Friday, August 8, 2014

Existentialist Symphonies

My symphony listening project, to listen to all the important symphonies from Haydn to the present day, is 80% complete and so I will be spinning off little observations from time to time. My last one was about what I called "Potemkin symphonies" after the fake villages supposedly constructed by Grigory Potemkin. Today I am going to mention another aspect of the symphony that I have noticed, what I am going to call "Existentialist" symphonies.

Existentialism is a philosophical attitude that we find most clearly in people like Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, though the term itself was not used until the 20th century by people like Jean-Paul Sartre. Wikipedia summarizes the basic idea as:
In existentialism, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.
I will leave you to follow the links for an idea of existentialism. I will try to sketch what I think I hear in the symphony. Existentialism is a big idea about the nature of human existence and the feelings the individual may have confronted by a confusing and possibly meaningless world. The symphony, as one of the very big genres, well into the 20th century at least, is a logical place to find this sort of attitude in music. Indeed, music, with its powerful means of expression, might be an ideal place to explore the existentialist mood or attitude in art. There is an interesting quote by Sartre that captures this, I think:
"... man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards."
This surging up in the world is exactly the kind of sensation that music, notoriously bad at specific definitions, is very good at.

I think the very first existentialist moments in music, in the symphony at least, are found in the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven and the "Unfinished" Symphony of Schubert. In the Beethoven it is in the coda to the first movement where a grinding chromatic passage in the basses underpins dotted angst in the winds. In this clip, the passage begins right after the 16 minute mark:

The whole of the first movement of the Schubert "Unfinished" is another example:

There are lots of other examples in Schubert songs, but I am going to just stick to symphonies in this post. What I am calling "existentialism" in this music is a kind of dark, expressive angst, perhaps an aloneness, a confusion, the expression of the suffering of an individual. This may not be entirely new in music, but I think it is new in the symphony which has, up until now, been a largely celebratory medium, one in which we find communal exaltation. But now we are hearing something much more eerie and dark and the orchestra has marvelous means to express this.

I won't try and pick out every example, but just hit a few high points to illustrate what I mean. There is a bit of this in Berlioz, but I really don't hear it in either Schumann or Brahms. I'm not sure it is in Bruckner either, but we find it everywhere in Mahler:

A very powerful example and the one that sparked my thoughts about existentialist symphonies is the Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" of Tchaikovsky. This is why it has this nickname:

The mood is present in various places in Sibelius, especially in the Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7:

But it is only occasional in Shostakovich where it is diverted into either irony and sarcasm or into what I sense is more of a communal, not individual angst. But the third movement of the Symphony No. 10 might be a good example:

The absolutely best examples of the existentialist symphony is every one of those written by Allan Pettersson. Each one is a journey from despair into serenity:

This little exercise reminds me of something Jorge Luis Borges once said, that every artist creates his own predecessors. I suspect that we only hear the existentialist mood in those early symphonies because we have been sensitized to it by the later music of people like Tchaikovsky and Pettersson.


Rickard said...

I see what you mean. It certainly seems to be the mood in much of modernist music, especially the expressionist/atonality part with Schoenberg, Berg & Webern. Today a lot of classical music (even the better kind) seems to be in this mood I think, at least the variety that actually gets performed. We also however see it often mixed with the potemkin mindset. Basically what I'm trying to say is that much of the much is not only dark and dissonant but the orchestration is used as an excuse for not having any solid ideas in the music. I've been thinking about commenting on your post about Oliver Knussen: Symphony No. 3 but this is anyways a perfect opportunity to bring it up. Yes, it is a colorful symphony, sure. However, it is perfectly shows both the essentialist and potekmin mindsets mixed into one. I don't hear any solid ideas to hang on to (or at least I don't remember hearing), it seems to be all about orchestral colors.

And about Potemkin symphonies specifically: I think that much of film music is based on this principle. What you often hear is bland orchestral pieces lacking any good theme. There are of course exceptions, even masterpieces but in general it's blandness. Often you hear a string orchestra trying to be emotional but being very bland or pounding drums with no solid theme to hang on to. In video game music on the other hand there seems to be more creativity in general (although there are of course exceptions, boss themes for instance tend to be very lackluster).

Here's a completely bland film (or in this case TV) music piece:

Now here's some non-potemkin example of film (in this case TV) music:

(It's a collection of the theme presented in different cases, sure it's simple but it has a solid theme and not just bland orchestral colors)

Another example from Lost:

(Another collection, scherzo-like (witty etc.) and simple).

Here's an example of good video game music:

Once again it's simple but I think it has good melodic ideas and develops those rather than relying on potemkin principles. There lies something in what you said earlier about elegant simplicity (paraphrasing here) instead of many complex ideas.

Anyways, if you don't mind I would suggest a few additions to your symphony listening list:

Eduard Tubin, Estonian master with 10 symphonies. He's of the nationalromantic variant I think, although more dissonant than Sibelius for instance.

Kurt Atterberg, Swedish master with 9 symphonies.

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, another Swedish master with 5 symphonies.

But maybe that's for another project.

Rickard said...

Looks like I misspelled existentialist. For some reason I thought of essentialist instead of existentialist. Either way I was referring to existentialist.

Bryan Townsend said...

Gotcha, you meant existentialist. I think one of the things that sets film music apart is that it must NOT become more interesting than what is on the screen. That is why it is so often a bland reproduction of musical styles from elsewhere.

Wow, you managed to come up with the names of a couple of composers I hadn't even heard of, and one that I have, but have never listened to (Atterberg). Looks like I have some more listening to do!

And thanks for the other clips. I will have a listen when I get a chance.