Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

Stephen Mager, D.M.

Music Director and Conductor, The Masterworks Chorale, Belleville, Illinois

Composer-in-Residence, the Bach Society of Saint Louis

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A few candid remarks from an operatic philistine

[Originally written in August, 2013]

While reviewing online videos, I ran across a new opera called “Written on Skin.” Why is contemporary opera so persistently and gratuitously bizarre? And perhaps more damning, why does it all sound the same? This stuff is novel, but it’s not really new. It’s like taking the effect music from a suspense-thriller TV show, and then obscuring all the action with comatose characters and garbling all the words by having them sung. This particular opera is sung in English, but the broadcast features French sub-titles, which were far more helpful than the singers’ diction. I didn’t even realize at first that it was in English. This is yet another attempt at a new opera, extravagant in its premiere, that will have a brief shelf life. The laws of supply and demand guarantee that there will always be enough young singers willing to sign on for ”contemporary” productions like this, in hopes of furthering their careers. But 99 out of 100 of those singers have no real interest in this sort of “art.” Why? because in a fundamental sense, the music is not idiomatic — it does very little to exploit the best features of the voice. It is long on empty rhetorical effect, very short on lyricism, and the singer is relegated to prattling on endlessly in inarticulate recitative.

I checked out of that after a while, and found a concert performance of Debussy’s “Pelléas,” thankfully, without stage direction. It sounds like real music. Perhaps that’s just because it’s familiar. But the reason things like this become familiar in the first place is that there is something about them, their patterns, their narrative flow, and their balance of contrasts, that jog the memory. Otherwise, we’re expected to experience music like a person suffering from dementia — one moment is no different than any other.

One facet that animates music is the element of surprise. Even Haydn’s music is surprising—it’s nothing new. But, it is indispensible to any interesting experience from music to movies to football games. Surprise depends on setting up expectations, and then shaping events to frustrate or delay those expectations, before gratifying them. Such expectations are an outcome of establishing patterns and discernible processes, which lead an observer to infer and anticipate a development. This means that the listener requires some hope of discerning a pattern or process, by relating a sequence of events, each event to its predecessor.

Music that fails to set up such expectations by a discernible pattern or point of reference, relinquishes the element of surprise. Some patterns are difficult to discern at first, but they become apparent with frequent listening. Music that, in effect, avoids projecting its processes to the point of utter obscurity, is wholly discernible only to its composer, and perhaps by slavish repetition by the performer, who at any rate has a score to follow – which is by definition a linear expression of the music, even if the linearity is not apparent in the music itself.

All communication demands some measure of resolution. Otherwise we are talking to ourselves.

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On Tonality and Atonality

Experience suggests that atonal music, including that of Schoenberg, Webern, and especially Berg, derives its effect precisely from its relationship to tonality, whether we hear anything tonal in the immediate context, or not. Tonality is one of the great, elemental human inventions, like mathematics or written language. It is not simply an accident of history, limited to another time and place, and it is not merely an artistic option, although it doesn’t preclude other compositional explorations. But the fact is, it was Schoenberg, with his private societies, closed concert rooms, and eventual retreat to the university—who prompted the inexorable academic arrogating of musical authority, and the subsequent prohibition of tonality as a foundation for contemporary “serious” composition. Schoenberg declared, “If it is art, it is not for all. If it is for all, it is not art.” Milton Babbitt took this declaration further, to assert, “Who cares if you listen?” To paraphrase Schoenberg, “If it is art, it not for anybody.” Or at least, not for anybody in particular.

Interestingly, Schoenberg, without doubt a great and original composer, himself also affirmed that there were “a lot of good pieces still to be written in C major” [cf. Roger Sessions, 1944].

Here is an interesting video addressing some these concerns: “How the West Rejected Nice Music a Century Ago,” by Steven Cassedy:

Here is a column by concert pianist Stephen Hough, which asserts similar points about the relationship of tonality and atonality, and the symbiosis that arises from this relationship:

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Observations on George Rochberg and deliberate anachronism

