Saint-Saëns’s 1877 opera, Samson et Dalila, is widely considered to be one of the jewels of the French operatic repertoire. Its Biblical story is well known: Samson, leader of the Israelites and blessed with superhuman strength by God, is led astray by Delilah – the stereotypical exotic and dangerous femme fatale. Upon Delilah’s discovery that Samson’s strength lies in his hair, he is shorn, captured and blinded. At the end of the opera, as he is goaded by his Philistine captors, Samson’s strength returns as a blessing from God and he destroys the Temple of Dagon along with everyone inside.
Delilah has long been compared unsympathetically with other Biblical fallen women; she is even further still from the Bible’s virginal ideal. Yet despite, or rather because of, this she is also a fascinating character; even Saint-Saëns could not resist her charms – the opera was originally entitled with her name alone, Dalila. This dangerous allure is rooted in the French fascination with the Orient at the time the opera was composed.
The growth of the Second French Empire, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, prompted an increase in French public interest in her colonies. These faraway lands provided an artistic opportunity to explore repressed feelings on socio-political topics which were otherwise avoided in polite society. Among these was the sexual liberation of women, a topic presented onstage through stereotypes such as the femme fatale. As an incarnation of social taboos, operatic femme fatales at this time were intended to be thrilling and shocking. To contemporary audiences, they conveyed an implicit message: that sexualised female behaviour may be exciting, but ultimately it was not only reprehensible, but downright dangerous. The Orient provided the geographical distance required to explore this idea, and the temporal distance of Saint-Saëns’s Biblical setting allowed for even further detachment.
Delilah, along with the likes of Carmen, is one of the most pertinent examples of the use of the exotic to explore empowered female sexuality through the femme fatale. The basis for this interpretation lies in Delilah’s voluptuous arias, the most famous of which, ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (‘My heart opens at your voice’) is at the crux of her portrayal. While many productions use this aria to reinforce unthinkingly the one-dimensional femme fatale stereotype, others explore a more conflicted, remorseful Delilah. This musical moment is key to re-reading her character for twenty-first century audiences, who might wish to avoid outdated and misogynistic interpretations of strong women. By examining this aria through a lens that highlights sexual agency and female empowerment, it is possible to see how Delilah uses sexuality as a functional tool to achieve her goal. Once we understand this moment through such a lens, we can move away from an unthinking and outdated interpretation of women’s autonomy.
When adapting the story of Samson and Delilah for the operatic medium, it was in depicting Delilah’s motivations that Saint-Saëns and his librettist, Henri Lemaire, took their greatest liberties with the Biblical source material. While in the Bible, Delilah is paid for her part in Samson’s capture, her motivation for accepting the Philistines’ payment is never made clear. In contrast, the operatic Delilah does not accept the High Priest’s offer, instead citing her religious beliefs as motivation enough for her actions. In her recitative of Act II, Scene 2, Delilah makes clear that she has long tried to discern the secret of Samson’s strength, admitting ‘three times I have tried to discover the spell’. She has foreseen the necessity of deposing Samson, and by refusing payment, shows that she needs neither encouragement nor financial incentive.
Delilah executes her plan perfectly, exploiting her prey’s infatuation. In Samson’s eyes, she appears to surrender to him completely, suggesting that she is there for the taking. But this is, of course, a trap. She is determined to avenge her people and destroy Samson. Once we recognise that Delilah is actively using her sexuality to achieve her goal, this scene becomes very interesting.
And yet, if we begin by examining the aria’s text, it might at first seem that Delilah is entirely at Samson’s disposal. Even the first line, ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (‘My heart opens at your voice’) implies that Delilah’s heart is the object as opposed to the subject. She implores him to respond ‘Ah! réponds à ma tendresse!’ (Ah! Respond to my tenderness!) and to fill her with joy and happiness ‘Verse-moi, verse-moi l’ivresse!’ (Fill me with ecstasy!). Samson, it would seem, is entirely in control and Delilah is powerless to resist.
But what we are witnessing here is not female submission, but merely the illusion of it. Delilah uses her sexuality as a functional tool and expertly manipulates Samson’s desire for her. Her carefully chosen words expressed through consciously exotic music lure him into a false sense of security. And it is through an analysis of her musical language, that we can begin to fully understand Delilah’s sexual power and autonomy.
Delilah expresses her compelling sexuality musically through various exotic tropes, such as chromaticism, freer rhythms and wordless vocalise. Saint-Saëns used these devices liberally here as this scene was written while he was still considering the work as an oratorio: without the benefit of a set or costumes, the music had to set the scene.
