Jorge E. López (XXX-XI-MCMLV) – A 65th Birthday Tribute

by Richard Whitehouse

Early in 2002, anyone who acquired Hänssler Classic’s collection marking the 75th birthday of Michael Gielen (now mostly incorporated into SWR Music’s multi-volume archival series) might have been surprised to read about this conductor’s ‘‘view of the works of music history from Johann Sebastian Bach to George Lopez’’. Could this statement merely be identifying a convenient endpoint, at the turn of the new millennium, from which retrospectively to survey the 250-year heyday of Western musical culture, or is it something more closely akin to fact?

Jorge E. López (he now prefers the original Spanish version of his name), whose 65th birthday falls this Monday, can look back over four decades of creativity which has resulted in a select catalogue of mainly large-scale works which has provoked and intrigued listeners throughout Western Europe. A composer, then, who has taken the path less trod to recognition, yet whose music has few equals among that of his contemporaries in the scope of its ambition and range of expression. Not that López was an early starter. Born in Havana, he emigrated to the United States in 1960, growing up in New York and Chicago prior to studying at California Institute for the Arts. Of greatest benefit here was his exploration of the Second Viennese School with Leonard Stein, while the distinctive surrealist aesthetic of the Australian artist and film-maker Don Levy was to have decisive consequences. López sketched without completing any major works when living at Portland and Seattle in the later 1970s, while his frequent and extensive excursions into the nearby mountain ranges were in themselves a potent source of inspiration.

It was one of those pieces López went on to write that established him as a composer. In the autumn of 1981, he sent several pages from the still-unfinished Landscape with Martyrdom to Michael Gielen, then principal conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – whose positive response encouraged him to proceed with its realization. Having taken on the SWR Symphony Orchestra in Baden, Gielen oversaw its premiere in Donaueschingen in October 1987: a performance that, commercially issued five years later, gained widespread attention.

For composers nearing thirty can have produced an Opus 1 as represents a creative blueprint for all that followed, but Landscape is one such piece. Its title taken from a canvas by Pieter Breughel, these 35 minutes unfold a narrative engendered by, in López’s words, ‘‘the stream of sound which is in a state of incessant transformation’’. That such an eventful and intricate process is realized at what might be termed an ‘aural remove’ is just the most striking aspect of music whose emotional intensity operates as if in inverse proportion to its dynamic impact. Close listening, however, confirms an evolution at least methodical and at most symphonic in its highly personal mode of developing variation; one which subsumes what López terms the ‘‘three poles … of inanimate nature, of the individual and of the individual in violent conflict with society’’. Multiple parallels could be drawn across various art-forms – though, at least in musical terms, a synthesis drawn from the idioms of Ives, Varèse and Schoenberg is brought to a fruition that others in the later twentieth century had often attempted but seldom attained.

The outcome of this premiere was twofold: López remained in Europe (first in Germany and, since 1992, in Austria) where subsequent performances have almost all taken place; while the association with Gielen was continued with first hearings for the large-scale orchestral works Breath-Hammer-Lightening in its revised version, and Dome Peak in its original and revised versions. These both build on the potential of ‘Landscape’, albeit with a more visceral impact and, in the latter piece, a spatial element built into the discourse as was to take on increasing significance over the next decade. There were also intricately wrought ensemble pieces such as Blue Cliffs and Das Auge des Schweigens (its title taken from Max Ernst, whose art-work has been a recurring point of reference), and Tagebucheintragungen 1975-79 – whose rather matter-of-fact title, while accurate in indicating the use of material from that time, belies the intense power and pathos as well as sheer sense of emotional space in what ranks among the most poetic and also affecting orchestral statements from the final quarter of the last century.

The remainder of the 1990s saw several works as confront the conventions and artificialities of concert presentation head-on. Chief among these are Schatten vergessener Ahnen, with a scenic element of primal oppression and its apparent overcoming, or Strada degli Eroi where conductor and organist are locked in a remorseless conflict for supremacy over the orchestra. That neither piece risks indulgence or hubris says much about López’s control of long-term formal and expressive tension; with a serious point made as to listeners’ essentially passive expectations. Nor is this seriousness at the expense of a certain sardonic humour – hence the earthy onomatopoeia of the William Burroughs-inspired Gonzales the Earth Eater with its distinctive use of Wagner Tuba, increasingly a key component of López’s musical armoury.

The culmination of this phase is Gebirgskriegsprojekt, where the natural environment of the Austrian Alps finds contrast with activities of the Italian army on the Alpine front. Archival footage, the filming of which during the First World War itself constituted an act of heroism, is duly integrated with a pre-recorded ensemble such that sound and visuals are brought into inextricable accord; natural and human phenomena imbued with an awe both inspiring and alarming. Comparable interplay of opposing sources is evident in the earlier ensemble work Kampfhandlungen/Traumhandlungen, which yet adopts a more systematic trajectory akin to Xenakis’s arborescence processes, while also anticipating the personal accommodation with symphonic thinking which has become predominant in López’s output over the past 15 years.

