Music of Romantic Obsession

romantic-rose

From Vincent Van Gogh to Charlotte Brontë, artists, writers, and composers have occasionally entered the strange, darkly irrational world of romantic obsession. With Halloween approaching, let’s take a walk on the creepy side and explore three pieces which grew out of (what some would call) unhealthy romantic obsessions:

Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique

Written partially under the influence of opium, Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique takes us into strange, hallucinogenic territory. It summons new sounds from the orchestra, which must have shocked the audience when it was first heard in 1830. The symphony takes on new psychological depth in this work of full blown, heart-on-sleeve Romanticism. “Berlioz tells it like it is.” said Leonard Bernstein. “You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.” 

The Symphony’s drama is outlined in Berlioz’ extensive written program. Over the course of five movements, a “young musician” descends into the despair of unrequited love. In the first movement, subtitled Passions, this vague hero “sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her.” Each time he thinks of her, we hear a haunting musical theme, an idée fixe, which is repeated obsessively throughout the Symphony. What’s interesting is the way this theme, first heard in the opening movement at 5:39 in the recording below, develops throughout the piece. In the second movement, A Ball, it interrupts the waltz. In the middle of the strangely static, pastoral third movement, Scene in the Country, it pops up in the oboe and flute. In the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, the idée fixe returns in the clarinet as a nostalgic memory…the last thought before the Hero’s execution. The fifth movement, Dream of the Night of the Sabbath, depicts the Hero’s funeral. Witches and hideous monsters shriek, groan, and cackle amid quotes of the Dies Irae (the ancient chant evoking the Day of Wrath). The idée fixe now degenerates into a vulgar, grotesque parody of itself.

Just before beginning work on Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz developed an infatuation for Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress he saw perform the role of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the evening of September 11, 1827. His love letters remained unanswered. In 1832, after Harriet heard Berlioz’ Symphony, they met. Following a bitter, short-lived marriage, they separated permanently. Illusion could not be turned into reality.

In Friday’s post, I’ll have a few additional thoughts about Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. For now, get acquainted with the piece through Michael Tilson Thomas’ 1998 recording with the San Francisco Symphony:

Janáček’s “Intimate Letters”

You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately…

This is a passage from one of the over 700 letters Czech composer Leoš Janáček wrote to Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 38 years his junior. Janáček, who was also married, fell in love with Kamila after meeting her in 1917. Although she remained ambivalent, Janáček continued to write to Kamila daily. More importantly, the obsession seems to have inspired a stunning burst of creativity in the final years of Janáček’s life which included three operas (with characters inspired by Kamila), the Sinfonietta, and the String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters.” Throughout the Second String Quartet the viola personifies Kamila. The work was premiered on September 11, 1928, coincidentally the same date that Berlioz became infatuated with Harriet Smithson almost a hundred years earlier.

As with Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, this extraordinary music transcends the biographical curiosities of its creator. Now that you know the piece’s strange historical background, listen to it as pure, timeless music. Throughout four movements, this is music which constantly keeps us off guard. At some moments, it’s beautiful and melancholy. At other times, the instruments scream with the harsh, raspy “noise” we might hear in the music of George Crumb or Jimi Hendrix.

Here is the Hagen Quartet’s recording of Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters:”

Vertigo

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller film Vertigo, San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, haunted by his incurable acrophobia and vertigo, spirals into a dark, inescapable depression after being unable to prevent Madeleine from plunging to her death from the top of a bell tower. Bernard Hermann’s hypnotic score evokes Ferguson’s increasing obsession with Madeleine, following her death. Short, obsessively repeated arpeggios give us the physical sensation of vertigo (whirling and loss of balance), as well as hopelessness and entrapment. (Stephen Sondheim uses similar obsessive motivic repetition in Passionanother story of romantic obsession). At first, the tender, hushed music which follows in Herrmann’s suite promises to be more comforting. But we soon realize that it’s just as circular, and ultimately directionless, as what came before…an infinite, dreamlike maze in which the line between hallucination and reality is imperceptible.

In a 2004 interview with the British Film Institute, director Martin Scorsese cited Herrmann’s music for Vertigo as his all-time favorite film score:

Hitchcock’s film is about obsession, which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again. Which is probably why there are so many spirals and circles in the imagery – Stewart following Novak in the car, the staircase at the tower, the way Novak’s hair is styled, the camera movement that circles around Stewart and Novak after she’s completed her transformation in the hotel room, not to mention Saul Bass’ brilliant opening credits, or that amazing animated dream sequence. And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for – he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.

Alex Ross provides equally interesting background and analysis in this article. He points out that, as Ferguson descends into insanity, there is increasingly less dialogue:

…essentially ”Vertigo” becomes a silent film. Except, of course, for the music, which plays almost without a break and gives the whole sequence its air of ineffable mystery. What is going on is difficult to describe: Herrmann shifts fluidly but uneasily among a few simple, cryptic chords, augmentations of familiar triads. Wistful hints of melody circle back on themselves instead of building into thematic phrases. The orchestration is dominated by high or low instruments (notably, violins and bass clarinets). The sequence is profoundly eerie but also very beautiful: it is neither tonal nor dissonant.

