DRAMATIC OVERTURE AND WITICHIS. SC. Word Count-4,351.
When Margaret was twenty-five her first large orchestral work was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra-the Dramatic Overture, Opus 12 conducted by Nikisch opened the concert on April 8, 1893 (and 21st. rehearsal April 7 at 2:30PM) which was the 23rd. Rehearsal/Concert of its 12th. Season. This was the first time since its founding twelve years previously that the BSO had played a work
Courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archive.
Arthur Nikisch from Elson, 57
composed by a woman. Her work was described as having strong contrasts between the principal and subordinate themes. “It has some strong contrasts, especially between the chief theme and the subordinate. The first is grim and medieval, the second tender and human. To place these two in juxtaposition in itself gives something of dramatic power, and the development of both is singularly unconventional.”(Elson, History American Music, 306) Francis H. Jenks in his Musical Herald review described the work as “an ingeniously devised and constructed composition with evidences of thought at every turn.” Philip Hale reported that the overture was applauded, but the attempt to call the composer forward was in vain. Seventy-four years later Miss Lang remembered the incident well: “I crept up to the balcony and hid.” Hale’s specific comments were probably a trial for the young composer. After listing the program, he wrote: “Miss Lang’s overture is perhaps a creditable work for a young student. Whether it deserved a place in a Symphony concert is another question. Although Miss Lang in certain songs has shown in the past a pretty melody, the themes of the overture are not of marked originality or striking effect. There are ingenious passages in the detail, but there is a general lack of definite purpose in the conception and in the carrying out. The composer seems to be pricked by the desire of extracting ideas from the orchestral instruments in turn. As a result there is occasional piquancy, and there are pleasing measures, but this dramatic overture is a promise rather than a fulfillment. It is as though the composer deliberately set about to see what she could do in this line; there was nothing musical within that forced its way irresistibly and assumed orchestral shape and color.” (Scrapbook, Musical Courier, April 12, 1893) Hugo Leichtentritt attended this concert-he was a junior at Harvard. Mark DeVoto has translated his Diary entry, originally written in German. “Symphony Concert…At the beginning there was a Dramatic Overture by Miss Lang, a young Boston lady. The beginning is very grandiose and I was already worried that a woman might have written something significant, but let it be said to my shame that I soon discovered that the work lacked spiritual content: short-winded phrases instead of broadly dramatic development. The whole think skillfully worked out, not at all student-like. +++ ++++++ [two words illegible-possibly “The piece” ] succeeded melodiously, even dramatically, but not entirely, nothing sublime in it.” (Letter to Johnston, January 14, 2012)
Elson wrote in 1925, 32 years after the work’s premier: “Iit has some strong contrasts, especially between the chief theme and the subordinate. The first is grim and medieval, the second tender and human. To place these two in juxtaposition in itself gives something of dramatic power and the development of both is singularly unconventional.” (Elson, Amer. Music., 306)
William F. Apthorp’s program note began with a short biographical note, and then continued: “The dramatic overture, in so far as its form is concerned, shows the same general tendency to adhere to the spirit of the sonata-form, with a very free interpretation of the letter of the law, that we find in many of Schumann’s symphonic movements. It begins, without preliminary introduction, with the gist of the first theme announced in the trumpets and trombones, with syncopated thuds on the kettledrums. This syncopated accent – the effect of which is purely rhythmical – is characteristic, and comes in again and again, as the development of the theme progresses. The first announcement of the theme is followed by a sinister cadence in the strings, after which a roll on the drums leads to the second phrase of the theme on the wind instruments, followed by another forbidding cadence in the strings, and another roll on the drums. Then the work of developing the theme – which almost has the character of working-out begins in earnest; this is carried out at some length, a new phrase, first appearing in the violins in octaves, seeming at first like a “first subsidiary,” but soon showing itself to be of far greater importance than a subsidiary theme can claim in compositions which hold fast by the classic form. It is really a natural melodic outgrowth of the first theme itself, and, for the development of the work, must be considered as really part and parcel of it. its passionate character well fits it for a ‘dramatic’ companion to the stern parent theme. The relationship of these two phrases is somewhat interesting technically. The first one, given