On hearing George Rochberg’s String Quartet # 3: The tonal portions of his quartets are very beautiful although, I suspect, not-quite-good-enough for Mahler. On second hearing, the music comes across more effectively, but even more Mahlerian, including some near-quotes from Mahler 9. In addition, the string quartet medium evokes aspects of early Schönberg—Verklärte Nacht, for instance. I am encouraged by Rochberg’s aesthetic, and I would like to hear more of his music, although I have the sense (in the little music of his that I have heard) that, were he strictly a tonal, “19th century” composer, his music would not be all that interesting, by comparison with the masters of that period. I think this is because, although he has clearly mastered the harmonic conventions and predilections of Mahler, for example, he doesn’t exhibit Mahler’s melodic gift — or perhaps deliberately avoids it. If you think of nearly all of Mahler’s thematic subjects, you’ll hear that they all have “profile.” Lots of wonderful, big leaps, and angular turns of phrase, that are somehow still singable and very memorable. A tonal musical texture made up simply of triads and suspensions with sevenths and ninths isn’t all that difficult to conjure up. By contrast, Rochberg’s serial music is good (for what it is), and he has clearly mastered it — although here again, I wonder whether the exigencies of serial method overshadow elementary “musical” sensibilities (e.g. tunefulness, resonant harmonic sonority, rhythmic “infectiousness,” and all-around memorability). And so his music, methodically constructed, can be made to sound effective by excellent performers schooled in other “musical” sensibilities, like lyric line, beautiful sonority, clean, precise rhythm, and a clear command of romantic and post-romantic musical rhetoric — all of which can make almost anything sound good. Rochberg, Symphony # 4: I am very interested to hear this, and I applaud Rochberg’s courage for composing in an academically proscribed idiom. This work reminds me of Ives’ First Symphony, which I admire more for its idiosyncracies than for its similarities with contemporaneous works. With Rochberg, the shoe is on the other foot, somehow. He seems to be flirting with an historic model, but doesn’t do so consistently, and one wishes he could. This is like an early work of Dvorak or rather, Korngold or Franz Schmidt: very Austro-German, with occasional excursions into mid-20th century Americana (something like Barber, Roy Harris, or Howard Hanson). If we are familiar with these other models, it is hard to know what make of Rochberg’s symphony. It would make excellent film noir music, but I don’t think that was his intent. It could do with a few tunes with real profile, not just soaring romantic effect, but real character, as in the music of Mahler, who so clearly inspires Rochberg. The middle movement (scherzo?) is a remarkable bridge between Mahler and Schoenberg. It really could pass for early 2nd Viennese School — it’s very good. But the ending of the work sounds almost academic — 19th century academic, that is. Ultimately, I suspect Rochberg composed in these contrasting idioms with much the same motivation as Gabriel Fauré, in writing his Requiem: purely for the pleasure of it. The problem is, nowadays, that’s not allowed.

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On musical rhetoric – an historical analogy

Here is an historical assessment of literature and rhetoric in the late Roman Empire. It provides an interesting analogue with the state of  serious” music and art in our own time. For the word “conventional,” substitute “academic.” For “gentleman,” substitute “contemporary composer.” For the names of Latin authors, substitute “Elliott Carter,” “Milton Babbitt,” or whomever you like. This proclivity in modernist and post-modernist art composing persists even to today.

Stephenson and Lyon’s Mediaeval History, for decades a standard text on medieval Europe, makes the following observation about education and learning, and in particular, the art of rhetoric in the fifth century Roman Empire [fourth (1962) edition, pp. 76-77]:

“In the time of the principate it had been customary for Romans of good birth to learn Greek… By the fifth century this was no longer true…  accordingly, the finest thought of the ancient world became inaccessible… other Roman studies had lost all contact with the realities of life.

“Traditionally, the mark of a gentleman was training in grammar and rhetoric—what we should recognize as literature and public speaking. But the goal of his ambition was now merely to compose and pronounce declamations on conventional subjects in a conventional way. According to the accepted standard, the truly cultured should never be interested in practical questions, should never say anything simply and directly. Themes had to be drawn from classical sources; argument had to proceed by the weaving together of literary allusions; the style had to be elevated, intricate, and ornate. The more difficult it was to understand what the author was driving at, the more necessary it was for the refined audience to applaud the product; and the narrower the group that could play the game according to the rules, the greater the distinction of belonging to it. Such was the circle of elegant conversationalists pictured for us in the pages of Macrobius (d. 423), and still reflected in the letters of Apollinaris Sidonius (d. 488) while the Goths were completing their conquest of southern Gaul.

“Under such circumstances, little could be expected of Latin literature in the fourth and fifth centuries. Although there were many writings, they all suffered from the blight of artificial rhetoric. The best historian of the age was Ammianus Marcellinus (330-400). As a literary artist, he was greatly inferior to Tacitus, whose work he sought to bring down to date… The compositions of Symmachus (c. 375), regarded by contemporaries as a peerless stylist, now seem only a mass of turgid phrases, quite empty of meaning. Much of the same criticism can be made of Ausonius (c. 375), whose poetry, while occasionally giving us a valuable glimpse of the author’s native Gaul, is generally wearisome. Claudian (late fourth century) is better; he at least knew how to compose musical verse in the true classical manner—enough to mark him as a genius in that age—but his subjects were unworthy…”

What goes around, comes around.

