Atonality? The verdict is in. There is not a large enough public for works written in atonal idioms to make the case that there is anything but an esoteric future for atonality (with the partial exception of theatrical works; opera and cinema for instance, where it fares rather better than in works without dramatic distractions). There are enough performers who like this repertory to keep the great atonal masters alive, however, especially on CD. But genuine public enthusiasm for new works in an atonal idiom? Not even in Germany. And another problem: it is perfectly possible to hide technical deficiences in atonal music, unlike with tonal music, where clumsy voice leading, short breathed melodic material, incompetence with cadences, etc. is ruthlessly exposed.
I know very well that Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder ends with a magnificent sunrise, dispelling the nightmare shroud of cruel fate and uncontrollable eroticism that had pervaded this hymn to lonliness and lunacy. The piece begins with a superlative prelude depicting twilight; an invitation to the world of the night. Consider the spooky, albeit hysterical world of Verklaerte Nacht, and of course don’t forget Pierrot Lunaire, Pierrot of the moon. And indeed, lunar imagery dominates the work.
I nominate Strauss’s Salome. Take a look at chronology…Salome came out in 1905, a half dozen or so years before Pierrot and Le Sacre, and half a generation before Wozzeck and Varese and a few years before Erwartung, which is immeasurably indebted to it. Pelleas came out in 1902, I know. But was it really that influential outside of France?
There are two tragic symphonies in the standard repertory. They are both 6th symphonies, and they are by Tchaikovsky and Mahler. After class recently, I was apprised of some (prima facie eccentric, albeit by reasonably prominent commentators) interpretations that suggest that the Dvorak 9th and the Sibelius 7th symphonies conceal (and conceal is the thing, you can deduce nothing from the notes themselves, heard innocently) “tragic” programs.
Well, I think the word “tragic” is overused. And even if the programs are “proven” by documentary evidence doesn’t mean that what a composer thinks he has created is what a composer has created in actuality. Even great composers… maybe especially great composers prove this theory. Hence my new theory: to be tragic, you have to be unmistakeably tragic. So that every intelligent listener knows he’s heard a tragic symphony.
That brings us to Mozart 40, Schubert 4 (subtitled “tragic”, I know), Haydn 44 (“Mourning” symphony) and 49 (La Passione, written before 44) and maybe some others. Are these tragic? For my money, no. And the reason why is that they are contained by Classical symphonic formula, which is essentially optimistic, affirmative. You have to break something to be tragic. Hence Tchaik 6th and Mahler 6th, which break your heart, but also break convention, they break tradition, they defy expectations.
In the modern era, there are quite a few “tragic” symphonies…oh, let’s see. Hmm. Shostakovich 4, 8, and 14, Vaughan Williams 6 (but not 4, that reasserts convention!) Honeggar 5, etc. These symphonies are self aware, as are the Tchaik and Mahler exemplars. There are quite a few works that are mostly tragic, but don’t end tragically, pieces by Beethoven and Nielsen, for example. Some people consider the Sibelius 4 tragic, possibly seduced by its bleakness and his personal circumstances (throat cancer) at the time. By the ground rules my theory lays down, this is inadmissable…bleak is not a synonym for tragic, and the purely personal is ultimately ephemeral. I don’t find the Sib 4 tragic. Dark, of course. Sad? frequently. Melancholy? not really. That’s a rather self indulgent type of feeling not associated with Sibelius. What is tragic? Something definitive. Ambiguity itself isn’t tragic. Tragic is a definitive, culminatory thing. Show me any intelligent and sober listener who doesn’t find Mahler 6 tragic, and I’ll throw my theory out the window.
A purely personal note: Recently in class, for sentimental and irrelevant historical reasons, I termed the epilogue in Vaughan Williams 5 tragic. Well, this is a gaffe that I corrected in class the next week. By the way, just try giving 2 and 1/2 hour lectures 3 times a week and not produce some howlers. It probably can be done, but only by boring teachers. Well, that’s my defense, your honor. But it goes to prove my thesis: there is an inappropriate amelioration of the concept of the tragic in symphony.
By the way, in class, I regret not sticking to my guns in my, I think, tenable criticism of the Mahler 5th. In the Leinsdorf book I’ve written about, the maestro puts it well: “Mahler, then, was not even attempting to continue the traditions of symphonic writing, whereas Bruckner certainly was. Mahler became an icon for the Second Viennese School. His angst-filled works were the direct inspiration for Schoenberg’s Erwartung and for the greatest masterpiece of twentieth century music-theatre, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Mahler’s Sixth has the power to leave the most optimistic listener weak and depressed, while the Fifth is weakened by the composer’s attempt to introduce false and unconvincing optimism into four otherwise quite neurotic movements.” I had said the piece was a collection of tone poems, which I continue to think it is, but I forgot the big Chorale recap in the finale. I’m probably losing my memory, but I think there’s a reason I forgot the biggest “hoehe punkte” in the symphony; I remain unconvinced by it. But that’s just opinion. The Mahler 5th is greater than me, and probably greater than Erich Leinsdorf. I guess we should just be grateful to the master, and try to learn more.
