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 Road Not Taken

images-4The past and the present collide in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The 1971 Broadway musical centers around the final reunion of former chorus dancers of “Weismann’s Follies,” a fictitious revue suggesting the real-life Ziegfeld’s Follies. The two aging couples, Buddy and Sally and Benjamin and Phyllis, have returned to reminisce before the crumbling, old theater in which the Follies once played is demolished. Amid disappointment and unhappy marriages, a sense of lament pervades the story. The ghosts of their younger selves, played by separate actors, occupy the stage around them. Follies is a show about memory, the passage of time, regret, and the fleeting optimism of youth.

The Road You Didn’t Take examines the philosophy expressed in Robert Frost’s famous poemThe Road Not Taken, from a different angle. In Sondheim’s song, Ben brushes aside thoughts of what might have been (“You take one road, You try one door. There isn’t time for anymore. One’s life consists of either/or”):

But listen carefully and you might sense irony lurking under the surface. As Sondheim explains,

It is a man saying, “oh, I never look back on the past, it just wouldn’t be worth it.” And he’s doing it to con himself as well as the lady he’s with [Sally, whom he has not seen in years]. In point of fact, he’s ripped to shreds by the past.

The stabbing “wrong” notes and the restless Steve Reich-like vamp, which leaves little time for true reflection, offer clues to Ben’s unsuccessful self delusion. The Road You Didn’t Take is full of sudden, unexpected key changes and wide melodic leaps. Rather than contemplating a new direction, we suddenly find ourselves thrust onto a new road. Harmonically, the song occasionally hints at the hazy, impressionist language of Ravel (0:15).

Another Follies song which is filled with irony and self-delusion is In Buddy’s Eyes. Sally describes the love she and Buddy feel for one another. Meanwhile, their marriage is disintegrating.

The previous example was sung by George Hearn. This one features Barbara Cook:

The Ladies Who Lunch

Elaine Stritch recording the Broadway cast album of Company
Elaine Stritch recording the Broadway cast album of Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 1970.

Legendary Broadway performer Elaine Stritch passed away last week at the age of 89. She may be best remembered for her performance of the song, The Ladies Who Lunch in the original 1970 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy, Company. 

Company offers a psychological look at the nature of relationships and marriage. It eviscerates the musical theater’s traditional escapism, replacing it with a healthy dose of realism. The song Sorry-Grateful contains the searing line, “You’ll always be what you always were.” That’s not exactly the stuff of fantasy and cheery, unending optimism. At the same time Company is funny. Sondheim once said that he wanted the audience to laugh hilariously during the show and then to go home, unable to sleep.

The Ladies Who Lunch is a bitter, mocking soliloquy in which the character, Joanne, comments on what she perceives as the meaningless lives of stereotypical wealthy middle-aged women. Sung to the audience towards the end of Act 2, the song takes on a Brechtian quality. Martin Gottfried describes it as:

…a sardonic toast to the New York women who have money and intelligence but no purpose, time to do everything of no consequence. In its ironies it admires these overqualified idlers, these glib and sardonic survivors.

In The Ladies Who Lunch, Joanne’s unhappiness is contrasted with the song’s cool, “zoned out” bossa nova rhythm. There’s also the icy quality of the muted trumpets and horns and the flute’s quote of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in reference to the lyric. The song is filled with Sondheim’s sophisticated internal rhyme (“much”, “clutching”, “touch).

In the final verse Joanne includes herself as an object of ridicule (“Here’s to the girls who just watch”). Her final screams are reminiscent of Rose’s emotional breakdown at the end of Gypsy (Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Jule Styne’s music in that 1959 show).

This documentary shows the all night recording session for Company’s original Broadway cast recording. Rodgers and Hart’s You Took Advantage of Me from a 1954 revival of On Your Toes is from earlier in Elaine Stritch’s career.

“America” in Simple and Compound Time

Chita Rivera in West Side Story
Chita Rivera in West Side Story

Conductor, composer, pianist, educator, music philosopher…Leonard Bernstein’s whirlwind career was a complex mix of these versatile roles. Perhaps as a result, when it came to Bernstein’s Broadway music, outside influences were constantly creeping in, from West Side Story’s Copland-like Somewhere Ballet sequence and the dueling-keys of the Finale (a reference to the final bars of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustrato a hint of Puccini in the soaring and harmonically searching Lonely Town from On the Town. 

Bernstein couldn’t resist writing a 12-tone fugue for West Side Story’s Cool, a sly tip of the hat to the atonal concert music of composers such as Schoenberg and Berg, and the last thing you would expect on the popular Broadway stage. The Cool Fugue’s disguised tone row may be a great metaphor for what was arguably Bernstein’s greatest accomplishment: the ability to break down barriers for a whole generation, demystify “difficult” music, and show a wide audience that classical music is really just “cool.”

