One of the stories in my new collection, Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable, imagines the fate of an emigre virtuoso pianist in L.A., Alexander Petrov, who is a friend of Stravinsky and Schoenberg; he is at the center also of an earlier work of mine, Hungry Generations: a novel, which partly tries to convey my pleasure in the history of classical music and especially modern music from Wagner forward. About Wagner, as my previous post tried to show, the evident gigantism in Wagner’s extraordinary operas participates in the modernist impulse to create art which surveys and encompasses the entire span of civilization, reaching back to its mythic origins and moving forward to the present world which is judged to be disintegrating from the mid-nineteenth century onward – and increasingly so, as the two World Wars were fought. This ambitious and audacious vision of human experience announces the current disintegration of traditional thought and received conventions. Such is the vision in Wagner and so too, for example, in Joyce’s Ulysses, with the qualification that Joyce’s creation of Leopold Bloom – as much a mockery of Odysseus as he is – celebrates the character’s struggling humanity. As a result, Joyce’s exposure of the vast, disintegrating edifice of civilization yet leaves some room for the ordinary human being. Such a paradox is not central in Wagner’s work (despite some superficial elements of it in Meistersinger).
However, in Mahler, a composer deeply influenced by Wagner (as every German-speaking classical composer was), we do encounter that paradoxical face-off between the individual versus the massive forces which can crush the human. The individual’s features are reduced to often primitive and, therefore, bitterly ironic markers of expressiveness, yet they survive. I am thinking of the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, in which a naive children’s tune is transformed into a deeply sad minor-key funeral march, and so its sweetness is converted into a beautiful but bitter gesture of yearning. Soon in the movement, we hear klezmer-style carnival tunes, and their primitive contours are made to convey a similar yearning for expressiveness, despite their grotesque transformations. (Here is a Bernstein performance of the movement on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEPERXpOqiU&feature=related.) What we hear here is travesty: the children’s folksong and the carnival dance music are mutilated and mocked, and yet they are clung to as embodying the last possibilities of expressiveness and meaning: deformed as they are, they become a lyrical hallowing of the mundane and the clichéd as all that humankind has left of meaning.
The transition from the utter silence at the end of this funeral march to the last movement’s apocalyptic thunderclap is a primal gesture of disruption, and it yields another sort of tragically inflected and travestied march. (Here is a Dudamel performance on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VY_g69mzv2E.) Mahler’s grotesque version of a victory march is, in Adorno’s image, a march as heard and witnessed from the point of view of the vanquished, the victims, who yearn for an alternative to brutality. Mahler’s music becomes an act of mourning for the passing of a "human" world. His symphonies employ huge orchestras, which can dwarf any semblance of the individual, and yet he makes us hear the individual instruments with chamber-music-like clarity. A most eloquent version of this meeting between gigantic resources in sound and the bared individual voices of instruments is to be found in his Symphony No. 3, the fourth movement, in which the mezzo-soprano sings Mahler’s setting of the “Midnight Song” of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The world is deep, / Deeper than day had been aware. / Deep is its woe;” yet joy is “deeper even than agony. / Woe implores: Go! / But all joy wants eternity - / Wants deep, wants deep eternity.” (Here is Abbado’s great performance with Anna Larsson, on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCEr2mWhYs8&feature=related.) An estranged minimalism (which is ironically a bit at odds with Nietzsche's yearning for the fertile, unbounded spirit) is at work in this movement after the gigantic structures, in terms of both time and sound, heard in the previous three movements, estranged because its “wisdom” is so dwarfed, so close to silence, though all the more moving to the modern ear for that. (There are many great interpretations on cd of the first and third symphonies; here are links to Abbado's [recently] conducting Mahler: Symphony No. 3 and Bernstein conducting Mahler: Symphony No. 1- Titan / Symphony No. 10 (Adagio).)
Travesty and the tension between gigantism and minimalism are important also in an alternative classical music tradition to that in Germany, Austria, etc. In France, Debussy and Ravel employ features of modernist art with a quite different aesthetic, one based in a sort of floating aleatory associativeness, a graceful, sinuous welcoming dance of fragmentation. We can hear a powerful example of this alternative approach to travesty in Ravel’s “La Valse,” which presents the demonic destruction yet celebration of the mundane clichéd form of the waltz. Ravel disintegrates the form even as he simultaneously adheres to it as a last grotesque source of expressiveness. (Here is the second half of Dror Biron’s brilliant performance on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdaU-_vFH3g&feature=related# . There is also a wonderful performance available on cd of Argerich playing Ravel’s La Valse with Freire: Rachmaninov: Suite No. 2, Op. 17 / Ravel: La Valse / Lutoslawski: Paganini Variations ~ Argerich / Freire.)
Debussy, the greatest modern French composer, can employ a large orchestra (as he does, for example, in La Mer, or even in his setting of Mallarmé's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune), but he always maintains a clear, supple, associative flow of musical gestures, a sort of stream of consciousness emphasizing unexpected individual "voices." His music continually opens itself to the possibility of an alternative pentatonic harmony independent of classical music’s customary harmonic vocabulary and to the potential logic of synesthetic sensations joining the senses and separate from the ordered development of musical themes, which are always on the verge of fragmenting. (Here is a fine orchestral cd of Debussy: La Mer / Nocturnes / Jeux / Rhapsodie pour clarinette et orchestre - The Cleveland Orchestra / Pierre Boulez.)
Above all, Debussy’s minimalism becomes a means of maintaining individual expressiveness in the face of the experience of fragmentation, of sustaining the pared-down search for “meaning” in the face of chaos. His minimalism is very far from the rather gently beautiful impressionism with which he is sometimes identified. It veers abruptly from the delicate to the violent and back, for example, in Debussy’s Prelude for piano, the 12th in Book 2 - Feux d'artifice, or fireworks. (Here is a fine Maurizio Pollini performance on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1m1_IPErT-U. There is also a very great performance on cd of Sviatoslav Richter playing this prelude along with all of Debussy's Book 2: Richter in Spoleto.)
In my next post, I’ll attempt briefly to discuss Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulate. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]