René Leibowitz: L’explication des Metaphores, op. 15

or Explanation of Metaphors

for two pianos (Marc Reichow, Florian Hoelscher) harp (Françoise Friedrich), percussion (Boris Müller) and narrator (Julie Comparini), under Walter Nußbaum, with text by Raymond Queneau, translated into English by the composer, on this album, a world premiere recording
(the two discs are also available in iTunes, and the track at hand, track 7, at just under 10:00, is still available for purchase individually. Go buy at least that one.)

At the time I scratched the title of this piece into my schedule, I knew virtually nothing about it save the above and that it was apparently written in 1947 and published by Long Island City (N.Y.) : Bomart, 1950. I didn’t even know why it was in English. But if you’re determined enough, and people are willing to cooperate (and I find they usually are, especially when it’s about a project they’re passionate about), you can find out quite a bit.

I’d also like to point out that this is a fantastic example, to me, of how learning about a piece helps you to appreciate it more, how insight into what might seem odd or interesting turns into appreciation and understanding, which in turn leads to a greater emotional connection.

The Man

Let’s talk for a (very brief) moment about René Leibowitz. This isn’t the place to go elaborating on the man’s biography. Wikipedia has all that, at least some of it. The second sentence of that article says “He was historically significant in promoting serialism and the New Music in Paris, France after WWII.” He had been interested in music from a young age, but it seems his father wanted him to lead a more “normal life” and put a stop to (or at least greatly diminished) the young man’s studies, but his turning point was hearing Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire that inspired him to pursue music full time.

Wiki also says:

During the early 1930s, Leibowitz studied composition and orchestration with Maurice Ravel in Paris, where he was introduced to Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-note technique by the German pianist and composer Erich Itor Kahn. (Despite his own assertions, Leibowitz did not study with either Schoenberg or Anton Webern).

Ravel! The other name, which you might not recognize, is Erich Itor Kahn, who I have only recently come to know anything about. Long story short, Leibowitz was critically influential to bringing the music of the Second Viennese School to France after the second world war, writing a thesis on Schoenberg’s compositional method, coining (or at least being among the first to use) the term ‘serialism’. I want to say I read somewhere that he even hid scores of banned music and did all sorts of clandestine stuff with this heretic music during the war, but now I can’t seem to find where I read that. In any case, by far his most famous two pupils were one Pierre Boulez and Jacques-Louis Monod. You see why Leibowitz is included here.

If you look for his name anywhere music is sold, you’ll likely find a plethora of Bizet and Offenbach and opera or overture recordings. He was a prolific conductor, and I have his Beethoven cycle that he recorded with the Royal Philharmonic like half a century ago, and it’s quite good, “apparently the first recording to follow Beethoven’s metronome markings.”

Aside from all of his recordings however, he was an almost equally-prolific composer. Have a look at his list of works on Wikipedia. It’s long, among the list being nine string quartets, which, to the best of my research, appear never to have been recorded, or even performed (although I find that a bit difficult to believe). I’ve seen the scores, and no. 7 calls for bass voice; no. 9 is apparently unfinished.

Anyway: The Music

Let’s get to the piece at hand today. If any of his works could be considered ‘famous’, I think this would be it. The text comes from Raymond Queneau’s poem, linked above. It was apparently performed in French, but the composer himself later translated the text into English so his lady friend at the time, “his new partner and favorite artist, the American actress” Ellen Adler, could perform it. (I am quoting from the booklet that accompanies the hard copy of the albums, about which more shortly). The recording referenced above uses the English version (the album is also available in iTunes, and you should get it), which was obviously authorized by the composer. (I’ll talk at the bottom of this article about the incredible assistance I got from the people associated with this recording, namely Marc Reichow and Julie Comparini. I owe them enormously for everything I am able to say about this work. Marc is pianist on the recording of this work, as well as lectorate and associate producer, and Ms. Comparini, “singer, actor and dancer… who also holds a degree in linguistics” performed the spoken part of this piece, recorded back in 2004. I believe the content in said booklet to which I am referring is also written by Reichow.)

The vocal part is…. more spoken than sung but less sung than Pierrot Lunaire, maybe…? It’s written on a one-line staff, something that looks like percussion, but it’s clef’d (C-clef) and has notes above and below it, even with accidentals, like the E, G, D and F lines just disappeared (leaving us only with ‘boy’ from ‘every good boy does fine). The result, I guess, is to notate contour and pitch, but not to such a degree that it is to be sung. There’s quite a large range, and Ms. Comparini expressed to me the difficulty of ‘speaking’ in a head voice, or talking an octave or so above the staff, something I wouldn’t have thought of (well, among much else).

