Wednesday, November 15, 2017

History of the Symphony - Class 9 - The Symphony of Nature - Complete

We're in a difficult position. Inevitably in classes like this, the later history gets short shrift. When I was in school, my mother used to joke about how she never knew there was any American history after the Civil War. I don't apologize for giving Bruckner as much time as I have, because Bruckner still needs champions and never gets enough credit. But I allowed my love of Schubert and Brahms to give them more time than they needed. We have eleven classes rather than twelve, and of the absolute requirements, we still have Mahler, Sibelius, Ives, Nielsen, and Shostakovich to go, and that's not counting all manner of more contemporary symphonists for which I wish there was time so I could show you that they're not nearly as fearsome as you think. I'd like to have finished Mahler's Resurrection, but frankly, there are Mahler symphonies I think are much better. So we're going to leave it be to talk about three of those this week. 

But Mahler is something special in music history. What makes Mahler's music extraordinary is not necessarily the pure music of it - I don't think anybody will claim that Mahler has anything the sheer musical invention of Bach or Mozart. And I doubt he was any more expressive than Beethoven or Schumann. He wasn't even necessarily the philosopher through music that Wagner was. But think of Mahler in comparison to a number of these other composers:

When you listen to Bach, however divine you find the music, those of us who are perhaps from another religious tradition or from no religious tradition at all can't fail to notice the sheer religious dogma that's attached to all his vocal music - it's not the worst thing, it's probably a large part of what inspired him, but it's there, and you have to make a conscious effort to ignore it. When you listen to Mozart, you realize that a large part of Mozart's talent was that he found a way to negotiate his way around the fact that the tastes of his time prevented him from expressing emotions in his music that were too dark - so he found ways of expressing melancholy through joy. When you listen to Beethoven at his greatest when he reaches a kind of infinity of the imagination - perhaps in the late String Quartets or Piano Sonatas, you realize that even Beethoven couldn't afford the full instrumental means to let his imagination run quite as wild as he could, except in two pieces: the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis. Ditto Schumann, as great as his piano and vocal music was, he rarely figured out a way to get that infinite imagination to his orchestral music - and certainly not in the symphonies. And in Wagner? Well... with Wagner, you know what you're getting. Infinite musical imagination, tied to a philosophy that is very militant and a dramaturgy that is unremittingly ponderous. 

Mahler transcended all those problems. He lived at the time when what we now call classical music mattered the most to the most people, and until he died, he was perhaps the preeminent conductor of his generation - his two rivals were Arthur Nikisch, who created the modern Berlin Philharmonic, and Arturo Toscanini, who became the first mass celebrity conductor in his oldest age. Had Mahler lived another forty years, it's quite possible that he, not Toscanini, would have been the great celebrity conductor, and given his track record, he probably would have been much more open to new music and other genres of music (particularly popular music, which is so important in Mahler's music), and have been a much healthier influence on classical music who might have prevented it from becoming the museum and cultural backwater classical music is today. Not to mention, we'd have forty more years of his music.

Never mind the exact chronology of all this, but think of it in slightly mythic, archetypal terms. At the end of the Resurrection Symphony, Mahler passed through that dimensional doorway that Tchaikovsky's Pathetique built; and as we showed, Bruckner also did, so did Franck. But Mahler and Sibelius were half their age, and once you've passed through the doorway of resurrection, you are master of the kingdom of God, and you can show everything which is in that kingdom. 

And in this sense, Mahler is perhaps the freest composer who's ever lived. Everything in his music is a kind of stream of consciousness in which we seem to hear Mahler's thoughts. He gets distracted, he gets confused, and then he picks up his thoughts again, sometimes in a later movement, sometimes even in a later symphony. Sometimes much later. Let's take one example. Here's something that happens at the end of the first movement of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.  (Rattle/Birmingham) And now, here is the single most important phrase in Mahler Six, (Bernstein/Vienna) more on that next week. The major/minor modal shift, which is incredibly important in Mahler, Schumann, and all manner of composers going back another two-hundred fifty years. Now let's hear a quick moment Mahler 1. And now let's go straight to the beginning of Mahler 9, which we'll talk about in two weeks.  

