Ramifying naturally? On Sibelius and Spahlinger

[This brief essay was co-written with musicologist Seth Brodsky for a March 12, 2015 program of the DePaul Orchestras, in which Sibelius's Tapiola is played alongside Spahlinger's morendo and doppelt bejaht: etudes for orchestra without conductor.]

On 8 May 1912, Jean Sibelius wrote in his diary: 

”I intend to let the musical thoughts and their development determine their own form in my soul.”

It would seem during those days and months that Sibelius was consumed by such thoughts. James Hepokoski writes of repeated diary entries from 1912 indicating that Sibelius’s “aim had become to rethink the concept of form by allowing certain nature-mystical core ideas to ramify ‘naturally’ or meditatively, as though they had a separate volition not to be thwarted by the habits of traditional practice.”

The works that would emerge in the coming years—especially the last three symphonies (nos. 5-7)—are nothing if not a realization of this utopian dream: “own form”/“my soul”. But it’s tempting to think of Sibelius’s last major work, the 1926 tone-poem Tapiola, as its most extreme case. After its completion, Sibelius would live another three decades, and write virtually nothing else. While he worked for years on an eagerly awaited eighth symphony, Sibelius threw the manuscript in the fire. This biographical detail, often noted, carries enormous pathos. But here, in the context of this concert, it has a special relevance. What if it wasn’t creative despair, or a misanthropic shrinking form the world, that compelled the composer to burn his work? What if it was the coldest logic? As if his compositional aim had been fulfilled, and “the musical thoughts” had indeed finally taken on a life of their own—to such an extent that Sibelius the composer no longer had control over them. So one might hear Tapiola as more than just the hypnotic, haunting sound-portrait of the Finnish forests it claims to be. It could also be one way of hearing the vanishing point of “common practice” compositional thinking. A 20-minute window into another kind of forest, where nothing ever stays the same, even as nothing ever quite “goes somewhere”; where the whole idea of “theme” begins to fall apart, even as one never hears a new theme. A continual reconsideration of, a perpetual development of, rumination upon, some basic, by definition “generic” intervals. Tapiola becomes a document of supreme ambivalence: teetering between the “sound of nature” as heard by a transcendental auditor—The Composer—and the “natural sound”, unfolding despite all human audition, all earful efforts at hearing-as and listening-in.

Surely this is a thing with which Spahlinger can sympathize, albeit skeptically. He is, after all, the author of series of experimental text-scores entitled suggestions, concepts on the liquidation/redundancy of the function of the composer. But on a concrete level, Sibelius's final, restive efforts are a fascinating foil to Spahlinger's experimental 2009 score doppelt bejaht (“doubly affirmed”). Here, the concept of “ramifying” is explicitly thematized in these 24 etudes for orchestra without conductor. Each has many ways of going to another, via “verzweigerungen” (“branches,” let's call them; not forgetting that the Finish forest god who was Tapiola’s subject-muse), and, rather than “the musical thoughts” ramifying in a questionable “soul,” it is the orchestral collective itself that allows this to happen. If one takes a few conceptual leaps, one might say that where Tapiola clutches for dear life onto the precipice of the mimetic (not just nature—air, light, flora, storm—but no less relevantly, historical forces), doppelt bejaht lets go, and becomes instead a microcosm of them: its “own form”, but with an un-ownable soul. The point is forced – the orchestra becomes, not an imitation of, but an actual world. The players must make decisions—without anyone to tell them what to do, when to do it, how to do it, how long to do it—otherwise the piece simply does not happen. And while, of course, players in orchestras always make decisions all the time, only here is their decision-making the compositional agent itself, rather than its fantastical imitation, whose concealment provides the very support for the fetishized commodity that the institution of the 21st century orchestra has become.

On Fauré’s Requiem

Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem is one of the more unusual works in the genre.  Not written for any reason in particular (“pleasure, if I may call it that,” said the composer), it doesn’t stand as a memorial to a person or event.  (Fauré’s mother actually died during its composition, in 1887, so it cannot have been initially conceived of in her memory.)  The circumstances are hardly the most unique thing about it, though.  Unlike nearly all other works in the genre, it contains none of the drama, anxiety, or fraught emotions one tends to associate with human thinking about death.  Nearly all references to the last judgement from the Catholic liturgy (and trust me, there are plenty) are excised.  Its general affective state is one of contentedness and an almost detached beauty.  It is relatively short, only 35 minutes.  Its formal proportions are slight and symmetrical.  Its original two versions were for small ensemble, with hardly a note for the single solo violin, nothing but a point on the top of the overtone series.  Even its full orchestra version leaves out the violin section for large passages, preferring the mellow sound of the viola.  Let us go even farther: it is an anti-Requiem, at least at we tend to think about the genre.  Even its primary key area -- D minor -- seems to be consciously chosen to negate.  It is surely a reference to the Mozart Requiem, though through its use, we are made to feel the photographic negative of that work’s angst and anxiety.  

Can we take Fauré’s statement to an interviewer at face value?  Initially, to be honest, I have my doubts:

It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. The music of Gounod has been criticised for its over-inclination towards human tenderness. But his nature predisposed him to feel this way: religious emotion took this form inside him. Is it not necessary to accept the artist's nature? As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.

Though there is something here I find striking, namely the last bit -- that somehow Fauré’s decision to write such a piece is bound up in personal habit.  Worth mentioning at this moment as well is a work with an intertextual significance (obvious only in hindsight): Brahms’ German Requiem.  A few surface details are surely worth pointing out by way of proof -- prominent use of the viola section, the composers’ liberal use of their own judgment regarding the text (rather than an uncritical adherence to the liturgical function, which even a radical like Berlioz is guilty of in his work in the genre), and finally, a generally consolatory tone.  Brahms’s focus on the emotional states of the living and communication between listener and performer/composer in a work he later admitted he should have called the “human Requiem” -- one almost gets the sense that he is talking directly to us sometimes -- obviously influenced Fauré’s conception as well.  While the Frenchman’s approach is less direct and more reserved (“more French” if you will forgive the generalization -- not in a nationalistic, but in a reception-history stylistic, sense), it is obviously a product of the same overall cultural milieu.  Embedded in the notion of composer-as-consoler is a much broader notion of post-Enlightenment self-actualization that is presupposed in a bourgeois society.  

The Introit, featuring the conventional text, begins on an imposing unison D, descending stepwise as if thematizing the very concept of of D minor (or perhaps the Dorian mode), while the choir responds as if quietly resisting inexorability.  The texture of the Kyrie is strikingly simple -- as if a modern re-thinkings of chant lines.  Both the orchestra and choir are notably sparse.  The interval of the fourth becomes the basis for melodic lines.

The Offertory, the longest movement, begins with an ostensibly archaicizing canon whose resultant harmonies betray its composer’s time and place, raising by step as the text becomes more urgent and more personally addressed to Jesus.  The middle section, a baritone solo, returns to the D key center of the first movement, this time in the major mode.  While its smoothing, gently undulating texture may seem odd for music about a sacrifice, the possibilities of the comfort that such an act brings come to the fore.  The brief return of the opening ends with a fauxbourdon (full of parallel sixths) Amen, music reminiscent of much earlier church styles.  Just as the first movement had incorporated chant-like passages, a modernizing impulse -- an historical consciousness -- continues here.

The Sanctus, typically celebratory and extroverted, is here a dream-like haze of E-flat major in which both the local (the subdivisions of the violas are composed to be ambiguous-sounding) and global (what is the meter?) rhythmic security is intentionally obscured.  The violin section, floating above the texture, invites all manner of interpretation -- the heavenly realm? anticipating the “highest” in the phrase “hosanna in excelsis”? the holy spirit?  A sudden fanfare reverses the opening movement’s fourth into a fifth, before returning the movement to rest.

The brief Pie Jesu emphasizes an individual, subjective relationship with both the divine and with death by its very choice of singer -- a single, solo soprano, innocence itself thematized.  The melody is fittingly simple, though, inevitably related to other movements by its prominent ascending fourth.

The Agnus Dei begins as gently as the lamb it describes; ravishingly gorgeous music accompanying the tenor section.  Darker music must represent the “sins of the world” that this symbol of impeccability takes away.  The text of the communion follows with no break -- an otherworldly shift of keys to A-flat major (the very farthest possible tonality from D minor in the diatonic system) accompanies the “eternal light” that shines upon them, and augmented harmonies add to the sense of wonderment.  Death, thus, leads to the diametric opposite of life.  After such a sublimely inspired moment, it is hard for the return of the opening music to avoid sounding trite, though that is surely not Fauré’s intention.

The Libera Me, returning to D minor, notably, contains the only references to the final judgment in the entire work (the lengthy sequence, the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), often the longest part of the Requiem, having been conspicuously, almost confrontationally, omitted by Fauré).  A baritone solo takes the interval of the fifth from the Sanctus as the basis for his plea.  It is the chorus, though, that spells out the details of “that day,” accompanied by the horns and trombones; while obviously representing the final trumpet, the actual orchestral trumpets are omitted.  Even the last judgment in Fauré’s version is not so harsh.  Augmented harmonies reminiscent of the “eternal light” section of the Agnus Dei seem to provide another clue to the composer’s vision of the afterlife. 

Indeed, the In Paradisum, rarely set in the Requiem by previous composers, is in a D major tonality, resolving the tensions of world, for which many words -- “radiant” or “translucent” or “beautiful” -- seem inappropriate.  The harmonies are plagal.  Key shifts are free and unprepared.  Though there are a few conventional authentic cadences, they are subtly undermined, not structural, not emphatic -- as if to eschew the human psychological strife that tonality is, by its very nature, mimetic of.  

On Mahler's "Totenfeier" ("Funeral Rites")

The purpleness of its translation into English hardly does justice to the program note that Mahler wrote for a Dresden performance of his Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) in 1901, here about the first movement specifically:

We are standing beside the coffin of a man beloved. For the last time his life, his battles, his sufferings and his purpose pass before the mind's eye.  And now, at this deeply stirring moment, when we are released from the paltry distractions of everyday life, our hearts are gripped by a voice of awe-inspiring solemnity, which we seldom or never hear above the deafening traffic of mundane affairs.

What next? it says. What is life -- and what is death?

Have we any continuing existence?  

Is it all an empty dream, or has this life of ours, and our death, a meaning?

If we are to go on living, we must answer this question.

Let us get the boring details out of the way: Totenfeier, “Funeral Rites” (or Todtenfeier, in its original, intentionally archaicizing orthography, thus betraying its clear sympathies with project of early 19th century Romanticism), is a tone poem written in 1888 that was later re-orchestrated substantially and subject to a few other musical revisions (subtly changed key relationship, deletions of a few bars here and there) to become the first movement of the Second Symphony.  

All of this seems a bit ancillary to how we hear the work, though.  While it is certainly worth actively recalling that Mahler’s mind was changing all the time, what is striking about the chimeric nature of Totenfeier’s existence is how much aesthetic pressure is placed on it.  The above quotation makes this remarkably clear.  It is a work, quite simply, about the meaning of life (or rather, that thematizes its meaningfulness); which is to say, Mahler imagined that music could ask such questions, and this is easy for a 21st century audience -- so used to a world of reified performance traditions -- to forget.  The composer wants every gesture is to be read and heard this way, with this amount of import and weight.  Grave seriousness is composed into the very fabric of the piece on local and global levels.  It is written to sound exaggerated, expansive, perhaps even self-indulgent, but deeply, searchingly sincere; what is difficult for performers in the 21st century is to find a way to convey this that does not come across as melodramatic or insincere.  After all, we’ve all heard a lot of music like this -- in concert halls, movies, on the radio, etc.; Mahler’s audience had not.

Mahler harnesses a modified, aggrandized, almost bloated sonata form is service of his expressive aims.  And in an attempt to be inappropriately ironic, I will summarize it succinctly.  The opening thematic group involves first the basses and cellos’ relentless march-like but slow drive forward, while the oboes’ main melody is just a bit more song-like.  A too-beautiful-to-be-real second theme appears contextlessly, hardly prepared -- it cannot be believed, and quickly gives way to a return of the opening character.  The same illusory second theme begins the development, the march rhythm of the opening re-inserting itself underneath at first unnoticed.  Multiple attempts to achieve a durchbrech (breaking-through) lead instead to a cataclysmic recapitulation, re-orchestrated for maximum sardonicism with horns chillingly playing in hollow octaves what was once an oboe melody.  The second theme is foreshortened in response, now sounding at first like a transparent lie, then like the hyper-expressive utterance of an over-sensitive soul.  A long coda achieves a major mode that is clearly more of a consolation than a claim towards hopefulness.  A final violent gesture collapses the movement to a single C, as if the inevitable product of the movement’s opening, equally unadorned, G. 

Intertextually, the slow movement from Beethoven’s Eroica is invoked in several ways: both works are funeral marches in C minor.  Both feature themes that involve prominent use of both the bass instruments and the oboes.  The themes themselves noticeably invoke the interval of an ascending fourth (G to C, and also its inverse; this interval also begins Mahler’s second theme).  Even the violent opening gesture of the Totenfeier seems to bear affective resemblance to the Eroica’s first two chords (and the clearly audible pitch -- G -- is common to both).  On a more fundamental level though, the Eroica and Totenfeier situate similar places for the artist in the world.  Mahler’s note asks an uncomfortably direct question: “Is it all an empty dream, or has this life of ours, and our death, a meaning?” while Beethoven answers it.

