Wednesday, October 18, 2017

History of the Symphony: Class 5: The Symphonic Breaking Point: Part I

So the question begins, how do you even fathom talking about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? My guess is that everybody in here knows it and has heard it performed live at least once if not many times. I realized that like Beethoven's 5th, it's the elephant of the room of the entire symphony. It's so iconic that there isn't much you can say to shed light on it in a half-hour. You either have to be on it for six weeks or let its example stand on its own by silence as a kind of giant hovering over everything that comes later. The fact is, so many composers rewrote their own version of Beethoven's Ninth that it's more worthwhile to talk about the reactions to Beethoven's Ninth than it is to talk about Beethoven's 9th itself.

You could go through a catalogue of all the different symphonies that picked up the opening of Beethoven 9,(Barenboim/Berlin) for quick albeit slow reminder let's listen to it. But I think we should probably stick for the moment with the one which makes the most obvious use of it. Bruckner's 8th.

Now let's just hear the opening of Bruckner's unbelievable eighth symphony, certainly one of the greatest ever written - which even copies the rhythm of the main theme of Beethoven 9, rhythm for rhythm:  (Skrowaczewski/Saarbrucken)

Like Beethoven's 9th, it's debateable whether Bruckner 8 does not truly establish its key for the first ten minutes. Let's hear the iconic passage in Beethoven 9 where the undefined opening returns seemingly out of nowhere, as though it's been searching for the correct key the whole time, and then with such definition and vengeance  (Szell/Philharmonia) halfway through the movement, as though once you hear it, you might regret you were ever looking for it.

Now let's hear a very similar process with Bruckner 8, in which it returns with perhaps even greater vengeance, and this time, Bruckner takes it to the next step, once he brushes up against the correct key, and hits it with a savagery that even dwarves Beethoven's, but then he keeps searching for the key as though to say that that level of agonizing vengeance is still not enough. (Wand/NDR)

Now let's let's listen to the end of the first movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony (Wand/NDR), with the famous, apocalyptic repeating tremolos in the strings - the technical word for this is Alberti Bass. Now let's compare that to the end of the first movement of Bruckner 7. That apocalyptic repetitition in Beethoven, perhaps a hurricane, gets transferred to the treble, and becomes Alpine Wind and Salvation in Bruckner 7.  (Furtwangler/Berlin)

Now let's go to Berlioz. The figure in Beethoven's 9th goes chromatically downwards, the figure in the Symphonie Fantastique (Bernstein/New York) goes upwards.

So let's go to the last movement. I'm sure you remember the main theme of Beethoven's 9th? (Klemperer/Philharmonia/Hotter) Concentrate on the second half of the melody "Deine Zauber binden lieber."

So now let's hear the almost similarly famous theme from Brahms's 1st Symphony. (Klemperer/Philharmonia) Again, try to concentrate on the second half of the theme. That simple turn the second part of the phrase is exactly Deine Zauber binden lieber. When someone pointed out the similarity to Brahms, Brahms famously answered "Any jackass hears that." Though I'm not even sure any expert would if there wasn't that story. It's much easier to concentrate on how the melody unfolds in a very similar part of the symphony.

Now let's go to Bruckner 5, and with it, I'd like to go to a very different genre, the piano sonata, and Beethoven's crowning achievement in that: the Hammerklavier, which he wrote six years earlier, is a kind of rough draft of the ninth and in some ways, for all its weirdness, is more structurally coherent than in the 9th. The 9th is both perhaps the climax of all music ever written, and is also too large in its message and profundity to be contained by any structure. Think of the Shakespearean tragedies like Hamlet or Othello or King Lear - except for Macbeth, Shakespeare's ambition is clearly much larger than his sense of form, and the coherence kind of falls apart. That's even more true of any number of the greatest novels. Some people think that's a flaw, but I think it's a great strength. It means that the aim is so high that it can't be contained by perfection, it transcends perfection and goes straight to infinity. Beethoven 5 is perfect, but the Third, the Sixth, and the Ninth are anything but perfect, and for me, all three of them are greater works.

So back to the Hammerklavier Sonata, which is closer to perfect but by no means a perfect piece of music and thank god for that. Let's go straight to the last movement and compare it to the last movement of Beethoven's 9th. First, let's hear that unforgettable beginning of Beethoven's 9th's final movement, (Wand/NDR) in which Beethoven completely shatters the bonds of any kind of musical coherence and practically makes the cellos and basses talk to the rest of the orchestra. The winds quote the first three movements and each time, the cello seems to reject what the movement offers.

