Wednesday, October 11, 2017

History of the Symphony - Class 4 - The German Middle Class - Complete

Sometimes a genius appears who is so unbelievably gifted that whatever they do can't help but be a disappointment relative to the expectations they set up. Think of so many artists in various forms from the 1950's when Americans turned young artists into Gods. Think of Leonard Bernstein and ask yourself why he didn't write a dozen musicals as good as West Side Story. Think of Orson Welles and ask why he didn't make a dozen movies as good as Citizen Kane, or Tennessee Williams a dozen plays as good as A Streetcar Named Desire. Why didn't Ralph Ellison write a dozen books as good as Invisible Man? Why didn't Mickey Mantle hit a thousand home runs? Why didn't John Kennedy cause world peace? 

The way people once talked about all these figures at the beginning of their careers, you would figure that that all would have been possible. But making great things is really, really, really hard - and even if the talent is there, it depends on a hundred different circumstances. Mickey Mantle played his whole career with injuries and terrible pain and still managed to hit 535 home runs. Bernstein never got proper respect from the classical community either for his instantly accessible compositions or for his ability to take musicals to the next level, so he for all intents and purposes abandoned composition after 40 and became one of the great conductors to ever pick up a baton. Orson Welles never again got carte blanche to make any movie he wanted, so he hustled for the next forty years to make whatever movies he could make. Ralph Ellison felt such responsibility after his first novel to do justice to the black experience right that he spent the next forty years trying to make sure the next one was even better. Jack Kennedy? Well, you know. 

When expectations are too high, the reality can't help but be disappointing, even if the reality is still really, really good. And that's the reality of Felix Mendelssohn - these days known unquestionably as one of history's great composers, but not the musical Shakespeare which people thought he would become when he was still a teenager. Why was Mendelssohn known as a potential musical Shakespeare? Well, for one thing, there's this tribute to the Midsummer Night's Dream he wrote when he was seventeen years old (Abbado - play until 2:01). 

He raises the curtain with four bars as perfect as any ever written in music. Two flutes on the first note, joined by two clarinets on the second, then two bassoons and a horn, and then all the winds and brass together on the final chord that suddenly vanish to reveal strings who flurry about like Peasblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed. But just in case that's not enough to convince you what a genius Mendelssohn was, there's this passage in which Mendelssohn perfectly imitates the braying of a donkey (Maag - play until 3:37). 

A year before that, when Mendelssohn was sixteen, he had already written the Octet, the most number of musicians that Beethoven or Schubert ever used in their chamber music. A work of chamber music meant to show that he was ready to tackle something much grander than he had so far like a symphony. Frankly, it's better than any of Mendelssohn's symphonies, it's better than nearly every symphony ever written. Listen to its start, it's clearly meant to channel, or even challenge, Beethoven's Eroica. And it's a statement that Mendelssohn is ready to do it.  (Academy/Brown - up to 0:42) But if that doesn't sound Beethovenian enough, listen to this heroic passage at the end of the exposition (up to 4:05), or this more tragic passage in the development (up to 8:33). 

Let's now go to a passage in Beethoven's Fifth for just one second. When Lenny said last week that Beethoven wasn't a great harmonist, he was either exaggerating or completely full of shit. This passage in the Fifth is one of the great harmonic moments in the history of music.  (Kleiber/Vienna - 11:22)

So many diminished chords in there, so much chromaticism. But sixteen year old Mendelssohn hears that, and realizes he can make it a multiple of times as long, twice as eerie, twice as dissonant, and resolve it in a manner that only a musician whose natural gifts may be even greater than Beethoven's ever could. (Academy/Brown - up to 10:45)

Can you believe that? Two more amazing things in this young Mendelssohn's repertoire. The slow movement is not particularly extraordinary - Mendelssohn always had a little trouble with slow movements though he wrote a few wonderful ones in his chamber music, but then he comes up with this scherzo, like a rough draft for the Midsummer Night's Dream overture, and if anything, still more magical.  (up to to 1:01) If the fairies in the Midsummer Night's Dream sound like they are entirely on the side of good, you're never quite sure whether these fairies mean well. This is much closer to Puck or Pan than to Peasblossom or Mustardseed. There's something that is just this side of sinister about this vision.  (up to the end of the clip)

Mendelssohn had this ability which I'm not sure any composer had, except maybe Mozart, to create motion that moves so fast that it has the vividness of a visual texture. Perhaps it was a limitation that he fell back on, the kind of writing that makes it easier to generate momentum through too many notes, or makes Mendelssohn not quite sure what to do when he has to slow down and relax. But whatever it did to the rest of Mendelssohn's gift, it was, as people say these days, a 'next level' gift.

Now where could Mendelssohn have gotten the idea of this sort of frenetic motion in the strings and little dots to punctuate it like brief flashes of light in the winds?  (Beethoven 8 - Finale - Szell/Philharmonia - up to 19:48)

That's the finale to Beethoven's 8th. We'll come back to Beethoven 8 for both Schumann and Brahms. 

We're now just going to listen to the first thirty seconds of the Octet's finale. Let's recall that moment in Mozart's Jupiter Symphony when Mozart manages a few seconds of five voices doing five themes going on at once (COE/Harnoncourt - up to 40:50). And now, for two seconds, the sixteen-year-old Mendelssohn creates the impression for a few seconds of eight voices going all at the same time.  (up to 0:23) This is, maybe, the most virtuoso compositional feat since the last few pieces of Bach. 

So what made Mendelssohn different from Mozart that at 16 he could write a work that combines the best of Beethoven's Symphonies with the best of Beethoven's chamber music? The answer is in some ways fairly simple. Mendelssohn was rich. But of course, being a Jew in Germany is never simple, and in order to do justice to it we have to put music aside for a moment.  

