Monday, August 30, 2010
Saturday, August 21, 2010
It’s Wilhelm Furtwängler-bashing season on the Internet. Around a week ago, Alex Ross nominated a disc of the German musician’s piano quintet as one of the worst recordings in history. Ross called it “an immensely earnest mishmash of Brahms, Franck, Bruckner, and Reger, full of unmemorable ideas developed at unrelenting length.” Pitting Furtwängler’s composing life against what most people love Furtwängler for (his performing), Ross offered up a clip of Furtwängler leading the Berlin Philharmonic in the Coriolan Overture — “in the interest of equal time.”
Wouldn’t it have been fairer to choose a few minutes of one of Furtwängler’s own pieces to balance out the supposedly awful piano quintet? Or was Wilhelm just that uninteresting as a composer? I’ll admit that until this month, whenever I heard Furtwängler’s name, I thought not of composing but rather about two other things: conducting and Nazi Germany.1 Much has been written about the German musician’s complex relationship with the Third Reich and his position as the regime’s favored orchestral leader. Though the debate about his politics rages on, Furtwängler’s status as one of the 20th century’s greatest conductors is firm and secure. But the maestro’s own music doesn’t get much respect.
It tends to be easy to beat up on composers who are actually more famous for their performing. It’s as if you can only be really good at one of the two activities, and once you choose conducting, you might as well not bother writing your own stuff.2 And there may be a few other factors working against our estimation of Furtwängler as a composer. For a guy with a shady political past, perhaps it’s easier to like him for the way he reproduces others’ music than for how he creates his own. Listening to Furtwängler’s own music might bring us uncomfortably close to a possible Nazi sympathizer. On the other hand, when we hear him only as a conductor, we’re kept at a safe distance, since we’re really just listening to Beethoven, Brahms, or Bruckner.
And Furtwängler’s music may be useless for music historians who want to demonstrate “progress” in music in the 20th century. As far as I know, he didn’t experiment with atonality, serialism, or electronics. If something sounds like it could have been written in the 19th century, then that’s already a big strike against talking about it as part of the mid-20th. In other words, it has to do something new or it’s not worth taking seriously.
So I felt a little rebellious when I decided to make his Symphony No. 2 (1944-5) one of our first 20th-century Unsung Symphonies. It could be his best-known work. Indeed, it has a flashy 2002 recording with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and I was able to find a score in Harvard’s music library. Someone out there thinks Furtwängler's music is worth hearing.
My own investigation of this hour-and-a-half long, four-movement behemoth for large orchestra suggests that Furtwängler could compose. What held this piece together for me was one simple tension, but one that went a long way — a tension between ascending and descending scalar motion. By the fifth measure, Furtwängler effectively introduces this tension, which drives the entire work. He begins with a mysterious, disjointed bassoon figure (joined by clarinets) against which the violins introduce the scale as the main musical tissue:
For one play on that idea, in a transitional section a bit later, note how Furtwängler gradually tears apart a smooth, five-note stepwise ascent. It starts in the oboe, then becomes an arpeggio in the flutes, and, finally, a fragmented, plucked passage in the violin:
Furtwängler does the reverse in the third movement, where a forceful drop in thirds in the strings is tightened into a stepwise descent in the clarinet, and then turns into a similar reach for the heavens in the violin. The horns and flutes also join in the fun. And because Furtwängler has conditioned us so well to listen for scales, the upward leap at the end of the ascending figure comes as a nice surprise:
As the fourth movement begins, bassoons firmly announce our central descent/ascent tension over a pedal in the double bass and cello, as if to say, in a primal way, that despite the jagged melody they played at the beginning the first movement, these instruments have finally come into line. When the trumpet completes its ascending line, the sonority it lands on is downright scary:
For my final example of Furtwängler’s play on the basic descending scale, I’d like to offer up some evidence that Furtwängler was more of a Mahlerian than he is sometimes given credit for. First, Furtwängler, midway through the fourth movement:
Compare to Mahler's Second Symphony, First Movement (Ricardo Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra):
Furtwängler's Second Symphony is chock full of this kind of manipulation of basic scalar motion. It’s certainly not the only thing going on here, but Furtwängler seems to have found a key to keeping listeners’ attention: hammer home something very simple, like an ascending or descending set of notes, and manipulate it in different ways. So next time you want to relax and listen to Bruckner's Seventh, check this one out instead.