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Illuminations given at 2013 National Flute Convention

August 10, 2013 – There will be a performance of excerpts from the song cycle, Illuminations
at the 2013 National Flute Association convention in New Orleans. The performance will be given by piccolo soloist Jan Gippo, together with guest harp and soprano soloists. Mr. Gippo, retired piccolo soloist with the Saint Louis Symphony, commissioned the work and gave the first performance in 2002. Listen to brief excerpts (tracks 6-11, courtesy of from a recording by Janice Fiore, soprano; Lois Bliss Herbine, piccolo; and Sophie Bruno Labiner, harp.

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Sept. 2012 – MacMillan Conference at Notre Dame

Stephen Mager participated in a Festival Conference on sacred music at the University of Notre Dame, to join a panel of American composers, along with featured guest composer, James MacMillan. The conference, James MacMillan and the Musical Modes of Mary and the Cross, was held September 13-15, 2012, concluding with the premiere performance of MacMillan’s motet, Cum vidisset Jesus and other sacred works. Stephen took part in a panel discussion about the composition and performance of sacred music today.

For more information about this program at the University of Notre Dame:

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Premiere of New Choral Work

A new major work by Stephen Mager, the Te Deum for soprano solo, SATB chorus and organ, was premiered on April 29, 2012 by the Bach Society of Saint Louis, with organist David Erwin, under the direction of Dr. A. Dennis Sparger. The performance featured soprano soloists Erica Rosebrock and Darcie Johnson. The concert, part of a memorial concert in honor of the late Sanford McDonnell, took place at the Ladue Chapel in Saint Louis, Missouri. The Te Deum is an extended work in four movements.

Click on the links to listen:

Movement I:

Movement II:

Movement III:

Movement IV:

[See Composer for more details.]

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In defense of fine arts – I

5 May, 2012. The following remarks were prompted by a discussion I had recently about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his critical stance on the National Endowment for the Arts.

As someone whose work (and yes, musicians really do work!) is a contribution to American cultural life, I would like to further address a topic we touched upon, the National Endowment for the Arts. Arts organizations like mine (the Masterworks Chorale, Belleville, Illinois) have benefited from the NEA, so I support it. I suggest it is clearly in the nation’s interest to support the fine and performing arts, for the same reason that the federal government supports the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, the National Parks, and a host of national monuments and historic sites. (The Smithsonian Institution alone receives five or six times the federal funding received by the NEA–to say nothing of the exorbitant funding directed to national defense.) At the local level (Saint Louis, Missouri), we have the Art Museum (free), the History Museum (free), the Zoo (free), the municipal parks system (free) –all tax supported. Are these merely luxuries and frivolities? I suggest they are all part of a national patrimony that says something about who and what we are, and represents an enlightened vision of the kind of world in which we want to live.

Let’s consider some of the great sites and institutions of other countries, for example, the Louvre, the British Museum, the Parthenon, the Uffizi, the Colosseum, French cathedrals, and dozens of other monuments and “attractions.” To visit one of these places with anything more than mere curiosity, one must admit that it’s a good thing that somebody (read: national governments) saw fit to keep these institutions standing.

We are all at liberty to take an interest in art and music and dance and theatre, or not, but I suggest that, if we were each to examine our individual lives and experiences, we would see signs that all of us benefit from a public system which invests in some of the intangible expressions of a humanizing, civilizing way of life. Those expressions include art music, whether some people understand and care about it or not.

Have there been misappropriations of NEA funds? Yes, of course, and I believe that artistic standards need some careful reassessment. But, if our government truly is “of the people,” then it represents the public will to order its own way of life, and to invest in its own well-being. In a liberal capitalist system where freedom of action is easily abused, and aggressive private enterprise blithely tramples on its competition, the public must maintain the right, through its government, to moderate its own affairs, and keep the playing field level and civil, for the sake of standards of justice and civility. By the same token, this society must have the freedom and means to invest in its public cultural expressions, for the sake of a finer, civil quality of community life. To suggest that government is strictly about defense and highways, or bread and circuses, is to propose a very utilitarian, colorless, and ultimately oppressive way of life.

To quote from John Adams: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” (12 May 1780)

Now, there is an American ideal.

Commentary © 2012 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.

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In defense of fine arts – II

6 May, 2012. The following is a continuation of my discussion of the National Endowment for the Arts and the issue of public support for the performing arts.

