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kelly briar

It is impossible to listen to the final quartets of Beethoven and not recognize in them something quite different from the optimistic and heroic thrust of his most popular works, the Eroica, the Appassionata, the Razumovskies. The quartets in question no longer follow the standard four-movement shape of the classical quartet and symphony, and they no longer seem addressed to the world and society, but rather, they are discursive, wandering and seem turned completely inward.

Innigkeit

Innigkeit

It has been called his “late style” ever since 1855, when Wilhelm von Lenz wrote his book, “Beethoven and his three styles,” which attempts to give shape to the composer’s career, with an “early style” in imitation of Haydn and Mozart; a “middle period” with all those grand exhortations to heroism and the overcoming of obstacles and the establishment of freedom and individualism; to the “late style” of innigkeit and apparent formlessness.

Since then, it has become standard to view an artist’s career into three: apprenticeship, mastery, and a “late style” in which the artist perhaps gives up his public function to investigate his private concerns. Within this pattern, it has become usual to see the late period as the culmination of an artist’s life and work, as its height, as its reduced essence.rembrandt self portrait

And so, we see the final paintings of Rembrandt, the late romances of Shakespeare, the last dark photographs of Edward Weston or the Ninth Symphony of Mahler as somehow special, as more meaningful, as “better” even as “best.” We look to them for something like a peroration of wisdom, the final words or notes or brushstrokes of a sage. Goya’s black paintings, or the black paintings of Jackson Pollock. (Usually, there is some element of darkness in late work, whether it is the Beethoven quartets or the quiet “ersterbend” that ends the Mahler Ninth.)

weston china cove pointlobosAs Minor White said of the Weston photographs: “Rarely are we shown the maturest work of men who have lived richly and whose spirit has grown all their lives … the last photographs of Edward Weston made at Point Lobos … may parallel in content the last quartets of Beethoven.”

There are many problem with this formulation. First, so many artists — certainly the majority — don’t fit into this pattern. Second, while we can recognize a “late style” in the final works of Franz Schubert, Schubert died at 31. Can that be considered his late period? Suppose he had lived his three score years and ten? What would have followed his “late style?” Obviously, a late style is something we apply only in retrospect. Even Beethoven, whose late style defines the idea, died at a fairly young age of 56. Where would he have gone if he had lived to 70? His late style would then have been something transitional.

Then, there are artists whose supposed late style is generally admitted to be a decline. One thinks of the final paintings of De Kooning. And there is the problem of someone like Wagner, who strove self-consciously for the prestige of having a late style with the artificial spirituality of “Parsifal.”

There is another issue, too. Late style means more than one thing. Initially, we think of art that is intensely personal rather than public, art that reaches the darker and more private parts of the human experience. But that is not the only thing — perhaps not even the primary thing — that defines late style. As Edward Said said in his study of the subject, late style is characterized by an increasing simplicity of technique. Take those late quartets, which are a bouquet of dances, marches, recitativ and arias, and movements sometimes so short, they hardly count as movements at all. They alternate with long fugal passages where the counterpoint is hidden in blocks of chordal harmony. Even their sonata-form movements are choppy with short, punchy themes entering stage right and quickly running off stage left, chased by the next patch of tune. There is a superfluity of material and an economy of means.Heiliger Dankgesang

It is as though an artist, a composer, a poet, had spent his youth perfecting an elaborate craft, the mastery of which is part of his declaration to the world, but having become increasingly confident of his ability, he no longer considers it to be the important part of his work. The competence is still there, but the showing-off is gone: The artist only uses so much of his virtuosity as is needed to make his point.

Another way of putting it is that when young, an artist is in love with his artform — with his villanelle, his twelve tones, his impasto — and so aware of the tradition and history of that technique, that he wants to strive to shoulder his way into that history, to take his place. But as age and its concomitant wisdom encroach, the technique seems a shallow exercise compared with the content: The balance shifts to what he has to say rather than how he says it.

As Arnold Schoenberg said, “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.”

This is Picasso’s arc: Early work is meant to rattle art history. He goes through his “periods,” which are each an exploration of a particular technique or “ism.” But in his later life, he freed himself to simply play with his paints or his pottery. It is clearly Picasso’s “voice,” his “look,” but the ism ceases to be the point: the work becomes an endless parade of bulls, women, birds, still lifes and images of concupiscent artists, often with bulls or women.matisse cutout

Or Matisse, who ended with paper cutouts, as simple as a child’s finger painting.

