Tuesday, December 5, 2017

History of the Symphony - Class 11 - 50ish %

It would be disingenuous of me to begin today's class in any manner but talking about the nightmare inducing story of James Levine - the most famous living conductor in America and for many music lovers one of the giant musicians of all time. Everyone in music knew the rumors about him, and there were so many rumors and they were so crazy that it was assumed that the truth couldn't be as bad as all that. It turns out that the truth was worse. At least in one case, Levine was grooming a music loving kid from the time he was four years old until he took advantage of the kid when he was fifteen. This is the behavior of child molesters, and it's now nearly beyond doubt that's what James Levine was, and perhaps still is. Who knows what other horrors he might have enacted, and who knows what might have happened to him in his distant past to make him become this way. The insular, authoritarian, world of classical music is just as strange as you might speculate it is, and surprisingly dangerous. 

No artist is above the law, either the laws of a country or the laws of human decency. But the price of art has always been very, very steep. Humans are not inherently democratic creatures who understand each other's plights. We are, by nature, authoritarian and hierarchical, programmed to worship rather than be skeptical. Go to any rock concert in America. Here, in the cradle of modern liberal democracy, audiences of 40,000 turn into a herd, bobbing their heads and arms in the exact same way. You can't get rid of the authoritarian impulse in humans, you can only find a less harmful outlet for it. Compassion for each other is something we have to learn and we never learn it particularly well. The further up the curtain of ugly behavior of artists comes up in Blue America, the more the curtain of religion comes down in Red America, where ministers and priests and judges can indulge their worst impulses with even less checks on their behavior, and do so while hiding under the banner of God and dismissing any report of their monstrous acts as 'fake news.' Dealing with psychopaths is part of the human story, and it will never be eradicated. There is clearly a monster in James Levine's psyche, but many experts still speculate that the fate of psychopaths is sealed from the moment they're born. The harder the James Levines of America find it to have an outlet for their psychopathy that is productive, the easier the Roy Moores of America will find it to create fear rather than beauty. 

The point of the arts has always been that the world is an ugly, disappointing, chaotic place, but the arts can give you beauty and order in the midst of it that make you realize that no matter how bad life gets, there are things in life beautiful enough to make life worth living, and some artists have always exploited the reality of what that gratitude will make people do for artists mercilessly. I personally hope, with all my might, that we can get rid of these psychopaths from the humanities, whether they hide in movies like Harvey Weinstein did or in classical music like James Levine did, and I certainly won't stand in the way of removing them. But we may be stunned by the adverse consequences of this. Psychopaths, by definition, have the desire to do things the rest of us would never do in a million years. If they are prevented from being on our side, working towards liberal causes and human rights and making beautiful things that give us consolation in our darkest hours, they may start working even more commonly on all those causes we oppose, and they will have the will to do things to achieve their goals that the rest of us would never, ever have stomach to do. 

One of the ideas I had for this final class was to not talk at all and simply have us listen to a dozen-and-a-half five-minute excerpts from symphonies just show us exactly what it is that the symphony does better than any other musical form. But then, I realized that without context it means very little. We need to put the symphony in the context of all that other music, and talk about exactly what makes the symphony different, more abstract; not a better form of art, but perhaps, and I emphasize, perhaps, a higher form of art, maybe the very highest of all, and one that, because it has so little obvious connection to our daily lives, is again, perhaps, capable of pacifying the world in ways we won't even yet realize for centuries yet.

I've talked a lot in here about 'greatest' this and 'best' that, but the truth still is that there is no such thing as 'better than' in art. Any sense that Beethoven is a better musician than Tchaikovsky or Chuck Berry is just a child's game, not a serious examination of the humanities. You can't quantify quality. You can only qualify it and say that this is why this particular human expression is great, and that is why that particular one is. But you can quantify uniqueness, and the fact is that every culture, from the beginning of recorded time, has had their own three minute songs with lyrics that express the very specific concerns of their particular time and place. Now just because, in fifty years, there will be a new Beatles that will be so beloved and necessary to people's lives in 2067 that it may render the songs of 1967 as irrelevant to daily life of its time as the Beatles rendered the songs of 1867 irrelevant to the life of it's time. Some of you in here are Baby Boomers, some of you are pre-boomers. But for every person in here too young to have been an adult in World War II, 1967 and 68 seem to have been extremely defining years of your lives just as 2016 and 17 seem to be extremely defining years in the lives of the generations around my age. And if you go to a classical concert, even today, it seems clear that the base of classical support is still people born before 1946 who have memories of an America that wasn't confident enough about its culture to not feel inadequate next to the culture of Europe. Go to their concerts, and you fundamentally hear the sounds of 1868 - Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky... 

But Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan still do three hour shows nearly every night of their lives, and seventy year olds buy their tickets for hundreds of dollars to remember what it was like to be twenty, and they bring their children, and now they even bring their grandchildren, to teach them to love this music as the pre-Boomer parents and grandparents taught them to love Verdi and Chopin. This music has become a kind of classical music in America, and please, take it from the classical musician, it's not the state of being you want for the music you love. It probably means that your music will, to a certain extent, be remembered long after you or your grandchildren are gone, but it will increasingly be remembered as a burden, a chore, something your descendants have to learn about to appease their elders, who loved this music for exactly the opposite reason - that it was subversive and new, but it can never be new again. 

But that does not mean that She's Leaving Home or The Times They Are a-Changin or Sempre Libera or Carmen's Habanera are not amazing works of art, or that they won't live on, but they can never again revolutionize how the world saw itself in the earth-shaking way they did when they were first heard, because once they've entered the world's bloodstream, they're too familiar to ever have the same impact again. And furthermore, there is only so many meanings, musically or lyrically, that you can discover about a piece of music that's only three minutes long. Simpler never means worse, but 99 times out of 100 and maybe even more, it does mean the simple things in life are more ubiquitous and less unique. The three minute song is the most atomic form of music there has ever been, and there will always be new songs that can express the concerns of that particular era better than the songs of a previous era can. The greatest performers of these songs inevitably die out, and so then do the memories of their greatest performances. Eventually, everything that once revolutionized the world becomes the establishment, and then a force of conservatism, and then even a reactionary force. That's the rule of entropy at work in politics and culture just as it does in science, that's how the dialectic works, and that's just what history has shown to be true again and again. With any concept to which the world can apply a definite meaning, the concept will outlive its usefulness, and the world will eventually have need of some other concept to revolutionize their lives as the older concepts once did for their ancestors. 

And eventually, maybe it'll take a few centuries but, the extremely vast majority of this music we love will no more speak to the concerns of daily life than the songs of the Troubadours of the Gothic era do. And that doesn't just go for rock or R&B or any other popular 20th century genre, it goes for the vast majority of what we consider great opera today, it goes for almost all the art songs we call lieder. If one day, the world stops believing in religion, it may also happen to a thousand years of sacred music. If the humans ever evolve from the religious impulse, and bare in mind this is a semi-religious Jew saying that this is a possibility, the entire tradition of sacred music will have no value that isn't historic, anthropological, academic. 

So that leaves us with absolute music - sonatas, chamber music, and especially symphonies: abstract philosophical forms rendered through sound to speak with a direct physical presence. Instrumental jazz is plenty complex, but by its nature, jazz is usually more interested in the visceral experience of moment its being played than it is in larger spans of time. In common practice classical music, in the way it makes us speculate about what we've already heard, and what we have yet to hear, we are not experiencing the present moment nearly so much as, at any point in the music, we are contemplating the relationship of what we've heard to what we have yet to hear. As Heidegger would put it, we are being thrown through time, from the beginning of the music to the end of it, and simultaneously experiencing every moment of this piece even though we can only hear it moment to moment. 

So what then is the point of this kind of very abstract, very distant, very pompous, very unrelateable conception of music? As best I can tell, the point is to quiet the agonies of our spirit by showing us that there is another dimension out there, a different kind of dimension, in which we relate to thought, to consciousness, to our goals, completely differently than we do in real life with its many unfulfillable concerns. Here, in music, in these dramas of harmony, we achieve those ideal worlds in art which are never possible in life, ideal states of mind and soul which are only possible in the worlds of the spirit, and if we ever try to effect them here on earth, and try we do very hard, leads to still greater suffering than ever. 

Lots of musicians deal with words, and many of those musicians who deal with words use them for an actual purpose, the purpose is to inflame their listeners to some kind of cause. That's as true for Wagner as it is for Dylan. But there is no famous composer of symphonies or string quartets for whom that's true. I suppose one could argue that's true for Beethoven, but it wouldn't be a correct argument. if Beethoven were really trying to inflame us rather than pacify us, he would have shown us that transcendence is not a foregone conclusion: maybe he would have given us a symphony that ended in a minor key, and he never did. Even if he ends some beloved sonatas and quartets in an angry minor key, the reason hundreds of years of music lovers have listened to Beethoven is not because he agitates us, but because after he agitates us he always seems to pacify us and reassures us that whatever our suffering, it will never be in vain. "Take action if you feel the need," the music seems to say, "but even if you don't, you're life has meaning and is worth living." He always leads our spirit back home. It was also perhaps true for the young Sibelius who wrote Finlandia, but by the time he wrote the last few bars of the Second Symphony, he was no longer the angry revolutionary, the music seems to tell us that even if the revolution loses, life is still worth living. The Symphony does not revolutionize, it pacifies. 
Beethoven 5: https://youtu.be/1HQa5fto1oA?t=22m38s (Szell Dresden)  
Sibelius 2: https://youtu.be/8emoZjQU6do?t=11m45s (Szell/Cleveland)

