Arts Review

Lessons Through Surrealism


From left, James Creswell (Trulove), Golda Schultz (Anne Trulove), Ben Bliss (Tom Rakewell) and Christian Van Horn (Nick Shadow) in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


Surrealism is having a moment. It is the theme of this year’s Venice Biennale and was that of last winter’s major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Absurdist, dystopic shows like Severance (Apple TV+) and Russian Doll (Netflix) are resonating with audiences and critics. René Magritte’s L’empire des lumières (1961) fetched a record price recently at auction. And why not, for we are besieged by surrealities, both serious and comical, almost daily: the potential resurgence of underground abortions in the U.S., Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars, Russia’s continued assault of Ukraine, the histrionics of Elon Musk’s flailing Twitter takeover, senseless deaths from unnecessary guns, Partygate at 10 Downing Street, the airlifting of infant formula into the richest country in history, the rise of autocracy, and so on. The chaos that crowds our newsfeeds seems to belong to another century, if not an alternate universe.
It was perhaps no coincidence, then, that the Metropolitan Opera revived Jonathan Miller’s Surrealist, fin-de-siècle take on Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. The production’s sets echoed Magritte’s painting, from the sharp delineations between light and dark, the feathery texture of the foliage, to the color palette—the very shades of sky blue, stone beige, and inky black. At first, L’empire presents a rather pleasant, if empty, streetscape. The pastoral view soon discloses a macabre edge, however, for we realize that a nighttime tableau cannot be the foreground of a bright daytime sky. Such a “possible improbability,” as the literary scholar Daniel Albright puts it, is what makes Surrealism so compelling. Paraphrasing Guillaume Apollinaire, inventor of the term, Albright notes that Surrealism strives to be both “more-than-real” and “more-real,” for its stark incongruities force us to confront “the coherent lives we pretend we live.”[1]
Stravinsky originally conceived Rake as a neoclassical opera, contemporaneous with a series of eighteenth-century paintings by William Hogarth that inspired it. Whatever the production, the music can easily be heard as Surrealist. Stravinsky’s score contains all the trappings of eighteenth-century operas—especially those by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—in the so-called “Classical style,” including clear tonal centers, stock characters, and a structure that alternates between recitative and aria. But for an opera completed in 1951, these sounds are utterly jarring, a “possible improbability” akin to the simultaneity of night and day in Magritte’s L’empire. The dry, crunchy sound of the solo harpsichord that supports the recitatives, expertly realized by Jory Vinikour in the Met’s production, feels particularly out of place, as does the pared down orchestra, from which Susanna Mälkki drew a crisp but expressive performance.
And yet, Stravinsky is also spoofing these operatic conventions. The phrasing is unpredictable, due in no small part to his irregular displacement of strong and weak beats, which flouts a central tenet of musical Classicism: periodicity. The melodies are still pretty, but they have uneven edges. The tonal harmonies that support these melodies, moreover, are not approached by conventional chord progressions. The brief opening overture, for example, begins and ends on an E major chord. But instead of a formulaic succession of subdominants and dominants that support E major, those chords are replaced by inexact substitutes that are off by a note or two—not quite right, but not quite wrong either.
Still, the “more-than-real” aspect of this music—the “neo”-classicism of it—may actually make it “more-real.” Mozart’s music surprised and delighted his audience’s ears with its daring chromaticism and contrapuntal complexity, but our ears are far more experienced, even jaded. To provoke the same reaction in us requires not the realization, but the surrealization of the musical past. Stravinsky thus crafts a musical language, as Apollinaire would understand it, that is an analogue, rather than a homologue of eighteenth-century idioms—it functions like, instead of looks or sounds like (though it does a little), how eighteenth-century music did for eighteenth-century ears, but in our time.
