Tuesday, October 31, 2017

History of the Symphony - Class 7 - Pathetic Symphonies - Beginning

We're going to start this class with the anti-Beethoven's 5th, and end it with the anti-Beethoven's 9th.

But first, a symphony with a very original ending.  (Monteux/London)

That's the end of Dvorak's 7th Symphony, which many people - not me, feel is better than even his New World Symphony. It's unquestionably magnificent though, even if, for me at least, it's a little too energetic and dance-like to have to the full weight of tragedy.

Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, only five of which are ever truly played in the concert hall, and only three of which are masterpieces. Dvorak was, by any standard, one of the very greatest composer,s and he never gets enough credit, but his greatest music, and his most 'natural' music, is his chamber music. Just to give an example of how inestimably beautiful his chamber music is, let's just the beginning of the third movement of his Dumky Trio, which begins with a few bars of music that are as perfect as the beginning of The Magic Flute or Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. I so wish we had time to listen to the whole thing because it's just so beautiful.

Dvorak was the true successor to Schubert, a genius whose musical talent was so natural that having anything as complicated as an orchestra in front of him would only get in the way. His last three symphonies are masterpieces, but it took him six other tries to get there. The Fifth and Sixth are wonderful, but the Fifth has some pretty severe flaws, and the Sixth? Well, let's just compare it to a certain other piece of music written three years before by Brahms, Dvorak's closest musical friend.

First, let's play the beginning of the uncharacteristically festive finale to Brahms's Second Symphony.  (Solti/Chicago) And now the beginning to the finale of Dvorak 6.  (Davis/London)

And now, let's go to the end of both of them. First, this time, Dvorak (Davis/London). Now the ending to the Brahms (Solti/Chicago).

Originality works in the exact opposite way we generally think it does. Unless you've imbibed and assimilated everything which came before you, you have no idea if you're being original or not. It's much better that a piece of music sound derivative than that it sounds insipid. Dvorak puts a new spin on old material, which, in many ways, was exactly what both Dvorak and Brahms did throughout their careers. In order to write something completely original like the ending of the 7th, he first needed to put new spins on old endings. And let's face it, Brahms's finale wasn't all that much more original than Dvorak's. Consider consider a piece you all probably know very well that Brahms may have gotten that last little bit of material for his finale. 


So now, we begin with the Third Symphony. The best of the four, and the least popular because it's the least symphonic. It's kind of a Beethoven Symphony in reverse. The most triumphant movement is in the front, the minor key struggle movement is in the back. Beethoven Symphonies get gradually more optimistic, this symphony gets gradually more pessimistic.

Let's hear that opening Eroica-like fanfare again. Free but happy.  (Walter/Columbia) But let's listen to how he transitions, over and over again, almost imperceptibly, to completely different sections, different moods, different material. By this point, Brahms is fifty, a completely mature master, and you can no longer tell where one section begins and another section ends.   It's completely seemless.  (Furtwangler/Berlin) Schoenberg, who loved Brahms's music as dearly as any composer ever has another, and whose music is very similar to Brahms in many ways, said that Brahms was in fact a progressive, and he referred to this process where Brahms is constantly and imperceptibly transitioning his musical material, called this process 'Developing Variation.'

So now, you've heard both a gentle waltz, and the turbulent waltz juxtaposed with each other, yet done in seamless transition. Now hear how he combines the two. 

So now, let's hear what happens when Brahms relaxes the tension in a way Beethoven never would in a mystical section that perhaps wouldn't be completely out of place in Bruckner. 

And now the ultimate heroic statement of the Eroica-like theme, plus the waltz in a completely new, heroic character!

But what happens then? He, once again, ratchets down the tension completely. It's the exact opposite of what Beethoven would do. 

A quiet ending to an heroic movement! Beethoven's untamed hair would have stood straight up.

The second movement, the least thought about of the four, is extraordinary in all kinds of ways. We're going to skip the beautiful church chorale that starts it. Let's go straight to the second theme in the middle of this incredibly strange movement.  And to lull us still further, Brahms gives us the most unbelievably pieceful but strange, harmonically spare, almost stagnant, interpolation of the first two notes. As though to almost deliberately put us to sleep. This sounds like it could be from Morton Feldman or even Webern. And now, let's leapfrog into the inferno of the final movement and hear this incredibly peaceful theme transformed into something that sounds like war itself.  (Beecham/NBC) Not to mention, it's the same four note motif as... guess who?... Beethoven's Fifth!

Everybody's heard the third movement, even if you think you don't. It's a beautiful melody, it's also perhaps the weakest movement because compared to the rest, it doesn't have quite as much formal connection to the rest of the work. It's like a palate cleanser. Let's hear that famous and gorgeous theme.  But now, let's go back to those amazing transitions of Brahms. Let's hear how he transitions back to a restatement of that theme.  Do you hear the Beethoven 5 in there? It's there!

Now let's hear the anxious second subject of the third movement. 

What is that possibly setting up? (Walter/Columbia)

So now, let's finally get to the last movement. Which in a Beethoven symphony would be the opening.   Almost immediately, you'll hear that motif from the second movement, in a completely different cast.

We'll skip more Beethoven 5 declarations, and I think you've already gotten the turbulence of this movement, and go straight to that magnificent, peaceful, anti-Beethoven end. 

Only someone who completely idolized Beethoven could have written something in such opposition to Beethoven's model. This is, in so many ways, the anti-Beethoven's 5th. Beethoven wanted victory, Brahms wanted peace. By opposing Beethoven's revolutionary edge, he preserved everything which Beethoven fought for. He may have lacked Beethoven's will to greatness, but he had his own kind of blood and iron. He had a caution that insisted on getting everything exactly right, and the same iron will Beethoven had, which allowed him to work through his caution. He did not recapture the spirit of Beethoven's revolutionary zeal, and in 1883, I doubt anyone could. Beethoven showed the way out of the struggle. Brahms showed the way to preserve a world without struggle. He showed how we can all achieve something great through weaving an endless array of ideas into a diverse and inclusive whole that incorporates everything at all times.

But not every temperament is Brahms, and clearly not everybody is satisfied with merely endless  ingenuity and integration. And don't think Brahms didn't know that. Next week, we'll start with his Fourth Symphony, and we'll go through a number of other symphonies so we can end with the Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, the anti-Beethoven's Ninth.

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