On Beethoven's Eroica Symphony

Let me start by asserting that, though it might be possible to excavate, it is impossible for an audience of 2015 to recover the effects the political, social, and intellectual revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  One can study the history of, and thought behind, the French revolution.  One can read the works of the great literary figures and study the contemporary paintings.  One can speak, aesthetically, of the development of the categories of the sublime and the beautiful (the former, the experience of being so overwhelmed by a phenomenon that it forces one to confront what Burke calls “privation,” the threat of being annihilated coupled with the delight that one is not).  But on a much more fundamental level, the sweeping away of the ancien regime in France changed people’s perception of life itself, and the medium via which it is lived, namely, time.  As Reinhold Brinkmann has written: “The most overwhelming effect the Revolution had on its contemporaries was indeed an entirely new mode of experiencing “time.”  This experience was based on the recognition that far-reaching and profound social changes were taking place, changes as extraordinary in speed as they were unforeseen.  Contemporaries noted the tempo of change, the acceleration in the passage of time itself, and “contemporaneity of the non-contemporary” the latter a result of differing levels of acceleration in disparate fields.”  By 1800, the major capitals of Europe, say, Vienna just felt way different in a basic way.

It would probably be unbearably banal to say that Beethoven's 3rd symphony can be described as one of the single most influential pieces in the history of Western classical music.  Nevertheless, what might be worth remarking on when considering its historical importance is that Beethoven had a sense of, if not its long-lasting success, its unique and revolutionary goals.  The "heroic symphony," as Beethoven himself called it, was initially dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, who the composer thought of as a champion of freedom and a modern-day world-historical hero.  Though Beethoven famously tore the title page in half and violently scratched out Napoleon's name when he heard that the Frenchman had crowned himself emperor -- whatever the reality of the Beethoven’s actions, the myth has become part of the work’s reception history -- the idealistic aims of the work remained unchanged.  (Yet subtly, we already perceive a reflective, historicizing instinct, one that wouldn’t be fulfilled until his late style: the revised cover stated that the symphony was composed "per festaggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo" – to celebrate the memory of a great man.)  The Finale uses as its main theme a tune from Beethoven's only ballet, the "heroic allegorical" Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) from 1801, about two statues brought to life by Prometheus and introduced to various artforms by figures from classical mythology.  

The Eroica symphony is grand on every scale, self-consciously daring.  Each movement is longer than the norm, the forms more ambitious, the harmonies more daring, even the orchestration expanded: an extra horn is added to the usual two, Beethoven exploiting the new-found triadic powers of a section of three.  Though at an even more basic level, this is music that illustrates Scott Burnham’s claim that “[d]escriptions of Beethoven’s music… sound like experiences in a flight simulator.  There is a visceral element immediately perceptible in this music, a disturbing, invasive, and ultimately compelling interaction with the listener.”  To be more precise, in this “heroic” symphony, some sort of clear and decisive action is suggested by the rhetoric, invoking ambitious metaphors: military conquests, revolution, fundamental societal change.

The work opens with two bracing, aggressive chords, sudden interruptions of whatever is happening previously (so much the obsession of culture and the collective unconscious that a youtube video exists of nothing but a series of chronologically progressive recordings of these two chords only), followed immediately by what can only charitably be called a "theme" in the cellos whose stable E-flat major triad is immediately belied by a harmonically ambiguous C-sharp.  Its subsequent transformation into something more heroic yields no more clear tonal results, and an active transition begins.  While the dominant key of B-flat major is definitively arrived at, there is no second theme as such, just some block chords in the woodwinds.  A vague reference to this opening theme is again heard before a whirlwind of strings leads the entire orchestra to battle a series of secondary dominants with slashing two-note cadences, eventually getting stuck on a single chord that, through force of will (though I mean this metaphorically of course, the concept of freedom of will pervades much of early Romantic philosophy), violently assaults the prevailing 3/4 time signature and momentarily derails the exposition’s progress -- as if the bare reality of the movement’s opening chords has been recalled as a reminder (or perhaps as a threat).  The key of B-flat major has been regained when the music gets back on track, and the exposition is repeated with an abrasively sudden move back to E-flat major.

The development section, one of the composer’s longest, cleverly manipulates nearly all the material from the exposition with an imagination seldom seen even in Beethoven.  Sforzandos, like hard-to-locate shots, ring out unpredictably.  After a short fugato, strife returns, intensified.  Diminished chords imply harmonic uncertainty, while hemiolas create a the tension between the 3/4 meter printed and a more clearly audible 2/4.  The tension becomes unbearable on a chord that is aggressively confrontational in its dissonance, and the music collapses under the weight of heavy strings.  A mournful theme emerges in the oboes – it is the first real melody of the movement, and, though motivically related to the opening, is new.  (Let me suggest that it is in these small details that something essential about Beethoven reveals itself: that something may feel completely new, yet be a clear result of preceding events is one of many things that keeps this composer endlessly fascinating to an ever-changing human culture.)  Introducing a new melody in the development section is a truly unusual formal move, lending all the more emotional weight to the moment, and telling us what we already knew: that this is not a normal, well-behaved sonata form.  The skirmishes begin anew, eventually dwindling to a point of near inactivity.  The oblivious second horn must interrupt to catalyze a change.  (Famously, even Beethoven's student Ferdinand Ries thought it was a mistake during the first rehearsal-performance; the none-too-pleased composer punched him in the ear.)  While the entire, long recapitulation sort of does more or less as the exposition had (with many important changes to details; the C-sharp from the beginning re-heard as a D-flat, leading to different harmonic areas) it ends without having achieved – still! –  a definitive version of the opening theme.  The coda's jarring tonal descent by steps paves the way for the hard-to-explain return of the development’s oboe theme.  The orchestra responds by finally “completing” the opening’s theme, heroically in the first horn, then in the first violins accompanied by a horn chorale in canon.  Make no mistake: the ever-changing nature of this music reveals it to be a piece that could only be of its time period -- it is sonata form as a process of Hegelian “becoming” rather than Aristotelian “being.”  The climactic build-up is interrupted by a return of earlier music, but this doesn't stop an ending that triumphant, definitive, and insistent.  The opening two chords, now round out with a third -- heroic, enlightened, positivistic -- return to end the movement.

The slow movement, rather than something lyrical and song-like, is the hero's Funeral March.  It begins, bereft of energy (“subdued voice,” writes Beethoven), distantly, with the melody in the deepest register of the violins, the low instruments providing a bass drum-like accompaniment as if from afar.  The string take up the role of the snare drum, and the oboe gets the melody.  Thus the A section drags and plods along deliberately.  This chillingly concluded, the oboe offers a ray of hope as the B section begins – an ascending C major triad, accompanied by consolatory strings.  The section’s climaxes though, are all militaristic discipline, a point emphasized the second time around by a confident trumpet fanfare.  All motion is suddenly arrested; hope vanishes.  The funeral march begins again, grief-stricken.  It cannot go on.  A determined double-fugue grimly gets underway instead.  As in the first movement, it climaxes in conflict and then collapses; trumpets, as if imposing martial law, are forced to intervene to bring order to the movement.  The newly inexorably return of the A section is heard against the background of busily worried strings.  The cadence in C minor is interrupted, deus ex machina, by A-flat major, but a sweet and dream-like violin theme is a transparently unsustainable illusion.  The reality of C minor sets in, as its minor third, metaphysically in conflict with the overtone series, is made an example of via the collapse of a fleeting C major.  The pessimism is profound, complete, pervasive -- so all-consuming that the musical material itself break down.  The string section cannot even bring itself to complete a scale, leaving the timpani to play the final note.  The theme is a paralyzed with grief and is unable to continue.  A plagal cadence takes it upon itself to close the movement ceremonially.  It is remarkably “modern” art… music that is aware of, and thematizes, its own materials and their inherent inabilities, shortcomings, and contradictions -- it seems to ask the question “can a musical theme exist under these circumstances?” -- thereby making its emotional impact felt all the more strongly.

The Scherzo's opening rustlings are subdued, but the change of mood is clear.  The key has returned to E-flat major, and a short oboe melody promises to be a precursor to the celebration.  The quiet dynamic prevails, though, longer than seems necessary.  Just as the listener has given up in confusion, the party arrives boisterously, complete with whooping horns and strings mischievously accenting the wrong beat.  After a repeat of this music, the horns robustly present the majestic Trio, a splendid elaboration of an E-flat major triad.  The Scherzo section is repeated, with a few uncalled for changes that lead to a concise (to use a word one seldom sees in writings about Beethoven) coda.

The Finale bursts forth without pause, unleashing an cacophonous vortex of descending scales, whose implication of a minor key is quickly corrected by the dominant of E-flat major.  The listener's wait after the ensuing pause is answered only with bewildering unassertive string pizzicatos: E-flat, B-flat, B-flat an octave lower, E-flat again, as it happens the notes that are the scaffolding of the first movement's main theme.  Surrounding ornaments are gradually added as the music comes to life. When the violins finally introduce the main theme, the aforementioned tune from the Finale of "The Creature of Prometheus," everything is clear: the symphony has been trying to achieve this moment.  The melody is a paraphrase of and commentary on the first movement's proto-theme; it is an elaboration of a major triad, further ornamented with the notes in roughly the same order.  One might even say that the “theme” (in a theoretical, not musical, sense) is the triad itself, a figure for possibility, justice, truth.  Just as the first movement was teleological, goal-oriented, a process of “becoming,” so, indeed, has been the entire symphony.  Its status from Beethoven's earlier ballet makes it clear what the hero has been striving for this whole time – the power of art to effect historical change.  Just as the statues are given life and lead to art by Prometheus in his ballet, so the listeners are given art and lead to the future of music by the hero, Beethoven.  It is the artist as hero.

True to the symphony’s bold conception, the Finale of the Eroica symphony is truly unique in its form; though it starts out as a set of variations, eventually achieving the articulation of the aforementioned melody, it quickly turns towards a quasi-developmental contrapuntal episode.  This episode ends, after considerable effort, with the melody heard innocently in the violins, then the prattling flute.  A dramatic, homophonic minor-mode section ensues, filled with strife, reminiscent of the first movement.  It cannot bring itself to complete its closing gesture, though, and the main theme returns innocently in a major key.  Another fugato follows, this one grander than the first.  Heroically achieving a stable E-flat major tonality, it nevertheless stops on the dominant seventh chord (as it did at the beginning of the movement), resisting the completion of the cadence.  The final formal section, much to everyone's surprise, is much slower and begins with the melody played in a reflective, almost saccharine, manner by the solo oboe with poignant harmonies in the rest of the wind section.  Meditative reflections on the oboe's unexpected turn give way to the apotheosis of the hero: the Prometheus melody played majestically, fortissimo by the horn section -- what would become the very symbol of heroism in 19th century German music -- supported enthusiastically by the rest of the ensemble.  Though there are a few moments of hesitation, the coda transforms the movement's introductory vortex into a celebratory din, as the orchestra affirms Beethoven's triumph, and, it would not be an exaggeration to say, begins the next 200 years of music.

Initial thoughts on the Eroica Symphony's opening chords

There is something about youtube which has the ability to do things our psyches aren't quite able or aren't quite willing to; or perhaps, to do those things a way that is more conspicuous, ostentatious than we ourselves can formulate. I think I fully realized this when my friend Joe Clark showed me the video of all six existent Star Wars movies playing at the same time. No, actually, I realized this when he suggested, in all seriousness, that we watch it; and I, in all seriousness, thought this was a good idea. Online video is a medium capable of something special – it can distill, or elaborate; it can take to one or another extreme the things we obsess about, that occupy our unconscious mind, that we fine obscene or hilarious or outrageous; it is a form of cultural durcharbeit. Goat screams. Cat videos. The most obscure live Carlos Kleiber performance you can find that, let's be honest, isn't that well-played. Family vacations. Amateur music videos. The 2007 Sugar Bowl.

How totally unsurprising is it, then, that this video exists. It is a compilation of a bunch of recordings, historical and not, of the first two chords of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Unprompted, I recently woke up for four days in a row with these opening chords running through my mind, trying to imagine, in my half-conscious stupor, different ways they should sound. Maybe you understand my observation above; I don't know which, in a metaphorical sense, came first – my semi-awake musings, or this video compilation.

The first two measure of the Eroica Symphony exist in an impossible combination of absolute, straightforward, what-could-possibly-be-clearer assertiveness; and a completely elusive, contextless, what-are-we-to-make-of-this-bizarre-gesture ambiguity. They inhabit those spaces simultaneously, and they command you to hold in your mind at the same time the contradictory co-habitation of these two affective states. The word “pillars” appears a lot in how people talk about them, and that grasps towards the point. Think of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey or columns holding up a once-standing building in the disappointing ruins of the Circus Maximus. Those objects are things confident in the truth they assert. Just what that truth is is necessarily, maddeningly elusive. (Tangentially: isn't the “ruin” the quintessential piece of Romantic architecture?)

Formally: these chords occupy a unique place in the history of the symphony, again for the contradictions they force you to experience. An introduction to a sonata form movement could not possibly be more conventional, and this is surely a thing Beethoven learned from his lessons with Haydn (11 of 12 of whose final symphonies begin with a pre-sonata formal introduction; the lone exception is #95, in a C minor whose gloom is no more than official, and can barely attempt to mask a cheerfully optimistic demeanor; makes you wonder whether Beethoven adopted that key as his favorite out of spite; probably not, but wouldn't you love it if it were true). CERTAINLY the thing that those introductions often do is, first of all, establish the tonic – usually with a loud, un-argued pronouncement thereof. This the Eroica chords are, if nothing else. Yet introductions are always significant, long enough to have a certain gravity, to demand attention, to make us wonder what they are or could be doing, in short, to problematize the highly rationalized (hey, let's all feel good about affirming our scientific, organic, completely consistent – as far you know – tonal system, wut) procedure that is to follow. This the Eroica chords are definitely not. If performed properly in our contemporary context, you may actually miss the first one because you were looking at your program (pretending like you care about the tempo marking or the opus number), or making sure your phone is in airplane mode, or wondering aloud to your neighbor what the opening chords will sound like, or whatever. By the time you gather your wits you have but a moment to pay attention to the second chord, and before you know it you're already in a first theme (an elaboration of an E-flat major triad immediately undermined by a C# – but that's a different story).