Following the orchestral Disparates, with its evocation of Goya’s ‘black’ canvasses as well as allusions to Beethoven’s contemporaneous Op. 126 Bagatelles for a sequence that exudes unnervingly ominous humour, came Symphonie Fleuve whose two movements constitute a horn concerto like no other. Here, soloist and orchestra are drawn into a musical flow where confrontational and dreamlike aspects undergo evolution itself rationalized by development and reprise, albeit with no sense of a coming together in those darkly annihilistic final stages.

That López was directed thus comes as no surprise for one who, from his earliest years, was drawn to the radical avant-garde but also the alternative symphonism exemplified by such as Havergal Brian and Allan Pettersson. As he himself hears it, ‘‘symphonic composition is for me honesty and self-realization’’, and there could have been no more explicit demonstration of this than in the four so-designated works which followed. That the initial two of these are scored for relatively modest ensembles does not detract in any sense from their overall scope.

In four continuous movements, the First (Chamber) Symphony finds its motivic components in a continual state of flux – an underlying momentum emerging in spite (or maybe because) of those sharply defined ideas whose mutability overrides sectional divisions before reaching fulfilment, albeit oblique, in the final movement (which the composer has since extended, this yet un-heard definitive version likely proving more conclusive). Its subtitle ‘The Last Spring’ derived from Hungarian poet Endre Ady, the Second (Chamber) Symphony unfolds over five movements that might suggest a Mahlerian trajectory – though, once again, it is the long-term potential of seemingly casual motifs which afford continuity and cohesion in the face of more disjunct gestures; with a conclusion the more inevitable for seeming to emerge out of nothing.

López’s subsequent symphonies both project their formal and expressive concerns onto larger orchestral canvases. Beethoven’s final piano sonata has been cited as precedent, to which the Third Symphony’s trajectory is not beholden in any overt sense; rather – several other pieces resonate to a greater or lesser degree for what becomes a process of transformation from one movement to the other, so that the persistence of memory plays a more than usually decisive role in determining the ultimate outcome. Such is also true of the Fourth Symphony, but here the three movements proceed as a 45-minute continuity which has been likened to ‘morphed Bruckner’ in its overall scale and grandeur. If this also suggests a reaching across musical or cultural epochs, any such desire towards integration hardly equates with that ‘going back’ in much recent symphonic writing. It is still tempting to recall Elliott Carter as saying the most provocative act a living composer could make would be to write a Brahms Fourth Symphony for the present. Whether or not this were López’s intention, it might just be his achievement.

Since the premiere of that latter work, López has composed a Concerto for Bass Trumpet and written most of a First Orchestral Set which will incorporate orchestrations of Alkan and Ives along with original material. He is currently finishing a Fifth Symphony, the second of its two movements featuring extracts from the novel Juliette by Marquis de Sade, as well as planning a stage-work on the last evening in the life of the Transylvanian mathematician János Bolyai – a visionary whose musical successors have had a major role in determining López’s outlook.

Meanwhile, López’s works continue to be championed by such conductors as Peter Eötvös, Ilan Volkov or Marin Alsop; and by organizations as the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra or Klangforum Wien. The presentation of his works in the UK, however, remains an ongoing concern: music of this overarching ambition and unequivocal impact might seem logistically problematic and, more to the point, aesthetically unfashionable, though this does not lessen the need for first-hand and authoritative appraisal such as only live performance can provide.

Select Discography

Landscape with Martyrdom – Intercord INT860.918

Gebirgskriegsprojekt – Wergo DVD WER2061-5

Symphonie Fleuve / Symphony No. 3 – NEOS 11425

Gonzales the Earth Eater – Wergo WER6864-2

Kampfhandlungen/Traumhandlungen / (Chamber) Symphony No. 2 – NEOS 11912

Numerous other compositions can be heard online:

Further information about Jorge E. López can be found at the following websites: Lopez_Jorge_E.php

Centenary post – Elgar: Cello Concerto

Today is the centenary of one of Sir Edward Elgar‘s best-loved works, first performed on this day in 1919. It was not always that way for the Cello Concerto in E minor, however, as an under-rehearsed premiere may well have contributed to a gap in London performances of more than a year.

The first performance took place with soloist Felix Salmond, Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The first cellist to really further the concerto’s cause was Beatrice Harrison, seen above with Elgar in an early recording from 1920. Her official recording with the composer from 1928 can be heard on the playlist below.

Again the work fell into disregard, possibly on account of its darker autumnal hues. The melodies came to Elgar in the aftermath of a painful operation on his tonsils, and while he could hear the sound of fighting in the First World War across the English channel.

It was not really until 1965 that the work reached regular public consumption, thanks to a searing recording by the young Jacqueline du Pre, with the London Symphony Orchestra this time under Sir John Barbirolli’s direction (also on the playlist). This recording preserved du Pré’s reputation as a cellist of great passion and technique, with the considerable help of a seasoned Elgarian in Barbirolli behind the orchestral ‘wheel’. It also apparently convinced a certain Mstislav Rostropovich not to become better acquainted with the piece.