out by the brass, has something of the vague tonality of the old modal writing of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, -a character which is made all the more prominent by the grim cadences on the strings that come after it. The second phrase belongs wholly to our modern tonality, and has that expression of personal, individual emotion that came into music with the discovery of our modern tonal system. Here is a juxtaposition that is in itself dramatic! These two phrases-the one stern, forbidding, and impersonal, the other full of passionate human feeling-are played off against each other, in coherent musical development, for some time, a more cantabile second theme gradually growing into being (its relationship with the second phrase just mentioned is not to be overlooked), and more and more asserting its supremacy. Exactly where the ‘working-out’ begins was hard to say: the sheer development of the first and second themes has had much of sonata-form (which is also that of the overture) have been to a great extent obliterated. Still, the spirit of the form is unmistakably there. One finds it in the return of the first theme at what should normally be the beginning of the ‘third part.’ Indeed, the working-out proper is rather concise, and the return of the first part of the overture singularly regular for a composition so freely planned out. One feels, as has already been said, a sympathy with the sonata-form, without any predetermined intention of following its dictates to the letter. The overture is scored for the classical ‘grand orchestra,’ with trombones, big drum, and cymbals, but without bass-tuba, bass-clarinet, English horn, or any of the unusual instruments that go to make up the modern ‘Wagnerian’ orchestra. It is especially noticeable, too, that the stronger brass instruments (trumpets and trombones) have been reserved for special effects, and often do not figure at all in fortissimo passages. In this the composer has followed both Beethoven and Wagner in one of their most characteristic veins in instrumentation.”
On April 2, 1893 Apthorp typed a letter to Margaret at 12.43 A.M. [working late?] “Dear Maidie: If you find in the programme-books that I have made a botch of your overture, it is really not my fault. I am a poor score-reader, at best-although I can get at the inwardness of anything you please, if I only have time-and manuscript is just the point where the worm in my brain turns! A MS. score is to me like a MS. Story; I have to read it three times, where I should have to read it once in print. The Expiring Phoenix (Chadwick) always laughed at me for my helplessness in this matter, saying that a good MS. was just as good as engraving. But his laughing did not help me. There is something in hand-writing that seems to kill all consecutive perception in me; it is just as bad in words as in music. But I must say that I really and thoroughly enjoyed reading your score-in an incoherent sort of way, letting each measure tell for the moment, just as any idiot listens to music at a concert-and look forward to finding my impression strengthened at the hearing. Where did you get the idea of reinforcing the effect of those jumps from C major to E minor, and E major to A minor, by that Scharfrichter’s rhythm? I don’t know when I have heard that ‘Meyerbeer’ snap of the two short notes and a long one sound so new, and so little as if Meyerbeer had written it. I have also great hopes for the place where the third horn comes in against the twiddle-twiddle in the violins. And how stunning of you to have kept your trombones and trumpets for the preaching, and made your big crashes without them! I hope Nikisch will follow his native bent, and give the final ‘pa-pa-pum——-PUM!’ as it looks in the score. Ever so many thanks, yrs., &c., &c., &c.” (Scrapbook)
REVIEWS. One review began: “This is, we believe, the first time that an orchestral composition by a woman has been played at one of our symphony concerts. it is rather odd how exceedingly little women have done in music-save in the way as singing and playing.” The review continues in the same vain, finishing the idea with, “Upon the whole the record is not brilliant.” But then the attitude changed, and the author wrote that “Miss Lang now comes forward with a work which must certainly stand very high indeed among compositions by women; indeed there is no special need of bringing her sex into the question at all, for this overture of hers does not need to be ranked in a special class in order to have good said about it. The beginning is particularly impressive-a grim phrase is given out by the trumpets and trombones in octaves, interrupted by syncopated thuds on the kettledrums, and is followed by a most effective piece of harmony in the strings-a chord of C-major is struck, and then merges into a passing harmony, which you expect to lead, by a half cadence, directly to the dominant chord of B-major; but no! instead of leading to the dominant, it leads to the tonic chord of E-minor. The effect of this sudden appearance of the chord of E-minor is startling, the chord seems to come from a hundred miles away, the effect is as