elaborate product of a short-lived endeavor among the ‘mystic’ Symbolist poets to write opera libretti, song texts, and plays calling for incidental music. The basic theme of this drama is the heterogeneity of human existence, the idea that there exist two realities, one cognitively graspable by the mind, the other intuitively graspable. The plot brings together dissimilar characters, settings, images, and events: a grief-stricken lady and a dejected knight, a dilapidated castle and a windswept beach, the bells of a sunken city and a ghost in a dungeon, a peasant dance around a decorated tree and a song contest in a flowering dale. The spring that sets the plot in motion is a song so provocative that it haunts the dramatis personae for years after they hear it performed by an itinerant troubadour. The troubadour reappears at the drama’s end for an encore performance…the song’s pastoral text identifies joy and suffering as equivalent emotional states. Its music was intended to mesmerize its listeners—both those on and off the stage.”

Tickets ($29-$54) for the ASO’s December 17 concert will go on sale September 8. Click here. Audio and video clips of the other three pieces to be performed can be heard here.

Let’s get together and check out this concert! Rosicrucians, Rose Croix Masons who get it, Martinists—come one, come all! Maybe meet a few doors down at the Russian Tea Room for dinner first?

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