In the excellent dvd set, “Haydn, The String Quartets”, the first violinist of the Lindsays (string quartet) comments that f-minor was Haydn’s “personal” key; this in reference to the Quartet op. 20, Nr. 5. He goes on to suggest that c-minor and g-minor were Beethoven’s and Mozart’s “personal” keys, respectively.
He’s right. But a “personal” key is by no means the most ubiquitous key in a composer’s output; if it were, just about all classical composers would have personal keys of C or D major. The key word is indeed “personal”…in Haydn’s case, consider the piano variations in f-minor and the symphony “La Passione” in addition to the quartet. In Mozart’s case, the 40th symphony, g-minor quintet and Papageno’s suicide music. In Beethoven, you can start with the 5th symphony and go from there.
More interesting is the pschological mood these keys denote, not just their technical character. For Haydn, you might say “passion”, for Mozart “despair”, and for Beethoven, “struggle”.
I suggest other personal keys: for Chopin, B-major, (and, by the way, Chopin insisted that B major was the easiset and most natural scale on the piano); for Liszt, F#-major, for Tchaikovsky, b-minor, for Janacek, D flat-major. For starters. You will notice that all of these keys are relatively exceptional keys compared to the general ubiquity of keys in the repertory. For those who need persuading about the above designations, consider the following:
Chopin: 3rd sonata, numerous nocturnes, waltzes, and mazurkas, as well as sthe still heart of such pieces as the Fantasy and Poloniase-Fantasy.
Lizst: The “Lucifer” music in the “Dante Sonata”; the “Mephistopheles” music in the b-minor sonata, the Mephisto waltz, etc.
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, “Manfred” symphony, and especially the 6th symphony.
Janacek: Sinfonietta and the great epiphany from The Cunning Little Vixen.
But one can make their own list. Mahler doesn’t have a personal key, possibly because all of his music is so personal, so egregiously autobiographical.
In assigning “personal” keys, one should keep in mind that it is a sort of parlor game, and different assignments and disputations are inevitable and welcome; neither is choice of key the most important element even in those works for which a strong identification is present. But it can guide us to certain discoveries, and provide a shorthand for describing the aesthetic predispositions of certain composers. Cross comparison is interesting as well. I suspect most experienced musicians would regard b-minor as moody, even apart from Tchaikovsky…that F#-major is ecstatic, or Promethean…by the way let’s absolutely put Scriabin in the F#-major camp, he belongs with Liszt. It seems like every other piece by Scriabin has the totemic 6 sharps.
A final comment: it is no coincidence that for the classical masters, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, their characteristic keys are minor keys. In the Classical era, minor keys were already exceptional, and therefore potentially “personal”.
Among the many interesting points of view in Erich Leinsdorf on Music (pub. posthumously in 1997 after Leinsdorf’s death in 1993) are these:
1. The art of the daily music critic is undermined, and finally destroyed, by the “media machine”, hype and boosterism replacing authority. This leads to…
2. Poor and irrelevant music criticism because nobody likes to feel that their job is irrelevant, so the most potentially able critics find something else to do with their lives, and…
3. There is a continually shrinking repertory of symphonic and operatic works because nobody can read a score without a recording anymore, and you can’t promote what you don’t know.
An interjection and partial objection: New works are played all the time, in all sorts of places. But wait a minute! Each work is played only once, or in one sequence, because a premiere has cache, not a second performance. So we have Brahms Symphony Nr. 1 with commissioned concerto or overture x, Brahms Symphony Nr. 1 with commissioned overture y; or by way of contrast, Brahms Symphony Nr. 1 with commissioned concerto or overture z. (Caveat: a few ordained “stars” such as John Adams get the sort of exposure otherwise only enjoyed by the canonic masters.) In fact, I suspect that some of the imprimaturred stars of today have a wider appeal among the general public than, say, the Viennese masters who wrote so much of their repertory for the elite. Maybe the only person who loses is is that lonely individual who is tired of bing inundated with the core repertory, but whose taste in new works are precisely for elitist sorts of styles which seek a non-general audience. But then, there are always CDs. The sudden relative inexpensiveness of cd production coupled with the proliferation of small recording companies, and the enduring commitment of fine musicians to the really tough works is some solace to that “lonely individual”.
As for the critics: we need better daily critics, more generally cultured, who write in a literary manner, not a journalistic manner, who are primarily musicians and therefore know what they are talking about, and who don’t try to promote the hand that feeds them. Of course it is a case of “go along to get along”, and telling the truth ruffles many feathers. I’ve been to many Chicago Symphony performances that were routine or even sub-par, and which were rewarded with standing ovations. I’ve also been to magnificent performances (last year’s Shosty 4 from CSO, or the Lyric Opera’s Dialogues of the Carmelites come to mind) which were similarly rewarded. This equivalent response isn’t good manners, it’s lack of proper discrimination, and one of the roles of a critic is to help inculcate the proper discrimination, a role that can only be acquitted by a critic who knows the scores. The scores! Not just the recordings of and commentaries on the scores. There Leinsdorf has it right.