Wednesday, November 2, 2011

800 Words: Olivier Messiaen - Composer of Our Future: Part 1 of 2

About eight months ago, the great Kenneth Woods posted a musing on his blog that’s been marinating in my mind ever since: his question was whom, if anyone, would rule the future classical world the way Mahler does today. For those who don’t regularly attend concerts, this needs to be clarified: Mahler is the undisputed king of the classical music world, ruling the concert hall merely with his ten symphonies and handful of song-cycles in a way Beethoven once did with Symphonies, Concertos, String Quartets, Trios and Sonatas.

(Last movement of Mahler 1. A very 19th century piece.)

The reasons for Mahler’s dominance are manifold, but Mahler is a perfect composer for a particular moment in history. But purely on the level of metaphysical bullshit, he is a perfect expression of an extremely particular zeitgeist. Beethoven’s music - full of exhilarating sentiments about freedom, glorification of the individual, and universal brotherhood - is the perfect music to build morale in democracies and dictatorships alike. One can find similarly unmistakable sentiments in both Verdi, Wagner, Chopin, and Mozart. Between those five, they fundamentally dominated the concert hall, the opera house and the recital hall from 1870 to 1970 (obviously a huge generalization). But Mahler’s music is the perfect music for a civilization questioning the value of its history. Mahler, one of the great conductors of his time, was enormously attached to the grand Austro-German tradition of music. He was deeply in love the music of the past, but he also realized that the traditions he inherited were unsustainable. There was something in the air that prevented composers from writing music the way Schubert and Schumann once did. Preechoes of the modernism one finds in Schoenberg, Bartok, and Hindemith creep their way into every work he wrote. His music is a world as full as our own in which Romanticism and Modernity play out against each other in an epic full of comedy, tragedy, irony and romance.

(Mahler Symphony no 9 - almost the exact same musical motifs in 20th Century garb.)

But while Mahler’s music is more performed than ever before, his relevance to our time is already on the wane. As a whole, I don’t think the younger generation (my generation) of music lovers would be able to relate to Mahler in the same way. His music far more attached traditions of the past than most of us are. His music - with its love of nature, rebellion, adrenalin and self-revelation - is a perfect Baby Boomer soundtrack, as fitting for The Sixties as Bob Dylan.

(The middle movement of Mahler’s Symphony no 5. An amazingly perfect balance between 19th and 20th century styles.)

Mahler was hardly without irony, but sincerity inevitably won out in his music. The late 20th century was a time for Mahler and composers like him who were steeped in attachments to the past at the same time that they feared its hold over them. These are transition figures, composers who realized that the world is changing and struggled to strike a balance between old and new. Richard Strauss was a composer who shared Mahler’s view of the world, even if irony won out more often. Others great composers of this ilk might include Berlioz, Liszt, Schubert, Sibelius, Nielsen, Puccini, Bruckner and even Brahms. In somewhat more contemporary musical genres, one could draw parallels with Woody Guthrie, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Elvis Costello, Keith Richards, Sufjan Stevens, and Michael Jackson. These are all artists who clearly felt a deep reverence for music of the past even as they struggled to carve their identities apart from it. In every one these of cases, you can palpably hear echoes across the generations even all of as these artists sound unmistakeably new.

(If I could make a wild, not quite educated guess as to who might become the Mahler of what will one day be American Classical Music, it would be Sufjan Stevens. He seems to quite unironically attempt a summing up of the entire grand tradition of American music. Listen to all of the echoes only in this song: Copland harmonies, Ellington instrumentation, Beach Boys color, Stevie Wonder syncopations, Grateful Dead sentiments. Yet his music still sounds like music that emanates from some obscenely hipsterish future civilization.)

As the Sixties generation grows older, I would venture a guess that the concert hall requires a more ironic hand. If the moral judgments of the past were once to be questioned, they seem now to have been discarded. If the rebellions of 1968 grew out of the world of the past, then it’s a world our generation has never known. We were born with the sixties as a piece of our heritage - a tantalizing glimpse of the possibilities of a new world that never came to fruition. No one should mistaken the developments of the last decade as anything less than a shift in everything we once knew about the world: Wikileaks, economic depression, the Arab Spring, the Obama election, Occupy Wall Street - for better and worse, these are the developments of a world which is unrecognizable from what it was fifteen years ago, as important to defining our era as 9/11, Google, or the Flash Mob.

