Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Romantic Music and the Conflict of Duality: Part 1

This post is a work-in-progress for my Intro to Music class – there will be more text posted a little later, but I wanted to post the musical examples we’d covered as we made the transition from Classical to the Romantic era.

Beethoven was essentially a fork in the road – his music led to two different paths that both became very important to the rest of the 19th Century, to put it simply. It’s ironic that the two “warring” camps of music between 1830 and 1900 could say they found their roots in Beethoven!

Berlioz c.1830
The first major example beyond Beethoven and Schubert would be the French composer, Hector Berlioz and his epic Symphonie fantastique -- so-called because of its “fantastic” nature as in “inspired by fantasy” (though it’s a pretty fantastic piece, in the modern sense of the word, too).

Here is a performance of the complete, nearly hour-long symphony conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. It’s in five movements (the standard symphony would’ve been 4 but Beethoven, in his “Pastoral” Symphony which suggested “pleasant feelings upon arriving in the countryside” as well as “merry gathering of country folk” (celebrating the harvest) and a finale that was a celebration of thanksgiving after the storm – he inserted an additional movement before the finale that depicted the thunderstorm) and tells a story about a young artist (presumably Berlioz himself) falling in love with a beautiful woman (presumably Henrietta (or Harriet) Smithson) whom he sees through the fog of an opium-induced dream, then sees at a fancy-dress ball; then dreams of a country scene where a shepherd serenades his shepherdess who then disappears after the intervening rolls of thunder… then things get really weird when he imagines he’s now sentenced to death for killing his Belovéd and is then beheaded at the scaffold (guillotine!) before ending up in Hell where he imagines she is now the leader of the witches’ Sabbath he witnesses. Yeah…

1st Mvmt (Dreams, Passions – meet the Belovéd with her “idee fixe” or fixed idea, her main theme, first introduced at 5:40 in the violins as the First Theme after the slow introduction)
2nd Mvmt (Scene at the Ball) begins at 16:10
3rd Mvmt begins at 23:05 (w/English Horn – answered by oboe played from off-stage)
4th Mvmvt (March to the Scaffold) at 41:25 (at 47:47 – memory of Her Theme, then the axe falls!)
5th Mvmt (Witches’ Sabbath) at 48:26 – at 50:08, the jaunty theme is a perversion of The Belovéd’s Theme as the leader of the Witches’ Dance (introducing the Gregorian Chant for the “Day of Wrath,” Dies Irae, at 51:42 after the churchbell chimes)

Here is a link to PBS’s “Keeping Score” with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, an episode about Berlioz's symphony. You can read the text but if you have time, the program itself (an internal embed) would give you lots of additional information about the work itself.

Compare that to Felix Mendelssohn’s "Italian" Symphony (initially written around the same time Berlioz had completed his “Fantastique.” They actually met in Rome not long after Berlioz’s premiere and while Mendelssohn was composing his own symphonic impressions of his visit to sunny Italy.

Here, Dudamel conducts a different orchestra – but notice the difference in his conducting style, too – the way-out “over-the-top” highly dramatic music of Berlioz requires a more extroverted style to get the interpretation across to the musicians; the Mendelssohn is more “stable,” more straight-forward, not far removed from Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, and requires less “showmanship” to get is essence across. Though it is “picturesque,” it is not necessarily a story being told in music – more a mood, impressions, memories, but certainly not the “blood-and-thunder” of Berlioz’s symphony.

The sound on this recording is too metallic and nasty for my taste (at least on my computer) so here’s a different conductor with Venezuela’s “Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra” with just the first movement of the symphony:

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(These are students in the program “La Systema” that takes kids from poor neighborhoods and often from potential lives of crime, hands them an instrument and gives them lessons and an opportunity to get out of their environment… like Dudamel)

These two composers are almost the opposite of each other though they were contemporaries and, actually, friends – and open-minded enough to realize what the other had achieved in his music, even if they didn’t agree with it themselves (Mendelssohn joked he felt he needed to wash his hands after just handling the score – the whole idea, not just musically, was antithetical to his world-view).

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One of the hallmarks of the Romantic Period (if not of small-R romantic music in other periods) is an interest in Nature as a source of inspiration. We had seen it in paintings much earlier but most of the music from the 18th Century (with rare exceptions) would be considered “ABSTRACT music” – music that is primarily about form and content, perhaps dramatic or maybe dealing with contrasts but not specifically “about” anything – not, in other words, telling a story. Granted, there are pieces like Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” four violin concerto each one depicting the different seasons of the year complete with bird-song or rustling winds or hunting-parties or dogs barking or people slipping on the ice; and there are short harpsichord pieces by French composers that might depict an event or create an image or suggest a specific mood, but these are more the exception to the Baroque and Classical eras.

