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.

The Wound-Dresser

Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. (August, 1865)
Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. (August, 1865)

 

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

-Walt Whitman, The Wound-Dresser, 1865 

On July 21, 1861, spectators, armed with picnic baskets, eagerly followed the Union army twenty five miles out of Washington into the Virginia countryside to watch what would become the first major battle of the American Civil War. At the First Battle of Bull Run, Northern sightseers (including congressmen) expected to observe a quick, easy, and decisive victory over the Confederates…perhaps the nineteenth century equivalent of “shock and awe.” They intended to indulge romantic notions of heroism and valor. Instead, they got a glimpse of the horrific reality of war. Bull Run was the bloodiest battle in American history up to that point. It showcased the gruesome and unexpected effects of new combat technology. Notions of a quick “summer war” were swept away and for both sides Bull Run suddenly became a depressing harbinger of the struggle ahead. The poorly trained defeated Union army fled back to Washington amid the gridlock of sightseers.

The poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) forces us to confront the human cost of war. “The real war will never get in the books” said Whitman, who dressed the wounds of both Northern and Southern soldiers during the Civil War. But enter the dazed world of The Wound-Dresser and other war poems by Whitman, and you begin to get a sense of the wasteland of the battlefield. Out of this darkness emerges a powerful sense of humanity: the loving relationship between caregiver and dying patient. As Sarah Cahill observes,

There is a powerful tension in Whitman’s poem between the physical and the metaphysical, between bodily sickness, which he records with almost scientific detachment (“From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand/I undo the clotted lint”) and a spiritual transcendence of the corporeal.

In John Adams’ 1988 setting of Whitman’s poem, we get a sense of the wound dresser going about his business in a daze. The hypnotic repetition of the opening music and the detached, searching voice of the solo violin in its highest and most ethereal register create the feeling of an out-of-body experience. Surreal new electronically synthesized sounds blend with the traditional orchestra. Suppressed emotion and scientific detachment seem to be the only way to survive the horrific work at hand. But there are also brief moments of intense, soaring emotional release. Later, we hear the searching sound of a distant battlefield bugle (11:02), the same voice we hear in Adams’ haunting, quiet fanfare, Tromba lontana

John Adams’ vocal lines preserve the rhythmic flow of Whitman’s poem. In an interview with Edward Strickland (American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music) Adams said,

I tried to set the Wound-Dresser absolutely simply and used hardly any melisma, since American English does not lend itself well to that treatment, as Italian or even German does. The best American pop and Broadway music by very great composers like Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin had the ability to treat the text in a very direct way, and that’s the tact I’ve taken in this piece.

Here is a performance by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with baritone Sanford Sylvan:

George Crumb’s Apparition

West Virginia composer George Crumb’s Apparition for Soprano and Amplified Piano (1979) is a setting of Walt Whitman’s famous elegy following the assassination of Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. We float through a strange, cinematic musical landscape with a surprising array of sounds and colors emerging from the piano. William Bland provides this description in the program notes to this recording:

. . . the literary and musical materials focus on concise, highly contrasting metaphors for existence and death . . . death is never depicted as an ending of life. Instead, it is circular, always beginning or an enriched return to a universal life-force . . .

Here are three excerpts performed by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, (for whom the piece was written), and pianist Gilbert Kalish:

1. The Night in Silence Under Many a Star:

3. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d:

8. Come Lovely and Soothing Death:

Paul Hindemith’s Requiem

Here is German composer Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love, written in 1946, following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt:

“Be not dishearten’d — Affection shall solve the problems of Freedom yet;
Those who love each other shall become invincible.”

-Walt Whitman, Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice

Music Fit for an Emperor

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Violinist Mark Sokol passed away last week. He was a founding member of the Concord String Quartet. Between 1971 and its disbanding in 1987, the Concord String Quartet championed music by American composers including Charles Ives, George Crumb, Jacob Druckman and Morton Feldman. Mark Sokol later joined the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Here is the Concord’s recording of Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3. This quartet earned the nickname “The Emperor” because the second movement is made up of variations on the melody, “God Save Emperor Francis.” Today we know this theme as the German national anthem.

