Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz’s Musical Hallucination

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, first heard in 1830, shares some surprising similarities with a teenager’s rock music: It’s shocking, rebellious, and at least partially drug-induced (Berlioz was under the influence of opium). It may have been written to impress a girl (Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827, leading to an infatuation and ultimately short-lived marriage). It deals with the pain of unrequited love, yet this is clearly an immature vision of love, idealized and illusory. It’s a work of full-blown Romanticism, more concerned with the moment than with traditional formal structure. Foreshadowing Freud, Symphonie fantastique takes us on a deeply psychological journey. What emerges after we enter this hallucinogenic dreamscape is both fascinating and frightening.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Symphonie fantastique’s form is driven by its drama, like an opera without words. 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.” This passion is represented by the idée fixe, a musical idea (first heard at this moment in the first movement) which returns and develops throughout the Symphony. We hear the idée fixe pop up in unexpected places. Listen to the way it gradually creeps into the strings in this passage from the end of the first movement. At this moment in the third movement you might miss it, unless you’re tuned into the woodwinds. The fifth movement, Dream of a Witches’ 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.

Berlioz’s music evokes dramatic scenes. In the third movement, we find ourselves in a country pasture. The sound of distant thunder echoes from hillsides. A dialogue between two shepherds can be heard in the English horn and offstage oboe. (Here Berlioz introduces a spacial dimension to the music that Mahler would later develop with his own offstage instruments). The end of the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, paints the gruesome scene of the hero’s execution. We hear the decapitated head bounce to the ground in the pizzicatos and then the cheering crowd. But Symphonie fantastique is more than a musical representation of a story. You can throw out Berlioz’s extensive program notes (included below) and the music stands on its own. Listen to Symphonie fantastique as pure music and you’ll hear the distinct personas of the instruments come to live and enter into a drama which transcends the literal story. Throughout the piece, instrumental voices combine and interact in innovative ways which hadn’t been imagined previously.

Amazingly, this music, written three years after Beethoven’s death, often sounds shocking and far-out, even to our modern ears. It’s filled with bizarre, erratic shifts in mood which constantly keep us off balance (for example, listen to this passage from the first movement). In the first movement’s development section, Berlioz veers into new territory with these strange ascending and descending parallel chromatic lines. You’ll hear fragments of this line return throughout the Symphony (here it is in the strange, halting climax of the third movement, and here, and here again in the final movement).

Nowhere is Symphonie fantastique crazier than in the final minutes of the last movement, beginning with this terrifying crescendo. We hear string sound effects like raspy sul ponticello (playing with the bow as close to the bridge as possible) and col legno (hitting the wood of the bow on the strings for a percussive effect that, in this case, sounds like a skeleton’s rattling bones). Listen to the insanity of the woodwinds in this passage, and the way they let out a final tauntingly demonic shriek a few moments later. The Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath concludes with a hellish rumble which hangs in the listener’s ear long after the music has finished.

Berlioz’s program notes, written for the 1830 premiere:

Part One: Dreams – Passions

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – this is the subject of the first movement.

Part Two: A Ball

The artist finds himself in the most varied situations – in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

Part Three: A Scene in the Country

Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain – all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. – But what if she were deceiving him! – This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. – Distant sound of thunder – loneliness – silence.

Part Four: March to the Scaffold

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque: it is she, coming to join the sabbath. – A roar of joy at her arrival. – She takes part in the devilish orgy. – Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae [a hymn sung in the funeral rites of the Catholic Church], sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies irae are combined.

Recommended Recordings

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.

Nielsen’s Fourth: “The Inextinguishable”

A symphony, by nature, is always developing, unfolding, finding a way forward. It’s an indomitable process, sometimes filled with struggle, often, but not always, expressed through Sonata form. Just consider those famous opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the way they seem to take on a life of their own, evolving organically over the course of four movements to reach a triumphant and transcendent climax.

Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)

In 1914, as Europe descended into the apocalyptic horrors of the First World War, Danish composer Carl Nielsen began to think about the dynamic, inextinguishable power of the life force, the “elemental will to live,” and its relation to music. In a letter to his wife, Nielsen imagined a symphony “which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live … just life and motion, though varied – very varied – yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream.”