unearthly as on ”et lux” in Verdi’s ”Manzoni” Requiem. If there is perhaps no other stroke in the overture that equals this in originality and force, what follows it has none the less conspicuous merit of its own. The thematic material is natural and unforced, the treatment coherent, often strikingly ingenious. Only once towards the latter part of the overture does the composer seem to lose her way for a moment in the maze of working-out; but she soon finds it again and pushes on to the end with very sure step. The general character of the work is passionate, with a warmth that seems wholly genuine and unsought-for, and now and then with more idyllic moments of much beauty. The instrumentation is brilliant, always skillfully managed, if not precisely what one would call masterly…Miss Lang’s varied play of color seems at moments more fitful and fantastic than her musical form and thematic development. Yet, in one respect, her scoring shows a very fine instinct; unlike most young composers, she is singularly thrifty in her use of orchestral material and does not waste her heavy artillery on effects of sheer dynamic force where it can be more wisely spent on effects of contrast. Upon the whole, she in no wise lays herself open to the criticism once passed on Augusta Holmes by a Paris musician: that, ”like most women, she tries to prove her own virility by making a tremendous noise,” The overture was admirably played and most enthusiastically received. Mr. Nikisch being called out three times after it.” (Anonymous, undated review, courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives) Another review devoted 75 per cent of its content to the new piece: “Of the composition itself there is not much be said that is pleasant in the saying. It is creditable as the result of a laudable ambition to essay an important work, and it may be pronounced a promising first attempt; but it is scarcely of a worth to warrant its performance, unless, indeed, to afford the composer an opportunity to hear it, and to profit by the experience. In the first place, it is hardly an overture, as the term is generally understood, and it is not dramatic in any sense. It has more the character of an orchestral fantasie. Nothing is clearly defined, nothing is completed. it is one long effort to say something, without any very clear idea of what is to be said. the general effect is spasmodic and fragmentary; and the work does not hang well together. the orchestration is vigorous, but is without richness or character. It has strong color here and there, but is never closely knit, and is often foggy. the pervading fault of the work, however, is that its meaning is not made apparent….As an evidence of its composer’s serious study and its application, it is very commendable; but it is immature, and should not have been submitted to public criticisms. It is not gratifying to be compelled to write thus discouragingly of the work of a young composer, but no good is to be accomplished by glossing over the truth, and we are sure that it is wiser and kinder to point out the shortcomings of the composition than to indulge in insincerity and to damn it with faint praise. The audience received it in a very kind spirit, and applauded heartily. An effort was made to call the composer forward, but it was unsuccessful.” (Unsigned review, courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives) A review of April 9, 1893 credited to the Courier began with a 19 paragraph about Margaret’s background and education, and then followed that with a second paragraph of 14 lines concerning the work performed. This formed less than one-fourth of the complete review-quite a contrast to the review cited above. The reviewer wrote: “The overture while evidently the work of a skillful, and refined musician is nevertheless a very characteristic sample of kapelmeistermusik. There is a certain benign composure and nobility of intent in the writing of it, that is all too conspicuous, but the work appears to contain but a single well defined theme which is very reminiscent of the oriental music in Verdi’s Aida. This theme is so tautologically treated and so frequently repeated that the prevailing impression created by it is one of monotony and lanquor. Perhaps the most praiseworthy feature of the overture is in the orchestral coloring of its harmonic development which is altogether excellent.” (Unsigned review, courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives) Philip Hale in the April 12, 1893 Musical Courier wrote: “Miss Lang’s overture is perhaps a creditable work for a young student. Whether it deserved a place in a Symphony concert is another question. Although Miss Lang in certain songs has shown in the past a pretty melody, the themes of the overture are not of marked originality or striking effect. There are ingenious passages in the detail, but there is a general lack of definite purpose in the conception and in the carrying out. The composer seems to be pricked by the desire of extracting ideas from the orchestral instruments in turn. As a result there is occasional piquancy, and there are pleasing measures, but this dramatic overture is