1. OK, sometimes I also think of the Lawn Wranglers.
2. See this Norman Lebrecht article, where Gustav Mahler, Pierre Boulez, and Leonard Bernstein are seen as the only famous conductors who could also compose. Even if that's true, I don't know that composing and conducting need to be pitted against each other like that. They seem like two tough activities that require a lot of expertise. It's also surprising when a great composer also turns out to be a superstar insurance agent or something.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
(I feel like it's a spoiler to post a clip of the final legs of the symphony, since so much of its effect owes to a long investment of time with the rest of the work. But hey, this is the internet, and we ain't got all day.)
Symphony No. 2 Mvt II. Choral Exit
The symphony winds down with a very long (5 minute!) coda. You can hear the whole conclusion on youtube here. Essentially only two things happen. First, orchestral layers, and correspondingly volume, are continually added to a consonant cluster chord, swelling in luminosity like an indistinct nebula coalescing into a gleaming star. Then, that beacon collapses into a first inversion Ab-chord and slowly fades back into nothingness.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
|Infinity Series Algorithm for Initial Interval +1 (white-note) step. Click to expand.|
Pick any sample slice of this pitch sequence and it’ll likely look pretty similar to any other given slice. But in order to take advantage of the more rarefied property of self-similarity, these resemblances must show up on multiple levels. Cue Nørgård’s truly recursive compositional process in the Second Symphony.
The clearest fractal property at work in this piece is the use of a single G-to-A-flat based infinite series at several time-scales. The strict sequential orderings of pitches can be difficult to discern aurally, but you can easily tell that there are multiple orchestral strata doing different but related things. At measure 60, the orchestra splits into three streams. Woodwinds trade sprightly runs in constant eighth notes, buzzing in the vicinity of G. Brass operate at a more leisurely pace, generally 4x slower (half-notes), while the entire string section explores pyramidal figures at a *much* slower rate – roughly one change every 30 measures, or 1/120th the speed of the metronomic winds. Around halfway through the piece, these three main temporal roles suddenly begin alternating, shifting between players.
Sounds good in theory, but how does it all come out sounding? At times, Nørgård’s procedures produce truly dazzling passages. Here’s a clip (and, for the curious/masochistic, a score excerpt) of the initiation of the woodwind stream. The recording is from Segerstam's glittering performance with the Danish National Symphony orchestra.
A great deal of the symphony sounds like this, with some stratum chugging away at their 8th-note pitch sequence while the rest of the orchestra slowly shifts in hue. Because pitch, as determined by the sequence, is usually so tightly wound around a certain range, our attention drifts to other matters, especially tone color, and Nørgård’s imagination for orchestral combinations is impressive. There are no catchy themes, but little shards of melodies do phase in and out of focus, and various ideas do come back. One is the throbbing unison pulses from brass at several form defining moments, celebrating the arrival at an important member of the infinite series with bizarre fanfare.
This is the kind of piece you can only write once, and Nørgård’s subsequent output, while equally ingenuous, tends to treat his infinite series less as the structuring principle as here, and more as a jumping off point. Which is not to say his Second Symphony isn’t successful. There is a hypnotic quality to this music quite unlike anything from the minimalists. And a sense of yawning expanse that pushes beyond much of the “sonorist” work from the 60s. Whether he beat chaos-theorists to the punch with his unpredictable, recursive music or not, Per Nørgård certainly created the bar and then raised it ridiculously high for anyone wishing to write a “fractal symphony.”
1. This pretty extraordinary website has tons info on (and can play back!) any integer sequence you can dream up, including several from and inspired by Nørgård. For example the following functions specify the "infinite series" sequence beginning with 0-1: [pitch(starting place) = 0 ; pitch (2n places) = - pitch(n places ; pitch (2n + 1 places) = pitch(n places) + 1]
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Despite its auspicious first year, this piece doesn't seem to have held audiences over the last 60 years the same way as, say, Copland's Appalachian Spring, which nabbed the Pulitzer just three years earlier, in 1945. And given Piston's career at Harvard, maybe it's fitting that the only CD recording I could find of this work was by James Yannatos and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, made in 1999. (We also have a 1954 recording on vinyl by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra.)