One sees this in many a career, where the young artist finds his voice and shouts to make a name, but once having established his bona fides, feels then free to explore what he is really interested in. One thinks perhaps of Richard Diebenkorn, who made a name with abstract art, and after becoming famous, started making “pictures.”

kelly coverI was struck seeing some drawings by Ellsworth Kelly, who made his career with minimalist Color Field paintings — they might as well have been models for flags — but these drawings were of plants, in simple black line on simple white paper. They were elegant and expressive and nothing like the bland paintings. He has made them throughout his career, but they had been seen only once (in 1970) before they made a big splash, showing them in 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Kelly clearly loved the plant forms he drew.

There comes with age and experience — and perhaps prodded along by the awareness of the extreme shortness of life — a need to say what needs saying unencumbered by all the apparatus and hoopla that seduce our younger selves.

And this is where the simplicity of means becomes the same thing as the profundity of meaning. In his middle period, at the height of his Beethoven-ness, he can spend an entire symphony showing us how an obsessive rhythmic motiv in C-minor can grow into a triumphal shout of joy in C-major. But by the late quartets, the emotional expressions pass moment by moment, as if attention to the present were more important than presentiment of the future or reminiscence of what has gone before. There is an intensity of the now, an urgency of being present. And that is where we find the marriage of the late style’s depth and its simplicity.

conductor ecstasy

“It doesn’t matter how badly they played,” said my old mentor, Dimitri, “if the symphony ends with a lot of loud, rousing brass, it will get a standing ovation.”

It is the end of a symphony, more than anything that has gone before, that leaves the most vivid impression on its audience. And I don’t mean the coda of the finale, but those last repeated chords that hammer home the end, those tonic, dominant, tonic, dominant tuttis that were so viciously lampooned by Eric Satie in his Embryons Deséchés.

Satie embryons deseches 1

Sometimes they never seem to be willing to give up and let you go home. Beethoven’s Fifth is the poster child for this cliche (not that it was a cliche when the composer first did it).

But ever since, the bringing home the tonic key and signing off a 45-minute symphony has been left to block chords pounding our ears.

There are exceptions, of course, and there are many examples of composers doing something interesting, surprising and creative with those end notes.

Here are my top five symphony conclusions:

Brahms symphony 2 with arrows

Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D, op. 73 — This is the symphony that Dimitri meant when he talked about rousing brass. No symphony comes close to the exciting, fresh, explosive yelling-it-out in ecstasy rah-rah that winds up this monument. It’s already loud and compelling when the trumpets, horns and winds sing out a quadruple-repeated and harmonized Nachschlag (turn) and do it again a third higher (first yellow arrow in the score). The audience is going “whoopee” and then the trombones and bass trombone hit and hold a D-major chord (which Brahms particularly marks fortissimo) over the staccato final chords of the rest of the orchestra, and finally resting on a tutti D. Wow. You always want to stand up and cheer at the end — which audiences habitually do.

Haydn Farewell Symphony

Haydn, Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp, “Farewell” — Modern instruments can negotiate most keys fairly well, but in Haydn’s day, F-sharp was a pretty out-there key, which made this symphony strange sounding to begin with. There was an extra bite of instruments that could not quite play easily in key. This is the only symphony Haydn wrote in this orphan key. It is a “Sturm und Drang” symphony, full of sound and fury, accentuated by the odd key choice, but the finale ends in a whimper, not a bang. It is the opposite of the Brahms. In fact, Haydn has the instruments stop playing, one by one, and walk off the stage, leaving only two violins at the end playing a simple A-sharp below an F-sharp, as the concertmaster blows out the candle that would have illuminated his sheet music. A visually dramatic end, and a musically audacious feat.

Sibelius symphony 5 piano score

Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 in E-flat, op. 82 — Silence is the astonishing surprise at the end of Sibelius’s Fifth, also, but loaded in between otherwise standard cadential chords. It was a really audacious thing to do — bring the symphony to a rousing climax and then stop everything for five beats, then hit another chord and wait again. Over and over at the end, with irregular silences between the bang-chords. If you count them, you can see the rests are oddly spaced, which gives the music a real off-balance feeling, like you cannot know what to expect. If you count out the rests in quarter-note time and the outbursts of tutti, you get: 1-2-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-Bang, 1-2-3-Bang. (When he wrote the first draft of the symphony, those rests were filled in with noodling in the orchestra, the effect was bland, but he left these “black holes” there instead and blew the minds of his audience.)

Mahler symphony 9

Mahler, Symphony No. 9 — The last notes of Mahler’s final symphony, after 80 minutes of angst and rancor, are marked “ersterbend,” “dying.” The last two pages of the symphony take a full six minutes to play, attenuated and stretched to the limit of concentration by player and audience alike. They are orchestral whispers — death-bed speech as the music quietly accepts death. When played with the proper attitude, the audience greets the final silence not with applause, but with hush. In Amsterdam in 1995, when Claudio Abbado played it with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Mahler Festival, the audience stayed silent for several literal minutes before any applause, each member gazing into his or her own private abyss before coming back to reality and applauding the performance.

