Monday, October 2, 2017

History of the Symphony - Class 3 - The Austrian Symphony - First 35%

I was going to skip Mozart, but then I realized that in order to talk about any of the Schubert symphonies, you have to talk about Mozart first, and particularly we have to talk about why we're not talking about Mozart. Because Mozart, before Schubert, was the first great symphonist who had a completely un-symphonic conception what a symphony was. Haydn and Beethoven became great at this very new form of music because they were not naturally great at the more traditional stuff. What's, traditionally speaking, the fundamental building block of music?

Wait for someone to say melody...

Melody! So great melodists have it a little easier as composers because what's great about their music is easier to remember. They write a tune, either for themselves or someone else, the tune gets played, it's catchy, it gets into your head, you remember it years later. But the rest of us have to work a little harder at it and get you to notice a different way of making music. Paul McCartney is a great melodist, just think of Hey Jude and Let It Be and Yesterday - he basically wanted to be like the Fifties rock stars he and John grew up hearing on records like Elvis and Fats Domino, and it's been shockingly easy for him. He pretty much does the same show now that he did the moment he left The Beatles. John Lennon was not a natural melodist - think of Help or Come Together or Imagine, it's just the same little cell or motif over and over again. His Beatles songs had to be more creative with harmony and instrumental color to compete with Paul's because in order to get noticed, he had to bypass the more traditional way of making music. His great influences are much much further afield than the music the two of them grew up hearing - like Ravi Shankar or Allen Ginsberg. 

Mozart was a McCartney, Schubert was especially. Haydn and Beethoven were Lennons, who had to think outside the box. And the Symphony developed in the first place as a different way of thinking about music. Like a lot of Church music, it's much more about the architecture than the appeal. And in some ways it's therefore a more emotionally distant way of making music. 

Haydn was not a natural melodist, and because of that, he needed create music from smaller building blocks. Small motifs, and that's exactly what Beethoven did better than anybody, except maybe Brahms whom we'll probably get to next week. For Haydn, this way of making music was perfect, it gave him a space which he could fill with whatever weird things he could imagine - no pun on Lennon intended. But for Mozart, this was far from ideal.

Haydn Quartets vs. Mozart Quartets

Listen to the first thirty seconds of what's probably the most famous Haydn Quartet (at least that doesn't have a national anthem from it), the Lark. Listen to how Haydn creates one simple melody for the first violin, and gives a completely different simple melody to the other three instruments, and you're not entirely sure which if any of the four is supposed to be the principal melody. Neither of the melodies is particularly great, but he puts it together in such a way that you have no idea which is the main melody, and that in itself is the mark of a genius. 

Now let's listen to the first two-and-a-half minutes of the Dissonance Quartet by Mozart. 

The difference is that Mozart thought of music like star, and Haydn thought of music like a gigging musician. A gigging musician is just one of the guys, and is perfectly happy to give somebody else the spotlight. One musician gets a moment to shine, then passes it to the next. Mozart was a star from earliest childhood, and you'd be amazed, looking at his chamber music, how much it feels like a star's music. Mozart had every possible musical gift, and when you have every possible musical tool, melody becomes the easiest one to fall back on. The high voice is clearly the star of the whole thing, and the only time anybody gets equal footing is in moments like the beginning of this piece, when Mozart needs all the musicians to create an effect that's truly mindboggling, It took Mozart, the brilliant six year old, basically until he was twenty-five to write like an adult. 

Mozart was a great symphonist, he was a great at every form he applied himself to, and he applied himself to just about every traditional form of music: chamber, solo, orchestral, and vocal; but the truth is that Mozart only became Mozart in the last ten or so years of his life, around the time he was twenty-five. Schubert and Mendelssohn were both writing consistently brilliant music at much younger ages than Mozart. Until Mozart was about twenty-five, he was still sort of a brilliant but over the hill prodigy - he wrote pieces here and there which showed the true extent of his genius, but most of them weren't that much more distinguished than any other talented composer of the period. When Mozart was six, what was amazing was not that he composed great music, but that he composed music at all. His first twenty-four-or-so symphonies are not the music of a brilliant composer. In just about everybody's opinion, he struck gold twice when he was about seventeen - #'s 25 and 29. But other than those two, the only symphonies anybody plays of Mozart more than rarely are the last six, which, like the seven operas everybody plays, were written during his last eleven years. 