In the aria’s second verse, the orchestral accompaniment becomes more chromatic – a trope commonly deployed to depict the exotic in the nineteenth century. These additional accidentals distance Delilah and her musical language from what is recognisably ‘Western’. Sextuplets create freer rhythms here, suggesting an improvisatory quality, and again liberating the music from ‘Western’ strictures. The figure below demonstrates both of these tropes at play (from 3:03 in the above recording):
In addition, Delilah’s wordless vocalisation ‘aah’, another exotic musical device, is exploited by Saint-Saëns later in the aria. Vocalisations were crucial in portraying the East as emotional and passionate, and thus distinct from the rational and coherent West. In other words, it is a rather crude device to demonstrate that the exotic is unable to express itself in recognisably Western terms. Unlike the orchestral accompaniment of the previous example, her singing plays a more ‘diegetic’ role in Delilah’s seduction. That is to say, that what we hear is not just a composer’s imposition of music on the narrative presented onstage; Samson too, can hear her singing, thus suggesting that that her use of exotic musical techniques is entirely conscious. (Figure 2 starts at 2:22 in the recording).
Ultimately, this active choiceto sexualise herself through the use of music – and her awarenessof the impact of her actions – empowers Delilah. She takes control of her own sexuality: she is no longer just a female subject of male actions. However unsavoury, her actions achieve her own ends. While it might appear otherwise to Samson, Delilah’s sexualisation is a choice for her own personal gain – she is in control of her sexual agency and how she is perceived, both by those in her operatic context and by audiences.
Delilah is irresistible: first to Samson, and then subsequently to Saint-Saëns and audiences. Such an obvious display of female sexuality would have been shocking to nineteenth-century audiences; and indeed, it was intended to be so. But in the twenty-first century it is surely time to move beyond the one-dimensional femme fatale stereotype and address this scene in a different light. Instead of seeing Delilah as a shameful harlot, I would argue that Delilah can – and should – be viewed as an empowered woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants.
This re-reading by no means argues that Delilah should be likeable: far from it. Indeed her cunning and ruthless disdain for Samson should disturb us; but we should not be shocked by her sexual wiles. To continue reading Delilah as a femme fatale merely reinforces nineteenth-century patriarchal views of women and sex. Rather than passively receiving the outdated interpretation that Saint-Saëns’s opera encouraged, we should grudgingly admire (or at least acknowledge) a more empowered woman getting exactly what she wants, no matter the means.
Emma Kavanagh graduated with a BA in Music from Jesus College, Cambridge in 2016. She is hoping to pursue postgraduate study, with a focus on gender, race and identity in nineteenth-century opera. She tweets at @kavaemma.
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I can’t listen to Delibes’ Coppelia without my mind leaping back to my five-year old self, dancing around the living room to an Ernest Ansermet Decca recording. The next LP on the shelf was The Rite of Spring – the only other classical record in the house as it happened. Once I’d pirouetted and pranced through to the end of the Coppelia Suite, I’d stomp my way through The Rite. The two works have remained inseparable to me ever since, musically linked by an accident of proximity.
How many examples of unintentional curation are there? How many compilations piled onto TDK audio cassettes in the 1980s cemented unique and unlikely connections between musical works of different styles and periods? These deeply personal soundscapes form the backdrop to our lives. We flick from radio channel to radio channel, from TV station to TV station creating extraordinary and accidental juxtapositions. We are shaped by – and give shape to – our sonic environment which affects our lives and the way that we listen to and perceive music. Mass manufacture and multiplicity of music have made us all curators of sorts.
As someone who programmes music on a regular basis, I’m intrigued by the question of how we ‘consume’ all this music. I’m interested in usage: not so much data on what we programme, not audience numbers, but what people actually ‘do with’ or ‘make of’ music and the experience of listening to it. Are musical events today a reflection of contemporary listening habits, needs or ideals? Or are they remnants of the past, rituals that have their roots in historical listening times? Can concert programming still satisfy a need that we cannot find elsewhere? And who are we programming for?
When people try and explain how they ‘consume’ music – or any art – there is often an underlying current of wonderment, a thrill at attempting to pin down, in words, this elusive slippery thing that we feel. Written accounts are fragmentary, repetitious, earnest, full of pauses, as the writer tries again and again to grasp the language that can capture those feelings. The responses are almost as compelling as the art itself. Here, in a famous passage, is Roland Barthes discussing the abstract ‘impossible thrill’ he experiences when listening to the singing of a Russian church bass:
Something is there, manifest and stubborn… something which is directly the cantor’s body, brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages, and from deep down in the Slavonic language, as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings.
Here is actor and writer Simon Callow responding to a painting by Clive Hicks Jenkins and then summarising the significance of the same artist in his life:
My thoughts were not of art…there was something …trapped, screaming for life, a terrible turbulence, an eruption, a commotion, a straining for air, panic, pain, horror. I gaze on…feeling like a witness to something desperate…[The artist] is the amanuensis of my dreams. He transcribes the contents of my unconscious, allows me to contemplate what is otherwise consigned to the half-light.
And here is an extract from an interview. The words are those of writer and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips who is seeking to comprehend the ‘impossible thrill’ not of a specific work, but of reading in general:
Reading can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect….I know the books that grip me but their effect is indiscernible… I don’t quite know what it is. What is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. They’re not fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.