This moment is, to me at least, the definitive point of no return for music, when music takes on a completely different expressive purpose. It no longer has to be organized, it can simply express.

Beethoven had already been preparing us for this in a number of pieces, but never more than the Hammerklavier, in which he is already searching for an ending. In every movement so far, he alludes to the sort of formless void he begins the movement with, but he brings in all kinds of new materials. (Serkin). Instead of quoting movements, he seems to quote simple musical building blocks, almost like finger exercises. First a series of simple fourths to bring us to what's called a cadence, which in this case means nothing more than harmonic resolution. Then Beethoven brings in a series of scales. And then some fugal counterpoint which sounds as though it's straight out of Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier. And then back to the form, and one of, to me, the great moments in music, when he holds a trill, and then bursts the dam of what any formal container can hold with a pianistic explosion of chords that cannot possibly be measured with a proper tempo - a literal shattering of the limits of possibility. Beethoven finally brings them all together with the most complex fugal subject the human brain had yet imagined, which he then spends ten minutes or much more (depending on the performance) resolving in a fugue.

Now let's go back to Bruckner's 5th Symphony. Purely in terms of construction, this is easily Bruckner's greatest symphony. Is it his greatest symphony overall? Tough to say, I think Bruckner is the single greatest composer of slow movements, and best of all is the slow movement of his seventh which we'll talk plenty about in future weeks. It also doesn't have the agonizing conflict of Bruckner's final two that so prefigures Mahler, we'll talk about the final two symphonies as well. But in the 5th is certainly the most perfect from a structural point of view, in fact it might be the only symphony by Bruckner which completely works structurally, and the first symphony since Beethoven's 9th to find a completion to the open-ended and clearly incomplete form of Beethoven's 9th. Until Bruckner 5, just about all symphonies were either semi-dramatic in the manner of Beethoven 9, more on that in the second half, or they were fashioned in a more objective way after the manner of way Beethoven's first eight. Mendelssohn's Scottish is semi-dramatic and tries deliberately to not make sense in the manner of Beethoven 9, but his Italian could almost be written by Mozart. Schumann's Rhenish doesn't try to make much structural sense, but his Fourth is practically Beethoven 5 rewritten, and we'll come back to Schumann 4 in a minute. But by what I at least think is a close study over the Hammerklavier and Schumann 4, I think Bruckner found a way to create an objective, purely musical symphony, on a scale that not even Beethoven could reach.

Let's talk about all the various things that go into making the miracle that is Bruckner 5. Start with its very slow, still beginning and what happens after it up to the second subject.  (Barenboim/Berlin St.)

Bruckner is usually thought of as a great musical architect. People always describe his symphonies as musical cathedrals, which is truer than people realize. If Bruckner is a musical architect, then he's not a very competent one. In every symphony but this, he bites off a lot more than he can chew. Cathedrals are supposed to reach the heavens and challenge the realms of what's possible on earth, and that's exactly what Bruckner symphonies do. Both the glory of them and the weakness is that when you plan something on such a massive scale, nothing ever goes as planned. They become like labyrinths in which every section takes on a mind of its own and by the time it's completed, it looks nothing like the schematic. This is what it means to create great art, you don't create the work, the work creates itself, and thereby creates you.

Daniel Barenboim one of the great musicians of this or any era, has a different take on Bruckner, he calls Bruckner a musical archeologist. I think that's just as true about Bruckner, even if neither are the whole story. Listen again to that second subject. 

This is Bruckner, the supposedly most ethereal composer, utterly unconnected to the earth, channelling a guitar, a simple folk singer intoning a melody that is older than history. Now let's hear the beginning of the second movement. It's the guitar again.  The most common misconception about Bruckner is that he's completely spiritual visionary and disconnected from any worldly concern. Bruckner is just the opposite, he's a spiritual visionary because was a medieval peasant thrust into a world much too modern for him. He was a person of too much flesh and blood, and most of the most celebrated performances of his music are about 20% too slow and completely neuter Bruckner of his dance rhythms and the singability of his melodies.

