About 40 years ago, several American orchestras commissioned new works in celebration of the bicentenary of the United States, most of which, not at all surprisingly, were dutifully performed and quietly forgotten. A mystery generated by this activity, however, is how one of the most ambitious of those bicentennial works, which enjoyed a downright stunning success -- with the musicians who performed it, the audiences that heard it, and the critics who covered the premiere and the three performances given 18 months later -- could have been so totally ignored over the decades since then.
Against all odds, one might say, the sole recording of Stephen Douglas Burton’s Second Symphony, a treasurable work that came perilously close to being forgotten, has only now turned up on CD, on Bridge, a label from which we have come to expect such thoughtful and pertinent restorations as well as significant new recordings of its own. In this instance, the reissue did not come about on Bridge’s own initiative, but the label’s resourceful owners responded with the care and awareness such a phenomenon demands, starting with first-rate remastering for CD and including cover art that might seem to have been created for the work involved but is actually a painting from as far back as 1894, as well as uniquely authoritative annotation by Henry Fogel, who was responsible for creating both the original recording on LP and this unexpected but enormously welcome reissue on CD (Bridge 9436).
Burton composed this remarkable symphony under a bicentennial commission from Antal Doráti and the National Symphony Orchestra, who gave its premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington on October 19, 1976, with the baritone Stephen Dickson as soloist. The work is called Ariel because its five movements comprise settings of seven poems of Sylvia Plath, starting with the one bearing this title. The composer provided two versions of the piece: the one introduced in Washington, with a baritone as the only soloist, and the one on the Bridge CD, in which both a mezzo-soprano and a baritone take part, alternating through the first four movements and joining forces in the final one.
The soloists here are the mezzo-soprano Diane Curry and again Stephen Dickson, with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christopher Keene. In this version, the first movement, comprising the two poems “Ariel” and “The Night Dances,” is assigned to the mezzo; the second, similarly combining “Contusion” and “Fever 103º,” is sung by the baritone; the third, “Paralytic,” again goes to the mezzo; the fourth, “Daddy,” is another solo for the baritone; and both singers are heard in the fifth and last movement, which is also the longest of the five, “The Moon and the Yew Tree.”
The composer advises that he wrote this work “to tax the limits of the human voice -- not sadistically, though I was often tempted, but to give a great showpiece to a great singer. Doráti’s performance was grand and epic, and Dickson was incredible. Keene’s was lean and mean and brilliantly dramatic: both Dickson and Curry brought new insight and moving emotion to the piece, and I loved that, too. Of the two interpretations, Keene’s drove the music with a white-hot intensity which, to me at least, made it seem not only powerful but inevitable. I might say that Christopher brought out things in the music which even I did not realize were there.”
The ancestor of this work is clearly Gustav Mahler’s song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde, in which a tenor and an alto alternate in six movements whose texts were drawn from ancient Chinese poetry. It is not that Burton has in any sense simply copied or imitated Mahler -- the work would not have its transfiguring power if he had done that -- but one might say that the Ariel Symphony would not have come into being, in the form so obviously well suited to it, without the example provided by Mahler (just as Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony might not have come into being as it did, if Mahler had not known Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique -- though he complained that his New York audiences, during his brief tenure as conductor of the Philharmonic, demanded that work too frequently).
Burton in fact has always acknowledged Mahler as a significant influence in his own creative work, and among his compositions is a set of Variations on a Theme of Mahler, given its premiere by the Washington Chamber Orchestra in 1982. In specific reference to Ariel, around the time of its premiere he stated, “For some time I had envisioned a work for voice and orchestra on the scale of Mahler which would consummate development of an entirely new style in my music, and towards which it had been tending for many years, a style which would combine the tonality and forms of the past with the techniques of the twentieth century.”
This “new style” was unveiled stunningly in Ariel. The orchestra is a large one and the writing for it is as remarkable for the intricacy and security of its detail as for its sustained power, its balance of urgency and lyricism, and the sheer, disciplined virtuosity of the writing for all participants.
While Burton was only 33 when his Ariel had its premiere, he was by then a seasoned professional who had earned distinction as a composer, a lecturer, a conductor, pedagogue, and author, in Europe as well as his own country, since his late teens. Following early study of piano and theory at Oberlin, he went to the Vienna Academy, and subsequently studied both composition and conducting at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. At age 20 he became music director of the Munich Kammerspiele, having by then had private lessons from the respected German composer Hans Werner Henze, who demonstrated his confidence in his young pupil by conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the premiere of Burton’s Ode to a Nightingale.
Stephen Douglas Burton
By the time of the bicentennial, Burton, in his early 30s, was prominent among American composers of his generation, and was receiving prestigious commissions from all over -- particularly in the Washington area, where he spent his years in academia, first on the faculty of Catholic University and then for a longer period at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Recognition and acceptance were by no means geographically limited, however: Burton’s First Symphony (actually the fourth to be composed, following three earlier ones which the composer withdrew), introduced in Berlin in 1968, was given its American premiere by Georg Solti and the Chicago SO three years later, after Solti had already performed it with the Israel Philharmonic. It was, in fact, John Edwards, Henry Fogel’s immediate predecessor in Chicago (and, as it happened, godfather to Burton’s wife Louise), who suggested the poetry of Sylvia Plath to Burton as the textual source for his Second Symphony.