Mendelssohn's grandfather was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of modern Judaism and thought such a great thinker in his own time that he was called 'The German Socrates.' Moses Mendelssohn rose to prominence by attacking German philosophers for ignoring each other's intellectual contributions in favor of foreign-born philosophy. His great contribution to philosophy was pro-religion, and therefore - and this is amazing for its time, pro-Judaism. Like philosophers a hundred years before him, Leibniz and Pascal, he used modern reason to argue for God's existence - he said that the fact that reason itself exists proves that reason is divine, and therefore that humanity is divine. He was born Moshe Mi'Dessau, and came to Berlin at an early age to be a Yeshiva student in a city which at the time was known by Jews for producing decidedly mediocre Torah scholars. But young Moses Mendelssohn did something no Torah student of the time was ever supposed to do, (gasp!) he read non-Jewish books. If he were caught, his teacher would have had him banned from Berlin. 

Now, Berlin was, at the time, under the control of Frederick the Great - and great he certainly was. The entirety of the enlightenment, perhaps all modern progress, can perhaps be traced to his policies. The whole idea that the world should progress, that humanism is a worldview worth practicing, that by greater reliance on study and reason we can attain a kind of enlightenment, this existed in the Noble Classes at least since the Renaissance began in the 14th century. But it could never impact historical progress except among the aristocrats literate enough to suppress these ideas lest their subjects find out about them and get it into their heads that they deserve much more than anyone's ever given them. The only person who could enact such policies on a wide enough scale is a King, so the world's progress is at the mercy of the genetic lottery, a matter further complicated by the fact that all of Europe's royal families were inbred. 

But in Frederick the Great, there was finally, 400 years after Renaissance ideas could be enacted, a king who was a philosopher of war and economics, an urban planner and an environmental conservationist, speaker of ten languages, one of history's greatest generals, a reasonably gifted playwright, musician, architect, and wit. The first King who not only valued education, learning, and tolerance in courtly life, but also enacted it as a general policy for common subjects. 

Like all followers of the enlightenment in his generation, he took his cue from Voltaire, and because Voltaire despised religion, so did Frederick. A hundred years before Karl Marx, Frederick the Great wrote "Religion is the idol of the mob. It adores everything it does not understand." When you read Voltaire on so many issues, he seems so unbelievably progressive for his time, as though he's a contemporary of ours. And then you read what he has to say about Jews in his Universal History...:

“We do not see on the contrary, in all annals of the Hebrew people, no generous action. They do not know nor hospitality, nor liberality, nor leniency. Their sovereign happiness is to exert wear (trade) with the foreigners; and this spirit of wear, principle of any cowardice, is so natural in their hearts, that it is the continual object of the figures that they employ in the species of eloquence which is proper for them. Their glory is to put at fire and blood the small villages they can seize. They cut the throat of the old men and the children; they hold only the girls nubiles; they assassinate their Masters when they are slaves; they can never forgive when they are victorious: they are enemy of the human mankind. No courtesy, no science, no art improved in any time, in this atrocious nation.”  
It's doubtful that Voltaire ever met more than a few Jews in his lifetime. These accusations are a combination of medieval blood libels that hold Jews responsible for killing Christians, and, it must also be said, passages in the Old Testament, which we Jews call the Tanakh. The typical antisemitism of Christianity holds not only that Jews killed Christ, but that Jews cannot help but be inherently unmerciful and hateful because they have no more direction than that which they were instructed in by bitter old Yahweh in the Old Testament. By not hearing the Good News that is the arrival of Christ the Messiah, Jews are cut off from love and therefore everything that's hateful and contemptuous in human nature boiled down to one incarnation - in Jews you can see the reason which salvation is necessary. Ergo they must be persecuted appropriately lest their hatefulness contaminate others.

That's traditional antisemitism. But the new antisemitism, the antisemitism of the Enlightenment, blames Jews not for rejecting Christianity, but for having created Christianity, having created monotheism, and having created all the brutality which Christians have visited upon the world for so many centuries, particularly, of course, upon Jews...

So in breezes 14 year old Moses Mendelssohn to Berlin, and while other Prussian intellectuals gain great fame during Frederick's forty-six year reign - Immanuel Kant in Konigsberg, Goethe in Weimar, it is Moses Mendelssohn who becomes the leading intellectual light of Berlin, the Prussian capital, and therefore establishes Berlin as the intellectual capital of the German-speaking lands. And yet, while Frederick the Great was friends with Voltaire and corresponded with Kant, he never allows Moses Mendelssohn into any room he's already in, and when the Prussian Academy of Sciences unanimously voted Mendelssohn a member, the membership only had to be ratified by Frederick the Great, and he never even so much as refused Mendelssohn membership, he simply ignored it. There wasn't a single intellectual who so consistently brought honor to Frederick the Great, but he was not just Jewish but proudly Jewish and used the philosophy Frederick the Great so valued to argue on behalf or religion, not against it.

Even if he was hated by the King, he was still the proverbial 'Court Jew' in all but name. he was the exception that proved the rule that no matter how beloved or valuable a Jew is to non-Jews, he was still a 'Jew', held up as an example like a noble savage that Jews could be civilized into being rational and tolerant and merciful - not like all those other horrible dirty Jews who are responsible for keeping humanity in darkness. Around 1770 he was publicly challenged by a man to prove Christianity wrong once and for all or convert, and this was a man who claimed to be an admirer! Never mind how Mendelssohn refuted this, but can you imagine the danger this might have put Mendelssohn in if clergy decided his response was offensive?

By the end of his life, Moses had turned his fame into some wealth, which his sons turned into great wealth. Abraham Mendelssohn became a banker, and after Moses died, the connection with Judaism became more and more isolating and tenuous. By the time Felix Mendelssohn was born, Abraham made the decision to convert and try to be fully German rather than Jewish.

Because the Mendelssohns were born Jewish, they would always be suspected of dual loyalties, so they had to be more German than the Germans. Not just rich but with the best possible educations, with the most morally upstanding lifestyles, and take up the richness of the German heritage as their own in a way Germans never did.