Perhaps what it took for Mozart was a long process of building empathy for other people, which doesn't come to any child prodigy naturally. Mozart was simply too gifted - he had no limitations, and after that brilliant childhood, he had to learn how to be an adult musician, and he never truly learned that. He was employed in Salzburg twice, which was his hometown in Central Austria. After his first employment didn't work out, Mozart went to Paris to re-establish a name for himself and brought along his mother. His mother got sick while they were there and Mozart didn't have the money to get a doctor until it was too late. On his way back, he stopped in Munich and seems to have proposed marriage to a girl he was probably in love with for at least five years, and was rejected. 

His second employment in his hometown literally ended with his being kicked out the door in the rear end. He was supposed to be the Archbishop's personal composer, but the Archbishop saw musicians as just another servant who operated for him only. Mozart wanted to play concerts for others, including the Emperor, and the Archbishop did everything he could to stop him. No servant serves anyone but his master so why would a musician be so special? Mozart tried to resign, and the Archbishop wouldn't even let him resign for a month. His father, a very distinguished musician in his own right, was beside himself that Mozart would ever try to dictate terms to his employer, and begged Mozart to stay with the Archbishop. And even what happened to Mozart was better than what happened to Bach. Bach tendered his resignation from one job and he was imprisoned for four months for daring to resign. These are the things that happen when a genius tries to operate the way a normal person would. But just because Mozart was a very difficult employee doesn't mean that he wasn't a very friendly person, very good company, he clearly knew how to entertain people from the earliest age. And he was a person whom, if the operas tell us anything, could read people like a book. But it's possible that he learned about human motivations from living through some extraordinarily difficult periods. 

Few people appreciate a genius, a genius can't truly work for anybody else because a genius is already a slave to what's going on in his head. Imagine for a moment that Haydn was anything but the world's most well-adjusted human being. The Esterhazy's would have never hired him. And Haydn probably remained the world's most well-adjusted human being because he had every musical requirement his genius could possibly want. 

But just because he wasn't nearly as difficult as Beethoven doesn't mean he wasn't very difficult. You may think you want a genius in your staff, but when you have a real genius like Mozart, he can operate only by his own terms. Geniuses don't operate like normal people, they have a deep kind of obsessive hyperfocus which seems to others like a lack of focus. They can only direct their extreme understanding on the things which they naturally understand, and the things which can't they will never master, no matter how much they want to. And no matter how much Mozart wanted to write tasteful music that was to the tastes of his employers rather than his inner voice, he was never going to be able to square that circle.

What this ultimately means for Mozart's symphonies is that he was never a natural symphonist. He was always more comfortable writing piano concertos, where you can give the pianist the melodies and the effects, and the orchestra simply functions like a backup band. Even in his most famous symphonies, you get all sorts of moments like the minuet of the Jupiter Symphony in which everybody basically functions as backup for the first violins' melody: 

This doesn't mean that this is anything but great music, it just means that even Mozart has limitations that he needs to find a way around. The art in great art is not in mastering every technical facet of it, because that would just lead to something generic and there are all sorts of artists in every period and form who create work that meets all the technical requirements of what great art of their period does, but they have no personality outside of what's required, so when a new time or place has a different conception of what's great in art, these pieces have nothing to offer, and they disappear. The art in great art is in finding your weaknesses and negotiating ways around it. Mozart's weakness was that he had no musical weaknesses, he was both too gifted and too well-trained, and too much gift one of the biggest weaknesses any person can have. 

Had Mozart lived as long as Shakespeare, he could have been the operatic equivalent to Shakespeare. There's no musician who dominates music the way Shakespeare dominates literature.  Imagine Mozart lived long enough to tour America or take cover during a Napoleonic war, or read Blake or the Marquis de Sade. No one could live through the two decades without their entire sense of what the world is changing completely. Imagine literature without the great Shakespearean tragedies and you begin to have a sense of what we lost when Mozart died. But music had at least two more chances of having an equivalent to Shakespeare, and one of them was Schubert. Had Schubert lived even as long as Mozart, he might have eclipsed both Mozart and Beethoven. He was already writing consistently great, original music by the time he was sixteen or seventeen. But like every gifted person, like the three composers we've talked about, part of that gift was that he had great limitations. 

