Posts Tagged ‘human condition’

Mahler, Symphony No. 9, first movement

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Of the nine Mahler symphonies, the Ninth is probably the one I come to with the least familiarity.  I’ve never seen it in concert, and I’ve never had reason before to really listen to it.  It is, I’m finding, a very different animal than what comes before, although in many ways, it is a culmination of some trends that really began with the Seventh symphony.

Like the Seventh, there is significantly less clarity of formal structure as motive becomes more and more important.  I’m reminded of Schoenberg’s assertion that motive is what composition really is about—creating a motive and then following its logical developments until a composition is worked out.  Only a few years after Mahler’s Ninth, we begin to encounter works like Schoenberg’s Pierrot, in which motive becomes the music, comprising melody, harmony and rhythm, or Erwartung, which takes a very different motivic approach, giving only exposition, never repetition over the course of a one-act opera.  Only fifteen years after Mahler’s death, Schoenberg devised dodecaphony, which was yet another effort to allow motive to determine all aspects of musical content.

There is, then, a tautness to Mahler’s Ninth that was missing from the Eighth.  The Eighth was motivically conceived, of course, but also had such a sprawling nature, such a blend of instruments, voices and text that it was probably impossible for Mahler to focus on the motivic aspects of the composition.  A text that expresses what the last scene of Faust tries to express cannot be contained in just a few motivic ideas, as Mahler correctly divined.  Both are great works, and thrilling in their way, but I remain skeptical as to whether the Eighth is really a Symphony in more than name.

If I might dwell, then, before entering into specifics, upon what actually makes a symphony.  Chuck Berry sang:

I got no kicks against modern jazz, /Unless they try to play it too darn fast, /And change the rhythm of the melody, /Until it sounds just like a symphony.

 Of course, Berry didn’t mean an actual symphony, but rather the technically driven, studied approach that jazz was coming to acquire in his era—the era of Miles Davis and other practitioners of “Cool Jazz”—in juxtaposition to the raw, often deliberately unschooled approach to rock’n’roll of his day.  But what does it mean to sound “just like a symphony?” 

When I first encountered Robert Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale, I found myself wondering why he didn’t just write a slow movement and have a “complete” symphony, since I was by that time aware that a symphony had four movements in a certain order.  But then composers such as Schumann, Sibelius and Barber also felt able to compose single-movement symphonies, and history turns out to be replete with examples of symphonies that lack a fourth movement or have “extra” movements.  In the end, what is the symphonic concept?  What makes a composition for orchestra (or for band, as the ever-insistent voice of Rodney Winther reminds me) into a symphony?   Some aspects I think are important:

