Sunday, May 27, 2018

History of the Symphony - Class 5 1/3 - Rebellion Against the Symphony - Little More

Q: What's the world's longest viola joke?
A: Harold in Italy

It seems a little pathetic to attribute such earth-shaking world-importance as I'm about to to that piece by Berlioz that everybody regards as somewhere between an enigma and a joke; a symphony for viola and orchestra. But Harold in Italy is a seminal work in the history of music, because it is the moment when classical form truly came undone for good, and there was no putting it back together.

In the first movement of Harold in Italy, the main theme is stated at the beginning, and it's never stated entirely again. That chaos that erupts at the beginning of the finale's of Beethoven's Ninth and the Hammerklavier Sonata has now invaded the etched-in-stone format of opening movements. Toward the end, you get the first four notes of the opening theme, over and over again in a canon, but no complete restatement, instead, the whole thing snowballs and disintegrates. What holds the music together is no longer form, but pure energy and imaginative fantasy that lets formal relationships of the notes get pasted randomly to the musical canvas like a collage.

So Harold in Italy, Berlioz's Symphony no. 2, which was supposed to be a viola concerto that began as a commission for Paganini, who had just acquired a viola and was looking to show his prowess on the deeper string instrument, is neither symphony nor concerto in any meaningful way. It's not even a Symphonie Fantastique, it's just Fantastique.

Berlioz memorably recounts his first meeting with Paganini after an early performance of the Symphonie Fantastique in his memoirs. He noticed that a man had stayed behind after the enormous ovation had ended:

...a man with long hair and piercing eyes and a strange, ravaged countenance, a creature haunted by genius, a Titan among giants, whom I had never seen before, the first sight of whom stirred me to the depths. 
About the Symphonie Fantastique the man.

...uttered glowing eulogies that thrilled me and moved me to the depths. It was Paganini.
I would imagine that Paganini, said to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for his violin prowess, wanted a demonic concerto in the manner of the last movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, but Berlioz was too true an artist to ever repeat himself. The two of them announced to the Parisian public a massive partnership so ambitious that there was no way it could succeed: a work for orchestra, chorus, and viola, called The Last Moments of Mary Stuart - the Queen of Scots who was executed in 1587 by order of her sister, Elizabeth the First of England.

But Berlioz would not follow anything but his own inner voice, and the voice that called to him was Byron. When Paganini looked at the viola part with all its rests, he abandoned the commission. Paganini wanted a part in which he was playing continuously - this may have not just been ego on Paganini's part; his business model was to go from town to town with his orchestral parts in tow. could ever have been feasible The orchestral parts of his many works for violin and orchestra had to be easy enough to sightread because Paganini was often in any town for no more than one night and there would be no time for rehearsal. Harold in Italy is almost precisely the opposite of the kind of work Paganini wanted. How either could have ever thought a feasible partnership could work between two titanically egoed geniuses with such different working methods is impossible to know.

We already spoke of Byron's probable influence on the waltz in the Symphonie Fantastique. Byron was clearly a model for Berlioz - not so much for Berlioz's music but for Berlioz's artistic persona which he puts forth in certain works of his both musical - like the Symphonie Fantastique and Harold in Italy and the Damnation of Faust, and literary - you see this in both his criticism and his autobiography. The writing of Lord Byron, like Hemingway or Whitman or Goethe or the Beats was not just writing - it was the embodiment of a whole persona, a way of looking at the world. People talk about Paganini and Liszt as being the original rockstars, but Byron is a much more apropos incarnation. It is impossible to overstate his influence upon his time. He was as widely read as Shakespeare during precisely the same period when Shakespeare's eminence among all writers was cemented for all time. Shakespeare is widely loved for portraying every kind of human, whereas Byron portrayed only himself, and that was enough for people to find him as significant as anything in Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.

The Byronic persona is two-faced on the one hand a glamorous and excitable gallant and wit who is excited by the world's possibilities; on the other hand a world-weary traveler who's seen everything, read everything, yet is impressed by nothing. He has an air of mystery that women seemed to find terribly erotic, women surrounded them like flies, and they treated women like flies.  He's a brooding romantic hero embodied by the kind of antiheroes you read in the Brontes in the form of Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, or in Pushkin in the form of Eugene Onegin. Perhaps even Captain Ahab is the Byronic hero who lived on to the mid-19th century, driven mad by living on so many years past when he should have died.

The Byronic persona can't help but be a reflection of his era, in which great hopes were lifted up, only to be completely dashed. Lord Byron was about fifteen years older than Berlioz, and already dead by the time Berlioz wrote the Symphonie Fantastique. Byron was born in 1788, so he wasn't old enough to remember the French Revolution, which happened right as he was born, but he couldn't help but be shaped by the great hopes of that era when all men might finally look upon one another as equals, only to be crushed in a maelstrom of death by French chaos, then Napoleon's dictatorship, then his emperorship, then his waging of war across Europe. At so many moments of those twenty-six years, it seemed like freedom was just out of reach, and yet every moment when it seemed that humanity would ascend to a nobler plane of existence, existence seemed to cease for another million people.

In his autobiography, Berlioz spoke of his time in Italy after winning the Prix de Rome. He found Rome incredibly disappointing. To Berlioz, the Italians were masters of every art except music - I'm sure that if the deeply atheist Berlioz had looked a bit more deeply into the music of the Catholic Church, he'd have found something to inspire him. But rather than spend the preponderance of time in Rome, Berlioz went on a series of rural sojourns. Here's a passage from Berlioz's autobiography about a trip to Sardinia:
My fellow passengers, who were all Italians, told endless stories, most of them wholly incredible, but very interesting. One had fought in the Greek War of Independence, and had known Canaris intimately (Canaris being the key figure in the movement to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire). We pestered him with questions about the revolutionary hero whose glory seemed to have flamed itself out as quickly as the flame of his own fireships. A Venetian, an underbred fellow, who spoke abominable French, avvered that he had commanded Lord Byron's corvette during the poet's adventurous excursions in the Adriatic and the Grecian Archipelago. He gave us a minute description of the brilliant uniform Lord Byron had insisted on his wearing, and the orgies in which they had indulged; and his modesty did not prevent him from repeating the praises which the illustrious traveler had bestowed on his courage. During a storm, Byron invited the Captain to play ecarté with him in his cabin; and the latter deserted his post and accepted the invitation. While they were playing, the ship gave a lurch, which upset both table and players. 
"Pick up the cards and go on"
"With pleasure my lord."
"You are a brave fellow captain."
So when Berlioz says 'upset both table and players', I'm pretty sure he means that Byron and the Captain vomited, and that Byron was not in the least upset by it.

What this class lacked, because I didn't have enough classes, was a fulcrum point. We didn't have time to investigate what the symphony, at least in its turn of the century guise, was reacting against. To really understand what was happening, we need to show how great composers moved away from the symphony before they moved back towards it.

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