A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Hieronymus Bosch: “Gluttony” from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
Hieronymus Bosch: “Gluttony” from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things

When Hieronymus Bosch painted his cautionary rendition of the Seven Deadly Sins on a table top – probably sometime before 1500, certainly prior to his most famous work, the bizarre, surreal triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights – he chose to secularize their representation, using contemporary Dutch folk and familiar, rather than fantastical, settings. (Only 50-odd years later, the Flemish master Pieter Brueghel’s etchings of the Seven Deadly Sins attempted to out-Bosch Bosch with nightmarish, allegorical imagery.) Though not separated from the dogma of the medieval Church – Bosch’s sinners are surrounded by depictions of “The Hour of Death,” “The Last Judgment,” “The Kingdom of Heaven,” and “Hell,” all under the omnipresent, judgmental gaze of Christ at the center – he nevertheless adds a humanist perspective, suggesting that these sins harm other members of society as well as the individual at fault in the eyes of God. There’s a definite class distinction drawn between the haves and have-nots, for example, in “Gluttony,” pictured above.

Between them, Bosch and Brueghel displayed but a portion of the rich and varied moral and symbolic artistic potential of the Seven Deadly Sins – Greed, Envy, Gluttony, Pride, Lust, Anger, and Sloth, as designated by Pope Gregory in 590 AD. Authors, from Dante and Chaucer to Brueghel’s contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser, gleefully described how they were responsible for mankind’s suffering in this life and in the afterworld. Surprisingly, however, there’s no musical equivalent of any of these great visual and literary works. Neither Bach nor Handel, the obvious choices given their brilliance at musically illustrating religious themes, created an oratorio around them; before long Europe was too involved with revolutions and romanticism to concern itself with such pietistic preaching in art. It wasn’t until Kurt Weill composed a Seven Deadly Sins ballet-with-song in 1933 that they made a comeback, although Bertolt Brecht’s libretto was, naturally, a pessimistic secular parable.

And so it seems that the SDS regained some of their potency in the 20th century, with Bosch’s humanistic realism magnified through a modernist lens. In visual art, Otto Dix’s 1937 illustration of the Seven Deadly Sins is a response to the horrors of the early Nazi regime, with Hitler’s face plastered on the body of Envy, while Paul Cadmus uncovered the physical and psychological torment on sinners in his series of individual portraits. After that, for the most part it’s been pop culture that has filled in the gaps. The cinema was a natural, beginning with a sequence of silent films in 1917 adapted from no-doubt sentimental stories published in Ladies World magazine, leading up to comedies like Bedazzled (1967) and a noirish murder mystery, Seven (1995). The SDS theme has been ripe for garish exploitation in comics (sorry, “graphic novels”) and video games. Pop music, from Brit crooner Joe Jackson to the grizzled Traveling Wilburys, has chirped in. Rumor has it that even Gilligan’s Island modeled its seven castaways after the SDS. But is that all there is?

Not exactly. A few classical composers have borrowed the SDS theme – Jacob Druckman has an SDS-inspired piano sonata-with-variations (so described by Paul Griffiths in the New York Times), and William Albright wrote a version for chamber music-with-mime (“cheerfully airy if not very consequential” was John Rockwell’s verdict, also in the New York Times), and there are others – but who’s heard them? Where are the serious, significant works on such an extraordinary, evocative, extravagant, sexy theme? Imagine what Stravinsky might have done, or Poulenc, or Messiaen, or…Ellington.

Duke Ellington could have been the perfect choice – a deeply religious man (like the others speculated on, above), and no stranger to both the harsh realities and hedonistic pleasures of life. In fact, he may have missed his opportunity. Orson Welles, who was a huge Ellington fan, commissioned him in 1950 to compose incidental music for a theatrical production that was to include an adaptation of Faust – primarily Christopher Marlowe’s, apparently, which contains an important scene where Mephistopheles conjures up representations of the Seven Deadly Sins to amuse Faust. Imagine the musical possibilities. But things quickly took on a surreal tinge. Ellington, occupied with the orchestra on a European tour, deputized Billy Strayhorn for the assignment. Strayhorn went to Paris, where the production was to take place, and found that Welles had slashed and rewritten Faust down to a single act (which he titled Le temps court, or “Time Runs”), one-third of the evening’s divertissement, ending with Welles’ magic act. Most of the music that Strayhorn devised, outside of a song for the then-unknown Eartha Kitt, who played Helen of Troy, was discarded. The show, by all accounts a disastrous, incomprehensible mish-mosh of Welles’ whims, quickly closed. Welles moved on to other adventures; all that remains of Strayhorn’s music is a composition based upon Helen’s theme, subsequently called “Orson,” which Ellington recorded in a truncated version three years later for Capitol, claiming co-authorship; Ellington having contributed not a note of music to the effort. If only someone had suggested to Duke, after the fact, that his close brush with Faust was fate, and that the Seven Deadly Sins would make a hip hook for an extended suite…. Alas.

