Friday , May 24 2024
Graeme Steele Johnson and ensemble

Forgotten Sounds: Graeme Steele Johnson on Resurrecting the 1897 Charles Martin Loeffler Octet

Composer Charles Martin Loeffler lived and worked at the intersection of European and American classical music. Extremely popular in the U.S. in his time, he was even called the “dean of American music.” Yet today Loeffler is mostly forgotten.

Why? Well, as clarinetist and arranger Graeme Steele Johnson explains in an exclusive email interview, it was partly timing and circumstance, but in some ways Loeffler was also his own worst enemy. Loeffler would likely be pleased to know that he has found a new 21st-century friend. Johnson has brought back – from the dead, as it were – Loeffler’s Octet, a substantial early work.

Johnson painstakingly brushed off and edited early manuscripts to make the piece playable again, after more than a century. Johnson and his ensemble first performed the Loeffler Octet in March. They’ll be offering it again at the Library of Congress on May 22, and at the Morgan Library in New York the following day. Their world premiere recording will come out June 7, 2024.

Graeme Steele Johnson (photo credit: Dylan Hancook)
Graeme Steele Johnson (photo credit: Dylan Hancook)

Charles Martin Loeffler: A Musical Identity Crisis

In our interview Johnson provided an account of Loeffler’s significance to the foundations of American classical music; the composer’s tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and his chameleon-like transformation from German to French to American; and how Johnson revived the Octet through a year of hard, scholarly work.

What drove you to track down the manuscript of Charles Martin Loeffler’s Octet in the Library of Congress archives, and then to make the effort to put together the first critical edition? Were you familiar with Loeffler’s music already? Were you looking for unknown repertoire that included your own instrument, the clarinet? Or both? Or something else?

My journey with Loeffler’s Octet began with a combination of serendipity and curiosity.

When performance opportunities dried up in the early days of the pandemic, I turned to writing program notes for festivals that hadn’t yet canceled their concerts. I started researching Loeffler’s Two Rhapsodies for oboe, viola and piano for one of the programs, which was the only piece of his I was familiar with. That’s probably the case for many listeners today, which is a shame because Loeffler was really a household name in his lifetime as one of the most performed American composers both in this country and in Europe.

Still, it’s a good representative work because of the way it mixes Brahmsian Romantic warmth with iridescent Impressionist harmony and French Symbolist poetry.

The composer’s biography chronicles a similar identity crisis: Loeffler was born in Berlin and inherited a storied German musical tradition through his violin teacher Joseph Joachim (a close collaborator of Brahms and the Schumanns), but after an itinerant childhood in Eastern Europe he ultimately concealed his Germanness behind a heavy dose of Francophilia. He adopted French manners and style, peppered his English with French expressions, and even falsely claimed to be from Alsace. After settling in Boston, he appeared to Americans as French and was analyzed as such throughout his life and long after.

Loeffler’s penchant for French Symbolist poetry puts him in the company of his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel, who also wrote music inspired by writers of that movement. Given these Impressionist resonances, my mind went immediately to Debussy and Ravel when I came across a mention of an 1897 Octet for two clarinets, harp, string quartet and double bass; Loeffler’s instrumentation resembles Ravel’s unique blend of winds, strings and harp in his Introduction and Allegro.

Graeme Steele Johnson, Musical Archeologist

In fact, the scarcity of repertoire for that colorful combination is part of what inspired my octet arrangement of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which opens my new album, Forgotten Sounds, coming out on June 7 and featuring the world-premiere recording of Loeffler’s Octet.

And of course, the double clarinet parts also caught my eye. Hoping I had stumbled upon a convenient companion piece to the works by Debussy and Ravel, I eagerly searched for a recording of Loeffler’s Octet. Then, for sheet music. Then for any record of the piece beyond the list of works that had alerted me to its existence. That’s when I started to think I might have found something, and eventually learned that the piece hadn’t been heard at all since 1897.

I ultimately tracked down the unpublished manuscript in the archives of the Library of Congress. Loeffler was an incredibly fastidious composer, revising his works heavily and in multiple rounds. The Octet was no exception. To find out if the piece was any good, I had to sift through 75 pages mosaicked with Loeffler’s revisions and create my own legible, edited edition before I could play through the piece.

Charles Martin Loeffler Octet
Beginning of the Charles Martin Loeffler Octet: original manuscript with Johnson’s edited version

That process of musical archeology took me a year, but when my colleagues and I became the first to hear these Forgotten Sounds in over 125 years, the labor of reconstructing the score was immediately worthwhile. As musicians we play a lot of old music and a lot of new music, but this case of “new old music” is quite rare. Without the familiar interpretive blueprint of an established performing tradition or a living composer to guide us, everything was open to debate—and we found so much new territory to discover. Reading through the piece with no idea how it goes was a totally foreign and thrilling experience.

Getting in His Own Way

Loeffler was a popular composer in his time, especially in Boston where he was assistant concertmaster at the Boston Symphony Orchestra for many years but also around the U.S. and in Europe. Why do you think some of his works, like the Octet, were then “lost?”

