Friday, December 26, 2014

800 Words: A New Tonality - A Playlist - Part 2

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881, Russian)

(God, this scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid…)

Mussorgsky occupies the same place in music history that Henri Rousseau does in art history. On the one hand, he was a self-taught dilettante, a learning disabled genius with ten times as many unfinished projects as completed ones. And yet who could blame him? Was there ever a musician who had less desire to look away from adult themes and terrifying truths? Because he had to rely on himself, Mussorgsky is the true father of an entirely new musical thinking. He had virtually no concept of development, that most German of all musical concepts, and after him, no composer needed to have such a concept if he so wished. After Mussorgsky, all that remained a requirement was the ability to redefine harmony, tone color, melody, and rhythm in whatever way a composer wished to maximize the vividness of his music. Composers before Mussorgsky took us part of the way to his path - certainly the “Music of the Future” of Berlioz, Wagner, and Liszt, paves the way. Perhaps we even hear a move away from traditional development as early as certain passages of late Beethoven. But Mussorgsky was the moment of emancipation. Thanks to Mussorgsky, music became pure experience.

Mussorgsky Playlist:

Songs and Dances of Death (has there ever been more terrifying music?), The Nursery (One is about death, including the death of children, the other is about a child awakening to life and beginning its understand what it means to live), 
The Puppet Show (somewhat self explanatory...), 
Sunless (Mussorgsky takes on the dread subject of depression), 
Song of the Flea (probably his most famous, look at the text underneath the video, he could have been executed for it. There are many, many other wonderful songs he wrote, which are still nowhere near as known as they should be.), 
Pictures at an Exhibition for piano (If you know the Ravel orchestration, try to get it out of your head. No French perfume here, no smoothing out of the awkward moments with artificial orchestral effects. Just pure pianistic vividness and conjuration from the same world as his unforgettable songs, done by the greatest pianist of the recorded era in his most legendary performance.), 
Boris Godunov (on the other hand, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Vegasization of Boris Godunov did him an enormous service. We’ll never know what impact Chaliapin or Golovanov might have made with the original, but smoothening the rough edges allowed Mussorgsky’s acceptance to happen quickly enough for Boris to become the Great Russian Opera, and for performers to put the roughness back into the music that Mussorgsky would have loved), 
Khovanshchina (Mussorgsky’s ‘sequel’ to Boris. It might even better - greater intrigue, greater character development, still more brutal indictments of Russian politics and history.), 
Sorochinsky Fair (including the famous Night on Bald Mountain - not a great performance, but this was to be the comic antipode to Boris and Khovashchina. Some light comedy it would have been if it includes Night on Bald Mountain..., but the fragments, both complete and incomplete - the Shebalin completion is not to be found on youtube - show us the awful truth: Mussorgsky’s early death was a tragedy for opera second only to Mozart’s.) 
Night on Bald Mountain (here’s the original orchestration by Mussorgsky - a hundred times scarier and darker than Rimsky’s)

Leos Janacek (1854-1928, Moravian Czech)

The composer who as an old man picked up where Mussorgsky left off, and superseded him. Janacek is, even if I’m the only one who believes this, the greatest name on this list - the only composer but Mussorgsky to take a new concept of harmony and use it to bring music still closer to life’s experience. The greatest miracle of Janacek, among many miracles, is his ability to use further levels of musical abstraction to bring us closer to human nature. The more mannered his music became, the closer it came to reality.

Mussorgsky’s songs work on a level which no previous songwriter achieved because he based his word settings on the patterns of human speech. Janacek took Mussorgsky’s insight and systematized it - notating people’s speech patterns as they spoke to him, and in the process, mastering the art of turning natural human speech into music.

And like Mussorgsky, only far more so, Janacek’s concept of harmony was something far beyond the reaches of his contemporaries - unpredictable not only far beyond the imaginations of Dvorak and Smetana (wonderful as they are), but beyond the imaginations of Mahler and Strauss as well. In the first decade of the 20th century, both Mahler and Strauss were piling occasional dissonances that paved the ground on which Schoenberg’s atonality walked. To Mahler, folk music was a way of recalling his early memories in his music, and perhaps his early traumas as well. He seemed to have very little interest in folk music as an adult. Strauss had little to do with folk music, one might imagine that popularity meant so much to him that he would have agreed with Elgar’s famous quote “I AM folk music.” As a result, they both walked in the byways of Bach’s tonality, and only felt the need for the type of escape that blows up the old but builds the new out of the old's pieces. But while the great German composers wanted to blow up the tonal dam, Janacek worked and walked among folk musicians, and through them heard tonal byways - intervals, progressions, modulations - which no composer further northwest ever fathomed. Janacek was the only true revolutionary among these great composers.

