[Dixielandjazz] An interesting Shilkret reference.

M J (Mike) Logsdon mjl at ix.netcom.com
Wed May 2 11:46:44 PDT 2012

[c Steve Schwartz 2012]

Schoenberg, Piston, et al.

*  "The Genesis Suite"   
	-  Nathaniel Shilkret:  Creation
	-  Alexandre Tansman:  Adam and Eve
	-  Darius Milhaud:  Cain and Abel
	-  Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco:  Noah's Ark
	-  Ernst Toch:  The Covenant
	-  Igor Stravinsky:  Babel
	-  Arnold Schoenberg:  Postlude
*  Walter Piston:  Symphony No. 2*

Edward Arnold, narrator
Uncredited Chorus/Hugo Strelitzer
Janssen Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles/Werner Janssen
*Boston Symphony Orchestra/G. Wallace Woodworth
Pristine Audio PASC 306  Total time:  76:12

Summary for the Busy Executive:  Kunstmeisters and Kitschmeisters.  

By the late Thirties, Los Angeles had become home to the cream of Jewish and
anti-Fascist intellectuals fleeing from Europe.  Nathaniel Shilkret,
conductor and at that time working for the studios as a film composer, got
the idea of asking the most illustrious of them to compose movements of a
collaborative work based on the Book of Genesis.  Alexandre Tansman, Ernst
Toch, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco had also worked in the movies, often
uncredited, although Tansman did earn a screen credit for the Rosalind
Russell flick Sister Kenny and Toch eventually earned three Academy Award
nominations.  With Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud had been one of the
pioneer film composers in France, but Hollywood used him sparingly.  Arnold
Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky tried to break into films, but no studio was
interested, although producers loved announcing to the press that they were
"considering" one or the other for their latest Prestige Project, thus
trading off the cachet of each composer's celebrity without actually having
to take a real chance.  At any rate, Shilkret was enough of a hustler to get
up a performance and to make a recording with Edward Arnold as narrator.
The recording, turned down by every major distributor, didn't sell very
well.  EMI acquired the rights to it years later, but for some reason
couldn't use the Arnold narration.  It advertised Arnold, but anybody
familiar with the actor's deep, round tones knew immediately the voice
wasn't his.

Shilkret likely pursued the project as a way to advance himself.  He
certainly had little respect for the men he worked with.  Schoenberg, for
example, had written an orchestral prelude, which Shilkret placed at the
*end* of the recording.  This allowed his piece to lead off the suite, which
he justified by saying that his work had made a bigger hit with the
audiences.  He moved the two "difficult" composers to last in line, so his
listeners could tune out early.  The problem is that Schoenberg composed his
Prelude with the idea that it would lead to something else and wrote the end
accordingly.  In the Shilkret order, the music just peters out.  Shilkret
also issued instructions to "his" collaborators about the type of music he
wanted from them, something very much like the typical Forties film scoring
he provided.  Tansman and Castelnuovo-Tedesco caved.  Schoenberg and
Stravinsky, thank God, largely ignored Shilkret.  Milhaud and Toch to some
extent modified their styles, but, thankfully, not to a fatal degree.  When
I first saw the word "Narrator," my heart sank, since narrator plus
orchestra is probably my least-favorite genre, despite the rare examples of
masterpieces.  I usually feel either the music is so weak that it's
unnecessary, as in the Shilkret, Tansman, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco movements,
or the music is so good, the words get in the way, as in the Toch and the
Milhaud.  Schoenberg omitted the narrator altogether.  With Babel and a
characteristically elegant solution, Stravinsky actually found a way to
convincingly integrate spoken word with music.  I should note that the
longer pieces are the weakest.  Shilkret, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Tansman
all run around ten minutes, while the others last roughly five.  

Aside from the two acknowledged masterpieces, Babel and Schoenberg's
Prelude, Toch's contribution interested me the most, in that it's not as
chromatic or as tortured as he usually gets.  Indeed, it sounds a little
like Bloch.  During the Thirties and the subsequent war, Toch had been too
depressed to compose.  He learned that the Nazis had wiped out the entire
family he had left behind.  The war's end got him writing again, and the new
music sang more deeply.  Unfortunately, the musical establishment had tuned
its ears to new voices.  Toch never regained his European reputation,
although in the United States, he won a Pulitzer.  I consider his neglect,
especially in regard to his chamber music, a shame.

Speaking of neglect, Piston's Second Symphony comes from 1943.  This
performance, a broadcast for the Armed Forces, I believe was its second.  G.
Wallace Woodworth, known better as a choral director, turns out to be a
capable conductor in a not-that-easy work, one which lacked both a
performing tradition and a previous recording.  Piston wrote a beautiful
symphonic cycle, but since the Sixties, it hasn't received much in the way
of performance or recording.  The Second is both eloquent and elegant.

Pristine is known as an audiophile label.  I think its incarnation of
Schnabel's recorded Beethoven amazing.  Both the Genesis and the Piston
come, not from masters, but from actual records, and any digital cleanup is
limited by the quality of the originals.  All that said, Pristine's Andrew
Rose has done a great job.  I happen to have two other recordings of the
Genesis Suite:  one by Angel Records (Capitol/EMI) and another by Naxos.
The Angel recording is essentially this one, with someone else (identified
by Wikipedia as Ted Osborne) substituting for Arnold.  Since the narration
was recorded separately from the music, this substitution was possible, but
definitely not desirable.  It turns out that Arnold was a great reader of
poetry, with  a theater-trained voice that could have come from one of the
heads on Mt. Rushmore.  Furthermore, he's a good actor and avoids hamming it
up or larding the narration with cinematic piety.  The sound quality of the
Pristine betters the Angel -- cleaner, clearer, not so bass-heavy.  Naxos's
Genesis has the best sound quality because it's stereo, but the performance,
led by Gerard Schwarz, leaves much to be desired.  He uses many narrators,
for no good reason.  Naxos could have saved itself a bundle by sticking with
Fritz Weaver throughout.  Furthermore, the orchestrations of many of these
works were lost in a fire.  The Stravinsky and Schoenberg scores escaped,
thank goodness.  Since then, others, particularly the Castelnuovo-Tedesco,
have come to light.  You avoid all this if you get the Pristine, my
preference, because it uses the original recording.  If you just want the
Schoenberg and the Stravinsky, there are many other accounts that outdo

Woodworth's Piston, while interesting historically, has serious competition.
Schwarz issued an okay version with the Seattle Symphony (now on Naxos).
However, the best recording by far -- and a classic recording of American
music -- is the young Michael Tilson Thomas directing the Boston Symphony
(when I was hoping like mad he would succeed Steinberg; the conductorship
went instead, of course, to Ozawa).  This performance sets the roof on fire,
and the DG sound quality excites you all by itself.  In addition, you get
Ives's Three Places in New England and Ruggles's Sun-treader, again in
definitive performances.  You can get this disc as an ArkivCD from
www.arkivmusic.com, worth every penny.

Steve Schwartz

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