So let's begin with that Star Trek theme again.  (MTT/San Francisco) First thing's first. That four note theme (sing it), it begins here, and permutes all the way to the end of the piece. An extremely Christian ending, and while we're pressed for time, in the minor, the motif itself is from Beethoven 4, in the major, the motif is from Parsifal. So let's hear the Star Trek theme still one more time. what the hell are those weird clarinets doing with what sounds like a military fanfare? Need I remind you of the last trumpets in the Resurrection Symphony?  (Bernstein/New York)

So why clarinets? I have no poetic answer to that, I can merely point you to an earlier version of the symphony, Mahler made three. (Hengelbrock/NDR)

There are a number of reasons that I'm one of the only people in the world who prefers this second of the three versions. But this is one of them, because the horns make the military feel of it much more explicit. I have no doubt that Mahler thought it was too explicit. He begins with the strings playing one note, in seven octaves. No one had ever used an effect like that before. You feel the chill of the morning midst. Now let's hear the next two phrases.  It becomes something like a melody, and most definitely, you hear that it's now a military barrack, accompanied with unmistakable birdcalls. And finally, let's go to one of the most ominous notes in music, where the seven octaves of violin midst are interrupted by ... what? A tuba?

It's worth remembering, Mahler came from a small town that nobody would ever remember were he not from there, Iglau, in what's now the Czech Republic but is really in an Austro-Hungarian no-man's land: German speakers, Hungarian speakers, Czech speakers, and Yiddish speakers all rubbing up against each other. Mahler was a mutt in the middle of this yet again, because he was a Jew who's family was trying to assimilate, so he spoke only German. He had no sense of his real identity, he only knew that he existed at the crossroads and tensions of a world so multifaceted that he could never find a place within it. We hear military drills, we hear nature - both organic and inorganic, and we hear... Beethoven. (Klemperer/Philharmonia)

That's the opening of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. Now in case Beethoven's influence isn't clear enough, let's first hear the second theme from the Fourth's opening movement.  (Harnoncourt/COE) And now, the first theme of Mahler 1.

And to add a new level of complexity, here's a song that Mahler wrote shortly before he wrote the first symphony. 

Listen to the lyrics, it could be sung by Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

I walked across the fields this morning;dew still hung on every blade of grass.The merry finch spoke to me:"Hey! Isn't it? Good morning! Isn't it?You! Isn't it becoming a fine world?Chirp! Chirp! Fair and sharp!How the world delights me!"
Mahler said of his music that whoever listened to it intelligently would hear his life story. Revealing the deepest parts of yourself in art is not necessarily a great idea - all you have to do is read any number of personal essays in magazines these days to see that the insights you get are not necessarily that great. What makes it great is the self-awareness and imagination to keep it entertaining.

Richard Strauss would dramatize ideas in music, and the results, while mindboggling, has a definite way of turning philosophical concepts into something kitschy. The ideas in Mahler come from everywhere, the deepest philosophy is most certainly there in Mahler, but he would just as soon take it from the cheapest popular music. Music in Mahler is the truest liberal democracy that any musician has yet come up with. For many highbrow composers, perhaps most, music is an aristocratic dictatorship in which everything is highbrow. In most popular music, it's populist democracy, and while a lot of it is extremely impressive, let's face it, 99% of creative musicians working in other genres don't . Don't think I'm being any less condescending to classical music - 95% of composers don't either, and the average classical instrumentalist makes most jazz or rock musicians seem like Einstein.

But Mahler was one composer, ever, who almost always took the highest musical genre to its highest aspirations, and he did it because he realized that in order to be a highbrow, you need to stand on the shoulders of lowbrow art. We are emphatically not here to serve music, music is here to serve us. Other human beings, not ideas, must be the priority of our lives, because whenever ideas become more important than human beings, humans become trivial enough to be sacrificed to an idea.

