What is a symphony? (an unanswered question in the form of fourteen lessons)


In the fall of 2013, in preparation for beginning to compose my own as my dissertation composition, I undertook a score-study project that attempted to answer the perfectly innocent question, ‘What is a symphony, anyway?’ Well, actually, I was just looking for some musical and orchestrational ideas I might steal; I hadn't planned on attempting to wax philosophical or poetical on the nature of the symphony since the death of Mahler, but as with any sort of creative act, sometimes the materials have ideas of their own.

The rules of my self-imposed game were fairly simple: twice a week, following the counterpoint class I was teaching that semester, I would retire to my usual table on the second floor of the Allen Music Library, select some 20th- or 21st-century symphony for which I had access to both a score and a recording, and then listen to the work while reading along in the score. Then I would write down my thoughts on the work in a private journal (the ‘lessons’ I learned from the piece, I called them) before heading off to my office hours to mark my students’ counterpoint assignments.

These began harmlessly enough—a quick overview of the work as a whole in one or two sentences would be followed by some concrete observations which I might find helpful for my own writing, e.g., ‘in bars 57–8 of the first movement, the voicing of the chord in the winds is chilling,’ (Harbison, Symphony no. 2) or ‘he also proves the power of two-voice counterpoint, which can rest firmly in the realm of 18th-century tonality in one moment and slip quietly into the realm of unmoored semi-tonality the next,’ (Nielsen, Symphony no. 5) or ‘he reminds us also of the beautiful harmonic color of aggregate completion, e.g., complementary whole-tone hexachords—with textures such as these, one can shift harmonic fields (and the entire harmonic color, tonal implications, etc.) gradually such that one senses rather than hears the shifts—a gnarled aggregate gives way to an explicitly scalar structure, and it is as if a new world was entered’ (Lutosławski, Symphony no. 2)—but about a month and a half into the process, I realized that my commentary had become increasingly rhapsodic (as even these three short excerpts suggest), and that my entries were as much about my impressions as to whether or not—and even more importantly, how—the work in question succeeded as a symphony (whatever that meant). More than just mining the works for some techniques or simple musical ideas, I had begun using them as case studies in an attempt to answer a much bigger question.

A year and a half later, as I am now finishing the final sections of my own Symphony no. 1, I feel as if my own thoughts on the question of, ‘What is a symphony?’ have finally begun to take shape. Of course, I wouldn't dream of attempting to put these thoughts into writing in any meaningful way (not yet, at least… it will be many years before I feel ready to attempt that, if I’ll ever be), but I have found that their basic form and core appears in the recurring motives and basic lines I began working out for myself in the fall of 2013. So, in lieu of a formal and systematic discussion (technical, aesthetic, or both), I instead present here 14 of these lessons I took from these composers, some edited slightly, but none rewritten, and in roughly the order I took them. (Well, the final two paragraphs concerning Schnittke were rewritten somewhat—technically, the conversation I mention about his Concerto Grosso no. 1 that helped clarify my thoughts on his Symphony no. 6 wouldn't occur for another year—but my basic conclusion was the same.) While I had never intended that these be read by anyone other than myself, let alone that I make available for public consumption, looking back over them now, I could imagine that for some, they might be of interest.

(9 June 2015)

Lesson 1: Christopher Rouse, Symphony no. 1

The skeptic might claim that an orchestral work in a single movement that lasts not even a half hour should bear some more evocative title than ‘symphony’. But this work can be called nothing other. There is something about the work that demands it be called ‘symphony’—a breadth, a depth, a timeframe, a fundamentally Romantic spirituality. Like any multi-movement symphony, clear sections emerge, demarked by distinct breaks in tone, tempo, timbre, and harmony. Rouse treats them as he might treat stand-alone movements had he drawn double bar lines at the conclusion of each section, but instead, one emerges from the ashes of the previous, seamless, necessary only in retrospect but somehow required by the work's course. He hints at the work's expressive soul only at the end with the words at the bottom of the score: De profundis clamavi… Deo Gratias, August 26, 1986, Dies illa

Rouse understands the power of triads and also that of conflicting harmonic lines challenging a tonal framework. He likewise understands the expressive pull of a tonic chord, made even more poignant when in the presence of lines that disregard it altogether. It is the power of a line leaping from pitch to pitch of a mutated scale, stubbornly refusing to be brought into concord, refusing to allow itself to find peace.

Like all competent symphonists, Rouse knows how to grow a work from the tiniest of seeds. As if validating Schenker's assertion, these motivic germs birth the entire piece, and remain nearly always in the foreground, making them impossible to ignore: the minor second upper neighbor, the minor third, the rhythmic ostinati… The rhythmic component of the work gives it an unyielding forward motion, representing not so much an unstoppable onrushing torrent, but rather, the inescapable march of time. The impact is deeply moving.

(10 September 2013)

Lesson 2: Krzysztof Penderecki, Symphony no. 3

It strikes me as strange that I do not know where to begin, but perhaps more strange that I do not know what this means. One thing that is undeniable is that this work is a superb utilization of the orchestra as an instrument (with the exception of the unnecessarily large percussion section and his strange reliance on rototoms). He also relies on classical symphonic devices such as motives (both those fundamentally rhythmic and also fundamentally scalar), strong metric organization, themes in their traditional sense, and so on. The work also divides into five distinct movements with five distinct characters. In ways, it is a very traditional work, and standing in dialogue with this tradition, it wields a great deal of force.

