Charles Koechlin "Seven Stars Symphony"

CHARLES KOECHLIN [or Köchlin] (1867 - 1950) – Here is the true eccentric of the movement. He was born into a wealthy Alsatian family with both German and French roots. With Koechlin it was a happy union, I think, for his music gives me the impression that his head was German and his heart French – that is to say he was the master of the most exacting contrapuntal techniques while imbuing the musical sound with much warmth and feeling. The quintessential example of this is his Offrande musicale sur le nom de BACH (1942 - 45) for large orchestra, including the ondes Martenot. [A quick course here in electronic era frontier musical instruments: The Theremin – named after its Russian inventor, its death-knell hastened by its over-use in 1950s science fiction B-movies to cue the appearance of outer-space aliens; and the ondes Martenot – also named after its inventor, a more complicated keyboard and oscillator thing that nevertheless had a similar otherworldly quality, immensely popular among French composers at the time.] This “Musical Offering” is one of the most extraordinary works of the century, being a densely cerebral exercise, a religious meditation of an almost 12th c. fervor, and a high expression of the sorrows of the war unfolding as he was composing, worthy to be in good standing beside the Bach "Musical Offering" itself. Yes, all of that is packed into fifty minutes of music, assuredly a great masterpiece.

Koechlin was a master orchestrator, and such luminaries as Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy repeatedly availed themselves of his talents. In fact, it is worth speculating part of Debussy’s reputation as a brilliant orchestrator rests at the feet of Koechlin.

Like Hovhaness, Koechlin was very prolific, and very uneven. For instance, he wrote much music for woodwinds, both solo and ensemble. To separate the good from the mediocre-to-bad is a daunting task, or so I’ve been told by well-meaning wind players. There is little or no scholastic work done on Koechlin’s music, and busy musicians have little time to sift through scores in search of new repertory. He and Richard Strauss are unique, in musical circles, in witnessing first-hand the extraordinary developments musical culture was undergoing in their long lifetime. These two, in relation to their own work, made remarkably different decisions in the ways they were to assimilate these changes.

Koechlin wrote two numbered symphonies, two unnumbered but subtitled, and one he abandoned after tinkering with for fifteen years.

Symphony No. 1 (1926)

Symphony No. 2 (1944)

Seven Stars Symphony (1933)

Symphonie d’Hymnes (1936)

 At last, we come to The Seven Stars Symphony. This is no astronomic inspiration like Gustav Holst’s The Planets; but, rather, an hommage to Hollywood movie stars of the period. There is nothing else even remotely like it in the whole repertory. First off, it is actually a suite of seven pieces, not a symphonically integrated, coherent entity. Nevertheless, I include it in the survey because Koechlin called it a symphony, and because it is such offbeat, zany fun. Koechlin was a great movie fan, not just a “movie” fan but a Hollywood movie fan. That means the whole enchilada, the star system, the glamour, the life-style, the bigger-than-life personalities; you get the idea. In the late 1920s he visited Los Angeles – they were performing some of his music at the Hollywood Bowl – and the studios toyed with him about writing music for the movies. He even composed some things for hypothetical films, but nothing actually ever materialized. Meanwhile, he developed obsessions for several stars, composing a dance suite for Ginger Rogers, an Epitaph for the death of Jean Harlow. His obsessions came to focus on Lillian Harvey, to her great distress. She eventually had to threaten legal action against the septuagenarian to make him keep his distance. Such are the tribulations of the life of a composer! Whatever it took, we should be thankful for the resulting musical artifacts, because they all add so much color to the repertory.

But I digress. Let us return to the Seven Stars Symphony. It is in seven “movements,” each one dedicated to a particular personality, as follows:

I. Douglas Fairbanks (en souvenir du voleur de Bagdad)

II. Lillian Harvey (menuet fugue)

III. Greta Garbo (choral païen)

IV. Clara Bow et la joyouse Californie

V.  Merlène Dietrich (variations sur le theme par les lettres de son nom)

VI. Emil Jennings (en souvenir de L’Ange Bleu)

VII. Charlie Chaplin (variations sur le theme par les lettres de son nom)

The subtitles give the hint to the music – a wide-ranging album of mood, evocation, color.  The first movement, depicting the Fairbanks of The Thief of Bagdad, instantly sets the ambiance for the entire score. Its opening theme for clarinet – a series of gently rising intervals of a perfect fourth ending with the fall back of a single minor third – is at once touching, erotic, sad. Like Strauss’s use of the clarinet in the opening measures of Salome to immediately immerse one in a sultry, dangerous Mediterranean scene, so Koechlin’s clarinet engrosses us in heady, unanchored Hollywood. The solo violin soon takes over, weaving arabesques of an unreal depiction of a far-off legend played by a man too old for the part. It is the very embodiment of the silver screen. Next is Lillian Harvey’s portrait as a minuet wrapped in a fugue. One immediately hears Koechlin’s fixation with the woman: weaver of gossamer social fabrics in elegant settings. Who wouldn’t fall instantly in love?

Garbo is up next. Divine Garbo! Koechlin has reserved something special for her portrait – the ondes Martenot. It was a fabulous orchestrational coups, establishing in a quick-drawn breath the out-of-this-worldliness of the fabled beauty. Using oboes and clarinets in their upper registers to augment the ondes’ sonority, the solo violin enters low in its ‘shadowed’ register and languorously rises, taking the other violins with it, to the stratosphere. Whole tone scales shiver down the back in hypnotized response. What else can we poor mortals do?

Clara Bow, and joyous California, bring us back to reality. Fast tempoed, scherzo-like, his orchestration here at times dazzles like a champagne flute filled with diamonds. There is no bottom to this music – all midrange and supra-soprano. The general flurry of the flow is interrupted twice by slower, more lyrical passages, as though we pause to take in the sun by the pool, and sip the liquid bubbly. Ah! Such is the Life.

Next, we return to a more languid set of variations, now on the name of Marlene Dietrich, another fabled beauty. The music here seems to convey the Fritz Lang cinema-portraits of her in a diffused aura of back-light, with heavy-lidded half-smiles, quintessentially feminine and mysterious. Soon enough, we move on to the Emil Jennings of The Blue Angel. Did Koechlin feel a kinship with the older intellectual attracted to the young beauty, flawed by vulgarity and cruelty? This melancholic portrait suggests a kindred sympathy.

And so we come to the last piece in the symphony – another set of variations, this time on the name of Charlie Chaplin. Running to fifteen minutes’ playing time, it absorbs fully one-third of the entire symphony. It is an uncanny depiction of the beloved film character as both antic scamp and tender sentimentalist. The tension implied in this duality plays out as metaphor for the symphony’s subject and as effective finale. There is an uncanny impression Koechlin had in mind cinematic sequences spliced together to which he then composed the background music. The result is episodic yet touchingly cohesive, symbolic of Chaplin’s iconic film character. The final variation swells from nothing to a full-throated Hollywood culmination, complete with “The End” writ large in the last fortissimo major chord.

It is a complete mystery to me why this work has not found a place in the popular repertory. On the surface it has all the requisites for wide audience appeal: roots in established mass-culture with concurrent ease in marketability, total mastery of musical expression, no obvious impediments to programming [well, possibly acquiring an ondes Martenot]. Still, it remains mired in obscurity. Seek it out. Listen to it. It is well worth your time.

To listen to a recording of "Seven Stars Symphony" go to YouTube - Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, James Judd conducting

from "On the Symphony in the 20th Century" by Jerré Tanner - a book surveying over 250 symphony composers and their works, many of them forgotten and no longer performed, composed in the 20th century that are worthy of the listener's attention.