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CD Review

Ernst Toch

  • Symphony #1, Op. 72 (1951-1952)
  • Symphony #2, Op. 73 (1953)
  • Symphony #3, Op. 75 (1955)
  • Symphony #4, Op. 80 (1957)
  • Symphony #5 "Jephtha", Op. 89 (1963)
  • Symphony #6, Op. 93 (1963)
  • Symphony #7, Op. 95 (1964)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alun Francis
CPO 777191 3CDs 195:47
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Great non-expectations.

Known primarily for his chamber music, Austrian composer Ernst Toch didn't begin writing symphonies until well into his sixties, and then, significantly, in the United States. In Europe, many composers considered the symphony a dead form. Bartók, for example, never wrote one. Stravinsky's symphonies are, to a large extent, tricks, or ballets without dancers. They sometimes play cleverly with symphonic conventions but lack the distinctive sense of transformation we get in most of the things we call symphonies. However, in both England and the United States, to a great extent insulated from "advanced" musical currents, composers were on fire to prove themselves in the form. In Europe, Toch had written that no one should expect a symphony from him. Nevertheless, he caught the fever in the U.S. and produced seven symphonies in fifteen years. In none of them can anyone accuse him of repeating himself.

In Europe, critics spoke of Toch as one of the most significant modern German composers – in the same breath with Schoenberg, Hindemith, Berg, and Weill. Toch, not particularly political, still saw the writing on the wall and left Austria for Paris, London, and finally Los Angeles. I suspect he put as much distance as he could between himself and a Nazi invasion of North America. Here, he continued to get performances from top conductors, including (naturally) Koussevitzky, but classical music itself hasn't the same cachet here as in Europe. European arts organizations, many of them state-funded, actually commission composers. In America, not so much. Toch mocked himself: "In America, I am a dachshund. But in Europe, I was a St. Bernard." He secured a teaching gig at UCLA but failed to get steady work at the studios. While Hollywood has used great composers and great writers, it's done so mainly by accident or for occasional shots of Prestige, which it can then exploit as publicity. The average producer of the Thirties and Forties had no more use for serious music than anyone else did. Nevertheless, Toch taught a bunch of film composers their craft, including André Previn and Alex North.

During the Thirties and throughout the war, Toch suffered from a serious creative block. Depressed over the war and the fate of his relatives left in Europe, he managed to eke out very few works, most of them – like the Cantata of the Bitter Herbs (1938) – neither characteristic nor even particularly interesting. However, once the war ended, the block vanished. The first new work, a string quartet, appeared in 1946, and the first symphony in 1950. Toch wrote to his wife, "I don't drive, I'm driven. I don't write, I'm written." For me, Toch's last phase is his best, embracing magnificent chamber music and this strong symphonic cycle.

In general, Toch's symphonies strike me as a weird combination of control and fantasy. All of them end in surprising ways. None of them have all that much to do with traditional symphonic forms or rhetoric. It's as if Toch has almost too many ideas that he needs to get out. Yet one feels energized, rather than bewildered into passivity, and the longer you listen, the greater insight you gain into these scores' considerable coherence.

As one can see from his delightfully non-academic little guide for composers, The Shaping Forces of Music, Toch doesn't think of music so much as tunes, but as shapes and gestures. For example, Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro can be seen as a "wind-up and release," as the opening scurrying and arpeggio figures explode into the broad tune of the first tutti. This doesn't, by any means, deny classical form, but it does emphasize a dynamic, "as it happens" view of form, rather than a static overall picture – "shaping" rather than "shaped," just the thing for a composer facing that initial blank page. In this context, Toch's first symphony begins almost as a kind of joke, similar to the "false introduction" of Classical practice. We first hear inchoate matter, rather than themes: upward slides in the strings, aimless arpeggios up and down the winds. In Toch's terms, these are "waves" at their most basic. Little by little, however, they begin to get filled in with definite steps and resting points, first the "back half," downward segment of the wave until we have a theme with the leap up of a ninth and then descending to definite intermediate points. This goes on for nearly half the movement. A bald description like this doesn't do justice to music so full of tension and grip. Then the "front" of the wave begins to fill in, and new themes are generated and developed until suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a kick-butt fugue with a now-clear subject, all based on what has occurred so far. So the movement is a double joke. First, the intro rhetorically lies at the opposite end of the main allegro – an evocation of formlessness that becomes highly formal – and yet gesturally, even thematically, related. Toch bends an essentially recalcitrant theme to his contrapuntal will, giving it to us not only fugally straight but upside-down. Gradually, the counterpoint diminishes, and the theme begins to go fuzzy. The movement ends back in the mists.