Leningrad children prepare for gas attack

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 15 in A, op. 141 — This has to be one of the most peculiar symphonies in the repertoire, with its quotation of the Lone Ranger tune from Rossini’s William Tell in the first movement, and turning Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde into a waltz in the finale. But the final moments of the symphony are a complete enigma: Over a hushed pedal point in the violins, which goes on for two minutes, the percussion ding, snap and clang quietly in a mechanical tick-tock over and over, with xylophone, woodblock, castanets, glockenspiel, tympani, snare drum and triangle until a final C-sharp (the third of the tonic A-major chord) dings a final punctus, sounded on glockenspiel and celeste. What was Shostakovich thinking? He never explained. He smiled like the Cheshire cat.

Beethoven symphony 9 strings

One last note — There is one symphony ending that has a surprising finish that you almost never phase 4hear. It is buried under a welter of excited sound. When the chorus sings its final “Götterfunken” at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the coda that follows builds up steam quickly and drives home to a final D major chord. It is in the final chords that Beethoven hides an extra fillip: He has his fiddles, which are already racing as fast as they can go, double the number of notes they have to play — dig-ga-dig-ga to diggadada–diggadada — and the tympani doubles its speed, too. This detail is usually buried in the overwhelming drive of the rest of the orchestra, but one recording makes the change clear: a 1967 recording by Leopold Stokowski and the London Symphony, originally released on a London Phase 4 LP, with singers Heather Harper, Helen Watts, Alexander Young and Donald McIntyre. Its drive is overwhelming.

Mahler 9 ending

I am at this moment listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and my face is covered with my own tears and my insides are torn up by the force of the music.

It is the morendo of the final movement. Ersterbend, is what Mahler asks for. And he means “dying.” Not the dramatic or theatrical dying a sensitive teenager imagines, but a slow extinguishing ad nihil: a kind of evaporation of the last molecules of life. I can hardly tell when the last note actually ends, it is so quiet.

The great music critic, Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who died last year at 90, (and who attended the Ring cycle at Bayreuth 17 times, and before he retired, managed to go to two different Mahler festivals, one in Amsterdam in 1995 and the other in Berlin 10 years later) said the highest experience he ever had in a concert hall was the Mahler Ninth conducted by Abbado in Amsterdam. As that last note hung in the ether and finally could be heard only in the mind’s ear, Dimitri said he was afraid the mood would be destroyed by the expected applause, but it didn’t: “No one applauded for a full five minutes,” he said. And I’ve read the same thing in other accounts of that concert. If he was exaggerating, it is only by a little.

Applause would have been the inappropriate response to the music; this was hardly a case of hearing pleasant tunes and enjoying them. The music, rather, spoke to its listeners on some deep, disturbing and emotional level.

The profound emotions drawn out of us by Mahler, or the late Beethoven quartets, or the Bach unaccompanieds (take your pick, fiddle or violoncello), have long ago persuaded me that music is not abstract, as the current prejudice would have it, but rather, it was meant by its composer to be “about something.” That is, the music is deeply metaphorical.

When we listen to Shostakovich’s Seventh or his Eighth quartet, or to Beethoven’s Eroica or Mahler’s Third, we are hearing the composers thoughts about extra-musical issues. Yes, they are all elaborate, complex and interesting arrangements of notes, but they are also about war, heroism, nobility, longing, death, love and idealism, among many other things. To ignore those things in the music is to misunderstand the music. Worse, it is to trivialize it.

I am not making the argument that all music, or all classical music is meant to be understood philosophically, but that a certain level of music by a certain class of composer was intended to intersect the larger issues of being alive. A brilliant Mozart divertimento may not be more than an especially graceful and intelligent divertissement, and our main concern may be the clever things he does with D-major, but you cannot hear “Viva la libertad” from Don Giovanni and not weep for its extra-musical import and what it meant at that instant of human history.

Neither am I making an argument for what used to be called “program music.” I don’t mean that the composer meant to tell a story simply by substituting notes for words. Yes, many 19th century composers published or announced “programs” for their works, but many of them also privately or later publicly disavowed those programs. And there are many cases of music writers proposing programs that are prima facie ridiculous. We now use those excesses to bludgeon the entire century of musical purpose.

But I am saying that the music we take most seriously, and hold to the longest in our lives, speaks to us of more than musical ingredients. We should not be embarrassed to be brought to tears or to elation by the Beethoven Ninth or the Verdi Requiem. That’s what those composers intended to happen. They weren’t entertaining us, they were speaking to us.

There are two aspects to this problem that I worry the most about.