Bernstein most obviously broke the traditional Broadway mold in the area of rhythm and meter. The songs of West Side Story are far removed from the traditional “boom-chick” 32-bar Tin Pan Alley style. While reflecting on writing the lyrics for West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim has said, “one of the things I learned from him was not always necessarily to think in terms of 2-, 4- and 8-bar phrases.”

For an example, listen to the complex Latin cross-rhythms in the opening of America. There are four distinct rhythmic layers. By the time the bass pizzicato enters, our sense of downbeat and upbeat is delightfully unstable. But keep listening, and you’ll hear America’s real rhythmic innovation: alternating measures of 6/8 time, a compound meter based on a feeling of three (three eighth notes filling out two beats) and 3/4 time, a simple meter based on a feeling of two (two eighth notes for each of the three quarter notes). The two rhythmic “feels” fight each other, suggesting a musical melting pot akin to the ethnic melting pot at the heart of the song:

Alternating time signatures2.gif

Looking back on West Side Story’s earth shattering opening night on Broadway in September, 1957, Sondheim remembers that the audience sat through the first half of Act 1 with disturbing reverence, as if they had forgotten they were at a musical. It was Chita Rivera (Anita) and America which brought the audience to life, and provided the right emotional release at a crucial moment in the story.

In celebration of the lead up to Independence Day on Friday, let’s listen to the original Broadway cast recording of America. Keep an ear out for the irregular rhythm outlined in the bass line and pay attention to the way it fits with the other voices. Notice little details like the flute line, suggesting “tropical breezes” (0:27) and later an exotic bird song from the jungle (0:48). At times, you may be reminded of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México:

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I Remember Sky

blue skyMusical theater and art song occasionally meet in the works of Stephen Sondheim. One example is I Remember, a little-known gem from Evening Primrosea 1966 television musical which appeared on ABC’s Stage 67 series.

The psychological plot, inspired by a John Collier short story and adapted by James Goldman, inhabits the world of dreams, imagination and symbolism: Charles, a poet, takes refuge from the world by hiding out in a department store after closing time. He discovers a group of people who have secretly lived in the store for years. Everyone who has tried to leave has fallen victim to the “Dark Men.” With each victim, a new mannequin appears in the clothing department. Charles falls in love with Ella, a young woman who has lived in the store since the age of six. Now, she desperately wants to leave. Ella has not seen the outside world for years, but she hangs on to hazy memories:

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Like Send in the ClownsI Remember develops through short motives. The song unfolds with expansive, ascending lines which are left open, allowing us to imagine what’s over the next horizon. We can sense the free flow of imagination and the longing to reach up and embrace the sky.

Here are the songs, Remember and Take me to the Worldfrom the original ABC performance, which starred Chamian Carr and Anthony Perkins. In Take me to the World, we experience the thoughts of two contrasting characters simultaneously, a device which anticipates later Sondheim songs.

Appalachian Spring at UMD

Unknown-41A recent University of Maryland School of Music student performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is gaining well deserved attention. The performance was unique because it defied almost all of the conventions of the typical concert experience. There were no chairs or music stands onstage and there was no conductor. Instead, the 25-minute-long work was performed by memory and the musicians not only played, but incorporated elements of dance and motion created by Baltimore choreographer Liz Lerman. The Washington Post critic called it, “one of the standout performances of my many years in Washington.”

In 2012 the school offered a similar performance with Debussy’s sensuous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The concept is similar to recent Broadway theater productions of shows such as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, in which actors on stage also played instruments.

In this piece, the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette suggests that visual elements are an important ingredient to building new audiences:

What part does movement have in musical performance? Musicians seem uncertain — or unaware. On the one hand, it’s a new truism that classical music concerts “need” a visual element to captivate new audiences (“Classical music must, in order to survive, introduce visual elements into its presentation,” wrote Patricia Handy in her program notes for Augustin Hadelich’s ostensibly theatrical “Tango, Song and Dance” program at the Terrace Theater last week).

But how much truth is there in Midgette’s “new truism?” Statements such as these, part of a constant and often assumption-based media drumbeat that “classical music is dying”, seem dubious. Copland’s Appalachian Spring and other great music, when performed well, will always have an audience. The expressive power of music lies in the fact that it’s fundamentally about listening, not watching. Audience members who lack the attention span to really listen will miss the true experience. It’s the challenge of music education to teach audiences how to listen. Exposure to music at an early age is an important part of this education.

