Academic journal article Current Musicology

Preface to Gesprochene Musik, 1. "O-A" and 2. "Ta-Tam"

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Preface to Gesprochene Musik, 1. "O-A" and 2. "Ta-Tam"

Article excerpt

Think of the great composers of German and Austrian music in the last century, and certain names spring to mind: Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill. Among those names should be Ernst Toch. That for many musicians and music lovers this is not yet so is due not to the character of Toch's music but to the curtailment of his meteoric early career by the Nazi regime, which drove the composer into exile in 1933. In the United States, where Toch eventually settled, his major achievements in orchestral, chamber, and operatic music remain less familiar than those of his American and European peers.

Toch has long been best known for The Geographical Fugue, which is such a repertory staple that today it seems hardly a choral singer in the United States passes through high school and college without performing the piece at least once. The work is equally popular among avocational choruses of all kinds, and professional choirs of course also sing it. Given the Fugue's renown, it is strange that the oddly stoic little note Toch (1950, 12) appended to the published score has apparently excited little curiosity over the years:

"This piece is the last movement of a suite GESPROCHENE MUSIK
(Spoken Music), which, from different angles, tries to produce musical
effects from speech. The suite was performed and recorded at the Berlin
Festival of Contemporary music [sic] in 1930. The record got lost or
was destroyed, likewise the music, except the manuscript." Ernst Toch

You might think conductors would have been tumbling over one another trying to get hold of the other movements of this suite: the existence of the manuscript for more music related to the Fugue has been no secret for decades. The full story is stranger still. Toch's note would lead the reader to imagine a live public performance and a commercially released live or studio recording. Yet there was no such show, nor any such album. It may come as a shock to its fans that, far from being designed as the reliable choral showpiece it has since become, the Fugue was not originally intended for performance by live singers at all.

As Toch indicates, the Fugue premiered with its original German text as Der Fuge aus der Geographie during the Neue Musik Berlin festival in July 1930 as part of a three-movement suite, whose first two movements are published here for the first time. As Mark Katz (2001, 176; 2004, 99-113) recounts, the suite was one of the works debuted on the program of Grammophonmusik (gramophone music) as Originalwerke fur Schallplatten (original works for record albums) shared by Toch and Hindemith, both then rising young stars of German new music, during which the composers used phonographs in various ways to play prerecorded sounds onstage. This explains why there was only ever one "record" of Spoken Music, not records.

Toch's suite in performance was not played back at the speed at which it had been recorded--78 RPM--but much faster: that was the whole point. The score was conceived for the purpose of providing material for a pioneering experiment in the mechanical manipulation of sound: specifically, an investigation into the acoustical properties of speech as raw material for music that focused on how vocal sounds change when speeded up--to such an extent that, as Toch perhaps to his surprise discovered, they may be distorted beyond recognition. As the composer explained in the program notes he wrote for the concert, he sought to explore

the spoken word, and let a four-part mixed chamber choir speak
specifically determined rhythms, vowels, consonants, syllables, and
words, which by involving the mechanical possibilities of the recording
(increasing the tempo, and the resulting pitch level) created a type of
instrumental music, which leads the listener to forget that it
originated from speaking. (Toch 1930, 221-22) (1)

It must have been a weird sight: Berlin's hippest aficionados of avant-garde composition (as I picture them) assembled before a phonograph onstage out of whose great horn-shaped speaker piped the sounds of, well, Alvin and the Chipmunks on amphetamines chanting "Ratibor! …

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