For the libretto of Rake, Stravinsky enlisted W. H. Auden, who then recruited Chester Kallman as co-collaborator. Often criticized as being too obvious and nonsensical, it is precisely those incoherences that not only make Rake amenable to Surrealist interpretations, but also unnervingly apt for our surrealist moment. As a fable, the libretto follows the broad strokes of Hogarth’s paintings, tracking the decline of Tom Rakewell, a promising young man whose impending nuptials to his sweetheart, Anne Trulove, are derailed by an inheritance. Tom subsequently squanders his fortune along with his morals and, ultimately, his sanity. Auden and Kallman tied up the three-act opera neatly with an epilogue, in which the principal characters return onstage, singing directly to the audience, to review the lessons learned from Tom’s “progress.”
At the same time, the libretto is a looking-glass world filled with ambiguities. Auden and Kallman added the character of Nick Shadow, a Mephistophelean figure who conveniently appears whenever the protagonist makes a wish. In the opera, it is Nick who precipitates Tom’s downfall with an unexpected inheritance when he wishes for money. When Tom tires of his wealth—which he spends mostly in brothels—and wishes for happiness, Nick convinces him to wed Baba the Turk, the bearded lady, in perhaps the most incoherent, Surrealist gesture of the opera. To be truly happy, Nick advises, a man must be free, and a free man is one “whom neither Passion may compel, nor Reason can restrain.” Marrying a circus star, who turns out to be an automaton that can be deactivated by a napkin over the face, is true freedom. Stravinsky reportedly thought the logic of Nick’s aria spurious, but this contrarian “freedom” is no more absurd than the kind currently trafficked by right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists. Tom’s third wish is no less “more-real” and “more-than-real” than his second. He dreams of a machine that converts stone into bread to lure investors and help the hungry; when he wakes, Nick is there with the very device, which the audience already knows is a scam. Auden and Kallman meant it as a critique of crass capitalism, which is now, as the upheavals of the cryptocurrency market show, even more highly evolved.
In a Surrealist interpretation of Rake, some of the performances I heard on June 3 could have been more eccentric, even grotesque. The lucidity of Ben Bliss’s tenor voice, as well as the grace with which he moves onstage, is ideal for Tom in the first act. I wish there would have been more of a change—perhaps a darkening of his voice and demeanor—to accompany Tom’s moral and mental decay in the second and third. Similarly, Christian Van Horn’s Nick was too clean-cut. His polished performance was thoroughly charming, but the kind of charm the devil oozes is merely a coat of varnish over a core of menace, which the bass-baritone lacked.
The opera’s bravura character is undoubtedly Baba. Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis played the role to the hilt in her Met debut, drawing the biggest laughs and the most raucous applause. She took immense risks with the virtuosic part, fearlessly flinging her voice up and down its impressive range. Any imperfections only enlivened Baba, who revels in her own outrageousness.
As for Anne, I am torn. She is the least interesting character—too perfect an embodiment of feminine devotion—but I cannot deny that the vocal part is the most sublime of the opera. With her luminous tone and impeccable intonation, soprano Golda Schultz used her voice to add nuance to the role. Her control over her highest registers was especially breathtaking in probably the most recognizable aria of Rake, “Quietly, night,” from the final scene of Act I.
A program billed as “The Innovators: Debussy to Crumb,” organized by the Chamber Music Society (CMS) of Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall on May 3, was unintentionally Surrealist. On the one hand, the theme seemed straightforward. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, which concluded each half of the concert, are works that college instructors would introduce as innovative in a Western music history survey course.
Fascination with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring persists even as we approach the 110th anniversary of the ballet’s riotous premiere. Much of it can be attributed to the composer’s unprecedented—in 1913—and radical approach to rhythm. At its most complex, different sections of the orchestra are in contradictory, independent meters that go in and out of phase with each other—a highly ordered way of organizing rhythm that, paradoxically, results in a delirious effect. Add the rhythmic complexity to his striking treatment of Slavic folk tunes—which are broken up and reconstructed like mosaics—Stravinsky crafted a soundworld, simultaneously primitive and futuristic, that remains uniquely associated with him. Juho Pohjonen and Gloria Chien gave a tour de force performance of the piano four-hands arrangement of Rite. To cram such a monumental orchestral work into a single piano is madness; to pull it off with aplomb as Pohjonen and Chien did is yet another “possible improbability.”
