Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The History of the Symphony - Class 10 - The Symphony of Destruction - 90-95%

All things must come to an end. We're now in the home stretch of this class, and we've stepped through all kinds of doorways, we've experienced all kinds of joys, we've experienced pathos, we've death and resurrection, and post-resurrection we flew around in pieces of music that seem to express the whole kingdom of nature. But in a time and place where every form of life is so thriving and vital, it's inevitable that the something so lively will indulge in self-destructive behaviors, and if you behave in ways that court self-destruction, eventually the behaviors will pull you down.

Let's just listen for a minute to Carl Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony (Barbirolli/Halle). String players especially dread Carl Nielsen, his music is full of these whirling lightning fast counterpoint. Today, musicians string players play that passage almost too well and precisely. You have to hear the struggle, it has to sound like a rocket, a smear of notes that's always moving so you can never hear exactly which note is placed when. This symphony is called the 'Inextinguishable', and Nielsen wrote of it in May 1914:
I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live ... just life and motion, though varied – very varied – yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this; that will be enough. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.
August 1914, the famous month that ended the long European piece, was just a summer away. And the great irony of Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony is that 18 million lives were being extinguished as he wrote it, with another 23 million wounded. The elemental will to live itself was being put to the test. It's hard to believe that Nielsen didn't realize it. Near the end of the symphony we encounter a battle between the two timpani players. (Rattle/Royal Danish National)

Last week I said that of all Beethoven's successors, Nielsen is probably the one who channel's Beethoven's spirit most directly. He's a heroic, volcanic, optimist, a composer of towering humanity who uses the symphony to give hope and solace. The world needs to hear Carl Nielsen much more than they ever get to. Here is the climax of the whole piece. (Barbirolli/Halle)  I don't need to say anything more about it than I already have, you'll get the point.

That was Nielsen's 4th Symphony, written during World War I. When Nielsen began it, he probably didn't mean it to be a statement of life in the face of death, but that's what it absolutely became. So now, let's listen to the end of Elgar's 1st Symphony, because while Nielsen found a way to adjust to the new world, Elgar could not.

Believe it or not, if you asked most music lovers whom the greatest composer was in exactly 1910, they wouldn't say Mahler or Debussy or Sibelius or even Puccini. Some of them would say Richard Strauss, but most would, believe it or not, say Edward Elgar.

The pressure on Elgar to write a symphony was more massive than any composer in history has ever experienced, including Brahms, and Elgar waited until he was fifty-one to issue his first. The difference in age between Elgar and Nielsen is eight years, but this is music of a completely different generation. Elgar wanted to write a symphony about General Gordon, who was considered the great British military hero of the imperial era and led a siege against a native uprising that lasted for an entire year. He abandoned this idea, but I wanted to tell you this to give you a sense of just how out of step Elgar was with how the world would change in just a few years. Elgar wrote to a friend:
There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.
We're not going to have time to listen to any of the Second Symphony, which is probably the greater piece. Elgar only wrote two symphonies, and both are genuinely great pieces even if they're both twelve minutes too long. But I do want to give you a sense of the enormity of the event that Elgar's First was and how important it was for Elgar to rise to the challenge. He begins the symphony with what sounds like a hymn, or a prayer - twice through, first very quietly, and then at full voice like a group of Episcopals in Church (Solti/London Philharmonic) with a march-like tread that clearly sounds a bit military - or at least it does when played at Elgar's metronome marking... The prayer basically disappears for most of the symphony - it comes back at the end of the first movement and at the end of the piece in, what sounds very much like some kind of battle, maybe even a sea battle...  (Solti/London)

Elgar was a great melodist and a great orchestrator, he was not at all a natural symphonist. Both of his symphonies have all sorts of passages which really have no reason for being there except as padding to make a work that was 'Important' with a capital I. But Elgar was so gifted at what he was good at that it's amazing how good both of his symphonies are in spite of how bad they are in other parts. . After World War I, Elgar was a relic who couldn't come to terms with the modern world, and while he lived until the mid-Thirties, he barely wrote any music for the last fifteen years of his life.

Nielsen, on the other hand, was a great symphonist, and maybe even greater than the Inextinguishable, his Fourth, is his Fifth Symphony, which has no title. We're going to listen to the first few minutes, (Bernstein/New York) because I want you to hear how gradually something incredibly pastoral becomes something incredibly military.

So now we fast forward a few minutes, and the music becomes a prayer - a hymn, and as it grows in intensity, Nielsen does something truly shocking. Against his hymn, he has the snare drum play a march figure in a completely different tempo, and then he gives the snare drum player the instruction to improvise "as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra." (Horenstein/Philharmonia) It's a prayer and a military march - like a prayer to spare those in battle whom we love.