a promise rather than a fulfillment. It is as though the composer deliberately set about to see what she could do in this line, there was nothing musical within that forces its was irresistibly and assumed orchestral shape and color.” Hale also wrote in the Boston Home Journal: “The phrase Place aux dames should be without meaning on the concert stage.The conductor of an orchestra should judge the fitness of a composition proposed for performance without consideration of the sex of the composer.Sex is here an accident.” (Fox, Sexual, 10) Hale spent two-thirds for his review damning the work in every way that he could: “Her themes are neither of marked originality nor of musical importance…there is not one dramatic stroke in the whole work, nor id there a climax. As a fantastic tone poem, it is vague. Miss Lang finds at her disposal the orchestral paint box, and she colors her themes with this instrumental tablet and with that one; thus she gains, occasionally, a piquant effect, a pleasing passage, but the whole lacks coherency and, is diffuse. In a word, this composition might well please the eye of a prudent and skilled teacher. he might look kindly at the pupil.” (Unsigned review attributed to the Journal, courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives) Louis C. Elson wrote in the Advertiser wrote that: “It is the reviewer’s task to state that this work was not up to the level of these concerts. Miss Lang has won some deserved successes at the Apollo Club concerts in the field of chorus composition, and has written some graceful bits of instrumental music which have achieved the dignity of publication, but it is a long stride from this to orchestral work in a large form, and to make the first public attempt in a concert course which is supposed to present the finest music that the world affords, to enter a programme which presented selections by Haydn, Dvorak and Moszkowski, was little less than rash.. One may pay tribute to an evident tact in the matter of orchestral coloring that holds forth good promise for the future, but it may be at once added that these concerts are not supposed to be devoted to the presentation of incipient greatness. As the work was entitled a ”dramatic overture,” one need not quarrel with the fact that its form was not powerful enough to sustain interest, nothing was carried to a logical conclusion, much was spasmodic, and at times the whole case could only be diagnosed as orchestral hysteria.” This represented one-fourth of the total review. (Courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives) Warren Davenport in the Globe wrote that: “It would be a pleasant task to speak in praise of Miss Lang’s orchestral piece but the results gained would not warrant such a course. Miss Lang has written many pretty songs and has shown talent in the pieces written for male voices and sung by the Apollo Club, but the step from this grade of material to the writing of a dramatic overture of sufficient worth to claim a place upon a symphonic concert programme is quite a long one. The effort of this ”dramatic overture” was a purposeless one, and it could as well be called the ”Babes in the Wood,” as far as any dramatic significance is concerned. Any capable student can make such music as this who has a little invention at hand, and to write similarly for the orchestra is not so difficult either, with the hundreds of stereotyped formulas that are available in the works of modern composers and student-writers. The first thing to be considered is what is the musical value of a composition? Has it form; has it a defined purpose? Miss Lang should not be discouraged because of this failure to compose a dramatic overture. Through the ill advice of her friends and the lack of discrimination upon the part of the person who arranges the programmes for the Symphony concerts, this youthful composer has had her inability to reach certain heights made plain, and the lesson should be a profitable one. It should not dampen her ambition, however. Her case is not an isolated one. The audience applauded the playing loudly.” These comments took up about one-third of the review. (Courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archive) Another review devoted
one-half of its space to Margaret’s work, all of which was complimentary. “Miss Margaret Ruthven Lang’s new dramatic overture was given for the first time at the Symphony last week, the composition by our talented townswoman proving to be of great merit. In the beginning two themes are developed, one sombre and of an antique character,the other passionate and modern treatment, each played against the other and producing a dramatic effect original but melodic. The working out is concise and beautifully harmonizes, and the return to the first part is gradual and regular, without harsh cadences or Wagnerian style of orchestration. The young composer has treated the stronger instruments of the orchestra very effectively, utilizing them for special themes in several instances, which gives a marked tonal color and contrast to the gentler fortissimo passages. The work received a most flattering reception, and Mr. Nikisch’s