by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Jan. 29, 2001
The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is a surprising venue for a contest between God and the Devil, but in the early, snowy days of January the old one-on-one was fought again. First, the bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff came to the New York Philharmonic for three performances of “Everyman,” with words by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and music by Frank Martin. Everyman, having clung too long to worldly temptations, sees that his time is up and reaches for the grace of God. The composer, with a few soft, shuddering chords, tells us that it is within his grasp. A few days later, the forces of darkness gained some ground: the Met presented Ferruccio Busoni’s “Doktor Faust,” an unsentimental, faintly diabolical rewrite of the Faust legend, in which the good doctor proclaims the supremacy of the self to the bitter end. As Faust expires, Mephistopheles, in the guise of a night watchman, wryly reports, “The weather is changing, frost is in the air.”
The intensity of “Doktor Faust” and “Everyman” seemed to catch audiences off guard. Perhaps we came with low expectations: Ferruccio Busoni and Frank Martin (pronounced “mar-tanh”) are hardly household names. They are problem cases for historians of twentieth-century music, who like to divide up composers by nationality and style. Busoni, an Italian who thought like a German, and Martin, a Swiss who worshipped Debussy and Bach, fall outside the usual categories. Though their paths apparently never crossed, they had much in common: they were both masters of the art of counterpoint, gravitating toward pre-Romantic purity at a time when many composers were seeking ultimate complexity. Lately, they have found new audiences, perhaps because they never quite found a place in the frightful century that has just passed.
Busoni was a mesmerizing personality, a Faust of the fin de siècle. He was born in Tuscany in 1866, and lived, variously, in Trieste, Helsinki, Berlin, and Zurich; he died in Berlin, in 1924. As a pianist, he came to be ranked as one of the four or five greatest virtuosos in history; as a teacher, he held sway over an impressive group of disciples, among them Kurt Weill; as a composer, he made the risky decision to concentrate all his energy later in life on a single magnum opus, “Doktor Faust.” His inspiration was not Goethe’s high-minded “Faust” but the gruesome puppet plays that he had seen as a child. At the same time, he made Faust into an autobiographical figure, a Nietzschean artist-hero who perplexed the pedants of his time.
The first page of the score takes us into the heart of the Busoni laboratory: it consists of nothing but the “white notes” of the C-major scale, floating around in eerie chordal clouds. Busoni had a spectacularly varied musical vocabulary at his disposal: he played off Renaissance polyphony, Baroque and Classical forms, Wagnerian music drama, whole-tone and chromatic composition, and the songs of the street. The wonder of the score is that, for all its echoes and near-quotations—was that Dvořák’s Cello Concerto? Brahms’s Third Symphony? something by Sibelius?—it really sounds like nothing else. It is a hazy dreamscape, crisscrossed with dancing figures.
The Met “Faust,” which runs through January 29th, is a co-production with the Salzburg Festival. Thomas Hampson repeated the success that he had with the title role in Salzburg, in 1999, although beauty of tone took precedence over vividness of character. Robert Brubaker, in the freakishly difficult role of Mephistopheles, maintained a bold, bright sound longer than anyone could reasonably expect. The conductor Philippe Auguin, stepping in for James Levine, whipped up a stylish performance with limited rehearsal time. Peter Mussbach’s production, with sets by Erich Wonder, remains, for long stretches, a trial by tedium; the opera is transplanted to a vaguely lunar landscape, through which Faust wanders in a dirty-old-man overcoat. Yet certain of Wonder’s images—the sinister elevated tracks that run through Faust’s laboratory, the apparition of air-traffic-control patterns in the sky, the tongues of flame that leap from the heads and fingers of the evil spirits—have a gnawing power.
Little of this, however, prepares you for the impact of the final scene. Busoni died before he could complete it, but his idea was that Faust should achieve a self-assisted resurrection. “In the freedom I have won,” he was to have said, “God and the Devil succumb.” On an Erato recording, under the direction of Kent Nagano, you can hear Antony Beaumont’s meticulous re-creation of what Busoni had in mind. But does that ending make moral sense? Can a man, even an educated German, redeem himself from a pact with the Devil? Instead of the Beaumont version, the Met used the original completion, by Philipp Jarnach, in which E-flat-minor chords signal a more conventional kind of doom. Wonder’s closing image is in the same spirit: Faust, alone in a vast snowy field, holding in his arms the corpse of his child. He shuffles to the back of the stage as the music fades to black. Best not to ask what becomes of him.
