Let’s talk about the Elgar. Crashing Elgar. What did I hear? Well I definitely heard. I heard a great many aspects at the most spectacular volume, crashing in and out of each other. By Christ it is loud when it wants to be. I heard drama; I saw drama, great swaying, soaring playing full of determination and vigour, its pace never letting up. (I’m stunned how still the rest of the audience appeared to manage to sit. My head had gone a bit I think).
In the first movement I heard an initially joyous loss of innocence which became restless and regretful as it wore on. There was tenderness to the second movement, mourning the thing that had been regretted, not entirely able to let it go. In third movement there was crushing process and in the fourth we are churned along before we return to the first initial flush though are probably a bit wiser, a bit smarter. Across the four movements, it was vigorously wistful if such a thing is possible. It confronted its reality but still wants to strive for more. Still believes more is possible.What is so cool about this is that he just wrote about what he heard, honestly and objectively. How I wish all journalists would do this! As he says, he really has no knowledge about classical music. But he is certainly capable of sitting there and using his ears, which is all you really need.
There are many ways of approaching music criticism. Typically in journalism we get all the prejudices and biases of the journalist filtered through the occasion of a particular concert or recording. Often we get a puff piece which is written solely to amp up sales and the suspicion is that the review was paid for. Oh yes, a lot of those very favorable reviews you read are bought and paid for in advance. Sometimes, from more intellectual writers you get a whole ideology of musicological agendas using the concert or recording as an example of gender hegemony or the dominance of Germanic influence or something. Very, very occasionally you get an objective listener just using his ears and telling you what he hears.
So I am going to take Neil's review as an inspiration and continue my look at the Schoenberg Violin Concerto by just telling you what I hear. You might think of this as a phenomenological review: what does the listener perceive? I will listen with the score, of course, but I'm not going to try to do any analysis. I'm just going to listen. And try to do it objectively.
It is very hard to do something akin to Neil's review of Elgar and that is mainly because, with a symphonic piece by Elgar, there are all sorts of musical gestures that are comprehensible even to one with no particular background in classical music. Here is the first movement of the Symphony No. 2 by Elgar:
The grand and noble gestures of the music are clear and evident. Now let me put up the first movement of the Violin Concerto by Schoenberg. I'm so sorry, this, while the performance by Hilary Hahn, is cut off about four minutes from the end. It will give you an idea, though.
Let me try and describe what I am hearing in non-technical terms. A subdued, almost lyric, opening soon becomes very tense as the dynamics swell and the intervals become very wide. This is generally true throughout: the music is always pausing and then rushing ahead with wildly expanded intervals and dynamic swells. What might have tied everything together, i.e. the rhythmic aspect, is fragmented and disjunct. No rhythmic pattern is allowed to last for more than a couple of measures and the tempo is in constant flux. Much of the time the music is skittering around (a non-technical term!) with jittery arpeggios in the solo violin. The instruments almost never share a rhythmic motif, as there are usually three or even four different kinds of rhythmic events happening simultaneously. Here is an example, taken fairly randomly from page 28 of the score:
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The mood: on first listening, it is one of hysteria because this kind of constant switching between quiet and calm and loudness and extreme intervals is the kind of thing we hear from hysterical or insane people. It seems so hysterical, I think, because you don't sense the cause of these wild events. The music just swells and skitters and you don't know why. It is like meeting someone on the street who seems calm, but suddenly starts shouting at unseen people. Rather unsettling! As you listen more times, more of the music starts to make sense: you hear some of the same motifs returning, a bit of imitation, you notice that the violin has a few different kinds of things that keep coming back: long, close intervals, skittering arpeggios, high harmonics, occasional little pizzicato comments. But even on further listenings, the music is very fragmented. You hear little moments of a waltz, a song, a melody--but they are all broken up and the harmony is always dissonant.
I am tempted to say, that, yes, Schoenberg emancipated the dissonance, but then it proceeded to eat the music so we have nothing left but dissonance. What I tend to hear in Schoenberg is the whole world of European civilization crashing down in ruins. Recall, this music was written in 1936, when that was exactly what was happening.
I have deep respect for Schoenberg who was a great composer and great artist and great teacher. He captured and reflected the times in his music only too accurately. But I cannot listen to him too often.