The orchestration is throughout powerful and effective, and throughout a vehicle of the music rather than the music itself. Nearly all of the work could have been written first in a short score and later orchestrated—the doublings are logical, safe, and never overly fussy. Effects for their own sake never appear. The musical language is also thoughtful and mature—Penderecki has learned well his lessons from the masters: running scalar unison string lines call to mind the great German symphonists (and remind the listener of the wonderful effectiveness of such a simple orchestrational device); the third movement echoes Wagner and Straus (Zarathustra, perhaps?) with its unending lyric melody and strangely shifting triadic background, which feels quite Riemannian; the ‘severe and ominous’ melody in the Passacaglia evokes passages from Messiaen's Transfiguration. And always, his sense of time and space is nothing short of brilliant.

The program notes which Naxos provides with its recording provides nicely detailed descriptions for each of the work's five movements, and in multiple places compares the work with the Beethovenian spirit. The note concludes:

In his Third Symphony, Penderecki has produced a work consciously related to the great symphonies of the past century, yet clearly of the present era. Alternately moving, shocking and enthralling, it is among the most eminent pieces of the genre at the close of the century.

But for all the praise I might heap upon it—and it is a powerful work—it seems to lack something essential. The spirit of Beethoven does hang over the movement, and for a symphony, this ought to be a compliment of the highest degree. But it is a dangerous thing to compete with Beethoven—here, something seems grotesque and unsettled, as if Beethoven were more distorted into a twisted farce rather than reincarnated in his heroic glory. Despite the almost obsessive focus on certain pitches, which suggests that the work ought to have an observable tonal harmonic logic, Penderecki seems to eschew such a fundamental structure. Moment by moment, all is exciting, driving, perfectly engaging, and yet at the end, it seems like the basic questions of ‘whence’ and ‘why’ remain unanswered.

The work may be brilliant, mature, and in many ways exemplary, but in the end, it does not strike me as being necessary. Perhaps this is why I did not know where to begin.

(17 September 2013)

Lesson 3: John Harbison, Symphony no. 2

For me, Harbison's sense of color and orchestration remain almost without peer, but I can never shake the feeling that he feels content to simply orchestrate without first bothering to write the music. This work is in four movements played without pause and evocatively subtitled, respectively, ‘Dawn’, ‘Daylight’, ‘Dusk’, and ‘Darkness’. One can feel the piece's heartbeat throbbing throughout, hear the blood circulating through its arteries, its neurons firing, its lungs inspiring. The sense of the orchestra as a living organism is strong in the work, but this organism merely lives, never does. It exists, but does not know why, moves deftly, but without reason. In Harbison's symphony, the orchestra as a living creature is a powerful and apt metaphor, but it remains only a dumb beast.

There also felt little essentially symphonic about the work. The contrasts between the movements in terms of tempo and texture were clear enough, but the absence of thematic articulation undermined the structural clarity. Both his melodies and his bass lines could be heard through, above, or beneath the texture with a certain crystalline transparency, but they were perfectly forgettable. His counterpoint was superb, but aimless; his harmonies were structurally sound, but lacked higher levels of organization. As a result, this felt more like a tone poem than a symphony, an evocative thread of sounds and textures, but not a grand statement of the various elements sounding together for a particular end. Only the first movement sounds like it truly belongs in a symphony, and even then, this lasts for barely 90 seconds.

But the orchestration! This is, on the whole, brilliant and most worthy of careful emulation. Even his orchestrational clichés are executed with such skill that they are absolved of any triteness. But it is a shame that there is so little music there for his orchestrational genius to carry.

(5 September 2013)

Lesson 4: Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Adagio (Symphony no. 2) and Symphony no. 8

This is rather disconcerting. I question the designation of ‘Symphony’ for the work he numbers as his second; ‘Adagio’ fits perfectly well, but there seems little symphonic about it. Further, I cannot tell if this is an ironic work or not. It flirts with tonality, embraces it, obliterates it, returns to it as if nothing unusual had happened… with someone like Michael Hersch or George Rochberg, this sort of thing feels right, deliberate, and expressive—we know they care deeply about their tonal materials, and just as deeply (and usually more-so) than their non-tonal materials. But in this work, Hartmann's relationship with the material makes it seem like an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Frequently his textures, orchestration, and even harmonies evoke Debussy (parallels to La Mer seem quite strong), but I am never sure how to take them. The whole thing is quite unsettling, uncertain. Perhaps because of this, it seems like a tone poem rather than a symphony, seems like its claim of structure and abstract organization are not to be taken seriously. Topics are potent and dangerous things. Touching on one even lightly can call forth a whole host of associations that once loosed cannot be simply dismissed as irrelevant. The danger is likely even greater when the reference is unintentional, but the highest levels of musical damage and distraction will occur when the listener is unsure whether the reference was intended or unintended, and if so, for what purpose. And it is into this trap that ‘Symphony no. 2’ falls headlong.

