Louis Gruenberg: Orchestral Works

Music from the Fleisher Collection, Vol. 1



Louis GruenberG


Symphony No. 2




Enchanted Isle


Czech National Symphony Orchestra


Paul Freeman, Music Director






Louis Gruenberg (b. August 3, 1884 near Brest-Litovsk - d. June 10, 1964 in Beverly Hills, California)


Drawing stylistic analogies between composers is always a dangerous enterprise, for it runs the risk of implying unoriginality on one side or another. The danger is all the greater when at least one of the composers in question is unfamiliar. But in the case of the Russian-born American composer Louis Gruenberg the risk has to be run, for readers surely deserve to be given some hint of what kind of musical experience they may expect from his work.


The reasonably experienced listener encountering Gruenberg for the first time through either his symphonic poem The Enchanted Isle or his Second Symphony is likely at various moments to receive a general impression of artistic kinship with such composers as Szymanowski and Messiaen. Those with more specialized knowledge of 20th-century music may remark a certain affinity with another long-neglected creative figure, Igor Markevitch. Better known as a conductor, Markevitch (1912-1983) was widely regarded in the 1930s, by no lesser judges than Bartók and Milhaud, as the outstanding composer of his generation. Insofar as this particular connection lies in a shared blend of intense expressivity with rigorous avoidance of self-indulgent romanticism — Markevitch was once aptly described as “un mystique sec” (“a dry mystic”) — it points also to a link with that notable non-romantic, Debussy. And at one juncture toward the end of The Enchanted Isle a much more specific, and surely deliberate, allusion in the clarinets to a familiar figure in Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel can be heard.


But, as anyone knows who has ever found an echo of Debussy's Preludes in some early piano pieces by Bartók and then paused to consider respective dates of composition, it is always necessary to be careful in suggesting the operation of an “influence.” What sounds like influence often turns out to have flowed in the opposite direction to that originally suspected, or to embody merely an innate artistic fellow-feeling rather than any direct contact. So far as Gruenberg is concerned, the bare facts are clear. By 1927, when he wrote The Enchanted Isle, most of Szymanowski's and Strauss' composing (not to mention that of Debussy, who died in 1918) had already been done. Messiaen, on the other hand, was still a student. As for the precocious Markevitch, his first surviving work, written two years earlier when he was 13, was actually published in 1927. By 1941, the date of Gruenberg's Symphony No. 2, Messiaen was still at a fairly early point in his output, but Markevitch's brief composing career was almost over.


Gruenberg, then, would certainly have known his Debussy, Strauss, and Szymanowski, and he may just possibly have heard some Markevitch, but Messiaen can hardly have been a known quantity to him, and for their part neither Markevitch nor Messiaen is likely to have had much or indeed any acquaintance with his music. Brought to the USA by his parents when he was only two, Gruenberg was an essentially American phenomenon. He did do some studying (with Busoni and Koch) and then some teaching and piano-playing in Europe between 1903 and 1919, and one of his most successful dramatic works, The Emperor Jones, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1933, was to achieve a revival in Rome in 1950. But most of his career was spent in the United States, where he was one of the founders of the League of Composers in 1923 and headed the composition department at the Chicago Musical College from 1933 to 1936, afterwards moving to California. More pertinently, he devoted much attention to American musical genres, publishing four volumes of spiritual harmonizations, and deriving substantial inspiration from jazz for The Daniel Jazz and several other works.


The three works recorded here show relatively little trace of these American resources, fitting for the most part into a broadly European musical tradition that he shared with many compatriots of his generation. Of the composers already mentioned, it is perhaps with Markevitch that Gruenberg shows the closest affinity, not only in his sensuous yet never mawkish expression but in his rich orchestral palette, his unusually organic and often inventive use of percussion, and his inventive handling of rhythm. But whereas Markevitch's rhythmic superimpositions are usually built on mathematical relationships, Gruenberg's tend to be free and fluid in cut. Some of the faster sections in The Enchanted Isle are admittedly based on the relatively precise combination of 2/4 and 6/8 meters, but their effect is spontaneous and natural, unlike the precisely plotted cumulative formulations of a characteristic Markevitch score.


