Music: Toward Epiphany

Four years ago this month, as I was paging my way through the morning paper, I happened to glance at the obituaries. The paper almost fell from my hands when I saw the name of my friend, composer Stephen Albert, dead at fifty-one, cut down in an auto accident. Steve and I had just had one of our marathon phone conversations less than a week before, as I was leaving for a short Christmas holiday. He was as full of enthusiasm as ever. He urgently invited me to Baltimore to hear Yo-Yo Ma play his new Cello Concerto and insisted I finally make the trip to Cape Cod to spend a long weekend with his family.

It was inconceivable to me that this dear man—so full of life, love, and passion—was gone. I made the wrenching phone call to Steve’s wife, Marilyn, who had been injured in the accident; what could one say? I promised I would pray for him, and I have ever since. As far as the loss to the world of music was concerned, the Washington Post put it well: Steve’s death “deprived American music of one of its most luminous talents.”

Appropriately enough, Steve and I first met on the telephone. I was writing a piece on the current state of American music that included interviews with some of the neo-tonal composers who had rejected Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system of atonality. My calling card with Steve was a very favorable review I had written for Musical America of his gorgeously lyrical Flower of the Mountain and the dramatic Into Eclipse, recorded by Nonesuch [9 79153-2]. He remembered the review, so we were off to a good start. I soon was astounded by his frankness and willingness to speak about the spiritual disease afflicting the arts and our times.

Contrary to the Romantic image of the artist as something akin to an idiot savant, possessed by the divine afflatus, who knows not what he does, most composers are very articulate and literate—and respond very particularly to philosophical claims and metaphysical propositions. Steve Albert was one of these. In our many hours of conversation, on the phone and during visits, half the time was spent discussing God—who he is, how we know him, whether he can be reached, and how crazy the current world is in light of his being. The conversations were almost Dostoeveskian, except there was no madness in them; they were illumined by Steve’s passion, thirst, and drive for truth.

Steve rebelled against the highly esoteric, dehumanized “cult of the new” that dominated much of the American musical scene. In his own studies, he told me:

starting back in the early ’60s, I felt I was fleeing from a cultural funeral. People didn’t see the caskets yet, but I saw them. The only honest thing was not to be a part of it—to resist it. Once you bought the cultural Bolshevism of the time, you were down the mindless trail of the avant-garde. Twenty-five years down the line I suspect that one will look back with mystification as to how people took the ’50s to the ’70s seriously except as some kind of sociological aberration.

What particularly provoked Steve about twelve-tone music was its implied premise, as he said, that “the past has no meaning. What was going on was a massive denial of memory. No one can remember a twelve-tone row. The very method obliterates memory’s function in art.” Steve sensed the possible recovery of music that would “reach out and touch an audience once again,” as his music so successfully does, if memory could be recovered. To achieve this, he thought it necessary to reconnect with and “to reexamine ideas and practices that were part of a six-hundred-year continuum” of musical tradition. Steve believed that “the continuum still moves through our soul as a subterranean river flows faithfully and silently beneath the parched desert.” That silent river broke into beautiful song in his lyrical and highly expressive works.

Steve’s music has been called neo-Romantic because of his return to tonality and long-lined melody. He rejected what he described as both “the unrelieved dissonance of serialism and the unrelieved consonance of minimal-ism.” He said that he was searching for a new synthesis and for “memorable ideas that seem timeless.” The most prominent influences on Steve’s music can be heard easily: Strauss, Stravinsky, and Sibelius. That may seem an odd admixture, but Steve assimilated them into his unique sound world, which can be heard in a number of his recorded works. Among them are: a rich setting of Molly Bloom’s words from James Joyce’s Ulysses, entitled Flower of the Mountain; his Pulitzer Prize-winning symphony River Run [Delos D/CD 1016], which was the major piece of American music Mstislav Rostropovich brought with him on his famous return to Russia with the National Symphony Orchestra; a violin concerto, In Concordiam [Delos DE 3059]; and his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, a very powerful and moving piece written for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, now available on Sony [SK 57961] with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Steve thought his 1990 Cello Concerto his best work, and it shows him at the top of his powers. We used to argue over the merits of various composers, and he was not pleased with my weakness for Benjamin Britten’s operas or for the symphonies of Carl Nielsen, which, he said, did not have any good tunes. I would retaliate by trying to sing or hum one, which I’m sure only weakened my case. Regardless, Steve’s Concerto displays his superb melodic gift. It contains one of his finest and longest themes, utterly haunting and completely memorable. It is stated for the first time at the beginning of the piece by the cello alone, in a declamatory fashion. After an orchestral interjection, the cello restates the theme—this time in an achingly lyrical and tender way, with Sibelian string undercurrents. Steve told me that this theme was unconsciously inspired by the falcon motif in Strauss’s opera Die Frau ohne Schatten. I can’t hear any direct similarities, maybe a faint echo in an accompanying figure, but perhaps that’s where the divine afflatus comes in.

Yo-Yo Ma premiered this piece with the same artists on the Sony recording, so this CD should be considered definitive. However, Steve sent me a concert tape of the premiere. In it, I detect more passion and engagement than I do on this recording. The Sony performance is more subdued and reflective. The work can bear that interpretation but it does not have the same overwhelming impact. In both performances, Yo-Yo Ma’s artistry is breath-taking.

The Cello Concerto, like Steve’s other music, fulfills his demand that music have a sense of “moving from points of artificially induced conflict to a sense of settling—of moving to an epiphany—tension and resolution.” Of his endeavor, Steve said, “it is a matter of trying to find beauty in art again,” for “art is about our desire for spiritual connection.” In tribute to Steve’s achievements, music critic and CRISIS contributor Theodore Libbey once said, “It’s what the art is in touch with that is important. It is no longer appealing for artists to dwell upon the chaotic, the painful, the ugly—which we have been told are the principal realities of our time. Stephen Albert was reaching for something beyond that—toward the transcendent.”

I will keep praying that Steve has arrived at the final destination toward which he was reaching, and will live in thanks that I had this friend to help point the way.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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