So with that in mind, let's hear some of the third movement. It starts with a funeral march. But listen to the theme. And listen to how it's being passed around the orchestra. Is this a funeral march? Or is it a children's round? (Bernstein/Vienna)

What I'm about to bring up may be particularly difficult for some people, so I apologize in advance because I don't know your life stories. But in order to talk about the particular tragedies of Mahler's life, we have to talk about child mortality, and be warned, this will come up each of the next two weeks as well. Mahler had eleven brothers and sisters, but five died in infancy, another three died in childhood, and still another committed suicide. This is funeral music to a child's folk song, Bruder Martin - the German version of Frere Jacques, sung as children would, in a round.

Let's add to this that his father was abusive, and his mother was correspondingly anxious and depressed. Mahler's father, as so many Jews of the 19th century did, ran the town tavern, and the family lived upstairs. Listen to just a bit of the second movement and stomp your foot on every downbeat.  (Dudamel/LA) This is clearly tavern music. So let's now hear a song Mahler wrote when he was twenty. Never mind the words, just wait for those upward swoops.

These are yodels! German gentiles, or goyim, are getting drunk in the Jewish tavern. So now, go back to the second or third subject of the third movement.  So what's happening here? Perhaps two Jewish melodies are going on. Upstairs, perhaps one of the children has died and the mother has to keep the children singing in order to keep everybody from breaking down. Downstairs, other people, other Jews, are happy in a way that they can't possibly know how brutal they're being. While the tavern-keeper is burying yet another child, Tevye and Lazar Wolf are dancing downstairs. One table of drunk Jews sings one melody, then another table of Jewish shikkers sings a different melody.

So now let's go to the final of Mahler's Wayfarer Songs, from which the song from the first movement comes too. Let's hear about two minutes of that and then compare it to the next passage.
I went out into the quiet night well across the dark heath. To me no one bade farewell. Farewell! My companions are love and sorrow! On the road there stands a linden tree, and there for the first time I found rest in sleep! Under the linden treethat snowed its blossoms onto me - I did not know how life went on, and all was well again!
And now the passage in the First Symphony.  

No matter what brutalities happen, perhaps the greatest brutality of all is that life goes on. The cycle of life and nature continue, and none of us exists outside of it. We find nature comforting because we're part of it, and the same nature that comforts us is all too happy to kill every one of us.

So speaking of nature, we now move to my very favorite symphony, Mahler Third. The first movement of Mahler 3 is, maybe, the single most ambitious piece of orchestral music ever conceived even to this day. We obviously don't have the time to listen to the whole thing, but the idea behind it is literally what Mahler calls 'Summer Marches In.' It's so extreme, so over the top, so unbelievably dramatic, that it's impossible to take seriously. It's both extreme in its seriousness and it's humor. It's so over the top that you have no idea whether or not to take any of this seriously. But you hear every possible nature effect, the stillness of winter - rendered earlier in the movement as a funeral march, you hear the breezes and dew of spring and its gentle rain, perhaps the blooming of flowers, and of course, you hear the grand marches of summer, and once again you hear two marches intersecting with each other, perhaps like two weather systems, which results, as in life with a thunderstorm.  (Inbal/Frankfurt) We're going to hear an unbroken seven minute sequence that sounds so serious that it's impossible to take seriously.

So now we've heard the idea of two marches in two tempos going against each other in Tchaikovsky and twice in Mahler. I could try to find recordings that make that completely clear but I'm not going to spend another hour finding them. The logical conclusion of this development is Charles Ives. I so wish we had more time for Ives, because the music really is as great as anything ever written, and a generation like your most intelligent grandchildren that has assimilated the furthest reaches of world music on youtube and i-Tunes might finally be ready for it. So let's just hear the final two or so minutes of his Second Symphony - in which we hear Camptown Races, Long, Long Ago, Turkey in the Straw, America the Beautiful, and Columbia,the Gem of the Ocean. Is this serious, comic, or both? (Hint: like all the best things in life, it's both).

