Tuesday, February 20, 2018

It's Not Even Past #11- Ma Vlast - First Two Parts

Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days at first hand would probably imagine that at a time when an egg cost as much... as the price of a luxury car in the past... women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and the theaters and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt a great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in banks and government securities melted away, spectators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept on turning in the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still. The baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated the land, trains ran regularly, the newspaper ly outside your door every morning at the usual time, and the places of entertainment in particular, the bars and theaters, were full to overflowing. For with the daily loss in value of money, once the most stable aspect of life, people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in the midst of disaster the nation as a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch. Young men and girls went walking in the mountains and came home tanned brown by the sun, music played in the dance halls until late at night, new factories and businesses were founded everywhere. I myself do not think I ever lived and worked with more intensity and concentration than I did in those years. What had been important to us before mattered even more now. Art was never more popular in Austria than at the time of chaos. Money had let us down; we sensed that what was eternal in us was all that would last.
I will never forget what operatic performances were like in those days of our greatest need. You groped your way through dimly lit streets, for street lighting was feeling the effects of the fuel shortage, you paid for your seat in the gallery with a bundle of banknotes that would once have allowed you to hire a luxurious box for a year. You sat in your overcoat, because the auditorium was unheated, and pressed close to your neighbors for warmth--and the theater itself, once brilliant with uniforms and expensive gowns, was so dismal and grey! No one knew whether it would still be possible for the opera to keep going next week if money went on falling in value and there were no coal deliveries. Everything seemed doubly desperate in this scene of former luxury and imperial extravagance. The musicians of the Philharmonic sat in the pit, also grey shadows of themselves, emaciated and exhausted by deprivation, and we in the audience looked like ghosts in this now ghostly theatre. But then the conductor raised his baton, the curtains parted, and it was more wonderful than ever before. The singers and musicians gave of their best, for they all felt that this might be the last time they performed in the theatre they loved. And we listened with bated breath, more receptvie than ever, knowing that for us, too, this might be the last time. Thousands of us, hundreds of thousands, lived like this. We all strained ourselves to the limit in these weeks and months and years on the brink of downfall. I never felt the will to live in a nation and in myself as strongly as I did then, when the end of everything, life and survival itself, was at stake. 
The quote is describing Vienna, not Prague, and I've taken its references to any German speaking territory out, because the conditions could describe anywhere in Europe during the wars. It's from The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, his memoir of what it meant to be an exile from a fragile kingdom of culture that ceased to exist with Hitler because Hitler wanted to make a version of it permanent. Like so many rich German Jews, Zweig found himself a bit chased by Hitler, first to London, but when the Blitz came to England, Zweig wrongly sensed that a free England's days were numbered, so he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to New York, where he found something arguably worse than Nazis - vulgarity, and left for Brazil. Zweig, a Jew and lifelong socialist and pacifist, thought himself as much a citizen of the world as an Austrian, but whatever world to which he belonged had revoked his citizenship. He was, in his own words: “miles and miles away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts, friends and conversation.” And in the Brazillian town of Petropolis, he and his wife took an overdose of barbituates; when they were found, they were holding hands.

This concert on the fifth of June, 1939. The Germans, double crossing Hitler's promise to Neville Chamberlain, captured Czechoslovakia on March 15th of that same year. Every movement of Ma Vlast's six was followed by a thunderous ovation that can be heard over the radio aircheck. What we cannot hear is the spontaneous eruption of the Czech national anthem which followed the performance - a real life equivalent to the Marseillaise scene in Casablanca. This was music making so powerful that the Nazis banned the piece from performance in occupied Czechoslovakia until the Czech Philharmonic, with their nearly-forgotten founding music director, Vaclav Talich, forced the issue by playing the work in Berlin and creating a sensation there. Afterwards, Smetana's Ma Vlast was allowed to be performed again in the occupied Czechoslovakia, but just the next year, the Nazis dismissed Vaclav Talich from his post and closed most of Prague's important cultural institutions.

In orchestral music, as in every kind of music, there are some concerts that go into legend. Many of these concerts have been recorded, and legend is sometimes more important than the performance itself. At this point in history, the most legendary conductor is of all is probably Wilhelm Furtwangler. His most famous performance is Beethoven's 9th in 1942. Some music lovers, not me, think it's an unparalleled event in musical performance and a large part of the aura around that recording is a disproven rumor that Hitler was in the audience. His performance of the same piece in 1951 is similarly legendary for a lot of people because it commemorated the postwar resurrection of the Bayreuth Festival which Wagner founded to promote his own music - and Hitler used for all manner of propaganda, when Bayreuth came back, it was as though German culture itself came back. Furtwangler's Beethoven 9 from 1954 is legendary because he apparently decided during that performance that he no longer wanted to live, and died three months later. A certain kind of classical music lover will always say that they hear Furtwangler's agony in the '42 performance, or a kind of awed solemnity in '51, or his serenity in the '54 performance. Classical music obsessives were always a strange breed of people, but given how against the current you have to swim to love this music in 2018, you have to be still weirder to love this music now.