As it turned out, two other notable jazzmen stepped into the void, each with eloquent, albeit understandably different, results. The first was Bill Russo, best known, depending upon your age, as either a talented composer/arranger-in-residence for the ‘50s Stan Kenton crew (a Mosaic box, shared with Bill Holman, documents his achievements) or the composer of the ‘70s crossover smash Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra (one of the biggest selling Deutsche Grammophon albums ever). But there was much more to Russo than that. He composed a dramatic, shape-shifting symphony (his second, actually) that Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa each conducted – in itself, a claim to fame – and a violin concerto for Yehudi Menuhin (no slouch himself); concocted Bartok- and Debussy-influenced string compositions to cushion and cajole Lee Konitz (Music for Alto Saxophone and Strings and An Image of Man); invented the rock cantata; founded the still-viable Chicago Jazz Ensemble; and, by the way, wrote the book on jazz composition and orchestration – literally (University of Chicago Press, 843 pages).

More to the point, in 1960 he convened a handpicked East Coast big band plus a four-cello string section to record his take on the Seven Deadly Sins for the Roulette label. Russo’s comfort level – a lack of self-consciousness dealing with what at that time would have been considered “high” and “low” art simultaneously, without sounding pretentious – and ability to compose convincingly in modern classical and post-Ellington jazz genres gave these eight movements (he added an introduction that returned as epilogue) an original spin. There’s a bit of programmatic illustration audible in Russo’s settings – the introduction is a Hindemithian chorale first for brass, then the strings, that sets a penitential tone; “Lechery” offers the most luxurious writing, with a languorously phrased trombone theme, a seductive cello melody that could conjure images of Salome dancing (no Strauss here, though), clarinet cascades, and shimmering chords that owe a debt to Gil Evans; along with a slow-to-develop, amusingly lethargic “Sloth;” and a moaning, growling eruption of “Anger.”  Elsewhere, it’s hard to make the emotional connection; “Gluttony” is a quick, concise, fugal episode, and “Envy” offers cool, suave sax and trombone sectional swing. It’s engaging music, nevertheless, and a good reminder of the underrated Russo’s versatility and skill.

It’s an interesting coincidence that the most recent composer to address the Seven Deadly Sins, Joseph Daley, is, as was Russo, a brass player (tuba and trombone) with extensive big band experience.  He’s recorded with ensembles led by Gil Evans, Carla Bley, Edward Vesala, Sam Rivers, George Gruntz, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Taj Mahal among others – an amazing wealth of writing styles from which to learn. But there’s an interesting twist to Daley’s program; he was drawn to the subject and inspired by a sequence of SDS paintings by Wade Schuman (reproduced in the booklet accompanying the recording, and bonus documentary DVD, newly issued on Jaro Records). Schuman’s artwork, done in the ‘90s, is a fantasy blend of Bosch detail and Magritte vision – unusual animals and/or insects representing each transgression. Just as the pictorial symbolism sparked Daley’s imagination, his first-hand familiarity with the colors and textures of the big band, based on a solid harmonic foundation from the bottom (brass) up, fueled his musical response. His writing style has a fluidity and poise reminiscent of Oliver Nelson’s, and he likes to set a groove and let it percolate. Like Russo, Daley handpicked his players, but allows them more solo space, and is amply rewarded. Programmatically, his characterizations may be more literal that Russo’s, but they display a distinctive musical point-of-view.

For example, there’s more than a bit of wit at play, largely due to Daley’s deft manipulation of tonal colors. “Gluttony” begins with tuba, sarrusophone, contrabass clarinet, and bass trombone groaning and muttering – an overburdened digestive tract at work? – and evolving into Brazilian rhythms launched by an active percussion section. “Anger” confronts a jagged melody with abrupt, aggressive comments; its uncontrollable energy results in instruments shooting off in different directions. For “Sloth,” Scott Robinson’s bass sax sings a bloated lament, joined by low, drifting, clotted chords. “Pride” features an exotic, Scheherazade-like melody divided between soprano saxophone, massed trumpets, vibes, and harmonica, with a mellow canonic interlude.  “Lust,” more than twice as long as any of the other movements, builds section by section, with a scorching Lew Soloff trumpet solo that galvanizes the other trumpets into free polyphony, blustery tuba from Bob Stewart, bristling piano (Onaje Allan Gumbs) and vibes (Warren Smith) counterpoint , and Benjamin F. Brown’s bass soliloquy. Impressive, vibrant music, from start to finish. But that’s not the whole story. As an addendum, Daley includes the extended composition Ballade of the Fallen African Warrior, dedicated to his late brother Winston. The Oliver Nelson connection is even more applicable here – attractive, accessible melodies developed in thoughtful, lively ways. He combines noble brass themes, Latin rhythms, a cathartic outcry of horns, invigorating solos (note especially Gumbs’ piano and Vincent Chancey’s French horn), and contrasting moods into a cohesive whole with a joyous, yet pensive, conclusion – a subtle reflection on the complexity of the human spirit. Likewise, if Daley’s Seven Deadly Sins aren’t intended to save one’s soul, they are diverting portraits of human foibles and wondrous strange behavior, just as tempting and seductive, if not as deadly, as they once seemed.

Art Lange©2011

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