The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra's first concert of 2014 bears the uncannily precise motto, "New Year Modern."
If we take musical "Modernism" as an historical period — as opposed to the word modern's literal meaning ("of the present day") — the program fits perfectly under its motto. We'll hear François Poulenc's cheeky Deux Marches et un Intermede (1937), the suite from Aaron Copland's epoch-making ballet Appalachian Spring (1944), Igor Stravinsky's definitively neo-classical Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra (1925) and Alberto Ginastera's exciting and brilliant Variaciones Concertantes (1953).
The principal philosopher of what we now think of as Modernism was English writer Thomas Edward "T. E." Hulme, who was killed by an artillery shell on the Western front in 1917. Hulme was a friend of poet and essayist Ezra Pound, painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, sculptor Jacob Epstein and several other modern artists. (Inevitably, Lewis and Hulme had a falling out — both were pugilistic in their approach to life — but when the German shell landed on the mess hall where Hulme was having breakfast, Lewis was less than 1,000 yards away.)
After Hulme's death, his friend Herbert Read — poet, art critic, editor, anarchist — edited and published a slim volume called Speculations (1924), containing about half of Hulme's published writings. In 1965, Sam Hynes collected the remaining pieces by Hulme into a book called Further Speculations. In addition to his original work, including five exquisite poems, Hulme published translations of Henri Bergson's Introduction to Metaphysics and Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence, both of which remain the standard, definitive renderings of those important works.
Hulme saw that the old intellectual order known as Humanism and the old aesthetic order known as Romanticism — he called them "general attitudes" — were both breaking down, and he was concerned to take part in building what came after. His thoughts on Humanism need not concern us, but his rejection of Romanticism is directly relevant to this concert.
In his essay "Romanticism and Classicism," Hulme contrasts the two attitudes with stunning clarity: "Put shortly, these are the two views, then. One, that man is intrinsically good, spoilt by circumstance; and the other that he is intrinsically limited, but disciplined by order and tradition to something fairly decent. To the one party, man's nature is like a well, to the other like a bucket. The view which regards man as a well, a reservoir full of possibilities, I call the romantic; the one which regards him as a very finite and fixed creature, I call the classical." His view of man's nature caused Lewis to dub his friend, "Hulme of Original Sin."
"[T]he first attempt to formulate a different attitude," Hulme wrote, "[is] always a return to archaism …" This is much more easily illustrated than explained. Petrarch's and Boccaccio's rediscovery of ancient Greek and Latin texts sparked the so-called "Renaissance." Luther's and Calvin's study of the Bible in the original languages produced the "Reformation." Both the American and French revolutions sought to revive the spirit of the Roman Republic. Pablo Picasso's discovery of primitive art revolutionized his own. Stravinsky's embrace of the 18th century music of Johann Sebastian Bach and others led to the movement known as neo-classicism, which held sway in the music world during most of the period covered by the works on this program.
It doesn't have to be something as aristocratic as Bach. Vaughan Williams delved deeply into the works of the 16th century polyphonist Thomas Tallis, but he also collected a huge number of folk tunes, as did Bartok, Holst, Kodaly and many others. Poulenc was even more heretical, lifting circus tunes and cabaret numbers from their context and working them deftly into music of great subtlety and grace. Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland changed American music, and helped define it, by using folk songs and hymns as thematic reference points and emotional generators in their "classical" works for the concert hall and ballet stage. Ginastera's music draws extensively from the traditions of the Argentine Gaucho, but sounds as "neo-classical" as anything by Stravinsky (except, perhaps, the "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto.
All of the music in this concert is beautiful, some of it even pretty. None of it plays Shock the Bourgeois. The mood is light, mainly and often ironic, never cynical.
Tickets to this SBCO concert are $48, and can be purchased by calling the orchestra at 805.966.2441 or online by clicking here.