But back to Mahler 3, what about this song? Is this comedy or tragedy? Look at its lyrics?
The cuckoo has fallen to its death
On a green willow,
[The cuckoo is dead! The cuckoo is dead!]
Who should then the summer long
Help us pass the time?
Oh, that should be Mrs. Nightingale!
She sits on a green branch!
[The small, fine nightingale,
The lovely, sweet nightingale!]
She sings and springs, is always joyous,
When other birds are silent!
[We await Mrs. Nightingale,
Who lives in a green glen,
And when the cuckoo call is at its end,
Then does she begin to sing!]
Mahler even manages to make a song about cuckoos and nightingales depressing. But now, listen to the orchestral version of the same material.  (Kubelik/Bavarian Radio)

But this being a Mahler symphony, he takes the material so much further than he ever could in a song.  And then comes one of those subtle, almost imperceptible Brahmsian transitions to a middle section with a melody of a completely other character. Before you realize it, the music has completely changed into something completely different.

So then there's this incredibly odd posthorn solo - a posthorn sounds like a trumpet, but in fact it's to a valveless horn what a piccolo is to a flute. An extreme treble instrument. It's more often though played by flugelhorn, and some trumpeters use a cornet, sometimes even just, heaven forbid, a regular trumpet. The solo is supposedly based on a particular German poem, but more importantly, I think, is the little-remembered fact that the instrument was called a posthorn because it was played by postmen to signal the fact that they've arrived in town and the mail was here. So you have to picture Mahler in the woods, away from his family, hearing all the sounds of nature, and then hearing that the mail's arrived. But what was that there at the end? Possibly an organgrinder or an accordian? And what's the organgrinder playing? Some variation on Ach, Du Lieber Augustin?

Now this was a very important melody for Mahler. In 1910 he had a session with Siegmund Freud, and he remembered a scene from his childhood in which his parents had a particularly horrible fight, followed by Mahler's running out of the house in horror, to hear a barrel organ playing Ach, Du Lieber Augustin. The juxtaposition, as always happens in Mahler, of high tragedy and low comedy. Perhaps the organgrinder is there to get tips because he knows that there will be lots of people grouped around the postman trying to get their mail. Later in the same movement, there's an infantry bugle call, and it's also worth remembering that Mahler grew up near a military base.

So let's go to the piece de resistance of this movement, when Mahler brings back the storm of the first movement. 

This is a symphonic level of thinking past what anybody could ever imagine before Mahler, including Beethoven.

The last movement is one of the great glories of the repertoire, so much so that we're going to talk about it in the last class. Instead, let's talk about Mahler's still underrated 7th Symphony, which recalls his early symphonies in many respects.

The same military fanfares, the same birds, the same tremelos in the strings that make you feel the frost in the air. If anything, the nature effects are more hallucinatory than ever. It's almost as though Mahler 7 is a replay of Mahler 1 or 3 that takes place at night. Listen to the beginning of the second movement, and remember all that stuff I told you about the major/minor shift that happens in the 2nd and 6th symphonies. See how it happens here. Listen to how the horn, perhaps that same Alpine Horn from Brahms 1, plays a simple line which echoes in the rural mountains. You begin to hear birds, crickets, every manner of plantlife. Nature may appear still and inviting, but just beneath the surface, nature is a tornado of activity. (Abbado/Lucerne) If any of you have ever seen David Lynch's movie, Blue Velvet, it's like that moment when Lynch zooms the camera down from idyllic middle America lawn to a war between dueling ant colonies. So let's hear when the main theme comes back at the end of the movement to hear just how far he takes this beviary into the realm of literal graphic depiction.

This piece sometimes has the title: Song of the Night. The movement whose opening we just heard had the title 'Nachtmusik I.'

We'll just listen to a smattering of the third movement, the scherzo, which makes the title 'Song of the Night' work even better than the second movement. It's a spooky waltz for ghosts that owes as much to Liszt's devil music and the Symphonie Fantastique as it does to Johann Strauss.

The fourth movement is entitled Andante Amoroso. The title doesn't leave much to the imagination, but compared to certain other orchestral composers, Strauss, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Mahler was a bit of a prude. There isn't much, shall we say, 'pornophony' in this piece. Instead, it's a very chaste romance, complete with a mandolin serenade. We hear the sinisterness of the night, but also the comfort of being able to spend it with someone. 