In contrast, his Symphony no. 8 seems far more effective as a symphony. Composed in 1960–62 near the end of the composer's life (1905–1963), it is a product of its time—look into nearly every sonority, and there you will find Boulez grinning back at you. (Messiaen appears a number of times as well, but he seems to remain outside of the Darmstadt aesthetic.) The work is in two clear but seamless movements, both of which resist description in traditional symphonic terms. Much of the first seems to channel the spirit of the late Beethoven quartets, but paired with the harmonies of Boulez. The second is a scherzo which degenerates into frenzy, with a fugue (so labeled, but loosely executed) near the end, not at all unlike the ‘Jupiter’. The work is thoroughly atonal, but not to the point of avoiding tonal implications—the first movement in particular has several lines which one could imagine having been taken directly from Beethoven—and despite the absence of tonal harmonic organization, the harmonic motion feels quite natural. I am at a loss to say exactly how this works.

The architecture also feels symphonic insofar as blocks of motivic material provide the structure. This is not an unending melody, nor a half hour of interesting sounds and colors, but instead it has all the structural rigor on would expect from any work called ‘symphony’. The metric regularity (and in places, rhythmic straightforwardness) helps contribute to this. Perhaps it is this structural, architectural mindset of his eighth (so absent from his second) that lies at the heart of the symphony for the mature Hartmann, something essential to the idea of a symphony in general?

(24 September 2013)

Lesson 5: Alan Hovhaness, Symphony no. 9 (Saint Vartan Symphony)

This one is intriguing and asks in a rather curious way what truly is a symphony. The work, about 40 minutes in duration, is divided into 24 distinct movements. The title refers to St. Vartan (Vardan Mamikonian), the fifth century Armenian warrior-saint, celebrating his heroic death in battle: while the Persians won the battle, it proved a strategic victory for the Armenians, ultimately leading to a treaty that would allow the Armenians the right to practice Christianity freely (a right for which they have suffered greatly ever since). But rather than being an explicitly programmatic work, it instead is divided into stately processionals, chant-like arias, and canonic dances. The melodic content is remarkably chant-like, and I would suspect that it is a faithful quotation of an Armenian hymn to St. Vartan.

As the work progresses, there seems to be little development. Each movement springs forth fully formed, with no need whatsoever for material to develop or emerge. It is as if the end of each movement is obvious and entailed by the opening of the movement. All the music must do is simply trace its path; no invention is required. The work as a whole seems to deliberately eschew any sense of large-scale teleology, growth, or development. It is a succession of miniatures, far closer in spirit to a theme and variations than to a symphony. It has an antique air about it, like a baroque or renaissance dance suite.

There is a certain minimalist ascetic to the work: it presents a thing and then simply allows it to run its course without interference from the meddlesome composer. It is a minimalism whose spirit is aligned more with Tavener than Reich in terms of the types of processes and the materials subjected to them. Glass also seems like a fair comparison: both share an unashamed simplicity and directness, a bright and colorful sonic optimism, and a willingness to simply let a thing repeat. Strangely, he also seems to have an affinity with Michael Hersch in terms of the formal structure: 24 distinct movements, most all of which are basically static, half of which sound exactly alike, yet somehow creating a logical path through an imposing edifice: logical but not deliberately ordered by any human will; logical but not following any natural physical or biological laws; logical more by definition of some geometric truth than by anything expressible in human language. Even in their evocative resonances of antiquity, both Hovhaness and Hersch seem to be kindred spirits, albeit coming from two very different places.

But is it a symphony? I am really not sure. Instinctively, I want to say no, but what else would one call it? Strangely, nothing else seems to fit either.

(22 October 2013)

Lesson 6: Roger Sessions, Symphony no. 3

It is, perhaps, not without reason that Sessions's music remains largely unplayed. If I were asked as a conductor to program this work, after only a few minutes of glancing through the score, the decision would be obvious: the work is stupidly difficult. And ‘stupidly’ is a necessary adjective—Le Sacre is difficult, and so is the Berio Sinfonia, but neither stupidly, which is to say, the music in both of these required that level of difficulty and also justified it. Sessions, on the other hand, requires it but fails to provide a sufficient payoff. In terms of the music, Sessions has a fine sense of the overall shape, of the long line; pacing, shape, and timing were without weakness, and this is truly impressive. But this cannot make up for what I perceive as insufficient musical purpose.

In contrast to his first, the third symphony is written for an orchestra, at least—rather than blocks of bland and brown wind-band sound, here there is counterpoint to allow the individual characteristics of each instrument to emerge, and the strings in this one are not forgotten (even though the work is still driven by the winds). The orchestration was effective, at times even interesting, but hardly something to be admired on its own merit.