Far from passive, these comments might suggest that ‘use’ or ‘consumption’ of art is, in itself, a creative process. Michael De Certeau in ThePractice of Everyday Living calls it a ‘silent production’ because each person hears music, reads a text or sees an image differently based on his or her own experiences and needs and draws different meanings from it. ‘An art of renters’ says Certeau; people who move into a space and make it their own ‘furnishing it with their acts and memories’. This deeply personal usage, this ‘secondary production’ is a quiet, clandestine affair. Certeau talks of a ‘secluded knowledge’, unconscious, with no language or subject of its own. We know that a piece of art is moving us deeply, yet in our conscience are ‘only fragments and effects of this knowledge’.
These examples show that there is clearly great delight embedded in a ‘half-knowing’ state. Ambiguity has aesthetic value. Perhaps it is precisely the hidden and inherent ambiguity of music’s powerful effect that keeps us coming back to the same pieces time and time again, seeking to find reasons to understand why we love them so much. And perhaps it is a love affair, of the one-sided sort that Barthes (again) details in A Lovers Discourse; ‘The language of love is not a language we speak, for it is addressed to ourselves and to our imaginary beloved. It is, for that reason, a language of solitude’. Furthermore, we don’t appear to need live music to experience this joyful half-knowing. A favourite recording will suffice and in many cases, the ‘fixed’ state of the music might even have positive advantages of allowing us to focus purely on the waves of mutable feelings it creates. ‘Every experience is unrepeatable’ said Italo Calvino: ‘What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.’
Studies show that we are attracted to ambiguity not only in the process of listening to music but also within music itself. Ambiguity only arises when we are trying to ‘make sense’ of the information we are given and this sophisticated process of making sense of sounds is known as Auditory Scene Analysis (ASA). It’s the ability we have to unravel what we might otherwise dismiss as meaningless noise, to identify and focus on one voice in a room full of talking people. It’s the ability we have to pick out the melodic line in a symphony when the whole orchestra is playing at once. Classical music is one of the most complex acoustic scenes we ever encounter.
ASA is built on our fundamental tendency to form groups from similar things. In music this might mean melodic lines with small step-wise intervals or few pitches, stand-out textures or timbres. ASA has been studied in a musical context and it is believed that many established rules of Western polyphonic writing are underpinned by these perceptual principles. Some composers play with the rules of ASA to create an individual language through illusions. Spectral composers challenged the idea of sound being a single source (a ‘dead object’ said Gérard Grisey) and treated each sound as a resonant acoustic complex. Ligeti used perceptual illusions as musical devices in their own right in shifting clouds of sound where individual timbres are difficult to isolate. He said ‘polyphony is written, but one hears harmony. It is true, I often work with acoustical illusions, very analogous to optical illusions, false perspectives. We are not very familiar with acoustical illusions. But they are very analogous and one can make very interesting things in this domain.’
Understanding how we listen presents interesting hypotheses as to why we may be drawn to some composers more than others and why the music industry relies so heavily on repeat programme choices leading to repeat purchases. But all this so far assumes two things: 1) that we are in the habit of giving our undivided attention to music and art and 2) that it is reasonable to draw conclusions about the effect art has on us based largely on the experience of highly specialized writers.
However, most us are not specialized writers. And for many of us, an everyday listening experience might be more like this:
John Williams is blaring from the television, shamelessly competing against the sound of my daughter practicing Tchaikovsky on her violin, returning again and again to the same phrase. The washing machine is rattling in another room. Adverts on the television now: each with their own defining soundtrack. The phone rings with little motif of a synthesized marimba. Somewhere in my head is an earworm picked up from some of the music I was exploring on SoundCloud early this morning: its still there as I drive my kids to a sports match, wriggling away, despite the efforts of the car radio to drown it out.
That was, in fact, last Sunday. Looking back, what strikes me initially is the sheer quantity and variety of music I was exposed to on what was a pretty ordinary day. Then, the number of ways in which I ‘consumed’ it: incidental, filtered through extraneous noise, incomplete and fragmented, intentional and focused. I did other things whilst much of this music was going on around me – I talked, drove, worked, cooked dinner. I am further struck by how accepting and unquestioning I was of this overlapping musical jumble, even how much I enjoyed it. Perhaps it’s not so much the music I was listening to but the sonic landscape of 21st century life. The music on this day seemed very connected to the world I live in. It was not hallowed. It was no precious artifact.
Yet flights of fancy still came into my head; daydreams, memories, desires triggered by music. Sometimes by a shapely phrase, a curious timbre, a complex rhythm. But my thoughts also sprang from the junctions, the intersections of all these musics, like sheets of translucent paper laid over and over each other. A fascinating sonic palimpsest for me to consume and make sense of. This type of activity is not reserved for the literary critic – it can be extended to all consumers.
