For the past 27 years, the Mexican-born pianist and composer Max Lifchitz has been a tireless and resourceful promoter of new music (including his own) through live performances and recordings with the North/South Consonance Ensemble, the chamber group of the non-profit North/South Consonance organization. Many young composers, particularly those of the Neoclassic or New Romantic temperment (Larry Bell comes immediately to mind), have gotten a career boost from Lifchitz’s annual programs and recordings, which now number nearly 50. 

I mention all this because North/South Consonance’s  final concert of the current season is coming up on Sunday afternoon June 17 at 3 PM and will take place at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church (120 West 69th St, NYC) on Manhattan’s West Side. Admission is free (no tickets necessary).

The program will feature two compositions involving narration: Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat and Lifchitz’s The Blood Orange.  I personally detest works that involve people talking while I’m trying to listen to music, but apparently some people like it and many famous composers have written works for ensemble and spoken word. 

Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale was written at the end of World War I and is one of those Faustian/Devil Goes Down to Georgia things about trading in your soul for a fiddle.  Lifchitz says the work is being performed to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of the composer and, in fact, it is being performed on June 17, the exact day Stravinsky was born in 1882 in a town near St Petersburg.

Lifchitz’s The Blood Orange is a setting of a text by New York City writer Kathleen Masterson, written especially for the actress Norma Fire, who will perform it.  The narrative with music relates the story of Fire’s parents who emigrated to this country before the Holocaust, and of their relatives who did not. Fire will be supported by violinist Claudia Schaer and Lifchitz on piano. 

Today’s musical question is:  Name the best pieces ever written for music and narration (and let’s get Copland and Honegger out of the way quickly).

12 Responses to “Viva Max!”
  1. Rodney Lister says:

    I’m not sure about greatest, but I Wrestled a Monster Today by Dave Smith, on a text by Bobby Sands, for either narrator and piano or talking pianist, and My Twentieth Century by Martin Bresnick, are both pretty good, as is Not Afraid by Michael Finnissy for baritone and talking pianist.

    Incidentally, L’histoire is not really a piece for narrator and instruments–it’s a stage piece involving actors, a dancer, and instruments, not exactly the same thing. As a stage piece it’s unconventional, but it works really well–a lot better, I think than as a concert piece–especially as an instrumental piece with no talking.

    There are other Stravinsky pieces with narration–Persephone, Babel, and I piece that I really love, A Sermon, A Narrative, and a Prayer.

    I also like the Blitzstein Airborne Symphony–there’s a great recording by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, with Orsen Welles doing the narration.

    I don’t know what’s supposed to be wrong with the Lincoln Portrait, unless its some kind of elitist things. It certainly has to be better known and more often played than any of the other piece any of us has mentioned. Surely any of us would give our eye teeth to write a piece that gets done that often.

  2. Matthew says:

    Lee Hyla did an awfully nice setting of “Howl” for Ginsberg to read over the Kronos Quartet a few years back.

  3. Eric Bruskin says:

    Oh, yes – and Robert Ashley’s “Music Word Fire and I Would Do It Again (Coo Coo)”, a pendant of sorts to “Perfect Lives.” I have never, ever forgotten the broadcast over channel 13 back in 1981. I played the soundtrack obsessively for years. Two years ago I found the video for sale and it was just as I remembered it.

  4. Eric Bruskin says:

    Louis Andriessen’s “De Stijl”

    Jerry might like the fact that the narration is only in the central section of the piece, and the orchestration thins out drastically to a cubist boogie woogie piano while the speaker speaks. Mondri-licious!

  5. Sparky P. says:

    And now come to think of it, “The Adventures of Greggery Pecchary” and “Billy the Mountain”, also by Frank Zappa.

  6. Steven says:

    I think that these

    Helmut Lachenmann’s “Zwei Gefuhle”
    Salvatore Martirano “L’s G.A.”

    are some of the most highly effective pieces with narration, because the music interacts with the sound of the words. One of the problems with Stravinsky’s Soldat is the oil and water alternation between the indeterminate narration and the music. With the pieces above, musical events are effected by the sound of the words, and visa versa. This adds several new musical dimensions to the works that Soldat simply doesn’t bother with. Hans Ola Ericsson’s “Four Beast’s Amen” alternates readings with music as with a pseudo-mass structure; I found this also to be quite effective.

  7. curioman says:

    “Welcome to the United States” by Frank Zappa is my fav. On the Yellow Shark album performed by Ensemble Modern.

  8. Steve Layton says:

    If you’re one of the ones that classify Robert Ashley’s primary shtick as speech rather than song, Perfect Lives has to be one of the greatest narrated classics. (Atalanta too, though most of the time actual singing of various types runs concurrently with the spoken part.)

  9. Sparky P. says:

    “Facade” by William Walton
    “Musique pour les soupers de Roi Ubu” by Bernd Alois Zimmermann (although, to be fair, the narrations occur in between ‘entrees’)
    The fourth string quartet of Peter Ruzicka

  10. Evan Johnson says:

    Not really “narration,” per se, but solo spoken-word part with comprehensible text throughout? Ferneyhough’s Opus contra naturam. I wasn’t convinced by this piece at first but now I find it incredibly effective.

  11. zeno says:

    I prefer Schoenberg’s “Survivor from Warsaw” and his early monodrama ending to his “Gurrelieder” — “Sir Ganderfoot and Mother Goose, now hide you, quickly hide.”

  12. david toub says:

    Nice article—Max conducted the first piece I ever had performed in a public concert (a short 12-tone piece I wrote when I was 17 or 18). The MP3 is here.

    In terms of the question, I won’t mention Copland. My favorites would be
    Coming Together (Rzewski)
    Ode to Napoleon (Schoenberg)
    Barstow (Partch)
    The Flood (Stravinsky)

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