Sunday, April 5, 2015

Philosophical Symphonies

The symphonic ideal is to create structures of sound that are full realizations of life, narrative, drama, emotion, the world--at least that is how it is thought of by some. At the very least there are some interesting conjunctions between a few symphonies and philosophy. I think this comes from the nature of the symphony as the highest and most abstract and idealized instrumental form.

An early example is the Haydn symphony nicknamed "The Philosopher" for no good reason other than the somber dialogue between two cors anglais and two horns in the first movement:

Perhaps Das Lied von der Erde by Mahler might just quality as it contains world-weary Chinese poetry, already a rather philosophical literary form, such as (translated into German) this:
Schon winkt der Wein im gold'nen Pokale,
Doch trinkt noch nicht, erst sing’ ich euch ein Lied!
Das Lied vom Kummer soll auflachend in die Seele euch klingen.
Wenn der Kummer naht, liegen wüst die Gärten der Seele,
Welkt hin und stirbt die Freude, der Gesang.
Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.
The wine beckons in golden gobletsbut drink not yet; first I’ll sing you a song.The song of sorrow shall ring laughingly in your soul.When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul,wither and perish joy and singing. 
Dark is life, dark is death.
Mahler is one of those who thought a symphony could encompass a whole world. Bernstein at least thought that Das Lied von der Erde was actually a symphony:

And of course, the strongest example is possibly the Symphony No. 4 by Carl Nielsen which seems to be, by his own account, a realization of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Nielsen said of the symphony that "the title Inextinguishable suggests something that only music itself can express fully: the elementary will of life." Quoting from Wikipedia:
Schopenhauer believed that humans were motivated by only their own basic desires, or Wille zum Leben ("Will to Live"), which directed all of mankind.
And here is the symphony:

Perhaps just a tad more dynamic than Schopenhauer had in mind, but still...

But apart from these few examples, few symphonies have much of a philosophical aspect, focusing instead on orchestral splendor, or spiritual transcendence. The latter is well exemplified by the Symphony No. 5 of Henryk Górecki:

Or by the Symphony No. 7 of Einojuhani Rautavaara:

Symphonies are usually thought to be public celebrations or statements of something universal so relatively few of them are intense personal statements. The exception is the work of Allan Pettersson, whose symphonies have achieved a certain amount of renown despite being intensely personal:

So the philosophical symphony is something relatively unexplored, which is why I am working on one at the moment. Rather atypically for me, I actually have an overall plan for the work and even a sense of how some of the structure should go. The first movement, titled "Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly" is based on a section from The Chuang Tzu, a collection of writings attributed to the 4th century BC Chinese philosopher. In it he recounts this tale:
Once I, Chuang Chou, dreamed that I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was, visibly Chou. I do not know whether it was Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that it was Chou... [Excerpted from Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p. 190]
This beautiful and perplexing story, rejecting the distinction between subject and object and reality and unreality, seemed to me to be translatable into music. There will be a section representing the butterfly and a section representing Chuang Tzu (or Chou) and a section of the former dreaming it is the latter and the latter dreaming it is the former. Among the things that music can do, is suggest dreamlike states. The section of the Rautavaara symphony I put up above is labeled: Come un sogno, "Like a dream". And as for the one dreaming it is the other, well, that would seem to be the occasion for some subtle invertible counterpoint à la the mirror fugues that Bach created in the Art of Fugue. One fugue is the upside-down mirror image of the other.

My second movement I envision as a theme and variations on the Five Arguments for the Existence of God by Thomas Aquinas. That ought to be rather challenging. Some are easy, such as the argument from motion, but others? Just how would you represent the idea of contingency in music?

The third and last movement will be a kind of rhapsody on Plato, specifically the idea of the Form of the Beautiful and I have a few ideas about that, inspired by Plato's Allegory of the Cave. One other thing music is good at is the slow revealing of a structure, which I plan to take advantage of.

Speaking of Plato, there is rather an inspiring example of translating him into music from Leonard Bernstein, though it is not a symphony. Bernstein titles it: "Serenade after Plato's Symposium" and it is scored for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion. There are five movements:

Rather a nice piece, don't you think?


Marc Puckett said...

Happy Easter! I don't pay attention during the Triduum and come back to posts about the Aristotelian causes and a new symphony in the works-- a real pleasure.

Will put the Nielsen on my 'have never listened to but must' list; but Schopenhauer....

(Did buy a lottery ticket Monday, hoping to fund the Bostridge-reviewed Schubert book with the winnings, but alas no luck, yet.)

Shantanu said...

Really loved the Allan Pettersson symphony. You have amazing taste!

Bryan Townsend said...

A Happy Easter to both of you (or a different suitably appropriate wish) and to all my commentators, without whom this site would be far poorer!

Yes, Nielsen is worth a listen.

Thanks, Shantanu, I was very happy to have discovered Pettersson. Not the easiest music to listen to, but worth the effort.