I think it’s hard for us to comprehend just how popular Loeffler was. The Boston Symphony clocked no fewer than 117 performances of his music by the end of his life, and Loeffler himself appeared as a soloist with the orchestra a staggering 81 times. I don’t know if any composer or performer alive today can boast statistics like those. He was hailed in obituaries as “the dean of American composers,” and he left his fingerprints on many of the country’s founding musical institutions that still exist today.

Why, then, has Loeffler faded from popular consciousness? Part of the answer lies in the same cosmopolitanism that made the transplanted composer so irresistible to Americans during his lifetime. In an era acutely colored by nationalism, Loeffler’s complicated heritage made him something of a cultural chameleon. Alternately advancing and hindering his career, Loeffler’s flexible identity allowed him to assimilate at times, marked him as appealingly exotic at others, or condemned him to an awkward misfit position between the continents.

Despite his prominence on both sides of the Atlantic, for posterity Loeffler was ultimately too American for the European musical establishment and too European for the maverick sound of the New World—a predicament that effectively wrote him out of both musical histories. A cosmopolitan in one sense, Loeffler, in another, belonged not to all countries, but to none.

Charles Martin Loeffler, portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1903
Charles Martin Loeffler, portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1903

But he also got in the way of his own legacy. Like Brahms, Loeffler was intensely critical of his own work; though he affected indifference to critical opinion, he was actually very sensitive to how his music was received. After subjecting his works to multiple rounds of revisions, he ultimately withheld most of them from publication and sometimes even refused requests for permission to perform his pieces, preferring them to be unheard than unappreciated.

This may have been the fate of the Octet, which debuted to mixed reviews, typical of Loeffler’s early works. Although one reviewer “could hardly say enough” about the piece, writing that “the work took nearly everyone by storm,” others repeated familiar complaints of “decadence,” a catch-all term that critics often reached for in an attempt to capture the otherness of Loeffler’s music.

At the end of the 19th century, musical America was effectively an outpost of German culture. Loeffler was virtually the only representative of the French style in America, making his music illegible to the conservative press. Contemporary critics’ reflex to lean on the richly ambiguous term “decadent” reveals the lack of a vocabulary at the time to characterize Loeffler’s strikingly unfamiliar musical language. Later, the advent of Debussy’s music in America helped people make sense of Loeffler’s French associations, though ironically it may have been Loeffler’s music that prepared American audiences to receive Debussy.

Judgment Calls

The Octet was performed twice by the Kneisel Quartet and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1897, but never again since (until now). Does that mean there was a playable score available at that time, now lost? Can you tell us a little about the process of creating such a score from the 75-page manuscript you found, which is “full of sketches, annotations, and deletions?”

I constructed my edition of the Octet using two primary source documents from 1897, the year of its completion: the manuscript score written in Loeffler’s hand, and a set of hand-copied parts, presumably from the first performance, which also appear to have been produced by Loeffler. It was valuable to cross-reference the manuscript score with the original parts as I created my edition, but the two sources didn’t always agree with each other.

There was more creativity than you might think that went into reconstructing this score. I found myself constantly confronted with musical judgment calls, from such trivialities as the occasional note discrepancy to the more dramatic puzzles of Loeffler’s substantial cuts to his music. These range from the order of a few deleted measures to entire pages of music struck through or pasted over. In many cases Loeffler’s cut left the original text legible, which muddies the elusive issue of authenticity: Is it more authentic to adhere to the composer’s original concept of the work or to his latest version?

A Creative Misreading

The unanswerable questions surrounding the changes to Loeffler’s score complicated my pursuit of a faithful reconstruction, if there can be such a thing. While the documentarian aspires to observe his subject as a fly on the wall and the hiker seeks to leave no trace of his presence in nature, there is no way for the musical archeologist to passively resurrect a score from the ashes of history. The recreation of a musical work, even caged in score form, already constitutes an act of interpretation, one that only leads to another act of creation and recreation—rather than replication—through performance. I’ve tried to transfer some of that interpretive agency to the performer by using ossia measures when possible—short alternative versions of a passage. But rather than presuming to assert the definitive version of the Octet, I consider my edition a “creative misreading” of Loeffler’s score, to use Harold Bloom’s term.

But as problematic as the manuscript is for all of its unknowns, it is also rich in other information. The score bears traces of Loeffler’s youth, his cosmopolitanism and compositional anxieties, as well as clues about the circumstances of its premiere and the distant echoes of early American music. The “alla Zingara” finale recalls Loeffler’s earliest musical memories of Hungarian folk musicians. Expressive markings written in German, French, Italian and occasionally English bespeak Loeffler’s tangled national identities. And the three different writing utensils Loeffler used to revise the score reveal his obsessive compositional process.

In this way, the historical context of the piece provides the Rosetta Stone for translating Loeffler’s forgotten Octet back into sound.

A Return to the Spotlight

With this recording and these performances you’ve said you’re “hoping to spotlight Loeffler’s role in shaping American music at its dawn.” How would you describe that role?

