Saturday, January 4, 2014

Better Know a Composer: Ernst Toch

If you know Ernst Toch for anything, it's probably this:
"Geographical Fugue"is a perfect tongue twister of a showpiece for high-school and university choirs, the kind of rhythmic, referential, kind-of-humorous diversion that moms and younger brothers love ("Hey ma, it's just a bunch of names of places! Lake Titicaca! Get it: titty-kaka? Ha!").

It certainly didn't start out that way.

The "Geographical Fugue" was the third movement of Gesprochene Musik (Spoken Music), which Toch premiered at the Berlin Festival of Contemporary Music in 1930. Toch had not written the piece to be performed live, but rather had it pre-recorded and played back at 45 rpm on a gramophone:
 
Gesprochene Musik was a wry bit of musical experimentation, an early example of electronic experimentation shot through with Weimar-era modernist wit.

Three years later, as the Nazis came to power, Toch's burgeoning career in Germany ended when he fled continental Europe. After two years in London--productive ones, he scored three films--Toch made his way to the United States, first settling in New York, and then moving to Los Angeles. There, he earned a living writing film soundtracks, ultimately writing 16 and earning three Academy Award nominations.

It was also in Los Angeles, during a 14-year period from 1950 until his death in 1964, that Toch wrote all seven of his symphonies. Although the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians dismissively describes them as "late Romantic," Toch's symphonies are skillful, entertaining, and moving, combining the best of Wagner, Strauss, and Schoenberg with sharp modernist shocks that provide moments of genuine drama:

Symphony No. 3, premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony on December 2, 1955, won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, but the fifth is also highly recommended.