Composers Who Go Against Typecasting
Like almost everyone I spoke to, I very much liked Elliott Carter’s What Next?, which was performed at Miller Theatre last week. (I attended the performance on the composer’s 99th birthday.) But part of my delight was not just that it was so good, but that it was so in an expectation-confounding way. The idiom of the five small, late Carter chamber pieces of the first half I expected; the vocal lines in What Next? I did not expect. They were far less disjunct, the sung intervals far shorter stepwise than I could imagine they would be. Some sections of the score were positively lyrical, notably an orchestral interlude while the boy alto was alone onstage.
Carter waited until he was 89 to finish his first opera (not counting a 1934 effort, now withdrawn). I already commented in these pages some weeks ago about the ever-replenishing fountain of youth when it comes to Carter and a few other late-blooming composers. But the Elliott Carter of What Next? broaches another issue: the role played by (what in the theater is called) typecasting in the perception of composers. Many years ago, the critic John Simon suggested in a published interview that the salvation of the Broadway musical lay in producers’ wooing a composer like Elliott Carter to write one. This remark nonplussed the interviewer. (Was the interviewer Ned Rorem? I can’t remember.) The suggestion was so against type.
There are many different ways for a composer to go against type. First, there’s the Drastic Turnabout where the “against type” is actually the first incarnation of the composer’s style. John Philip Sousa began his career primarily as a violinist and composer of operetta. He was even the concertmaster for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition’s orchestra under Offenbach. But his later march and bandleading m.o. dislodged posterity’s memory of his earlier persona. (Anton Webern’s early, un-Webernian Im Sommerwind is another example of this.) Next is the Perpetual Chameleon: Stravinsky, the ultimate sly fox of musical style, a serial evader of musical typecasting. (I mean serial as in “serial killer,” not as in dodecaphony.) A third is the Musical Traitor: George Antheil, who tergiversated from ultramodernist Ballet Mecanique-type pieces to write schmaltzy Hollywood scores and Shostakovich-y symphonies. Antheil’s volte-face was like John Dos Passos or Steinbeck becoming right-wing in their later years. In cases Two and Three, there can be a grudging feeling among the cognoscenti that its expectations have been trumped. Why couldn’t George Antheil continue to be the Bad Boy of Music, as he referred to himself in his latter-day penned autobiography? Why couldn’t Stravinsky continue composing Firebirds and Petrouchkas for 80 years? Why, he’s betrayed his genius! (Nonsense. Every note in every piece Stravinsky wrote is inimitably signaturized.)
Sometimes a composer writes against type by deliberately slumming: Beethoven composing Wellington’s Victory, for instance—a perfectly awful and sub-Beethovenian piece written for Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome. Twelve-tone composer Wallingford Riegger made a good part of his livelihood prolifically composing choral arrangements that were very un-Riegger. Bartók was by type a singular, innovative pianist, yet his deepest musical and instrumental innovations were for his string quartets. Rachmaninoff, also typed as a piano composer, wrote extremely idiomatic operatic and choral music that owes nothing to pianistic concepts.
But sometimes a composer can’t go against type even when he tries. During World War II, at a time when he was cashflow challenged, Marc Blitzstein tried writing—at film director Garson Kanin’s urging—a purely commercial song. After playing it once to applause, according to biographer Eric Gordon, Blitzstein eighty-sixed it, even rejecting Kanin’s suggestion that he publish it under an assumed name. “No. Someone will find out.”
When one gets to later 20th-century modernists, however, there’s a curious self-adherence to typecasting. Schoenberg wrote tonal music late in life, but I would find Cage more interesting if once in a while he had written a sonata, or Reich a piece unrooted in a phased motor groove. Such typecasting questions are really more questions of identity. I find a composer more of a tiger when he changes his stripes once in a while; such a composer to me has more complex identity and creative vigor. Luciano Berio’s remarkable Folk Songs for voice and small ensemble, for instance: for me that’s a masterpiece of composing against type.
By the way, can anyone confirm the apocryphal story that Ravel composed the pop standard “Fascination” on a dare, “covered” by F. D. Marchetti? (There’s an attempted disproof here.)