Janacek’s career, his true career, begins in 1904, the year after the death of his beloved daughter, whose dying breath he dutifully notated as he did every other human utterance. His opera, Jenufa, or “Her Stepdaughter” when translated from Czech literally, is the truest treatment of human beings on the operatic stage since Mozart’s death over a century earlier. From then on sprang forth a twenty-five year stream of bizarre and sometimes demented sounding masterpieces interrupted only by death. After Jenufa was Sonata 1. X, 1905 - inspired by the death by bayonetting of a University student, and sounding like Chopin on Meth. Then came the Male Choruses - like Teacher Halfar, Marycka Magdonova, and my favorite The Seventy Thousand - all three of which change tempo, rhythm, and harmony so often that they sound as though a group of fifty singers are improvising on the spot. Through all this, Janacek worked on his own version of The Well-Tempered Klavier - On an Overgrown Path - in which Janacek’s increasingly strange tonalities and rhythms manifested themselves clearly and completely. Then came the ‘statement’ pieces of World War I, when Janacek dipped into Moravian folk mythology to make statements about the need for peace and Czech independence. The Eternal Gospel, in which Janacek doesn’t yet have the secure grasp of how to be quite so bizarre on such a grand scale and sounds like it could be written by Sibelius - hardly something to be ashamed of. More interesting is ‘The Fiddler’s Child’, which is Janacek’s bizarre take on the violin concerto, which is in fact a symphonic poem about the supernatural for orchestra and violin soloist. All of these statements cumulate in Taras Bulba, his orchestral rhapsody which is in fact a love-letter to pan-Slavism - declaring his belief that Russian/Easten Orthodoxy will deliver Czechs from their Austro-Hungarian/Catholic oppressors, in which he finally transfers the bizarre carnival of his more intimate compositions onto a full orchestral stage.

With Taras Bulba, Janacek reaches the cosmic proportions of his final decade. There has never been, nor will there ever be, music like Janacek’s ever again. He founded no school, and his sole truly gifted pupil, Pavel Haas (more on him later), perished in Auschwitz before he could realize the full extent of his gift.

The Diary of One Who Disappeared is a unique Song Cycle. It is about the love of a lower-class peasant for a gypsy girl, an his heartrending decision to leave home to pursue that love. It is both a celebration of love and an elegy for all the things which we must leave behind in order to follow our blis. Love is the stuff of Art Songs, and occasionally a song-cycle appears as this one does that documents love from the point of view of both people - but how many love songs or song cycles have three offstage altos singing with them? If you do not gasp when you hear their first appearance, you do not hear music.

Janacek’s final flowering was based on his love for a comely but ordinary middle class young woman named Kamilla Stasslova. Nobody knew exactly what Janacek saw in her, as she was hardly his intellectual equal, but she was his muse, and Janacek saw her as both the daughter he lost, and the wife he wished he had. His lifelong marriage was mostly a lifelong disaster, and his first string quartet called “The Kreutzer Sonata” tells their story. When Jenufa premiered, he nearly drove his wife nearly to suicide by having an affair with the lead Mezzo. The Kreutzer Sonata is not based on the Beethoven work, but on the Tolstoy story named after the Beethoven work in which a well-intentioned husband ends up demoralizing, abusing, and finally murdering his wife.

Five years later, in the last year of his life, came the companion quartet - ‘Intimate Letters’, in which Janacek put his last measure of devotion to Kamilla. There are 600 letters from Janacek to Kamilla, full of the most ardent (and dirty) love declarations. Even so, there is no definitive evidence that their affair was ever consummated, or even two-sided. In the same year, Janacek went out to retrieve her young son, lost in the woods, and contracted the cold which killed him.

In those intervening ten years, Janacek wrote his greatest orchestral work, the Sinfonietta, and his supreme choral work, the Glagolitic Mass - both inspired by the intense Czech nationalism, optimism, and pride of the Masaryk years - both of them major Beethoven-worthy statements of universal brotherhood and liberty.

