It's always hazardous to open mail when there's work to do. Two items — the second volume of Prokofiev's diaries, from Cornell University Press, and a two-CD set of the music of Johanna Magdalena Beyer, from New World Records — have thrown me off course over the past couple of days. The Prokofiev diaries, first of all, are totally riveting. Although the composer could be drearily self-centered — what genius isn't? — he sharply observed the world around him and his prose has considerable flair. This volume cover the years 1915 to 1923, when Prokofiev witnessed the Russian Revolution, tried his fortunes in America, and wound up in the Russian émigré community in Paris. Here are two quick teasers. First, from the end of 1917:
The month's end passed in transcribing Seven, They Are Seven and contemplation of an engrossing new idea: Lina Collini mentioned in passing one day that she was planning to leave Russia for America — and it suddenly struck me that there was no need for me to stay in Russia either. In the flow of idle chatter this tiny spark was seemingly extinguished almost at once, but in fact what appeared at the time to be no more than a passing remark proved to be explosive material that in an instant flared up into a conflagration. To go to America! Of course! Here was wretchedness; there life brimming over. Here, slaughter and barbaric rhetoric; there, cultivated life. Here, shabby concerts in Kislovodsk; there, New York, Chicago! No time for hesitation. In the spring I will go. If only America does not turn against a Russia that has now abandoned the war! Such was the flag under which I greeted the New Year. Surely it will not disappoint my hopes?
Some months later, in San Francisco, Prokofiev finds himself under interrogation from American immigration authorities:
"What is this?"
"Did you write it yourself?"
"I did, on board ship."
"Can you play it?"
"Play it, then."
On the piano in the ship's saloon, I played the main theme of the Violin Sonata on its own, without accompaniment. It was not appreciated.
"Can you play Chopin?"
"What would you like me to play?"
"The Funeral March."
I played four bars. The official evidently enjoyed it.
"Very good," he said, with feeling.
"Did you know for whose death it was composed?"
Prokofiev is detained for a couple of days, and another conversation ensues:
"Have you ever been in prison?"
I could go on — it's an amazing book and a precious historical resource.
Johanna Beyer is an early twentieth-century American modernist who is slowly emerging from the shadows. I first encountered her music on a fine New Albion CD by the pianist Sarah Cahill. At the time, it didn't make a strong impression — the Nine Preludes by Ruth Crawford Seeger were for me the disc's main draw — but I'm beginning to see why Beyer has cast a spell over various latter-day composers, musicians, and scholars, among them Cahill, Charles Amirkhanian, Larry Polansky, John Kennedy, and Amy Beal. Beyer was born in Leipzig, in 1888, and came to America in the twenties. She took up composing at a relatively late date, and was heavily influenced by "dissonant counterpoint" and other ultra-modern techniques espoused by Charles Seeger, Henry Cowell, and Ruth Crawford. The last-named was plainly her primary model. The two string quartets on the New World set — evocatively played by members of the Astra Chamber Music Society, of Melbourne — are closely allied to the Seeger Quartet, a masterpiece of twentieth-century chamber music. But Beyer has her own voice. Glissandos, cluster chords, obsessive ostinatos, and complex tempo structures are woven together with startling bursts of lyricism and flashes of wit. Polansky properly describes the finale of the First Quartet (1933-34) as "nothing short of astonishing," a prophecy of minimalist and post-minimalist music of the seventies and eighties. I imagine Kyle Gann having a field day with it.
The historian in me is especially fascinated by two works for chorus entitled The Federal Music Project and The Composers Forum Laboratory. In researching my book I spent some days going through the records of the Federal Music Project at the National Archives, studying that brief but remarkable period when the federal government funded orchestras, opera houses, music-education projects, and, yes, contemporary-music concerts. I found Beyer's name in the files of the Composers' Forum-Laboratory, which gave composers a platform to present their work and then obliged them to answer questions from the audience. The latter part of the process could prove exasperating, as in Beyer's Q&A of May 20, 1936:
Q: Really, Miss Beyer, is there any beauty in your pathological sounds and noises? Or does it appeal to some other sense?
A: Apparently it is nothing but noise.
The Laboratories drew forth many complaints about supposed excesses of dissonance and rhythmic complexity, although sometimes a tonally oriented composer got a grilling from the modernist faction, as in this session with Henry Holden Huss:
Q: Why does Mr. Huss prefer to retain the "major triad formula" as late as 1935?
A: You take two tones and add them to a third and you have a star, and you must look to the stars and heaven.
With the permission of New World, I'm supplying audio of the beginning of Federal Music Project, which was written in 1936, in the heady early days of the federal arts projects. Here's the text: "I know of an active bee-hive, / it buzzes and bubbles all day, / is full of creative ideas, / a nucleus of a future so gay!" You'll need headphones or good speakers to catch the low buzzing at the outset.
There's something intriguingly mournful about the music, as if Beyer already sensed that this "future, oh, so bright" — to quote the last lines of her text — would never come to fruition. And doesn't the repetition of "I know, I know" sound eerily like the flute and violin lines in the opening seascape of Peter Grimes, written some years later? Beyer died in total obscurity in 1944, her last years made horribly difficult by ALS, and it's a wonderful thing that she's seeing the light of day again.