‘Sound is a capricious force,’ David Hendy reminds us in his wonderful book Noise, a human history of sound and listening; ‘[Sound] moves freely through the air and has never been fully owned or manipulated by one institution or group of people more than another as if it was their exclusive property.’ We only have to think here of the history of protest songs, or of slaves finding creative ways to perform their own musical traditions in the face of oppression. Perhaps it’s easy to forget about this fundamental aspect of sound – that it travels freely through the air – differentiating it from the visual and literary arts which offer more fixed landscapes. It is impossible for us to truly seal and segregate the airwaves and in this way sounds floating through them have ‘something of an intrinsically revolutionary quality’. Soundscapes are fundamentally fluid. They overlap, they filter into one another in unpredictable ways.
What’s more, there is a lot of this multi-sonic activity going on. The vast majority of people do not regularly enter concert halls. Like me, they are mostly caught and captured in the nets of the media – by television, radio, recordings. I don’t have statistics for classical music daily consumption habits, but here is some data taken from an influential 2014 study of American adults’ all-music listening habits called ‘Share of Music’. The analysis was based on music journals submitted by nearly 3,000 respondents. American adults dedicate an average of 3 hours and 16 minutes a day to listening to music. Most (70%) listen in their car, 68% listen at home and 18% listen at work. Half of this listening is via the radio with the rest from own music collections and online sources. The study concluded that ‘America is in a golden age of audio consumption.’
If this is 21st century listening, a practice adopted by the large majority of the population, then it is surely a significant and important way of consuming music. Not an inferior one, not a second-rate type of usage, but a valid one that repeatedly connects the music we hear with the world we live in. It’s a living, vibrant, fluid process that enables us to develop tastes and preferences and feed those changing tastes back into the mix. For those of us who make musical events, it would be remiss to forget that people are responding creatively to these unique and complex soundscapes, forming their own ‘secondary productions’. The point is not whether modern listening habits are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The point is whether, as curators of sound, we accept that this is the way that the majority of people consume and enjoy music and consider how we might respond to that. If people have the open mindset and the skills to consume and enjoy music in extraordinary, bold and complex ways, we should not feel afraid to make extraordinary, bold and complex curatorial decisions.
The environment is a ‘blooming buzzing confusion’ said William James in 1882. And he might as well have been talking about music. Structure is not inherent in the environment, James summarized; it is imposed on an unordered and highly complex world by those who perceive it. The desire to understand and control sound is tens of thousands of years old. From prehistoric man who favoured ‘listening spots’ in caves, from the Neolithic monuments on Orkney designed to capture and control the natural soundscape, to the bell-drenched medieval monasteries and the restraints of the Victorian concert halls, history tells a story of our constant fascination with sound and the changing ways in which we consume it.
I’m an advocate of pioneering a ‘bottom up’ approach to music programming. This is not about asking people what they want to hear and then sticking it in a concert. It’s about allowing listeners to shape music, as well as allowing music to shape those who listen to it. Its about a change of attitude: less talk of pedagogy, ‘informing’ and enlightenment filtering down from the arts to the audience and more talk about looking upwards to explore how all this consumption impacts on the type of events we make. I’m interested in how musical events can flow into the environment and how we can build different types of bridges between the music we put out there and the people who consume it. Events that are co-producing, co-evolving, always on the move. Not fixed, not bounded and inherently mobile. Michael Foucault famously said that he would like his books to be ‘a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area…I don’t write for an audience, I write for users.’ By challenging the idea of music consumption as ‘passive’ we may be able to discover fascinating and rich creative activity where we least expect to find it.
Kate Romano will be speaking about curating sound at Music Into Words, an event about writing on classical music taking place in London on 12th February. More information and tickets here.
‘One of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate Romano is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now works as a freelancer and is currently touring the RITUAL IN TRANSFIGURED TIME programme. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at Kateromano.co.uk.
In this last of three articles on music and memory, Young-Jin Hur looks the relationship between memory and the form of music itself.
The link between music and memory goes beyond the domain of commemoration and historic imageries. Memory, too, resides in the narrative of music itself, free from extra-musical references.
It would be no exaggeration to suggest that at the core of enduring forms in music lies memory, in particular with relation to the logical construction of familiarity.
One example is sonata form. A movement in a Classical sonata form involves the contrasting of two theme groups to emerge and evolve together, as a unified musical essay. Whenever a theme re-emerges, either in disguised form or in exact repetition, it evokes a sense of familiarity and belonging, and ultimately delight. This moment of familiarity-based joy is most deeply and profoundly felt in the recapitulation – there is a sense of welcoming relief, as if to signal the end of a journey.
Similar things can be said about the variation form, where a vigorous musical argument is achieved through variations of a single theme. Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) intimately monumental Goldberg Variations are an appropriate example. The 30 variations of the initial Aria are based on elements of the theme itself, and the music flows naturally. But when the Aria is repeated note-for-note in the last movement, there is an ineffable sense of delight. I often find myself listening to the whole work to experience this moment of magic, where nothing has changed in the music but everything else has.
If there is an experience of pensiveness here, it is of a sort of nostalgic reflection, born perhaps of the passing of time and place, manifest in the world preceding the musical transformation. Further examples of forms can be given, such as the cyclical form (i.e. a certain fixed idea is repeated throughout a multi-movement work) and the Rondo-Allegro form (i.e. akin to cyclical form but within a movement). Common in these Classical forms is the notion that bringing back themes and motifs from earlier times is a crucial element of musical narrative.