Haydn composed the theme after returning from England, where he heard “God Save the Queen.” The theme quickly gained popularity and inspired patriotism at a time when Napoleon was threatening the Austrian Empire.

Composer Samuel Adler offers a technical analysis of the second movement’s progression of variations:

This is a wonderful lesson in orchestration, for too often the extremes in the range are wasted too early in a work, and the final buildup is, as a result, anticlimactic. The other formal factor to notice is that the entire structure is an accumulation of the elements which have slowly entered the harmonic and contrapuntal scheme in the course of the variations and have become a natural part of the statement.

Here are the second, third and fourth movements.

New Electronic Sound Worlds

composer, Mason Bates
composer Mason Bates

Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers will join the Richmond Symphony in March to perform a brand new violin concerto by Mason Bates. Born in 1977, Bates, who happens to be a Richmond native, is currently composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony. The Violin Concerto, written for Meyers, was recently premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony. Learn more about the concerto here and here.

One of the most interesting aspects of Bates’s music is the way he uses the new, electronic sounds of the twenty-first century. Composers have always been inspired by the sounds around them. In the Classical period inspiration came from the sounds of nature…bird songs and brooks. With the industrial revolution the orchestra got louder and more dissonant. In Bates’s music we hear the influence of Techno, Ambient, film scores, John Adams and more, all mixed together in a shimmering sonic stew. This is the musical vocabulary we hear around us every day.

Listen to Mason Bates’s The B-Sides for Orchestra and Electronica, written in 2009. You’ll see Bates, who has developed a second career as a dance club DJ, hunched over a laptop and drum pad in the percussion section. Also notice the use of a broom and the sound it creates. The piece is in five movements. The third movement features samples of NASA radio transmissions from the 1965 Gemini IV space flight. In the final movement, the earthy thud of a Techno beat propels us through a series of almost cinematic musical adventures. Don’t worry about what the piece is “about” on the first listening. Just enjoy the colors, rhythm and flow and see where the music takes you. Here is a live performance with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra:

  1. Broom of the System (0:13)
  2. Aerosol Melody (Hanalei) (4:22)
  3. Gemini in the Solar Wind (8:47)
  4. Temescal Noir (14:56)
  5. Warehouse Medicine (17:43)

Now that you’ve heard The B-Sides, here is Mason Bates’s description of the piece. He has some interesting additional thoughts in this interview. Bates talks about the use of electronic sounds in the orchestra here.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Michael Gordon’s “Industry”[/typography]

Mason Bates joins a long line of composers who have been inspired by electronic sounds. Karlheinz Stockhausen influenced the development of electronic music in the twentieth century. Here is his “Studie II” (Elektronische Musik) (1954). Edgar Varese’s Poème électronique (1958) was written for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair. American composer George Crumb’s string quartet, Black Angels (1970), uses a variety of new, amplified sounds as well as percussive instrument tapping and bow scraping.

Here is Industry (1992), a piece for solo cello by Michael Gordon (b. 1956). The use of distortion draws upon techniques associated with rock music. Listen to the way the piece gradually develops out of a repetitive opening motive:

Here is what Michael Gordon says about the piece:

[quote]When I wrote Industry in 1992, I was thinking about the Industrial Revolution, technology, how instruments are tools and how Industry has crept up on us and is all of a sudden overwhelming. I had this vision of a 100-foot cello made out of steel suspended from the sky, a cello the size of a football field, and, in the piece, the cello becomes a hugely distorted sound. I wrote this piece for Maya Beyser, and it was an incredible process. I would fax her the music and she’d play it to me over the phone. We did this maybe ten times, trying things out. She was constantly teaching me about the cello, and I was making her play things that were really awkward and dark.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What do you think?[/typography]

What experience do you have as you listen to this new music? How do these sounds reflect our modern world? What impact will electronic sounds and pop influences have in the future? In an age of computers and the prospect of increasing artificial intelligence, are electronic sounds somehow less “human” or are they a natural extension of the orchestra, as Mason Bates suggests? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.