In the Symphony, he found his way around these limitations by Beethoven's example, and particularly Beethoven's example in the Seventh Symphony. 

Beethoven published his First Symphony in 1801, and his Fifth and Sixth in 1808. This means that in that time, he averaged roughly a symphony a year. I almost think that you could view Beethoven's 2nd to his 6th as one long piece of music that outlines a kind of spiritual biography. I think it would be a rewarding if very exhausting concert to do all five symphonies in one night. 

But suddenly, Beethoven doesn't publish another symphony for five years. Haydn dies a year after the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and Beethoven is now the uncontested greatest living composer. He's lived through the crisis of his life, so how does he challenge himself during those five years? He tries all sorts of bizarre experiments like this one, a trio for two oboes and an English horn. 

Or listen to a bit of the Choral Fantasy - which is a kind of rough draft for the Ninth Symphony. It's basically a written down fifteen minute piano improv that grows into a gigantic orchestra and choral piece. 

He writes music for a play, Egmont, and all anybody regularly plays of that is the overture. He still wants to be a full-time opera composer tries to revise his only opera, and gives it a new name, Fidelio, but clearly Beethoven does not have the melodic gift that a traditional opera composer needs. 

And then, there's Wellington's Victory. Y'know how every movie director, no matter how good, has a couple of clunkers that are just unwatchable? Well, Beethoven has Wellington's Victory
Beethoven is clearly going to be Beethoven, no matter what he does. But you can't simply become the person you were five years ago. You have to find a new way forward, and clearly Beethoven found the muse a little more difficult in the 1810's than he did in the 1820's, when he turned what was perhaps a diminished natural inspiration into the greatest music of his life. His style became much more disorganized, and much more bizarre and spontaneous, a lot of people find the late works hard to understand, but it includes every style of music Beethoven can get his hands on - it's a kind of  everything but the kitchen sink way of composing that gives you every kind of music that ever meant anything to Beethoven at all. 

But Beethoven wasn't there yet, and I have to give my personal opinion here. The Seventh Symphony is of course, amazing. It's in some ways his most beloved symphony. It's been beloved from its very first performance at which he also premiered the eighth, and Beethoven complained that the audience obviously preferred the seventh much more even though the eighth was better. I may be the only person who agrees with Beethoven. At this point in my life I don't find the Seventh quite as extraordinary as some of the others. If it falls short, it's only by the standards of Beethoven. The why of that will come out when I talk about it's great strengths because it's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It is an absolutely obsessive piece of music, it's almost like Philip Glass minimalism - over the span of every movement, it takes one rhythmic cell and makes it into an entire movement. The great and very funny English conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, said of the first movement that it sounds like a 'bunch of yaks jumping about.' 

But Wagner put it very very differently. He called it, and I quote: "The Apotheosis of the Dance; the Dance in its highest condition; the happiest realization of the movements of the body in an ideal form.”

The Seventh is exactly that. A dance symphony. And to me, Beethoven is clearly trying to evoke dance music. And in order to do that, he has to write a decent melody - which is his great weakness.
So Beethoven comes up with half a great melody for the first movement, but he never ends it: (Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim)

The writer of the Fifth Symphony obviously doesn't think in terms of melody. He thinks in terms of motifs, and he can't quite bring himself to finish the melody because once he finishes one, he has to come up with a completely different one. He seems like he kind of tries to finish the melody in the second subject, but this isn't quite a melody either. A good melody is almost always self contained, it's a tune you can recall to yourself years later. Everybody remembers the beginning of this tune, but everybody forgets the ending, and that's because there isn't an ending. 

What Beethoven does is in some ways even more ingenious, he takes something resembling a melody and he converts it into something he can grow into proper symphonic material. But the problem becomes that in order to give this quasi-melody the discipline it needs to make a proper symphony out of it, he has to clamp down that much more tightly. The Fifth Symphony is based on four notes, the Seventh is based on three. That simple dotted rhythm - daaa-da-daa. And the first movement is that rhythm for more than ten minutes straight, almost without a break. The breaks come ingeniously, because it's almost as though Beethoven realizes that we're all a little tired. And he has these little pauses in which sound almost like a person tiring out before he winds himself back up to keep dancing. 