George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (1970), like Rite, is one of those pieces that are so difficult for the players—for technical and coordination reasons—that they either pull off the performances or they don’t; there is little middle ground. The ensemble, consisting of seasoned CMS members led by Gilbert Kalish, the pianist who premiered the work and was a friend of Crumb,[2] were certainly up to the task.
Also like Rite, little else sounds like Ancient Voices. Crumb weaves song settings of five poetic fragments by Surrealist writer Federico García Lorca with highly abstracted instrumental “dance” movements, which include surrealized musical quotations from Gustav Mahler and Johann Sebastian Bach. Though brief, García Lorca’s verses create entire universes while on a search for lost innocence. Crumb turns those universes into plaintive yet fantastical soundscapes by innovatively reconfiguring every instrument and member of the ensemble.
Ancient Voices requires a soprano, boy soprano, oboist, mandolinist, harpist, pianist, and three percussionists, but none of them perform as expected. In addition to playing their instruments, the entire ensemble had vocal parts. The percussionists Daniel Druckman, Ayano Kataoka, and Ian David Rosenbaum deftly navigated a myriad of instruments, some conventional (marimba), some not (“tuned prayer stones”). Kalish, who also played a toy piano, bent pitches by sliding a chisel along the strings inside the instrument, which was amplified. The harp was threaded with a piece of paper, resulting in a dry, almost percussive sound when Bridget Kibbey plucked the strings. The mandolinist William Anderson also manipulated a musical saw, the oboist James Austin Smith the harmonica. The singers “vocalized” as much as they “sang.” The soprano Tony Arnold whispered, clicked, and screeched into the innards of the piano, causing sympathetic strings to vibrate and hum, as if conjuring ghosts. The “ancient soul of a child,” the singer’s younger self, was performed mostly offstage by Joshua Randall with eerie clarity until the two identities met over the piano to conclude the work.
On the other hand, the works that began each half of the concert seemed to challenge the theme. Claude Debussy and Charles Ives are indeed considered “innovators” in music history, but CMS’s particular selection of songs reflects their more backward-looking impulses. “Harmonie du soir,” from Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire (1890), and two songs from Fêtes galantes (1903), “Clair de lune” and “Fantoches,” on poems by Paul Verlaine, were written while Debussy was under the heady influence of Richard Wagner, an association he would later work tirelessly to rid himself of for aesthetic and nationalist reasons.[3] The four Ives songs are from either the early or late period of his compositional career, in which Ives’s musical language is noticeably simpler and more conventionally accessible.[4] “Dreams” (1897) and “Evening” (1921) are sentimental parlor songs on nostalgic poems by Baroness Porteous and John Milton, respectively.[5] “Dreams” is entirely tonal, though “Evening” does have some piquant chromaticism, as does the clever “Ann Street” (1921), based on a witty poem by Maurice Morris. None of these songs exhibit the layering of musical quotations (which results in harsh dissonances), rhythmic complexity, and other Modernist methods Ives is known for in the works from around 1902 until the end of WWI. Three Places in New England is one such work for orchestra, but it was the version for voice and piano of the third move­ment, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” (1921), that was performed. Less dense than the original and with the addition of text by Robert Underwood Johnson, the song makes the wordless narrative of the orchestral version obvious—a remembrance of Ives’s walk along the Housatonic River with his wife during their honeymoon.
To claim that these songs are musically conservative with respect to Ives’s and Debussy’s creative output is not to imply they are without value; they teach us about the composers’ outlooks on art, history, and politics; they offer a window into the past, and there is no denying their craftsmanship and beauty. Moreover, it can certainly be argued that songs from the parlor music tradition or those bathed in Wagner-inflected Symbolism are just as innovative as Primitivist ballets and Surrealist chamber works. But if CMS intended to make that point, it was not through the performances.