For now, let's skip straight to the feverish second movement, where Piston loves to pass jumpy, brief melodic and rhythmic figures from instrument to instrument. Detached articulation and frequent, unpredictable rests give much of this movement a prickly, spiky feel — but this all slows, and fades, to a middle section that is almost shockingly warm and welcoming, given what's come before. In fact, it's so nice, with its harp and bass clarinet accompaniments, that it almost doesn't fit. (The first and third movements also have some of these lyrical moments, but nothing quite stops the show like this.) The flute fires off the tune-bomb we've all been waiting at least 10 minutes for, and then some other instruments get a chance to play around with it before the flute returns. Have a listen:
2nd movement, leading into the lyrical episode:
The prickliness, though, takes over again. In the rousing fourth movement, the spiky staccatos from the second movement return, and overall, it's a bit more stately and, on the surface, resolute (and certainly more tonally grounded) than that other fast movement. But there's something missing. In his recent book The Great American Symphony, Nicholas Tawa calls this movement "carefree and frolicsome." I didn't find it to be that, exactly. I actually found it to be pretty unsettling. Piston really hits you over the head with the last chord. It's a bit too obvious and forced for me think of this movement as "carefree," and that may be the point. The relentless ending (with its abrupt final sonority, complete with clipped cymbal crash) might be meant to contrast with the much nobler close of the symphony's first movement. That movement's climax actually felt, to me, like the end of a complete journey, finishing as it does with a thrilling build in texture, an almost sudden purge of chromaticism to land on a solid C-major, and a nice final swell. The closure there seems a bit more earned. Compare the movement conclusions and tell me what you think satisfies you more as an ending:
End of 4th movement:
End of 1st movement:
Piston's Third was my real first foray into this composer's music, but I preferred those moments when he allowed a solo instrument to sing for more than a few seconds before letting it get washed away in a sea of competing sounds. It seems, though, that I could be falling into an old trap of Piston criticism. Some think that the price Piston paid for his highly skilled and learned compositional approach is that his music lacks good old-fashioned soul — he was a "craftsman" but, perhaps, not a true artist. A 1958 review of the Hanson recording of this symphony, published in Gramophone, sums up that view: "There is something altogether too rational about Piston's music, and, in the last resort, too little inspired." I don't agree with the dichotomy there — I think logical music can be profoundly moving — but as I explore more Piston, I wonder if my desire for more time with really catchy tunes means I'm just not Piston's target audience. Or maybe I'm listening to the wrong symphony. What do Pistonites out there think about Walter and this highly decorated work?
Monday, August 9, 2010
There is no single story to tell about the development of the symphony after 1900. In the 20th century, as the looming shadow of a certain composer of THE NINE began to retreat, we lost something of the clear thread that wound through our understanding of the 19th century’s treatment of the genre. (Say what you will about Beethovenian anxiety of influence — at least it was an ethos).
Instead, we found a huge explosion of new ideas and issues for composers to grapple with — atonality, electronics, non-Western musics, to name just a few. For some, the 20th century mandated symphonies be written as white hot responses to turbulent times. Others rejected this fire, preferring theirs to be cold glasses of water. Some overthrew the prescriptions handed down by generations before, compressing, expanding, rotating, twisting the very stuff of symphonic tissue into exciting, unfamiliar shapes and sounds. A few avoided the term “symphony” all together, but they don’t fool us!
The idea behind Unsung Symphonies is to highlight some symphonies that we don't know that well, or at all — and that we hope are new to you, too — in an effort to develop new narratives and make sense of the symphonic deluge of the last hundred or so years. Every week, we'll take on one symphony. As this blog develops, we may include timely themes, paired works, spotlights on national traditions, and interactive features. Who knows — maybe we'll even write a symphony.
At this early stage, for something to qualify as a “symphony,” it really only needs to have “symphony” (or its non-English equivalent) in the title (except when it doesn’t). We’re generally focusing on symphonies that were composed in the 20th century, but that won't prevent us from jumping back to Georges Onslow1 every once in a while. And by "unsung," we mean those that don't seem to sit atop the orchestral canon. We will try hard to avoid the tendency to describe things new to our ears entirely in terms of similarities to, or influence by, better known works or composers. And if you've heard of one symphony or know it well, that doesn't make it "unsung" — it just means you’d better help educate everyone in the comments. As we like to say, one listener’s Beethoven is another’s Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin. Conversely, if you don’t find your favorite obscurantist symphoniker featured in a post, fret not — we are open to suggestions and would be thrilled to discover new works from you, our reader (we’re looking at you, Axel Ejnar Hakon Børresen Society.)
Your symphonic reality tour guides are Matthew Mugmon and Frank Lehman.2 Both are Ph.D. students at Harvard working on their dissertations. Matt’s a Mahler guy, and his thesis looks at the transmission of ideas about Mahler’s music in France and the United States. Frank gives film music some much deserved theoretical attention in his thesis about tonality and transformation in Hollywood scores. Both are big into Seinfeld and The Big Lebowski, and they reserve the right to pepper their posts with references.
— Matt and Frank