  • Find the San Francisco Symphony’s recording of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the Hagen Quartet’s recording of Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score at iTunes, Amazon.

Tundra

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In 1990 the Helsinki Philharmonic commemorated the 125th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth with the commission of Tundra, a short but powerful orchestral piece by Danish composer Poul Ruders (b. 1949). Wednesday’s post featured the dark, brooding sounds of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. You’ll hear a similar icy, Scandinavian sonic landscape in Ruders’ Tundra. There are also direct echoes of Sibelius. Take a moment and listen to the Sibelius Fifth’s singular climactic event, the distinctive “Swan Theme” played by the horns in the final movement. A ghostly fragment of this theme surfaces briefly in Tundra. 

Following the Seventh Symphony, incidental music for The Tempest, and a few shorter works, Sibelius descended into a permanent period of artistic silence. Despite efforts to complete an eighth symphony, he would remain unable to write any music for the remainder of his life. Unable to access the source of earlier inspiration, Sibelius was left with the vast, inconceivable power of nature, as Alex Ross describes:

Suddenly dissatisfied with the fluid form that had evolved in the Fifth, he began to dream of a continuous blur of sound without any formal divisions—symphonies without movements, operas without words. Instead of writing the music of his imagination, he wanted to transcribe the very noise of nature. He thought that he could hear chords in the murmurs of the forests and the lapping of the lakes; he once baffled a group of Finnish students by giving a lecture on the overtone series of a meadow. Whatever he succeeded in putting on paper seemed paltry and inadequate.

Tundra’s massive layers of sound suggest a similar connection to the eternal hum of nature. This is Leif Segerstam conducting the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Nordic Spin: Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony

Winter landscape outside Helsinki (from Alex Ross)
The winter landscape outside Helsinki (from Alex Ross)

Listen carefully to the way Jean Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony begins. An expansive opening motive, quiet, awe-inspiring and mystical, sets the entire mighty symphony in motion. The Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) famously insisted on periods of prolonged silence when he was working. Appropriately, the opening of the Fifth almost seems to emerge from the bleak, desolate stillness of a Scandinavian forest. The tympani’s roll from B-flat to E-flat, taken by itself, would suggest a simple dominant to tonic in the symphony’s home key of E-flat major, but the music never quite arrives at this convincing resolution…There’s more left to be said.

You may notice this pattern repeating as the first movement unfolds. Every point of arrival opens up a new door of uncertainty, building tension and plunging us into increasingly frightening territory. At one point the tonal center evaporates completely and the solo bassoon wanders, lost in a sudden, ghostly sea of atonality (6:43). Sibelius’ Fifth breaks down traditional Sonata form, leaving development which is more circular, a phenomenon which musicologist James Hepokoski describes as “rotational form.” Could this altered sense of time be vaguely influenced by Nordic seasonal cycles, where a low midnight sun in the summer transitions to dark, gloomy winters?

Following its completion in 1915, Sibelius revised the symphony. (“Never write an unnecessary note,” he said. “Every note must live.”) The revision included the bizarre and unprecedented innovation of splicing together the end of the first movement and the beginning of the second, creating an uninterrupted symphonic arc. Alex Ross describes this moment (around 9:25 in the clip below) as “a cinematic ‘dissolve’ from one movement to another.” What follows is a thrilling feeling of gradual acceleration and crescendo, as if the brakes have been suddenly cut loose. 

Listening to this symphony, I’m always struck by a visceral sense of spin. This sensation is first apparent right after the expansive opening as the motive takes shape before our ears (0:14), as if composing itself and searching for a way forward. In this passage you’ll hear the motive passed between groups of woodwind instruments. Do the voices of the instruments suggest distinct personas?

Listen to the first movement and see if you agree with me about the sense of spin…motion which never arrives anywhere definitive until the end of the movement. This is Leif Segerstam conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra:

Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82

  1. Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato (0:00)
  2. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto (14:32)
  3. Allegro molto (23:57)

At first, you may hear pastoral sounds of the nineteenth century in the second movement-maybe even a nod to Beethoven. But there’s something more ominous lurking beneath the surface, evoking the twentieth century and a world on the brink of war. Consider this movement’s sense of flow and development. Pay attention to the pizzicatos and the contrasting, static, sustained pitches in the woodwinds, with all those strange “wrong” notes hanging over. Notice the way empty musical “space” is filled with increasing complexity and embellishment as the movement unfolds.

Rising out of the trembling iciness of the final movement (music which occasionally brings to mind John Adams’ 1978 minimalist masterpiece, Shaker Loops) is the distinctive “Swan Theme” (25:14). In the recording above, listen to the way Segerstam brings out the deep, organ-like bass notes and notice the hypnotic way they fit together with the horns. The symphony’s transcendent, heroic climax comes with the sudden turn to C major (26:07). It’s a brief but significant moment, which sticks in our minds long after it has passed.