Mendelssohn was not just a great composer. In his spare time, such as he had any, he was a great visual artist, he was a voracious reader and very fine writer who wrote incredible volumes of correspondence, he was fluent in probably half-a-dozen languages, and of course he was a great pianist as well as composer.

As a child, he would apparently get up at five o'clock every day to master his many subjects and encounter the very best of thought and deed in every art form. His parents were friends with all the greatest German thinkers, and from the earliest age Mendelssohn would get informal tutoring from the greatest intellectuals in Germany - Goethe, Hegel, Humboldt, to make sure he understood the developments in all their fields. Most crucially, his music teacher introduced him to Bach at a time when hardly anybody played Bach's music.

When Mendelssohn (like his older sister) showed early signs that he was a musical genius, Abraham Mendelssohn would do nothing so exploitative or vulgar as have his son play in public. Instead, he hired musicians to be Felix's personal string orchestra for which he would write twelve string symphonies.

Rather than play music according to whatever the fashions of public taste were that year, Mendelssohn's goal was to expose music lovers to the best music of every and all eras. When he was twenty, he gave his first public concert, and it was Bach's St. Matthew Passion. People were said to have wept, and Mendelssohn was careful to have admitted that it took a Jew's son to discover the greatest Christian music ever conceived.

The entire concept of classical music, concerts that honor the greatest music of the past, begins with Felix Mendelssohn, and in many ways he is more important as a conductor than a composer. When Liszt or Paganini gave concerts, it was like a sporting event. When Mendelssohn gave concerts, it was like going to church.

But compared to all the music Mendelssohn championed, Mendelssohn's own music was a little lightweight. And I don't think it's because he didn't have angst in his soul. Let's listen to a minute of Elijah, from the last years of his life, almost certainly Mendelssohn's masterpiece, and a piece of a completely different character than the kind of 19th century Mozartean music Mendelssohn was generally known for (McCreesh/Gabrieli Consort - play the whole clip).

It almost sounds like it could be written by Wagner. I tend to think of Elijah as Mendelssohn's answer to Beethoven. Both Beethoven and Mendelssohn clearly loved humanity. But Beethoven was clearly a progressive, and the Ninth Symphony is a call to humanity to embrace each other. Elijah - and notice that Mendelssohn has returned not just to the Old Testament but one of the Old Testament's bloodiest prophets - is a call to to humanity to return to God. Mendelssohn clearly had rage in his soul, he worked and slaved for what he thought to be virtue, but everybody was following the vulgarities of his day - Liszt at the piano, Paganini at the violin, Meyerbeer and Donizetti in the opera house, revolutionaries like Bakunin in the streets, and antisemites like Voltaire in the drawing rooms.

Mendelssohn was particularly popular in England, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were two of his closest friends, and Elijah premiered in Birmingham. He was obviously a conservative, but he was not a reactionary. Everywhere but England, the 1848 revolutions were looming. Everywhere, the ideas of democracy and populism was at their low points among the Middle Class, who were scared of losing everything even as it was their loafing student children manned the barricades. Like the middle class in every age, Mendelssohn valued stability. He may have been financially wealthy, but in the 19th century, no Jew's position was so secure that they weren't capable of losing everything.

A few years ago, a musicologist released a shocking and well-authenticated letter from Mendelssohn. This supposedly most well-adjusted and moral of composers was, in fact, not only probably cheating on his wife with Jenny Lind, the greatest soprano in Europe - who was also known for her moral rectitude, but threatening suicide if his mistress didn't run off with him. This letter was less than a year before he died. There is a 1% chance that Mendelssohn killed himself.

The chance that Mendelssohn killed himself, however, is no more than one percent and even one percent is seriously highballing it. It within the margin of error that Mendelssohn certainly died of a series of strokes, which are just as well documented. Mendelssohn's beloved older sister died of that problem just a half-year before he did, and his grandfather died of that about sixty years earlier. A combination of stress, overwork, and the same hyperactivity of mind and energy which produced that incredible work ethic, and perhaps also the frenetic quality of his music, is almost certainly what killed him.

Mendelssohn was in a tight bind. He not only had to be more excellent than everyone, he had to be more tasteful. He was an evangelist for Bach, for Mozart and Beethoven, for even Schubert and Schumann, but would he have been nearly so influential on classical music if he wrote the music that was truly in his heart? There's something about Mendelssohn that only seldom lived up to his early promise. The Octet is Mendelssohn's greatest symphony, it takes the best of Beethoven's symphonies and chamber music and combines it into one piece. It's the consolation we get for the fact that Mendelssohn never wrote a symphony as great as any of Beethoven's.

And I know, I know, everybody loves the Italian Symphony, and that's adorable. The Italian Symphony is truly great in its way, but be honest with yourselves. It's ultimately kind of light music, not really that far away from Rossini or Offenbach. It's perfectly delightful, but to take unserious music too seriously robs us of what makes unserious music fun. Even many of Haydn's greatest works have dark and sublime moments in it. But even the dark stuff in much of Mendelssohn isn't that dark. 

Let's look at the Finale. The Finale is in the minor, but what kind of minor key is this? Mendelssohn wrote to his sister that this symphony is the jolliest thing he'd ever wrote, especially the finale. He also wrote about the impression which a woman who danced with a tambourine made on him, and with that information, listen to the first very little bit of the Italian Symphony's last movement. (Dohnanyi/Vienna up to 0:40)

This is a tambourine rhythm, over and over again. It's not supposed to be sad, it's supposed to be sexy, perhaps a forbidden, almost gypsy kind of eroticism. Or take the famous theme in the first movement. (Masur/Leipzig up to 2:49)  It's a tarantella. (up to 0:18)

Or take this moment from the coda of the first movement of the Scottish Symphony. For what it is, it's a wonderful storm scene though it can't hold a candle to the violence of Beethoven's or Wagner's storms. It's the midst and fog on the Scottish terrain, followed by the gathering of a storm picks up wind.  (Munch/Boston, up to 12:49)

There was something about Mendelssohn that clearly responded to nature. We see it again and again in many of the overtures - Hebrides, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, The Fair Melusine, Die Erste Walpurgisnacht almost all of which are better than the Symphonies. It's almost as though nature was the only place where Mendelssohn could allow himself a place to express anything like his true turmoil. 