We are the children of rebellion, born into a world where the meanings of the past were overthrown. But no new meanings have yet replaced the moral order of the postwar era. It should be no mystery as to why most intelligent students respond more to literary theory more than literature itself - at a time where meaning is so ambiguous, many young people feel the need for guides to deconstruct what they perceive lest they be taken in by shysters.

(Pierre Boulez Piano Sonata no. 2. Music so hyper-controlled it cannot be misinterpreted)

But for whatever reason, the time arrived for a mass appreciation of modern art, literature, art-films and photography long before musical modernism. But the emotional response of music is far more hard-wired into the brain than visual art, which can be viewed from a distance and forgotten whenever the viewer wants to move onto the next painting. Perhaps history simply needed more time to digest musical modernism. Music was THE dominant art-form of the 19th century, and its eminence continued until World War II. Perhaps a full lifetime was needed before listeners would willingly surrender that dominance. Apparently, the old musical world was so glorious that almost no listener who experienced it could willingly surrender its memories.

(Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss. The final backward glance at the old era.)

In any event, if our present has contemporary composers who speak to our nihlistic but not particularly volatile times (not yet at least), I would venture two candidates who best speak to it more than any other.....

But before I do, let me answer two brief but important questions. Thank you so much for asking.

What about actual contemporary composers? Well...yes you’re absolutely right to ask that question you didn’t ask. The best answer I can give to this question is that classical music, by its very definition, is something that is built to last longer than the period it was written. All great music will, hopefully, become classical music eventually. Perhaps Bob Dylan and Stephen Sondheim will speak with even greater relevance in a hundred years than they do today. Or perhaps another generation will find a mirror of their own questions in a somewhat less celebrated musician of today: perhaps Leonard Cohen, or John Adams, or Chuck D will be the composer of 2111.

Also, how can one declare someone a representative musician of one particular time, particularly one which to which you don’t belong? The answer to this is very simple:

I don’t know.

This is purely a personal view of our era, which I am as familiar with as anyone else living at the present moment, and equally as personal a view of musicians whose music I’ve loved nearly all my life. Unlike Stravinsky and so many other musicians of our time, I believe that music can and does speak about extra-musical questions. How music does this is not because composers tell us to hear a particular meaning in the music. It is because we ourselves perceive unmistakeable meanings in music, and we can’t help associating them with extra-musical connotations. Throughout the twentieth century, musicians discouraged extra-musical interpretations of music. No doubt, this was in reaction to the 19th century, when musicians encouraged all sorts of programmatic ideas. But this notion has been taken to a calamitous extreme. Mine is the second generation that is barely familiar with music without lyrics. It’s high time we started a real discussion about music’s meaning again.

(The Dance of the Golden Calf from Schoenberg’s unfinished Moses und Aron. An anthem for Occupy Wall Street?...not very singable...still)

So....ahem....candidate #1 is Arnold Schoenberg. Mahler’s oldest musical son is as much a child of our time as Mahler was of our parents’ time. And the world, finally, is waking up to him. From Beethoven until Mahler, sonata form (either in string quartets, sonatas or symphonies) seemed to have a formula that resembled a drama played out on the stage of harmony. An idea, or musical motif - just a few notes - presented, and then another motif, and then the two would develop through as many different moods as possible, like two characters in a Platonic dialogue. Both of them would be put through much turbulence: in minor keys, in diminished chords, at contrasting volumes, in different rhythms, but usually leading to an affirmative burst at the piece’s conclusion of unmistakably metaphysical, major-key victory.

