Beyer Notes for Germany Concert

Beyer, Program Notes



January 3, 1999

Johanna Magdalena Beyer: Total Eclipse

by Larry Polansky

Recently, Johanna Magdalena Beyer, almost totally silent for the past 50 years, is beginning to make her voice heard. Between her death in 1944 and the late 1980s, when John Kennedy and Charles Wood of Essential Music began to play some of her works, and I started to research her life and publish her scores via Frog Peak Music, almost nothing was performed or known about her (with the exception of an unusual and somewhat misleading recording of tonight's Music of the Spheres). Although in the last five years or so there have been a number of important performances (like the festival of her music given by the Astra Chamber Society in Melbourne, Australia, Sarah Cahill's performances of the piano music, and a few others), Beyer and her music still exist at the periphery of our historical understanding. Even with major works like the piano pieces Dissonant Counterpoint and Gebrauchs-Musik, the extraordinary second string quartet, and other wonderful pieces, it could be that the same forces, whatever those might be, that kept her in "total eclipse" for so long are still at work. Many of the pieces, of course, like tonight's Fragment for Chamber Orchestra, have still not been performed.

Publication of her work continues: hopefully, a new edition of the choral works will be available soon, edited by John McCaughey, who gave them their modern premier. When recordings start to emerge (still virtually nothing), Beyer and her music will assume a more appropriate place in the history of American experimental music. As Beyer becomes more of an "acceptable" topic for musicological research (why, after all, work on someone unknown?), performance (in our age of first impressions why take risks with music this subtle and aesthetically obscure?), we will perhaps learn a great deal more about this extraordinary, though brief, musical life.

Pieces for clarinet and soprano

The 3 Songs for Clarinet and Soprano (NY51, K36) and Ballad of the Star Eater (NY1, K35)1are both from 1934. It is possible that they were among the few of her own pieces Beyer heard performed in her lifetime, at a Composers' Forum Laboratory concert, on May 20, 1936, but it is still uncertain. A brief New York Times review refers to a Suite for Soprano and Clarinet on this concert, which could be some sort of combination of Ballad of the Star-Eater and Three Songs. No program of this concert has yet been found, and Beyer's "cv" is unclear about that concert, but does list the clarinet piece as being performed in Boston on January 29th, 1936, by Rosario Mazzeo, clarinet. The 3 Songs... were perhaps given their modern premiere by Craig Hill and Merlyn Quaife on the Astra Chamber Society concert of Beyer's music, December 1996. Both these scores are available from the Frog Peak/Johanna Beyer Project, ...Star-Eater edited and copied by composer/writer Charles Shere, 3 Songs... by composer Mark Warhol.

These two pieces were composed while Beyer's major influences included Cowell, Ruth Crawford and Charles Seeger. She was working with a heterophonic style similar to that embodied by, for example, Ruth Crawford's Diaphonic Suites, and explicated to some extent by Charles Seeger's theories of dissonant counterpoint. But these ideas found an unusual transformative voice in Beyer's work, which synthesized the formal and extremely modernist techniques of Seeger with a more European romanticism, and a quirky sense of humor. Beyer wrote the texts for the songs (...Star-Eater is by Bonaro Wilkonson Overstreet), and the poems are replete with a kind of idealistic mysticism that also bespeaks a certain dark desperation and a great loneliness (something which seems evident from what little we know about her life). "But though men try time and again, these longing elements flee back, hiding their shame: 'misunderstood,' wearing mourning veils another time untold!"

The clarinet writing, though difficult, is not as abstract as her prior suites for clarinet (which are extraordinary articulations of the dissonant counterpoint style). Rather, in these songs the harmonic and rhythmic dissonance are put at the service of the voice part, which is much simpler. Full of trills, polyrhythms, glissandi, and extremes of register and dynamics, the clarinet is restless where the voice is insistent. It is difficult to know which of these two "pieces" came first: ...Star-Eater, with its beautiful cumulative clarinet opening, and three longer sections combined into one continuous work, could be thought of as a later "novel" written after the 3 "short stories." However, there is no way of knowing.

Fragments for Chamber Orchestra (K47, NY12)

Almost nothing is known about this piece, and to the best of my knowledge, this will be its first performance. Scored for chamber orchestra (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, french horn, violin, viola, 'cello, double bass, percussion) and piano, it dates from January 1937, after a great deal of the percussion music, but before Beyer's mental and physical health appear to have declined radically (from about 1941 to her death). It is a short, 113 measure work, dedicated to Hans Lange, a conductor active in contemporary music in New York in the 1930's. The dedication, as with many other Beyer dedications (like a similar one to Stokowski in a different piece) does not necessarily mean that Beyer had a significant relationship with him, or even knew him, much less that he performed the work. Rather, in this period, as a kind of informal secretary to Henry Cowell (and while he was imprisoned, or "at his important post" as Beyer put it, in San Quentin), Beyer would often include her own scores when mailing out Cowell's scores in response to requests. This seems somewhat tragic now, and this (brief) practice of Beyer's has provoked some derision (perhaps ill-considered). But it may be more an indication of her serious desperation in not having her own work performed (and thus not being to grow as she should compositionally), and also, of her own perceptions regarding her relationship to Cowell. I believe that upon finally hearing this work, and others (like the band works Elation and Reverence, and the works for orchestra) we will gain a much more complete understanding of Beyer's musical ideas.