I should say, for all my talk of "joke," this movement sings fairly seriously. Toch headed it with a motto from Luther's "Ein feste Burg": "And if the world were full of devils." I don't find the music particularly demonic myself, but that doesn't interfere with my enjoyment. It's not the kind of piece that demands your thoughts meld with the composer's. It succeeds on its own musical and rhetorical terms.

The second movement corresponds to a scherzo, though it eschews the classical or even Beethovenian form. It begins as a merry, Hindemithian march. The main theme winds its way through various sections. About two-thirds in, however, something strange begins to happen. Ideas from the first movement, slightly varied, begin to creep in. Are these the little "devils?" The music becomes more grotesque, with the main theme winding up in a virtuoso passage for percussion.

The slow third movement proceeds in large A-B-A form. It opens with an introductory flute all by itself. The music gets taken over first by the strings, then by the winds, as each section offers its own "take" on the flute material. Finally, the entire orchestra comments. The contrasting middle section speeds up the tempo and becomes more contrapuntal. Here, the musical matter consists of elements of the flute theme inverted. The movement ends with the solo flute, right-side-up, this time with minimal accompaniment.

The finale begins with a variant of the opening of the first movement, but instead of amorphous slides and noodling arpeggios we get chiseled, martial fanfares, as purposeful as an arrow. We then get distorted echoes of themes from the second and third movements before the finale announces its own themes. Toch works these up, from single solo lines to a climax in a canonic section of increasing brilliance. Just when you think he can't top himself, he throws in the opening fanfares. The music moves toward a busy, though not necessarily happy end, when Toch springs a final surprise: an amazing major chord from just about every instrument in the orchestra which brings about an air of triumph to the conclusion. However long it took Toch to produce a symphony, it was definitely worth the wait.

The second symphony appeared a year later, and it's nothing like the first, at least in its sound and overall structure. Indeed, I find it hard to compare it to anything else at all. It is primarily itself. While you could relate the movements of the first to classical forms, you'd have a hard time doing so here. Nevertheless, Toch does, as in the first, generate his symphony's themes from a small kit of cells and which appear disguised in subsequent movements. The first opens up in a ternary form, but the proportions and the narrative flow differ radically from sonata-allegro. An agitated beginning (Toch marks the movement "allegro fanatico") leads, two-thirds of the way in, to an uneasy dead calm, before – in what one might mistake for a coda – the conflict resumes. The movement could easily disintegrate into episodes, if not for the fact that Toch generates almost all his themes in the first and third sections from a scalar run of a third, either up or down. The "calm" stands thematically distinct, and yet Toch easily leads the listener in and out. The second movement, another Hindemithian allegro, gives off an energy similar to the first of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. The sound of the orchestra, from the first note, grabs your attention, much as Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms does. Toch marks the movement "full of shadows." It plays upon grotesque elements, but quietly, for the most part. Suddenly, like a golden thread, a gorgeous Korngoldian melody appears and then sinks behind the shadows, before the movement ends like the blowing out of a match. The glum, slow third movement labors a bit, with the "Korngold" melody surfacing again, this time a bit more dimly. Toward the end, the textures grow ever more chamber-like, with "Korngold" first in the brass, then in solo strings, until finally they spin down to a solo violin. The fourth movement begins with a fragmented, misshapen version of the "Korngold" tune and works with it for much of the movement. The music builds up to a large climax, finally cut off by timpani, which eventually, along with the piano, end the movement.