So let's now go back slightly to Schumann 4. Here's the introduction to Schumann 4 (Karajan/Berlin). In the second movement Schumann starts with a very similar oboe theme to Bruckner 5. Schumann then brings back the opening music. But he then turns that lugubrious half-melody from the introduction into a luminous full melody. In the trio, the middle section, of the third movement, the Scherzo, he then brings it back and sets up the final transition to the triumphant last movement.

So, let's hear the guitarish beginning of the Bruckner 5 second movement again. And now, let's hear the beginning of the third movement.  It's the exact guitar melody, but in a nightmarish guise, and juxtaposed against a country landler. A lot of people say that Bruckner has no sense of humor. But think about that juxtaposition. Where might Bruckner have gotten the first theme of his scherzo? (Klemperer/Philharmonia). And where might he have gotten the second theme? (Boskovsky/Vienna)

So now to the finale, one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever conceived. The beginning is almost the same as the opening. There's one crucial difference. Let's hear the opening again.  And now let's hear the opening of the finale. That gentle clarinet two-note octave figure. Then creating a slightly larger motif with the clarinet. Oh you have no idea permutations it will go through... But then, right afterwards, the first subject returns. That clarinet motif again. Then back to the guitar and the Schumann oboe. Then, insistently, the clarinet motif a third time.

I don't know if any of you ever took grandchildren to see WALL-E. But there's a moment which I would imagine would give children nightmares in which WALL-E, a very small almost human machine, encounters an ultra-developed futuristic version of himself that is about 100x the size. Well, remember that clarinet motif, when you hear what comes next. Then, in the middle of all that ultra-serious, semi-Wagnerian heaviness comes a polka, and then an almost sappy, sentimental ballad. Listen to the oscilating eighth-notes, even when a counter-melody plays because that's crucial.

So let's now hear the very innocent end of that polka/ballad, and hear exactly how Bruckner turns that eighth note figure upside down. 

Now remember that weird from nowhere brass chorale at the beginning? We're finally beginning to see how this is taking shape. 

We obviously don't have time to go through all the motions of how Bruckner then takes us through a gigantic fugue, no doubt inspired by the fugue in the Hammerklavier Sonata, and then we'll skip the second appearance of that same polka. Let's just go straight to the end where that little clarinet toot theme is taken up by that entire brass chorale, which gets ever fuller as the final theme develops and incorporates more and more material from all throughout the symphony. It is a miracle of construction, and so difficult that it's the only time Bruckner ever truly nailed it.

Bruckner sprinkles fragments all throughout the symphony of his final chorale, and at the end, the already ecstatic chorale has twice the impact because they are all present together. Both the young Mahler and the young Sibelius heard Bruckner 5. Sibelius was particularly bowled over by it, and when these two composers did, the Symphony was officially ready to take on the entire universe again.

The distance between Beethoven's 9th and Bruckner's 5th is fifty years during which time, nobody really understood how to make a symphony on Beethoven 9's scale and make it more cohesive. Until anyone did, the symphony was in a complete bind. It could express grand thoughts, but it could not, as Beethoven did, express the whole world. For those fifty years, the symphony could never again be quite the same grand metaphysical statement it was for Beethoven. To trespass on the limits of infinity, it needed the help of other arts, more narrative and poetic arts, to make the universe vibrate. In that time, the Symphony went into a kind of hibernation. Not a complete hibernation; great symphonies were certainly written during these fifty years, but they were not quite as grand as Beethoven's 9th, or they were narrative symphonies like Berlioz's and Liszt's. The musical world's attention was mostly either on the piano music of Liszt, Chopin, and Schumann, or on the operas of Verdi and Wagner and Gounod, and if it was at all on symphonic music, it was on Liszt's Symphonic Poems. Bruckner's 5th was not even performed for nearly twenty years after its composition, but a year after Bruckner 5's composition came the ultimate next step in narrative music - the full premiere Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung. Music had grown so enormous that perhaps it could now tell a dramatic story better than drama itself. It was so exhaustive that in its wake, great composers were at a loss for what to do, and they began to return to the Symphony.  But in the second half, we'll talk about those dramatic symphonies which skirted the line between absolute music on the one hand, and music with a program on the other. We'll talk particularly about the musician who brought Wagner most of the way to where his musico-dramatic imagination could take flight, because in order to get there, he needed to complete the road that the greatest practitioner of pure drama ever in music set for him, Hector Berlioz.

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