Academic journal article Notes

Charles Koechlin, Catherine Urner, and the Shatto-Urner Manuscript Collection at the University of California, Berkeley

Academic journal article Notes

Charles Koechlin, Catherine Urner, and the Shatto-Urner Manuscript Collection at the University of California, Berkeley

Article excerpt

After the death of the organist Charles Shatto on New Year's Day 1983, the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) inherited a substantial collection of manuscripts by Shatto himself, his wife Catherine Urner (1891-1942), and their composition teacher and mentor, Charles Koechlin (1867-1950). This article refers mainly to the Koechlin part of this archive, which I studied in detail after being first asked to assess it by John Emerson in 1984. An abbreviated checklist (with index) can be found in an appendix, and the manuscripts in question are now housed in the new Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library at Berkeley. But we should remember that, without Charles Shatto, there would have been no archive to classify, so I am sure we are all deeply grateful to him. The Urner part of the archive, which is presently being digitized at the F. Eugene Miller Foundation offices under the direction of Michael Meadway, contains over eighty songs by Catherine (ten of which were published in Paris by Maurice Senart in 1928), many American Indian songs, twenty-four choral works, eight orchestral works (including The Bride of a God, written in collaboration with Koechlin in 1929), seventy-four piano, and forty-three organ pieces, and thirty chamber works. Charles Shatto's arrangements of his wife's music are also included in the archive.

Koechlin's status as a composer has risen considerably over the last decade or so, thanks largely to the many superb compact disc recordings by conductors such as David Zinman, Leif Segerstam, and Heinz Holliger. Indeed, his complex and visionary symphonic poems need repeated hearings before they can be fully appreciated. During his lifetime, Koechlin suffered from the vicious circle that music must first be known to be played, and vice versa, and the prevailing quest for unknown pieces by great composers at the expense of great pieces by unknown composers has not helped his case. Neither has the substantial body of potentially worthy French composers who were Koechlin's contemporaries and, in most cases, friends. Although Koechlin worked constantly to get his music performed, his brief spate of publications and critical recognition in the early 1920s was overshadowed by his growing reputation as a teacher and pedagogue by the early 1930s. In 1942 the equally visionary writer Wilfrid Mellers championed him as being "among the select number of contemporary composers who really matter." (1) His astute prophecy came true, for Koechlin is now rated alongside Debussy (whose ballet Khamma he orchestrated in 1912-13) as an independent and original contributor to the development of modern French music. He was a pioneer of polytonality and polymodality from the early 1900s onwards, besides being a master contrapuntist whose idol was J. S. Bach. But above all, it was the sheer scale, luminous orchestration, and the enduring rhythmic freshness of his visionary symphonic works that have justified his elevation. Koechlin's reevaluation has also been helped by his devoted offspring, especially Madeleine and Yves Koechlin; by Otfrid Nies, who has established an archive of his music and writings in Kassel, Germany; (2) and perhaps a little by my own monograph on his life and works. This was originally written at the request of Professor Charles Cushing of UCB, and has since been published by Harwood Academic Publishers. (3)

Whilst on the subject of books, I must also recommend Barbara Urner Johnson's superb new monograph on her aunt, entitled Catherine Urner and Charles Koechlin: A Musical Affaire. (4) Through her wide-ranging research, and her access for the first time to the full range of correspondence between the two composers, she has uncovered a story of courage, devotion, and self-sacrifice that has shed new light on Koechlin, and on the musical scene in Paris and California in the 1920s and 1930s. Her book has also provided a unique perspective on the artistic struggle of a woman composer in twentieth-century America. …

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