And so we come to what the Symphony does better than anything else: along with the less ambitious cousins from its family like the sonata, the trio, the quartet, it's the only form of music that is meant to genuinely pacify your spirit. Because you've experienced transcendence in music, you don't long for transcending the frustrations of your life with quite the same sehnsucht. You can deal with the endless suffering and frustrations of your life more practically, because while life itself might be unremittingly ugly, there is a dimension you to which you can always go to experience a place where all dissonances are resolved in harmony, all contrasting ideas are fused together in agreement, in which sounds of the entire world can be represented, coexisting together and engaging with one another in music as they can't in real life. Mahler deals with this very directly in his Eighth Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand. 

In 1907, a doctor had come because Alma was sick, and she was just mildly sick, but the doctor insisted on checking Mahler, and then told Mahler he had a heart condition that was probably fatal. Mahler had just lost a daughter, and would only live another four years. He was just finishing his eighth, the Symphony of a Thousand, which he called a 'gift to the nation.' Schoenberg said of Mahler 8 that it is a symphony about joy, but it's a symphony about joy by a composer who knows that joy is no longer his to experience. I was planning on not playing anything from the Symphony of a Thousand, since it's my least favorite Mahler symphony by some margin - it has very little of Mahler's musical democracy in which there is comic street music all around the sublimity - it's as though Mahler is doing his best Wagner impression. But here is the text Mahler set from Goethe's Faust, which is literally about this eternal state of music that we have talked about:
Everything ephemeral Is only metaphor; The insufficient Here becomes an event; The indescribable Here is done; The eternal feminine Draws us upwards
With that quote in mind, I want you to hear the final crescendo of the symphony, and see it, as best you can, as the eternal made manifest. I couldn't find the quote or who it comes from, maybe it's Mahler himself, but there's a quote about how at the end of Mahler 8, we hear the literal music of the spheres, in which everything in the entire universe resounds against each other. 

Mahler 8 Solti/Chicago https://youtu.be/_ntxMbQuxYs?t=4m6s

Here's the thing about the uniqueness of the Symphony. Every culture has its own songs, most cultures seem to have their own version of musical theater. The one thing that not every culture has is abstract, absolute music which people listen to for a reason other than dancing to it. And of those which do, none of them have achieved anything like the quantitative, measurable, complexity of European classical music in the symphonic age. Yes, there are composers all around the world, but what was unique to music between Haydn and Shostakovich, basically 200 years, is that this incredibly complex music, seemingly of such little use to daily life, became one of the most important fabrics of life on an entire continent. There is no precedent for it, and there doesn't seem to be a successor to it either - and that isn't to say that composers are better or worse today, they're simply different. Like all creative musicians today, they make music for a different kind of use than the grand line of composers did who knew that their chances at making their extremely abstract music part of the fabric of daily life was not completely impossible. It's impossible to write a symphony today for an audience of more than 30,000 people or so. No matter how hard they try, there is no mass audience for them to appeal to. And because there's no mass audience, the miracle that is the grand tradition of the symphony can no longer be continued in the same way. The miracle is that the Symphony used the most elitist concept in the world, abstract sound that has no meaning at all in reality, to become a popular art which was the greatest joy in the lives of tens of millions of people in every generation for well over a century.

This is why, I believe that, thousands of years after even The Beatles and Dylan may have disappeared from cultural currency, Beethoven and Mahler will still be as present in the world as Ovid and Virgil and maybe even Homer. I could, of course, be incredibly wrong about that. And it's not to say that quantitatively simpler music is worse, but it is to say that it can more easily be replaced.

It goes without saying, this is not a popular viewpoint to have in 2017, even and perhaps especially among classical musicians. The majority of classical musicians I know who are my age or younger listen to Top 40 in their spare time, and they're understandably sick and tired of being seen as elitist by the larger world. So many classical musicians I know believe that if we ingratiate ourselves enough, if we become as populist as we used to be elitist, the world will stop viewing us that way.

