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Genesis Suite - A Musical Collaboration (1945)
Arnold SCHOENBERG Prelude
Nathaniel SHILKRET Creation*
Alexandre TANSMAN Adam and Eve*
Darius MILHAUD Cain and Abel
Mario CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO The Flood
Ernst TOCH The Covenant (The Rainbow)*
Igor STRAVINSKY Babel
Sung in English
* Orchestrations reconstructed by Patrick Russ
Tovah Feldshuh, speaker
Barbara Feldon, speaker
David Margulies, speaker
Fritz Weaver, speaker
Isaiah Sheffer, speaker
Ernst Senff Chor/Sigurd Brauns
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Gerard Schwarz
Rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, December 2000, Deutschland Radio; narration: Clinton Studios, New York, April 2003. DDD
Milken Archive of American Jewish Music
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559442 [56:45]



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Los Angeles was a magnet to European émigré composers fleeing pogroms whether Nazi or Soviet during the 1930s. The city yielded employment and teaching opportunities for music celebrities who could almost call their own tune. If they had a foreign name well that helped as well. LA provided employment in the film industry for pragmatists. Idealists found it a soul-destroying place but at least the storm-troopers were thousands of miles away.

As the end of the Second World War came in sight Nathaniel Shilkret hit upon a grand collaborative project. Shilkret was director of light music at RCA Victor Records. He was also a composer active in the film studios and a conductor. In the music world he knew pretty much everyone who was anyone. He approached six other composers with an ambitious collaborative project to work on large-scale tableaux for orchestra, chorus, and narrator. The chosen texts were from the Book of Genesis. The composers were Castelnuovo-Tedesco in exile from Italy, Milhaud from France, Alexandre Tansman from Poland and France and Ernst Toch from Austria. The illustrious giants who provided the great flanking buttresses for the work were Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

The resulting Genesis Suite had a single live performance, in 1945, by the Janssen Symphony Orchestra at the Wilshire Ebel Theatre in Los Angeles. The week after Shilkret took the same forces into RCA’s Hollywood studio for a privately-commissioned recording. While Stravinsky and Schoenberg kept copies of their movements all the performing materials were lost in a fire at Shilkret’s home. In 1998 musicologist James Westby found manuscript orchestral scores of the Milhaud and Castelnuovo-Tedesco movements filed at the Library of Congress, as well as short scores for the episodes by Shilkret, Tansman and Toch. Patrick Russ reconstructed these three movements with the aid of the private recording; now that I would also like to hear! It will not be as virile and immediate as the present recording; that’s for sure.

Schoenberg was well chosen for his uncompromising portrayal of the primordial chaotic miasma. The music is suitably dodecaphonic - whirling and active. Shilkret was a film music composer and his eclectic opulence in The Creation supplies a richly stocked and constantly allusive Hollywood-style score. The music is super-Straussian with the vocalising choir painting the dawn of light in a blindingly cinematic evocation. One can easily imagine a film to accompany this music and narration. It is very much a case of the Bible according to Heston and Mature. Great fun - an example of saturated cinema kitsch. Golden Age film score aficionados must lose no time and get a copy of this disc immediately. Tansman’s Adam and Eve is much more subtle but still vividly imagined and pictorial. Tansman uses a developed Ravelian style - impressionism on steroids. There are several moments where the debt to Ravel’s Daphnis is direct and unashamed. The Milhaud movement takes us through the tale of Cain and Abel. It is a brisk and vigorous retelling with dramatic music. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco is in this case closest to Shilkret in style. He too was a Hollywood film music composer. His The Flood is stormily histrionic and his tender music is genuinely touching (2:58 tr. 5) as you find whenever the narration speaks of Noah and his family. Something of the same loving kindness can be heard in Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony. Ernst Toch’s The Rainbow/The Covenant provides the work’s optimistic centre of gravity with its repeated imperious concluding fanfares. Stravinsky admits both narration and choral singing into his Babel. The style links with various of his concert works including Oedipus Rex and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Throughout each of the six movements, where there is narration, the speaker changes among the five from one section to the next within a movement.

As a single work this ‘collaboration’ does not quite work as an entity. The end of Babel is too inconclusive to provide a sense of journey’s end. Perhaps one day this will be redressed. For now this is a fascinating record of a remarkable moment in time. Its chrome-plated musical sensationalism is enjoyable provided you have no hang-ups about kitsch. I thought it was great fun. I recommend it to listeners who have already contracted the revelatory bug that hangs around the music of a generation of composers who wrote in exile.

Rob Barnett



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