Listen to this one, which almost sounds exactly like a person who's trying to catch his breath (Mengelberg/Concertgebouw), and then tries to summon back all the energy he needs to keep dancing.  

What people really remember about this symphony is the second movement and the finale. People remember the second movement because it's literally not a melody. It's pure harmony and rhythm that creates the impression of melody when in fact, the melody note almost never changes. He takes three three note dotted rhythm, streamlines it into one long and two short notes, and creates a whole edifice from it. Only a genius could create the first three minutes of the Allegretto. Maybe it's a funeral march, maybe it's a slow Baroque dance, but what it's clearly not is a melody

What makes Beethoven great is not that he has infinite powers of musical invention, it's that he can get infinite things from limited powers of invention. Here's Leonard Bernstein talking particularly about this symphony with, for some reason, Maximillian Schell. 

Bernstein might be exaggerating slightly for effect, but he's not entirely wrong. The point is that Beethoven's natural home is in what we call Sonata Form which we talked about when we did Haydn, let me know if you need a refresher, and he was at his best in the works that best use sonata form - Symphonies, Piano Sonatas, String Quartets, in which many voices pass around these small musical cells that seem to grow organically as though on a farm. It's an entirely new way of composing in which what matters is not your ability at melody or harmony or rhythm, but your ability to use all of them together in the most effective possible way. 

Then there's the third movement, the scherzo, which feels to me like being trapped in a pinball machine. (Furtwangler/Berlin). But Beethoven does something very very important in the middle section, the trio, of this movement. (wait for the trio to play)

For the moment, I can't find the name of the folk song this is based on, but I remember that Beethoven based it on a German folk song. This juxtaposition of song and dance becomes incredibly important in Schubert.

Anyway, let's listen to the last three minutes of the finale in a performance of the finale that in 75 years has never been equalled. We see, finally, what Beethoven is really getting at here. Pure frenzy, pure physical excitement. For forty minutes completely trapped you in a series of melodic cells that don't really do much. The rhythms rarely change, and neither, really, do the harmonies. Beethoven's forced you to adjust to your personal clock to his timetable, so that when the slightest harmonic change happens, it becomes the most thriling thing in the world, and Beethoven whisks his musical cells through a harmonic whirlwind only in the last two minutes. The more he puts these cells through the harmonic accelarator, the exponentially more exciting the music becomes until you have an almost psychedelic experience. (Furtwangler/Berlin).

And so we come to the Schubert symphonies, and to talk about Schubert, we have to briefly go back to Mozart and Beethoven, because if Beethoven could be a musical plagiarist, Schubert was an outright musical thief. Let's look for a moment at the first movement of Schubert's Second Symphony - which, mind you, is my favorite Schubert Symphony and one of my favorite Symphonies outright, but it's not necessarily a particularly original symphony. Schubert wrote it when he was seventeen, and the only composer who was writing truly original music at that age was Mendelssohn.

First, let's hear the beginning of Mozart's 39th Symphony. It's a magnificent piece of music that had a huge influence on Beethoven's Eroica.

Mozart 39th Symphony - Bernstein/Vienna

Now let's hear the opening of Schubert's Second.

Schubert 2 - Sawallisch/Dresden

I'm sure you hear a similarity, but to me this is uncanny. He's not even trying to make this original and at this age, I doubt he'd know how. Now let's hear Beethoven's overture to his Ballet, the Creatures of Prometheus.

Beethoven - Creatures of Prometheus Overture - Bernstein/Vienna

And now, the first subject of Schubert's 2nd Symphony.

Schubert Symphony no. 2 - Harnoncourt

Now I want you to do something for a moment. I want you to imagine the next three minutes of music as if it was a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song like the Major General song in Pirates of Penzance.

Schubert Symphony no. 2 - Harnoncourt

This goes on for nearly fifteen minutes. Schubert was such a naturally gifted melodist that he literally could not write music that was not melodic, and his symphonies are like collections of four ten minute songs in which the melody is spun out to lengths that no human being should be able to span melodies. And all the only thing that truly imposes a symphonic discipline on Schubert's symphonies is the same kind of rhythmic obsessiveness that you get from Beethoven's 7th Symphony. In this way, Schubert does what Beethoven does in the 7th, but he does it still better.

No comments:

Post a Comment