Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Genesis Suite

I've long been fascinated by The Genesis Suite (1945), a project of the composer and conductor Nathaniel Shilkret, and the closest that Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schönberg would ever come to collaborating.

Shilkret's idea was to commission seven composers -- Schönberg, Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Alexandre Tansman, Ernst Toch, and Shilkret himself -- to write pieces for narrator, orchestra and choir based on episodes in the first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis. Of the seven movements, only Schönberg's Prelude and Stravinsky's Babel survived in print and as repertoire pieces, if fairly rare ones. The scores to Milhaud's Cain and Abel and Castelnuovo-Tedesco's The Flood could be located in manuscripts. The full scores of the remaining pieces, Shilkret's Creation, Tansman's Adam and Eve, and Toch's The Covenant (The Rainbow), were apparently destroyed in a fire in Shilkret's house, but a short score format used for securing copyrights could be used for a recent (2000) reconstruction by Patrick Russ.

As a whole, the "Suite" probably ought best be taken as an artifact of a lost era of Hollywood music making, a scene in which Shilkret was a player, and some of the music is definitely over the top as is only possible in Hollywood (it's too bad that no recording of Edward Arnold's original narration survived; Arnold was a commanding and subtle performer, not at all bombastic). But there are still Schönberg's Prelude and Stravinsky's Babel to consider. The Prelude, as the musicologist Carl Dahlhaus noted, is an audacious idea: to write music representing that which comes before creation, Schönberg chose to write a movement containing a twelve-tone fugue, an audacious notion in itself, given the intimacy between the fugal form and tonal forces. Stravinsky's Babel, on the other hand, is a minor work but nevertheless an excellent primer in Stravinsky's orchestration technique, with surprising details in voicing and register.

The Milken Archive has a good page about this project, which details the history of The Genesis Suite and the recovery and reconstruction of the lost movements, which is available on a Naxos recording.

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