The idea that familiarity leads to a sort of delight is one that is largely congruent to the psychological theory of ‘mere exposure effect’. The theory argues that simply repeating the exposure of a certain idea, or object, to an individual is enough to make him/her like what was presented – regardless of the characteristic of the object in question. Familiarity, then, is a powerful vehicle in the creation of preferences and liking, which can be applied to music.
Yet things are unlikely to be as simple. An excessive degree of familiarity will lead to monotony, whereas too little familiarity will damage cohesion. The logical construction of familiarity, thus, must be accommodated with an extra impetus of some kind.
I believe that in order for familiarity and memory to thrive in the construction of an immersive musical narrative, there must be some accompaniment of subtlety and organic unity. When Jean Sibelius, in a discussion with his contemporary Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) of the nature of symphonies, expressed ‘I admire the symphony’s style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives,’ his ‘inner connection’ can have two meanings: the logical understanding of a manipulation of familiarity and memory, and the creation of a bounding coherence in the work. And it is likely that both elements are interactive: what gives rise to familiarity will likely contribute to giving a sense of coherence to a work, and vice versa.
Sibelius’ very own second symphony proves an embodiment of his quote. When the sweeping melody of the last movement arrives, the rhythmic structure is not changed from that of the third movement – the listeners are in a familiar plane, and a feeling of unity prevails. What’s more, the melody itself is patched together from the opening motifs of the first movement. If listeners are moved, it is not despite of the tight logic in the piece, but rather because of it. Sibelius has earned his victory through the ideal manipulation of familiarity and sense of unity.
If one understands, however, that Sibelius’ quote is not an explicit comment on any Classical forms – and he seems to have been fairly averse to them anyway – one can wonder to what degree the role of memory is integral in musical form per se.
Form, technically, is the logical structure that underlies a work of music. In experiential terms, however, is not form that which denotes what will happen after what came before? And the awareness of what comes after can be achieved only through one’s memory-driven familiarity. Memory, then, is the essence of form itself and the story told within a piece of music.
Can there be music without form? A deep analysis would be beyond the scope of this essay. In questions regarding the relationship between art and nature, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote that art is contained nature, and that a sense of beauty can arise from art only. Here, nature is seen as a chaos, an unorganised source of raw materials, the soil upon which the elegance and beauty of art is created.
If one sides with Schiller, music must assume form, for this is the very essence of art. Form, here, is not a mere structural layout of a work, but also a basis of aesthetic experience with the intention to mitigate and logically pursue what is inherently irrational and disjointed.
Even serialist music, which may sound like disjointed clusters of noise upon first hearing to some, has careful calculations of formulas and restrictions lying within. Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994), a pioneer of chance in music, spent efforts to reject the notion of total chance and improvisation by setting restrictions in his music.
One man who stretched the boundaries of the link between music and form was the American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987). When the composer Christian Wolff sat down with the score of Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952, he exclaimed, ‘What is there to say? The music appears to be unanalysable. I don’t see any system.’ Wolff also believed that the composition lacked any perceivable formalistic intentions – ‘I see no interest such in pitch class or interval pattern organisation’. But Feldman rebuked him: ‘there is not one organisational procedure more advantageous than another, perhaps because no one pattern ever takes precedence over the others.’
Even Feldman, with his adventurousness, could not resist the importance of form. That Feldman further linked form with memory is not the least surprising – ‘music is essentially built upon primitive memory structures’, he remarked.
In the sparse echoes of the piano work, we might just be able to understand what this means.
Issues of memory, therefore, lie deep in musical experiences. But an immersive narrative is never a unidirectional process. In as much as the composer contributes structure and form to a work, it is the audience themselves that relate to the logic by involving their memory structures. Form translates into memory insofar as there is a deep involvement which triggers the listener’s memory.
The perception of music involves a process of co-creation, both from its author and its audiences. The listener constantly builds up expectations based on what was heard, which is confirmed or denied by the given form of music. This in itself is a musical joy. Indeed, recent works in psychology have demonstrated that the presence of expectation in itself plays an important role in the creation of musical emotions.
And how are expectations and imagination related to memory? Recent psychological research has also shown a close link between memory, expectation and imagination, represented by neural connections in the brain. In other words, these psychological functions may have a common biological source.
When philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) illustrated the unique powers of imagination, he emphasised the role of memory:
[…] the mind of man possesses a sort of creative power of its own; either in representing at pleasure the images of things in the order and manner in which they were received by the senses, or in combining those images in a new manner, and according to a different order. This power is called imagination; and to this belongs whatever is called wit, fancy, invention, and the like […] the imagination is the most extensive province of pleasure and pain, as it is the region of our fears and our hopes, and of all our passions that are connected with them.
Or as the White Queen says in Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass: ‘it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’.
Memory, then, is both the starting point and the endpoint to an intricate and dynamic musical experience. Audiences build up a narrative of music based on both memories, imagination and expectations, and a composer will, consciously or not, have this reflected in his/her musical forms.
In these three articles, I have observed that memory is represented in a wide range of works in music, that memory and yearning for the past occupies a special aesthetic category in its own right, and that memory may be an essential quality in the narrative of music itself.
Memory is the past seen from the present. But memory can never be solely an act of reliving the past – it is also a powerful reminder of what we are at the moment of looking back. It is an ephemeral glimpse between the boundaries of the past and future, between what will be and what is no more. It is something forever unsettled whilst being firmly grounded in the indifference of passing time.
Hence when the dead are remembered, it is the living that become aware of both life and its fragilities. When older times are idealised, it is a critical appraisal of the present state of things. When ruins are admired, the transience of the present in front of the monumentality of time is made palpable. And in the narrative of music, the notes that play now sound inspiring and valuable as a result of the memories of all that came before. And this brings about a feeling of a unique kind, something both distant yet closely felt, elusive yet definitive, sad yet joyous.
Through the appreciation of memory, one finds promise in the past, the present, and the pasts and presents that are to come. Some way or another they inform us of who we are within the now. Memory is thus a human achievement of mastering the various presents. It is a recollection of all that is.
We exist in our true knowing selves insofar as the present is within our knowing. Yet we are all too aware that without the present, there would be no past nor the future. There would be no time, the passage of it, nor our awareness of the present – in other words ‘life’. For this reason, the lines of Frederich Leopold, set in Schubert’s song To Sing On The Water, are not only admired because of their vivid imagination, but also because of the sympathy toward life and memory they procure:
Ah, with dewy wings On the rocking waves, time escapes from me Tomorrow with shimmering wings Like yesterday and today may time again escape from me, Until I on towering, radiant wings Myself escape from changing time.
Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).
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Medieval carols have a cherished place in the modern Christmas repertoire. Perhaps the best-loved type is the lullaby carol, of which ‘Lullay, Myn Liking’ and the ‘Coventry Carol’ are among the most famous examples. It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of these carols, both in their original form and as texts set by contemporary composers: tender and gentle, deliberately simple in music and language, they evoke the loving intimacy of the relationship between a mother and her baby, offering a moment of stillness and reflection in the middle of the busy Christmas season.
This genre of carol was popular in the Middle Ages, too, and there are numerous beautiful examples dating from the fourteenth century onwards. It’s important to recognise that the simplicity of these carols is artful, not naive; medieval carol-writers often chose this apparently uncomplicated form in order to explore some of the complex mysteries of the Nativity story.
One of the most interesting of these lullaby carols is known today by the name ‘As I lay on Yule’s night’. It survives in its earliest and fullest form in a manuscript compiled by John of Grimestone, a Franciscan friar from Norfolk, in 1372. The manuscript contains materials John had gathered for use in his preaching, along with short poems and carols in English; John may have written these texts himself, or collected them from other sources. Shorter versions of the carol also survive in three fifteenth-century manuscripts, one of which preserves the music – a haunting tune, suiting the dark beauty of the words:
As I lay on Yule’s night, Alone in my longing, Methought I saw a well fair sight A maid her child rocking.
Lullay, lullay, la, lullay, My dear mother, lullay. [The recording below uses a slightly different version].
The carol begins in the darkness of a winter’s night, with a solitary speaker witnessing a vision of a mother and her baby. They are not identified by name, and at first appear to be just like any other mother and child. The mother hopes to get her baby to sleep without having to sing him a lullaby, but the child insists: he asks his mother to sing to him about his future, to foretell his adult life ‘as do mothers all’.
‘Sing now, mother,’ said that child, ‘What me shall befall Hereafter, when I come to age, As do mothers all.
Every mother, truly, Who can her cradle keep Is wont to lullen lovingly And sing her child asleep.’
All mothers sing lullabies, we are reminded, and the everyday, universal nature of the scene is emphasised – just as little children do insist on being sung to, so mothers often love to talk about what their children might be when they grow up.
But this mother and child are not ordinary, as we realise when the mother begins to speak. ‘I never yet knew more of thee / Than Gabriel’s greeting’, she says, and she tells her son the story of the angel’s message, recalling Gabriel’s words and her astonished reaction to the news that she will become the mother of the Son of God. The interplay of voices is skilful and intricate, as she repeats what Gabriel said to her and what she said in reply, as if she really is telling the story of her own experiences and trying to comprehend what has been said to her. Mary concludes:
Then, as he said, I thee bare On a midwinter night, In maidenhood, without care, [sorrow]
By grace of God almight. The shepherds that waked in the wold Heard a wondrous mirth Of angels there, as they told, At the time of thy birth.
Sweet son, certainly, No more can I say; But if I could I gladly would, To do all at thy pay. [to do everything to please you]
At this point her knowledge ends; she has reached the present moment of the carol (the ‘Yule’s night’ with which the vision begins), and cannot look into the future. Some versions of the carol finish with Mary’s narrative and leave her joyfully delighting in her baby, ‘mankind’s bliss, / Thee, my sweet son!’