I don't believe that's possible. Classical music that ceases to be elitist about its quality is no longer classical music. But even if that weren't true, the fact is that there will always be a lot of bellicose people out there who are even a lot more conservative about aesthetics than I am, and the extremity of their vitriol will see to it that classical music maintains its snobbish reputation no matter how hard others try to reform it.

Classical music is not music for the body or even for conscious thought, it's music for the soul, for the unconscious, for the dream life that we can't understand but is such a large part of us, perhaps an infinite part of us, that exists beyond our physicality, beyond our thoughts, beyond ethics, beyond anything in this dimension, and music is perhaps the only thing in the world that gives it voice. Wittgenstein put it like this: 'whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent', and in that spirit, pure music articulates the thoughts and concepts and emotions in us all that can't be expressed out loud, maybe even the ones we didn't know were there until the music showed us. It shouldn't strike us as surprising that classical music is now popular in East Asia, music always seems to be more popular in buttoned up cultures where lots of emotions need to be repressed. Mahler put it differently: 'Where words stop, music begins.'

As we've noted before, Mahler said that whoever listens to his music intelligently will hear his life story. We haven't talked much in here about the superstition of writing a Ninth Symphony, but I think we all know that there is only one rule to life that matters, and that is: Don't write a Ninth Symphony. Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler. Composers from the last century like Vaughan Williams, Kurt Atterberg, Egon Wellesz, Alfred Schnittke, Roger Sessions. Alexander Glazunov, a great but minor Russian composer, never completed more than one movement of his ninth, and lived for another twenty-six years. Malcolm Arnold, a great but minor British composer, stated that he intended his ninth to be his last symphony, and he lived another twenty.

Mahler would write a ninth symphony that wasn't actually a Ninth Symphony but a series of songs: Das Lied von der Erde - the Song of the Earth. Some people say it's Mahler's greatest work, but is it actually a symphony? I don't know, it's not particularly symphonic in a lot of ways, but Mahler certainly thought it was his Ninth Symphony, and by not calling it a Ninth Symphony, he thought he might have found a way around fate. The text is by ancient Chinese poets, and all through, there is a very eastern, Chinese, perhaps even orientalist manner. But, contrary to how many people feel about cultural appropriation today, this is a treatment beyond mere respect. Mahler is turning to the East for wisdom about the transitory nature of life that wisdom of the West, with all its talk about individualism and soul states, achieves comparatively rarely.

Let's start by listening to the last few minutes of Das Lied von der Erde's first song, 'The Drinking Song of the Earth's Misery.' The German text is born out in the music so much that I'm almost tempted not to read it, but even so, here is what it says: https://youtu.be/DQ7FW4fly9Y?t=4m5s (Klemperer/Wunderlich/Philharmonia)
What's important to realize about emotional darkness, whether in music or in life, is that it's always informed not by hatred of life, but by love of life, and a wish that the agonies of life would let up more frequently so that we can experience all those things in life that are worth living for. This duality between love of life and hatred of life, which is present from the very beginning of Mahler, becomes all consuming at the end of his life. It becomes even moreso in the second movement, which is even more explicit and autobiographical: https://youtu.be/qygGar-P_n0?t=4m46s (Kletzki/Fischer-Dieskau)
My heart is tired. My little lampexpires with a crackle, minding me to sleep.I come to you, trusted resting place.Yes, give me rest, I have need of refreshment!
I weep often in my loneliness.Autumn in my heart lingers too long.Sun of love, will you no longer shineto gently dry up my bitter tears? 
Usually this is sung by a mezzo-soprano, but when you can hear part of it sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for the money of many and mine, the greatest and most intelligent singer of the 20th century, better to go with him.

Das Lied is six movements long, and Mahler knows perfectly well that you can't just have unremitting bitterness and heartache for a whole hour, so the next three movements are quite different. You know that the happiness won't last, but it's still quite happy. First you get a movement that is almost stereotypically Chinese, but also very typical of early Mahler, it sounds like it could be in the first symphony or Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The last line is 'Friends sit in the little house, well dressed, drinking, chatting. Some writing verses.' This is probably a nostalgic memory of Mahler and his artist friends, maybe Strauss and Schoenberg are there, maybe Kraus and Hofmannsthal or Arthur Schnitzler are there too, architects like Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, Klimt is definitely there, Alma is serving Sachertorte and possibly making out with one of them in the kitchen, and they all know that they are discussing and understanding the world on a level which no other social gathering in the world can ever approximate.
https://youtu.be/5pHTvK_qFGM?t=18m33s (Schuricht/Ohmann)