  • Instrumental.  This is probably a basic requirement, and it doesn’t omit all non-symphonies, although it does omit, or threaten to omit, many pieces with the title “Symphony.”  Is Beethoven’s Ninth, with its choral finale a symphony by this definition?  There is great music in its first three movements, but these act as prelude, really, to the cantata that is the last movement.  I’m not certain that a piece with voices can truly be a symphony, but I know that they aren’t required.  In fact, they sometimes undermine the symphonic ideal, at least to my thinking.  The fact remains that as much as we are musical beings, we are also verbal beings, and the marriage of text to music is always an uneven match.  Text, if we understand the language, wears the pants, so to speak, and will almost always compete successfully for the attention of most listeners.  Even the most vapid lyrics seem to win this contest.  Thus, to me, the symphonic concept is inherently instrumental.
  • Relative equality of parts.  As a trombonist, I have rested through much more symphonic music than I have played, of course, but Brahms’ First would not be complete without the trombone chorale in the fourth movement.  In that sense, the trombones are equal in importance to the other instruments, and no part can be disposed with.  That chorale could have been played by horns or bassoons, but not without a change in color and thus in character.  The appearance of a color that has been held in reserve through the first three movements is a profound and noble moment, and as the saying goes, there are no small parts, only small actors.  However, in a concerto, one part is inherently more important than all the others, and in works titled Concerto for Orchestra, or similar names, it is again the virtuosity of the players that is on display rather than the composer’s ability to make a profound statement.  Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is not a symphony because, although I think there are messages about life in it, it is mostly about the ability of players to perform music written idiomatically for their instruments.
  • Plumbing the depths.  As Libby Larsen said, composition is about telling someone else through music what it is like to be alive.  Just as large-scale formats in other arts—mural, novel, film—put on display the understanding of the auteur of the human condition, the symphony tells us about human experience from the point of view of the composer, and, in the best moments, from the point of view of the musicians who perform the piece.  Is this present in the earliest pieces called “symphony?”  Perhaps, but it is difficult to know at 200 years’ remove.  Certainly in Mozart’s later symphonies and Haydn’s later symphonies, we get a glimpse of this, and of course it is Beethoven who forced composers to rethink the symphonic concept.  The Soviet Nicholas Miaskovsky composed over a thousand numbered symphonies—he was less writing about his life than writing for it, though, and one must wonder whether such pieces should be considered “symphonic” in their conception.  Again, it is not a difficult thing to write four movements in a symphonic pattern, particularly in a Common Practice style, but to pour one’s heart and soul and communicate to all who can play or listen on a meaningful level is a much greater challenge.  We mustn’t discount happiness and cheerfulness, though.  While there is pain and struggle and anguish in the world, a great symphony can also be filled with light—Sibelius’ Fifth, perhaps, or Dvorak’s Eighth, or much of Mendelssohn.  If one actually is happy, and filled with joy, it is probably one’s artistic duty to compose music that recognizes the value of this, an idea almost forgotten in our world of desires and causes and political statements.
  • Internal unity.  Simply writing four pieces on a related concept or program does not a symphony make.  No one would confuse Holst’s Suites for Military Band for symphonies despite their musical worthiness.  In the Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz wisely fuses the five movements through internal self-reference—the idée fixe.   With no knowledge of the program, these five pieces would seem to hang together, as do the movements in Mahler’s symphonies, because in the best symphonic writing, the number of movements is, in the end, less crucial than the way those movements are connected.  Schumann recognized this and did not try to claim the Overture, Scherzo and Finale as a symphony.  The movements of a symphony must follow one another without apology and without explanation.  They must be inevitable.  They must be as different speakers making the same point, “good-cop, bad-cop,” as it were.  Composers use harmony, melody, motive, scoring—all the tools at their disposal—to achieve this.  The sonic world of Brahms’ Second Symphony cannot be confused with that of the Third, and Mahler’s world in the Seventh Symphony is a distinctly different one from the Ninth.
  • Commitment to purpose and purposeful excellence.  A true symphony is a serious, heartfelt gesture intended to be the best work of a mature composer, written without constraints of mediocre performers and looking to the future.  It is likely to be experimental in some regard, although the experimentation is less likely to be in the realm of compositional or instrumental technique than in the realm of expressive capacity.  Just as a good pianist will test and probe the potential of an unfamiliar instrument, a true symphonic composer attempts to determine just how her ideas about existence can best be communicated through sound.  A symphony is not a one-off, but rather the core of an artist’s musical expression.  Yes, at the age of 34, I have still not written a symphony, for many reasons, but I feel that I must first master certain aspects of compositional technique, some of which are approached through this study.  A symphony should lie at the core of my oeuvre in retrospect, and given my social milieu, the opportunities that have and may come my way and my personal style, I may not be a symphonist, or there may be in the end only one symphony in me—perhaps a better situation, as how can one write such a summative piece twice?!

And now, 1500 words into this post, I have not even made a single specific reference to the piece at hand—if this were an assignment in one of my classes, I would fail myself!  But the assignment I’ve given myself is to figure out how to grow as a composer:   I hope to one day be a symphonist, or at least write large-scale music, which I have determined are not necessarily the same thing.  I am learning what I need to learn from Mahler, and my listening and score-study project is yielding fruit, if in unexpected ways.  My score is filled with notes on Mahler’s work, and I refer myself to it for future reference, but why shouldn’t this summative work, written by a man at the peak of his personal powers of musical technique and expression, elicit from me a summative sort of response, albeit slightly early?  If you’re dying for specifics, check out the strange interlude of regular formal rhythm—four-bar phrases—that begin in m. 148 and precede and follow an otherwise nearly complete lack of regularity in this regard.  Also, Mahler’s layering approach to this movement reminds me of some of Sibelius’ music—I don’t know whether there was cross-fertilization there.

Onward!  Keep fighting mediocrity!