Thursday, August 7, 2014

Potemkin Symphonies

I have a big listening project that I started many months ago and that still continues. The plan is to listen to all the important symphonies. What do I mean by "important"? Probably the standard repertoire plus historically important plus whatever other really interesting symphonies I might run across. Pretty vague, but intentionally so in order to leave open the door to new candidates. As part of this process I discovered the symphonies of Allan Pettersson which have become some of my favorites. The list so far includes:

  • Haydn, 106 symphonies
  • Mozart around 40 (some lost, some spurious attributions)
  • Beethoven 9
  • Schubert 8
  • Berlioz 2 (the Fantastique and Harold in Italy)
  • Schumann 4
  • Bruckner 9
  • Brahms 4
  • Tchaikovsky 6
  • Dvořák, 9
  • Mahler 9
  • Debussy La Mer, Nocturnes and Images, which are really symphonies under another name
  • Sibelius 7
  • Stravinsky 3
  • Shostakovich 15
  • Pettersson 15
  • Philip Glass 9
I have listened to nearly all those symphonies, quite a few of them more than once and quite a number of these I have known for several decades. I grew up with the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Shostakovich's were the subject of an excellent graduate seminar and the rest I have explored on my own. The only ones on my list that are yet to be listened to are the last Schumann, some Tchaikovsky and somDvořák, but I intend to go back and re-listen to quite a few. Last night, for example, I listened again to the Symphony No. 5 of Pettersson and it is even more impressive than the first couple of times.

One little thought that crossed my mind recently is that some symphonies remind me of Potemkin villages. Read the whole Wikipedia article for the history and resonances of the term. While possibly mythic, the phrase captures a fascinating phenomenon, the desire to conceal reality with a deceiving front. Those streets in old Western movies where storefronts rise up a couple of stories were often no more than fronts, real only to the cameras. Similarly, a lot of photos and news videos of conflicts in the world are posed just for the cameras to create a desired propaganda.

Sometimes I hear something like this in a symphony. There are passages in some symphonies and whole movements that seem constructed to make a big front, just like those villages of Potemkin and the storefronts of the old West. We hear a big orchestra making big orchestral sounds maybe with a lot of brass and tympani. But not a lot comes of it. It seems as if the big sounding gesture was just a big sounding gesture.

The examples I am going to cite are not intended by their creators to be "Potemkin symphonies" of course. What I think has happened is that one aesthetic quality: orchestral color, is threatening to overwhelm other aesthetic qualities: incisive harmonies and rhythms.

Here is one example:

And here is another:

And one more:

This is just a personal impression, of course. I'm not wanting to make any big aesthetic claim here. But my feeling with these symphonies is that it is all about luxuriating in the warm bath of the big orchestral sound, a bit like enjoying the sight of those (possibly mythical) little villages along the river, which are in reality just fronts with staged activity. In other words, I find the warm bath a bit insufficient and I would much rather have some incisive harmonies and rhythms. But as I say, these are personal impressions. It is a bit of a mystery, even to me, why some drawn-out kinds of music gestures seem full of meaning and possibility, while others just seem long and drawn-out without much point to them.

Anyone share my impressions?


Nathan Shirley said...

No Prokofiev (7) on your list?

There is a lot of Potemkin music out there for sure. Especially in Hollywood!

Bryan Townsend said...

As I recall you suggesting, I've got to listen to a lot more Prokofiev!!