Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, saxophone, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, gong, tam-tam, 2 snare drums, wire brushes, tenor drum, bass drum, xylophone, bells), piano, 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Nephew of the artist M.C. Escher, Rudolf Escher was born in Amsterdam and trained as a composer in Rotterdam under the distinguished composer Willem Pijper. He was also a gifted painter, poet, and critic. He was a strikingly handsome man of profound convictions and strong ideals, which led him to join the Communist party before the outbreak of war in 1939. When Rotterdam was bombed in 1940 he lost all the manuscripts of his earlier music, and with the Nazi occupation of Holland he had to go into hiding and reconstruct his career, such as it was. In those very severe conditions he composed Musique pour l’esprit en deuil (Music for the Spirit in Mourning) between 1941 and 1943. While many of his friends in the Dutch resistance were arrested, he and his wife managed to survive, moving from one hiding-place to another.
After the war he served as music critic for the Amsterdam journal De Groene, and the premiere of his Musique pour l’esprit en deuil in 1947 brought him the Amsterdam City Prize. He later taught at the Amsterdam Conservatory and at the University of Utrecht, but because of his fastidious self-criticism, his compositions were few in number, with two symphonies and a number of chamber works. He wrote songs and piano pieces, but no opera.
His sympathies were mainly with French music, especially Debussy and Ravel, whose influence can be heard in this work, along with that of Honegger and perhaps Scriabin. He had no interest in atonal music, and although he worked with Boulez for a time, he remained attached to what he called a broadened tonality. He was also interested in the early development of electronic music.
Musique pour l’esprit en deuil inevitably strikes a somber note, using a very large orchestra to convey the weight of oppression felt by the afflicted and the persecuted. Escher did not need to explain the message of the work, so his own note is purely analytical in content. He describes the form of the work as based on the traditional outline of exposition (in two parts), development, recapitulation, and coda. The textures are thick, with themes often presented not as single-line melodies but as chordal progressions for, say, all the woodwinds at once, or all the strings. The percussion section is busy and the sonorities of piano and harp are important.
The first themes emerge from the primeval opening, including one on solo trumpet which Escher felt has an affinity with Spanish flamenco. The exposition reaches a full climax, then the development opens with an empty landscape in which the piano plays some isolated chords. Before long a sinister march is heard, with inevitable jackboot associations, and this builds to a colossal tempest for the full orchestra. When the frenzy collapses, the opening music is heard again, although the message is less one of hope than of resignation.
Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century appeared in 2008.