While the difficulty of the work is what keeps it from the concert stage, the true fatal flaw is deeper: there are simply too many notes. At nearly all times, there are circa five different things going on at once. This is frenetic and stressful music to listen to, and this lack of unified purpose, of playing together, of symphony, makes the work profoundly difficult for the listeners as well the performers. The overabundance of pitches means that no pitch is more important than any other. On page 138, trumpets in simple fifth-related thirds shot through the texture in a striking way—here was clarity! But alas, it collapsed into the rush of chromaticism whence it came. The exception proves the rule: here, there is neither focus nor clarity. The work is motivically unified, and recognizably so—Sessions was far too intelligent and careful to have missed that—but it is not enough for a motive to simply be recognizable; it must do something. The motive must have a purpose, a raison d’être, an answer to that unavoidable question of why. If the motive has this, then as the motive grows up through a structure that obeys the same musical laws as the motive, then the work itself will be infused with a sense of purpose. But if these most elemental seeds of the piece lack this sense of direction and purpose, then the work is lost and forever aimless.

(1 October 2013)

Lesson 7: Alfred Schnittke, Symphony no. 6

After a brilliant opening chord, the work collapses into disjunct pointlessness and remains there. In one sense, it feels like an orchestral work belonging to my Hymnus series: episodic and fragmentary; but unlike a Hymnus, it never coalesces, no τὲλος ever emerges. Missing is any sense of line or continuity throughout the work. The opening of the fourth movement offers promise and sounds genuinely symphonic, but even this hope is short-lived. It returns nearer to the end once more, and once more departs. In the third movement there appear some moments of beautiful expressivity and soulful longing, but their connection to the rest of the work remains unclear—why is it that these moments were necessitated by everything else? This remains unanswered.

His use of tonal material seems poorly integrated into the prevailing non-tonal context, and as such, the tonal elements seem slightly out of place rather than of the same fabric. The triadic materials in the low brass in the first movement have a cinematic feel to them—musically effective, but potentially dangerous in their ability to evoke unwanted associations. The extended cello soli in the third movement was also quite effective, both providing a welcome contrast with the surrounding orchestral sound (which is always slightly harsh) and also creating, at least for a moment, a long line to follow.

While the episodic opening grew dull within the first minute, after eight minutes, I began to accept it simply as the way of the piece. It was a strange sort of numbing—the music may have been soulless, but when soulless music is all you can recall, it doesn't necessarily seem all that bad. Perhaps this was Schnittke's intention: the depiction of a world in which the laws of music have been forgotten. Cara Stroud has pointed out to me that in his Concerto Grosso no. 1, he presents to us a world in which the formal perfection of common-practice music had been irrecoverably lost, and this reading of the symphony would be very much in line with her reading of the concerto grosso. In the concerto grosso, it's not until the hope-crushing failure of the Rondo that all the work's tonal allusions are confirmed as nothing more than a nostalgic disnarration of an impossible fantasy. (Every single time I hear that moment, even though I know from the beginning exactly how it does and must end, it feels to me like the world has ended, that all is lost, gone forever. It's a deep, visceral reaction—unavoidable, inescapable. Such a powerful moment!) Maybe with this symphony, 15 years later, Schnittke felt that the 19th century was so far gone that even its memory was lost, and only its empty forms remained. Perhaps its complete failure as a symphony is perfectly deliberate, and the work is best read as a commentary on the failure of the symphony as a genre in the late-20th century.

But if so (and leaving aside my fundamental disagreements with his assessment of the genre or of tonality), can I even congratulate him? If an artistic statement aims to make its point by the failure of the medium of that statement, then ‘success’, I must think, would be logically impossible. Form and content can never truly be separated, and if there is no synergy between the medium and the artistic goal, then I do not believe success is possible—if the medium fails, then so too has the statement. The Concerto Grosso no. 1 works because the failure (of traditional tonality) is declared from without (as the 20th-century dissonances overwhelm and obliterate the delicate Baroque rondo); but his Symphony no. 6 appears to be attempting to declare its own failure from within. It is simply not possible for a medium to successfully announce its own failure, and in attempting to perform this logical contradiction, Schnittke has failed at both.

(8 October 2013)

Lesson 8: Einojuhani Rautavaara, Symphony no. 4 (Arabescata)

My first impression upon listening to this work is that it is not a symphony. And as it turns out, it was not originally called one—only when Rautavaara withdrew his original 1964 Symphony no. 4 in 1986 did he incorporate Arabescata (1962) into his symphonic cycle.

The work seems to draw upon everything Rautavaara could find of value in the continental avant-garde: the first and third movements are completely serialized, the third movement was constructed by laying four different geometric figures onto a chart of graph paper to generate all musical parameters algorithmically, and the fourth movement is an experiment in controlled aleatory. There is very little essentially symphonic about this work; Rautavaara was right to have not called it a symphony when he began. With a few precious exceptions—the opening is a perfect case of the danger of too much percussion spent too quickly; a pair of piano 32nd notes on the off-beat in the opening lento builds anticipation with remarkable power; a particular chorale passage in the last movement in the brass was quite nice, and very Messiaen-like—there is little at all to take from the work, either positive or negative. It should have remained merely Arabescata; calling this a ‘symphony’ does more damage to Rautavaara's cycle than would a vacant gap between nos. 3 and 5.

(10 October 2013)

Lesson 9: Grazyna Bacewicz, Symphony no. 3

Joshua Burel, a reliable Bacewicz devotee, commented to me that he was not terribly fond of her third symphony. Having now listened to it, I must concur—there is really nothing to commend this work for either study or art's sake, except possibly as an example of the bland, a warning to others of how to write a thoroughly uninteresting work. I simply cannot see any reason for it to exist except for the simple fact that even the greats must from time to time produce a failure; triumphs are shallow otherwise. But the failures should be relegated to the fireplace or the archive; the concert hall has no use of them.