Basically this: on the one hand it is CLEARLY an introduction because even Beethoven, for all of his self-flagellating, hand-wringing, desperately catholic parsimony, could not simply call a chord a theme. On the other hand, it is not an introduction. It is not functional as such, because it does almost nothing an introduction actually does – it doesn't establish a tonal center because listeners aren't given an opportunity to reflect on the possibilities of deviations therefrom. It is an introduction only in some radically compressed, blackholish sense, a musical big bang. The latter is not a bad analogy, actually, as musical culture has been attempting to work its implications and contradictions ever since.

In trying to puzzle through this, though, let's start with the surface, since that is the thing that is undeniably there. They are, simply, loud, abrasive, ugly, unvarnished pieces of sound, and they were more so back in the day. According to Mark Spitzer, “the little concert room in the Lobkowitz Palace, where the Third Symphony was introduced in 1803, was something like twenty-four times louder than [Boston's] Symphony Hall.” I am reminded of Jean-Francois Lyotard writing about the work of Barnet Newman (in “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”):

Rather, it is what dismantles consciousness, what deposes consciousness, what consciousness cannot formulate, even what consciousness forgets in order to formulate itself. What we do not manage to formulate is that something happens, dass etwas geschieht. Or rather, and more simply, that it happens, dass es geschieht. Not a major event in the media sense, not even a small event. Just an occurrence.

When you first hear them you don't necessarily know the printed meter, the tempo, the metric location; they are merely two “occurrences” and their quasi-random, seemingly dangerous qualities is something Beethoven thematizes throughout the work. While the harmonies are different, a similar gesture – repeated, intrusive block chords – re-occur in both the exposition and recapitulation (m. 128 and 535). In both cases the notated effect is a hemiola. The aural effect, though, is much more: it is one of an irrational violation of the meter, an arresting of the harmonic progress, a halting of the formal development, an interruption of this cultured, artificial music by the real. Which is to say that the hemiola lasts long enough for the listener to easily forget what beat is where, not know whether a meter change has occurred, and certainly have no sense of when the next harmony change will occur (from time to time this happens to me to this day when half-listening to a recording – orchestras I conduct better hope I don't forget to count). One could even make the case that the wind chords, perpetually dissolving into string tremolos at the end of the development section and gradually liquidating the subdivision such that the meter is no longer really perceptible, are related.

In short, the opening two blocks of the symphony are also entropic, and they threaten the movement's structural integrity throughout its duration. So how does the movement end? With the same two chords, this time with a third tacked on. So, how to understand this gesture? A normalization? A heroic, bourgeois, enlightened rationalization of a force of nature?

As you can see, its mere occurrence-ness does stay as such; it asks (or “waits,” as Adorno would have it) to be interpreted; because after hearing them, it is hard not to slip dialectically from pre-consciousness into metaphor. Its naked aggression suggests something violent, and immediately non-musical things come to mind... the militarism of Napoleon, say... something mimetic or programmatic, like canon blasts or gunshots. Sweeping away the shackles of the ancien regime – whether it be political, philosophical, aesthetic – by the force of decisive, irreversible gestures; or whatever.

Paradoxically, though, I suggest that these chords simultaneously illustrate something about the closed nature of the tonal system (and perhaps political ones as well), precisely as a result of this fact that the same two chords that begin the movement return to close it. As in Beethoven's 8th symphony first movement, Haydn's “Joke” Quartet Finale, the trio of Mozart's “Jupiter” symphony Minuet, the opening and closing gesture is conflated. It would be an understatement to say that work contains at its beginning the seeds of its own end, because the beginning is literally the end. There is, as it were, something tail-chasing about tonality, rather in the same way that Napoleon, far from being the great liberator he was thought to be by Beethoven, was just another tyrant.

When I met with German composer Mathias Spahlinger this summer at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, I asked him why the opening of his orchestral masterwork Passage/Paysage begins with a re-writing of the opening of the Eroica symphony. A few minutes into a passionate answer about 20th century German history and solidarity against fascism, I noticed he was crying. He said that he had taken Beethoven's chord and added materials not available in his day – instruments both lower and higher in register, microtones. Implicit in this compositional action is the notion that there is something ontologically hard to pin down about these chords (and about music itself) – they exist on paper, but also in our memory, as ideas and traditions, and transiently in performance. They have a life that is symbolic yet formal but also visceral. They are, in short, the untranscended life we live, in guise of the history of music; which, despite all sensible advice that it should do otherwise, nevertheless continues to strive beyond what it can be.

Haydn: Symphony No. 31 ("Hornsignal") and Sibelius: Symphony No. 3

Among other things, this program invites a listener to reconsider their notion of what the romantic/classical symphony is, does, and can do by presenting works that appear chronologically and aesthetically on either side of the generally accepted boundaries of the genre: an early, enthusiastic, exploratory work of Haydn (1765) and one of Sibelius’ middle-period pieces (1907) that makes an attempt to forge a renewed and sustainable re-engagement with tonality at a time when the possibility thereof seemed very much in doubt.  

Haydn’s “Hornsignal” symphony was written in a time before the formal and generic expectations of the symphony had fully congealed and become the conventions that the same composer would use 30 years later, and from which Mozart and Beethoven would take their cues.  Thus, like many of the composer’s earlier symphonies, its music contains an air of exuberance, enthusiasm, experimentalism, and even naïveté.  Like a few other works of the mid 1760s, it features a horn section that seemed even larger in Haydn’s day than it would be later -- though the number of horn players (4, plus an assistant) featured here became standard in the 19th century, Haydn’s available string section consisted of only 12-15 musicians, rendering the horns 20%-25%(!) of the orchestra.  This, combined with the bright-sounding valveless instruments that were mostly played without the hand in the bell, as well as the loud halls of the day, must have rendered the experience of hearing it for the first time quite shocking.

The first movement’s structure resembles the standard sonata form we grow accustomed to in later music; its aggressive opening, though, a paraphrase of a Croatian hunting call (the home of Haydn’s patrons, Esterháza, was located a considerable distance from cosmopolitan Vienna, in an ethnically mixed region of Austro-Hungary), still comes across as abrasive.  Hunting music was also associated with courtly values -- bravery and loyalty, for instance -- such that one can read the opening as re-affirming the social order of 18th century Europe.  It is immediately juxtaposed, though, much more quietly, with a post-horn solo, rendering ambiguous our previous reading.  (Post-horns were just that -- horns carried by postmen to announce their arrival, as they were normally on tight schedules.  Perhaps this one is quiet because it is being heard from a distance?)  One might view this as a music that is about the horn itself -- the horn as the instrumental representative of all of society, located in the realm of aristocracy as well as in the world of the harried, overworked post-man.  The rest of the exposition is an enthusiastic response by the rest of the orchestra, first an energetic tutti, then a second theme involving the solo flute in a series of ascending scales to which the ensemble responds.  After a repeat, a development section expands the opening horn call in different key areas; the recapitulation, however, skips it entirely, arriving instead on a shockingly subdued tonic minor that creates the effect of a momentary, unexpected, inappropriate negation.  The ground is being taken out from one’s feet suddenly and for some capricious, unknown reason.  The recapitulations ends, though, with the return of the opening fanfare, framing the movement like quotation marks.  

It is worth briefly stating how all of this must have sounded to Haydn’s initial audience compared to how it sounds to us.  In addition to the radical difference in ensemble size and instrumentation, performance context, the use of a hunting fanfare and a post-horn call is an explicit use of music from every-day life -- as if Haydn had taken as his musical material ringtones or a chorus from a radio song or the sound of the “L.”  It is music that is of his place and time.  That is remains powerful to a contemporary audience speaks to the mastery of its construction; in the meantime, though, we must keep in mind that the experience of listening to it is not merely that of listening to a piece that we really like it; it is also an experience with the history of our civilization.

The slow movement involves just the horns and strings alone, but is substantially taken up by the backward-looking stylistic reference to the Baroque concerto grosso in the guise of extended violin and cello solos.  The form is a straightforward ABA, the middle section relatively short, wanting to get back to the florid beauty of the solo violin line.

The Minuet returns to the festive, ostentatious atmosphere of the opening movement.  The Trio, as per tradition, is much less harmonically complex and features wind solos -- but its melodic lines move from instrument to instrument in a way that seems more conscious of its orchestration than we are accustomed to hearing in music of this time period.

The Finale is a long set of variations on a theme of utmost geniality first heard innocently in the violins.  Successive variations involve first the oboes and 3rd and 4th horns, then the solo cello, flute, the entire glorious horn quartet, solo violin, woodwind section, and finally, hilariously, the principal double bass (ok, admittedly, originally a “violone,” but surely no less comical and oafish on that instrument).  While, undoubtedly, each of these variations was written with the specific soloist from Haydn’s orchestra in mind, one gets a sense that each also represents something more general -- particular characters or affects.  It is awfully tempting to hear this movement, similar to the first, as Haydn’s attempt to write his society into the work, as if beating Mahler to his claim, 150 years later that “A symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything.”  The symphony closes with a Presto of utmost exuberance in which the horns’ hunting call from the first movement returns at the very last moment, book-ending the whole work.  Though it happens only at the end, this device of recalling earlier movements’ music was unusual in symphonies of the time.  It immediately changes a listener’s interpretation as it explicitly creates a unified artwork -- a piece of music with a memory and a self-consciousness, as it were -- in a way that is, again, more what we’re used to in 19th century music.   One cannot help but wonder whether the diversity-embracing gestures that appear throughout have something to do with this -- whether the impulse to create a unifying ending isn’t the result of the work’s ambitious aims.  We are used to being told that composers of Haydn’s day were treated like a servants, that our notion of a what a composer is relied fundamentally on reception to Beethoven’s work.  While the historical facts surely cannot be denied, it seems to me that something needs to be examined about how we think about what Hadyn and his patrons thought he was doing.


Sibelius’s 3rd symphony, a relatively short piece that is not well-known at all in the composer’s oeuvre, is actually one of his more formally ambitious undertakings.  Though his first two are in a nationalist-romantic vein, the third is compact and “classicist,” attempting to articulate an idiosyncratic answer to the prominent compositional questions of the early 20th century.  Just as the harmonic language of many composers (Mahler and Strauss, say) was becoming increasingly and ever more densely chromatic -- leading of course to Schoenberg’s definitive and very self-conscious break with the concept of “tonality” in his Op. 11 piano piece of 1909 -- Sibelius was attempting the opposite, and not doing so in a way that can be described as thoughtlessly reactionary, as we find so often in music history.  Doomed to failure as him project was, his attempts to rescue tonality are sincere, thoughtful, and create a truly unique work in the present symphony.

He sets the symphony in the key of C major, a tonality that was by no means innocent of connotations in 1907.  Music like Beethoven’s 5th symphony or Brahms’ 1st come to mind -- music of clarity and obvious teleology.  The first movement is, literally, in a textbook sonata form…  it is obviously influenced by the tradition of the so-called “musikalische formenlehre” [theory of musical forms], a series of didactic books from the late 19th century that discuss the common genres of traditional Western music.  The first theme is affirmative of C major, complete with running scales.  The second theme, a passionate melody in the cellos, is in the dominant’s relative key, E minor.  The development section is well-behaved, leading to cheerful, climactic recapitulation, the second theme played by the whole string section.  The coda is subdued and ends on a markedly old-fashioned plagal (“Amen”) cadence.

The slow movement, nocturnal in tone, is as fussy about its tempo (Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto) as it is indecisive about its meter (constantly oscillating between 6/4 and 3/2).  The form is a bit difficult to pin down, from a listener’s standpoint, because of its repetitious nature -- material is repeated again, mulled over, obsessed about, orchestrations changed slightly, counter-melodies tinkered with, accompaniments altered.  This cycling through of material, repeating it with slight changes that do not feel exactly “developmental” is a key characteristic of Sibelius’s musical procedures, and is something that gives his works their unique feeling of simultaneous statis and forward motion.  The only hint of a middle section is a ghostly, fleeting series of scales in the woodwinds, punctuated by string and horn question marks.  The movement ends with splash of cold water.

The third movement, one of Sibelius’s most ingenious structures, is a scherzo which becomes a finale.  Sibelius called it “the crystallisation of chaos.”  It begins with a pastoral tone in the oboe, the meter a clearly defined 6/8.  Material from the previous movement is cycled through and discarded.  An ominous violin ostinato accompanying melodic fragments in the basses and horns produce an emphatically asserted major third that is promptly dismissed.  The process is repeated, followed by a chaotic scherzando of frenzied energy.  From the fragments of this emerge a noble tune in the violas; as we watch the scherzo fall away, the violas are joined by the cellos in a C major hymn.  One can do no better than quote James Hepokoski regarding what happens next:

We may regard it as an exponentially distilled illustration of that type of nationalist symphony finale that featured circular “folk” reiterations as the telos of the whole work.  Or we could hear it as occupying the substantially altered recapitulatory space of a bold sonata deformation encompassing both the scherzo and finale portions of the third movement conceived as a single, generative gesture.  Or -- perhaps most relevantly from our immediate perspective here -- we may regard it as the production of a “supersatured” C major whose sheer specific gravity, ever accruing, permits no escape (for instance, via its frequent “Lydian” fourths) to subordinate themes or keys… This progressive accumulation of concentration and weight on a single sonority is unique in the symphonic repertory.  It drives towards a maximal-density, heavily weighted close, a sonorous black hole that excludes all other possibilities.  Appropriately, it is capped off at the end with an elemental 5-3-1 C major triadic affirmation, ff, in the brass.

Indeed, here is Sibelius’s response to Schoenberg; whereas the latter saw a harmonic and contrapuntal system collapsing under the weight of the very rules that enabled its development, Sibelius sees an emphatic, inescapable centripetal force in which the goal, reached on in the final measures of the work, is the establishment of the primacy of C major on both a horizontal and vertical level.