Whereas she was completely in her element in Ancient Voices, Arnold seemed uncomfortable in the more subtle lied setting. She gave rather staid interpretations of the Debussy and Ives songs that were further marred by—or perhaps due to—intonation problems and, relatedly, her unstable vibrato. Despite the obvious differences between the French Symbolist and American Transcendentalist, their songs are understated exercises in agility and precision. The singer needs a kaleidoscopic vocal color palette from which to draw, and the many sudden shifts from one hue to the next must be done swiftly, seamlessly, and seemingly without effort. The finesse and sensitivity of Pohjonen and Kalish, Arnold’s partners in the Debussy and Ives songs, respectively, could not mitigate her struggles.
And yet, these thematic and performance inconsistencies of the CMS concert made the experience Surrealist, for the movement is as much about art as it is about a heightened mode of apprehension. Surrealism, through the internal incoherences of the art object itself, compels us to confront our assumptions, to rethink “the coherent lives we pretend we live.” Though unintentional, CMS’s underdeveloped “innovator” theme, thus, raises a profoundly thorny question: why is innovation an inherent value in an art form that is, largely, so reliant on the past?
In a non-Surrealist, non-Modernist concert, the Hermitage Piano Trio intentionally raised that question. At the Morgan Library and Museum’s Gilder Lehrman Hall on May 17, the ensemble performed a program of familiar pieces by Serge Rachmaninoff and obscure works by lesser-known composers. In his remarks to the audience, Misha Keylin, the ensemble’s violinist, explicitly asked us to consider Horatio Parker’s Suite for Piano, Violin, and Violoncello, op. 35, Georgy Sviridov’s Piano Trio in A Minor, and Gaspar Cassadó’s Piano Trio in C Major as masterpieces equal to any other in the musical canon.
Parker was among the generation of American-born composers that led the first departments of music to be established at U.S. universities, which also included Edward MacDowell at Columbia and John Knowles Paine at Harvard. Parker taught at Yale—Ives was among his students—and eventually became the dean of that university’s School of Music. Despite being known collectively as the “Boston School,” the musical identities of these composer-professors were, in actuality, Austro-Germanic. MacDowell trained in Frankfurt, Paine in Berlin, and Parker in Munich; they were as much heirs of nineteenth-century European Romanticism as they were products of their homeland.
Parker’s suite was composed in 1893, though the title and structure may be suggestive of a Baroque dance suite. The individual movements, however, are Romantic reconceptions of those that might be found, for instance, in Johann Sebastian Bach’s instrumental works. In the first movement, “Prelude,” Parker reimagines the arpeggiated sixteenth-note patterns common to Bach’s preludes—most famously that of his Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, or the Prelude in C Major, BWV 846, from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier—as lush accompanimental textures in the piano while the violin and cello exchange soaring melodies. The second movement, “Tempo di Minuetto,” is situated somewhere between the abstract, dance-like movements from instrumental works by Johannes Brahms and minuets from the Enlightenment period. In the third, “Romance,” Parker turns fully to his century, producing a song, albeit without words, in the German lied tradition of Franz Schubert that also sparkles, at times, with elegant allusions to fin-de-siècle Viennese dance music. The impassioned “Finale,” fueled by march-like rhythms reminiscent of those from Robert Schumann’s closing movements, builds toward a triumphant ending.
Georgy Sviridov’s Piano Trio in A Minor owes an even greater artistic debt to a single source of inspiration. Written in 1945, the trio is an uncanny musical image of Dmitry Shostakovich, with whom Sviridov studied at Leningrad Conservatory. All of Shostakovich’s musical tropes are present: an “elegy” as a first movement, in an expansive sonata form, that explores the depths of despair; a relentless triple meter “scherzo” that, despite its manic energy, goes nowhere; a “funeral march” as a slow movement that is as barren as it is wrenching; and an “idyll” that begins with false good cheer, which soon gives way to sarcasm, rage, and ultimately, quiet sadness. If I hadn’t read the concert program in advance, I would have thought it was a newly discovered Shostakovich piano trio.