But then, you have the Reformation Symphony. Many people say that the Reformation Symphony is not as good as the Italian. I will go to bat for it and say that it's quite a bit better - the problem is that most performances of it suck. To do justice to the first movement, you need rage in your heart, and the conductor needs to be a flawless technician to make clarity of the many lines in the last movement. 

In three weeks, it'll be the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Mendelssohn wrote the Reformation Symphony for the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, which the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, which was a document Luther wrote articulating the religious, and therefore political, views of the newfangled Protestants. 

Let's remember who Martin Luther was. In addition to being the most influential man in German history up to Hitler, he was also the most influential antisemite until Hitler. His last four sermons were devoted to the evil Jews. Here's some of what he had to say about them (call on reader):

They are our public enemies. They do not stop blaspheming our Lord Christ, calling the Virgin Mary a whore, Christ, a bastard, and us changelings or abortions (Mahlkälber: "meal calves"o). If they could kill us all, they would gladly do it. They do it often, especially those who pose as physicians—though sometimes they help—for the devil helps to finish it in the end. They can also practice medicine as in French Switzerland. They administer poison to someone from which he could die in an hour, a month, a year, ten or twenty years. They are able to practice this art

Here's another charming quote that articulates Hitler's argument about blood 400 years before Hitler:

We want to deal with them in a Christian manner now. Offer them the Christian faith that they would accept the Messiah, who is even their cousin and has been born of their flesh and blood; and is rightly Abraham’s Seed, of which they boast. Even so, I am concerned [that] Jewish blood may no longer become watery and wild.
Think of the Reformation Symphony like this. Who is the American composer whom everybody says articulates the spirit of middle and rural America better than any other American composer? (wait for Copland). Yes, Aaron Copland, and Aaron Copland was a son of immigrants, from Brooklyn, Jewish, gay, and communist. Who is the composer people say expresses the spirit of England better than any other composer (wait for Elgar). Edward Elgar! But think of the name Elgar, (French pronunciation), Elgar, Elgar was descended from French Catholics. 

There is something about the outsider who sees into the insides better than the insider ever can. Short of Bach, there aren't any composers who articulated the Lutheran spirit better than Mendelssohn does here. It's the longing to belong, the mixture of belief and hope for acceptance in a new country, and the anxiety that you won't be accepted. 

So let's see what Mendelssohn does (play introduction, Maazel/Berlin, up to 2:30). What does this music mean? You hear those three notes, passed again and again from voice to voice. Then what unquestionably sounds like an organ. This may be a romantic tone painting of Bach, but it's still very Bach-like, and no music symbolizes Lutheranism like Bach does. (1:30) The Kantor calls out 'Lord Have Mercy', the congregation responds 'Lord Have Mercy.' 

Then comes what is called the Dresden Amen, supposedly how churches in Saxony have sung Amen for hundreds of years. You hear it in Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony, and you hear it in Wagner's Parsifal. (play clip from 0:05)

When it comes time to talk about Mahler, we'll talk about Wagner plenty. Because Wagner was a proponent of a still newer form of antisemitism that was originated in many ways in response to Mendelssohn. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. 

In the meantime, we are plunged into a religious fantasy. And that frenetic musical tapestry that the teenage Mendelssohn portrays as the flight of fairies, the adult Mendelssohn uses to evoke something that sounds like the flickering flames of hellfire. (up to 4:39)

So now let's go back to Beethoven for a moment. Remember that pizzicato passage in the 5th symphony right before the surprise buildup of the last movement? Let's listen to it again.  (Kleiber/Vienna - up to 21:52)

And remember that passage in the Eroica which sounds like a cry of despair? (Karajan/Berlin '84 - up to 7:21)

Mendelssohn seems to make a hybrid of the two, and creates something that sounds like we're traveling through hell like Dante and Virgil, only to arrive at a place where we can hear the screams of the damned.  (Gardiner/BRSO - up to 7:02)

In a bad performance, this moment never registers. In a good performance, it's terrifying, sublime stuff. And then comes the homily, the moment when the stakes of salvation and perdition are hit home to the parishioner and you realize the full existential dread which believers must have felt for millennia.  (Fey/Heidelberg - up to 7:31) (interrupt) And then, back to the Dresden Amen (to 7:50). 

The second movement is not particularly special, another country dance. But then, something incredibly weird happens. Mendelssohn gives a melody which is unquestionably not of an intonation that sounds Christian, I'll leave it to your imaginations to figure out what could be intoned here. (Bernstein/Israel Philharmonic - up to 49:22)

To me, if no one else, this is the sadness of the Jewish lot in life. To follow that comes a moment which, depending on your point of view, might be a supreme act of triumph, or a supreme act of self-loathing. 

Martin Luther was also a musician, he knew that in order to create a body of believers, the best way he could make them feel the Holy Spirit was to sing. And this is Luther's most famous melody. 'A Mighty Fortress is Our God.' (shudder - don't include this clip). But just like in A Midsummer Night's Dream, we hear the harmonies gradually accumulate in depth and richness. (Maag/Madrid - up to 2:05) 

Perhaps the Jews have now heard the Good News. But Mendelssohn, to hit the point home, appropriates yet another Bach Fugue, this one for solo violin (Szeryng - up to 0:20). And here's Mendelssohn's version.   (up to 3:11)

Next comes a little trick that Bach would always pull in which he would sound two chorales together at the same time - something that no doubt awed Lutheran audiences at the time. One fast moving, another much much slower as what we call a cantus firmus, never mind what that is. The most famous example of it is in a giant orchestra/chorus setting in the opening movement of the St. Matthew Passion, of which Mendelssohn of course knew every note.  But here's a simpler example of what that's like, just for Organ. (Wachet auf, Koopman - up to 1:13) 

All this is why, I submit to you, the Reformation Symphony is easily Mendelssohn's greatest official and adult symphony. After the break, we'll try to talk about one of the other two great composers of the German middle class who perhaps achieved a little more as a composer than Mendelssohn, but lost even more of his personal life to it than Mendelssohn did. 