The third symphony, from 1955, probably had the most success of the seven during the composer's lifetime, winning the Pulitzer. Toch's interest in new orchestral sounds, plainly evident in the second symphony, extends in the third to new instruments, some (although not all) invented by the composer himself. This isn't a brand-new orchestra, à la Harry Partch, but really a furtherance of traditional practice, as one finds in Richard Strauss (wind machine), Gershwin (taxi horns), Varèse (siren), and Respighi (phonograph). EMI released a performance with Steinberg on its Matrix CD series 'way back when, and it's well worth a look. Problems with some of the new "instruments" (some horns hooked up to compressed air – a "pressure horn" – and a "rotarion" – a rumbling box filled with wooden balls) caused Toch to find substitutes or eliminated them altogether, probably in the hope of increasing performances as well. Of course, these days a MIDI keyboard and digital sampler would make hash of such obstacles, as it has for Antheil's Ballet méchanique. Nevertheless, the call for unusual and home-made instruments has become a kind of two-edged sword. On the one hand, it kept interest in the symphony alive. On the other, the outlandishness of some of the instruments leads one to expect a different kind of piece. Indeed, the newcomers play very well with others, never insisting on the spotlight. Toch's use of a Hammond organ, for example, sounds pretty much like any other organ (no imitating Hawaiian guitars, for example).

Other than its unusual sound-palette, the symphony proceeds like the first two: conventional structures replaced by an intricate skein of motific cells that extends to every movement. Toch wrote the work in response to a commission celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of American Jewry. While I don't hear an idiom based specifically on Jewish elements or even a program, the symphony gets my attention because it takes an ultimately cheerier outlook than the first two. The second movement, a sort-of Brahms intermezzo, recommends itself in this regard. My mind associates it with Jewish pastoral, although, as I've said, there's nothing explicitly Jewish about it. It's a matter of tone.

Toch's first three symphonies form a group, denser and knottier than the later entries. The Fourth Symphony, dedicated to Marian MacDowell, functions as a transition between the two groups. It too uses the same small kit of ideas in all its movements. It also shows Toch's fondness for striking formal "one-offs" and odd proportions. The symphony, in three movements rather than the four of the previous scores, frames a quick movement with two slow ones. The first movement – in four sections – occupies almost half the symphony, and the second movement is over in a blink. The symphony begins with a long, soft unison passage for the violins. Eventually, the other strings join in, and bit by bit the rest of the orchestra. The tempo changes from slow to moderate, and we find ourselves in the middle of a new section. The movement proceeds until it hits another unison passage, this time for winds, and ends with the return, transformed, of the opening section. The second movement – a scherzo in temperament, if not exactly in form – takes a single idea through a dizzying array of instrumental color. Every phrase seems to take on new textures – virtuoso orchestration here. After the first movement and the second, Toch has inserted poetic tributes to MacDowell, to be recited by a speaker. This in itself became controversial. Antál Doráti refused to include them when he conducted the symphony, and I agree with him. Toch was no poet, although he wrote lively prose. The tributes would make a Sensitive High-Schooler cringe. They add nothing to the symphony's performance and operate at such a lower level that it actually jars with the music. I strongly suspect he wrote the poem in German first and then translated.

The last movement, a lament (though not especially funereal) seems to synthesize the first two. Like the first, it begins with unison strings, this time forte. Gradually, other strings join in, in parts. Like the second movement, its argument proceeds as much by shifts in orchestral color as straightahead thematic manipulation. After the strings come the winds, the winds with strings, the brass, the brass with strings, percussion, percussion with strings. Toch emphasizes lean chamber groupings, rarely bringing in the mass orchestra. Here and there, one encounters some startling passages, including some for "singing" kettledrums, but the orchestration is of course never the sole point, any more than Monet's virtuoso application of paint is the sole point of his canvases. The movement ends quietly, on unison strings.