orchestra gave a delightful interpretation of the number.” (Courtesy of the Boston SYmphony Orchestra Archive) The American Biographical Library entry quotes an unnamed critic as saying: “The general character of the work is passionate, with a warmth that seems wholly genuine and unsought; and now and then with more idyllic moments of much beauty; and the orchestration is brilliant.” Levy quotes from a letter from Edward MacDowell to his wife: “Wasn’t Apthorpe [sic] shameless about Miss Lang’s overture? And he didn’t say a word about Chadwick. He ought to be kicked.” Another letter said: “Apthorpe, after his slobber act over Miss Lang’s overture (had to) even it up by doing at least likewise with his friend Arthur Foote’s work. I ain’t patient.” (Levy, 90) However, MacDowell’s judgment may be questioned as the critic of the Boston Beacon, Howard Ticknor wrote that MacDowell “so hates Apthorpe that Apthorpe’s good criticism would be sufficient to make him take the opposite side.” (Levy, 91) Apthorp had also made in error in Margaret’s biography saying that she had studied with MacDowell. She wrote a stiff note to him correcting this, and also asked her father to write a note to Chadwick on this same subject: “Maidie is troubled by an error in Apthorp’s programme today.” B. J. continued, that should the work be a failure, Chadwick would not mind being left out as Margaret’s teacher, but if it were a success, “it will take but a few hours to” correct the matter. B. J. ended by saying that “A misstatement corrected is usually more fully noted than if it were correct from the start.” (Chadwick Archive, NEC) The Monday before the performance Margaret had written to Chadwick telling him of her “good news,” and saying: “I have wanted to tell you about it because I feel so grateful to you for the lessons that helped me so far as even this point.” The rest of the letter mentions that she wrote it during November of the previous year, sent it to Nikisch, but then did not hear anything for a long time. “I dared not tell you of it lest you should jeer at my temerity.” It would seem that her lessons were not concerned with this specific work. She ended with: “I want your good wishes, and I want above all to thank you.” She then asked for his comments after the concert. (Chadwick Archive, NEC) Chadwick seems to have replied in a positive manner. In another letter to him she began: “Your very kind and most charitable letter was an inexpressible relief and pleasure to me, for I had imagined all kinds of horrible things going on in your mind until it came.” She then invited Mr. and Mrs. Chadwick to an evening of billiards, “and then you will talk to me about it. Indeed I have so much to say to you that I shall not know how to begin or when to finish.” (Chadwick Archive, NEC)
There seems to be no record of Thomas seeing the Dramatic Overture, Opus 12 but her overture Witichis, Opus 10 was chosen (along with two others) from among twenty-one works presented for consideration to be performed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One interesting aspect was that B.J. Lang was a member of the reviewing committee! other members were – Camille Saint-Saens, Paris, France (Owing to Mr. Saint-Saens” long absence from France during the fall and winter of 1892-93, his services as adjudicator were regretfully dispensed with); Dr. A. C. Mackenzie, London, England; Asger Hamerik, Baltimore, Maryland; Carl Zerrahn, Boston, Mass.; William L. Tomlins, Chicago, ill.; and Theordore Thomas, Chicago, ill. (Yearbook, Vol 10, xxxi) each committee member made individual reports on the 21 pieces submitted, and from this group, pieces by seven American composers were chosen for performance. Unfortunately only four of the chosen works actually had a performance. Theodore Thomas conducted (August 4) Lang’s work at one of the regular concerts in the Music Hall (seating for 2,000)(versus concerts in the Women’s Building) with “an orchestra of one hundred” in a program that also included the Suite Creole by John A. Broekhoven and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto played by the American, Maud Powell. “The program was noteworthy for the introduction of a major orchestral work by a promising female composer, but it was a disappointing reminder that America’s most prominent composers had ignored the Bureau of Music’s submission process. The reviewer for American Art Journal stated that it was the largest crowd that he had seen yet in Music Hall and praised Powell’s playing of the Mendelssohn. He credited Lang’s work with ”originality and earnestness of purpose” as well as ”considerable continuity and sustained power.” He went on to state that the orchestration showed lack of experience but pointed out that even Brahms had similar problems with some of his orchestrations. This review was unusual in that the critic treated an orchestral composition by a woman seriously, without any comments reflecting gender bias.” (Bomberger, 138-139) The overture was included at a third concert under Bendix. Margaret’s third overture, entitled Totila, Opus 23 was composed in 1901.Theodore Thomas, Autobiography, Vol. II, facing 282.