The first is the assertion by some (including all those tedious French Post-Structuralists) that thoughts and words are identical. There is a good deal of thinking — perhaps the overwhelming majority — that is not verbal. We can think spatially, we can think mathematically, we can think emotionally, we can think visually. When we do something as simple as pass a car while driving, we don’t think in words about the speed of our car, the speed of the car in front of us, the speed of the car coming at us in the other lane and how far off it is. We think in temporal-spatial terms, completely without words, knowing whether there is opportunity to overtake the bumpkin in the pickup truck in front of us who is going 25 in a 45 mph zone. No words, but thought nonetheless.

And when Richard Strauss takes on the afflatus of idealistic aspiration in his Don Juan, we recognize the affliction in our own body-reaction — the heightened pulse or the rise of gorge in our goozle. I don’t have to put in words to know it. It is the perfect musical metaphor for the non-musical experience.

If one objects that the music can never be as precise, or that it is always ambiguous, I can only respond that words themselves are always ambiguous and imprecise. Their supposed precision is an optical illusion. (It is why we have lawyers). To contain largeness requires ambiguity: The more precise a word is, the less it defines, until the ultimate precise word has no more meaning than the name of a dog. Here, Spot.

(I mean, for instance, that genus is more narrow than phylum, species more precise than genus, breed yet more precise than species, and when you slice it down to an individual dog by name, you have narrowed the scope so much that whatever observation you make no longer has any wide application.)

If we think about this issue of precision, it is obvious: What is the white whale in Moby Dick? The very ambiguity is essential to its power. So, this can be no argument against metaphor in music.

And secondly, if you say music is not “universal” and is culturally inflected — as so many intellectuals do these days — then I scratch my head. Is not language culturally inflected? Do you not have to learn English to understand Steinbeck? So how is it different having to learn the tradition of European classical music to understand Mahler? Mahler is (albeit idiosyncratic) something to learn, just as you have to learn by reading Faulkner or Joyce to get past the parts that at first don’t make sense.

The Mahler Third arguably makes no sense understood merely musically. It took me years to begin to fathom what was going on in that vast ocean of music and orchestration, but now that I understand it metaphorically, it is the greatest of Mahler’s symphonies (or maybe shares that with the Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde — “Ewig, Ewig.”

The other big problem I have is the prejudice of Modernism.

I have lived through the century of Modernism, and was infected with it from my earliest years. I am only recently cured. I grew up loving abstract art and stream-of-consciousness novels. The party trick that is Modernism is to understand the means of expression as the subject of the art itself: color, form, shape, contrast: These carry meaning in themselves.

(I know Modernism has other aims as well, but this part of it is what ruins classical music for me.)

And you can see the effect of Modernism in the history of classical music recordings. The old style of performance, exemplified by Furtwangler, Mengelberg, Casals and Walter, by mid-century, gives way to Toscanini, Weingartner and eventually Szell, Solti and now, John Eliot Gardner. These are the “just-the-facts-ma’am” conductors, following Toscanini’s dictum: “To some, the Eroica may be about heroism and nobility, but to me it is just Allegro con brio.”

A century of musicians have disparaged the very idea that music can be about anything but music. “Music can express nothing,” said Stravinsky, whose music is profoundly expressive despite himself.

What is lost when this Modernist esthetic is applied to music — and 19th century music in particular — is the core of what the music is about. If a Leonard Slatkin doesn’t believe that the first movement of the Eroica strives for something and achieves it in the coda, then he is only making noise. I read reviews over and over where the critic complains that the conductor is “interpreting” the music instead of just letting it speak for itself, and what he means, of course, is that he wants the music to shut up about life, death, the universe and everything, and just scratch the familiar tickles and amuse me. As if you could play Hamlet and just speak the words clearly without all that “acting.”

The century of Modernism is over, although the effects linger on. And what we call Postmodernism isn’t all that much better (it being merely a kind of Mannerism to the Renaissance of Modernism), but you can find a number of musicians and conductors seeking to find other ways of dealing with the real issues of the music. Yes, there are the Roger Norringtons out there, mucking things up with their idiocy, but there are also the Mikhail Pletnevs and Daniel Barenboims, seeking to understand why there should be a ritardando here, or a sforzato there, even when not called for in the score. The same as a Gielgud applies a pause in “To be or not to be,” to maximize the rhetorical understanding of the content. Shakespeare did not indicate such in his text, but an intelligent actor knows where they work and why.

I also have to laugh at the way Modernism once thought of itself as the natural conclusion of a historical process, having finally gotten to the point of esthetic “purity” that all art previously only aspired to. Got a giggle out of that.

Along with Pablo Neruda, I am in favor of the impure in art.

And in favor, not of a simple-minded return to an elusive “golden age” of the past — such an age never existed, and the old recordings prove that musicians now play in better tune and with better intonation than they ever played for Mengelberg — but for some new way to explore the metaphor inherent in the music, and not to ignore the music’s meaning for the sake of keeping alive a dying flame of Modernism.