The Dirty Little Secret of Timbre
I’ve always had a weakness for the music of French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). It started when I learned a few of his mélodies in my high school voice class and sensed a simpatico relationship between the minimalist music I was just starting to become aware of and these songs’ ceaselessly undulating, almost proto-minimalist piano accompaniments. Later on I discovered that I shared a birthday with him (May 12), which led me to feel a lifelong kinship. So when I saw a three-LP set of his complete orchestral music at my favorite used record shop yesterday, I eagerly snatched it up, and in a rare cave-in to immediate gratification I listened to the set from start to finish last night.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable, if not life-changing listening experience. I was particularly drawn to the relatively late Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra (1918), whose occasional jagged rhythms reveal that—though often accused of being musically quite conservative—Fauré was well aware of and even somewhat engaged with modern music’s juggernaut. In fact, according to the LP box’s booklet notes, so outré was this composition that the pianist for whom it was written, the legendary Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), rejected it and refused to ever play it again after the premiere. However, reading further on in the notes I came across something that perked me up more than anything I heard coming out of my speakers—it turns out that Fauré orchestrated very little of the music contained on the set, relegating the task to his students, among them the unjustly neglected Charles Koechlin (1867-1950).
Reading this brought another memory from high school back to me full force. The same vocal teacher who had me sing Fauré was hoping I’d grow out of my then passion for Broadway musicals and turn my undivided attention to classical music. One of her arguments for the superiority of classical music was that it is more detail oriented. For example, unlike Broadway composers who hired orchestrators to flesh out arrangements from their piano scores, classical composers did it all themselves since timbre was as important a concern to them as pitch and rhythm. I was crestfallen at the time. Searching through all the Broadway shows I treasured, I discovered that she was right. Virtually all of them had been orchestrated by people other than the composers I had admired so much. Richard Rodgers? Almost all the characteristic sonorities we associate with his musicals were actually the work of Robert Russell Bennett. Stephen Sondheim, who studied with Milton Babbitt no less—the orchestrations for all those revolutionary shows were by Paul Geminiani. (Ed Note: Oops, not true, actually Jonathan Tunick and later Michael Starobin; see comments below.) Even someone who knew the orchestra as well as the globe-trotting maestro Leonard Bernstein handed over the orchestrations of his Broadway musicals to other people. Only the never completely Americanized Kurt Weill refused to let anyone else tinker with any detail of his music.
My teacher’s exposé of the “dirty little secret” of Broadway musicals, however, led me down a completely different path—one that she was even more appalled by. I became obsessed with Karlheinz Stockhausen, who not only orchestrated everything he wrote, but also subjected it to the same level of obsessive control that he applied to pitch and rhythm. He also conducted all his recordings, sometimes engineering them and even writing the jacket notes. In fact, eschewing the intrusion of others into his compositional vision, he often avoided the input of other musicians altogether, creating electronic music in the studios of WDR radio in Cologne. While I still treasure some of Stockhausen’s music, the allure of such absolutism has waned.
As an adult I wonder how important it is to maintain full control of every aspect of your music and moreover, even if such control is actually possible. The greatest joy of composing is being able to share what you’ve done with other people—players, listeners, etc.—and in so doing hopefully bring joy into their lives. Part of that joy is being able to connect with that music, and that connection is largely predicated on being able to have some input into the process. I’ve also grown to realize that despite claims to the contrary, the sanctity of classical music’s timbres is not something that most performers or listeners place on the same level as the accuracy of pitch and rhythm. Otherwise why would so many concert pianists play the music of Johann Sebastian Bach or even Debussy, whose preferred Érard sounds noticeably different from the ubiquitous Steinways in today’s concert halls and recording studios? And in fact, Debussy—like Fauré, Rodgers, Sondheim, et al.—also relegated the orchestration of some of his largest scale works, e.g. Le martyre de Sain