The work is strangely and ineffectively neoclassical. The harmonic language seems far more American (e.g., Hanson, Persichetti, etc.) than native to Bacewicz. The musical figures reflect this—they are too ‘cute’, stylized, mannered, as if they are always invoking some topic but without ever first defining the place from which we came. Where is home? We do not know. What is tonic? Ostensibly, this exists, but only rarely could I feel it. The work is motivically unified well enough, but there must be some reason for these to exist, and she does not offer one. The colors are always bright. Incessantly bright. Obsessively bright. But not ironically, either; this feels far too honest and naïve, and as such, it is utterly unconvincing—all is carefully controlled, unified, produced and polished, manufactured and marketed. (Perhaps it is not coincidental that this work was the product of the early 1950s.)

Most interestingly (although not in a positive way), the meter is weak as well, as if it was a parameter Bacewicz never even considered using. First, it is incessantly metrical—never does she suspend the sense of meter to allow the music to drift in either a steady but undifferentiated pulsation or in just a wash of timeless sound. Even the Classical and Romantic masters whose language all but precluded these things had the sense to from time to time suspend musical time, and especially the Classical masters were masters indeed of manipulating meter for expressive ends; Bacewicz seems oblivious to this. It is as if, in adopting a particular language, she gleefully put on all its shackles without giving them a thought but never thinking about how she might use its strengths. On the whole, it is quite disappointing.

(17 October 2013)

Lesson 10: Dmitri Shotakovich, Symphony no. 5

A masterpiece, yes, but what kind? This work brings the damn ‘Shotakovich Question’ to the fore, even for those quite tired of hearing it asked, and even when asked on purely musical grounds, ignoring both Volkov's nonsense and (as best one can) the dark history of Russia in the twentieth century—has D major at the end of the work been earned or imposed? I think I must side with Rostropovich, even if not to his degree: ‘The end is irreparable tragedy. Stretched on the wrack of the inquisition the victim still tries to smile in his pain—anybody who thinks the finale is glorification is an idiot.’

Musically, the work is brilliant and full of important compositional lessons irrespective of one's reading of the work's overarching artistic meaning. The first movement is a powerful demonstration of how one is able to stretch great mileage out of simple materials. It is a level of resourcefulness that puts even Beethoven to shame. Simple patterns, repeated over and over again, form a backdrop for a slow-moving line. The musical lines themselves are few: when well-crafted, two or three-part counterpoint is quite sufficient for most all of what one might want to say. Further, when there is very little going on with it repeating over and over, the ear has the chance to examine it from every angle. One needed go to Reich's extent to create the opportunity for that sort of active, reflective listening.

Similarly, the expressive power of the third movement rests on the simplest of opening harmonic progressions, very much like a Beethovenian slow movement. Again, simplicity and utter cooperation with the innate laws of tonality lie at the heart of its effectiveness. As the movement unfolds, slowly, smoothly, and without so much as a hint of a seam, the opening material returns, but often only for the first few pitches alone before being whisked away in some different direction or perhaps becoming trapped in a developmental repetition. But either way, it is as if the abbreviation concentrates the entire expressive power of the theme's repetition into just its first few notes. Sometimes, more can be said by a thing's absence once evoked than by its presence. (If a theme returns every time its beginning is hinted at, then a complete statement is hardly special.)

Whence comes his music's drive? The rhythmic patterns are simple and square, and through that, aggressive. The repetition and direct simplicity themselves lend the music an aggressive, driving edge, but additionally, they enable the composer to call for searingly fast tempi: had the rhythms not been simple and square, or had the pitch patterns not been commonplace and repetitive, his tempi would quite simply be unplayable. Instead, he writes figures that will both allow and complement the sort of physicality in the performance which he desires.

But enough of the technical details—you’re stalling. You cannot escape that over-asked question that refuses to just leave us in peace. Well, then, let us wrestle!

In his fifth symphony of 1804–08, Beethoven set the standard for the journey per aspera ad astra; Sibelius in his fifth of 1915 / 1919, though starting from a less dark place (musically, at least) than Beethoven does in his, was nevertheless unable to bring himself to that triumphant closure at the end of the work, instead managing only a strangely tragic echo punctuated by silence, perhaps feeling that he had not earned the right to such a finale, or brokenhearted that forcing it could feel so empty and false. But Shostakovich on the other hand throws himself into D major without a hint of reservation, without an attempt at resolution, and without a reason more profound than the simple decision that a piece begun in D minor must conclude in D major. Beethoven's fifth won victory in its struggle; Sibelius's saw defeat and retreated in knowing resignation; Shostakovich's declares glorious triumph without respect to the actual journey, celebrating more boldly than Beethoven despite having earned less than Sibelius. I don't care a damn whether this was a deliberate choice or not, or what the political implications might be—the musical fact is that the ending was not earned.

