Friday, May 13, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/12: Harmonielehre

Ninety seconds from the end of the piece, we arrive in E-Flat Major heaven. E-Flat, the most freighted key in all of music history, the key of Beethoven's Eroica and Emperor and Harp and Les Adieux, of Haydn's Drumroll and Philosopher and Joke and Trumpet Concerto, of Die Zauberflote and the 39th symphony and more than half-a-dozen Mozartian concertos for which the master saved a particularly special reservoir of sublimity, of musical enormities like Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand and Mendelssohn's Octet, of the end of the Resurrection Symphony and the opening of Das Rheingold, of the Love Duet in Gotterdammerung and the Septet in the Act II Finale of Figaro, of the horn calls in Bruckner's Fourth and Schumann's Rhine and Sibelius's Swan Hymn, of the blazing brass of Elgar's Second and Mussorgsky's Great Gate of Kiev, of ironic tributes like Strauss's Heldenleben and Liszt's Triangle and Shostakovich's Ninth, and yes, of the 1812 Overture too...

E-Flat Major is not just any key, it is a declaration of larger-than-life magnitude; a dare to critics to cut the composer down to size. When a composer writes a blaze of E-Flat Major, he is venturing to take on the mighty company of the masters. Has any American composer of eminence ever dared it? Ives and Copland and Bernstein and Barber never did, lots of eminent American composers were never interested in such grand gestures - whether minimalists like Glass and Reich or atonalists like Carter and Babbitt. The loss is music's, and it is a failure of our country's imagination. We have, by and large, failed to reach out for the infinite and shake our fists after the manner of masters gone by. Some would say that more clinical, science-like manners of musicmaking are the true music of our time. Others would say that more populist, more simple manners of making music are our true music. Surely, as in any functional democracy, any such musicmaking, or any other, has a rightful and equitable place, but neither they nor we have any right to banish older traditions in the name of one's correctness at the expense of others'.

To get to that E-Flat Major Olympus, we have to pass through any number of chromatic snatches of composers' music who never resolved the conflict between chromaticism and consonance. A knowledgeable music lover can listen closely and not only hear those much vaunted paraphrases of Mahler Ten and Sibelius Four, but also fancy they might hear snatches of every opera in The Ring Cycle, of The Rite of Spring, Bluebeard's Castle, The Planets, Mahler Four and Six, Bruckner Nine, Honegger Two and Three, Prokofiev Six, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, Berg's Violin Concerto, Strauss's Elektra, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, Bartok's Four Pieces for Orchestra, Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnol, Stravinsky's Apollo and Agon, Hermann's Vertigo and Citizen Kane soundtracks, Bernstein's soundtrack to On the Waterfront. In it's way, Harmonielehre, particularly the middle movement, is a companion piece from another continent to Berio's Sinfonia, with a very different, though no less compelling, answer to the twentieth century crisis. Unlike Berio, the answer here is not to scientifically record the stream-of-consciousness itself. The answer is to incorporate these snatches, these echoes, into a new way, an American way, of thinking about tonality.

Harmonielehre was written in 1985 - four years into the Reagan Presidency. No one paying attention could view America simply as a liberator for the world, America had become, like every other country, the latest incarnation of the imperial conqueror. Nazi Germany it wasn't and isn't, not even Soviet Russia is it still, but a country that twenty years before Harmonielehre showed the world that it too could struggle with the horrors of its past and transcend them through civil rights, social welfare, unprecedented largesse toward nations decimated by war, seemed determined to climb back onto the wheel of history. Perhaps it was inevitable, did we need to capitulate so suddenly as we did under Nixon and Reagan?

John Adams's America is not mine. His origins in this country stretch back well past its founding, and he rebelled against that inheritance like only a blue-blooded American WASP can. Even as a practicing Jew, I am not offended by his portrayal of Leon Klinghoffer in the eponymous opera - my faith in free speech is much stronger than my faith in God - but I can't pretend I don't understand why co-religionists were.

But the turn left of so many Americans of the Baby Boom generation was, at very least, understandable - as understandable as their turn right as they began to age. In the Western World's disenchantment with religion, millions of postwar boomers turned to alternative religious devotion, religious faith in radical politics, in Eastern religions, in psychoanalysis, in belief in scientism, in critical theory. John Adams seems at various points to have turned to all of these. He was, in his way, as seeker after God who never found one as Mahler was - and like Mahler, he probably fell for some pretty stupid things along the way.

In the best of Adams, there is a very complex spiritual import that far exceeds the rather narrow Eastern spirituality of Glass, and even the more complex Eastern spirituality mingled with Judaism of Reich. As Adams wrote Harmonielehre, he was in psychoanalysis, and the chromatic music present in most of Harmonielehre seems to recreate the inner, churning, psychological turmoil of composers from the period during which Psychoanalysis was invented.

But unlike late Mahler or early Bartok, he resolves this early-20th century chromaticism by reclaiming the unambiguous triumph of 19th century music on entirely new terms. Perhaps only a non-European, with no spiritual memory of a blown out continent, could make unabashed triumph again sound genuine. Perhaps it even takes an American musician, since after the 20th century, perhaps only Americans seemed to know what it was like to emerge triumphantly out of a struggle without ambiguity.

But how does Adams emerge from it? To me, the ending of Harmonielehre is an enobling, Whitmanian call to democracy from a man as deeply disappointed with America as I am - for us to remember all that was good about America and sometimes still is. It is a call for us to aim higher, not to not abandon those frivolous things which make Americans American, but to use those basic elements to make our virtues into a light unto nations again.

Among many other things, it sounds to me like a call to build an America in which serious music is more than simply a luxury product. This arrival at E-Flat Major took American musicians three hundred years to achieve. It is, in a musical manner, a particularly American take on that most German of musical rituals, the Verklarung. As Whitman wrote in section 52 of the Song of Myself: "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." We may be barbarians, but within our yawps we have that same metaphysical thrust within ourselves as any more cultured nation. Just as so much European classical music was once built from folk music, we utilize the energy and rhythm of drummers like Buddy Rich and Art Blakey, or the driving syncopations and modal harmonies of jazz soloists like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and with these simple tools, we shake the very throne of music. We are America, and we have been fate knocking at the door of music for hundreds of years. We will no longer be ignored, and if absolutely necessary, we will take the Pantheon by force.

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