And so, two days after World Mental Health Day, we come to Schumann, and the great curse of middle class life everywhere, the unspoken terror, the silent killer, the ghost of the irrational that breaks people, families, communities, whole countries, during those most prosperous periods when nothing seems like it could be going better. 

Middle class life is supposed to be stable, it's supposed to be routine, day in, day out, you know your responsibilities, you know who you associate with, what you do, where you go. And a certain kind of person, a linear person, perhaps even a Mendelssohn, sees the world as an equation in which if you do A, then B, then C, D will inevitably happen. I'm sure you all know people like that.  And because prosperity seems to inevitably come to such people, it will never occur to them that the world should be any other way than that. If such people are born to a predictable routine, they assume the same predictable routine their parents did, and if their world never changes, they inevitably accumulate prosperity, and therefore anybody who would not prosper is at best, not fulfilling their responsibilities properly, perhaps worse, lacking in moral character, worst of all, a threat that has to be neutralized.  

And yet, why, for so many people, does this kind of middle class small community life seem to be the worst kind of prison from which they feel there is no escape - almost worse because from the outside it can seem so prosperous. A number of you must have been in college during the Sixties, you will instantly know whereof I speak. 

The more stable a middle class lifestyle is, the more unbreakable and inflexible, the more guarantee there is that the people who don't fit in well within it will wilt away in tragedy, and even after they do, it will be assumed by many that they in some way brought it on themselves. Mental illness is like diabetes, if you have a predisposition to it, then there are unquestionably situations that will bring it on. Like Type II diabetes, if someone has a genetic predisposition for mental illness and furthermore comes from a rigid place that does not understand the plethora of different ways in which different people might react to similar situations, the person with the predisposition will contract the illness at the first sign of trouble.  But like Type I diabetes, some people just get it anyway. Even in the best of circumstances.

But once they already have it; if the people around them don't understand, the illness will become worse; and for every time they don't have the support they need to do battle with it, the illness wins another battle and becomes that much more likely to win battles henceforth. Over a period of decades, resistance to it gets thinner, and eventually, they snap.

The snapping can take all sorts of different forms, some malignant: Gesualdo killed his wife while she was in bed with a lover; some of them are benign; Mozart developed something not unlike Tourette's Syndrome and was a bit obsessed with everything scatological; and some are - perhaps - just weirdly creepy; Bruckner became an extreme obsessive-compulsive who loved to watch dead bodies and proposed marriage to a series of teenage waitresses.

Mental illness is the test which a prosperous society either passes or fails, and no society has ever truly passed it yet. In a less prosperous society, those who can't deal with life's worse circumstances are simply eliminated from it - and that's that. 

Mental illness is not just a test of the people who have it - that much is a given, and a herculean test it is. It is a test for the people who live with the people who have mental illness. The test is not whether they can meet every provocation of a mentally ill person with understanding. Kindness and understanding is of course an important part of it, but let's face it, other people can only do so much in the face of emotional volcanoes, and kindness in the face of these earthquakes may also excuse some extremely destructive behavior. 

The test is different than that. The test is, can you normal, linear people, find it within your own imaginations, to accept that a person who is, in some ways, mentally ill without question, may also be mentally advantaged over you, and may need assistance in bringing those mental advantages over you out. This is an incredibly difficult thing for many people to accept. It's a leap of imagination that forces a person to understand that there is no one correct way to live a life; it's a leap of humility that makes a person accept that a person who did not fulfill all the responsibilities which you've thought were so important in life may in fact have moral parity with you; and, most crucially, it's a risk that the contours of the very secure middle class life you've built for yourself may change permanently, and not necessarily in ways that are to your benefit. But however much you dislike the compromises you have to make to accommodate those people in your life who are mentally unwell, the second option is death. Physical death, emotional death, spiritual death, in some ways, it doesn't matter - and in many ways, physical death is a relief compared to what they experience. The stability of your life comes at the expense of people whose experience of life is absolutely harrowing, and every stable family has a few. 

I also don't mean that the mentally ill are more intelligent than the mentally balanced, they're certainly not more intelligent in the life-negotiating ways that let people live on. But when a person develops mental illness, or when the mental illness gets worse, it is probably because the mentally ill person's mind does not have the opportunities for stimulation it desperately needs to function with the balance of a more common, linear, thinker. 

You all have lived longer than I have. And I'm sure that over the course of your lives, you have known people who suffered terribly from mental illness, I shan't ask but perhaps that person is even you, and suffered it in an era when mental illness was far more of a stigma than it even is today, and make no mistake, the mentally ill are still second-class citizens. I hope this is not too traumatic to ask of any of you, but please recall your memories of them for a second, I'm sure you remember that in their better moments, they were intelligent, creative people, maybe even people who did not have the outlet their gifts deserved.

We all need appreciation for what our brains are good at, and if the brain of a person of decent character does not get that validation, the brain goes to seed. It can't help but mourn what it knows it deserves, it can't help but create delusions which create explanations of why it does not get the validation it warrants. Everybody has people they went to school with who were the most brilliant kids in the class, and then you meet them twenty years later and and come away saying, what the hell happened? I remember as a kid when my father ran into someone from his high school like that, an I remember how disturbed he was to find out how this guy's life had transpired, and I remember how disturbed I was that life could transpire like that. But I couldn't fathom that twenty-five years later, it would be me.

Some of you have mentioned to me by now that I might be a little too good at what I do here and asked me why I'm not teaching on the college level. I'd like to think that a private life still exists in 2017, but I will say, that the process of realizing the infinite potential I was told I had multiple times every day nearly killed me. Who knows, it may kill me yet. But for the moment, and let us hope for a great while longer, I'm still here, and I'm in less trouble than academia is.