The University of Maryland’s exciting and heartfelt performance is interesting for what it is: a creative way to blend dance and music into a new kind of performance art. In this case, it may be especially successful because Appalachian Spring was written as a ballet. For the students, who gained a deeper understanding of the way the piece fits together and experienced it as chamber music, there is also value.

Here is the complete performance:

Ballet for Martha

Premiering in 1944, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring was written for choreographer Martha Graham, who danced the leading role. It was originally scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 instruments. Listen to the original version here. Copland gave the piece the simple working title, Ballet for Martha. Later, after the music had been written, Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, a reference to Hart Crane’s poem, The Bridge:

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!

From its opening pandiatonic chords, Appalachian Spring embodies a distinctly “American” sound. Rob Kapilow offers fascinating insights about the way the piece develops out of these chords and why they evoke the wide open spaces of the American frontier. The incorporation of variations on the Shaker melody, Simple Gifts, suggests a nationalism similar to the use of Russian folk songs in Stravinsky’s ballet music.

In this rare recording of Copland rehearsing Appalachian Spring with an unknown orchestra, we hear the composer urge musicians to play passages with less sentimentality, finding a more honest, “American” sound. The clip offers valuable insights into what Copland had in mind in terms of tone color, articulation and balance.

If you’re looking for a great recording of this piece, I recommend Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Send in the Clowns

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

Recently, I ran across Rob Kapilow’s fascinating What Makes it Great analysis of Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns. Kapilow shows how elements of the song’s melody and harmony evoke a complex mix of emotions. 

Written for the second act of A Little Night Music , which opened on Broadway in 1973, Send in the Clowns may be the ultimate anti-romantic ballad. It’s a song about the bitterness, disappointment and the regret of missed opportunity. In an interview, Sondheim offered this description:

Send in the Clowns” was never meant to be a soaring ballad; it’s a song of regret. And it’s a song of a lady who is too upset and too angry to speak– meaning to sing for a very long time. She is furious, but she doesn’t want to make a scene in front of Fredrik because she recognizes that his obsession with his 18-year-old wife is unbreakable. So she gives up; so it’s a song of regret and anger, and therefore fits in with short-breathed phrases.

Send in the Clowns is sung by the character Desirée Armfeldt, a once glamorous but now fading actress. Throughout the song she uses theater references to talk about the failures and regrets of her life. “Sending in the clowns” relates to bringing on the jokes to save a show which isn’t going well. Desirée is also saying, “aren’t we the fools?” 

A Little Night Music, based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, is simultaneously a comic and tragic farce in which romantic couples are hopelessly mismatched, but eventually find their compatible partner. The show opens with a Greek chorus of five singers and the Night Waltz. At the end, we magically dissolve back into the night, putting human follies in perspective.

With this dramatic context in mind, let’s listen to Judi Dench’s extraordinary 2010 performance of Send in the Clowns. The performance was part of a BBC Proms concert celebrating Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Notice the melancholy loneliness of the opening clarinet solo and listen for those special expressive chords which Kapilow highlights:

Anyone Can Whistle

Anyone Can WhistleThere’s an interesting irony at the heart of musical performance. As musicians, we spend countless hours in the practice room in order to achieve the highest level of technical control. Technical assurance gives us the freedom to let go, enter “the zone” and allow the music to come to life. We cherish the rare, exhilarating performances which rise above “good” or “technically solid” and tap into a higher energy. At these moments the music almost seems to be playing the musician. Discovering the ability to let go and overcome ego is a lifelong challenge for all of us.

Stephen Sondheim’s song, Anyone Can Whistle, may make you think about the creative process and the ability to get out of your own way. The song comes from the second act of his 1964 musical by the same name. The show closed after only nine performances, but it launched the Broadway career of Angela Lansbury. Anyone Can Whistle is sung by Lee Remick on the original cast album:

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[quote]Anyone can whistle, that’s what they say-easy.
Anyone can whistle, any old day-easy.
It’s all so simple.
Relax, let go, let fly.
So someone tell me, why can’t I?
I can dance a tango, I can read Greek-easy.
I can slay a dragon, any old week-easy.
What’s hard is simple.
What’s natural come hard.
Maybe you could show me how to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me[/quote]

Notice the contour of the melody and the way it relates to the words and the character. Sondheim gives us a dissonance on the word, “hard” (1:19), evoking a feeling of “hardness”. 

Other notable songs from this show include Me and My Town There Won’t Be TrumpetsA Parade in Town, Everybody Says Don’t  and See What it Gets You. One of Sondheim’s earliest shows, you can hear echoes of his later works in the score of Anyone Can Whistle.