Friday, October 25, 2019

Tod und Verklärung

Robert Boyd

Today I went to a lunch lecture put on by the Houston Symphony for the education of those of us who work for Symphony. Calvin Dotsey, the editor of our program magazine, InTune, gives talks over lunch about upcoming classical concerts. (He is perfect for these talks because his knowledge of classical music is staggering and his passion for it is unmistakable.) Today he spoke of Trifonov Plays Tchaikovsky, three concerts happening in late November, and A Musical Feast: All-Strauss Thanksgiving, which is happening the three days after Thanksgiving. As he spoke, I found myself thinking of Michael Galbreth, who died last Saturday, October 19.

The first concert includes Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (composed for piano in 1874, and orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1922). The story of its origin is well-known. Mussorgsky was friends with a painter/architect named Viktor Hartmann, who like Mussorgsky was kind of a Russian nationalist when it came to art. They both advocated for an authentically Russian art. (Such artistic nationalism was common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in music.) Hartmann died quite young of an aneurysm and after his death, his friends put on a memorial exhibition at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. It was while walking through this exhibit that Mussorgsky was moved to write a tribute to his dead friend. Each section of the piece refers to specific Hartmann paintings or drawings. By now, of course, the music is much better known than the artwork.

I was moved by the idea of a composer paying tribute to his dead friend. I hope that someone organizes a memorial exhibit of Michael Galbreth's work. Because so much of it was in the form of performance, such an exhibit would necessarily contain a lot of video and other documentation.

I know Galbreth knew composers--in 1986 he helped organize and stage the New Music America festival in Houston, a festival of experimental music. He wrote about it:
We received 719 proposals for New Music America 1986. In the end, the 10-day festival comprised of more than 200 participants spread out over 50 events at almost as many venues and locations. In numerical terms alone, there was nothing like it before in Houston, and there hasn't been anything like it since.
This festival was right up Michael's alley. He wrote:
At that time, most of my work was devoted to experimental music. I had presented work at Lawndale, DiverseWorks, various other alternative spaces, and on KPFT radio. I was among a tiny handful of Houston practitioners of this esoteric form of music. To work with some of the world's greatest composers, many of whose work I revered, would be the chance of a lifetime.
Imagine one of those composers dedicating a work of experimental music to Michael. I think of Morton Feldman composing a 4 hour tribute to his friend Philip Guston.

Michael Galbreth deserves his own Mussorgsky or Feldman.

Then Dotsey spoke of our upcoming all-Richard Strauss program, which includes Tod und Verklärung (aka Death and Transfiguration) from 1890 as well as Strauss's Four Last Songs. Dotsey narrated excerpts from Tod und Verklärung. An artist lays dying, has a vision of transfiguration, dreams about his life, experiences pain then ends with a glimpse of transfiguration. Strauss was agnostic and completely secular, so I wonder what he imagined transfiguration would be.

Then fast-forward to 1948, and the elderly Strauss embarks on his last musical journey with songs based on poems by Joseph von Eichendorff and Hermann Hesse. Dotsey, who has heard everything and has an encyclopedic knowledge of orchestral music, called them the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed. Strauss died before they could be performed, but they seem to describe the autumn and winter of life.

I couldn't hear these two pieces (and Dotsey's erudite descriptions of them) without thinking of Michael. May your transfiguration be glorious.

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