Fans of the music of Frank Martin—let’s all meet for coffee sometime—have hit a lucky streak this season. In November, Robert Spano led the Brooklyn Philharmonic in a performance of the song cycle “Cornet Christoph Rilke’s Song of Love and Death,” with the mezzo-soprano Monica Groop as a formidable soloist. Spano, Brooklyn’s music director, is a phenomenon; even as his organization faces a potentially fatal financial crisis, he pulls together the most intellectually enticing and emotionally gripping orchestral concerts in New York. Then Quasthoff sang “Everyman” at the Philharmonic, with Kurt Masur conducting. A grand voice in a limited frame, Quasthoff seemed to embody the composer’s spirit, which is pale on the surface and potent underneath.
Martin was born in Geneva in 1890, and lived until 1974. The details of his life are unremarkable. In photographs, he resembles the cordial pastor of a sleepy Swiss hamlet. He was, however, one of the greatest religious composers of the last two hundred years, with Messiaen his only contemporary rival. Messiaen, a perfect Catholic, celebrated God with exuberance and panache; Martin, the good son of a Calvinist minister, argued for faith as a constant struggle. For many years, he refused to release his Mass for Double Choir, written in 1922, on the ground that it was unworthy of the Lord. In the past few decades, the Mass has gone around the world, entrancing audiences with the archaic majesty of its language. Martin had a gift for immersing himself in styles of the past without seeming to imitate them; in his youthful Piano Quintet, for example, he does not allude to Bach so much as meld with him. (An ASV recording of this work, with members of the Britten-Pears Ensemble, is one of the gems of the Martin renaissance.)
In the thirties, Martin adopted an idiosyncratic version of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, but he remained convinced that music had to have a tonal basis. He used twelve-tone rows to create what he called “gliding tonality,” a harmony of ambiguous relations and shifting centers. One of his slow movements is marked “mysterious and elegant,” and that phrase fairly sums him up. His first major work in the new idiom was “Le Vin Herbé,” a dreamlike, light-fingered retelling of the story of Tristan and Isolde. Large-scale sacred works followed—“In Terra Pax,” “Golgotha,” “Le Mystère de la Nativité”—along with an opera based on Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” which, to judge from fragments that appear on a Chandos recording, is an undiscovered masterpiece.
For now, Martin’s two great song cycles are his best ambassadors. “Song of Love and Death” is based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s cycle of prose poems, which conjure up, in hallucinatory detail, the fate of a Rilke ancestor who died fighting the Ottoman Turks. The poems are strong enough on the page, but Martin’s music, written in the midst of the Second World War, magnifies their air of foreboding to an almost unbearable degree. As the orchestration wavers between the delicacy of Ravel and the terror of Berg, the harmonic writing turns the screws of dissonance, creating a closed-in, panicky atmosphere. Even the spare final chords of the piece—B major darkening to minor—fail to ease the tension. Groop and Spano’s performance haunted me for days.
“Everyman” was a welcome contrast, edging emphatically toward the light. Quasthoff’s voice whispered and boomed, every word cutting cleanly through the air. Masur obtained better than routine playing from his orchestra. It’s interesting that “Everyman,” like “Cornet,” ends with the device of major-key chords lapsing into minor. Why, then, does this music carry the charge of redemption—the spiritual release that Busoni denied his Faust? God, it seems, is in the details. There is a D-major chord; the middle note of the chord goes down a half step; it is now D minor. But that middle note, an F, is sustained as the other tones slide down, and the harmony becomes D-flat-major, washing over us like a balm. From there, the process is repeated: middle note falls down a semitone; dark minor encroaches; then the middle note is held as the others fall. Before we know it, we are resting on the heavenly simplicity of C major. Consolation, pain, consolation, pain, final consolation. The long notes hold the music together like nails.