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.

Remembering Film Composer James Horner

James Horner (1953-2015)
James Horner (1953-2015)

 

Edit the music out of your favorite scene on the big screen and you’ll quickly understand how much a film’s emotional impact is tied to its score.

For nearly fifty years, the soaring, lushly romantic music of James Horner has added emotional punch to countless Hollywood blockbusters including Field of Dreams (1989), Apollo 13 (1995), Titanic (1997), The Perfect Storm (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Avatar (2009). Horner passed away suddenly on Monday following the crash of his turboprop plane in Southern California’s Los Padres National Forest. He was 61 years old.

James Horner was a master of expansive themes which reveled in the rich, vibrant sound of a full orchestra. We hear wide open ocean vistas in the main theme of Titanic, perhaps his most famous work. But there’s also an intimate side to the theme. Before blossoming into its ultimate soaring romanticism, the Titanic theme opens with alternating descending half steps which seem to evoke the initial tentative friendship of the main characters, Jack and Rose:

Horner’s music for the 1998 science fiction disaster film Deep Impact plays on the expressive power of irony. The film’s plot centers around efforts to deflect a seven-mile-wide comet on a collision course with Earth. While the worst is avoided, a fragment of the comet creates a 3,500 foot tsunami in the Atlantic Ocean. Much of the film’s atmosphere alternates between suspense and resignation. Horner’s noble and majestic main theme, heard towards the end of this clip, adds a powerful new emotional layer. Ultimately, it changes our perception of the film’s dramatic situation:

Throughout the years James Horner gave interviews offering a glimpse into the process of film scoring (watch here, here, and here).

Waltzing into a New Year

The Vienna Philharmonic began its tradition of performing an annual New Year’s Concert in 1939. Ever since, New Year’s Day and Strauss waltzes have become intertwined in popular imagination. In celebration of a new year, here is Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube from last year’s concert, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Austrian conductor Welser-Möst is currently the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. You may notice that in the Viennese style of playing waltzes the second beat comes slightly early and is stretched (One,TWO-three):

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Shaping a Film to Its Score[/typography]

If you’re a film fan, The Blue Danube probably brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a work he described as “a mythological documentary” and “a controlled dream.” The film delves into issues of technology and human evolution. In one scene a tribe of early hominids discovers that an animal bone can be used as a weapon as well as a tool. It’s a crucial moment of uniquely human ingenuity. An ape-man throws the bone into the air and it suddenly turns into a Pan-Am spaceplane, cruising to a space station which is orbiting earth millions of years later. Both the bone and the spaceplane represent technology. Have we really come so far?

Typically, composers write film scores after a movie has been made. 2001: A Space Odyssey may be a rare example of a film which was influenced by its music. Kubrick began working on the film with a “temporary track” of existing classical music. Meanwhile, the respected Hollywood composer Alex North began working on the score. It wasn’t until late in the process that North realized, to his disappointment and frustration, that Kubrick had abandoned the entire original score in favor of existing music, which included Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and music by twentieth century composer György Ligeti. You can get a sense of what the movie would have been like with North’s unused score here and here.

In Kubrick’s film the grace and elegance of Strauss’s waltz accompanies spinning satellites:

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Like other aspects of 2001, there are many contrasting interpretations regarding how the music is functioning in the film. Clearly, Kubrick was looking for something more than background music. In many scenes dialogue takes a back seat to music and image. For a complete analysis of the role of music in the film, read David W. Patterson’s Music, Structure and Metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

[quote]Music in Kubrick’s films is used inventively and narratively and flamboyantly, causing the viewer to listen so that he can see. -Vivian Sobchak[/quote]