More recently the Cello Concerto has become widespread, most recently with a first night performance at the Proms from Sol Gabetta and an appearance at this year’s season from Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Gabetta’s recorded version is also on the playlist, with Mario Venzago conducting the Royal Danish National Orchestra. It appears along with two very fine accounts from Julian Lloyd Webber – with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Yehudi Menuhin – and Steven Isserlis, his first recording of the work made with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Richard Hickox:

More recently Isserlis has revisited the work with Paavo Jarvi conducting the Philharmonia, a fine account about which he talked to Arcana here.

The Cello Concerto was Elgar’s last major work, completing an intriguing late set of compositions including the Violin Sonata and String Quartet, which share the concerto’s key of E minor, and the wonderful Piano Quintet in A minor. Those four works can be heard on the playlist below:

For a visual treat, though, you can enjoy Jacqueline du Pré’s playing here – not with Sir John Barbirolli but with her husband Daniel Barenboim, conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra:

The Peterloo Massacre: Sir Malcolm Arnold’s response

On the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, this vivid musical interpretation of events on that day comes from Sir Malcolm Arnold.

Arnold completed the overture in 1968, when it was published as his Op.97. In his description of the piece for Faber Music, he described the events and his response in some detail:

Peterloo is the derisive name given to an incident that happened on August 16th, 1819 in St Peter’s Fields Manchester, when an orderly crowd of some 80,000 people met to hear a speech on political reform. On the orders of the magistrates they were interrupted by the yeomanry attempting to seize the banners they carried, and to arrest their speaker, Henry Hunt. Cavalry were sent in, and eleven people were killed and four hundred injured in the ensuing panic.

This overture attempts to portray these happenings musically, but after a lament for the killed and injured, it ends in triumph, in the firm belief that all those who have suffered and died in the cause of unity amongst mankind, will not have died so in vain.”

The extraordinary piece – which really should be better known – can be heard below, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer:

It may start with a regal theme but soon the cavalry approach, and the music is thrown into disarray and discord. Ominous brass and squealing woodwind signal the onset of violence, before a description of the outright chaos on what has become a battlefield gets ever louder, like the climax of a Shostakovich symphony.

Then suddenly all is emptiness, the horrors fully revealed…but from the depths comes a beautiful lament from oboe and a repeat of the main theme from the strings, now held higher – before a salute from full orchestra ends the overture in triumph. The piece is a powerful and moving response to the tragedy, a musical portrayal of courage in the face of terror – and it proves every bit as relevant to today’s political climate as it would to the victims of the massacre.

If you want to hear more Arnold, the album from which this piece is taken includes three fine examples of his nine symphonies (nos.1, 2 & 5), and two more entertaining overtures, Tam O’Shanter and Beckus the Dandipratt:

As you will gather from those titles alone, the composer was not without a sense of humour!

The picture is a coloured print of the Peterloo Massacre, published by Richard Carlile.

New Year Feature – The Sound of Silence


First of all, happy new year! I hope 2016 is good for you, and that Arcana can at least play some part in bringing you some musical treats and writing that you will hopefully enjoy.

It may seem an odd thing for a music site to talk about, but I’m going to kick off the New Year by promoting the virtue of silence.

Silence is good on so many levels. It allows the full formation of thoughts, provides a necessary break from the frenetic activity of day-to-day life, and – for me at least – it cleanses the mind over a holiday period such as Christmas, after which the joy of music can be appreciated more than ever. Not that I made an active bid for freedom from music this time around, but stepping away from it for a bit was incredibly useful.

Pop songwriters and classical composers have used silence to their advantage on many occasions. One use of silence I often think of is incredibly minute but works an absolute treat, where King Crimson go for the jugular half way through 21st Century Schizoid Man:

Perhaps the most famous classical example is John Cage in the sound-free 4’33” – which, depending on your view, is a work of genius or flawed publicity stunt. I would definitely tend towards the former, because if you ‘listen’ to 4’33” (after the pretty loud introduction!) each performance is different – because all manner of tiny micro-sounds make themselves known in your environment:

The use of silence goes much further back of course. Can you imagine the works of Beethoven without the use of silence? How on earth would the start of the Fifth Symphony sound without it…

…or the beginning of the second Razumovsky string quartet?

…or, taking a fantastic example from the last century, the very end of SibeliusSymphony no.5?

All show just how powerful silence can be when used strategically. Yet if experienced over longer periods of time it takes on an even more special significance.

A New Year’s Day walk brought this home to me in vivid form. After hearing the radio for the first hour or so of the day – and inevitably U2’s New Year’s Day was included in this! – it was out for a walk where we were staying in Faversham, Kent.

Our walk, designed to cure the hangover from the previous night’s celebrations, took us out beyond the town and heading for the reeds and marshland close to a remote place called Oare, and its haunted pub The Shipright Arms.

Here all that could be heard were calls from what turned out to be little egrets, the wind in the reeds, and something quite astonishing in the whirring of a swan’s wings as it took off on the adjacent lake.


Little Egret (c) Ben Hogwood

Yet the wonderful truth was that if you stood and listened, most of what you could hear was…nothing. It was a cleansing experience, and one that has set me up to enjoy what 2016 has to offer musically. We at Arcana hope you choose to enjoy it with us…and share your moments of music and  silence with us…and that you have a Happy New Year!

Ben Hogwood – editor,