Some will point to our accelerating national deficit as an area of grave concern. Yes, of course, this is a valid concern. But compared to excessive defense spending, NEA is a drop in the bucket — it just so happens that NEA has been the object of some controversy, so it’s politically savvy to take aim at something like that, diverting attention from the more serious, less-easily-soluble budget dilemmas. Obscene amounts of money have been spent compiling a nuclear arsenal, and now more obscene amounts of money are being spent neutralizing that arsenal in the interests of international disarmament, and replacing it with other, conventional and stealth weapons and defense systems. Obscene amounts of money are wasted on experimental weapons systems that don’t pan out. Every time a plane is lost, as in the recent crash in Virginia, that represents many millions of dollars. How come there’s so much money to blow on that sort of folly? By my estimate, the cost of the NEA for a year is roughly equivalent to five downed F-18′s.

Some critics ask why performing and visual artists shouldn’t be out there hustling for their income like everyone else. Indeed, they do it all the time. The fact is, the cost of art, music, dance, etc. far exceeds ticket admissions income. Arts organizations depend primarily on support from the private sector from people who recognize their contribution to a higher quality of life. Artists don’t sell a tangible product that can be commodified, mass-produced, and sold cheaply at competitive rates, although in fact they try to keep admission prices affordable, which means losing money. The arts, like education, are never going to be cost-effective — that’s just an inappropriate set of criteria — but I suggest that an enlightened society would eliminate support for these intangibles at its own peril.

What it comes down to is a value judgment, and I suggest that all of us are far more favorably affected by the constructive cultural aspects of American life than we know. Society is not equivalent to the government, but government is one of society’s principal means for ordering itself, and we in society have a right to direct that government to uphold certain standards of living, and that includes not only law and order, but aesthetic values, too: museums and libraries and parks and worthy arts organizations.

Balance the budget — yes! — but if there’s excessive spending, let’s get after the real drains on the coffers — it’s not arts and education. That’s small potatoes. And it’s an easy mark for noisy politicians who want to score quick political points but really have no idea how to get to the heart of the problem.

Commentary © 2012 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.

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In defense of fine arts – III

9 May, 2012. The third and final installment in a discussion of the value and significance of public funding for the arts.

In advocating the elimination of national support of the arts, some people are arguing economics. I suggest we look beyond that, and  consider our fundamental values, because the money we spend is an indication of those values. There’s government money spent in support of all sorts of projects representing all sorts of values, whether it be environmental concerns, energy alternatives, space exploration (originally sparked by national defense!), scientific research, urban renewal, education, arts and humanities, etc. If we’re going to say, there’s no more money to go around, so let’s cut it all out, everybody’s on his own, then fine. But that’s not going to happen. In a democratic society, we have the means to reach a consensus about our values, and commit our resources to promoting those values. Neither Republicans nor Democrats show any inclination to change that — they are simply squabbling over which values to promote.

I’m suggesting that, 1.) the arts, education, and humanities ought to be counted among our society’s values; and 2.) although some of our cultural patrimony does not take a visible, palpable form — dance and music, for example — it is no less real than painting, sculpture, and architecture. Consider for a moment those tangible arts — the things you’ll find in a publicly funded museum, for instance — from the opposite point of view, as performing arts. They are all about performance. The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s David, the Arc de Triomphe: these are all examples of bravura artistic performances — it’s just that the performing is essentially completed, and is preserved in a concrete form. Great music and dance are more fragile than that, and notwithstanding recordings and videos, which are mere records, like art prints — in genuine terms, these art forms must be continually re-created. But they are no less real, and possibly even more profound. Because they are performances in sound and movement that take place in time, they have a dynamism and emotional power that is not limited to two or three dimensions.

Although all of these things might be described as leisure pursuits, they are not mere diversions. Entertainment is a very broad term, including everything from Seinfeld to professional wrestling. The best art and music is intended to offer much more, to prompt people to think and feel. Not all live performances are world-class, but any good performance has much to communicate to a receptive listener/viewer.

Perhaps even more important, performing arts are not just about the product (e.g. the concert, the CD, the video), but about the process. It’s not just the concert, but the preparation that matters. What sets classical music apart from most other kinds of musical entertainment, is the sheer number of performers, amateur as well as professional, that can participate in a choral or orchestral performance. The power of a community of sympathetic individuals coming together to a common expressive purpose is not to be underestimated. There is in this kind of musical enterprise a dynamic process of cooperation, symbiosis and resonance that is virtually unmatched in all of humanity’s constructive activities–and without benefit of sound systems and enhancements, editing, light shows, or smoke and mirrors. In an average-sized program like mine, concerts can involve up to 100 people, not counting the audience. The individual and collective rewards for the community of such a patently social artistic endeavor are immeasurable. And nearly anyone with some elementary skills can participate: it is the most democratic of art forms. Is there any more fundamental American value?

Commentary © 2012 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.

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