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The Music Box

By Martin P. Mayer

The task of commenting on the music commissioned for the Harvard Symposium's first concert seems a rather precarious one after Roger Sessions' afternoon address laying down his premises as to "The Scope of Musical Criticism."

Perhaps subsequent meetings will inject ramifications and contradictions to justify your reporter, but he was not able to approach, what was undoubtedly the most powerful and provocative work on the program of the expert Walden String Quartet "untroubled," as Mr. Sessions would have it, "by preconceived notions."

Arnold Schoenberg's String Trio, Opus 45, has extraordinary strength and spaciousness of sonority to widen this composer's usual sphere of unfiled phantasmagoria. It taxes the strings, quite successfully, to the hilt, with truncated, screeching tremolos, portamentos, and sounds produced with the back of the bow. But the more familiar this listener becomes with Schoenberg's devices, the less is he able to be content with the sheer magnificent discoveries of sounds, and the more is he confirmed in his preconception that a work of art demands by nature a connecting tissue alien to Schoenberg's methods.

Whether the composer adhered in this one movement Trio to the twelve-tone system or strict atonality seems no longer relevant, for this system is essentially something that merely schematizes a texture common to a variety of chromatic music written today. Chromaticism is merely one of several formulae conducive to an additive set of interrupted expostulations. And what we have, then, is not one work of art, but several, minute fragmentary ones. Only at fleeting instances when Schoenberg suddenly gave symmetry to his expression did its mastery and genius drive home to this prejudiced listener.

Retrospectively one could be grateful to Walter Piston for the long, flowing lines in his Third Quartet, which opened the program. As a member of the Harvard music faculty, and thus a host with appropriate deference to his guests, he perhaps cast this work in a less massive and less ambitious mold than some of his other works. But here were the familiar urbanity and affability, and the unadventurous continuation of Romantic tradition, strikingly fused with a wholly contemporary, classical economy, and the accompanying sense of fitness and of the exact point of surfeit.

That point is something not quite appreciated by Bohuslav Martinu, whose Sixth String Quartet closed the program, a work also in Romantic tradition. Remarkable musician that he is, Martinu gives us beautiful, Schubertian oscillations, but once again, as in his other works, one craves some positive, extended melodic ideas to superpose on the fine underlying continuity.

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