Then comes the movement, 'Von der Schönheit', 'Of Beauty.'https://youtu.be/VJgY9a02Snc?t=23m55s (Horenstein/Hodgson/BBC Northern)
Young girls picking flowers,
Picking lotus flowers at the riverbank.
Amid bushes and leaves they sit,
gathering flowers in their laps and calling
one another in raillery.
Golden sun plays about their form
reflecting them in the clear water.
And then comes one of my favorite key changes in all music, and the music of the sun. Here's the text: https://youtu.be/VJgY9a02Snc?t=25m25s
The sun reflects back their slender limbs,
their sweet eyes,
and the breeze teasing up the warp
of their sleeves, directs the magic
of perfume through the air.
 We'll skip ahead a minute for when the boys arrive. Note the image of the horses, and how, in the Jungian language of dreams, horses always seem to mean virility.  https://youtu.be/idRevTkIPts?t=25m6s (Bernstein/Ludwig/Israel)
O see, what a tumult of handsome boys
there on the shore on their spirited horses.
Yonder shining like the sun's rays
between the branches of green willows
trot along the bold companions.
The horse of one neighs happily on
and shies and rushes there,
hooves shaking down blooms, grass,
trampling wildly the fallen flowers.
Hei! How frenzied his mane flutters,
and hotly steam his nostrils!
And now the Drunkard in Spring, with music that lurches back and forth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbZRNlssH58 (Tennstedt/König)

If life is but a dream,
why work and worry?
I drink until I no more can,
the whole, blessed day!

And if I can drink no more
as throat and soul are full,
then I stagger to my door
and sleep wonderfully!

But we finally come to the half-hour main event, Der Abschied, the farewell. It begins with an oboe, wailing in the wind, symbolized perhaps by the gong and double basses, like a certainty of misery. https://youtu.be/PogZpvxq6Cg?t=32m17s (Walter/Ferrier/Vienna). Taken up, ironically, bittersweetly, Jewishly, by the violins. 

Where have we heard these wails, where have we heard this bittersweetness, where have we heard this irony. It's not in the Chinese tradition. https://youtu.be/1iKDwo5y7fE?t=1s (Uri Caine). So far as I know, this is not an actual cantorial quote that Mahler created, but an Israeli Jazz musician saw the Jewish overtones and created an album around them, and it's unmistakable. This is El Maleh Rakhamim, the Jewish prayer for the souls of the dead. 

And yet, at the end, after a half-hour meditation on farewells and finality, Mahler finds peace in eternity. The lines here are: 
The bravery with which Mahler faced his maker is unprecedented, not just in music, but in art.  Nobody takes us through the process of wrestling with our end as exhaustively, with as much honesty, and as much generosity as Mahler does. There are some artists who are more concerned with the surface of things, they want to make an amazing musical impression, but they shy away from making us aware on the deepest levels of what life really is, both in its heartbreak, and in its uplift. Sometimes they make statements about life, but they sanitize life from what life really is. Nobody spends the last twenty minutes of their life singing at full voice like in Verdi. Nobody conforms to two-dimensional archetypes like in Wagner. Nobody is just rituals like in Stravinsky. Nobody is just literature like in Berlioz. And life is more than just ideas like in Richard Strauss. But except for Prokofiev, all of these shallower of the great composers shied away from symphonies. Symphonies demand absolute honesty about life. But Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Bruckner, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Nielsen, Sibelius... none of them shied away from taking us down to the deepest possible questions. Does life have meaning? And what is the meaning of life?

So in the midst of all this Mahler, we have to make a brief word at least about Sibelius. Sibelius was paring down his musical language further and further and further. Until his seventh, when he finally created a one-movement twenty-minute symphony that had all the gestures of a four movement symphony with an opening with two themes, a slow movement, a scherzo, and a finale, but with not a single wasted note. Here are the three times we hear the main theme of the symphony, in three extraordinarily different spirits.

1st iteration: https://youtu.be/eL5240YpVJI?t=5m27s
2nd iteration: https://youtu.be/eL5240YpVJI?t=11m26s
3rd iteration: https://youtu.be/eL5240YpVJI?t=20m45s

The Seventh Symphony is a twenty-minute prayer. It tells us, on the deepest level, of what life is, and it arrives at a moment of absolute peace. The conductor, Simon Rattle, says that Mahler is like a Red Supergiant that is gigantic and burns at the hottest temperature, it assimilates everything into its orbit. Sibelius does not create an orbital system through size, but through density. He is like a white dwarf, and every gesture in Sibelius means something hugely significant. After the Seventh Symphony, Sibelius had arrived at an absolute of musical meaning, he had competed his musical process, there was nowhere deeper to go, so he laid down his pen.

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