Thursday, February 13, 2014

The "Place" of Music

Charles Rosen, who passed away last year, was always one of the most interesting writers on music. His book The Classical Style was a revelation to me when I originally read it, not long after it was published in the early 1970s. I want to start this post with a somewhat lengthy quote from the expanded edition, p. 162:
E. T. A. Hoffmann once wrote that listening to Haydn was like taking a walk in the country, a sentiment destined to make anyone smile today. Yet it seizes on an essential aspect of Haydn; the symphonies of Haydn are heroic pastoral, and they are the greatest examples of their kind. I am alluding not only to the deliberately 'rustic' sections of the symphonies--the bagpipe effects, the Ländler rhythms in the trios of the minuets, the imitation of peasant tunes and dances, the melodies based on yodeling. Even more characteristic is the pastoral tone, that combination of sophisticated irony and surface innocence that is so much a part of the pastoral genre. ... The symphonies of Haydn have that artful simplicity and, like the pastoral, their direct reference to rustic nature is accompanied by an art learned almost to the point of pedantry. Haydn's most 'rustic' finales generally contain his greatest display of counterpoint.
There's lots more, but I think you get the idea. It is this 'content', this connection with nature, that gives Haydn symphonies some of their characteristic charm. The pastoral theme also is present in Mozart and Beethoven and their 18th century predecessors such as the clavicinistes. (Here is something neat: I just googled the word "clavicinistes" to be sure I am spelling it correctly and the first link that comes up is to one of my own posts! This one:

This gets me thinking about how nature tends to inspire composers and how, as a result, some music gives one a sense of 'place'. I wrote a bit about this before in this post where I talked about where composers were when they composed. But I didn't talk much about how the rustic countryside finds its way into the music. But it most certainly does! Apart from those many, many examples in Haydn symphonies that Rosen mentions in the quote, we have the well-known example of the Symphony No. 6 of Beethoven that I wrote about here. The nickname "Pastoral" for this symphony is entirely earned.

The inspiration of nature is something that seems to entirely transcend the boundaries of style. We find the music of Debussy full of the inspiration of nature in pieces like "Nuages" ("Clouds"), the first movement of his Trois Nocturnes for orchestra:

And we find nature, in a more generalized form, in the symphonies of Sibelius. He mentioned of his Symphony No. 6 that it "always reminds me of the scent of the first snow."

Sometimes the inspiration is undetectable by the listener such as in Gruppen by Stockhausen that was supposedly composed by imitating the contours of the mountains in Switzerland where he was staying at the time:

Other times it is very obvious such as the pieces inspired by birdsong written by Messiaen. Here is an early example, his Le merle noir inspired by the song of the blackbird:

Nature as a source of inspiration seems to continue as in this example of a piece by the Canadian composer Antony Genge. The performance of Night Rain is by myself and flautist Richard Volet:


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