Georg Friedrich Haas: in vain

In his short essay “Music and New Music,” Theodor Adorno reminds us that

The very notion that tonality is natural is itself an illusion.  Tonality did not exist from the outset.  It establishes itself in the course of a laborious process which lasted far longer than the few centuries during which the hegemony of major and minor has prevailed.  The music that preceded it, the Florentine Ars Nova, for example, is just as unnatural and just as alien to contemporary ears, as are the works of the late Webern or Stockhausen in the proud ears of the normal listener.  The semblance of naturalness which serves to disguise historical relationships inescapably attaches itself to the mind that insists that the rule of reason is unimpaired while surrounded by a world full of persistent irrationality.  

As he hints at, the unnaturalness of tonality is easily forgotten.  But it is a notion worth exploring.  The emergence of an explicitly theorized tonal harmony has as its background Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1722 Traité de l'harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels, an attempt to scientifically formulate grounding principles of music.  (All of your music theory textbooks have Rameau’s treatise as their ancestor.)  It is no surprise, therefore, that Rameau, later in his life, came around to the notion that the so-called equal-tempered tuning system was the best of those available, as a 12-note scale with equivalent pitches is seems to be a not unobvious outgrowth of his notion of harmony.  All of this is, simply, completely consistent with Enlightenment ideology’s attempts to dominate nature through reason and science.  Equal temperament, until that point in history, was just one of many many possible temperaments; and it was certainly not commonly used -- its necessarily compromised thirds and sixths (and to a lesser extent fifths) were intolerable to ears for centuries before that.  However, the tempting ability to play in all 24 major and minor keys was too much; technological advances in instrument production (most influentially, the invention of the piano), and the elegance of an octave divided into 12 equidistant half-steps were clearly too consistent with the prioritization of rationality to be resisted.

Thus, when Georg Friedrich Haas explicitly pits equal temperament against just intonation (a system of tuning using the sonically pure intervals based on the partials of the natural harmonic series) in his masterpiece from 1999/2000 in vain, he is not simply juxtaposing tuning systems.  Though in a group discussion with Dal Niente colleagues Chris Wild and Austin Wulliman I called this opposition a musical metaphor for other things, including the political situation in Austria in the late 1990s (specifically the electoral victories of Jörg Haider’s ultra-conservative Freedom Party of Austria) I’m not sure that’s quite accurate either.  In retrospect I think my comments were under-, not over-stated.  Equal temperament is not merely a metaphor; rather it is the very instantiation in music of recent Western history, including the Enlightenment impulse and, eventually, the crushing and overwhelming disasters of totalitarianism and war that were its grandchildren in the 20th century.  It is a severely systematized, artificial way of organizing sound; it is not “natural,” to paraphrase Adorno, though it’s so familiar that we might think it is (or, rather, forget that it is not); it is, however, “orderly,” to invoke the word Haider famously-controversially used as a vague apologia to Hitler’s employment policies.  

To be clear: I am not saying that playing music from the nineteenth century on a modern equal-tempered piano is somehow complicit in fascist ideology.  I am saying, though, that un-self-awareness of the nature of our musical materials is equivalent to the way we all thoughtlessly participate in a capitalist system, problems and triumphs in all, every day.  To simply claim, as I did before, that Haas’s musical material is a metaphor for something else is to posit a separation between music and the world.  My actual opinion is both more and less grand -- that the composition and performance of music is the world, perhaps “merely” part of the world.  The thing that Haas’s in vain makes me realize is that every time we play a piano, it is an act that, however subtly, confirms or resists the history that has made us who we are; because the music we play cannot but be a product of that history.

Thus the opening of Haas’s work, a series of ceaselessly swirling arpeggios, scales, and figurations played at a number of pitch and rhythmic levels, all presupposing and relying on equal temperament for their existence, figuratively and literally plunges us into this paradoxical world of rationalized chaos.  There is no tonal center, and while the patterns are clearly organized, they are ever-changing.  The mood is bewildering and contradictory, like visiting a foreign city for the first time -- there can be no doubt that there are principles, rules, relationships (all deeply complex) at work here, organizing this overwhelming amount of information; but it resists, by virtue of its very scale, your attempt to penetrate and grasp it.

One of the strangest things for performers, is to sense (in a piece they’re playing rather than, say, in personal interaction) a composer struggling with his/her musical material.  Especially in new music, where style is constantly being challenged, re-thought, re-written, re-worked, such a struggle is palpable even in the very best works (indeed, it might be claimed that their quality is the result of precisely this struggle).  Haas’s solution to this struggle in in vain is unique -- he plunges the music into darkness.  It feels like a despairing, throwing-his-hands-in-air gesture, as if he wants to burn the whole structure to the ground and start over from scratch.  The music takes on precisely this character.  It goes note by note, sound by sound, as if searching, considering, re-considering, eventually settling on the overtone series above the note B in an absolutely electrifying moment where the string instruments seem gravitationally pulled there.

Emerging from the darkness, the music feels purged.  At first tentative, it gradually gains strength as a series of chords based on the overtone series.  Actually, “chords” is a word that makes too many assumptions -- it is, rather, simply a presentation of the partials of the overtone series by the instruments.  The intonation has been freed of its equal-tempered flaws, and this is hardly metaphorical.  The musicians themselves, the humans on the stage, are liberated from their slavery to a twelve-note system that had circumscribed the music they play and their very instrumental techniques.  They now make adjustments solely to play in tune, rather than, say, to master some sort of contextless orchestral excerpts.  The overtone chords come across (whether they are or not) as composed in a completely unsystematic manner, radically free.  The musicians play high partials, they play low partials, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, loud, soft, articulations of all sorts.  It is downright utopian, to use Austin’s word -- it is as if no structuring principle is necessary in a post-equal-tempered world.  Music can be a constant celebration of the harmonic beauty of existence.  Particularly when the brass instruments (two horns and two trombones), bring forth a succession of descents and ascents of the overtone series with striking nobility, it is hard not to feel it as a sort of ur-music of primordial power, of a certain hair-standing-on-the-back-of-the-neck “naturalness” that Adorno is so careful to warn us against.  Perhaps the the right word is “sublime."

Yet something goes wrong.  How is this possible given this completely desirable state of affairs?  And how does it happen?   A climax on the C overtone series seems abortive, and a similar one on the G overtone series pits winds against strings as they struggle for rhythmic unity.  They (literally) drift apart (pitch-wise) gradually.  Equal-tempered tritone sonorities from the work’s opening return via the entrance of the accordion. (Tangentially: I wonder if the use of this instrument is a deliberate irony, the roots of the word "accordion" being in Italian and German terms related to a "concord of sound" or "to tune an instrument.")  The brass bring back their utopian sounds, but now sometimes they play the same notes conflicting as part of different overtone series.  Insidiously, snake-like, the swirling scale figures from the work’s very opening pages sneak back into the texture.  Our utopia has gradually become undone, and we have hardly been able to notice the process as it has taken place.  Stuck on audibly competing harmonics, the music again is plunged into darkness a second time.

While the truly terrifying 12 minutes that follow are a musical battle between equal temperament and just intonation, the winner is a foregone conclusion.  A triumphant, prolonged standing on the C overtone series (surely invoking all of the teleological implications of the C major tonality in Western music since Beethoven's 5th symphony) collapses into tritones as soon as the bass note slips to B, the very pitch that had prompted the utopian section.  This is music that has contained seeds of its undoing from the start.  The response from the ensemble is, quite simply, to freak out.

After the emergence from this second round of darkness, the harmonic series initially remains intact, orchestrated as a series of huge block chords, descending slowly in register.  However, it soon begins an acceleration that seems infinitesimally slow; and its pitch-wise descent is revealed to be a series of enormous Shepard scales -- a perpetual illusion that the music is getting lower in register when in fact it comes back to the same in the same place.  The chords gets faster and faster until the pure intonation of the overtone series is no longer sustainable.  We have found ourselves back to the swirling equal temperament of the opening.  The overtone series emerges again from the brass instruments.  And again, the descent and accelerando render the intonation unsustainable.  The piece stops abruptly before this can happen too many more times.  The implication is that it could simply go on forever; stopping abruptly is really not so very different, it is simply a more stark admission of hopelessness.

While a political metaphor might be clear, if a bit heavy-handed (something like: the perpetually opposed human tendencies towards a reactionary fascism and a hopeful progress are doomed to cycle endlessly, thus there is, in fact, no progress at all), the musical admission is just as despairing: there is, in a sense, no more form.  Or rather, the form of the work failed.  Or perhaps the composer has given up on it.  Better still -- the form is incapable of accomplishing anything with, or solving any problems inherent in, the musical materials that it contains.  This could not be more striking in a composer of the Austro-German tradition, in which the teleological forms of the 19th century constitute their musical inheritance (explicitly so in Haas, who has often engaged the music of his classical and romantic forebearers in his own).  While the innovations in form in post-war central European music are diverse and extensive, few works seem question their project so radically -- or more precisely, offer an answer that it is so decisively negative.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43

Last month I wrote the following about Shostakovich’s First Symphony:

The symphony as a musical genre is a quintessentially 19th-century phenomenon.  It is a public statement; and its development is an interpretation of life and civilization during that time period. It is sometimes assertive of individual expression, sometimes nationalistic, but always, inevitably, a product of a post-Enlightenment Europe in which the organized rationalization of society is expressed everywhere – from an emerging bourgeois social class to the triumph of industrial production to the rise of economic capitalism to the increased presence of mechanically reproducible art.

The world fundamentally changed after World War I, the “Great War,” and art reflected that. If the rationalizing impulse that was responsible for all of the so-called progress of the nineteenth century could be used, simply, to build bigger and better weaponry with which to slaughter a whole generation of young men, what did this say about the implications, in all aspects of life, of this so-called Enlightenment project?  Though it was not yet clear in 1924 that the “wholly enlightened earth [would be] radiant with triumphant calamity,” as Adorno and Horkheimer would say 20 years later (in the midst of an even more disastrous conflict), older forms of art could no longer tolerate a naive, unquestioned reception.  Less grandiose and more to the point this evening – certainly the graduation project of a brilliant and precocious 19 year-old Soviet student composer is not the archetypical locus for the creation of a symphony.

All of which is to say, Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony, unquestionably a work of great genius and superb craftsmanship, seems to me to be most successful and enjoyable when listened to as a fish out of water.  It is the work of an imaginative teenager in the midst of a historical period unique in human history (post-revolutionary, pre-terror Soviet Russia). Its form doesn’t come to it naturally or organically; it is imposed as an academic construct, almost reified.

By the 1930s in Soviet Russia, the situation had changed somewhat.  It is not the case so much that the symphony had become reified; more that it had been institutionalized and co-opted by the Soviet government.  It was a unique situation in the history of interactions between art and politics.  The communist state poured a tremendous amount of money into high culture because, as Patrick McCreless has put it, it was “a culture that passionately believed in the power of music to communicate extramusical meaning, and that relied on a well-established complex of critical conventions to gain access to and articulate that meaning.”  It would be difficult to overstate how much more important high culture, and music specifically, was to early Soviet culture than it is to our own.  That the government that supported it was morally bankrupt to its very core makes the importance of music to that time and place so much more unbearable to contemplate.

Indeed, a state-sponsored conference, “Discussion about Soviet Symphonism” was held in 1935, which all the major luminaries (composers, performers, musicologists) attended.  It was not unambitious; the aim was to codify what a Soviet symphony should be, what sort of ideological content it should convey, and what was the best way, stylistically, to do this.  Quite simply, Soviet music culture wanted to take the best and most prestigious thing from Western music culture, do it better, and show how it could advance a communist (well, Stalinist) political agenda.  Shostakovich and his friend, musicologist and Mahler scholar Ivan Sollertinsky, seem to have left the conference under the delusion further discussion was possible; the Mahlerian Fourth Symphony was underway in any case.

It is on an absolutely enormous scale, intended to dwarf the listener.  The orchestra is huge, the wind section nearly as big as the string section.  Both the first and last movements are nearly a half hour long.  It is big music written in a big country during a time in history that knew it was important.  

The first movement engages the 19th-century traditions of sonata form on the grandest of historical stages.  Its declamatory, fire-alarm of an opening quickly leads to an overwhelmingly brutal lock-step march of a first subject.  A tentative, vacillating string figure attempts to be a second theme but fails, revealing itself to be an inversion of the first.  The march return, subjected to ruthless counterpoint.  The winds attempt a second theme this time, incongruously playful triplets; but they fail also, leading to a heart-wrenching outburst.  The second thematic area proper appears in the bassoons, chastened and terrified, to the terse interjections of the cellos and basses.  It meanders and wanders, eventually adding both strings and winds, leading to expressive outpouring of overwrought grief.  

The development section interrupts, if such a concept makes sense in this music, with a polka of utter banality, a relentlessly mocking parody of the first subject.  Though it grows more serious, it does not lead where one might expect.  To describe the ensuing swirling maelstrom of string writing as a “fugato” is accurate -- but the effect of the head-spinningly fast torrent of 16th notes overwhelms any awareness of its genre.  It is as if Bach has been subjected to one of Stalin’s 5-year plans; it is a forced industrialization of musical material, inhuman, uncompromising, devastating.  It evolves into a march of equally incessant savagery, and only a citizen of Soviet Russia in the 1930s could possibly find the subsequent waltz amusing.  Exhausted, the music is suspended in the flutes.  As if it has one more gasp left in it, the development section closes as a pp timpani evolves into a fffff 12-note brass chord.  Significantly, all the brass instruments are instructed to use mutes; it is as the very fabric of tonal music itself (all possible notes present and accounted for) is invoked in an attempt to stifle and silence the collective cry; it is sonic barbarity.  The horrified return of the symphony’s very opening fire-alarm is now accompanied by scales in minor seconds in the strings.  The recapitulation casts the thematic areas in reverse order, the second in the brass accompanied by the march rhythm, giving way to an English horn paraphrase of end of the exposition; the first theme returns at the end of the movement, again in the bassoon, now completely defeated and broken, as if a prisoner being forced to confess to a crime they did not commit.  The movement ends with the lower brass growling a muddy C minor sonority at the audience, not as a resolution of the movement's harmonic tension, but as an unmoving threat.