Toch wrote his last three symphonies – numbers 5 through 7 – in an amazing eighteen months. Four weeks after he completed the seventh, he was dead of cancer. It's tempting to tell ourselves a sentimental story, to think that he knew he was under the gun, but one can't find the evidence. The thanatoptic three are much more laid back, sometimes even giddy and witty.

At first glance, the Fifth Symphony "Jephta's Daughter" doesn't seem all that relaxed. It began as an opera on the story of Jephta's sacrifice of his daughter to fulfill a rash promise he had made to God. Jephta, a Hebrew general (or judge), vowed that if God gave him the victory, he would sacrifice the first living creature he met walking through the city gates. Guess who? At any rate, Toch wanted to base the opera on the novel by Feuchtwanger, but couldn't wait for the librettist. If we consider how much time he had left, he made the right choice. Nevertheless, the score is either a very loose one-movement symphony or a very tight tone poem. Toch himself found himself of two minds. He wavered between calling it a "rhapsodic poem" and a symphony. What one misses is the taut symphonic argument of the previous four symphonies, although, this being Toch, the music proceeds quite coherently. But one apprehends – rather than a more abstract rhetorical structure – a scenario, a plot, more suitable to a ballet or tone poem. The music is definitely dramatic, in the sense that it seems to describe characters and the conflict between them. One hears martial music, pompous music, "innocent" music (perhaps the daughter), and grief music. The work has received at least two previous recordings, one in the old Louisville series and the other part of the Naxos series on the Milken Archives of American Jewish Music. All three are acceptable, but the Naxos CD and this one stand out.

The Sixth (three movements played without a break) hits you with a shock – not because of its weight, but because of its light and air. Indeed, it comes at you as almost compulsively strange, like Nielsen's Sixth. Toch's emphasis on chamber groupings of a few instruments gets taken even further. The first movement begins like a joke for which only the composer knows the punchline, the humor of elves. Then you suddenly find yourself in and out of patches chest-deep in hell. The movement ends with an uneasy synthesis of the two moods. The brief middle movement, marked "molto grazioso e leggiero throughout," alternates between the first-movement whimsy and Viennese suavity. Most of it proceeds with only one or two voices at a time, and it ends bizarrely on one soft repeated note in the percussion. The "allegro energico" finale hits you like a hod of bricks. A vigorous march gives way to a sweetly nostalgic passage, which leads to something uneasy, and so on. Moods change in this movement as quickly and sharply as in a dream. Toward the end, the nostalgic material comes back, this time triumphantly, and Toch leads you to expect something transcendent. But the victory disintegrates before your ears as instruments pare down to a single, soft drum and a tap on the triangle.

The Symphony #7, also in three movements, is more of the same, but the drama differs. The first movement begins in the nostalgic and Austrian pastoral. I get the strong impression of Toch in this period longing for earlier days, since this mood appears in works other than the symphonies. But the movement really is "about" falling out of nostalgia into either vigor or anger, and it ends enigmatically. The second movement, a sardonically Mahlerian scherzo, begins with a Ländler that could have come straight out of Mahler. It quickly turns into a brisk little march, with the same fantastic galvanism that runs through Mahler in his grotesque moods. Here and there the Ländler peeks out before it finally returns, and the section – in a way you come to expect from Toch – ends in a surrealist poof. The finale, a "resolute" march, twists and turns through surprising territory (with lots of work for trumpet in solo and unison section). The last bars work up tremendous energy, dissipated in a long, lingering crash of cymbals. It's like a high staircase, suddenly crumbling to powder at the top step.

Kudos to Francis and the Berlin Radio Symphony for this series, as well as to the enterprising label CPO. You can either buy the box set (my choice) or each individual CD, if you want to dip your toe. They have restored a major composer to the recorded catalogue, what's more in committed, accomplished performances in fine sound. Toch fans had to put up with schmutz for a long time just to be able to hear his important orchestral pieces. I hope this release encourages other companies to explore this composer.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz