Four Musical Ways to Say Goodbye

goodbyeEarlier in the month, we listened to the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a song cycle about death, renewal, and immortality. Written in the final years of Mahler’s life, Das Lied von der Erde, along with the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1909), were Mahler’s swan songs. (He completed one movement of a Tenth Symphony before his death in 1911). Both completed works leave us with a sense of finality, not with the joyful, celebratory exuberance of Beethoven’s Ninth, but instead quietly fading into a sea of eternal peace. There’s something unsettling, even terrifying about the ending of both, but at the same time there is a sense of liberation in letting go.

We’ll explore Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in a future Listeners’ Club post. But for now, here are four other pieces which say “goodbye” in their own unique ways:

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony

Tchaikovsky’s final symphony is one of music history’s most famous and dramatic “goodbye’s.” It’s music that seems to give up in anguished resignation. Following the exhilaration of the third movement (which ends with such a bang that audiences often can’t help but applaud), the fourth and final movement immediately plunges us into the depths of despair. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere nine days before his death. Some listeners have been tempted to view this symphony as the composer’s suicide note. No historical evidence exists to back up such a romanticized reading. Besides, truly great music is never biographical. It always transcends the literal.

Each movement of the Sixth Symphony features a descending scale. In the final movement’s second theme, this descending motive takes on new prominence. We hear it in the last bars, which are marked, morendo (“dying away”). In the ultimate descent, the instruments of the string section gradually drop out until only the lowest voices are left. When I play this music in the second violin section, I’m always struck by a visceral sense of the music going underwater and remaining unresolved, as the scale line (B, B, A, G, F-sharp) makes it to G, the lowest note on the violin, but can’t go further.

Here is the final movement performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic:

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto

Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in A Major, completed in 1895 while Dvořák was in New York, is a musical elegy. It’s music which wistfully revisits distant memories, pays respect, and then rises into blazing triumph.

Shortly after completing the cello concerto, Dvořák learned that his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, had passed away. 30 years earlier he had been in love with Josefina. She had not returned the feelings, and Dvořák ultimately married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna. In the second movement, Dvořák quoted one of his earlier songs, Kez duch muj san”(“Leave me alone”), which had been a favorite of Josefina. (Listen to that beautiful melody here). The third movement, peppered with fiery Czech folk rhythms, appears to be propelling towards a conventional conclusion, when suddenly in the movement’s coda, all of the forward drive dissipates and we find ourselves in a moment of tender introspection (beginning at 35:39 in the clip below). When the soloist, Hanuš Wihan, attempted to add a cadenza in the third movement’s coda, Dvořák would not permit it, writing,

I give you my work only if you will promise me that no one – not even my friend Wihan – shall make any alteration in it without my knowledge and permission, also that there be no cadenza such as Wihan has made in the last movement; and that its form shall be as I have felt it and thought it out.

He went on to offer the following description:

The Finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first and second movements—the solo dies down . . .then swells again, and the last bars are taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a stormy mood. That is my idea and I cannot depart from it.

Here is a 1964 recording with Leonard Rose and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy:

Strauss’ Metamorphosen

Richard Strauss’ ultimate musical “goodbye” was the Four Last Songswritten in 1948, a year before his death. But a few years earlier, in 1945, Strauss’ Metamorphosen became a farewell to the pre-war world he had known, and perhaps even the long arc of Romanticism which had begun with Beethoven. The work for string orchestra was begun the day after allied bombing destroyed the Vienna Opera House. It quotes the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica, although Strauss claimed that the reference only became apparent to him after the score’s completion. Two verses from Goethe’s poem, Widmung (“Dedication”) also served as inspiration.

Strauss initially attempted to placate the Nazis, partly in an attempt to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He believed he could survive this regime, as he had others before it. A few days after completing Metamorphosen, he wrote,

The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.

Here is a 1973 Staatskapelle Dresden recording, conducted by Rudolf Kempe:

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943 two years before the composer’s death, says “goodbye” in a strikingly different way than Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. Amid rapidly failing health and poverty, Bartók wrote this monumental work as a commission for conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.

The final movement soars with exuberance, celebrating the full virtuosic possibilities of the orchestra. Eastern European folk rhythms dance alongside a fugue, one of the most sophisticated musical structures. It’s hard to imagine any music more full of life. The last chord lets out one final, joyful yelp as it reaches for the stars.

Here is the fifth movement of Concerto for Orchestra, from a recording by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony:

  • Find Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor,Pathétique” at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in A Major at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Strauss’ Metamorphosen at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra at iTunes, Amazon.

Marie Antoinette’s Favorite Symphony

It began with a stunningly lucrative commission. In 1785, Franz Joseph Haydn, who had spent 25 years employed by the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy in an isolated backwater of the Austrian Empire, was asked to write six symphonies for the orchestra of Le Concert de la Loge Olympique in Paris. The patron was the Olympic Lodge, one of the wealthiest Masonic lodges in Paris. Haydn was promised an orchestra of 67 musicians (three times the size of his Esterházy court orchestra) and a salary that exceeded what he earned in a year.

Alexander Kucharski’s portrait of Marie Antoinette from around 1790
Alexander Kucharski’s portrait of Marie Antoinette from around 1790

Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, was in attendance when Haydn’s “Paris” Symphonies (No. 82-87) were performed. She became especially fond of Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major, resulting in its nickname,  “La Reine” (The Queen). During her imprisonment, less than ten years later, the score of Haydn’s 85th lay near the harpsichord in her cell. “Times have changed,” she is said to have noted with sadness.

When Haydn was writing the “Paris” Symphonies, Beethoven, his student, was sixteen years away from publishing his own First Symphony. But amazingly, there are fleeting, momentary glimpses of Beethoven-to-come throughout Symphony No. 85. This passage in the finale movement may remind you of the jarring, off-balance rhythmic energy of Beethoven’s EroicaIt’s a moment where the forward motion is shockingly halted by emphasis on the “wrong” beats. (We get a hint of these accents in the first movement of Haydn’s 85th around 2:23). Throughout the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, this kind of conflict plays out on a larger, more ferocious scale. A minute or so earlier in the last movement we hear this string passage, which might remind you vaguely of a similar passage in Beethoven’s First (and most Haydnesque) Symphony. In Haydn’s second movement, listen to the drumbeat-like repetition of the bass line in this passage and compare it with similar moments in Beethoven. Listen to the way the answering “drumbeats” are out of sync with the bass, causing us to lose sense of where the downbeat lies.

The opening bars of the first movement seem to be a musical “announcement” or proclamation, preparing us for the symphony which follows. It’s as if Haydn felt it necessary to grab the attention of his audience before moving forward around the 0:10 mark. In the second movement, we hear a series of variations on the romantic French folk song, La gentille et jeune Lisette. For the third movement, we might expect a fun-loving peasant minuet. Instead, Haydn gives us something more courtly and refined…an elegant galant minute. At the end of the movement’s middle section, there’s an interesting moment (beginning around 16:25), where the musical idea is suddenly extended in a way we could never have predicted. Suspended on the harmonic dominant, a series of woodwind voices enters in succession.

This recording features the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen:

  1. Adagio – Vivace 0:00
  2. Romance: Allegretto 7:32
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto 14:16
  4. Finale: Presto 18:31

Beethoven’s "Eroica", Part 2

Monday’s post featured the first movement of Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (“Eroica”) Op. 55. This music, which helped plant the seeds of Romanticism, introduced shocking new sounds and an expansive, heroic form. Let’s continue and listen to the other three movements:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Marcia funebre. Adagio assai[/typography]

Beethoven’s second movement is a solemn funeral march. Paying attention to the rhythm, consider what aspects of the music suggest a dirge. Why do you think Beethoven chose to put this type of movement in the middle of the “Eroica”? Does the atmosphere remain the same throughout the movement or does the character of the music develop into something new? Can you hear the sounds of the funeral procession fading into the distance at the end?

From the opening of the movement you probably heard the basses creating the rhythmic foundation of the funeral march. Beethoven creates a ponderous, weighty feeling by marking the downbeats with the lowest instrument in the orchestra.

At 5:11 the music tip toes almost hesitantly into a new theme in C major from C minor. It quickly crescendos to a sudden heroic statement or proclamation in G major (5:40). Isn’t it amazing how this heroic music can emerge so quickly from the depths of despair and then evaporate (7:32)?

But Beethoven soon has a new surprise in store for us, perhaps the most significant so far. At 8:16, the second violins suddenly launch into the subject of a fugue. A fugue is “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (known as the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others.” Like the development section of the“Eroica’s” first movement, the music gets increasingly worked up, almost seeming to transcend everything we’ve heard up to this point (10:04). As you were listening the first time through, you may have been shocked by what happens next. At 10:42 we think we are returning to the quiet, predictable opening…but listen to what happens…

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is music which changed the course of music history from Brahms and Wagner through Mahler and beyond. This collection of pitches still speaks to us today as powerfully as it did in 1804. In fact, we often turn to great music like the “Eroica” when we need to try to make sense of tragedy. The Boston Symphony played this movement when President Kennedy’s assassination was announced to concert goers at Symphony Hall in 1963.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Scherzo and Finale[/typography]

The word “Scherzo” translates as “joke.” What comes to mind as you listen to the opening of the Scherzo? Maybe it’s breathless anticipation? Do you feel like the lid is about to blow off and the music is set to explode, no longer able to contain its excitement?

The final movement begins at 6:16. Are you surprised by the music which follows the dramatic opening of the movement? It’s only a harmony line without melody…a seemingly insignificant fragment of music. But this is the seed from which the last movement blossoms. What follows is a set of variations which cover exciting and far reaching musical territory. Notice how many different ways this theme can be developed and the contrasting emotions which result. What is each variation saying?

Beethoven’s music conjures up a complex sea of emotions. We often overlook humor in Beethoven, but listen carefully to the passage starting around 15:30. We know that the end of the piece is just around the corner, but listen to the way Beethoven plays with our expectations. I’m not sure if the music beginning at 16:28 is funny or frightening or maybe a mixture of both. How does this music set up the coda? What emotions do you feel as you listen to the end of the piece?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Interesting Links[/typography]

Now that you’ve heard the whole piece, you may want to go deeper with some analysis by Leonard Bernstein. Here  is Michael Tilson Thomas introducing the piece and then giving a performance with the London Symphony. Also, check out this episode of the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score this link from NPR.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The “Eroica” Through Time[/typography]

Over time, interpretations have changed. This fun clip documents the opening chords of the first movement from the earliest recordings up to the present. You’ll hear a variety of tempos as well as tunings. Remarkably it seems fairly easy to guess the style of each performance, based on the opening chords (quite a time saver).

If you want to choose one contrasting performance, I recommend John Eliot Gardiner’s performance with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. This performance attempts to recreate the instruments of Beethoven’s time. You’ll notice that the tempos are significantly faster and the tuning is lower. Also notice the limited use of vibrato in the strings and the valveless trumpets and horns. Brass instruments at that time could play a limited set of pitches controlled by the lip:

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Keep listening to this powerful, revolutionary music. You’ll continue to hear new, exciting things. Share your thoughts in the thread below. If you have a favorite recording of the piece, let us know about it.

Beethoven’s "Eroica", Part 1

Beethoven's manuscript with the dedication to Napoleon crossed out.
Beethoven’s manuscript with the dedication to Napoleon crossed out.

Revolutionary, exhilarating, ferocious, heroic…these are all words which could describe Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (“Eroica”) Op. 55. The “Eroica” stretches the elegant Classicism of Mozart and Haydn to its breaking point and plants the seeds of Romanticism. This is music of Revolution (the French and American) and the ideals of the common man.

The dawn of Romanticism brought profound changes. The stately private palace gave way to the public concert hall. Orchestras became bigger and louder. Symphonic structures expanded. The heroic struggles of man and the poetry of nature were elevated.