The second movement, a scherzo of exponentially smaller proportions, opens with a viola soli passage that appears to be wondering what it’s doing there.  The form is unpretentious: ABAB, and the tone is reminiscent of the sardonic world of the equivalent section of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony.  The B theme is first heard as an expressive descending line, pre-figuring the first movement of Shostakovich’s next symphony, the much more famous Fifth.  The movement closes idiosyncratically, mechanically, mysteriously, with clockwork percussion that begs to be interpreted but simultaneously seems to resist hermeneutical analysis.  A clock ticking away the seconds towards an ever-approaching death (Temirkanov)?  An insidious machine designed for who knows what purpose?  Prisoners tapping messages to each other on hot-water pipes (Rozhdestvensky)? 

At this point in our journey of the work a neglected piece of historical truth must be inserted which I have deliberately withheld heretofore.  On January 28, 1936, an unsigned editorial (“Muddle in the place of Music”) in the state newspaper, Pravda (“Truth,” I kid you not), condemned Shostakovich’s most recent opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District in no uncertain terms: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.”   It is hard to put in contemporary terms the import of such a denunciation.  In a culture that relied on high art for its legitimacy, and in which the state controlled the media, we simply cannot understand what it meant to be publicly attacked in such an environment.  I imagine President Obama giving a prime-time address on CNN about his dislike of of minimalism would mean much less.  Shostakovich was in the midst of the composition of the Fourth Symphony at the time, the Finale likely composed after the Pravda editorial.

The Finale is, as was the first movement, excessive, grand, hubristic in scale, and is willful and difficult to follow formally.  It begins with a Funeral March in the depths of the orchestra, the bassoon the lonely soloist.  As strings and brass are added, a C major apotheosis is gradually attained.  A fast, demonic, aggressive scherzo ensues, with the tonal center, instead, of C#; after reaching a climax, though, it quickly collapses under the weight of pounding timpani.  A divertimento follows, a suite of urban street music… waltzes for the strings and flutes, a sarcastic polka for the bassoon, more waltzing for the winds, a break-neck galop in the strings.  There are references to the tone of Petrushka, and not only musically—just as Stravinsky’s puppet (literal and figural) experiences a private grief that his public knows nothing about, so here a nostalgia for a by-gone Russia is masked.  The trombone comments throughout with motivic material from the the scherzo.  While I encourage you to try to follow the formal and musical logic, I similarly exhort you not to feel bad if ever detail escapes you on first listening.  It is music of deliberate bizarreness, calculated to confuse, to innovate, to challenge, to confront.  Its design is a self-conscious contrast with that of the first movement’s epic, teleological sonata form; this is episodic, capricious, cynical, unbelieving music.  It is meant to make you question your tidy assumptions about what music does.

Befitting such a huge piece, there are not one, but two codas.  The first arises from a moment of C major calm (more from Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, according to Pauline Faircloth) that the strings arrive at after their Divertimento.  On the heels of timpani (not one, but two players are needed) declamations, a brass chorale of exaggerated enthusiasm breaks out.  It is celebratory, festive music; too bad about those wrong notes composed into it.  Actually it is a reference to the “Gloria” that the chorus sings to Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.  As David Fanning says,

With its hammering tonic-dominant timpani and strident brass chorales, supported later on by woodwind and finally by violins and violas as well, the surface of Shostakovich's coda suggests an apotheosis, irrespective of its C-major tonality.  That impression is reinforced, at an intellectual level, when we identify the allusion to Stravinsky's chorus, so specific in tonality and texture. But Stravinsky’s “Gloria” is not the entirely straightforward paean it seems. It is more than a little tinged with dramatic irony, since the crowd's acclamation is based on ignorance of Jocasta's misdeeds.

It is an ironic song of praise sung to a leader whose misconduct would destroy a civilization.  Only now is it fully clear why Shostakovich withdrew the piece in rehearsal before the premiere took place.  (The work did not receive its premiere until 25 years after its completion, in 1961.)  The funeral march that opened the movement modestly in the bassoon now returns catastrophically in the unison bass instruments, the bass drum punctuating its efforts like artillery.

The second coda makes it clearer still.  The references are rife—the pulsating bass line of the ending of Tchaikovsky’s suicidal Pathetique symphony; a harmonic stasis and use of the celeste that can only recall the ending of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde; the very key itself, C minor—a subversion, a reversal of the darkness-to-light trajectory of Beethoven’s 5th symphony.  This is a coda whose pessimism is not merely local or personal.  This is a symphony as art, as criticism, as journalism, as prophecy; it is conceived as an interpretation of, possibly an intervention into, history.  As the the funeral march fragments and eventually evaporates into a muted trumpet G, an unmoving C minor triad congeals in the strings, lasting nearly four minutes as the symphony’s post-apocalyptic detritus settles into Mahler’s liebe Erde.

These final minutes of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony are just begging to be decoded.  Sure, it is obviously negative in affect—but it seems to be trying urgently, forcefully to tell us something.  The effort of this attempt works on multiple levels, just as the rest of the work does, and in the end, by its very nature resists all our attempts to unravel it—which doesn't mean, however, that our exegetical attempt is not worthwhile; I would argue, rather, that it is essential, as is the foregone failure of our misreading; that the very act of interpretation is our way of conversing with a work like this and assuring its continued relevance to our lives and our world. 

At its most literal, this ending does precisely what an official pronouncement encouraged composers to do: “leave to future generations memorials of our glorious, never-to-be-forgotten epoch”—perhaps just not in the way that they had in mind; it brings home to us, nearly a century later, the unremittingly suffocating climate of human life under fascism, whether of the Soviet, Nazi, or generic variety.  Read another way, composed as it may well have been, after the Pravda editorial appeared, it is a sort of response, a warning, a prophecy, and interpretation of history… if the official newspaper warned Shostakovich that things may end badly for him, Shostakovich is showing us here how badly things may end for humanity.  And finally, there is the devastatingly personal… an individual alone in a forest of C minor for a musical eternity, his subjectivity only dimly held onto by his ability to despair via of the final, contextless, hopeless, bewildered, A and D in the celeste.  Or rather—if there is any hope left, it is maybe, possibly, however conditionally, located in this tiny act of defiance.

Shostakovich's Bedbug and Haydn's "London" Symphony

Shostakovich: Suite from The Bedbug, Op. 19
Galop: Fire
Foxtrot: Scene at the Square
Wedding Scene
Closing March
Duration: 20 mins.

The Russian avant-garde that preceded Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s was a truly unique period in human history.  Rarely does an artistic climate of such diversity, originality, permissiveness, and experimentation coincide with a period of such utterly complete political revolution.  Central to this cultural milieu is the Russian Futurist movement, obsessed with all things modern, mechanistic, face-paced, urban; they self-consciously courted controversy and recognized no authority (not even that of their rather more fascistic Italian Futurist counterparts).  Among the most influential figures to this movement is playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky.  His career started with poems in the 1912 Russian Futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, which is everything you might imagine it to be.  “The past is too tight. The Academy and Pushkin are less intelligible than hieroglyphics. [...]  Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity.”  Let it not be said that these were aesthetically indecisive people.  

Director Vsevolod Meyerhold staged Mayakovsky’s play The Bedbug (Mayakovsky called it, utterly ridiculously, a “fairy comedy;” it was intended as a satire of the direction of Stalin’s Soviet Union) in Moscow in 1929.  While he initially wanted Sergei Prokofiev to write music, Prokofiev declined; thus it was decided to rely on a younger, emerging Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, who had never before written for the theater.  It is not clear which, but either Meyerhold or Mayakovsky told the composer that their favorite kind of music was that of fire-fighters’ bands.  This, combined with the young composer’s prodigious knowledge of Western popular music, was just the inspiration he needed to come up with incidental music of altogether striking originality.

Gerard McBurney’s synopsis of the play is as follows:

The year is 1929 itself. A once active communist, Ivan Prisypkin, has done well out of the new NEP [New Economic Policy, relatively permissive for communism] prosperity and has transformed himself into a social-climbing and corrupt little capitalist. He drops his old girlfriend (a good revolutionary girl) and sets his sights on at the daughter of a petty bourgeois lady who runs a beauty salon. To reinforce this ostentatious triumph of NEP values, Prisypkin marries his vulgar young wife in her mother’s salon. The wedding soon gets out of hand, there is a fight, and a fire starts. The firemen are called, but unfortunately not before everyone has been burned to death. In the clearing-up process, Prisypkin’s corpse is missing.

Fifty years pass and it is 1979. Prisypkin is discovered deep-frozen in a cellar and is brought back to life thanks to modern scientific techniques practiced by the Institute of Human Resurrection. Back in the land of the living, Prisypkin takes time to realize that, like Rip van Winkle, he has come back in another age. And because his head is still filled with the nonsense of the NEP era, he keeps disturbing the conventional status quo of the future communist paradise. For example, he introduces a girl to the long defunct concept of “love.”

After many adventures, the citizens of the future eventually gather at the zoo where they succeed in confining this revolting specimen of bourgeoisius vulgaris in a cage, where he is exhibited for the edification of the public alongside another useless specimen of a former life-form long since eradicated by progress, bedbugus normalis.

From the incidental music, Shostakovich extracted a multi-movement suite.  An opening March, surely inspired by the aforementioned fire-fighters’ bands, is a tour-de-force of experimental and satirical harmonies.  Shostakovich subsumes the musical depiction of the fire at the hair salon into a Galop, complete with strikingly forward-looking orchestra effects.  The Scene in the Square is a parody of a Foxtrot, almost Kurt Weill-esque with its harmonic turns and manipulations of the genre.  The Waltz is over almost before it has begun.  The Intermezzo is an outrageously sultry affair, obviously meant to depict the decadence of the NEP era culture by comparing it to Western pop cultural excesses.  The extensive Wedding Scene is ostensibly festive and celebratory its affect, while its ever-changing orchestration and glib effects reveal it to be aware of the absurdity of the situation.  A wedding singer is represented, towards the end of the movement, by a shrill, screeching clarinet.  The Closing March is rather more straightforward and tonal than its counterpart at the opening, bring the work to a close in a manner that is unambiguously humorous and high-spirited.


Haydn: Symphony No. 104 in D major (“London”)

Duration: 30 minutes

As the DePaul orchestras learn to interpret the idiosyncratically unique early works of Dmitri Shostakovich during September and October of this year, one might wonder what a symphony by Joseph Haydn is doing in the midst of this exploration.  How does an Austrian composer of high Viennese classicism bear any relevance to the music of a young Soviet composer, written 150 years and several cultural eons later?

The answer lies in the genre of the symphony itself.  Haydn’s symphonies are the very pinnacle of the ideology of European Enlightenment.  Musical material and the tonal system (itself a result of increased rationalization of society) is harnessed by form and development to produce stunning displays of compositional virtuosity and control of convention.  The developed bourgeois social order is, in a sense, re-affirmed every time such a work is played.  The symphony, as perfected by Haydn, is the artistic triumph of civilized society and its ideals.  Haydn would have no way of knowing that these same ideals would lead to the collapse of Western culture a century and a half later, and that the genre that he created, almost single-handedly, would bear witness and become a testament to this destruction. 

His last symphony may not have been intended to be his swansong in the genre; it was conceived, however, as the finale of a set of twelve symphonies he wrote for German impresario and violinist Johann Peter Salomon, who premiered them in London in 1795 to stunning acclaim and massive success.  Thus, there is a sense of grandiosity and importance about it, which make it a particularly good representative of the genre at its most confident.  Few composers since have felt so at one with their time and place.

The first movement’s obligatory introduction begins with an imposing unison from the entire orchestra that at first sounds celebratory.  It is only in the third bar that we realize that the key is D minor, rather than D major.  The angst-ridden introduction proves to be a ruse; the main theme of the Allegro is in the genial major mode.  The exposition is mono-thematic, like so many Haydn sonata forms (and notably unlike those of his colleague and friend Mozart), so the first theme merely modulates to A major where the second theme sometimes appears, thus giving the work’s form a developmental character right away.  The development section itself hilariously takes as it basis the most bland and unlikely part of the main theme: four repeated notes, which are ingeniously developed before a slithery new theme in the first violins is introduced.  It is one of Haydn’s longest such sections and climaxes with suggestions of the introduction’s melancholy; all instruments go to extremes of their range.  The recapitulation mostly goes as the exposition did; but now the developed four-repeated-notes motif has achieved a place of greater importance than the main theme itself, and the entire orchestra joyfully revels in this triumph of simplicity.

The G major second movement is a set of variations so humorously deformed that it is almost hard to follow as such.  It has as its main subject a stuttering theme heard quietly in the strings – stopping, starting, hiccupping, it patiently plods its way to cadences.  The rest of the orchestra eventually becomes impatient, entering loudly on an insistent D minor.  Though the main theme returns briefly, the full ensemble continues to have its say.  It is only after the trumpets, timpani, and horns are able to state an assertively militaristic figure that the main theme is allowed to return in full.  Even this time it does not proceed uninterrupted.  The bewildered strings wander off into out-of-the way key areas before getting stuck; a flute solo only asks more questions.  The oddly subdued entrance of the timpani signals the final appears of the main theme, now celebratorily accompanied by fanfare figures in the horns.  Though the second violins get in a few more chromatic jabs, the movement ends with relative calm.

The return to D major for the Minuet involves a peasant-like tune featuring insistently and deliciously incorrect accents on beat three of the 3/4 measure.  Hemiolas in the second section and a long-delayed cadence would make it no easier to dance to.  The Trio begins, sensibly enough, in the parallel key of D minor before swerving comically to the key of B-flat via the unadorned common tones of D and F.  Other than that, the Trio is galant, gentile, and harmless; the Minuet is repeated without incident.

