In 1951, Arnold Schoenberg died. And I was born. Which hardly constituted a fair exchange on the Muses’ creativity balance sheet. But the year itself has always intrigued me by its habit of popping up in history’s list of milestones, as it did recently, when I tuned into a BBC World documentary. It took as its focus three cities and three years that significantly altered the course of things. I happened on Part 3: 1951 in New York, specifically the Greenwich Village neighbourhood. The literary, art and music spotlights fell respectively on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (typed out on a continuous roll of paper to help let it flow out of his system), Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist paintings created at the height of his powers (before his re-descent into alcoholism), and Thelonious Monk, whose beepop style sent electric tingles around the jazz world (even though his flat-fingered piano technique might have raised more parochial eyebrows). Monk’s compositions—in some respects ahead of their time—were considered too difficult to play by many. In 1951, he recorded 5 pieces during his only recording session of that year, on July 23. Four in One (8.120673) from that batch of recordings demonstrates the technical challenges presented by Monk’s style.
So, what else was happening in New York during that year of 1951? Elliott Carter (then in his 43rd year) was living in the same Greenwich Village apartment he occupied from 1945 until his death in 2012 (in his 104th year). And it was the year he composed his daunting String Quartet No. 1 (8.559362), a parallel to Monk’s output as regards the challenges it was to create for performers, and one that unfolds virtually without a break during its 40-minute duration. The composer recalled:
“I probably decided to write what was to be the First Quartet when I read about a composition prize in Liège, Belgium, because there were many ideas swarming around in my imagination about expression, rhythm and harmony, mostly derived from my Cello Sonata. I read through all the Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Berg and Ruth Crawford Seeger quartets to find a way of using the four instruments to present my ideas. As I began to compose…I soon realised that the work would make such demands on performers that it might never be performed, yet I continued. To my surprise, it won the Liège Prize and the Walden Quartet became the first of many to play it.”
Here’s an extract from Carter’s epic work, played by the Pacifica Quartet.
Over in Carnegie Hall, in February 1951, audiences were given the first complete performance of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 (8.559076). It had been a difficult child to rear, with its roots in church preludes and secular overtures dating from 1900-02, followed by Ives’ substantial orchestrations during 1907-10, and some final touch-ups before that February performance in 1951. Leonard Bernstein, who was the conductor on that occasion, made many cuts and alterations that subsequently started to gain traction with other conductors. Consequently, the Charles Ives Society arranged for a critical edition of the score to be prepared by Jonathan Elkus and authorised a recording of it by Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony. From that recording we can hear the bold conclusion to the work (and no, that’s not a fluff on the last chord).
Over on Broadway, The King and I (8.120792) was premièring at the St James Theatre. It was the fifth collaboration on a musical between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and featured Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, which proved an important milestone in his developing career; Gertrude Lawrence played the part of Anna Leonowens. Although both these artistes have since passed away, the 5 year-old who was playing the part of Princess Ying Yawolak, Baayork Lee, is still a multi-talented presence among us. Here’s an extract from Shall we dance? in a recording of that original 1951 Broadway cast.
Over in Europe, 1951 was enjoying its own busy musical arts scene, not least in the world of opera: Bayreuth was stoking up its first productions following the end of World War II, London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden was staging the première of Britten’s Billy Budd, and Venice was enjoying the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (8.111266-67), conducted by the composer himself. Two years later, Stravinsky conducted the work again, this time in New York with a cast from the city’s Metropolitan Opera, and here’s an excerpt from that occasion: With air commanding and weapon handy from Act I Scene 2.
I’m going to end with a short piece which is a far cry from all these blockbusters. The name of William Blezard may be unfamiliar to you, but he’s worth researching. The British composer of light music rubbed shoulders with so many of the UK’s theatrical luminaries of the last century that I won’t begin to list them here. To end this Thought for the Week, here’s a clip from his magical Duetto (8.555069) composed, of course, in that vintage year of 1951.