A few perhaps will say the same about Bernstein's excruciatingly slow Beethoven's 9th in 89' Berlin after the fall of the Wall, or his Shostakovich 5 from '59 - the height of the Cold War when he took the New York Philharmonic to play it in Moscow, where Shostakovich loved the performance so much that he hugged Bernstein onstage. Such legends have grown around Bruno Walter's performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera after braving the u-boats to come to America in 1941 and his Mahler 9 in '38 -  two weeks before the Anchluß, or Willem Mengelberg's performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in the year before the Nazi invasion of Holland, or Carl Schuricht conducting Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in '39 Amsterdam when, at a quiet moment some lady shouts out 'Deutschland über Alles, Herr Schuricht", or Furtwangler's Bruckner 5 in 1942 Berlin when you can supposedly hear bombs going off in the distance - that recording is one of my favorite recordings of anything, but I've never heard even a dull thud. Whether or not these performances are worthy of their reputations, there's an aura that seems to have grown around them because at crucial moments of life and death, music simply seems to mean more, and whether the performances are objectively better, many of them certainly are riskier - more extreme tempos, rawer sounds - or at least that's what it seems like through the compressed sonics. Whether or not these performances deserve their reputations, they're larger than life statements of music making from an era when life was so large because it was suffused with death. Except for Beethoven 9, Smetana's Ma Vlast is almost unique in that it has two such legendary performances, and they're both fully worthy of their reputation, and we'll talk a lot more about that other, more famous performance, later.


So now, a few minutes on Wagner from a very perceptive though eccentric music writer: David P. Goldman.

Siegfried, the opera from which this excerpt comes, premiered in in 1876. Ma Vlast was begun in 1874. The score was finished five years earlier, so it's conceivable albeit doubtful that Smetana had played through the score on his own time. But unless Smetana had the score, and more well-read musicologists than I would know better, it stands as an uncanny coincidence that both Wagner and Smetana were creating their own forms of musical nationalism at the exact same historical moment, using almost completely reciprocal musical chord progressions from each other.

Entrance to Heil dir, Sonne

And here, now, is Smetana's motif, very nearly the same chords, but in backwards order. 

Wagner chords free-float in a river of chromaticism without any solid ground upon which to stand. There's plenty of harmonic chromaticism and dissonance in Ma Vlast, but Smetana's chords fundamentally stand firmly on the solid ground of tonal harmony. But Wagner was the great influence upon every composer of his time, either in imitation or in rebellion. Smetana, like so many composers of his generation, owed Wagner everything. Here is Wagner's evocation of Germany's Rhine river in full flow Das Rheingold, which King Ludwig of Bavaria forced Wagner to premiere in advance of the entire Ring Cycle's completion and which he music world must have known intimately in piano reduction afterward.  And now, here is Smetana's evocation of Czechoslovakia's Vltava River in full flow at the end of The Moldau.

Personally, I think Smetana must have seen the score to Siegfried, however difficult it might have been to come by. Here are the two violin sections, alone at the top of their register, at the end of Brunhilde's awakening becomes complete and she hails the sun. And now, the moment in The Moldau when The Vltava river goes so far beyond our line of vision that it disappears.

It's fruitless to imagine a difference between these two nationalisms by the way their composers use harmony. But there's clearly a difference in the use of their musical materials and their musical aims. Wagner's harmonic use was expansive, trying to create something extra-musical in the midst of the richest musical tradition of his time, and perhaps all-time - a full populated of gods and dwarves and soulstates and transfigurations. Whether or not Wagner meant it that way, it was music that quickly became catnip to intellectuals in a country who wanted to show the world that they were not only a great nation, but a better nation than others. Smetana merely wanted his music merely to get the Czechs a small space at the table of great music. One time, Smetana heard the great Austrian conductor Johann Hrbek, the first great champion of Bruckner, complain that for all the world's great Czech musicians, there were no great composers.

To show that Smetana's music, and Czech music itself, was ready to be thought as great as any other, Smetana deliberately channeled not only Wagner, but the giant of giants, Beethoven himself. Here is the beginning of the famous theme from Beethoven's 9th. And here it is in completely disguised form as a polka-like dance in the first movement of Ma Vlast. 

By the late-19th century Beethoven's music probably became seen as a lot more pompous than Beethoven meant it to be. But it's as though Smetana is presenting a conception of music, a Czech conception of music, completely foreign to Wagner-era Germany. More earthy and physical, more rooted in dance, more deliberately raucous, and far less concerned with the state of the soul. A music for direct application and instant communication, a music by which can not only be loved by the educated connoisseur but elevate peasants to the connoisseur's level. And a music that, at least in that sense, takes up Beethoven's mantle far more than Wagner ever wished to.


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