Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Checking in with the Guardian's Symphony Series

Tom Service over at the Guardian is engaged in another big project. After last year's survey of contemporary composers, he takes on the symphony and plans to investigate fifty examples. I wrote about this project previously here and here. The most recent article is about Sibelius' Symphony No. 6, a piece I confess I don't know. It seems to be a pretty good discussion of the piece, which I am listening to at the moment. Here is a link to the series as a whole. I haven't mentioned this series for a while because I found the last several weeks to be about symphonies that I really couldn't summon much interest in. I read the articles, but when I went to listen to the symphonies I just balked. For example, here is the Symphony No. 1 of Peter Maxwell Davies:

I used to find his music quite interesting back when he was writing Eight Songs for a Mad King, but I probably wouldn't want to listen to that music these days either. Somehow, after listening to the first few minutes of the symphony, the prospect of having that sort of thing snarl at me for the next fifty minutes or so leaves me cold. At some point I do intend to investigate the symphonies of Maxwell Davies, but right now, I am resisting. It's not just him, of course. In the last few years I find that I have less patience with music that tries to bully me, or annoy me, or just torture me in the name of some aesthetic that I reject anyway.

And it's not just music, either. I find that my tolerance for a lot of things that seem to me to be empty blather or just nasty has declined. For example, here are some movies that at one time I enjoyed but I now find unwatchable: all the Star Wars movies, the Lord of the Rings (yes, loved the books, but the movies are tedious, excessive and ponderous), Prometheus, Avatar, all the super-hero movies which seem like mere cartoons overloaded with computer-generated imagery. And so on... This applies to a huge amount of television as well. I enjoyed the first season of Mad Men but when I tried to watch the first episode of season two recently, I turned it off after five minutes. Same with The Walking Dead. On the other hand, I loved The Hunger Games and the sequel, which I just saw on the weekend. Good stuff.

So what is going on here? I'm not sure, but I suspect that I am making choices about stuff that I see as time-wasting. About the movies and tv shows, I'm not sure what is going on exactly, but I do have an inkling when it comes to music. I think that I am really working within a classical (small 'c') aesthetic, meaning that I am expecting music to create order, balance and elegance out of chaos. A lot of music follows a different aesthetic, the attempt to create tension and opposition and emotional turmoil. This is the progressive, avant-garde aesthetic. I'm just not interested in that any more! Those days are past, as far as I'm concerned.

So that is why I am particularly fascinated with the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven these days...

Anyway, back to the symphony guide. The next piece Tom Service took up was the Symphony No. 2 by Robert Schumann. My feeling about Schumann is that he was an extraordinary song writer and his early piano pieces are incredible evocations of romanticism in music, but that when he attempted, in string quartet and symphony, to take up the classical forms, he was very bad at it.

You may love that music, but I find it dull and tedious. Next in the survey was Luciano Berio's Sinfonia of 1968:

Just about everything from around that time seems unlistenable to me now because of the absurd posturing. Next was the Symphony No. 1 of Gustav Mahler:

I know that Mahler is beloved everywhere and thirty years ago I loved listening to his music. But honestly, it is hard to take seriously someone who nicknames their own first symphony the "Titan". The thought of immersing myself repeatedly in Mahler's neuroses for an hour I find unpleasant. I find myself agreeing with Kingsley Amis' offhand reference to Mahler's "enormous talentlessness".

Next up was the Symphony No. 3 of Rachmaninov:

This is actually more listenable than the rest. Ironically, Tom Service spends all his article trying to convince us that the symphony, instead of being the last breath of romanticism, is actually very transgressive, weird and up-to-date! He writes:
And it's in its constant sense of surprise that this symphony really does do something that only Rachmaninov at this stage of his life and career could pull off. The Third Symphony finds a melancholic modernity, or rather, it finds a way of making melancholy modern. Instead of wallowing in his magnificent melodism, Rachmaninov consistently undermines your expectations of wafty romantic fullness. You can hear that in the violas' nagging rhythm at the start of the middle section of the first movement, which takes the wind out of the apparently self-confident climax we've just heard. Or there's the astonishing, almost expressionist noises the orchestra makes at the height of this development section, and the way Rachmaninov delays the return to the main tune of the movement with a heart-rending yet austerely exposed melody in the flutes and violins. There's a spine-chilling shimmer in the lower strings, another disembodied chant in the horns, and the first melody appears again, with an emotion that is the absolute opposite of what this moment in a symphony is supposed to feel like. Instead of a familiar, comforting return to normality, this melody sounds even less sure of itself that it did when we first heard it. There are some weird rattles in the percussion section and the strings, playing with the wood of their bow instead of the hair, and then the second theme comes back. The movement briefly finds a moment of major-key happiness, but Rachmaninov again wipes the smile off the music's face and it ends with another version of the murmuring motto we heard at the start.
 It's not just that the symphony ends with another iteration of the symphony's motto theme, that emotionally ambiguous chant, this time screamed out by the whole orchestra, it's that the whole movement is shot through with strange stops and starts, glimpses of other worlds of dissonance and heightened colour that lie just under the surface and that are not resolved or forgotten by the end of the piece.
That's a modern, even modernist, idea, to be able to speak on multiple expressive levels simultaneously, to say one thing and mean another. Told you Rachmaninov had something important to contribute to the symphony!
 In Tom's world only music that is transgressive, modernist, expressionist and abnormal is important. Muse on that for a bit!


Shantanu said...

Very interesting post. You have said a lot about aesthetics on this blog, and I have learnt a lot from your writings. It was interesting to see a new approach of looking at music here - you talk more about things like "posturing" - which is I think the other aspect of music apart from the bare aesthetics. Of course the two are related - but I think even if a piece is architecturally strong, it can turn off a listener badly because of the content. None of the great masters were trying to make some kind of egoistic statement - they were just trying their best to produce good music - which sounded good then, which sounds good today.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks very much, Shantanu! You often seem to clarify what I am doing better than I do.