That work, completed in 1916, became Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable.” It’s set in four movements, but without looking at the score you’ll have a difficult time telling where one movement ends and the next begins. Opening with a sudden flash of raw energy, as if we’re tuning in to a drama already in progress, Nielsen’s Fourth is one long continuous musical development (Jean Sibelius’ symphonies follow a similar direction, most notably his Seventh Symphony). At the same time, it suggests the eternal. The final movement concludes with a triumphant theme marked Glorioso, which we first hear in a quiet, unassuming moment early in the first movement. At the end, we don’t feel as if we’ve reached an ultimate goal, just a notable mile marker in an infinite stream of development.

For some listeners, Nielsen’s Fourth can be heard as a “war symphony.” In the final movement, a ferocious battle takes place between two sets of tympani on both sides of the orchestra (Nielsen’s score calls for the second tympani to be positioned near the audience at the edge of the stage). But these moments go beyond programmatic references to bombs exploding, as Nielsen’s own description of the work and philosophy of music suggest:

Music is Life. As soon as even a single note sounds in the air or through space, it is the result of life and movement; that is why music (and the dance) are the more immediate expressions of the will to life.

The symphony evokes the most primal sources of life and the wellspring of the life-feeling; that is, what lies behind all human, animal and plant life, as we perceive or live it. It is not a musical, programme-like account of the development of a life within a limited stretch of time and space, but an un-programme-like dip right down to the layers of the emotional life that are still half-chaotic and wholly elementary. In other words the opposite of all programme music, despite the fact that this sounds like a programme.

The symphony is not something with a thought-content, except insofar as the structuring of the various sections and the ordering of the musical material are the fruit of deliberation by the composer in the same way as when an engineer sets up dykes and sluices for the water during a flood. It is in a way a completely thoughtless expression of what make the birds cry, the animals roar, bleat, run and fight, and humans moan, groan exult and shout without any explanation. The symphony does not describe all this, but the basic emotion that lies beneath all this. Music can do just this, it is its most profound quality, its true domain … because, by simply being itself, it has performed its task. For it is life, whereas the other arts only represent and paraphrase life. Life is indomitable and inextinguishable; the struggle, the wrestling, the generation and the wasting away go on today as yesterday, tomorrow as today, and everything returns. Once more: music is life, and like it inextinguishable.

As you listen to Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, enjoy the moment and allow yourself to get lost in the sound. At times you may be reminded of the brooding Scandinavian chill of Sibelius…the mysterious play of light on a snow-covered landscape. For example, listen to this passage from the first movement. Amid a gradually building collage of sound, a wandering string line and colorful woodwind interjections are layered on a static bass.

There are moments of rude interruption which disrupt the status quo: the strange, sudden snarl of the violas, or this passage where the flute and bassoon awaken as the strings fade out. The second movement begins as an elegant seemingly predictable dance, which suddenly turns in unusual harmonic directions. In this extraordinary passage in the third movement, the interruption comes in the form of a chant-like motive which breaks out in the woodwinds, eventually building into a climax in the brass. These are the moments which push the Symphony’s relentless development forward and thrust us into new musical landscapes. Change and development occur through disruption.

And now, let’s listen to the entire piece. Here is Herbert Blomstedt’s 1999 recording with the San Francisco Symphony:

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Hear a live performance with Simon Rattle and the Royal Danish Orchestra.
  • Hear Neeme Järvi’s 1993 recording with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

Mahler the Titan: Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler described the opening of the First Symphony as “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.” A seven octave deep “A” emerges out of silence, slipping into our consciousness on the level of pure sound. The high harmonics in the violins seem as natural and fundamental as the white noise of insects in a forest. The motive, which forms the bedrock of the symphony, slowly, searchingly takes shape in the woodwinds. As the music progresses, we hear bird songs and the echoes of distant fanfares in the clarinets and offstage trumpets.

Mahler’s music speaks to us on a deeply psychological level, evoking complex, indescribable emotions. It embodies heroic struggle and can alternate between moments of transcendence and the vulgar street sounds of a bohemian village band. Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” The sense of paradox in Mahler’s music is captured in a story of Mahler as a child, frequently running into the street to escape his father’s violent abuse of his mother, and suddenly being met with the cheerful sounds of an organ grinder.

The First Symphony grew out of Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a WayfarerIt was originally conceived as a five movement symphonic poem. Mahler later cut the second movement, Blumine, and dropped the subtitle, “The Titan”, which was a reference to a novel by Jean Paul. The piece requires a greatly expanded orchestra (seven horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba and an expanded woodwind and percussion section). At times, instruments are used in strange new ways, playing out of their normal range to create mocking, demonic sounds. In the second movement we hear the distinctive, raspy sound of stopped horns.