The iconic “Swan Theme” plays an important role in the conclusion of the symphony; but in these final bars, it seems to be surrounded by ambiguity. Before we get there, we experience a hint of the opening of the first movement (30:22), as if to remind us where we’ve been. How do you interpret the end of the piece with its strange silences? Is it even important to try to sum it up in words, or to assign emotional labels to something which transcends description? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.

Come back on Friday to hear echoes of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony in music written in 1990 by contemporary Danish composer Poul Ruders.

Recordings, old and new

I’ve noticed that this piece can sound quite different, depending on the interpretation. Here are a few recordings. Let me know your favorites:

Explore the TAFTO Archive

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For many professional orchestra musicians and audience members, August offers a rare period of downtime and a chance for contemplation. Summer seasons and festivals are beginning to wind down, while subscription seasons remain just around the corner. There couldn’t be a better time to explore the newly updated Take a Friend to the Orchestra (TAFTO) resource website, created by Drew McManus, arts consultant and author of the popular blog, Adaptistration

Take a Friend to the Orchestra is a series of fun and inspiring essays about how patrons can introduce their friends to the powerful, mysterious and even cathartic experience of a live orchestra concert. TAFTO tears down common stereotypes which may discourage some people from ever entering a concert hall. It reaffirms the idea that going to an orchestra concert should be fun, and should be an occasion which defies perceived rules about dressing up and knowing when to clap. Like sports teams, orchestras are cultural institutions which belong to the entire community. A wide range of viewpoints are represented, including, “critics, bloggers, musicians, classical music enthusiasts, and administrators.” Back in 2006 I was honored to contribute an article to the series. Other contributors include Alex Ross, Sam Bergman, Lynn Harrell, Leonard Slatkin, Gerard Schwartz and Henry Fogel. Drew talks about the series in this interview

Reading these essays, you won’t find gimmicky ideas or overhype about the need to re-invent the wheel in order to remain “relevant.” Instead, you’ll sense passion and enthusiasm for the magic of live orchestra concerts. In the next few weeks, explore the archive and then consider accepting this exciting grassroots challenge and take a friend to your local orchestra.

Esa-Pekka Salonen Featured in Apple Ad

Esa Pekka Salonen appleFinnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has been an enthusiastic fan of Apple products for a while. In 2012 he helped develop the Orchestra app, designed as an exciting resource to demystify classical music for a new, tech-savy generation. Now he is featured in Apple’s new “Your Verse” iPad campaign. This website shows how the iPad has become an important tool for Salonen as a composer and performer.

Alex Ross talks about the cultural significance of the campaign:

The very phrase “classical music,” implying an art devoted exclusively to the past, banishes it into limbo. But I imagine that many composers will be pleased at the sight of Salonen’s mass-market breakthrough. Very simply, it says: We exist.

Apple, a company rooted in beautiful design, has created a visually stunning ad which cleverly depicts the birth and development of a musical motive. The music is part of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto, written for Leila Josefowicz and premiered in 2009 in Los Angeles. A new recording of the concerto has just been released to coincide with the campaign.

Here is the ad:

You can listen to the complete Violin Concerto here. From the virtuosic opening, it embraces the violin’s ethnic fiddle tradition. Splashes of color blend with occasional rock drum elements. Esa-Pekka Salonen discusses the piece here.

Another interesting Salonen piece I’ve been listening to this week is Nyx (2010). The title refers to the shadowy goddess of the night from Greek mythology. You might hear echoes of Sibelius, Bartók, Mahler and Strauss mixed with the atmospheric sounds of a movie soundtrack.

To develop the material takes time. Is this a beginning, end or middle? The best moments are the ones where I realize that the piece wants to go into a certain direction and perhaps it was a direction I wasn’t even aware of.

Esa-Pekka Salonen

The Sonic Landscapes of John Luther Adams

Composer John Luther Adams
Composer John Luther Adams

Become Ocean by John Luther Adams (b. 1953) has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. The large-scale work for orchestra was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. Music critic Alex Ross attended the premier last June in Seattle. In Listen to This, Ross visits the composer’s home in Alaska. The remote Alaskan wilderness seems to be a strong influence in Adams’s music.

Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony will perform Become Ocean in New York at Carnegie Hall on May 6 as part of the Spring for Music series.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Dark Waves[/typography]
Let’s listen to John Luther Adams’s 2007 tone poem, Dark Waves. Adams adds electronic sounds to the orchestra, creating gradually shifting sonic layers. Consider how the music is flowing. What images come to mind? Here is a live performance by the Chicago Symphony with conductor, Jaap van Zweden:

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Dark Waves suggests an almost physical sense of motion…the gradual, inevitable power of an endless series of waves cresting and breaking. For me the music is pictorial, like a slowly changing landscape. But, similar to Debussy’s La Mer, it evokes feelings rather than literal images. In the music of John Luther Adams, New Age meets Edgard Varèse and Morton Feldman.

[quote]Together, the orchestra and the electronics evoke a vast rolling sea. Waves of Perfect Fifths rise and fall, in tempo relationships of 3, 5 and 7. At the central moment, these waves crest together in a tsunami of sound encompassing all twelve chromatic tones and the full range of the orchestra.[/quote]

-John Luther Adams

Alaska