The tour-de-force last movement, also in D major, begins with a theme reminiscent of the Croatian folksong "Oj, Jelena, Jelena, jabuka zelena” ("Oh, Helen, Helen, green apple of mine") over a pedal D in the horns.  The very choice of melody is a triumph of Enlightenment encyclopedism -- contained within the grandest, most cosmopolitan of genres is a street melody from a far-off province.   The second violins soon add a playful countermelody that features a five-note ascending pattern.  (Strangely, it this five-note figure that the exposition seems most interesting in developing -- the main theme only appearing again, fragmentarily, as part of the closing material.)  After a jubilant tutti, a hesitant, ominous slowly descending line in the strings stands in the place one might have expected a second theme.  The exposition closes joyfully, though, and the entire thing is repeated.  The development section does very little with the opening theme, though the five-note figure makes an appearance.  Alone in a distant key area, the strings and woodwinds seem to get lost in the ominous music from the exposition; in one of the symphony’s funniest moments, though, a deceptive resolution turns out to place us unceremoniously in the home key: D major.  The recapitulation dutifully puts all of the exposition’s music in this correct key, but its final cadence is abruptly interrupted.  One of Haydn’s longest and most life-affirming codas ensues -- the folk-tune is finally played fortissimo by the whole orchestra, accompanied by earthy chords in the low register of the bassoon and horns -- a hurdy-gurdy or bagpipe, perhaps.  The composer’s final symphony ends boisterously.

So well-constructed is the form of this symphony that, more than 200 years later, it sounds perfect to us, almost natural.  Such an impression, unfortunately, does not do justice to the mastery of its composition, nor to the problems of our reception of it.  The more one is able to engage deeply, thoughtfully with every moment of the work, the more profound will one's experience be, and the more clear it will become that Haydn, truly, was a composer of great genius.

Shostakovich: Five Fragments, Op. 42 and Symphony No. 1

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Five Fragments, Op. 42
The work that opens this concert is one of the greatest what-might-have-beens in the history of music. Long thought to have been a dry run, really a set of exercises, composed as it was in one day (June 9, 1935), for the Fourth Symphony (heard here next month), recent research by Olga Digonskaia indicates that this aphoristic work is based on material for Shostakovich’s never-finished opera about the People’s Will terrorist movement’s assassination of a 19th century general (meant to have been the third in a trilogy that included another ill-fated work, Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District).  The opera was quietly shelved when Sergei Kirov, Leningrad’s Communist Party Secretary, was himself assassinated in December of 1934, thus making the topic somewhat uncomfortable in a possibly threatening political climate.  The Five Fragments, written from the left-overs of the opera’s materials, are some of the very strangest music Shostakovich every composed.  We are used to thinking of him as a composer of epicly scored, almost cinematic symphonic landscapes, music suitable for the backgrounds of World War II documentaries, the very soundtrack of mid-20th century political life.  We see here an altogether different composer, one of intensely concentrated, almost Webern-like expressionism; it is music that resists coherence, easy answers, or tidy summing up; it is a work of art in which the collected orchestral forces onstage represent a menace all the more powerful for the fact that they never play altogether.  What the listener imagines in the work’s gaps, holes, and ellipses seem to become almost as important as the notes that are (all too fleetingly) present.

The opening fragment is mostly lyrical, flowing lines for upper woodwind soloists, with threats from lower voices and a startled ending.  The second one, apparently remnants of the operatic portrayal of the aforementioned general, is march-like in the most grotesque sense.  Banal, thoughtless military topics move meaninglessly up and down, involving both the flute in its highest register and the basses in their lowest.  The third fragment, strings alone, is icy and unmoving, again with extremes of tessitura, the first violins floating at times five octaves above the lower voices.  The fourth fragment, introduced by two bewildering horn notes, is a strict canon in which bassoon, clarinet, and oboe in turn play a melody of fitful expressiveness in successively higher keys, but in overlapping fashion.  The strings interject inscrutably. The horn returns with its musical question marks.  The final fragment, actually the one with the smallest instrumentation, is a mildly crazed waltz that is played by the solo violin and accompanied by the snare drum, as if acting as an enforcer of official state discipline.  A solo bass sarcastically attempts to assert a tonal center, and flute and clarinets offer commentary. The work ends as it started, inconclusively – a major triad with a wrong note.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 10
The symphony as a musical genre is a quintessentially 19th-century phenomenon.  It is a public statement; and its development is an interpretation of life and civilization during that time period. It is sometimes assertive of individual expression, sometimes nationalistic, but always, inevitably, a product of a post-Enlightenment Europe in which the organized rationalization of society is expressed everywhere – from an emerging bourgeois social class to the triumph of industrial production to the rise of economic capitalism to the increased presence of mechanically reproducible art.

The world fundamentally changed after World War I, the “Great War,” and art reflected that. If the rationalizing impulse that was responsible for all of the so-called progress of the nineteenth century could be used, simply, to build bigger and better weaponry with which to slaughter a whole generation of young men, what did this say about the implications, in all aspects of life, of this so-called Enlightenment project?  Though it was not yet clear in 1924 that the “wholly enlightened earth [would be] radiant with triumphant calamity,” as Adorno and Horkheimer would say 20 years later (in the midst of an even more disastrous conflict), older forms of art could no longer tolerate a naive, unquestioned reception.  Less grandiose and more to the point this evening – certainly the graduation project of a brilliant and precocious 19 year-old Soviet student composer is not the archetypical locus for the creation of a symphony.

All of which is to say, Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony, unquestionably a work of great genius and superb craftsmanship, seems to me to be most successful and enjoyable when listened to as a fish out of water.  It is the work of an imaginative teenager in the midst of a historical period unique in human history (post-revolutionary, pre-terror Soviet Russia). Its form doesn’t come to it naturally or organically; it is imposed as an academic construct, almost reified.  Yet into this form, which Shostakovich accepts as a historical given, is breathed such freshness of style, such idiosyncrasies of characterization, such innocent originality of harmonic language, that we cannot but find it astonishing nearly 100 years later. 

Its first movement has a highly conventional form – it begins with an introduction and is followed by a sonata-Allegro on which Beethoven would have looked approvingly.  It is the completely foreign rhetoric, grafted onto a pre-determined scaffolding, that makes it truly unique.  The introduction features quirky, almost funny woodwind and brass solos, an incongruous sustained brass chord, and an impossibly stupid rhythmic motif (two quarter note repeated without variation).  The sonata form part of the movement starts with the clarinet playing an annoyed melody accompanied by the strings in a lock-step march – a strangely characterized soldier, featuring militaristic rhythmic topics lifted from the Viennese classics.  The second theme, in textbook-correct relative major, is a waltz in the flute, accompanied by clumsy downbeatless pizzicatos.  The development section begins with string soloists commenting on all of the material, but this quickly leads to an outburst of the whole orchestra for the first time, climaxing in angry and urgent transformations of the introductory and first themes in the trumpets and violins.  The second theme returns unexpectedly, inappropriately – almost without any preparation, as if winking at Shostakovich’s conservatory professors, in the “correct” tonic major key.  A coda revisits both the development section and the introduction, evaporating as iterations of two-quarter-note motif become farther and farther apart, eventually becoming only one – the final pizzicato in the cellos and basses. 

The second movement, a scherzo in A minor that is nevertheless lighthearted, features a burlesque tune in the violins after abortive introductions in other instruments. Woodwinds, brass, and the piano (a heretofore unusual instrument to feature in a symphony) contribute.  The trio interrupts without delay.  It is a square, common-time folk-tune for some reason cast in the time signature of 3/4.  The percussion dutifully follow the printed meter; the woodwinds with the melody accord with its natural emphasis.  It is a bizarre compositional choice.  A timid return of the first theme in the bassoons leads to a rapid increase of tempo and a combining of the scherzo theme and trio theme.  A climax is promised.  The orchestra stops inexplicably, though, leaving the piano’s A minor triads naked, almost childishly flailing.  The effect is striking – Shostakovich assembles a huge mass of sound, only to have the focus fly to a single individual.  Surely such a gesture is not devoid of meaning.

The third movement, a Romantic-symphonic Adagio in ABA form but with a headache, begins straight away with an oboe solo that is simultaneously intensely expressive and deeply ill.  The violins eventually take it over, after what seems like it has been too long; interjected into their rhapsodic musing is a curiously rude motif in the trumpets and snare drum; it commandeers the texture as the tempo accelerates.  A central section begins with a tentative oboe solo and struggles its way to glorious brass fanfares.  The solo violin brings back the A section with such saccharinity that one is hard pressed to tell whether it is a tribute to Richard Strauss’s music, say, or a parody thereof.  The movement ends as what was formerly the trumpet motif subsumes the other music, the harmonies winding sickly to D-flat major.

An unnoticed snare drum remains, crescendoing insistently to start the Finale.  An indecisive, introspective opening leads to what promises to be another sonata form movement . Irritated clarinets play a demonic, fleet-footed main theme, full of restless chromaticism.  It is uncompromising music, and it is no wonder that Shostakovich’s teachers didn’t like it.  Bitter, jagged textures lead to the introduction of a new theme, played full-throated by the whole ensemble.  After the orchestra calms down it becomes clear, as the melody is repeated in the solo violin, that this is the second theme of the sonata form movement.  A development section begins as the string passionately recall a fragment from the introduction, leading to paraphrases of the movement’s main theme.  Descending scales signal a recapitulation, but the interruption of the bass drum arrests the movement’s forward progress.  The tempo slows dramatically, the orchestra hammering out the main theme while the trombones play yet another underneath.  As in the scherzo, though, the assembled mass of sound serves to highlight a single individual – in this case, the timpanist, who portentously thunders out the trumpet motif from the slow movement, now inverted to accord with the melodic contour of the Finale’s main theme.  The second theme – post-apocalyptic, devastated, shattered – is sung by a solo cello.

The innovation here seems to be the following, strangely: the form of the movement is completely undisturbed. The recapitulation proceeds as it should, the themes appearing in the correct order. This normativity feels inconsequential, though, and it goes by unnoticed; the superimposed drama on the surface of the music is so violent and striking that it co-opts any possible attempts to experience the form as the driving force of the work.

Rising from the cello’s ashes, the apotheosis of the second theme arrives with the reunification of the entire orchestra. Finished with Finale’s material, the music subsequently reveals that the trumpet motif from the slow movement, originally a curmudgeonly and spiteful interjection, is now the savior of the work.  F minor is transformed, almost unremarkably, into F major, and the 19 year-old composer’s first symphony could not end with more optimism.  It is music with no premonition that what lays ahead (say, in the Fourth Symphony) is defeat, heart-break, and a pessimism so complete that a four-minute C minor triad is the only possible reaction. Nevertheless, let us celebrate, while we can, the best of youth in this, Shostakovich's brightest symphony.

Brahms: Symphony No. 4

The following originally appeared as a program note to a DePaul Symphony Orchestra performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4.  You are welcome to reprint it free of change; but please let me know about it and attribute me.  Thanks! 

Brahms's final symphony, in E minor, Op. 98, surprising as it may seem, was written right on the heals of the composer's (mostly) serene and gentle Third Symphony, in 1885.  Brahms had 12 more years to live and was at the height of his fame and popularity as a composer.   Given how distinctly the Fourth sounds like a composer's final words about symphonic form, one could be forgiven for finding it odd that he had plenty of composing left in him.  It is certainly no less odd that the four notes that begin the symphony appear as the opening of the third of the "Four Serious Songs" written in the composer's final year.  And it can only seem unbearably odd that those four notes accompany the words "Oh Death, oh Death."

The aforementioned four notes that begin the exposition of the symphony’s sonata form first movement are part of a what seems like it should be a long, sustained melody that is curiously interrupted by rests.  Though strikingly, maybe melancholically, beautiful, it is actually quite simple – a chain of thirds that descend from B to B, then ascend again starting on E.  The compositional genius lies in octave displacement of the notes of the melody, which give a completely disjunct, anguished surface to what is in fact an obsessively symmetrical construction.  Like so much of Brahms's music, this theme inhabits a place that is simultaneously strictly organized, rigidly logical, yet seemingly spontaneously expressive.  When the melody is repeated a second time, its disjunct nature is positively Mahlerian in its refusal to stay in one octave for two notes in a row.  Though an impassioned second theme (in the "correct" key, according to the conventions of sonata form, the dominant, B minor) appears in the cellos and horn, its introductory figure in the woodwinds, a jaunty triplet figure that outlines a major triad (i.e., ascending thirds) ends up being the formally significant motif.  After the second theme appears and eventually dwindles away, it is this triplet figure that re-appears heroically in B major (the first time the major mode has been heard for any sustained period of time) and allows the exposition to close triumphantly.  (A brief diversion before this close, into a key a third away from B major, slips by us unnoticed, as does inability of the exposition to complete a satisfactory cadence, but it will have major implications for the rest of the movement.)

The development section begins much as the exposition had -- in E minor, with the descending thirds melody.  In fact, the beginning of the development section is literally the same notes, leading an unsuspecting listener to assume that the exposition is being repeated, before veering innocently to a key that is a third away, G minor.  The development section functions at first almost as a set of variations on the movement's opening theme, before the triplet motif insidiously takes over -- at first shadowy, then assertive, cadencing, not surprisingly, in a key a third away from E minor.  Though the movement's main theme returns to end the development, it is exhausted; the beginning of the recapitulation, so often the high point of a sonata form first movement, is here a moment of complete harmonic statis.  We hear only stark woodwinds outlining the descending thirds melody, and the entire orchestra responding with a single, baffled, motionless chord.  Eventually the melody continues, and the movement regains momentum.  Everything in the recapitulation proceeds precisely as it had in the exposition, only in the home key of E minor.  When the jaunty triplet motif reappears in E major, we are promised an optimistic ending.

It is here, though, that implications of exposition's failures become to fruition.  Following the exposition's pattern, the recapitulation modulates briefly away from E major (naturally, up a third), but cannot regain the major mode, prompting a cataclysm of a coda in which the only tonality-affirming cadences are those at the very end, beating a relentlessly pessimistic E minor into the bewildered listener's ear.