Mahler was a prominent conductor (and champion of Wagner’s operas) and his scores were meticulously marked with words and phrases intended to guide future interpreters. Common musical themes reappear throughout Mahler’s nine symphonies and in some ways these works can be heard as one massive symphony. The bewilderment of the audience at the 1889 premier in Budapest is a testament to the revolutionary nature of Mahler’s vision. The music would come to be embraced by audiences of the twentieth century. Today, performances of Mahler’s symphonies are often the dramatic high point of an orchestra’s season.

Here is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, performed by conductor Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Listen carefully to the distinct voices of the instruments (for example the horns at 10:44). What personas do they suggest? How does the final movement resolve the symphony as a whole?

  1. Langsam. Schleppend 00:00
  2. Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell 16:00
  3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen 22:48
  4. Sturmisch bewegt 33:28

Did you feel a sense of growing anticipation in the first movement? Go back and listen to the opening with those sustained “A’s” (the dominant in D major). It isn’t until around 4:06 that the music settles into a resolution in D major. We can relax and breathe easily. But at 7:59 we’re back where we started in the opening and this time it’s more ominous. All of the raw energy and tension, which has been building from the beginning, is released in one frighteningly explosive, but ultimately heroic climax towards the end of the movement (14:18). We’re left with crazy, giddy humor and a musical cat and mouse game in the final bars.

The Huntsman's Funeral
The Huntsman’s Funeral

The third movement was inspired by a children’s wood carving, The Huntsman’s Funeral, in which a torch-lit procession of animals carry the body of the dead huntsman. At the end of the movement, the sounds of the procession fade into the distance. You probably recognized the folk melody, Frère Jacques. Here it’s transformed into minor and played by the double bass, an instrument rarely featured in orchestral solos. Consider the persona of the double bass sound. The bizarre interjections of Jewish band music give this movement its ultimate sense of paradox and irony.

Opening amid a life and death struggle and ending in triumph, the final movement forms the climax of the symphony. Amid birdcalls, the bassoon recaps a familiar fragment (45:23) and for a moment we hear echoes of the first movement. The haunting motive from the opening of the first movement is transformed into a heroic proclamation in major. You may hear a slight, probably unconscious, similarity to Handel’s equally triumphant Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In the score, Mahler asks the seven horns to stand for the final statement of the theme, “so as to drown out everything…even the trumpets.”

For some interesting links, watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert, Who is Gustav Mahler? and Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas.

 Recordings, old and new

There are many great recordings of this piece. Here are a few which I recommend. Share your favorites in the thread below.

Decoration Day

Unknown-40Listen closely to Charles Ives’ Decoration Day and you may hear the lament of the dead.* The piece evokes ghosts of the battlefield and the distant echoes of small town New England observances of Decoration Day, the solemn American holiday of remembrance, started in the aftermath of the Civil War. It’s the holiday we now know as Memorial Day.

Decoration Day is the second movement of Ives’ four movement Holidays Symphony, written between 1897 and 1913. Ives intended each movement to function effectively as a stand-alone piece, and that is how it’s often programmed. The music is rooted in the mysterious power of memory-specifically Ives’ childhood memories of holiday celebrations. Fragments of folk songs, Civil War melodies, and hymns such as Adeste Fideles are layered, blending into a dreamlike atmosphere. Listen for the solitary trumpet call, Taps, the sounds of a marching band in a small town parade, and the concluding plagal cadence, used in the “Amen” of protestant hymns.

In the relative isolation of early twentieth century New England, Ives was pushing the boundaries of tonality in shocking ways, mirroring and in some cases anticipating similar developments in Europe. At times, Decoration Day sounds like a late Mahler adagio in terms of its orchestration as well as its disintegrating tonality.

Here is a recent recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony:

Find on iTunes

Here is Ives’ description of the piece:

In the early morning the gardens and woods around the village are the meeting places of those who, with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the Day’s Memorial. During the forenoon as the people join each other on the Green there is felt, at times, a fervency and intensity–a shadow perhaps of the fanatical harshness–reflecting old Abolitionist days. It is a day as Thoreau suggests, when there is a pervading consciousness of “Nature’s kinship with the lower order-man.”