Music of the Spheres (NY 47. K24)

This short 127 measure movement, scored for "three electrical instruments" (or strings with lion's roar and triangle) was from the unfinished opera Status Quo, a project which Beyer considered to be a kind of major work. It was written in 1938, and meant as a transition between a section marked "Screen: Starsystems..." and "leading into: Introduction" "Lento-Moderato-Lento." Very little seems to have been written (or remains) of this opera, but a one page "plan" (reprinted in the Musical Quarterly article) and an "announcer's" introduction remain (found in her letters to Percy Grainger):

Voice: (Announcer)

Presently we will hear Music of the Spheres, see star systems happenings of the Universe, to remind us of eternal truth, beauty, infinity[s:?]. We will see our earth, floods, vegetation, ancient animals, and some of our ancestors.

On the stage two primitive creatures roam around in darkness. We hear a cry, a wail-stops [?] in response: sound and rhythm are herewith given. And in this introduction we will witness the development of these two elements into music from the very primitive to the complicated of our day.

When arrived at the use of most complex rhythm, melody, harmony, we find ourselves in America, the U.S.A. And we better be prepared, for here we will experience cause and effect of complex music: life at a Sturm and [sic] Drang period: stress, uncertainty, the restlessness of 1938/1939.

After this we will travel to other islands, continents, other climates, surroundings, circumstances and be anxious to find out, what other influences may do to music, into what our two elements: sound and rhythm have developed there.

We will find, that everywhere, music is closely related to life and that there are developed in music various systems — some thousands of years old. And although this or that system of music from other countries is unfamiliar to us, we must be tolerant and interested, as we are in the lives of these different peoples, and them we will experience, that these strange sounds have a certain beauty. The understanding and joy of it will increase to the degree of our interest in it.

In the last act, just before having another glimpse of eternity, people from all these countries will unite in a dance. Tolerance and cooperation will be the motives. The music to this dance is an attempt to unite features of different music systems to a rather substantial harmonious whole.

And with this accomplished we will join the spheres once more.

This wonderful little work is the source of most of the confusion about Beyer (prior to the work done by John Kennedy and myself), who was often cited as "an early American woman composer of electronic music" because of the appearance of this piece, reorchestrated for analog electronic musical instruments by the Electronic Weasel Ensemble from the Bay Area (which included Allen Strange and Don Buchla), on an important LP of electronic music by women composers produced by Charles Amirkhanian (now re-released on CD).

String Quartet #2 (K21, NY33)

Written in July, 1936, this quartet is in four parts: Alegretto (49 measures, 2 minutes), Largo (three minutes, 53 measures), Moderato (97 measures, two minutes), Allegro quasi Presto (78 measures, one minute). Although it is somewhat related her to String Quartet #1 (NY32, K20, 1933-4), it is musically quite different The other two string quartets, Movement for String Quartet (Dance) (K22, NY6, NY17, 1938), and String Quartet No. 4 (K23, NY34, 1943?) are works of very different character. In fact, the second string quartet is unique among Beyer's music, and, in my opinion, a kind of little masterpiece which reveals, in a number of ways, some of the most beautiful aspects of her compositional imagination. The Frog Peak edition of this work was edited and copied by Pamela Marshall. The quartet was played on the Astra Chamber Society concert (and is being recorded) by a quartet led by violinist Briar Goessi. I am thankful to Briar and the quartet for helping me in a number of important ways with the final preparation of the Frog Peak edition.

This quartet is clearly inspired by Ruth Crawford's, especially in the way it uses a single, transparent idea for each movement (characteristic of the last two movements of the Crawford). In Beyer's quartet, it is even more "united" (to paraphrase Cowell's quartet) by the use of Papageno's aria from Mozart's Die Zauberflote: "Ein Mädchen oder Wiebchen...," as the 'cello part for two of the movements, stretched out to be a kind of groundbass (in 3/8 or 2/4).

In the first movement, the tune is altered chromatically in the 'cello (such as the G-# and C-# in measures 11 and 12). The other parts, particularly the first violin, play a kind of complex counterpoint, using written out accelerandi (via grupetti). Often the tune is used by other instruments in almost random chromatic displacement (like the 1st violin part, from m. 23 on). The movement ends in a, typically Beyeresque, ungainly and strange dissonant pizzicato chorale over the tune (the 1st violin and viola moving up in half-steps, the 2nd violin moving down). Movement II is reminiscent of the famous third movement of the Ruth Crawford String Quartet. It consists of a continual crescendo/descrecsendo texture which emphasizes timbre over melody, harmony and rhythm. There is even a kind of explosion (measure 32 in the Beyer) similar to the one that occurs in the Crawford piece. The aria does not seem to appear here. Movement III is a study in superimposed meters (there are even counting instructions added in pencil in one of the original manuscripts). The 'cello and viola are in 4/8 (2/4), violins in 3/8. The movement is based around a lovely, and slightly varying viola solo (in fact, it is unclear from the manuscripts whether or not some of the slight variations are copying mistakes!). The last movement is especially interesting: the Mozart aria is the passacaglia bass in the 'cello, the inner parts are continuous glissandi (see String Quartet I, Presto, Movement IV), and the violin part is a combination of glissandi and seconds.

For more on Beyer...

For more on Beyer and her work, see the article "TOTAL ECLIPSE: The Music of Johanna Magdalena Beyer, An Introduction and Preliminary Annotated Checklist," by John Kennedy and Larry Polansky, in the Musical Quarterly, 80(4):719-778, Winter. In addition, Frog Peak Music (A Composers' Collective) ( has published two volumes of her scores in annotated performance editions. 1 These catalog numbers represent the number of the manuscript in the New York Public Library of Beyer's work (NY#) and the catalog which John Kennedy and I have made of the pieces themselves (K#), as described in our Musical Quarterly article.