But it is as an opera composer upon which his laurels must always rest. And in the 1920’s, Janacek wrote 5 extraordinary operas which are perhaps the only 5 that can compare with the finest five by Mozart.

Seemingly half of the world’s great operas take place in legend and fantasy, but The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is one of a handful of operas (let alone great ones) which deal in science fiction. Mr. Broucek journeys to the moon and time travels to the 15th century. Like most good Science Fiction, it is meant not as an alternative world, but a parallel world which can tell truths about our world in allegory which you can’t do in reality. No opera composer since Mozart, and no opera composer since, has ever done things this outrageous - and yet, like Mozart, even the most outrageous things are done with an astonishingly light touch, full of waltzes and parody songs which give the finger to the audience which expects a diversion.

The most beautiful, and in some ways the most heartbreaking, of the final great five, is Kata Kabanova. It’s a tale of a doomed, forbidden affair between a rich but absued young man and a married woman in a suffocatingly provincial small town. Kata is dedicated to Kamilla, and is clearly supposed to be Kamilla as Janacek saw her, the young angel of his desires, whose fragile beauty is doomed to be crushed by a cruel world. Janacek pictures himself as the figure of Boris, once again a young, vigorous man, able to consummate his desires and briefly tempt Kamilla away from her husband, but helpless against the suffocating claustrophobia of small town life.

But greatest of all is the third - The Cunning Little Vixen - in which the entire life cycle of nature - youth, old age, prosperity, poverty, love, hate, nature, nature’s destruction, eros, thanatos, birth, death, and rebirth, and all this is done in an opera populated by farm and forest animals, which itself is based on a newspaper comic strip. There are moments, not often but moments nevertheless, when I rate this opera above any by Mozart, and therefore as the greatest of all operas. Whether created by animals or humans, there is nothing about the experience of being alive that is missing from this opera about a fox. It’s an anthropomorphic animal fantasy, it’s a commentary and satire on human behavior, it’s a requiem for the passing of time, and a celebration of all the things that are still to come. Find a performance of this still much too unknown opera, if you have a soul, your life will never be the same.

Which is not to devalue his final two operas. The Makropoulos Case, in which Janacek merges Kamilla and himself into the personage of a brilliant 338 year old opera singer, assertive and volatile, ‘a passionate woman with flexible morals,’ but with a vulnerable core beneath her bluster. At one point in the opera, a long sought-after love affair is finally consummated, with disappointing results. It’s enough to make one wonder if the period in which he wrote this opera was the period in which Janacek finally bedded Kamilla, and wished he hadn’t. The Makropoulos Case is a bit like a detective novel, in which the enigma of Elena Makropoulos is gradually revealed in its full strangeness, both the plot and the musif growing ever more bizarre as it develops.

His final opera, From the House of the Dead, based on Dostoevsky’s novella about his prison experience, is no longer Kamilla or soprano obsessed. Instead, it returns to Janacek’s former political obsessions, about a Siberian prison and how the prisoners try to retain their dignity under inhuman circumstances. The foreshadowing of Eastern Europe in the 20th century should be obvious to anyone. To Milan Kundera, this opera, along with Berg’s Wozzeck, is the heart of the 20th century. According to many, Janacek was heartsick from Kamilla’s rejection, and planned for From the House of the Dead to be his last opera - perhaps he even  wrote From the House of the Dead as his own requiem. We will never know the true nature of their relationship, nor will we know precisely what Janacek saw in her. But like so many artists, love, and the possibility of it, was what inflamed him to levels of creativity which others can never see. When the possibility of love dies, the desire for life often dies with it.

All of this strangeness in Janacek is not possible without strange music. Between the very straightforward emotions of most great operas and art-songs, and the music of alienation which atonality brings is a chasm-wide gulf of ambiguity in which the real quirks of human behavior reside. What Janacek and Mussorgsky were able to do past virtually any composer of whom I can think is to plumb the deep ambiguities of human emotion, behavior, and condition. The questions they ask are eternal, but they are of a very different eternity than either the Church-bound masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque, or the State-bound masterpieces of the Classicism and Romanticism. This is music for the age of Democracy, for the age of Literature, music that not only demands freedom after the manners of Beethoven and Wagner, but asks us what that freedom is. We still don’t know, but at least we now know to ask these questions, and who knows if we would have without these two geniuses?

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