Actually: the Text and the Music

Let’s first talk about the poetry… Listening to the work (or reading the French, if that’s a thing you can do), the text of the work is… definitely interesting. So my first big question about the piece was “why this text?” There doesn’t seem to be a ton of information about Queneau, and none that I could find that suggested he and Leibowitz were bosom buddies or anything. It seems, then, that they must have known each other from being in our around the same circles of artists and performers, but at the very least they knew of each other (or the composer of the poet), and most importantly, this poem was among those chosen for one of the composer’s early vocal works. It wasn’t his first, but we shall see how it might have meant something special to the composer.

Think of it: it’s 1947 (or perhaps earlier), and the world has just (in some cases barely) survived one of the greatest atrocities in human history, and one of the artistic and cultural centers of the world, Europe, is bloodied and wounded. If you go out and buy the hard copy of these discs from Walter Nußbaum and the Ensemble Aisthesis, there’s a phenomenal wealth of information presented in the book(let?), in German, French and English that tells a lot about the background of just about everything contained within. On page 95, you’ll come across the English content for Explanation of Metaphors, first mentioning that it was premiered in French with a male narrator.

The piece is dedicated to the composer’s brother Joseph, which the booklet says “was executed by the Gestapo in Marseille (presumably in 1944) and who had been Leibowitz’ most important attachment figure from their shared youth onwards.” In the subsequent paragraphs, the deaths of Anton Webern and Leibowitz’s father are also mentioned, as well as the general terror of German occupation and having managed to survive WWII. And remember what piece it was that compelled the young Leibowitz to dedicate himself to music to begin with. With all that in mind, now, let’s look again at the text of the poem, and the work as a whole.

It’s described as “the ‘synthesis of humor and tragedy'” and obviously very philosophical. It comes from Queneau’s cycle Les Ziaux, published in 1944 (this was something I’d tried to find online to no avail, so thanks again to Reichow and Comparini for their information). Perhaps the following line represents most poignantly what the composer and poet may or may not have been dealing with in working on their compositions:

Si je parle d’un homme, il sera bientôt mort,
(If I speak of a man, he will soon be dead)

It doesn’t take much imagining to see how someone might feel that way having lived through a period where people lost their families, homes, children, lives on an almost daily basis. But that is only the most literal of interpretations, and there is much more to the work than just that.

It’s a quirky piece, if I may use a very arbitrary and someone ineloquent word to describe it, but that’s what initially interested me in it. It’s a bit clacky, clinky, trickly, with two pianos, a harp, and percussion supporting our narrator. There are no sustained sounds from strings or winds, only our human voice and plucked and/or hammered things. The program notes continue to make poignant correlations to works of Schoenberg and Webern, primarily that it uses the same tone row from Webern’s op. 24, and that the setting and use of text “declares the influence of” Schoenberg’s opp. 41 and 46.

I don’t want to use too much of their content from the booklet, but it is a treasure trove of insights, even containing the row table for this work (from Webern) as well as the texts of the works on the album. Really, go get it. Writing about this work was at first frightening, because I knew nothing about it, then only intimidating, and now exciting.

There are parts of the work where the voice locks into unison for certain figures with the piano and/or harp, and it is passages like these that one feels (for which I have no proof but only the feel) that the tone row is being used quite transparently, even rigorously, but perhaps not as concentrated and bare as Webern would. The music is expressive, teetering on ‘playful’ at times, colorful, even bouncy at moments, but also at turns angrily angular, giving the impression that the topic at hand is an emotional one, like someone working out how they themselves are supposed to feel about something. Certain ideas and imagery appear and reappear in the text, “Slender as is a hair, ample as is the dawn” or nostrils (a clunky but also somehow poetic word on the English tongue, if not a bit repulsive in meaning), outstretched hands, speaking of gods, of peaks and vales, days and nights, and the result sounds like someone talking to themselves in the mirror. It’s self-referential, at times, perhaps a bit meta, but it ends thusly:

Le calme reviendra lorsqu’il verra le Temple
De sa forme assurer sa propre éternité.
His peace will come again when the temple he’ll see
Of his form assuring his own eternity


I’ve spoken with a few musical folks, one of whom is, might I say, quite a an authority on subjects like these, and this person has very little interest in Leibowitz’s work, if any. The argument there is that there’s no new ground being covered, nothing terribly exciting or new or interesting, that there’s much other neglected music that’s far more worthy of attention.