(Schoenberg String Quartet #2 Final Movement: I feel the air of another planet)

Other composers occasionally broke that mould. But every major composer of the Austro-German tradition until Mahler proclaimed allegiance to precisely that manor of making music with all their heart. But Schoenberg broke that tradition forever, and it can never be reassembled. Even more than the atonality of Schoenberg’s music, I think what bothered listeners was the way he changed it. At its heart, Schoenberg’s music is just as nihlistic as it sounds. In an era of two world wars, the last thing anybody wanted to hear was music full of struggle and tension that did not ultimately lead to victory. There is no major-key transcendence in Schoenberg’s music. There is only a zen-like fatalism at its bleak heart - an acceptance that struggle is all which life has to offer us.

(The magnificent, terrifying, painful, defiant, incredibly moving A Survivor from Warsaw by Arnold Schoenberg. Easily the greatest musical memorial we have to the Holocaust.)

For a hundred years, the name Arnold Schoenberg has been synonymous with the terror which modernist classical music inspires in music lovers. But Schoenberg uncompromising refusal to portray the world as anything but how he saw it could be an inspiration to modern music lovers. For anyone who listens to Romanticism and hears whitelies, Schoenberg is the ultimate corrective. His music contains all the techniques and visceral power of Beethoven and Mahler, but utterly without their need for consolation. Even more than the music of his pupils, Berg and Webern, Schoenberg sang the final notes of the long German tradition that dominated classical music for 200 years beginning with Bach and evolving continuously ever since. If Mahler sang its swansong, Schoenberg intones its funeral march. And yet, imitators notwithstanding, it sounds utterly unlike any music that came before or since.

(“Humor” from Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony.)

If there is something in Schoenberg that speaks to some kind of existential void and rage, then perhaps Shostakovich provides the antidote: irony, cynicism, private intimacy, and concealed hope. He is, in my humble opinion, not only the greatest composer of the 20th century but perhaps the very greatest composer since Beethoven. Excepting Mahler and Janacek, no 20th century composer provides us with a world as emotionally complete as Shostakovich’s. But neither Mahler or Janacek approached Shostakovich’s astonishing prolificness of output.

(The Eighth String Quartet. The soundtrack of the twentieth century?)

In recent decades, far too much has been made about Shostakovich’s biography. It will suffice to say that Shostakovich was the sole great artist to not only survive Stalin’s Great Terror, but also thrive because of it. Because his metier is music, he was allowed to express things which no writer dared articulate without courting the gulag. No authority can say that a piece of music is a protest against the Soviet Empire without looking ridiculous. Does a B-flat minor chord represent Stalin? Does a snare drum represent the secret police? Yet the overtones of protest were unmistakeable. The great conductor Kurt Sanderling once spoke about listening to the world premiere of the Seventh Symphony, in his words “We thought we were all going to be arrested merely for listening to this music.” Because of music’s abstraction, Shostakovich was the sole great artist of his time and place to thrive in spite of speaking truth to power.

(The second movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. Often said to be a portrayal of Stalin himself.)

The popularity of Shostakovich will forever be an irritant to certain members of the musical establishment. To those who declare tonality dead, Shostakovich is the ultimate thorn in their side - a mid-20th century composer whose popularity always eclipsed any atonal composer’s and refuses to wane. Dozens of experts declared his music hopelessly conservative, kitschy, derivative, ideologically compromised. Yet Shostakovich’s music lives on while the experts’ names fade.

(Shostakovich Symphony no 7. A very great work but a particular bete noir for many musical experts.)

In our era, when the spirit of the Sixties is so clearly resurrected worldwide, it is not Mahler’s music which should underscore our world but Shostakovich’s. The sixties were a beginning, not an end. Their revolutions accomplished little, but forty years later, their example ignited protests around the world. Like Mahler, the former protesters had greater, perhaps utopian, ambitions and a greater connection to the past. Like Shostakovich, today’s protesters have modest ambitions for basic human dignity, but the modesty of their aims makes their efforts all the more effective. Even if Occupy Wall Street does not look to be much more effective than their American fore-bearers, the protests of the Middle East bare witness to the power of what true civil disobedience can do. It took an entire lifetime, but Shostakovich’s music may now speak freely.

(The Passacaglia from Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto. The best thing he ever did?)

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