Cassadó is perhaps a more recognized name than Parker or Sviridov, but he is mainly remembered as a celebrity cellist with a prolific discography. His musical gifts were evident early on. By age ten, he had moved from Barcelona to study cello with Pablo Casals in Paris, where he also received lessons from Maurice Ravel and Manuel de Falla. Cassadó’s compositions, which included orchestral and chamber music works as well as arrangements, reflect his primary musical interest, the cello. His virtuosic but idiomatic writing for the instrument is readily apparent in his C major piano trio—written in 1926 and likely modeled on Ravel’s trio from 1914—although the parts for violin and piano are no less demanding. His style can be loosely described as Spanish nationalist, not unlike those of his teachers and contemporaries, including Joaquin Turina and Isaac Albéniz, in which nineteenth-century forms are infused with Spanish folk melodies and dance idioms.
With their phenomenally rich and cohesive sound, the Hermitage players captured the exuberance of Parker’s suite, the tragedy of Sviridov’s trio, and the flair of Cassadó’s. The ensemble’s obvious commitment to these works was a plea for their inclusion in the canonic repertoire, despite their apparent reliance on prior models. These composers may not be innovators, but surely, as the Hermitage Trio advocated, there is value and pleasure to hearing Shostakovich through the ears of Sviridov, the German Romantics through those of Parker, and Spanish music through those of Cassadó.
Keylin did not have to defend Rachmaninoff’s presence on the program in his remarks to the audience. Unlike the other composers, his is a household name, but Rachmaninoff has also rarely been considered an innovator, either by his peers or history. He was a steadfast anti-Modernist in the age of Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, when “serious” composers were expected to cultivate their own branch of Modernism. Whereas Schoenberg developed a new system of harmonic organization with Serialism and Stravinsky worked in nearly every “ism”—Neoclassicism, Primitivism, and Serialism, too—Rachmaninoff insisted on working within traditional bounds.
The nineteen-year-old composer wrote his Trio Élégiaque No. 1 toward the end of his studies at Moscow Conservatory. The single movement work is a tribute—down to the “élégiaque” in the title—to his teacher, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, with whom Rachmaninoff shared a penchant for expansive melodic writing. The intense lyricism that would become a hallmark of his mature works is already evident here, and the Hermitage Trio gave a rhapsodic performance that balanced its sentimentality with clarity of texture and phrasing.
Originally for voice and piano, Vocalise has been arranged countless times for countless configurations since its premiere in 1912. The song is the last from 14 Songs, op. 34, and the only one that is wordless; the singer hums a mellifluous, melancholy melody that is enveloped by a plush curtain of exquisite harmonies from the piano. Jules Conus’ trio arrangement gives every member of the ensemble the opportunity to paint the melody with a different color, and the Hermitage players did not disappoint. When they began, the audience audibly sighed in recognition of the familiar melody, not to mention in appreciation for the fragile yet velvety sounds emanating from the instruments.
Ironically, it was the popularity of works like Vocalise that doomed Rachmaninoff’s status as an innovator. Modernists were fundamentally suspicious of mass culture, and not only did Rachmaninoff encounter far greater success with concert audiences compared to Stravinsky and Schoenberg, but he was also a Hollywood stalwart. It was only recently that music scholars, questioning whether innovation is even why contemporary audiences value classical music concerts, have renewed their attention on Rachmaninoff. The Hermitage Trio makes a convinc­ing case for reassessments of Cassadó, Sviridov, and Parker as well.


[1] Daniel Albright, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts (Chicago, 2000).
[2] Crumb died earlier this year.
[3] Despite the publication date of Fêtes, the selected songs were actually composed in 1891, which, moreover, were second attempts at settings of the same Verlaine poems. The first versions of “Clair” and “Fantoches” date back to 1882.
[4] Though Ives lived until 1954, he composed very few new works after 1921 (he had suffered a massive heart attack in 1918) and stopped altogether after 1927 due to ill health.
[5] In the U.S., the parlor song tradition dates back to the early 1800s, intended for “amateurs”—code for women and thus, according to social norms of the time, “easier” music—to perform at home.