Now comes what many people think is the worst movement in Mahler. I think it's one of the best. It changes character so many times that hardly anybody sees a through-line in it. But that, in some ways, is the point. Everything Mahler is at his best, where the sublime stands proudly next to the trashy, is present in this movement. I'm just going to give you one very specific example, when it looks like we're going to get a Wagner chorale as a conclusion to the symphony, but then comes something that sounds strangely like an Offenbach Can-Can, which then disintegrates into a beautiful folk dance, then disintegrates again into something that sounds almost like the piece will end tragically, only to sound like it will be heroic again, only to disappear into something quiet. 

This movement is brilliant precisely because it's confusing. It never reveals its true character to us because it has none, it always keeps us guessing right up until the final triumph which, if that second to last chord is any indication, isn't quite a triumph. 


So I wanted to get through at least three of my favorite Mahler symphonies today before we start talking about the Symphonies of the North.

I really think it's important to talk a bit about Carl Nielsen, regarded just about universally as the greatest Danish composer. I particularly wished there was time last week to talk about his Third Symphony, which fits well with the theme of mystical transcendence we talked about last time - the Sinfonia Espansiva. Nobody really knows what he means by Espansiva, but it's been suggested that he simply means an expansion of the mind. So we'll talk about two very simple parts. One is the opening, which I think should make you think immediately of the Eroica for reasons that are fairly obvious.

Beethoven's Eroica begins with two staccato chords. Nielsen's Espansiva begins with twenty-six staccato notes, no instrument plays anything but a concert A. Of all the great successors to Beethoven, Nielsen is the closest to Beethoven in spirit. He has that exact same heroic obsessiveness, that never lets any material go until he has triumphed against it in combat, hear this and you'll immediately think of the fifth. He even has the same way of Beethovenian crescendos through a chromatic kaleidoscope. Hear this passage and you'll immediately think of Beethoven 7's ending.

But the ability to summon the spirit of another great artist alone doesn't make a great artist. Nielsen has a musical space all his own. An ability to tone down the intensity into pure lyricism in a way that  Beethoven never quite knew how to create. So here it is, one of the most beautiful, stunning, and unexpected passages in music. 

Nielsen will get at least second billing next week. In the meantime, we have to go to nature's composer, Sibelius. The final five symphonies by Sibelius, and he wrote seven, are just about perfect in every note. But more importantly, Sibelius is the composer of nature.

In 1904, Sibelius, the most famous Finn then and now, was given a pension and estate by the Finnish government so he could create in peace for the rest of his life. The result was both greater and worse than anyone had hoped. Sibelius became a completely different composer from the one who wrote Finlandia and the Second Symphony. Having an excuse to withdraw from the world to a country estate, his music was no longer fiercely nationalistic. It became impressionistic, utterly nature connected, I like to call it 'Debussy with bad weather.'

How so? Well, listen to how Sibelius basically creates what sounds, at least to me, like a rainstorm at the beginning of his Third Symphony. But like the rainstorm at the end of Schumann's Spring Symphony, he's entirely happy to be standing in the middle it.  (Salonen/Swedish Radio)

There's an old story that Mahler and Sibelius met in 1907, in both importance and imagination, the Symphony climaxes with them. And, of course, they alleged to have discussed what it means to create a symphony, and their answers are diametrically opposed. Sibelius said: " I admire the symphony's style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives," whereas Mahler said: "The symphony is like the world; it must embrace everything."

In his own way, Sibelius embraced everything too, but Sibelius's world was completely different. To properly appreciate Sibelius, you cannot take out any bleeding chunks. One moment of every movement leads so organically into the next that you can't properly appreciate any of them without the context. A musical acquaintance of mine came up with a term for this which I like very much 'Transitional Development.' What I think Ken meant was that every moment leads into the next with absolute directness. Music is the one place where time does not exist as we think it does.

Nothing else in the world makes us aware of the universe's largeness to the extent of music because it clearly exists in a dimension we can't yet understand in which we can hear time itself being bent. The way this is done is that in every piece of music, there are at least three types of rhythm. 

Don't worry if you don't feel like you understand the explanation that follows, because you feel it every time you listen to music. 