After the Town Hall is filled with the Spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies, the parade is slowly formed on Main Street. First come the three Marshals on plough horses (going sideways), then the Warden and Burgesses in carriages, the Village Cornet Band, the G.A.R., two by two, the Militia (Company G), while the volunteer Fire Brigade, drawing a decorated hose-cart, with its jangling bells, brings up the rear-the inevitable swarm of small boys following. The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets. The roll of the muffled drums and “Adestes Fideles” answer for the dirge. A little girl on a fencepost waves to her father and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg.

After the last grave is decorated, Taps sounds out through the pines and hickories, while a last hymn is sung. The ranks are formed again, and “we all march to town” to a Yankee stimulant-Reeves inspiring Second Regiment Quickstep-though, to many a soldier, the sombre thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band. The march stops-and in the silence of the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the Town, and the sunset behind the West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the Day.

For more on Ives’ Holiday’s Symphony, watch this episode of Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas. Listen to the final movement of the symphony, Thanksgiving Day, in my previous post.

*See the recently published bookLament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book by James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani.

The Unanswered Question

New England ChurchIn the virtual isolation of early twentieth century New England, an organist and insurance salesman named Charles Ives (1874-1954) was imagining shocking and innovative new music. Ives created atmospheric collages of sound. He poured fragments of American folk songs and other material into a musical melting pot to create an exciting cacophony. Much of his music became widely known only decades later when other composers embraced similar techniques.

Previously, we listened to Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day from Ives’s Holidays Symphony. Now let’s hear The Unanswered Question, written in 1908 and later revised. Ives described this piece as a “cosmic landscape.” As you listen, pay attention to three distinct and independent musical layers: the strings, the trumpet and the woodwinds. Which voice do you think is asking the question? What is the response? What do you think the question might be? What feelings does the music evoke?

I grew up listening to this great recording with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony. Close your eyes and become one with the sound, giving the music your full attention:

Find on iTunes Find on Amazon

Three simultaneous but contrasting realities exist in The Unanswered Question. The strings remain placid and unchanging throughout the piece with chorale-like music built on triads. The trumpet enters with an atonal statement which emerges from a completely different sound world. The woodwinds react, at first calmly and then with increasing agitation.

There are several ways of interpreting the question and its response and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts in thread below. The trumpet may be asking “The Perennial Question of Existence,” as Ives wrote. The woodwinds may be saying, “I don’t know!” with increasing impatience. Or maybe, as Ives suggests they begin to realize the futility of the question and start to mock it. The strings represent an eternal and unchanging reality. In the end, the question remains. It’s stated one final time by the trumpet as the strings’ G major chord fades into eternity.

These lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 poem, “The Sphinx” may have inspired Ives:

[quote]Thou art the unanswered question;
Couldst see thy proper eye,
Always it asketh, asketh;
And each answer is a lie.
So take thy quest through nature,
It through thousand natures ply;
Ask on, thou clothed eternity;
Time is the false reply.
[/quote] 

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]From the Steeples and the Mountains[/typography]

Here’s another interesting piece by Charles Ives. In From the Steeples and the Mountains Ives musically depicts the glorious cacophony of church bells ringing out from various steeples and then echoing off the mountains. Listen to the way Ives creates a collage with layers of sound. You may also hear echoes of Taps. This is from a recent recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony:

Find on iTunes Find on Amazon

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Christian Zeal and Activity[/typography]

Like Charles Ives, contemporary American composer John Adams (b. 1947) traces his roots to New England. Adams’s Christian Zeal and Activity seems to pay homage to The Unanswered Question, although it ends up going in a different direction. Adams uses the hymn tune, Onward , Christian Soldiers, but slows it down and alters it in a way similar to Ives. In an interview with Edward Strickland (American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music, pg. 185) Adams explains:

[quote]In any hymn the voices tend to move in blocks, so I went in and unhinged the hasps and let the four voices float in a dreamlike space so that they only rarely come together, and the effect was very beautiful. At moments it almost sounded like some unwritten Mahler adagio. I didn’t mean it to, but it just ended up sounding that way.[/quote]

Above these string lines, we hear the taped voice of an evangelist. Adams cuts up the tape and repeats fragments. His emphasis is on the expressive sound of the voice rather than the meaning. Listen to Christian Zeal and Activity and consider the ways it reminds you of the Ives. What emotional impact is created by the seemingly disparate combination of the strings and the recorded voice?

This is the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Edo de Waart:

Find on iTunes Find on Amazon