First performed at the Worcester Music Festival in Massachusetts on 3 October 1929 under the direction of Albert Stoessel, The Enchanted Isle was awarded the second American prize in the International Schubert Centennial Contest sponsored by the Columbia Phonograph Company. Gruenberg revised the score in 1933. Asked about the origins and inspiration of the work, the composer responded:


“It has always been my firm conviction that a composition should stand on its own legs (so to speak) if able, or, if not, that no amount of props in shape of words could possibly help it to stand upright. And, having stated the above, I shall do what one must always do to firm convictions, if one is to function artistically: that is, to destroy or ignore them, and proceed to tell you what there is to be told about The Enchanted Isle and other matters related to it.”


The Enchanted Isle is the second of a series of four tone-poems projected during the [First] World War, in an attempt to make a world somewhat pleasanter than the one existing then.”


Some time later, Gruenberg explained,


“In rummaging through a bale of manuscripts which I had not seen for over eight years, I found the score of The Enchanted Isle, whose very existence I had completely forgotten. As I idly turned its pages, a theme here, a passage there, gradually brought back to me the wistful, romantic days of my youth, when all is well, even if it isn't. I grew sentimental and determined to recapture a whiff of those enchanted islands of memory, gradually making a complete new score, retaining the emotions — most of the melodies of the original work — but making use of my newly acquired freedom, knowledge of orchestration, harmony and construction. And that sums up what The Enchanted Isle represents in my artistic career today — a bridge between the old and the new.”


Another imaginary isle, in The Tempest, was described by Shakespeare as “full of noises,/Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.” What Gruenberg has charmingly and impressively achieved in his symphonic poem is to allow room for the darker, Calibanesque elements of the cosmos, without overshadowing the prevailingly idyllic and sunny atmosphere of his little island world.


Romanticism of a similarly restrained variety is the mark also of the Serenade to a Beauteous Lady, composed in 1934. That was during Gruenberg's tenure at Chicago Musical College, but it may be more relevant that it was also the period when he was working on the opera Helena of Troy, which was completed in 1936 and carries the next opus number in his list of works. The score is laid out in five movements: a Polonaise, a Galop, a Valse, an Allegretto, and the Marcia recorded here. Those being the days before the invention of political correctness, not to mention women's liberation, it is at first sight surprising to find a march in this context — but one may presume that it is the serenader, and not the object of admiration, who is doing the marching, which in any case is interestingly restrained until the music rises to its satisfactorily rousing conclusion. As to the lady's identity, Gruenberg was admirably discreet. But the suggestion (in a 1930s program note) that the work served for him as contrast with the very much darker portrait of Helen he was drawing in his opera was not, so far as this writer is aware, contradicted by the composer.


Written in its original form as far back as 1941, the second of the composer's four symphonies had its first performance in Bamberg, Germany, on 1 October 1965, conducted by Jan Koetsier. Laid out, as you would expect of a symphony, on a broader scale than The Enchanted Isle, it had — like the earlier work — sustained a fair amount of compression in the course of two revisions that the composer undertook in 1959 and 1963. In this recording, the cuts observed in both works reflect Gruenberg's own practice, and what they omit is for the most part purely cumulative material, deemed superfluous by both the composer and the conductor.


The three-movement work that emerges from this process is a powerfully cogent symphonic structure. The “broad, expansive” opening movement moves from a spacious slow introduction, spacious enough to constitute almost a separate movement in its own right, to a faster section full of varied and propulsive rhythms. A central slow movement, starting out with mysterious hushed ostinatos that sound prophetic of minimalism, expands into a richly expressive fabric of finely judged instrumental lines. The concluding cello solo furnishes a transition to the “fantasievoll” finale, which follows without a break and begins with the same melodic material.


