Eliot Circular

Listening to 1912

Chamber Music NW musicians salute professor David Schiff (far right) at the premiere of “Class of 1915.”
Photo by Jim Leisy

By James McQuillen ’86

Reed’s first students embarked on their college career during a period in Western music as momentous as any, with the crumbling of systems of form and harmony, influences from far beyond Europe, and an impending flood of new genres that would soon push the old ones into side channels and backwaters. It was ever thus, you could argue, but like the political upheavals going on at the time, the transformation put paid to the past in radical fashion and set the course for the last century right up to now.

Chamber Music Northwest commemorated the era in February at Kaul Auditorium with a brilliant program meant to evoke the world of 1911-15, part of both this year’s Reediana Omnibus Musica Philosopha (ROMP!) and the college’s rolling centennial celebration.

The evening began with the premiere of “Class of 1915,” mostly arrangements of popular dances of the time, by professor David Schiff [music 1980–]. The first movement combined five foxtrots by African-American composers including Luckyeth Roberts and Will Vodery, mentors to the young Duke Ellington; the third was a rip-roaring rendition of James Reese’s “Castle House Rag.” Between them was a sultry, striding homage to W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” with quotes from the original and a soulful spotlight for the bass clarinet. The instrumentation lent both brightness and cohesion to the evening; the rhythms swung, giving a hint of what the first Reedies danced to when they took a break from the books.

The program also featured Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which Stravinsky once described as “the solar plexus as well as the mind of 20th-century music.” Written in 1912, the piece comprises 21 settings of poems by Belgian symbolist Albert Giraud. The poems’ imagery is strikingly strange, with “black gigantic butterflies,” a bloodied communion wafer, and Pierrot smoking through a trepanned skull. Schoenberg’s instrumental writing captures their nocturnal brightness as well as their sense of the macabre.

ROMP! is supported by the  Garcetti Fund, established by Sukey Roth Garcetti ’61 [trustee  1987–2003].