The idea of “PROGRAM music” was to suggest a scene (like a painting) or imply a story (like a literary work). Today, it might be more like a “soundtrack” for a film, music that underpins the action, perhaps, helps set the mood or place the setting.

Though a “program” piece like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (written around 1830) told a very explicit story supplied by the composer, many times a composer might give it a title and, if it’s a well-known story, the listener could supply the details that the title suggests. When Felix Mendelssohn was a young man, he visited Scotland and visited a famous cave on the Atlantic Coast of Scotland – sending home a drawing of the cave with a fragment of music underneath it, he later turned his memories and this scrap of music into a piece he called “Fingal’s Cave” or “The Hebrides.”

The Entrance to Fingal's Cave in Scotland

The music suggests the rising and falling of waves, the immensity of the cave, the growing awe of seeing the cave coming into view and so on. But in spite of the “program” behind the music, the music is still firmly structured as a “sonata form” just like the 1st movement of a Haydn or Beethoven symphony would have been – complete with contrasting themes, the proper digressions and returns from the tonal center and so on. It could be appreciated as both PROGRAM music AND ABSTRACT music!

Here’s the Hebrides Overture overlaying a video travelogue of a visit the Cave the music describes:

Even without knowing the title, it’s possible a listener could figure out what’s “behind” the music. Someone listening to the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and knowing it only as the Symphony No. 1 in C Major would be lost because the “classical structure” of a traditional symphony is so subsumed by the programmatic element as to be unnoticeable beyond the division into movements and contrasting moods and tempos: Berlioz doesn’t care about traditional structure – he’s only interested in the emotional impact of his music and the story it is meant to convey.

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We had also listened to two works that were inspired by “riding horses” – and the supernatural. The first was Franz Schubert’s song “The Erlking” in which a father rides through a night-time storm to take his son who is ill and hallucinating, imagining he’s being pursued by the Erlking and his daughters, nasty sprites who entice and then kill children:
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Notice how Schubert arranges the three different characters: The Father (Narrator) until 1:04 when the Son answers him with the voice now in a slightly higher register (and sung more softly by the singer) returning to the Father (deeper voice & register) at 1:20 (“My son, you’re imagining this”). At 1:29, we hear a slight change in the accompaniment, the voice becomes more insinuating – this is the Erlking (“You lovely child, come play with me”). Schubert then alternates between these three voices.

When the father arrives home, he looks down and realizes his son – is dead.

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The next example was Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from “The Ring of the Nibelung” – the current Met production in which 24 planks form a “machine” that can change shape, form steps, walls, platform and – as here – even horses riding through the air.
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(the basic “Ride” is the first 2:30 or so but the “Ride” continues, once they’ve landed, till about 5:20).
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In addition to the production – how the director realizes the idea of the Valkyries flying through the air on their horses (impossible to depict on stage in Wagner’s initial production in 1876) – feel the constant pounding of hooves and the rushing of wind suggested in the music itself. In one sense, you don’t need the visual element because your imagination can supply it from hearing the music.

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There were two paths that essentially ran parallel (or crossed back-and-forth) throughout the bulk of the 19th Century. Though both have “Romantic” elements, one is more right-brained “romantic” (Dionysian) than the other, which could be described as more left-brained “classical” (Apollonian).

The right-brained path (more subjective) would lead from Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (the “Pastoral”) and his later music like the 9th Symphony to the Romantic Music of Berlioz, of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt.

This left-brained branch (more objective, more “abstract”) became the music of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann and Schumann’s protégé, Johannes Brahms. Though technically “Romantic” composers of the 19th Century, their stylistic attitudes are essentially different (sometimes almost the opposite) of those following the Right-Brained Path – they are more “classical” in their style but could at times be very “romantic” in mood: Schumann’s miniature piano pieces that tell stories, for instance, are certainly Romantic in spirit, but overall he might be a more objective composer.

The line is very fine and easily crossed: like a traditional DIALECTICAL synthesis, Robert Schumann could be part-Romantic and part-Classical (compared to Berlioz, Wagner and Liszt) but one who might score slightly higher on the one side or the other depending on the piece of music or the particular moment.

Certainly his “multiple personality” issues – one of his characters in his writings about music he called Master Raro (after an old philosopher) who would examine things according to certain left-brain, logical patterns, while two others he called Florestan who would see things from a certain right-brain, passionate and emotional viewpoint, or Eusebius who, also right-brained, was more contemplative and introspective. At times, any of these would dominate over the others, or at times they’d be in conflict with each other, both in his reaching a conclusion in his writings as well as in the music he composed.

Schumann’s inner struggles – both in terms of his music and his life (whether we view it as “insanity” or not) reminds me of the comment by Native Americans who tell us, inside each of us there are two wolves: one, the white wolf, represents good; the black wolf represents evil – and they are constantly fighting for control of your spirit. The student asks “which one wins?” The teacher says “the one you feed.”

- Dick Strawser

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