The post-apocalyptic second movement begins with two surviving horns repeating the very same note, E, on which the first movement had ended.  At first ambiguous, the entrance of the clarinets confirm an E major tonality of such out-of-place serenity that one cannot but feel that it is a dream.  The melody outlines an ascending third, it outlines a descending third; nevertheless, an unruffled E major persists.   Though it is briefly interrupted by an aggressive, severe, minor-key woodwind motif (which goes one step beyond the movement's main theme, outlining an ascending fourth) the second theme appears, given to Brahms's beloved cellos.  It transforms the woodwind motif into a ravishing B major.  (The ability of the symphony's thematic material to evolve will become crucial as the work wears on.)  The development section is short but hardly perfunctory.  The recapitulation, with the violas playing the melody, is too untroubled to be sustainable, a crisis beginning in the woodwinds builds until the climactic return of the aggressive woodwind motif, now hammered out by the full orchestra.  The aggression ends abruptly, and the second theme is played, now victoriously, by the entire string section, in a warm, celebratory E major.  Despite a moment of uncertainty, the movement closes in nocturnal splendor.

The third movement, strangely the first not centered around E, is nevertheless not unpredictably set in a key a third away from the symphony's principal tonal center.  Its bright C major, in a confident and unusual (for a Scherzo) 2/4, represents a sudden departure from the darkness of the previous movements.   Though this movement also manifests a tendency to modulate suddenly by thirds (as in the tenth bar when a horn fanfare lunges us into the distant key of E-flat major) its scheme of key areas strikes us as more capricious than problematic.  The occasional reminder of falling thirds in the woodwinds here seems more whimsical than troubling.  A brief, gentle middle section leads to a confident recapitulation and an athletic, optimistic ending.

The fourth movement's opening immediately negates any optimism earned by the Scherzo.  Its eight block chords, one per bar, standing stubbornly and defiantly like columns of ancient Greek ruins, reap the tonal problems that the previous movements sowed.  Though Brahms is thought to have used the bassline to the final chorus of Bach's Cantata #150 as the theme for this intentionally mangled imitation of the Baroque variation genre, the Passacaglia, he adds touches of a such unpredictable yet subtle sophistication as to completely undermine the predictable stability of the older form.  Brahms's quotation of Bach's bassline is note-for-note save for a single added pitch; his harmonization is not.  While Bach’s theme ascends an entire fifth (more than the previous movements' thirds or fourths), and suggests a somewhat obvious and stable harmonization, Brahms’s achieves nothing tonally speaking.  It is barely functional harmony; there is no dominant to tonic motion; it begins on the wrong chord; it ends on an unprepared major chord that was all too easily achieved.  In short, the eight bars on which the movement will be based are fundamentally flawed in a way that will prove fatal to the symphony's outcome.  The opening several minor key variations (first for the pizzicato strings, then the woodwinds, then the strings again) all retain Bach’s bassline but none but the first of them are harmonized the same.  As the texture thickens in imitation of Baroque counterpart, even the previously predictable harmonic rhythm completely collapses.  Though the bassline is ever-present, it is hidden in the shadows.

A middle section begins somberly, with a flute solo elaborating in slow motion the Bach theme.  Its controlled despair is rewarded by an E major from the clarinets and oboes, more consolatory that happy.  When the trombones enter with a solemn chorale variation, it seems to us that we are in the world of Brahms's German Requiem.  It may be gentle, but only because someone has died.  The entire orchestra takes up the trombone chorale, and when it is unable to complete a cadence, the opening eight block chords interrupt unexpectedly, in an unwelcome recapitulatory gesture.  This time, though the eight chords go a step further, to more unstable tonal areas, prompting a series of aggressive variations that climax on the return of a woodwind theme from earlier in the movement, here played by the impassioned strings.  A few quiet, anxious variations are interrupted by the final one, strings playing what by now must be considered completely inevitable: a descending string of thirds, a direct (if not obviously on the surface) quotation of the first movement's opening theme (a connection first made in a famous passage in Schoenberg’s essay, “Brahms the Progressive.”)  The circle is complete -- the thirds had become fourths in the second movement, and they had become a fifth in this movement.  Now the thirds have returned, and the unavoidably disastrous coda begins.  Modulating too rapidly to follow, the texture's eventual arrival on a cadential chord feels as if Brahms is imposing functional harmony a work that that has gotten out of control, just so that the symphony can end.  All of the melodic material is infected, and Bach's bassline, no longer an ascending fifth, is presented over and over as two ascending thirds.  Even the eventual achievement of dominant-tonic cadences feature thirds in the melodic line.  The final cadence, while correct, is a Pyrrhic victory.  

Brahms' struggle with the descending thirds wasn't over, and it can be no coincidence that the previously mentioned song, "O Death," not only shares this symphony’s motivic material but is in the same key.  What are we to make of the song’s eventual achievement of E major as its final destination?

Hans Abrahamsen: Schnee

The following originally appeared as a program note to an Ensemble Dal Niente performance of Hans Abrahamsen's "Schnee."  You are welcome to reprint it free of change; but please let me know about it and attribute me.  Thanks! 

My first thought is this: whatever you do, don't read these program notes during our performance of Hans Abrahamsen's hypnotic 2008 masterpiece Schnee.  Subtitled “ten canons for nine instruments,” the work presents fascinating processes that the composer starts and guides just enough to maintain variety.  It is, in short, a very patient piece. You will feel much better about your listening experience if you let the work invite you to a place of similar patience, if you allow yourself to be engulfed in its unfolding; if you let yourself be ok with the contradictions involved in listening to a piece that will seem simultaneously elusive and unpredictable yet somehow intimately familiar.

In his own note to the work, Abrahamsen says the following:

"At the beginning of the nineties, I arranged some canons by Johann Sebastian Bach for ensemble – a total of seven pieces, ranging across his whole creative life. I was completely immersed in this music, and arranged it with the idea that it should be repeated many, many times – as a sort of minimal music. What lengths Bach had in mind I didn’t know, but for me, looking at the canons in this way opened up a new, animated world of time in circulation. "

While this is a reasonably cool story about how the idea for the piece was generated, what I like more about it is that it is the composer telling us how similar we all are. His listening experience and musical imagination function the same way ours do.  Viewed optimistically, the ubiquity of music in contemporary life has made us into imaginative, creative listeners... when we choose to pay attention.  When we create Spotify playlists for parties, while maybe that requires less work that composing an hour-long chamber ensemble piece with a series of highly mathematical tempo changes, our process of juxtaposition of different styles requires a similar attitude: a concurrent detachment from and engagement with our musical material.  Bach and minimalism.  No wonder this guy took ten years off from composing to sort everything out in his head.

Let me switch gears for a moment.  While I bet you can figure out a lot about the work's character by knowing that schnee is the German word for “snow,” there are levels to this that you can't get unless you look at the score (or unless I tell you).  Littered throughout are references to winter (sorry, Chicago), from character indications (“icy”) to unspoken text that accompanies lines of music (“children hope there will be snow!”).  You get the distinct impression that there is some sort of vague, obscured narrative here, some affect that you are so, so, SO close to understanding precisely, but that eludes articulation.

The Canons come in pairs.  The piece is an hour long.  While this is not strictly adhered to, the idea is that canonic pairs tend to get shorter as the work goes on.

Canon 1a (strings and piano 1 alone), involves the strings playing a repetitive accompaniment (“the harmonic is so high that there comes only air, like an icy whisper, but with a pulsation” he says) while the piano divides the slowly unfolding, arrestingly beautiful, canonic material between the two hands.  Canon 1b does a similar thing; but this time, overlaid upon this structure are “tender and still” chorales from other instruments, with the pulsating accompaniment now played by the percussionist using paper.  It feels like a commentary, or maybe a nostalgic reflection?

Canon 2a (symmetrically, for the three woodwinds and piano 2) is energetic, with fast moving short notes in the wind instruments “cheerfully played, but not too cheerfully, always a bit melancholy.” I'm not kidding, that's the actual tempo marking.  The unheard text printed in the score (spoken excitedly by unknown children?) is “it is snow!” and “it is winter-night now!”  After Canon 2a is the first of three intermezzos; some (but not all!) instruments are slightly detuned.  Thus when Canon 2b is played, its commentary on Canon 2a features dissonance that is both rhythmic (due to crazy rhythms being played against the original) and microtonal (because of the detuning).

Canon 3a (winds and strings) and 3b (pianos and percussion) give everyone -- musicians and listeners -- a much needed break from the frenetic activity of the previous music.   The evocative tempo marking says it all: “very slowly, dragging, and with gloom (in the tempo of “Tai Chi”).  More detuning happens afterwards during the second Intermezzo.  You won’t miss it.

Canons 4a and 4b begin and end as whirlwinds of frenzied activity -- children playing in the snow?  They are accompanied by sleigh bells (a conscious homage to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s German Dance K. 605 that uses the same instruments), one of which maintains the same constant, unflappable speed in the face of a series of truly dizzying tempo changes and polyrhythmic complexities.  Brief middle sections to both canons keep the rhythm going while providing a small amount of respite.  During the following final Intermezzo, the instruments are detuned yet one more time.

The final two canons of this massively ambitious work are only a single minute long each -- marked “simple and child-like,” the texture is unabashedly, almost sensually, beautiful; it is delicate, quiet, unpreturbed.  Perhaps the children are inside now, watching the snow falling from a comfortable, safe distance.  Or maybe Abrahamsen is the child -- marvelling at the genius of Bach’s contrapuntal writing.  Or maybe the children are us, the listeners, the audience members, the musicians, observing with awe the masterwork that Abrahamsen has wrought.  In any case, the experience is the same, what Immanuel Kant calls the mathematical sublime: the emotional reality of our overwhelming smallness in relation to the irreducible complexity of our world, whether it be in our perception of the power of nature (winter), works of artistic genius (Abrahamsen’s or Bach’s), or a single snowflake (schnee).  I know the first thing I will do leaving the venue after this afternoon’s concert is look up at the sky; I hope you will do something similar.

Mahler: Symphony No. 9

The following originally appeared as a program note to a DePaul Symphony Orchestra performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9.  You are welcome to reprint it free of change; but please let me know about it and attribute me.  Thanks! 

Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony is, technically speaking, his song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (the Song of the Earth).  A superstitious man, though, he avoided calling it "Symphony No. 9" because of the notable composers who had died shortly after or while writing their Ninth Symphonies (Beethoven, Bruckner, and, as far as he knew, Schubert).  Mahler believed he had avoided the curse by writing a Ninth Symphony without naming it that, thus he was free to call his next work his by that appellation without fear.  Fate had other ideas, it seems, as he was really only one completed movement into his Tenth (numbered) Symphony when he died on May 18, 1911 in Vienna.  The Ninth was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic on June 26, 1912 and conducted by his young assistant, Bruno Walter.

Though Mahler ostensibly believed he had broken the curse, ideas of death seem to have dominated his thinking ever since his serious illness in 1901.  Many contemporaries of Mahler interpreted the symphony programmatically.  Wrote Alban Berg, movingly, to his wife about the first movement: "it is the expression of an unheard-of love for this earth, the longing to live in peace upon her, Nature, still to enjoy her utterly, even to her deepest depths – before Death comes.  For it comes irresistibly.  This entire movement is based upon a presentiment of death."  While such intuitions may well be true and such poetic flights of fancy evocative, there is also a certain technical truth to them.  The idea of death and decay acts as a musical device in the work.

The sprawling, gargantuan, 27-minute first movement opens with a stuttering motif in the cellos (Mahler's irregular heart beat, according to Leonard Bernstein) immediately followed by poignant D major fragments in the 2nd violins and 2nd horn.  This first theme is less a melody than a series of short, broken phrases – more the vague recollection of music than a theme as we might normally definite it.  For the first few bars, the 2nd violins harp relentless on scale-degree 3 descending to scale-degree 2.  While it is reminiscent of the closing pages of Das Lied von der Erde (the soprano sings the same notes as she repeats the German word ewig – "forever" or "eternity"), is also notable because it pointedly avoids resolving to scale-degree 1.  This thematic area is developed considerably, including a contrasting area in D minor, and eventually a huge climax in D major.  A momentary pause leads to a slightly faster secondary area whose lyrical, flowing theme involves another descending figure; it is hammered out by the entire ensemble.  The exposition ends in a blaze of B-flat major glory.

The development section begins with a reminder of the heart-beat motif and spends some time mired in bitterness and stasis.  Slowly the violins return us to D major; the solo violin plays a paraphrase of a Strauss waltz (Freuet Euch des Lebens', or "Enjoy Life") accompanied by the thematic material from the main theme.  Is this a sort of altered recapitulation?  No, as it turns out.  The music gradually turns violent ("with rage" says the score) after a quotation in the trumpets of a fanfare from Mahler's First Symphony; it eventually collapses, leading to a passionate outpouring by the strings.  The form continues to stammer along, eventually reaching a lowpoint with string tremolos described as “shadowy.”  Again D major returns; surely this is the real recapitulation.  Again, though, the music wanders to other key areas and this time excitedly develops the lyrical second subject.  Just as the music seems on the verge of a tremendous break-through, the heart-beat motif interrupts cataclysmically in the trombones.  The trumpet quotation from the first symphony returns again, this time “like a solemn funeral procession,” according to the instruction.  The actual recapitulation ensues this time, in the correct key of D major; everything seems changed, though.  Odd instrumentations create a feeling that something is still not quite right.  An interpolation of ghostly chamber music between the 1st horn and 1st flute confirms this impression.  The music slouches towards D major.  A wistful horn regretfully remembers fragments from earlier in the movement.  The solo flute heads to dark key areas.  The horns and oboe are eventually left, haltingly and tentatively trying still to descend from scale-degree 3 to scale-degree 2 to scale-degree 1.  The D arrives only on the last note, as the music evaporates into the piccolo part.