This reflects a bit of a sentiment that I think some people have of forgotten composers, or neglected composers or whatever term you want to use, that so’n’so composer was forgotten because in some way they deserve to be, that in some process of artistic natural selection, the creme de la creme will always float to the top, to be enjoyed in concert halls and music libraries while the inferior stuff is left to gather dust on bookshelves or in warehouses, if it’s printed/recorded at all.

A very insightful gentleman with whom I speak on occasion described Leibowitz’s particular flavor of 12-tone music this way:

Leibowitz certainly works in the paradise that Schoenberg created.  What I’ve heard of him so far sounds more Schoenbergian even than most Berg and Webern.  But lighter, can I say, more fragrant?  Definitely a bridge to Boulez, but Boulez owes as much to Debussy as to Schoenberg, and I don’t hear Debussy in Leibowitz.

And more specific to the issue of composers and attention:

I see no reason to assume that the inventor of a style or method will wind up as history’s supreme master of that style.  Except perhaps that this pressure to make history leaves composers in particular reluctant to fully work out the potential of the ideas of others.  I say “composers in particular,” because the practicalities of classical music have generated such a small canon –1% of the artists get 99% of the attention and performances– or something like that.  The visual arts don’t dispense fame so churlishly.

Thank you for that, DVF, well said, as usual. What I want to get to is that René Leibowitz certainly holds a unique place in the history of classical music, be it as a composer, theorist, or conductor (the hat for which he is most known), but even if he were nothing more than a boring old breadmaker who crocheted and left his house only on Wednesdays for soup at the local café or whatever image of plain you may have, his personal viewpoint on a matter, any matter, would still be unique and subjective. It must be.

But along with that, so is every person’s perception of what is ‘art’ or ‘enjoyable’ or worthy of attention. I argue that this person, in the interesting, influential position in which he found himself, between The Two Schools of Vienna and Darmstadt after WWII, has a unique perspective, one that demands attention and study if not at least interest.

I was thankfully able to get in touch with Ms. Comparini and Mr. Reichow regarding the recording project of which they were a part, led largely by Mr. Walter Nußbaum, and thankfully for me, people are generally eager to speak about projects they’ve worked hard on and things they love and are proud of, and this was no different.

It’s exciting and encouraging that a project like this was able to be completed. In a world where the almighty dollar rules and a project is only undertaken when financial benefit is on the horizon, how great it is to see a project like this, one I imagine did not go platinum, still be able to see the light of day. I am told the hardcopy is “physically a beautiful object, with a satin fabric cover and a bookmark and printed flyleaves and everything,” says Julie, so it’s recommended, but currently the digital copy is the best I can do. 

This is the kind of thing that people can accomplish with a vision, some dedication. I haven’t discussed with any of the performers or producers the backstory, the details of what it took to produce these two discs of music, so I’ll graft on my own impressions that it must have taken dedication, patience, lots of hard work, and cooperation to get this music on record, about half of it for the very first time, and also to offer such a generous amount of information about these works and the composer to go with it. What more could you want?

For one, there are nine (or eight and half, give or take) string quartets that have yet to be recorded, and as Herr Nußbaum says in his opening letter in the booklet,

In the 1950s, when striving for a fundamental new beginning led to a break with tradition, aes- thetics like Leibowitz’ were branded as »yes- terday’s old hats.« I believe that the originality and profound substance of this music has been overlooked and ignored without reason.
Today, 40 years after his death, the greatest part of his more than 90 works, including five operas, has never been performed.

Well, thankfully, if not for your own enjoyment, at least for posterity and the hope of a future revival of interest (or just interest), we have at least these two discs of music to enjoy and discover.

Relative to what I knew of Leibowitz and this work just two weeks ago, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot with very friendly people eager to share their knowledge of something quite arcane, but truth be told, I still know so little of this piece. In any regard, here it is. Listen, wonder, enjoy, or at least know that the traditions of the Second Viennese School did not end with Webern and Schoenberg and Berg and pick up only with the Darmstadt ilk, and this is an example, not only of how they are connected, but of how much more there is to discover.

We pick up next week with the bad-boy, “enfant terrible”, famous student of both Messiaen and Leibowitz, also with both of whom he had a falling out. Is that surprising? Stay tuned.


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