A lot of people talk about this concept called Depressive Realism - the idea being that the depressed simply have a more accurate sense of what the world is like, and everybody else has a positive bias.  That's a controversial theory for all sorts of obvious reasons. But I'd like to submit a different, perhaps more complex, theory of Depressive Realism. The depressed do not see the world more accurately because they are depressed. They already see the world more accurately, they always have, even before they were depressed, and because a greater share of their brains is devoted to observing and perceiving the world, there is that much less of their brainpower devoted to regulating emotional balance. This process isn't helped by the fact that the world, generally speaking, is a pretty depressing place, and is particularly cruel to people who notice how cruel it is. There are some people, we all know one or two at least, who seem to breeze through a charmed life without a scratch. Once you're already privileged, people are more well-disposed to giving you more privileges. But tragedy begets tragedy, a person who has fallen from grace once is more likely to fall twice. A risk is a risk because it runs the risk of failure, and the less of a sure thing a person's success seems like, the less people are willing to take a risk and bet on that person's better angels.

Because most people think linearly, they don't have to deal daily with the reality of the brain, which is that even in it's most restful state, it's a tornado of activity. Nobody's quite sure how many thoughts the brain thinks on any given day, but most people think it's somewhere between 12,000 and 50,000 thoughts per day. And this is just our conscious selves. Now, let's be realistic, 4 out of every 5 thoughts any person has will probably be critical ones. Even in the most upbeat humans, you need critical thoughts to survive much more than you need encouraging ones - or at least you certainly did evolutionarily. Now the average person has a frontal lobe which safeguards you from the full extent of how a brain, improperly self-maintained, can work itself into the most negative state. Let's say, for a moment, that the frontal lobe gives the brain a self-cleansing mechanism. We may have 40,000 critical thoughts a day, but the frontal lobe of most people will know exactly when to place those supportive thoughts so that one in every five thoughts will be a reminder that things aren't so bad, and the brain gets restored to equalibrium. In the mind of a mentally imbalanced person, the regulation of frontal lobe does not exist. Some people may experience minor depression, but still has an encouraging thought one in every dozen or two dozen thoughts. In the mind of a person with major depression, perhaps they will be lucky to have one in a hundred. If that's true, then that may be 500 encouraging thoughts a day, against an onslaught of 49,500 critical thoughts, every day. Let's say this depression lasts for two weeks, that means you have 7,000 encouraging thoughts to defend yourself against 693,000 critical thoughts. And it's not just arithmetic. These 693,000 critical thoughts can multiply themselves in the degree of their severity. So let's say that something in the frontal lobe is blocking these positive thoughts, and a certain mental event can lift the blockage. After two weeks of severe depression, in some people, the fog doesn't just lift, it becomes a blinding UV ray. They've been missing 19 of every 20 supportive thoughts to regulate their mood for two weeks, so the chemicals allowing for all those positive thoughts come swimming back into their brains, and what was 1 in 100 positive thoughts then becomes 4 in every 5, or maybe even 99 in 100.

Now we're beginning to understand Robert Schumann. Remember what we said in the first class about it being the divided self, the tensions between who we want to be and who we are, which create great art? In Schumann's case, the division was almost literal. We are now a full generation removed from anything classical. In a single symphony, Beethoven could express all human emotions. Mozart could express all human emotions in a single phrase. But by the time you get to Schumann, emotional expression in music has become a much more externalized thing. By the Romantics, expressive ambiguity is far less acceptable even than in the music of Beethoven. We'll deal with exactly why that is next week when we talk about Berlioz.

Schumann, in his best music, created a more atomized version of emotional expression that, in my opinion if only mine, retained the diversity of expression you find in Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, late Haydn, to an extent that no other composer of his generation did - and remember, this was also the generation of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, and Verdi. Personally, I believe Schumann wrote greater music than them all, and I think it took a psychic toll on him past any other great composer. It's hard enough to put the entirety of human experience in a single work of art. But imagine the level of empathy, the level of sensitivity, the sheer fragility of a person who can channel every single mode of human expression, one at a time.  As a child, Schumann would apprently improvise at the piano in front of a group of friends, and he would create musical pictures of them that seemed so accurate that his friends would burst out laughing. 

This kind of radical empathy was Schumann's greatness, and while his symphonies are great, greater than many people still think, you don't generally find his single greatest gift within the symphonies. You find them most in the piano character pieces. I could take you through all the different movements of Carnaval, Davidsbundlertanze, Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, Papillons, Humoreske, and talk about how each of them are connected to certain ideas. You may think that that may not be worth your time, but that's exactly what a hundred-seventy-five years of music lovers have done with Schumann and they always found it worthwhile.

Instead, let's talk for a moment about the one large-scale piece where Schumann clearly managed to bridge the two basic sides of his many-sided personality. For the moment, we'll simply stick to Schumann's personality and call them Florestan, the extravert, and Eusebius, the introvert.

You immediately hear the two sides. And in this work, they are engaged in an almost existential battle. They only achieve some kind of synthesis twelve minutes later in the cadenza, which should register to the audience almost like a howl of agony in which you hear the toll this divided self takes on the composer.

Every composer, every artist, has certain places in which they're clearly most comfortable. Mozart was most comfortable being the star on a stage, so he was most comfortable writing piano concertos and operas. Beethoven was most comfortable in private playing the piano and to a lesser extent playing chamber music among friends, so his best music - yes, best - is to be found in the piano sonatas and the string quartets. Schubert was most comfortable with his friends, so his best music is generally the lieder where a piano accompanies a singer and chamber music for weird instrumental combinations of whatever instruments they played. And Schumann is most comfortable at the piano or reading, so he's most comfortable dramatizing the ideas he reads about at the piano. Notice, nobody's most comfortable yet writing for the orchestra...