But the fullest version of the carol goes on to look to the future, and takes a more serious and darker turn. Now the child takes over the story, and the parent’s role of prophesying a baby’s future. He’s only a few days old – even the visit of the three kings, twelve days after his birth, is still in his future – but his knowledge is complete, his mother’s incomplete; he says he will teach her to sing. He tells her everything that will happen to him, foretelling his childhood, baptism, preaching, and miracles – and his death on the cross. His mother listens eagerly, at first thrilled to learn that her son will be acclaimed as a king, then horror-struck to hear he will die a humiliating death. She cries ‘Why must I live to see the day / That will bring thee such woe?’ Her child comforts her, and promises to look after her:
I shall thee take, when time is, To me at the last, To be with me, mother, in bliss; All this, then, have I cast. [ordained]
All the narrative of Christ’s life is reimagined as the past, present, and future of these two people, who are in many ways an ordinary mother and baby, and their emotions make the familiar story seem as fresh as if it had never been heard before. The details of the story are unique and strange, but Mary’s reaction is entirely human: what mother, cradling a newborn baby, would wish to be told of all the sorrows and joys her child will undergo?
By definition a lullaby is a soothing, comforting song, but this carol uses it to tell a profoundly uncomfortable story of pain and suffering. The refrain of this carol turns the lullaby form on its head:
Lullay, lullay, la, lullay, My dear mother, lullay.
The mother, not the child, is the one being comforted here.
At the heart of this carol is a meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation: this is a baby who can foretell his own future, a child who consoles his mother, a God of infinite power who has become a helpless infant. These are ambitious theological concepts for a carol to explore, but the apparently simple form of the lullaby is key to what this carol aims to do. Lullabies are perhaps the most familiar, universal, and intimate of musical forms; they are the first songs we ever hear, and they evoke powerful memories and emotions. With its vision of Mary and her baby, this medieval carol finds the place where the Christmas story touches resonant chords of human experience: it reflects on the close entwining of love and grief, anxiety about the unknowable future, the poignancy of parents’ hopes and fears for their children. It’s a deeply compassionate carol, and its promise – its only comfort – is that Christ has come to earth to share this suffering, the nameless lonely ‘longing’ with which the carol begins and ends:
Certainly this sight I saw, This song I heard sing, As I lay this Yule’s day, Alone in my longing.
In this second of three articles on the role of memory in music, Young-Jin Hur considers how the yearning for the past is an important aesthetic category in its own right.
Given the large number of works related to personal remembrance, one cannot preclude the possibility that there is a special beauty and value arising from reverie and yearning for the past in general. If so, this would be detectable in various aesthetic domains.
Of the vicissitudes of scholarly and aesthetic fashions throughout Western history, Neoclassicism is one which is recorded in numerous occasions, and is closely associated with the idealisation and revival of imageries of the times of ancient Greece. Stylistically, there is a strong emphasis on clarity, balance and simplicity. Such a tendency, for instance, can be detected in the paintings by the German artist Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880). The fact that Feuerbach was a close contemporary with Fin de Siècle modernists such as Gustav Klimt and Claude Monet puts Feuerbach’s Neoclassical leanings into perspective.
Similar stylistic and thematic tendencies of valuation of Grecian elegance can be found elsewhere in in time, such as in the paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Examples of Neoclassicism in visual arts and architecture abound, through which one can be sure of the enduring status of this movement in aesthetic history.
In music, Neoclassicism has exerted an equally persuasively persevering voice. Similar to its visual counterpart, musical Neoclassicism considers themes from ancient Greece and stylistically follows ideals of poise and balance. The movement has been especially associated with a number of composers of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) being most representative. Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus pans out in emotional restraint and clarity in orchestration, and follows the mythological story of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld.
On the one hand, characterisations of musical Neoclassicism can have irregularities. Works that simply denote styles of simplicity and balance as opposed to the excessiveness of 19th century Romanticism, are often grossly categorised as Neoclassical (e.g. Sibelius, Martinů), even when imageries of ancient Greece are foreign to these works.
On the other hand, it is often observed that such stylistic tendencies rarely take place without references to styles of the past. Prokofiev’s Neoclassicism of his jovial first symphony, for instance, is Neoclassical due to its nod to times where elegance and simplicity were appreciated in music. Therefore, the patched conceptualisation of Neoclassicism in music, some way or another, signifies a reverence toward the past.
Important to the understanding of Neoclassicism is an acknowledgement of the passing of things and themes much beyond an experiential level. Unlike commemorations based on personal passing (dealt with in the previous article), Neoclassicism allows the creator to appreciate things that the creator has never personally experienced or encountered. In other words, Neoclassicism demonstrates the act of looking back and admiring things of the past, through the viewer’s stretched scope of imagination, as a category of aesthetic appreciation in its own right. This is a kind of yearning that appeals to memory in the broadest sense.
If anything, yearning for the past has not always required a concrete object of its admiration. Often it is the yearning itself that matters. This is aptly embodied in the notion of Sehnsucht, the longing for something that cannot be determined. Hence the psychological experience of yearning for the past without having experienced the object of the past, such as the admiration of things from historical cultures and civilizations, is justified.
