Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Musical Explanation 4/20: The Slavonic Dances

You don't even need to go into the popular canon to find evidence that light music can be more profound than music that's more ostensibly serious. Heavier composers can natter on for hours and hours yet say nothing. But all it takes is a single phrase of Mozart to make you realize that music can give truths more profound than any words.

Classical music used to be something far less serious, a virtually indistinguishable fusion that makes the profound out of the banal as all good things in life should be. Plenty of new classical music still exists that manages this feat, but I doubt I'm alone in feeling that it isn't enough. Just as popular music could and should learn more from us, we can learn from them. The artificial distinctions between the two hurt both.

Few understood this better than Dvorak. I used to be a bit dismissive of Dvorak because of his sloppiness with regard to form, but his melodic gift was so fecund that too much concern with form would have reined him in. He is condescended to still by many as a rustic, or a primitive - penalized for his likability. I should know, I was one of them. There are still some simpler composers whose music I still can't quite get around my slight contempt for their simplicity and directness - even names as big as Chopin and Verdi. Hopefully I'll one day see them with the same awe and love that I give so unhesitatingly now to my dear Dvorak.

For me, Dvorak is no primitive or rustic, he is little less than a folk Mozart. Mozart, to my mind, was far more a Czech composer than he was Viennese or Austrian. Prague was the city that appreciated the adult Mozart for all he was when Vienna tired of him as they did so many of their great composers. Had Mozart taken the hint and moved to Prague, he might have lived another thirty years. Schubert and Mendelssohn were the greatest inheritors of Mozart's divine legacy of unbridled genius, but far more than Mendelssohn, Dvorak inherited Mozart's and Schubert's humane legacy of sublimely expressive music that speaks to us with the intimacy and clarity a human being brings to his diary when he overflows with decency.

Updated to a 19th century setting, there is every expressive legacy in this music - romance, comedy, tragedy, irony, often existing simultaneously. Instead of placing it as Mozart does on the skeleton of mostly courtly dances of Austrian aristocracy, we have in their place the rough and tumble dances of the peasant classes. And yet all that Mozartean and Schubertian humanity is present, giving us devastating melodic truth, all the more shocking because it's disguised in the banal form of a background dance.

To be fair, neither Mozart or Schubert ever brought this level of profundity to their actual dance music, but nearly all their music was as informed by dance as Dvorak's was. To root one's music in dance, like song, is to root it in one of music's basic functions, and often prevents it from spilling over into indulgence. When Mozart and Schubert and Beethoven wrote 'dances', they were actual dances, meant to be danced to and talked over. But Dvorak would have been surprised to hear that people danced to his Dances. They were, after the manner of the Victorian era, meant to be played in the parlor by families for their own enjoyment.

In the 18th century, aristocrats would dance to refined music that spoke to the refinement they aspired to in their lives while pre-enlightenment squalor raged around them in every place that was not a drawing room. By the 19th century, life for the bourgeois was so refined that the middle class would sit down to play raw music that conjured a rawer version of life than they'd ever experience in the confines of their houses. Perhaps the aristocratic era of the Enlightenment was so refined in its tastes because it was so close to the rawness of pre-enlightenment life when the baser animal instincts still ruled over human life; and perhaps the late 19th century was so raw in its tastes because technology had so removed the bourgeois life from the baser life of the Earth. As technology has moved us ever further from the earth, the appetite for raw violence in our art grows ever greater.

If you're the type of listener who craves more formal cohesion than Dvorak can give, then one can't possibly have that complaint about the Slavonic Dances. Their brevity makes every one of them musically perfect, as finely cut as a twenty-four karat diamond. Everything that is life is present in these sixteen brief pieces, which disguise in their banal contents a rain of beauty as profound as any Mozart opera or Schubert lieder cycle.

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