Like everybody until this time, Schumann uses the symphony when he thinks he has an idea on a particularly grand scale. For Schumann it has to be an event, and to show how great an event it is and how everybody had to dress to the nines, let's listen to a few passages of Schumann 4, and compare them to another, still more famous symphony. And let's also mention, Schumann's 4th Symphony is misnumbered - it's in fact his 2nd, written almost directly after his first, so Schumann was still new to the symphony when he wrote it.

Let's now listen to the main subject of the third movement. (Abendroth/Leipzig Radio - up to 15:49)

And now the equivalent in Beethoven 5 (Kleiber/Vienna - up to 18:02)

So however great or mediocre this piece is, and let's be clear, Schumann 4 is a towering masterpiece, it's clearly derivative in parts of Beethoven 5. This is composing from the German Middle Class. Beethoven defined what a symphony means, and whether to Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, or Bruckner, it's pretty much inconceivable to create an heroic symphony that does not pay enormous homage to the titan who created that form. We'll talk about that much more with Brahms and Bruckner; but for the moment, just understand that to change the structure of the grand heroic symphony, something no German composer really dared to do until Mahler, you'd be inviting a scandal. In 19th Century Germany, people took music extremely seriously. The more you departed from the tradition of how a symphony was supposed to be constructed, the more you had to show an homage to Beethoven. But at the same time, they want to outdo Beethoven like any son does an imposing father, and the symphony gets grander and grander with each decade. 

The truth is that Schumann was really little better at organizing symphonic material than Schubert, but he was as good as anyone when it came to organizing outside the box. His piano music has all sorts of shocking effects which later composers, enamored by more obviously flashy composers of Schumann's generation like Wagner, Liszt, Chopin... never really followed up on, except in Russia - more on that in a few weeks.  

Now let's go all the way back, two-thirds of the way (Monteux - up to 6:16) into the 1st movement, and see what Schumann does. 

This is called cyclical form. You can google it later. The point is that Schumann is creating a symphony in which the whole work is united, from beginning to end. And just to make sure that we are more concerned with the high declamation of this grand theme, let's hear what Schumann does to make sure that our ear expects something more out of the piece than what we get. 

It's literally the same music, just in a major key. You are almost not supposed to notice the second subject so that when new musical material comes later, you pay much more attention to that.  

One more thing that we'll talk about a bit more when we get to Brahms. 

Let's hear the first bit of the intro. (Barenboim - up to 2:02)

Now let's hear the violin solo in what's called the Romanza movement.  (up to 15:00) It's the same music, transformed from a dark landscape into a love serenade.

Now the trio of the third movement.  (Abendroth - up to 19:58) Another country dance, or maybe the breeze of the wind. 


So let's now let's, very quickly, tell the crucial story of Robert and Clara. Before Clara Schumann was Clara Schumann, she was Clara Wieck, the child prodigy daughter of Friedrich Wieck, Schumann's piano teacher and surrogate father, who then betrayed him. Schumann came from a family that was as unstable as Mendelssohn's family was too stable. His father was described as an anxious man, also a frustrated novelist who became a bookseller, and his mother was clearly unstable. In middle class families, still, this is often the fate of creative people to be trapped in marriages and families that only became marriages and families because it was inconceivable that people would not settle down to a domestic life, even if they weren't cut out for it. Schumann must have seen some pretty impressive rows growing up. 

Schumann was supposed to have a great concert career, and he injured himself along the way. Schumann's teacher started a legend is that it was a contraption Schumann invented to strengthen his fingers that caused the injury, but it's much more likely that Wieck gave either gave him bad technical advice, or Schumann just overworked himself, or even that Schumann injured himself trying to write his own compositions. Chopin's and Liszt's piano music fits extremely well in the hand and is, in some ways, easier to play than it looks. Rachmaninov easier still. Schumann's, like Beethoven's and particularly Brahms's, is apparently quite a bit harder. 

Schumann was nine years older than Clara, and when she turned eighteen he proposed marriage. Clara immediately accepted, and when they told her father, her father not only refused, but he burned their correspondence, and spread rumors to ruin Robert's, his longtime student, reputation. Whatever rumors he spread, the truth might have been still worse - Robert Schumann had syphilis from the time he was 21, he loved to get drunk. He had a severe depression after the death of his brother and sister-in-law from cholera. But given what the 19th century middle class was like, these facts were true of just about everyone. And never mind that there are no reports that Schumann was particularly depressed when his father died and his older sister killed herself in the same month when he was a teenager. It was only in Schumann's mid-40's, nearly 25 years after contracting syphilis, that he really began to exhibit the worst signs of losing his mind. Robert and Clara had to sue Clara's father, and the judge ruled in favor of them. I have no doubt that if Robert had any chance of eventually not going off the deep end, the betrayal of his father-in-law sent him quite a bit closer to the edge. 

It was Clara who became the famous concert pianist, and insofar as one could have a happy marriage with Robert in his condition, Robert and Clara seemed to have a very happy marriage of equals with seven children who made it to adulthood. Compare this to just about any other composer, any saner composer, of Schumann's time, and Schumann was the only one who truly had a happy marriage. The only other candidate is Verdi, and bourgeois convention would not Verdi marry his spouse.  

Schumann was, of course, a genius, and it was readily apparent even before he decided he had a calling to be a composer. His father was a bookseller and a frustrated novelist, and as a teenager Schumann had already written two novels.  To the end of his life he wrote music criticism that was read everywhere and is still readable. If he were so inclined, he probably could have been a poet of renown, but the music has enough poetry to speak anything Schumann would have said in words. 

So let's look at a bit of the first symphony, the Spring, which he wrote earlier in the same year as the fourth symphony. The real order of Schumann's Symphonies are 1, 4, 2, 3.