It took Nielsen the coming of the war to realize that a new era was upon us, but in the case of the two great symphonic masters, they seemed in their work to intuit something was coming. Last week we played the opening minute of Sibelius's Third Symphony, which I don't think gets enough credit, but Sibelius 3rd is both the first symphony by the fully mature Sibelius and an uncharacteristically cheerful work by him. Here's the last minute and a half.  (Davis/Boston)

Even Sibelius's cheerfulness is stormy. So how dark will Sibelius sound when he isn't being cheerful? (Maazel/Vienna). There is plenty of emotional turbulence and storminess in other composers, but has there ever been any other symphony in the history of music which had the nerve to be as dark as Sibelius's 4th? This was premiered in 1911, the same year that Elgar's Second Symphony premiered, and here's what the beginning of Elgar's Second Symphony sounds like.  (Solti/London)

This is not to say that Sibelius intuited in any way saw that war was imminent, but it is to say that something in Sibelius seemed to feel that the world was changing in some very fundamental way. Sibelius had written dark symphonies before, but they're a very different kind of dark. Listen to how Sibelius builds something that sounds like a storm in his first symphony, which, even if it's clearly the work of a genius, is so obviously influenced by Tchaikovsky. (Vanska/Lahti I think...)

It's like the young Sibelius needs the Russian-style melodies as a way of disguising what he's really doing. But listen to what Sibelius does a couple minutes into the Fourth Symphony to create what sounds, at least to me, like a winter storm. He starts with forty seconds of just the violin sections playing a semi-non-sensical series of notes against each other, eventually joined by tremolos in the rest of the strings.  (Maazel/Vienna)

Sibelius 4 is completely unique, even to Sibelius. There is not a single moment when the entire orchestra plays together. Unlike Mahler, where nearly every moment is a shareable excerpt, Sibelius is almost impossible to show in isolated excerpst, because what's fascinating in Sibelius is the transitions, you have to hear every moment in the context of every other. Even Sibelius 4 has its lighter moments, but what I can do to show you how this symphony is so unique is two excerpts that show this incredibly spare, harmonically strange piece of music. It sounds like Schoenberg but it's nowhere near as colorful or flashy or romantic as Schoenberg often is. It's literally just a pure grayness, like a musical Rothko or that old conception of Schoenberg as 'Brahms with wrong notes.'  It's a depiction, as best we can tell, of the experience of what it is not just to be in Sibelius's forest, but to be the forest itself. And just to hammer the point home, here is the incredibly abrupt ending. 


Just two more excerpts of Bruckner here. Bruckner, in his ninth symphony, dedicated to God. The 1890's, his unshakeable faith in God is now shaken, he is in despair, thinking his work worthless, and he continually revises his symphonies and does not have time to finish the finale of his 9th. His life, of unbroken service to God through music, is not necessarily enough to earn him his place in heaven. Even Bruckner intuits this crisis of faith.  (Jochum/Dresden) And he imagines something that, to me at least, seems like a dance of the demons.  We'll get to the slow movement, the last he completed, in the last class, when Bruckner makes peace with God and the world.

And so we now come to Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which Alban Berg called 'The only sixth, including the Pastoral.' It's sometimes called the 'Tragic' symphony, and, perhaps just this once, Tragic is exactly the right word.

I've been indulging in telling you extra-musical associations and programs all through this class, but it's important to say, over and over again, that the composer rarely specified these images I'm feeding you. There are exceptions and I'm tried to point them out. But in this case, an element of the program comes from Leonard Bernstein, who thought that the Vienna Philharmonic was not playing the beginning with the requisite intensity. So he told them that the beginning of the first movement was Nazis marching into your city, and the result was this. Listen to that last part again. (Tennstedt/London) When that effect is properly played, doesn't it sound like an explosion with the debris falling to the ground?

I had an online friend whom I used to talk about music with all the time. I had no idea that he was dying of cancer the entire time we talked to each other, and I'd like to think that our obsessive talking about music brought him a little bit of solace in his final months, but he passed away not long before this class began, and I only found out about his dying as I listened to Haydn's Funeral Symphony while preparing for the first class. He posited that this symphony is a kind of dystopian work about militarism. There is just so much in here that sounds that way that it's almost impossible to ignore. Was Mahler intuiting the World Wars? Certainly not directly, how could he? But I think it's impossible to live in the extreme military and imperial environment of the early 20th century, when there seemed to be military parades and demonstrations all the time without realizing that there was something incredibly excessive about it that could easily go to people's heads.