Of course, this begs the real question—what is it that Shostakovich's fifth misses that Beethoven's and Sibelius's do not? It must be something inherent in the music inself, something that has nothing to do with mere historical circumstance. But what? How is it that one can truly defeat darkness rather than, like a child, naïvely declaring it defeated while ignoring the cold, uncomfortable truth? I find myself scared to even write this question, because I know that this is a question I must answer, and because I know that it is a question for which I do not have an answer.

(29 October 2013)

Lesson 11: Einojuhani Rautavaara, Symphony no. 5

If the trivial observation that both are constructed in a single movement were insufficient to point out the deep affinity Rautavaara's fifth holds throughout with Sibelius's crowning masterpiece, the C major ending declares it explicitly and unmistakably, and like Sibelius 7, it speaks with a mature and understated profundity of something otherwise unspeakable.

Rautavaara completed this symphony in 1985 at the age of 56; Sibelius was 59 at the completion of his seventh. Sibelius retired in resignation not long thereafter, unable to participate in the coming continental modernism; Rautavaara was born just a few years later and came of age during its reign, absorbing its doctrine and participating in its liturgy. In his seventh, Sibelius rejects modernism not by refutation nor by isolationism, but by deliberately passing over it entirely into a different, higher plane of musical being, a musical river which flows ontologically, unendingly; in his fifth, Rautavaara rejects modernism by finding the musical spring buried deep beneath its contrived edifices, drawing from this well an enlivening life-force which he is able to use, and which uses him. Both works flow and course with unhindered movement, as natural as breath or water, at once both being and becoming, unbound by the cadential constraints of language's grammar and punctuation, and yet with a formal clarity that one realizes exists only once one realizes that the usual tools and markers of formal clarity are inconspicuously absent, quite unmissed but rather surprising when you first notice.

The work opens with a slow unmetered crescendo, a five-chord progression that lasts for three minutes. It pulses, throbs, and in its stasis feels convincingly dynamic. It is something like a blend between the opening of Das Rheingold and Terry Riley's In C. From this, a violin melodic line emerges, repeatedly challenged and drowned out by murmuring woodwinds in controlled aleatory, meter conflicting with meter.

From this, a deliberate and methodical section emerges, dark and brooding, characterized by horns and trumpets with the timpani providing aggressive rhythmic interjections. A sharp contrast appears shortly later (bar 98): three solo violins planning in major triads float over a slow pulse (a Petrushka chord). He uses the marimba here like one would use a harp, and the effect is marvelous.

I am just providing a moment-by-moment description of the work, aren't I? Ah, but how can I not? Forgive me.

Eventually an allegro emerges, now rhythmically energetic, pointed, and playful. The transition is nearly seamless, effected by a quasi doppio tempo much as Sibelius would move from one tempo to another. Once this section gets thoroughly underway, it sounds like it could have been taken from Turangulîla directly—high winds and brass with a marimba providing a woody edge to the sound exchange short phrases with block-like orchestrational shifts, like moving from one manual on an organ to another, with unison added-note rhythms. Whether it's deliberate reference or just a powerful influence, its effectiveness is undeniable.

Following a quick liquidation of the rhythmic activity, slow lyrical passages return, a horn and oboe duet. The manner in which they trade off short phrases turns this into a dialogue rather than an expository oration, which I feel is an often-absent element in music.

Beginning in 217, a high floating melody of three-part divisi violin 1s doubled by flutes and piccolo reminds me of Vivier—the three parts move in (mostly) rhythmic unisons, the outer voices generally forming either a major seventh or minor ninth, and the inner voice splitting the space with tritones, perfect fifths, or perfect fourths above the lower. It is the top voice which is the principal melodic voice, and the lower doubling voices lend it a strange, slightly inharmonic quality.

C major begins to emerge near the end of the work, but not explicitly as with the opening harmony. When the harmony returns first in 403, a low E-flat rests underneath of it, putting a dark shadow over the harmony, but a shadow with a beautiful resonance. Closer to the end, A-flat is added over this, creating the effect of a polychord of a C major triad over an A-flat major triad. Again, it is a dark, resonant throbbing, too slow to be called even pulsing—this is the rhythmic movement of water or the wind or perhaps the slow steady breathing of a man sleeping, but certainly not his pulse. With the harmony thus sufficiently clouded, the passage feels restful enough to go on without end, but without falling into the danger of feeling false, like some ersatz triumphant ending or clichéd optimism. The E-flat falls out by the end, replaced by C as the bottom note, and A-natural appears beneath the A-flat to counteract its harmonic implications, and the high violin lines, moving in octaves, end on an unsettlingly distant dyad: A-sharp and E-sharp. And this is how the work ends, fading off rather than finishing. We know it is not yet complete, but the completion lies yet beyond our horizon.

Whereas Shostakovich's D major by fiat following an entire symphony of darkness failed on some deep, fundamental level, this is a beautiful success, an embodiment of the profound logic. From the very opening of the work where C major faded into audible sight out of nothingness, and then from time to time during its course where we could feel its echoes and its leftover resonances, and then even at the end when it began to fade back out of sight into the silence whence it came, we had been promised this moment. Whereas in Hersch's music, lingering, unresolved notes might mock the supposed tonic, here, they are simply not yet resolved. Ultimately, they leave the symphony ever so slightly unfinished. But this is quite fine. The river empties into the sea whether you see it or not; we have no need to question this simply because we do not stand at the mouth. And if we do not stand at the mouth (and after all, who does?), pretending that you do is dishonest. In Rautavaara's Symphony no. 5, you know you are connected deeply to the essence of the work, and you know where you stand; it has nothing at all to prove, no point to make, no task to accomplish. It simply is, and in so being, it transcends the usual bounds of music in its own modest way, much like Sibelius transcended them in his seventh.

