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History Revisited: Black Mountain at Chapel Hill

April 1, 2006 - Chapel Hill, NC:


For its annual symposium and related concerts, Festival on the Hill, UNC's Department of Music paid homage to the contributions to music in the mid-20th century of a unique institution in North Carolina: Black Mountain College near Asheville.

Founded in 1933 by John A. Rice, a scholar who left Rollins College in a storm of controversy, Black Mountain embraced John Dewey's principles of progressive education. Owned and operated by the faculty, the college was an experiment in participatory democracy with all members of the College community participating in its operation – which included farm work, construction projects and kitchen duty. The curriculum was centered on the arts, with the assumption that a strong liberal and fine arts education must be available both within and beyond the classroom. Combining communal living with an informal academic structure, Black Mountain created an environment conducive to the innovative interdisciplinary work in both the arts and sciences.

Simultaneously with the founding of the College was the rise of Nazism in Germany with its persecution of artists and intellectuals. Fleeing Germany for both aesthetic and often ethnic reasons, some of these displaced artists found their way to Black Mountain College either as students or faculty. Foremost among them were the painter Josef Albers, the conductor and musicologist Heinrich Jalowetz, and later the composer Stefan Wolpe.

The presence of these European luminaries attracted the most enterprising mavericks of the American arts community, particularly to the College's summer institutes. During its 23 years of existence, it hosted composers Lou Harrison and John Cage, choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, as well as painters Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell, Jacob Lawrence, Kenneth Noland, Ben Shahn, Franz Kline, futurist Buckminster Fuller and many others among its students and faculty. The college closed its doors in 1956 for lack of funds, but its influence is felt to this day.

Since Wolpe and Jalowitz had been followers of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, serialism was a centerpiece of the College's music curriculum and later became the dominant force in American classical music in the 1950s. Thus, it is not surprising that the Festival on the Hill featured serialism in two of its three concerts.

This review covers the Festival's third concert, devoted to the music of Alban Berg and especially Arnold Schoenberg. Although by the time of the College's opening, Berg would be dead in two years and Schoenberg – although a refugee – did not directly participate in the activities at Black Mountain, the Festival recognized the enormous influence of the Second Viennese School on Black Mountain's musical environment.

The program opened with Berg's Piano Sonata, Op. 1 – a work he wrote in 1908 for his "graduation" from Schoenberg's composition lessons and which he considered his first mature work. Performed with precision and intense feeling by UNC pianist Thomas Otten, the Sonata reveals Berg's romantic predilections and his tentative adoption of atonal techniques – although with all due respect, his teacher was also struggling with the same tendencies despite his future doctrinaire approach to serialism.

The remainder of the concert provided a glimpse of Schoenberg at various stages in his own development and relationship with tonality and atonality. UNC-CH music student Aaron Likness performed the Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19 (1911), a series of short works, described in the program notes as "aphoristic." One of the outgrowths of serialism, most notably characteristic of the works of Anton Webern, is a condensation of melodic, rhythmic, harmonic and contrapuntal resources that would allow the composer to say everything that needs to be said within the least amount of time. While the Op. 19 pieces are hardly Webern's style of musical haiku, Schoenberg tended to layer, and thereby condense, the compositional elements while still working within traditional classical structures. Likness performed these pieces with superb clarity and sensitivity for such a young pianist.

Progressing from early Schoenberg to late, violinist Richard Luby and pianist Elizabeth Tomlin performed the Phantasie for Violin with Piano Accompaniment, Op. 47 (1949). As one of the composer's last works, the Phantasie brings to fruition Schoenberg's most complex and intricate serial technique. Within the context of the fantasy – music's most free genre – the composer packed in an exciting range of rhythmic elements not generally found in his works. Luby played with such intensity and commitment that it would have been difficult for even the most anti-serial listeners not to be engaged.

The two final works on the program were piano transcriptions of two of Schoenberg's works involving orchestra: the "Wood Dove's Lied" from Gurrelieder (1900), performed by UNC-CH professors Terry Rhodes and Thomas Otten; and a two-piano transcription of the Chamber Symphony No. 2. Op. 38B (1938) played by retired UNC-CH duo pianists Francis Whang and Barbara Rowan. In both instances, we felt the loss of orchestral color.

Unfortunately, there was no text, translated or otherwise, to accompany the Gurrelieder, although the full symposium booklet contained a synopsis of the story. Gurrelieder represents Schoenberg still in his late-Romanticism stage in which dissonance, but not atonality, was a crucial and defining element of his style. Rhodes' ability as an actress and a superb musician largely compensated for a voice that has seen better days in its upper range. Fortunately, the Lied resides mostly in the lower register.

Although a relatively late work, composed after Schoenberg arrived in the United States, the Chamber Symphony No. 2 recalls the composer's early Romantic works. For all intents and purposes, Schoenberg abandoned the prohibition against melodic and harmonic intervals suggesting tonality; the work is full of triadic harmonies, with more than a hint of the Strausses – both Johann and Richard, here within an atonal context. As with the Gurrelieder excerpt, the transcription suffers from the absence of orchestral color, which often makes up for the general absence of rhythmic interest in the piece.

Studying the history of Black Mountain College is essential for an understanding of the development of American Classical music in the second half of the 20th century. The symposium, with its lectures and concerts, reminded us that broad and influential cultural movements frequently are initiated through the dedication of its proponents with very modest resources. Black Mountain is also important in the artistic history of North Carolina, where it existed as an important cultural resource within a still rural and artistically unsophisticated environment.