The second movement – “rather clumsy and very coarse” says the tempo (?) marking – begins as a ländler (an Austrian peasant dance) that mocks the first movement’s struggles.  The banal clarinet trouble has no trouble getting from scale-degree 3 to scale-degree 2 to scale-degree 1 in two bars.  Simple-mindedly in a diatonic C major, this dance is interrupted by another one, the Trio section of the movement, a faster waltz played by the strings.  This music, unlike the opening, is unstable and changes keys precipitously.  The beginning of the movement makes a sudden appearance in the hullaballoo and is just as quickly ignored.  The tempo slows down again, even less hurried this time than originally, for another, exceedingly leisurely, ländler, different from the opening; the solo horn plays the scale-degree 3 to scale-degree 2 to motif from the first movement.  More exaggerated versions of the waltz and the slow ländler trade blows before allowing a tentative reminiscence of the movement’s opening to take shape.  This is the equivalent of the repetition of the minuet after the Trio of a classical symphony; here, as in other movements of this symphony, though, something is wrong.  This time, keys slip with suspicious effortlessness into other ones.  Almost immediately, the tempo begins to quicken, and soon we find ourselves right back in the waltz, this time even faster and getting more so.  As the music spins out of control the opening ländler interrupts inappropriately, bizarrely, embarrassingly.  Now everything is wrong – entrances in wrong keys, on the wrong beat become the norm.  Meter and stable tonality break down.  The coda becomes increasing fragmentary until, just as in the first movement, the music evaporates.

The third movement, bearing the unusual title Rondo-Burleske, is told to be “very defiant.”  Sarcastically dedicated by Mahler to “my brothers in Apollo” (i.e., those composers who would be interested in the relatively academic composition style to which it makes reference) it is a whirlwind tour-de-force of contrapuntal complexity.  What makes this movement stand out, though, is the variety of tonalities constantly being referenced – a sort of calculated indecision that gives the movement a level of surface dissonance unparalleled elsewhere in Mahler’s music.  The movement alternates at first between sections in which vehement voices are ferociously independent and lighter moments of fugato that prefigure the Finale’s main theme.  A cymbal crash intervenes to introduce a slower middle section whose main subject is a tender trumpet solo in the key of D major, the first movement’s key.  The trumpet’s melody is a decoration of an F-sharp: it goes up a step and down a step (this figure will feature prominently in the Finale as well).  The otherwise beautiful surface of the music marred by its inability to follow up its momentous build-ups with cadences.  Themes from the movement’s opening begin to return sardonically in the new tempo.  It is not until a sudden, savage trombone outburst, though, opens the floodgates that the listener is subjected to a coda of hair-raising violence found nowhere else in Mahler’s oeuvre.

The Finale of Mahler’s final symphony is in the key of D-flat major.  This fact is significant because the work began in D major; while it is not unusual for Mahler to begin and end a piece in a different key, the change normally involves an ascent rather than vice-versa (see, for example, the Fifth Symphony, which begins in C-sharp minor and ends in D major).  The work itself is sinking.  The movement’s title (not tempo marking!) is Adagio; it begins with an expressive outpouring from the violins that leads directly to the main theme.  Hymn-like in character, surely predictable is the fact that it is based on the scale-degree 3 to scale-degree 2 to scale-degree 1 descent we have heard so much already.  Here, though, while scale-degree 1 is present, it is always harmonized incorrectly (the chord is often A major, the dominant of D major, as if futilely striving to regain what it had before).  Brucknerian in form, the movement alternates extremely slowly and episodically between the opening hymn-like theme and a much cooler, ascending minor-key melody first heard in its full form in the contrabassoon, cellos, and basses.  After two cycles of this, the music suddenly gains intensity and leads to a climactic return of the hymn-like melody, which makes one last attempt at a triumphal cadence.  This fails, and the fabric of the movement begins to slowly come apart, to slip away, instruments ceasing their noise-making gradually, leaving only woodwind soloists and eventually the string section alone.  The final minutes of the symphony see the thematic material of the movement become increasingly, exaggeratedly, dangerously slow and fragmentary, more and more enveloped in silence, as if ever more difficult to perceive and to grasp and to hold onto.  Writing the word ersterbend (“dying”) no less than five times in the last pages of the score, Gustav Mahler says farewell to music.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

The following originally appeared as a program note to a DePaul Symphony Orchestra performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.  You are welcome to reprint this program note free of change; but please let me know about it and attribute me.  Thanks! 

There are not many pieces about which the question can be asked whether it is the most important work in the history of the art form. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is one of them.  So ubiquitous is it in the world of music that its composer and genre often aren't even mentioned: when musicians speak of "The Ninth," no one asks what they mean.  Virtually every 19th and 20th century composer struggled with its massive shadow.  It gave Brahms such anxiety that it took him 24 years to complete his first symphony.  (When a critic pointed out the resemblance between the main theme in the final movement of Brahms's first and the "Ode to Joy," Brahms reportedly said, "any ass can see that").  Its power caused Wagner to imagine that the symphony had outlived its usefulness, and that his music dramas had to be the way forward.  That nearly every Bruckner symphony begins with hushed tremolando strings and a melody involving open intervals is no coincidence.  So intimidated was Mahler at the prospect of writing a 9th numbered symphony that he created a song cycle instead.  The "Ode to Joy" has been used to sell action movies, the European Union, Christianity, and Nazism.  It has been used to celebrate openings of the Olympic Games, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and victories in Southeastern Conference football games.  It has been used for brainwashing both fictitious and real. 

All this merely makes the work that much more difficult to interpret as a modern listener, dealing with the actual sounds in a concert hall.  What is the work itself, stripped of its historical baggage, trying to tell us?  Is it even possible to attempt such a listening?

Surely it is worth a try, because the impression left on its contemporaneous audience was definitive and overwhelming (there seems no reason to doubt the well-known story that Beethoven had to be turned around by the alto soloist to face the rapturous ovation of the audience because he was completely deaf).  Beethoven's audience understood it, first and foremost, as a symphony; not as "the Ninth," "Joyful, joyful, we adore thee," or a child's piano song.  Its grotesquely ambitious and outsized proportions, its mixing of styles and genres, and its visceral directness all work together to create a heretofore unimagined symphonic experience that, while it has arguably been equaled, cannot be said to have been surpassed.

While most symphonies until the 1820s (and indeed, Beethoven's 1st through 8th) begin with either a slow introduction or an immediate statement of a principal theme, Beethoven's 9th begins in a way that suggests that it has been going since the beginning of time: with a subdued tremolo in the second violins accompanied by horns, playing an open fifth.  The first violin's cautious entrance is not a theme at all -- merely an interval.  The rest of the orchestra's subsequent steamrolling crescendo thus sounds positively apocalyptic when it arrives at the main theme made up of similar intervals, hammered at a fortissimo dynamic level, in unison, and not in the key in which the symphony had begun.  After the process is repeated in a different key, the main portion of what a listener assumes to be a sonata form movement begins in earnest.  It is no ordinary sonata form, however.  It does virtually none of the things one expects of a normal exposition: there are not identifiable, contrasting themes (are there really themes at all?); there is not a clear break in the middle to set off the second part; and while there is an attainment of a new tonal area (the “wrong” one: B-flat major, instead of the expected relative major of F), it could not be less secure.  Indeed, the exposition veers seamlessly off into the development section, which is a virtual perpetuum mobile of sixteenth notes, churning through key after key.  If the opening of the first movement was the beginning of the world, the recapitulation is the final judgment: a sudden but decisive crescendo that lands on an inverted major chord, causing the timpani's previously merely threatening presence to exact moments of vengeance.  The rest of the orchestra writhes through indecisive harmonies before running out of energy.  The rest of the recapitulation recasts the exposition’s materials in a minor key.  The coda begins as a solemn but subdued march by the brass and woodwinds; it crescendos to a massive, severe unison version of the main theme that wrestles the movement to a decisive close.

The second movement, not the usual slow, song-like affair, is a vast, demonic scherzo, much longer and on a hugely grander scale than any that had come before it.  Its lightning-stroke opening descending gesture is a rethinking of the first movement’s descending main theme.  A short theme introduced timidly by the second violins, prominently featuring a falling octave, piles on top of itself as more and more instruments are added.  Whether at loud or quiet dynamics, the orchestra becomes obsessed with the falling octave motif, repeating it relentlessly, tirelessly, manically, tyrannically; even the timpani is retuned from its usual fourths and fifths to participate.  When the falling octaves change their rhythm and suddenly introduce a major key, we realize that we’ve been listening only to the A section the whole time.  The innocence of the middle section, the Trio, is stunning in comparison.  The simple-minded oboe and clarinet tunes ascends and descends in a step-wise fashion (its implications for the last movement’s “joy” theme perhaps not clear to a listener) to an equally empty-headed accompaniment in the bassoons.  A moment of nostalgia allows the entire scherzo section to return, its sternness unaltered.  Another repeat of the Trio is cut short by the falling octaves to end the movement.

After two such exhausting experiences, the slow movement is a welcome arrival.  It is cast in the key of B-flat major, a key already important to the first movement.  The first movement is invoked again by recasting the first two notes of its main theme (D and A) into the new key – the sublime, simple A section melody in the violins is presented unadorned and reverentially.  The woodwinds lovingly repeat the tail ends of phrases.  So heavenly is the theme that it does not to want end, instead veering inconclusively towards a new key.  The ensuing B section spins out an ecstatically windy melody in the second violins.  The first violins take their cue from this and bring us a variation on the A section made up of twists and turns every which way.  A variation of the B section is also heard, now in yet a third key with the woodwinds playing the melody.  The solo clarinet seems to want to give us even another variant of the A section, but the music wanders into distant, dark regions with unusual contributions from the fourth French Horn.  The violins, relieved, bring us back to the home key, and the final variation of the A section, now transfigured into joyous, flowing, improvisatory babbling as the woodwinds accompany approvingly.  The movement climaxes with a twice-repeated fanfare, whose revelatory modulation the second time does little more than postpone the inevitable coda.  A sense of complete repose closes Beethoven’s longest symphonic slow movement.

Thus, the terrifying noise that opens the Finale, what Wagner called the “horror fanfare,” is all the more disruptive.  Since the work's premiere, there has been an unceasing scholarly debate about the form of such a massive, truly unprecedented creation.  This is no surprise: it incorporates elements of variation, rondo, sonata, and concerto forms.  But it is perhaps best understood according to Charles Rosen’s analysis of it as a microcosm of the work as a whole, a mini-symphony of its own.  Its first “movement,” after the horror fanfare, continues with aimless, wordless recitatives in the cellos and basses.  The three previous movements are each recalled and rejected in turn.  Only after the woodwinds hint at the “Ode to Joy” theme is the recitative allowed cadence.  The cellos and basses then present the theme themselves, sotto voce, as if testing the waters.  Three more variations ensue, adding instruments jubilantly.  The violence of horror fanfare interrupts again, though.  Beethoven has now had enough, and in one of the most dramatic moments in all of music, intercedes to address the audience directly with his own words (not those of Frederich Schiller, the poet of the actual “Ode to Joy”): “oh friends, not these tones,” sings the bass-baritone.  “Rather, let us raise our voices more pleasingly, and more joyfully.”  It is a stunning compositional moment, moving in its almost naive sense unproblematic communication between composer and audience.  The chorus responds with enthusiasm, and the joy theme is now heard in another set of variations, this time setting, with chorus and soloists, Schiller’s poem elucidating enlightenment ideals of joy and universal brotherhood.  Working itself into an agitated state, the music comes to an awed halt on the phrase “And the cherub stands before God!”

Here begins the second “movement” of the Finale, the scherzo, in the all-important key of B-flat major.  The surprising, ostensibly trivializing, use of a Turkish military style (complete with percussion and an piccolo) depicts the sentiment “Run, brothers, along your path, joyful, as a hero to victory” as encouraged by the tenor and lower voices.  An whirlwind of a double fugue takes over, with the joy theme as its subject.  Spending itself of energy, all seems defeated.  In a moment of utter sublimity, a quick and unexpected modulation brings the ode back more powerfully than before, crashing through our psychology with an overwhelming vision of utopia.

The slow “movement” moves to G major and begins with a new theme accompanying the words “be embraced, millions! This kiss is for the whole world!” heard in the trombone and lower voices.  Music of ravishing beauty ensues, climaxing in register on the words describing the dwelling place of the “loving father” “beyond the starry canopy.” 

The “finale” of the Finale returns to D major and unifies the joy theme and the “be embraced” theme into another enormous double-fugue.  The subsequent section re-introduces the soloists, who, with the chorus, become fixated on the idea that “all people shall be brothers.”  The closing section of the “movement,” the actual movement, and the symphony combines, for the first and only time, all forces on the stage into a frenzied, orgiastic, uninhibited rush to a final cadence.  By assembling the largest performance forces in music history until that point, Beethoven’s goal must to induce in the audience a literal experience of the overwhelming and all-consuming joy that is the subject of the poem, surely with the hopes that the memory of the emotion will lead listeners to take his exhortation that “all people shall be brothers” seriously.  In short, it is not too much to say that Beethoven is trying to fundamentally change the world through the writing and performance of this symphony.

The Ninth Symphony was written by a deaf composer who hadn’t worked in the genre in a decade, and whose music had fallen out of fashion in favor of Italian opera.  Getting it performed was an extraordinary ordeal; it made hardly any money for the already cash-strapped composer, and in any case, he couldn’t hear a note.  Beethoven had little to gain from writing it or supervising its performance, other than the measly commissioning fee of £50 from the London Philharmonic Society.  Those facts, plus the work’s subject matter, lead only to one inescapable conclusion: that it was written, quite simply, out of a profound love for humanity that is the very best of who we are as a species.  That it continues to be universally beloved is a testament to the fact that we all seem to know that.

My writings on music, including program notes on individual works, as well as essays on music and cultural, will appear here in the coming months.