Babbitt Transfigured Notes; Schoenberg Transfigured Night

After 11 years on the shelf, this spurned masterpiece finally gets justice

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Babbitt Transfigured Notes; Schoenberg Transfigured Night

  • Transfigured Notes
  • Verklärte Nacht, 'Transfigured Night'
  • Concerto

It is not often, on hearing a completely unfamiliar piece, that I find myself compelled to listen to it three times over in close succession, but that was the case with Milton Babbitt’s Transfigured Notes, and each repetition was a pleasure. Yet the piece has been appallingly ill-treated. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, it was declared unplayable by two guest conductors (some members of the orchestra were offended by this). Babbitt asked for the work back, and it was premièred and recorded by Gunther Schuller, who paid for the 12 rehearsals himself and lost $42,000 on the deal. For an unexplained reason, but I think I can guess, the recording has taken 11 years to appear.

Babbitt has of course the reputation of being ‘difficult’, an intransigent hard-line modernist, and this dense and complex atonal 27-minute piece for nine-part string orchestra must indeed by very hard to rehearse and to play. But if, as Ned Rorem has often advised, ‘you listen to Babbitt as though he were tonal’, its intense lyrical expressiveness and the beauty of its ever-changing, constantly-developing lines are surely obvious. What have we come to, when a masterly work by a senior and greatly admired composer can be cast aside in this way?

In a commendably frank note, Schuller admits that the performance is ‘less than perfect’. Yes, if one must be carpingly strict, but it is hugely eloquent, conductor and players audibly convinced that they are doing justice to a spurned masterpiece. The Schoenberg is very big in sound, impassioned and properly extreme; the Stravinsky is big, too, with 43 players, but all of them are on their toes. This is Babbitt’s disc, though; anyone who hears it is likely to be shocked that several other major works of his remain unrecorded, but immeasurably grateful to Schuller and his players for righting a criminal wrong.

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