(7 November 2013)

Lesson 12: John Adams, Harmonielehre

I think I shall never cease to be awed by this work. And it truly is awesome, in the literal sense of the word: massive, imposing, inspiring, exhilarating, terrifying. Adams composed this work in about a three-month span, which I imagine is less mind-blowing once one considers the repetitive nature of much of his material and also the focus which he was able to give to it. But still, this is truly an inspired work.

The fast–slow–fast three-movement structure is beautifully classical in organization. The opening movement is practically a monothematic sonata form with a some accessory nonessential melodies in the developmental middle, wending its way through a twisted labyrinth of keys, juxtaposing one against another, greater attention paid to the relationships between them than to their contrapuntal connections or to deliberate techniques of unfolding harmonies. It is dark and powerful, in a sense, even Beethovenian.

The second movement wanders through a desolate, barren chromatic landscape, as if hopelessly searching for something, but never finding it. Even in the end, the apparent F major arrival proves illusory, leaving instead A minor.

The third movement is buoyant, drifting like a raft on a fast-moving river, beautiful, terrifying, exhilarating, and ultimately triumphant. When E-flat major finally emerges, as if victorious over vanquished foes, the sense of arrival is unmistakable. Even more impressive is how he does this almost without preparing the key. Adams spoke of the last movement as grace appearing for no reason at all, and with the arrival, it does feel like as if somehow E-flat had been there the whole time, calling all the shots, but just hidden until this final moment. Adams achieves something that is incredibly difficult to realize: a triumphant, joyous, victorious arrival that is not in the least bit contrived, forced, or dishonest. I think the reason why this works can be found in this excerpt of an interview with Adams in the liner notes for the recording of the work with Edo de Waart on the Nonesuch label:

Hindemith once said that a musical work should appear to the composer like an apparition in its completed form and that the act of composition is simply a matter of filling it all in. But to me, it's just the opposite. I find composing to be a journey through the underworld. And the reason I often have heroic endings in my pieces—something that is terribly anachronistic in 1985!—is that I’m totally amazed to have emerged from the tunnel out into the light. The act of composing is the creation of the light for me—it really is like a Biblical trial.

The orchestration is of course brilliant throughout, but with such a mammoth orchestra at his disposal, it is difficult for even the most banal music to sound uninteresting. (But certainly, some have managed…)

There is an affinity to Sibelius here, a sense in which the work determines its own course which the composer must then discover as he writes rather than having the composer impose a structure and then attempt to fill it with the materials at hand, whether or not it is what they work together. Adams's intuition is remarkable in how he is able to feel out exactly where the materials want to go as he is proceeding on his journey. Rather than merely following the dictates of Formenlehre, Adams has rediscovered for himself the organic logic out of which they rose. The work is truly symphonic in the greatest Beethovenian or Sibeliusian sense possible.

(12 November 2013)

Lesson 13: Ellen Taffe Zwilich, Symphony no. 3

The work opens with three powerful, forte F-sharps—hammer blows punctuated by silence. F-sharp has a certain strange harsh coldness to it, and even with no other pitch to clarify its meaning, we know immediately and without a doubt that this is F-sharp minor. When the upper strings then slowly wend their way deliberately up to C-sharp, she confirms this, and also sets in motion the fundamental line of the piece: the ascent to 5.

The first movement reminds me often of Sibelius. Her melodic lines move effortlessly when they wish, seeming to float or soar as if carried by a current or the wind, ignoring bar lines and downbeats, spinning out perfectly organically and naturally. Ellen is a master of the long line, and here, it shines. Bars 31–36 demonstrate a fascinating technique: as the line slowly climbs upwards, it reaches its high point, local 4, contextually a highly dissonant and charged scale degree; this appears high in the range, having left the ground, and the bass instruments, having dropped out in bar 33, reenter in 35, but now harmonizing the dissonant pitch as a consonance. It is an interesting and beautifully effective technique—the introduction of a consonance in a dissonant state.

Other of Ellen's hallmarks are in the work from the outset: quick and brief precipitous surges upwards in the upper strings; complete metrical command; leap-ridden lines that somehow never seem awkward or disjunct; no fear of evoking (or even cultivating) associations with jazz. This jazz trumpet component is part of her identity just as much as Orthodox chant is of mine, and thus perhaps irrepressible, but here, I wish she had avoided it a bit more carefully. Her percussion writing frequently sounds like that of a drum set, and coupled with high trumpets suddenly interjecting (mvt. i, bar 19), it sounds like a rift in the musical fabric through which a foreign piece has drifted. It makes me think of Adams's Lollapalooza suddenly bursting in upon a symphony of Mahler or Sibelius. She takes this theme explicitly in the second movement, a scherzo that on the whole feels more like a grotesque than a harmless joke. The second movement continues to explore the ascending stepwise theme introduced at the opening of the work, but now in the brass over a terse, aggressive allegro, it begins to sound more and more like Shostakovich.

