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When classical composers did the fox trot
The pianist Gottlieb Wallisch in Berlin on Feb. 16, 2020. Wallisch’s new recording is mostly made up of world-premiere recordings of dance-oriented works by Jazz Age composers. Robert Rieger/The New York Times.

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Near the end of his 1933 novel “Romance in Marseille,” newly and belatedly published for the first time by Penguin Classics, Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay moves toward an operatic climax by steering several characters into a bar.

While his cast is diverse — “girls and men, white and brown and black, mingled colors and odors come together” — McKay assigns them a shared pastime: “drinking, gossiping, dancing and perspiring to the sound of international jazz.” But then he predicts an imminent end to all that: “The craze of the Charleston and Black Bottom was about dead and buried.”

This whiplash trajectory — from popularity to “dead and buried” — wasn’t unusual when classical musicians of the time ventured into pop styles. While jazz-inspired music by the likes of Stravinsky and Weill has never been forgotten, the similar efforts of dozens of other composers from the same period have fallen into obscurity.

Now some of those experiments are enjoying a fresh hearing. Berlin-based pianist Gottlieb Wallisch’s revealing and entertaining new recording, “20th Century Foxtrots, Vol. 1: Austria and Czechia,” released in February on the Grand Piano label, is mostly made up of world-premiere recordings of these dance-oriented works, in their piano arrangements. The particular rhythmic patterns vary, but as musicologist Susan C. Cook writes in her book “Opera for a New Republic,” they tend to accelerate beyond the tempo of Europe’s vintage waltzes, reflecting the pace of a new century.

In a phone interview from his home, Wallisch described initially falling in love with a fox trot by George Antheil. Subsequent conversations with Mauro Piccinini, a music historian who contributed liner notes for the new album, led him to think about a single disc of piano arrangements of jazz-inflected works.

But additional trips to multiple archives quickly made it clear that a 70-minute CD would not be sufficient.

“The deeper I went, the more astonished I was,” he said, “how many so-called classical composers really tried to write in these dance forms, like fox trots, Charlestons, tangos, shimmys.”

By grouping these works geographically, he said, he anticipates creating “an encyclopedia of music from this time.” The second volume in the series — devoted to pieces by German composers — is scheduled for release in the fall.

Whether this series will create a wider audience for Jazz Age experimentalism is an open question. Last month, at a New York Philharmonic Nightcap concert organized by composer Tania León, pianist Jason Moran played a thrilling version of James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout,” a Harlem stride classic. A search of the Philharmonic’s digital archive for any other programs that included Johnson’s music, though, comes up empty.

In a more ideal version of the contemporary classical scene, African American composers of the 1920s and ’30s, as well as the Europeans they influenced, could easily be presented alongside each other, in ways that were politically impractical during the Jazz Age. Loosed from the official dictates of cultural segregation, performances like Moran’s and Wallisch’s might be able to reopen lines of discourse that writers like McKay saw as only ever being fitfully connected — as well as, like all music, pop and otherwise — vulnerable to the distortions of the marketplace and the fickle rhythms of fads.

Here are a selection of highlights from Wallisch’s new recording:

Jaromir Weinberger, “City Shimmy” (1922)
If you’ve heard of Czech composer Jaromir Weinberger, it’s likely for the Polka from his opera “Schwanda the Bagpiper.” (Herbert von Karajan was a devotee of that orchestral excerpt.) But he also composed an entry in the annals of the jazz-age dance known as the shimmy, garlanding his miniature with streaks of New World suavity.

“It’s very charming,” Wallisch said, but it seems to have only been presented rarely, and in the Czech Republic.

Works like this were stylistic aberrations in the otherwise strait-laced careers of composers like Weinberger, who were pressed by publishers hoping to capitalize on pop-music fads. “We know Universal Edition, in Vienna, really encouraged many composers of the time to provide such piano pieces,” Wallisch said.

But the phenomenon wasn’t entirely mercenary, he added: “I think that these new rhythms that came over from the U.S. — early jazz — were really a means to find a new musical language, or something more approachable for the wider public, for these composers.”

Ernst Krenek, “Blues” (arr. Jeno Takacs, 1927, from “Jonny Spielt Auf”)
In a 1925 lecture, Austrian composer Ernst Krenek asked aloud what the listening public wanted. “The answer,” he continued, “will perhaps be somewhat frightening: none other than dance music.”

However frightened he may have been, Krenek leapt into the fray without much trepidation — not only including shimmy, tango and blues numbers in his next opera, “Jonny Spielt Auf,” but also making an African American musician the hero. Yet Krenek’s understanding of race was limited by a lack of access to African American artists, as well as by the racist distortions of the era. In “Blackness in Opera,” musicologist Naomi André writes that Krenek’s Jonny was reliant on minstrel caricatures.

Decades later, he admitted that when writing the opera, he “had only very vague conceptions about real jazz.” But the music Krenek wrote for Jonny and his band proved a hit — even separate from the context of the plot. Multiple versions of the scene in the score marked “Blues” were recorded as singles.

The arrangement on Wallisch’s recording was created by composer Jeno Takacs as part of a potpourri of selections from the opera. It offers a chance to hear Krenek’s affection for American styles as pure music, rather than tied to the opera’s sometimes problematic libretto.

“If he admits that he knew very little about jazz at the time,” Wallisch said, “it shows how much great feeling and musicality he had.”

Wilhelm Grosz, Shimmy” (arr. Gustav Blasser, 1926, from “Baby in der Bar”)
One composer who actually made the effort to acquaint himself with works by African American artists was Wilhelm Grosz, whose cycle of “Afrika Songs” provided German-speaking audiences with translations of poems by Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer.

The dance-play “Baby in der Bar” included both a shimmy and a tango. In his liner notes for the new recording, Piccinini spotlights the brief appearance of a third voice in the piano arrangement by Gustav Blasser. This approach to solo piano writing is “something that Liszt developed in the middle of the 19th century,” Wallisch said. “It added so much to pianism: the illusion of playing with more than two hands.” Piccinini sees the arranger’s use of that technique as providing a “sort of call and response jazz pattern.”

Jaroslav Jezek, “Bugatti Step” (1931)
Not every piece on Wallisch’s album is a premiere recording. Jaroslav Jezek’s “Bugatti Step” was, when it was written, a calling card for its composer — including with the “jazz orchestra” that he led at the time.

Wallisch’s take on the solo piano arrangement of the piece is a cut above several other contemporary performances. He has plenty of forward motion, but his way of approaching Jezek’s propulsive writing results in a smooth ride. “It’s not a Charleston or a quick-fox,” he said. “I don’t think it needs the fast-as-possible tempo.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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