I'll very quickly term these three types of rhythm: phonic rhythm, metric rhythm, and harmonic rhythm. The phonic rhythm is the most atomic level of music - every little detail of the music, every new note or dynamic or tone color by every instrument is a new rhythm. Think of these as micro rhythms. Then there's the level of rhythm as we hear it: metric rhythm, which is, of course, the beat we hear. This is the rhythm around which the notes are all organized. And then, shaping the metric rhythm is, at least in Western music, the whole purpose of it all - rhythm on the macro level, the Harmonic Rhythm. This is the process by which music goes through a series of chords, modes, and keys and tells the fundamental building blocks of its story and message. Harmonic rhythm is the macro level of music - spans of time large enough that we don't even perceive the change as rhythm, but rhythm it most certainly is.

And it's in the interplay between these three rhythmic forces that music often seems to bend time or shift into another dimension. Every shift in the harmonic rhythm, whether consciously or unconsciously, causes your ear to anticipate the next shift. But if a composer is good, he does not fulfill your ear's expectations, and he constantly surprises you. If a composer is great, he completely transcends and hurtles you into dimensions completely beyond what your imaginations thought capable. A great composition makes you aware on at least three different levels, not only to contemplate the orderly rhythm of your present moment, but to unconsciously revaluate everything that happened already , and contemplate all the musical possibilities of what will happen next. 

When we hear what comes next, I want you to picture yourself on Sibelius's Finnish country estate with lots of evergreen pines and bird calls and small critters. All the sounds of nature are here: stillness, wind, rain, thunder, lightening, animals, and sunshine. Everything is vivid and onomatopoetic. Starts with a still sunshine, and then a storm stretches over the horizon. From second to second, I want you to picture in your minds the how the clouds affect the light, and the way light shimmers against the trees, the way the rain ebbs and flows and the sun appears and disappears, the way the wind gathers from a gentle breeze to gale storm wind along with the thunder and lightning. Whether in Mahler or Sibelius, nature is, in the symphony as everywhere else, the most direct path to the sublime. In the beginning was nature, and all of us exist within nature. In Art, nature is one of the best ways we have of showing us our small place within the cosmos. Think of the snake in the Garden of Eden, think of Grendel in Beowulf, think of the helplessness of the Pequod against Moby Dick, the heat in The Stranger. Think of the storms in King Lear, Wuthering Heights, Bleak House. Think of all those amazing paintings of landscapes from Turner, Van Gogh, Monet, Munch.

So for twelve minutes, I'm going to do something rare and let Sibelius do the talking. (Ormandy/Philadelphia)

If we have time now, I'm going to play you quite a bit of the last movement, which is the first movement's mirror image. If not, I hope we'll play it in the final class. Sibelius 5's first movement gets faster and faster, the finale gets slower and slower. It begins with something almost exactly like the rainstorm that began the first movement, but it is, perhaps inevitably, a fugal, contrapuntal rainstorm.  (Berglund/COE) 

But in the middle of the rainstorm, we get what sounds clearly, to me at least, like the sun coming out and the rays bouncing off against the clouds and trees. And alongside the sudden light we get a three-note motif which is known as the Swan Hymn, three notes, which together, feel as though they make a melody as complete as the melody in the Allegretto of Beethoven 7. I'll let the explanation for it come from Sibelius.   (Ashkenazy/Philharmonia)
"One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon... That this should have happened to me, who have so long been the outsider... The swans are always in my thoughts and give splendor to [my] life. [It's] strange to learn that nothing in the whole world affects me - nothing in art, literature, or music - in the same way as do these swans and cranes and wild geese. Their voices and being"
We'll skip ahead three minutes to have the final appearance of the Swan Hymn. The first movement gets its excitement from speeding up, the last movement gets just as much excitement from slowing down. This symphony is a perfect form - the first movement is slow and gets faster, the second movement is a nice little interlude, and the final movement is a fast movement that slows down. 

There was a critic I mentioend earlier, Ted Libbey, who wrote an NPR guide to classical music which my parents bought when I was ten or eleven, and it became like a bible to me, sadly I don't know where they put it. The Swan Hymn is turned to minor, as though they are suddenly absent, and we do not know if they'll ever return. But return they certainly do. Ted Libbey described the last moments as being like shouts of 'Amen.' You'll hear exactly what that means in a minute.  (Davis/Boston)

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