The time and place of Loeffler’s debut as a composer positioned him on the front lines of the invention of American musical identity. Boston at the end of the 19th century was a sort of laboratory where the character and artistic standard of American music was [being] forged. Loeffler arrived just in time for the curtains to rise on the country’s first orchestras, and he embodied an attractive blend of a European pedigree and aesthetic perfumed with the aroma of modernism. He was at once fresh and familiar, controversial and curious—and had a blank space on his passport right when America was grasping for its own national voice.

Recording the Charles Martin Loeffler Octet

Loeffler joined the Boston Symphony as assistant concertmaster in 1882, the orchestra’s second season. He held that chair for over 20 years and continued to steer the orchestra after he retired by helping BSO founder Henry Lee Higginson select personnel and consulting on conductors, soloists and repertoire. In 1918, after a postwar purge of German musicians from the ranks of American orchestras, Loeffler campaigned for French players and several were hired by the BSO, permanently altering its sound. Long dominated by German conductors and musicians, the BSO, with Loeffler’s consultation, handed the reins to French conductors for the next five years and developed a new reputation for a “French” sound that still exists to some extent today.

Loeffler also left his mark on other cities as they raised their founding musical institutions. Severance Hall, home of The Cleveland Orchestra, and Coolidge Auditorium, which houses the renowned Concerts from the Library of Congress, were both inaugurated with commissions from Loeffler. He also assisted with the founding of The Juilliard School, where he auditioned incoming violinists for some years, and the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France, where many leading American composers would seek Nadia Boulanger’s tutelage.

His influence also extended to the budding chamber music landscape in the U.S. Loeffler shared the first stand of the BSO with concertmaster Franz Kneisel, who founded the preeminent American chamber ensemble of its time, the Kneisel Quartet. The group was the first to establish a standard of excellence for chamber music performance in the young country. Dvořák and Brahms entrusted the American premieres of their music to the Kneisel Quartet, which also worked closely with Loeffler throughout his life and premiered five of his works, including the Octet. Loeffler also shepherded emerging string quartets onto the national stage, including the American String Quartette, which he formed from four of his female students and mentored toward a two-decade touring career.

It’s been interesting to hear people compare the Octet to music by other composers, an eclectic list including the likes of Debussy, Brahms, Dvořák, Fauré, Mahler, Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky and Wagner—which is to say, unmistakably Loeffler. The score reveals a kaleidoscopic collision of musical styles that embodies Loeffler’s cosmopolitanism and also the groping for national identity happening at the dawn of American music.

Words Fail Us

And like Loeffler’s contemporary critics, we have an inadequate vocabulary to characterize his music—just comparisons to the music we do know. For me, this is the most crucial takeaway from Loeffler’s forgotten Octet: the reminder that our modern sense of the canon and our whole musical frame of reference are based only on that narrow sliver of music we know today—the music that survived.

We’re fed this idea that time filters for quality, so that music that has survived the test of time must be good music, and, conversely, music that is unknown today must be unknown for good reason. It turns out there are a lot of reasons, many of them not good—systemic, nationalistic, idiosyncratic or even just random—that shape the version of history we’re told. And in this way Loeffler’s seminal role in American music continues today, by helping us paint a more complete picture of musical history so that we can imagine a more colorful musical future.

A Radical Palette

Your forthcoming album Forgotten Sounds includes, in addition to the world premiere recording of the Loeffler Octet, your own octet arrangement of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” Would you say you share with Loeffler an interest in unusual combinations of instruments?

Loeffler’s instrumental concoctions were all about illuminating new gradients of the tonal spectrum, his North Star for modern music. He once wrote to a friend about a new composition, “No conventionality need be looked for in the piece. It may stir your imagination by astonishing your ears for I believe in tone coloring lies principally the possibility for future compositions.” Perhaps most astonishing is a trio he wrote for saxophone, viola d’amore and piano, which is radical scoring even by today’s standards!

This variety of colors and textures is what interests me most about the combination of winds, strings and harp in the Octet and in my Debussy arrangement. After the first present-day performance of the Octet in March 2024, multiple people remarked to me that the group sound had the depth of a chamber orchestra. I think this kind of ensemble hits a sweet spot between the decibels and timbral spectrum of a large cast, and the nimbleness, transparency and intimacy of chamber music.

Loeffler’s handling of this mixed ensemble is quite unique. In most large chamber music commingling winds and strings, you have a miniature string orchestra section plus some solo wind voices. Schubert’s Octet or Beethoven’s Septet are good examples of this kind of orchestration.

Loeffler’s Octet is unusual because the two wind voices are the same instrument, the clarinets, making them less like solo voices and more like another orchestral section. You usually hear clarinets playing in close harmony tucked in the back of a much larger symphony orchestra, but to have that kind of chocolatey blend of two clarinets up close, opposite the equally blended pair of violins, creates an almost stereophonic balance across the group.

And I think it amplifies the orchestral effect of the ensemble—these different colors working inside cohesive sections, with the crisp articulation of the harp anchoring everyone else.

Johnson and his ensemble will be performing the Loeffler Octet, along with his own arrangement of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and more, at the Library of Congress on May 22, and in New York at the Morgan Library on May 23, with further performances in June and beyond. Visit his website for his full schedule and more information.

Delos will release Johnson’s premiere recording of the Octet on June 7.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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