Tuesday, January 07, 2020
"Recorded by one of the world's greatest orchestras and conductors"--Junk-label Classical, 1938
In this case, junk-label but not junk. Great performance, but the label... hoo boy.
I heard the flute intro to this countless times as a kid--my mom played it a zillion times while practicing. I finally heard the actual piece when I was... 18? Someplace around then. My mom was a child prodigy on the flute, though she never had a career. She taught flute, however, so we had students coming to our house. The flute section, by itself, sounded hopeless abstract, though I would now reduce it to a C# diminished triad moving to E Major. Lo and behold, at Wikipedia that portion is notated in... E Major! Hooray for my musical ears.
Discogs tells me this is Fritz Reiner conducting the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra in 1938. The label is World's Greatest Music, about which Discogs tells us:
"This U.S. label was produced by an unknown manufacturer for Music Appreciation Products, Inc. Several label varieties were produced, starting in 1941. Masters were often of European origin, and all issues are anonymous. These records were sold inexpensively in variety stores, grocery stores and various other outlets."
Ah, yes. Trash label stuff! My favorite. In this case, the performer and orchestra have been identified as Fritz Reiner conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The performance is marvelous, as is the music, but the mint-looking pressing, which I expected to sound at least passably decent, sound atrocious--you can't believe what I went through to get this to sound like music. Epic rumble, tons of surface noise on the B side (none of it visible to the naked eye), and just a total pain. I used a 1938 Columbia response curve, only modified for the high end. I don't know if this was simply a bad pressing by the label's standards, or a typical one. I killed what rumble I could, and I did a bunch of filtering on the B side. If this was their normal pressing quality, hoo boy. They had the later junk labels beat by many miles.
Debussy's prelude, one of THE major works in the history of Western art music, no longer sounds that revolutionary, though it broke all the alleged "rules" of the day (1894) and then some. Dominant seventh (and, certainly, ninth) chords were supposed to happen on the dominant (hence the name), meaning the fifth of the scale. Or they could function as secondary dominants, as in many traditional hymns, with the chord leading to another key for a temporary modulation. Such as, a dominant seventh on E in the key of C Major. Which, as music students know, would mean raising G a half step to G-sharp. Stand-alone dominant sevenths were not good form, and ninth chords weren't even a thing in many traditional theory books, as they operated outside of the confines of the scale. (A 9th can simply be considered a 2nd, only one octave higher.) With Debussy and other 20th century "moderns," sevenths, ninths, elevenths, and whatevers could occur on any scale interval.
My mental analysis of the opening was spot on, as confirmed by Wikipedia's piece on this piece--the first two chords are exactly as a I heard them: a Bb half-diminished seventh (in an inversion) more or less resolving to a Bb dominant seventh. I say "more or less," because ears of the time wouldn't have heard a resolution. The ears of the day would have heard a suspended, go-nowhere dominant seventh (or, including one of the melody notes, a dominant ninth). We have a sense of resolution (altered seventh/ninth to proper seventh/ninth) today because we're used to hearing sevenths--dominant, major, minor, +5, etc.--used as your basic chords. Tritones are all over this piece, and I'm happy Wiki mentions them--it means I'm only half-nuts. The opening run spans the length of a tritone (three whole steps, or an augmented fouth/diminished fifth), and if I'm correct in that the flute "run" resolves to E Major, then the descent from E to the Bb chords is the drop of... a tritone! Have I mentioned tritones occurring in this wonderful work?
Whole tones dominate, too, in both whole-step progressions and altered seventh and ninths. Per the latter, I refer to raising or lowering the fifth in a seventh or ninth chord. Using the first instance (lowering the fifth a half step, or chromatically), you have a tritone between the root and the altered fifth. This makes for an implied whole-tone scale. For instance, F7-5 is F, A, Cb, Eb. Furthermore, you can fill in each interval with whole steps (F-G-A-Cb-Db-Eb). Raising the fifth does the same trick. Our ears "hear" the whole-step scale. It's why Ferde Grofe and Bill Challis endlessly used +5 and -5 in their dominant sevenths and ninths for Paul Whiteman. Not only did extended and chromatically altered chords sound modern in 1920s pop, the altered sevenths and ninths suggested the whole-tone scale. Grofe had a love affair with whole tones. A lot of conventional music histories push the horse hockey that extended and altered harmonies were a later thing in popular music. Just use your ears and listen to the cool stuff happening in 1920s pop. I suspect that some cool stuff was happening in ragtime sheet music, too.
Nowadays, Prelude sounds like a super high-quality piece of exotica. It doesn't work as Space Age Pop, because SAP has to be noisy, because Boomers can't survive without thumpity-dump in the background. This is a dream put to music. I love the way it drifts along, and it takes all of about nine minutes, so there's no time for boredom--just astonishment at the way Debussy takes us from one setting to the next, leaving us with no notion of how we got there. Debussy, of course, didn't get where he got without help--he owed a major debt to risk-takers like Erik Satie and Chopin.
Oh, and the faun of this work is, of course, not a fawn, but one of these.
Anyway, marvelous performance, and I hope I succeeded in salvaging it.
DOWNLOAD: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy)--Fritz Reiner, New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, 1938
World's Greatest Music SR-17 (1938) (12" 78 rpm disc)