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The forgotten Octet

Composer Charles Martin Loeffler’s forgotten Octet will be performed at Stissing Center in Pine Plains, New York at 7 p.m. on Sunday, June 9. The combination of instruments, two clarinets, string quartet, harp, and double bass, offers a variety of textures and “illuminates new gradients of the tonal spectrum,” says clarinetist, Graeme Steele Johnson, who discovered and reconstructed the Loeffler score lost for 127 years.

One of the most played American composers in America and Europe at the turn of the century, Loeffler wrote the Octet in 1897, the year in which it was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Although most reviews were mixed, one reviewer could “hardly say enough" about the Octet, writing that "the work took nearly everyone by storm". (Blogcritics) The Octet was performed once more at Isabella Stewart Gardner’s home a month later, and then inexplicably forgotten.

Johnson, researching a different composition by Loeffler, uncovered the 75-page Octet manuscript in 2020 in the archives of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and realized the rare discovery.

Loeffler’s manuscript was so obsessively revised that it was unplayable. Never satisfied, Loeffler reworked scores incessantly. After a year of what Johnson defines as musical archeology, plus judgement calls since there was no composer with whom to consult, or recording to which to refer, or even a definitive score, Johnson created his “own legible, edited edition.” Johnson said “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.” (Johnson interview, Blogcritics)

During our interview on June 3, Johnson said that Loeffler made changes to the score from minute note discrepancies, to pasting new music over existing music, to striking entire pages of music. When reconstructing the work, which holds precedence – the original or the revision? Which is more authentic? Johnson included both - the original version in tandem with the revisions, to elucidate Loeffler’s points of view. For instance, Loeffler was especially swayed by criticism and would change his score accordingly. Johnson is rescuing Loeffler from himself by allowing Loeffler’s second guessing to be challenged by the original, perhaps more direct, expression.

The purpose of Johnson’s revised score is to “offer as much of Loeffler’s music to the performers as possible and to faithfully represent multiple versions of a passage that Loeffler rewrote, as a tool for historical accuracy.” (Johnson email, June 4). Called an ossia, the original is the larger line and the revised is a smaller line above. The choices are practiced in rehearsal so that the musicians end together. Says Johnson, “Through the subtle changes and the drastic changes, Loeffler’s original voice stays the same. He is not putting on an act in the revisions. He did not neuter the piece. Stepping in on my part but not changing the piece – that’s my goal.” (Johnson, June 3 interview)

Loeffler, born in Berlin to German parents, lived with his family in numerous Eastern European countries and Paris, but later denied his German background and claimed he was French. Inspired by French symbolist poetry, his music articulates an impressionist quality, like his contemporaries Ravel and Debussy. However, Boston, a musically conservative culture, heavily influenced by German composers, such as Brahms, was often confused by Loeffler’s early compositions. Concert goers were unfamiliar with the sounds and had difficulty categorizing the music, calling it “decadent.”

Boston was also the place where American music was formed. After WWI, the Boston Symphony Orchestra fired German conductors and musicians and with Loeffler’s assistance, hired French conductors and musicians. Johnson points out that this was the dawn of our American musical heritage and Loeffler played an important role. Loeffler was influential at several important institutions and formed many seminal musical groups that determined the direction of American music. Discovering the Octet requires that we reappraise our musical history because we “dare to pry open the canon of our musical pantheon” (Johnson, June 3 interview) acknowledge its importance and see where it fits.

Also, on the program is François Couperin/Thomas Adès’ Les barricades mystérieuses for clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, cello and double bass and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115.

Founded and directed by pianist Sophia (Shuhui) Zhou, this is the fifth season of Chamber Music at Stissing Center.

Catherine Tharin danced with the Erick Hawkins Dance Company.  She teaches dance studies and technique, is an independent dance and performance curator, choreographs, writes about dance for Side of Culture, and is a reviewer and editor for The Dance Enthusiast. She also writes for The Boston Globe. Catherine lives in Pine Plains, New York and New York City. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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