Let's read a bit of a letter Schumann wrote to an early conductor of the work (call on reader):

Could you breathe a little of the longing for spring into your orchestra as they play? That was what was most in my mind when I wrote [the symphony] in January 1841. I should like the very first trumpet entrance to sound as if it came from on high, like a summons to awakening. Further on in the introduction, I would like the music to suggest the world’s turning green, perhaps with a butterfly hovering in the air, and then, in the Allegro, to show how everything to do with spring is coming alive... These, however, are ideas that came into my mind only after I had completed the piece.
Schumann went on to describe the movement as "summons to awakening," and "The vernal passion that sway men until they are very old, and which surprises them with each year."I have my doubts that Schumann did not compose with a program in mind. It was expected in the wake of Beethoven that a symphony would not have a program. Even Mendelssohn, in his Italian and Scottish Symphonies, did not relate any program of what the music was about. But in Clara's diary, the title of the Spring Symphony comes from a poem by a not much known poet today, Adolf Bötger.

O wende, wende deinen Lauf
Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf! 

O, turn, O turn and change your course
For in the valley, Spring blooms forth!
Schumann 1 - Opening  (Bernstein/Vienna - up to 0:36)

(sing the melody with the German text)

Now let's hear the whole intro with the blooming of spring. (up to 3:22)

I'm sure you hear the redolence to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. But we now have to talk about something that hasn't come up yet in this class, but is, of course, everywhere in every kind of music.


Schumann calls the next movement, 'Evening.' And it's a slow movement, and it's clearly love music. (up to 1:54)

This is a very nineteenth century, bourgeois view of sex. This is not what goes on in brothels, which is of course, never mentioned, this is the proper, perhaps missionary, love between a man and his lady wife. Remember that in the first class, we talked about metaphysics, and the idea of a world behind the real world, and how important that was to symphonic music. To use a euphemism, the best evidence that most people experience of a world behind this world is two things, music, and eros. Germans talk ad nauseum about eros in philosophy, but philosophy is a rather dry way of experiencing it. So often, when you hear slow music, it's clearly love music, it rises to a climax and then ends in a kind of relaxed bliss. It may not be mentioned in any program, but everybody kinda knew...

Let's fast forward to the finale. So far in the class we've heard storms now from Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and indirectly, Wagner, and we'll certainly be hearing more. A storm is a way of expressing not just awe at the natural world, but emotional turmoil. The title of this movement is 'Spring in Full Bloom.' This is a very different kind of storm, like Mendelssohn's it's a little tamer, this one might not even be a storm. The point is, perhaps, that the storm is not nearly as bad as the composer thought it might be... (up to 4:53)

But at the end of the symphony, the storm reappears, this time with more force, and instead of turmoil, it's a joyous thing. It's as though Schumann doesn't even care that there's a storm, he's one with it, and he's running outside and letting the wind and rain onto his face and wet clothes and chancing the lightning.  (up to 8:12)

Now let's fast forward six more years. Schumann is experiencing emotional and physical illness in all sorts of ways, and to add to the problem, he has the second worst condition a musician can have. Not depression, and fortunately not deafness, but tinnitus. Ringing in the ears, and this is a century before constant noise and music can make tinnitus a trivial thing. Schumann, with his perfect pitch, knows exactly which pitch it is. 

What composer can he turn to as someone who has battled against the demons and won? 

Obviously Beethoven. So, Schumann was known for being a bit of an obsessive, both musically and personally, and we've established that Beethoven can be the same way. Now this is, like Beethoven 2, a work that seems happy, but in so many ways is the work of a man clearly just barely holding it together. Listen to this passage and tell me if this is not the work of someone who can't... let a thing go?

Schumann 2 - part of development (Skrowaczewski/Saarbrucken - up to 8:16)

And yet this kind of obsession, Schumann learned how to portray this from Beethoven too.  (Beethoven 8 development, Szell/Philharmonia - up to 5:58)

But then, Schumann does Beethoven one obsession better in the second movement by putting his obsession at twice the speed, try the second movement.  (up to 13:48)

Every violinist lives in fear of this symphony.

So then comes the slow movement, a very different kind of slow movement though. (up to 24:26) It's clearly love music, but this night is not going nearly as well for Robert, and he's clearly got his mind on something else - maybe baseball...

And then, still another series of obsessions in the last movement. Like the first movement, it's clearly heroic music, but what is the particular heroism that Schumann might be referring to? (Paray/Detroit 27:45)

Like I said, violinists hate this symphony...

When you hear this symphony, you definitely wonder if he's found a musical metaphor for his condition. Is it a 1 to 1 correlation? Of course not, but it's unmistakably there.

The Second is, I think, Schumann's best, and can rank with the best of anybody. The first and the fourth are not far behind. The third, the Rhenish, probably the most famous of the four, comes from four years later still. This is now four years away from Schumann's breakdown. A lot of people say that the work from his last few years shows his madness and is therefore not as good. I highly doubt that. I believe Schumann couldn't help but show his condition all the way through his work. It is, however, a bit like the Italian and the Scottish, kind of a postcard symphony, only it's nowhere near as technically accomplished as Mendelssohn's. It's meant to depict life on the Rhine river, the main river in Germany. It's fundamentally lighter music, an alpine horn here, a peasant dance there. But here's the thing, it's five movements long, there's an extra movement, and one that doesn't necessarily need to be there. But everything that is light and gay suddenly becomes gothic and shadowy.

Schumann didn't give a program for this symphony except for this movement, which is supposed to be the ceremony of the elevation of a Cardinal at Cologne Cathedral. I wonder if this is to throw people off the scent. It is so unbelievably different in character from the other movements, as different as the storm in Beethoven's Pastoral. Remember that in the Pastoral Symphony, the storm may allude to a personal emotional storm. If this is personal music and not pictoral, this is not a storm, this is an event horizon.

We should end this class with listening to this movement (Barenboim/Berlin - up to 27:48). It may in fact be the frankest portrayal Schumann ever made of the demons that would haunt him for his entire life. Next week, we'll talk about the composers who rebelled against the 19th Century Middle Class and all the burdensome restrictions it placed on those who believed in it.

Class 3: The Austrian Tradition
Class 2: Beethoven - Glory of the Tradition
Class 1: Haydn - Founder of the Tradition

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