In the third movement, lush epic romantic topics (again reminiscent of Mahler or Sibelius) and harsher, more austere counterpoint. It feels as if she is looking back over her material, once again assessing its potential, asking it again where it wishes to go, allowing it to take shape. The work concludes as the line ascends upwards, patiently, deliberately, steadily. The ascending line itself controls the motion, with the accompaniment shifting around it, not in any particular key, but always rich, warm, and sonorous. When it finally arrives at the end, we have arrived on C-sharp, the upper fifth of F-sharp major. The opening open F-sharp hammer blows return here, now completely recontextualized. I can't help but think of her program notes for her Symphony no. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra) of 1982, the work for which she won the Pulitzer (and a well-deserved award prize that was!):

Symphony No. 1 grew out of several of my most central concerns. First I have long been interested in the elaboration of large-scale works from the initial material. This ‘organic’ approach to musical form fascinates me both in the development of the material and in the fashioning of a musical idea that contains the ‘seeds’ of the work to follow. Second, in my recent works I have been developing techniques that combine modern principles of continuous variation with older (but still immensely satisfying) principles, such as melodic and pitch recurrence and clearly defined areas of contrast.

I wonder (and not flippantly) if perhaps in this statement she has captured the essence of the symphony as a genre, not only for the contemporary age, but since the classical composers christened it. Out of the opening F-sharp octaves in the first movement grew the essential melody of the work, and this melody in the end transforms F-sharp minor into major. In a way, the work is deeply organic in its truest sense, a profound exploration of the materials. Like Adams in Harmonielehre, the triumphant ending is completely satisfying, but unlike in Harmonielehre where E-flat major simply overpowers, here, F-sharp major is the transformation and culmination of all that came before it, latent from the beginning at the work's most fundamental level. Perhaps this is the essence of the symphony.

(19 November 2013)

Lesson 14: Jean Sibelius, Symphony no. 7

In 2010, my final year at Peabody, Professor Ray Sprenkle mentioned to me that he sang in the chorus for the premiere of Bernstein's Mass in 1971. At some point during the rehearsal process, Dr. Sprenkle recounted, Bernstein said that Sibelius 7 was the most profound work of the twentieth century. When one stops and considers the number of monumental works of the twentieth century—Mahler's work since Kindertotenlieder and his fifth symphony, Messaien's Quatuor and Vingt Regards, Shostakovich's symphonies and string quartets, Britten's War Requiem, the masterpieces of Stravinsky's ballets, Symphony of Psalms, and Symphony in Three Movements—the surprising gravity of Bernstein's statement comes into focus. The usual places to begin the discussion of 20th century music are the premieres of Le Sacre or Pierrot Lunaire, or perhaps Mahler, or even looking back into the 19th century to Wagner and Liszt, but insofar as the symphony is concerned, I believe that I must take Sibelius's final contribution as my starting point.

I am also not sure what one can say about it, or at least, what I can say about it. It is a triumph of C major, of the ‘profound logic’ of symphonic structure that ‘creates an inner connection between all the motives,’ of seamless organic growth. Sibelius does not waste notes, and he allows his music to remain deeply obedient to the transcendent laws of music rather that attempting to impose his own mistaken will like some proud recalcitrant notesmith who does not understand a thing. Transitions go unnoticed, but the form has a flawless clarity. Arrivals are never announced prematurely, but when they appear, they never take the listener by surprise. His thematic material is more lyric than motivic, but motivically unified on an almost spiritual level. His phrases seem to move endlessly, neither cadencing nor evading cadences, but simply flowing as a river flows, bank past changing bank. Arrivals are never the terminus of a line, because the line itself is cyclic and can stop no more than blood can stop when it reaches the heart or the wind can stop when it passes over the mountain. It is deeply rooted in tradition, but never academic; boldly original, but respectful and reverential. His contemporaries were either trapped inescapably in their past (Straus), infatuated by their present (Milhaud), or obsessed with the future (Schoenberg). In contrast, Sibelius stands outside all of this—in his music, he saw through the past, past the future, and paid the present, trivial fleeting moment that it is, no mind at all, and in so doing, he created in his work an unending present καιρός that transcends those little bits of χρόνος we childishly call history or progress.

If the twentieth century was one in which the western myth of progress collapsed, in which Newtonian time and place fractured into relativitic relations, in which increasingly permeable cultural borders dissolve into a diverse mutual richness even as our power structures impose a dull brown hegemony; and if the music of the twentieth century reflects, expresses, or speaks to this dissillusionment, this disconnectedness, this uniform disunity, then Sibelius's seventh is both the first to ask the question with which all music of our era now wrestles—that one-word question which our language must clumsily split into two: whence and whither—and also the first to truly answer that one-word question with a response able to transcend the question itself—a wordless word which we might best translate as yes. Perhaps this is why Bernstein called this work the most profound of the twentieth century. In Sibelius's seventh symphony, symphonic history itself ends, and the rest of us have been attempting to catch up ever since.

(5 November 2013)

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