Since the 1976 premiere was such a resounding success, a recording might have been expected to follow at once. Doráti, who conducted, was noted for his support of contemporary music in general and American music in particular, and was one of the most heavily recorded conductors of all time. He was, however, a lame duck in his position at the time, having just begun his valedictory season with the National SO, which organization may have decided to reserve further recording activity for his designated successor, Mstislav Rostropovich.
In any event, Burton did not have to wait very long for a recording of his Ariel, and he was certainly pleased with the unquestionably authoritative one so effectively revived now. Christopher Keene, who died in October 1995, at age 48, was a gifted and imaginative conductor, remembered as the resourceful music director of the New York City Opera in the last six years of his life. He was an enthusiastic champion of Burton’s music, and even wrote the libretto for Burton’s most admired opera, The Duchess of Malfi, whose very successful premiere he conducted at Wolf Trap in August 1978, four months after giving the first performances of Ariel since its Washington premiere.
Two of those performances in April 1978 took place in Syracuse, where Keene was conductor of the local orchestra at the time. The third was the work’s New York premiere, with the same performers, at Carnegie Hall, which generated an exceptional level of audience response to match or exceed the work’s reception in Washington. The team then returned to Syracuse to record the symphony for Pierre Bourdain’s enterprising but little-known label Peters International, under controlled studio conditions.
Henry Fogel, who produced that recording, was manager, and eventually an owner, of the Syracuse radio station WONO before embarking on his distinguished career in orchestra management. In a recent reminiscence he recalled, “WONO started broadcasting the Syracuse Symphony from the orchestra’s first concert, in 1961, at which time it was not a full-time classical station and I was simply an announcer. But I did produce the SSO recordings from the beginning -- meaning, really, that I hung microphones and ran an old Ampex tape recorder. In 1963, the station’s owners declared bankruptcy, and a friend and I were able to take it over and turn it into a full-time classical station, continuing of course to broadcast the orchestra’s concerts.
“We sold the station in 1978, and its format changed, but classical music went over to the public station, which had just started up: WCNY, which is still a full-time classical station, carried the orchestra until its demise a few years ago. I had a very close working relationship with the orchestra, and I was close to all of its conductors. Our son Karl is named after the SSO’s founding conductor, Karl Kritz; Christopher Keene was a dear friend, and the station’s library and I served as a resource for programming ideas. I was a member of the orchestra’s board from 1967 to 1978, when I left for New York. When the recording of the Burton symphony was made, shortly before my departure, I edited the master tape myself.”
Although the Peters LP didn’t have the circulation or staying power a major label might have provided, the recording actually came off very well, both musically and technically. The Syracuse SO was of course not the equal of the great orchestras in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, but in this instance the listener was hardly likely to be reminded of that, for Christopher Keene had his troops fully charged with absolute belief in the work, with confidence in their ability to deliver it in full and in detail, and with the added stimulus of their enthusiastically received performance at Carnegie Hall.
As the years passed, and Fogel went to a second-tier management position with the New York Philharmonic, from there to the top managerial post with the National SO in Washington, and then to his longest and most productive tenure, as president of the Chicago SO, he never lost his deep interest in Burton’s Ariel: he was determined to get his recording of it reissued on CD, but that took some time to accomplish. The Peters International label simply disappeared when its owner Pierre Bourdain died, and no one had any idea as to what might have become of the master tapes, but Fogel, who now is dean of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at that city’s Roosevelt University, eventually did find a way. As owner of the recording, but without the master tapes, he persuaded David and Becky Starobin, the owners of the Bridge label, to undertake a CD reissue using mint-condition copies of the Peters LP as source material. The Starobins engaged the resourceful Adam Abeshouse to create a new CD master, and Burton himself was persuaded to come aboard as musical supervisor of the project.
The happy result is a great deal more than mere evidence of noble thoughts and high-level commitment: the sound of the 37-year-old analog recording, as heard on the new CD, is rich enough to convey the full power and substance of this wonderful work and its exultant, fully involved realization. This is a recording that could make many new friends for the Ariel Symphony, and perhaps even provoke a new recording or two, involving recognized “world-class” performers of our own time, but I cannot imagine any new recording fully replacing this certifiably definitive one.
While Henry Fogel’s annotation is also definitive, the single most essential part of documenting a work that involves sung words is having those words in print. Bridge advises that permission to print the Plath poems had not been obtained by the date set for release of this CD, but provides a link to a website on which the poems are available.
The cover art, already mentioned, is quite a find, for its altogether stunning, rather eerie aptness to the work itself. It is a reproduction of Irena Kossowska Podkowiński’s 1894 painting Ecstasy, showing a nude woman riding bareback through the night, clinging to the neck of her horse, itself a demonic presence -- mouth foaming, eye flashing -- that brooks no equestrian civility. Fogel cites a reminiscence by Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, in discussing the poem “Ariel,” written only a few months before her death: “Ariel was the name of the horse on which [Sylvia] went riding weekly. Long before, while she was a student at Cambridge, she went riding with an American friend out towards Grantchester. Her horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she came all the way home to the stables, about two miles, at full gallop, hanging around the horse’s neck.”
In addition to Fogel’s notes and the striking cover art, the booklet includes the usual performer biographies and, on its back cover, a vivid recent photograph of the composer himself, taken by Louise Burton at their home in the Berkshires, where, among other projects, the composer is working on a biography of his wife’s cousin, the late Deanna Durbin. In all, this is a presentation that demands attention and richly rewards it; it is the kind of thing that just has “keeper” written all over it.
. . . Richard Freed