Mahler being Mahler, there is always an infinite variety to express. Remember, this is the composer who said that the Symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything. So against all this militarism, there's low comedy that sounds like it belongs in Vaudeville (Bernstein/Vienna). and in this symphony, there is an outright duality between war and peace in an incredibly rural environment that can just as easily be a battlefield. (Tennstedt/London) The symphony is in A-minor, the exact same key as Sibelius 4 - A-minor is the key that has no sharps or flats - pure negative feelings.  But these passages take place in E-flat Major, the exact most distant key from A-minor.

So why, ultimately, is this tragic music rather than pathetic as Tchaikovsky Six or Brahms Four are? The reason is because victory always seems like the likely outcome, but Mahler can never quite get there. Here's the famous second theme, the Alma theme, in which Mahler said he represented his wife in music.  (Bernstein/Vienna) War vs. Love. Perhaps love is what enables the hero of this symphony to keep fighting. And it's on this note of love that Mahler ends the movement.  

We're not going to get into the controversy of which movement comes next. But Mahler's Sixth Symphony is one of only a handful of symphonies by Mahler in the traditional four movement form, and half the world's Mahler experts think that slow movement comes next, and half of them think the scherzo comes next. I personally think the Scherzo works better second, but the greatest performance I've ever heard of it placed the slow movement second.

In spite of the fact that the Scherzo is fantastic, we're going to skip it and just talk for a moment about the slow movement. The slow movement is supposed to be the exact opposite of the opening. It takes place in E-flat major, the exact most distant key, and it is almost utterly peaceful, almost too peaceful. Let's just listen to a moment or two from the central section, when it pivots to two other oppositional keys to A-minor. First it goes to C-major, which is what we call the relative major to A-minor - meaning that it has the exact same number of sharps and flats, and in this case, none. It then goes to A-Major, which is, of course, the root of A-minor. This may not mean anything to you but what this harmonic drama does to the listener subconsciously is to disarm you, it makes you think that everything will turn out alright and you'll be spared the worst. (Bernstein/Vienna) But then it sours, as though even in your most peaceful moments, when you're watching your children play, you know that neither you nor they can be spared. Mahler wrote this tragic work during the happiest period of his life, perhaps he was so traumatized by the first forty-five years that he couldn't help but know that the trauma wouldn't let up, or there was an element of self-destruction in it as great artists tend to have.

And so we come to the last movement, which sounds, to my ears and a number of others, like an uncanny prediction of what was less than ten years away. Along with the first movements of the the ninth, it is the most complex and ambitious and deep piece of music Mahler ever wrote - though I'd argue the opening of the Third is on that level as well even if nobody else would.

Listen to the beginning and tell me you can't hear the rain, the mud, the explosions, the chaos, the terror of Somme or Verdun or the Spring Campaign or the Hundred Days Offensive as you prepare for battle.

So now that we're five minutes in, you hear the trudging marches of the two sides toward each other, and the chaos of a military charge. If properly played, it's uncanny and unmistakable.  (Rattle/London)

We then come to what's called the Three Blows of Fate. Many people connect this to the three great tragedies which overcame Mahler after he wrote this piece. First, his resignation as director of the Vienna Opera. Many experts who were in Vienna during Mahler's ten years as director said that it was not just the Golden Age of the Vienna Opera, but of Opera itself, that no conductor ever got more transcendent performances than Mahler did. (Fischer/Verbier) What's more important than the actual blows of fate is the change of harmony in each. Two of the three blows sound like they're going to resolve in the major key, but they misdirect, they signify a change back to minor. Again, it's tragic, the hero can't start low, he has to fall. Supposedly from the second blow came the death of Mahler's daughter. And then came the diagnosis of the heart condition that would kill him before he turned fifty-one. As with all these concepts, it's a little too mystical to be true, and yet there's an element at least of symbolic truth to them. Don't take it seriously, but because Mahler was superstitious and saw these blows of fate as predictors of his own life, it's important to remember his own superstitions.

And that's why I'm don't want to play the other hammer blows. The music is too powerful for casual listening, so instead, I'm going to tell the story of how I came to believe there's something a little weird about the effect this symphony has.

The greatest performance I ever heard of it was last year, the night before Yom Kippur, I was in New York, at Carnegie Hall. Simon Rattle, probably my pick for the greatest active conductor, was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. The first two movements, nothing special. The scherzo was extraordinary, tempo changes seemingly in every bar. The last movement was so devastating, so all-extinguishing, that I'd never experienced anything like it. The whole hall sat in silence for about ninety seconds after it was over. It was like we knew that a ghost was raised. It's this kind of tragic sublimity we experience in works like King Lear or Moby Dick, or Michelangelo's Last Judgement or the cartoons of Goya. From Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur, the Gates of Heaven are said to be open, and after that performance that seemed to incinerate the earth, it felt like some avenging spirit had escaped to wreak vengeance on us. And don't forget, Carnegie Hall is two blocks away from the Trump Tower. One month later....

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