The big build-up to the main climax near the end, giving way to a skillfully judged détente before the final fff outburst, eloquently demonstrates the gifts of a composer whose long- neglected name this first recording may help to reestablish. “If he left no masterpiece,” Carleton Sprague Smith observes in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “several of his works are fine expressions of his time and place.” At the very least, the sheer technical and musical assurance of The Enchanted Isle and the Second Symphony speak of a composer with a voice of his own, confident in his ability to use it, and showing in his broadly tonal harmonic language a refreshing unwillingness to follow merely fashionable trends.


© 2000 by Bernard Jacobson


Paul Freeman


Paul Freeman has distinguished himself as one of the world's pre-eminent conductors. Much in demand, he has conducted over 100 orchestras in 28 different countries including the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and major orchestras in London, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Berlin. Maestro Freeman has served as the Music Director of Canada's Victoria Symphony, Principal Guest Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and Associate Conductor of the Detroit and Dallas Symphony Orchestras. He is currently Music Director of the renowned Chicago Sinfonietta and simultaneously serves as Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Prague. With over 200 recordings to his credit, he has won numerous awards for his unique interpretations of the classical, romantic, and modern repertoire. Dr. Freeman, who studied on a U.S. Fulbright Grant at the Hochschule in Berlin, holds a Ph.D. degree from the Eastman School of Music and LH.D. degrees from Dominican University and Loyola University.


Czech National


Symphony Orchestra


Since the Czech Republic's bloodless “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, the country has been riding a rapid wave of democratization, which has affected the music industry as well. Orchestras in order to survive must concern themselves with the procurement of foreign funds through recording contracts and overseas performances. These developments have necessitated the need for higher performance standards.


Out of this chaotic scene Jan Hasenöhrl, an outstanding solo trumpet player, sensed the acute need to reshape the Czech orchestral scene and, in 1993, invited the top musicians from Prague's major orchestras to form a new orchestra, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. The Orchestra gave its first concert, conducted by Vladimir Valek, in November 1993 in Prague's Rudolfinum Dvorak Hall. In 1994 the Czech music world's national treasure, Zdenek Kosler, was named chief conductor. The first recording was made at the beginning of April 1994. Maestro Kosler died in August 1995.


In January 1996 the brilliant American Conductor and Music Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, Paul Freeman was appointed Music Director and Chief Conductor. Under Maestro Freeman's leadership, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra has shown stunning development. Already he has made over 30 compact discs with the orchestra and has toured Italy and Great Britain. So successful was the November 1997 United Kingdom tour of 19 concerts under Paul Freeman and Libor Pesek that IMG Concert Management has recently signed a 5-year contract to tour the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Europe, Asia, and America. Through its many recordings, concerts and television productions it is fast becoming one of the most important ensembles in the Czech Republic.












“The Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia is the world's largest lending library of orchestral performance material, housing over 21,000 titles. It is a unique source of 19th- and 20th-century American works, and continues to add contemporary titles to its holdings. This series of recordings in Music from the Fleisher Collection will highlight works of composers and different areas of interest represented in the Collection, and will emphasize Fleisher's longstanding commitment to new, noteworthy, and overlooked works. The Collection is proud to join with Paul Freeman, the Czech National SymphonyOrchestra, and Albany Records in the release of ths historic series of recordings.”


—Kile Smith, Curator








Artistic Director:Paul Freeman


Executive Producer:Joan Yarbrough


Producers:Kile Smith/Jirí Gemrot


Chief Engineer:Jan Kotzmann


Recorded September 1999-March 2001


ICNRecording Studios, Prague


Cover:The Free Library of Philadelphia






Louis Gruenberg


Symphony No. 2, Op. 43


1 A broad expansive movement [11:43]


2 Langsam und aushaltend [8:56]


3 Fantasievoll [8:35]


Serenade to a Beauteous Lady


4 Marcia [4:37]


5 The Enchanted Isle,


Symphonic Poem for Orchestra, Op. 11 [16:59]


Total Time = 51:17


Czech National Symphony Orchestra


Paul Freeman, Music Director


Music from the Fleisher Collection, Vol. 1