The Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra
Thomas Baldner, Conductor
Notes by Marshall A. Portnoy
In 1943, the German novelist and philosopher Hermann Hesse completed his last and (excepting Narcissus und Goldmund) greatest novel, Das Glasperlenspiel. Winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature, this book, the sum and summit of Hesse’s thought and one of the most truly relevant books of the era, was translated into English in 1969 and brought out first with the title The Glass Bead Game and subsequently as Magister Ludi (Master of the Game). To understand the imaginary (and not-so-imaginary) world that Hesse creates, a world that really permeates all his novels, it is helpful to know a little about his life. Born in Calw near the Black Forest in 1877, Hesse underwent a personal crisis that turned him away from the religious life intended for him by his family. In his novels, he explores the conflict between the attainment of monastic serenity that draws some people into a blissful life of ordered thought and behavior and the doubts and psychological undercurrents that draw others to a lonely search for meaning in life, into flight and wandering. Shakespeare set the same theme as the contrast between the urban and the pastoral; like Shakespeare, Hesse concludes that the best life will blend both the mental and the physical, the flesh and the spirit, but that the balance is not easy to find. It is in fact only in the search for that balance that there is meaning in life.
In The Glass Bead Game, the “ideal” world is Castalia, a closed society of scholars who devote their energies solely to the development of the mind and the attainment of mental perfection. “The Glass Bead Game” itself is a highly difficult exercise in which the most elite develop these attributes through the construction and solution of ingenious musical and mathematical complexities. Through the game, the most gifted players achieve a trance-like feeling of self-completion. But what is significant is that the Game uses only already-existing knowledge — fugues by Bach, fragments of Leibniz, Gabrieli sonatas. Nothing new is created; perfection is attained through a complete consumption and exhaustive analysis only of the fruits of the past. Such a society, says Hesse, no matter how elite, how intellectual, how esoteric, must stagnate, wither and die.
Claude Baker is saying much the same thing in his three-movement musical piece based on The Glass Bead Game. His work, bearing the same title, is far more than a programmatic reflection of Hesse’s novel; it is remarkably, like the novel, a philosophical mirror as well, in which Baker utilizes Hesse’s methods and imagery to comment on artistic and social values of the twentieth century.
Like Hesse, Claude Baker begins his work in the “Age of the Feuilleton,” a period of “art-for-art’s-sake” trendiness in which knowledge of minutiae was an end in itself, and the general public delighted in trivial matters which found their way into daily newspapers, “were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture.” These amusing anecdotal articles (“Friedrich Nietzsche and Women’s Fashions of 1870”), popular crossword puzzles and the like defined an age that was, to be sure, “by no means uncultured; it was not even intellectually impoverished. But…that age appears to have had only the dimmest notion of what to do with culture.” In the first movement, Baker thus depicts the age with a canon that is serially organized and given to twenty-four solo strings. The four-part perpetual canon, although meant as a serious piece, is also intended to demonstrate the expressive limitations of the serial compositions of the 1950s and 1960s, which Baker believes to have been too limited in emotional range. The canon is also an expression of the intense preoccupation of the “Age of the Feuilleton” with numerology, a preoccupation that would become a religion in the new order of Castalia. The numbers six and four are the numerological basis of the canon. It uses twenty-four (six times four) strings, is stated four times with exactly sixty-six notes in each statement, uses a rhythmic structure based on the Fibonacci number series and retrogrades after the sixth rhythm. As the canon comes to an end, the note “B” begins to disperse it and dominate the movement, and Baker introduces the “Music of Decline.” The loud, violent outbursts in the winds and percussion signal the end of the “Age of the Feuilleton.”
…Old age and twilight had set in…the ‘music of decline’ had sounded…it raged as untrammeled and amateurish overproduction in all the arts.
The “Age of the Feuilleton” tries limply to reassert itself, but the music signaling its decline is irresistible, and the age dies, as in the words of T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang but with a whimper.”
The second movement is entitled “League of Journeyers to the East.” Castalia, the ideal world of the mind, has been established. One of the forces that made possible this scholarly society, despite the emptiness of the “Age of the Feuilleton,” was a group of zealous protectors of spiritual sanctity called the “League of Journeyers to the East.”
They fostered piety and reverence…and contributed to new insights into the nature of [Castalia’s] culture and the possibilities of its continuance, not so much by analytical and scholarly work as by their capacity, based on ancient secret exercises, for mystic identification with remote ages and cultural conditions. Among them, for example, were itinerant instrumentalists and minstrels who were said to have the ability to perform the music of earlier epochs with perfect ancient purity… When an orchestra of the Journeyers first publicly performed a suite from the time before Handel completely without ‘crescendi’ and ‘diminuendi,’ with the naiveté and chasteness of another age and world, some among the audience are said to have been totally uncomprehending, but others listened with fresh attention and had the impression that they were hearing music for the first time in their lives.
In that spirit, Claude Baker bases his second movement on a paduana (a slow courtly dance like a pavane) from Johann Schein’s landmark Banchetto Musicale of 1617, one of the first thematically integrated instrumental works written in Germany. But Baker does not simply quote the Schein work; rather, he alternates it with his own somewhat atonal music, thus making the seventeenth-century music seem like a dream, like yesterday’s sunlight recalled from behind the veil of memory. And in true Journeyer fashion, Baker is careful to have the strings bow the Schein work in the pure unornamented style of the early seventeenth century. Our understanding of one age is therefore enhanced by juxtaposition with and interpretation through another. In the spirit of Castalia itself, the present is strengthened by the past, and the past is understood through the present.
But the scholars of Castalia have ceased trying to vie creatively with the past. Through “The Glass Bead Game,” they seek, albeit ingeniously, only to assimilate, reassemble and reproduce knowledge that already exists, to express and establish “interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines.” In the third movement, the composer himself plays “The Glass Bead Game” in a tour de force in which he combines the work of six composers in an unforgettable collage. The Variazioni per Orchestra of 1954 by Luigi Dallapiccola was, like Baker’s work, premiered by The Louisville Orchestra. Four other twentieth-century composers are brought into the movement — Schoenberg (Variationen für Orchester, 1928), Vaughan Williams (Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, 1935), Shostakovich (Symphony No. 10, 1953), and Penderecki (The Passion According to Saint Luke, 1965). Why these particular works? For the answer to that question, we look back to the nineteenth century and the last quoted work, the great Phantasie und Fuge über das Thema BACH by Franz Liszt. The fact is that portions of all of these pieces relate to the famous four notes that form one of the subjects of the final unfinished fugue in The Art of the Fugue (1748-50) by Johann Sebastian Bach. That subject actually spells out Bach’s name (B-flat, A, C, B is equivalent to B-A-C-H in German notation), a name that has inspired artists of every subsequent generation.
Thus, Baker plays “The Glass Bead Game” most eloquently, interpreting this century through the past, understanding the composition of today (including his own) through the music of yesterday. And he mirrors the humor and irony that characterize the literary style of Hermann Hesse’s novel. But while Baker delights in this magic musical game in which hardly a measure goes by without some variant of the B-A-C-H motive, he, like Hesse, reminds us that a society that no longer creates is doomed. The last measures of the piece seem to echo the “Music of Decline,” warning us that such a society is but a museum, peopled by curators instead of creators.