Beethoven originally dedicated this symphony, written in 1804, to Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon declared himself Emperor, betraying the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven angrily crossed out the dedication on the title page and replaced it with a dedication to heroes (“Eroica”).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Allegro con brio[/typography]

Let’s start by listening to the first movement, performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. The piece begins with a surprise…two thunderous musical “hammer blows.” Pay attention to the underlying pulse as the music develops, growing like a living organism from these opening chords. Can you hear moments where a competing rhythmic groove fights against this established pulse? Do you hear anything which suggests conflict or struggle?

This movement is built on sonata form. You can learn more about this type of musical structure here. As the piece unfolds, pay attention to this overall structure as we move from the exposition (which gets repeated at 3:40) to the development (around 6:49) and back home to the recapitulation.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Few Details…[/typography]

Can you imagine how shocking those opening “hammer blow”chords would have been for the first audiences in 1805? Beethoven makes the orchestra growl with a ferocious intensity which had never before been heard. When I play orchestral music by Beethoven, I always get the sense that the classical orchestra is being pushed to its limits. The musical vision almost seems too big and powerful to be contained. Beethoven’s compositional style also reflected the monumentality of the work. His sketches suggest that he struggled relentlessly over each motive. The most minute detail separated the pedestrian from the sublime.

Now that you have an idea of the piece, let’s go back and listen again. From the beginning, you probably felt the music flowing in groups of three (3/4 time). Quickly, however this clear pulse becomes infected with a competing groove, first with jarring accents on the “wrong” beat (around 1:00), then with more overt “hammer blows” (3:00-3:32). The music always makes us feel a little off balance. Go back and listen to the exposition again, paying attention to this rhythmic conflict.

Towards the end of the exposition, the music tells us that something new is about to happen (3:26-3:40). Beethoven heightens our anticipation, but listen to what happens…We abruptly return to the beginning of the exposition. Classical symphonies commonly repeated the exposition, but Beethoven goes out of his way to make this transition as sudden and jarring as possible. Listen to what happens the second time we come to this musical “fork in the road” (6:42-7:09). This time we move further  away from “home” into completely new musical territory. This is the development, the mid section of sonata form where the motives (the DNA of the piece) go through all kinds of exciting and far reaching embellishments and transformations. Listen to the way the opening motive is obsessively repeated in different guises (and keys) throughout this section, simultaneously spinning off new, but related musical material. This is the most unstable part of the piece, where anything can happen. Can you hear the music getting increasingly wound up throughout this section as it searches for a distant and elusive goal?

Listen to the intense passage beginning around 8:44 one more time. This is the moment where the rhythmic conflict we heard in the exposition explodes with a new insistence and completely takes over. This passage ends with a shockingly dissonant chord at 9:26. This harsh new sound is something we might expect to hear in twentieth century music by Stravinsky. It’s the furthest you can get from the elegant, refined sound world of Mozart and Haydn.

Another innovative moment comes with the “false” horn entrance around 11:36. During the first performances, even Beethoven’s most devoted students assumed that this had to be a misprint in the score. It was just too weird. Listen to the way the horn emerges from the eerie tremolo in the strings. A few moments later, after a modulation, a new horn solo appears in the “right” key.

One of the most fundamental aspects of a symphony is the sense that the music is always going somewhere. It’s constantly developing, evolving and searching. From the opening chords on, one musical motive and phrase spins into the next in this unfolding process. Consider the musical “fork in the road” we heard at the end of the exposition. Listen to what happens when we come to this critical junction again in the recapitulation, after 15:04. For the first time the music suddenly seems lost…out of ideas…unsure which direction to take. The motion almost stops. Can you tell how the music finds its way again? Listen to the second violins for a clue.

In the climactic coda, listen to Beethoven’s use of the trumpets and horns and consider the heroic connotations of these instruments. Notice that the rhythmic conflict we’ve heard throughout the movement is there, right to the final notes (17:52).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Listen Again[/typography]

Now that we’ve focused on some of the details in the music, go back and listen again. Listen freely with an open mind. Have fun and enjoy the ride. You may hear completely new things in the music that you missed the first time. Share your own ideas in the thread below. What does this music mean to you? What emotional impact does it create? Be sure to come back Wednesday for Part 2, where we’ll explore the other three movements.