If Neoclassicism demonstrates longing of the past through the reverie of things of ancient Greece where elements related to emotional poise, control, simplicity, elegance and clarity are seen as virtuous, a comparable tendency finds its place in the Romantic symbolism of ruins. Here, memory is evoked through irregularity, instability, and the irrational rawness associated with nature and the decay it brings through time.
Ruins are the physical manifestation of the passage of time. As one stands in front of a building that was once impeccably erect yet which from the present is ruined, one understands both the forces of time and nature. The story of the inevitable passage of time is ruggedly drawn on the walls of a building much larger and older than the viewer. One thinks, such a vast object of strength and durability, too, is a food of time. Therefore, much like Neoclassicism, ruins are likely to tell a tale of passing that is beyond the level of personal experience. Furthermore, underneath Neoclassicism and the appreciation of ruins lies a common ground of acknowledgement of what constitutes the passage of time through which memory is borne.
There is a wealth of literature in the fascination with ruins. For instance, Lord Kames (1696-1782) in his 1762 publication The Elements of Criticism wrote that ruins evoke a sense of ‘a melancholy but not unpleasant thought.’ Such complex emotional tapestry makes ruins an ideal candidate for evoking thoughts of nostalgia. This can be seen notably in William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) The Prelude. Here, the protagonist meditates on themes of mortality and childhood. The choice of ruins as a device to illustrate these points cannot be more appropriate.
To a schoolboy’s vision, I had raised a pile Upon the basis of the coming time, That fell in ruins round me. Oh, what joy To see a sanctuary for our country’s youth Informed with such a spirit as might be Its own protection; a primeval grove, Where, though the shades with cheerfulness were filled, Nor indigent of songs warbled from crowds In under-coverts, yet the countenance Of the whole place should bear a stamp of awe; […]
The fascination with ruins, especially of their association with memory, can be attested further back in history, such as in Leon Battista Alberti’s (1404-1472) treatise of classic architecture De re aedificatoria. Here, ruin (ruina) is linked with concepts such as age (vetustas), eternity (perennitas), dignity (dignitas), renown (gloria), distinction (decus) or praise (laus) as well as with memory (memoria). Moreover, fascination with ruins continue to this day – for instance, typing into google ‘abandoned places’ gives a large number of results – further confirming that finding a peace of mind in ruins is no mere pastime relevant only to the age of Romanticism. Ruins thus appear to be a continuing topic of fascination by evoking a sense of memory, regardless of the era. Through its mysticism, to look back in time and feel the gap that the present and the past exhibit seems a fundamental human attraction.
How are ruins represented in music? On the one hand, there are works such as Arnold Bax’s (1883-1953) Tintagel, which was directly inspired by the composer’s visit to the Tintagel castle in Cornwall, a ruin set in the background of to the vast sea.
Parallels between ruins and music can further be found in Arthur Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) World as Will and Representation, where the possibility of a musical ruin is suggested: ‘when music, in a sudden urge for independence, so to speak, seizes the occasion of a pause, in order to free itself from the control of rhythm, to launch out into the free fancy of an ornate cadenza; such a piece of music, divested of rhythm, [is] like a ruin devoid of symmetry…’ And if it is true that an ideal musical ruin can be projected by such a theory, with that sense of incoherence and ruggedness, it may be promising to expect the congruence of a visual imagery as presented in the paintings mentioned above.
Yet in my opinion the notion of ruins is best found in its musical equivalence when one considers the popularity of historic recordings of the monophonic era. From the questionable quality of sound, muddled in the omnipresence of hisses and frequent absences of extreme pitches, lies a musical performance that is palpably aged and undoubtedly mysterious. Not unlike ruins, there is a rugged imperfection that seems to imply the severity of the passage of time.
And while it is also possible to argue for one’s search for conducting styles characteristic to a certain period of time that is no longer observable in the contemporary world, such a question would return to the core enquiry: why is it that we are attracted to things that are no more in the first place? This is indeed a strange attraction, to yearn for the rugged, passed, aged, and distant. These, I believe, are qualities not too dissimilar from ones that can be felt through the admiration of a bare-boned cathedral. The following clip is a wartime recording of the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), conducting the last movement of Brahms’ 4th symphony.
The popularity of Neoclassicism and ruins weigh increasingly on the fact that there appears to be an innate beauty in admiring the passage of time, especially since both lack an immediate practicality to easily justify their popularity. In fact, one can further argue that if these sensibilities toward time are so developed, such sentiments may find usage in common aesthetic expressions. Recent studies in psychology demonstrate this point. Nostalgia – thoughts and emotions uniquely related to looking back in time – is one of the nine most commonly reported emotional reactions to music. These results imply that these emotions arise commonly and importantly in general musical experiences, and such an allure towards the passage of time may be part of a psychological instinct, just as most humans innately have an understanding of fear and joy.
As such, beyond the function of commemoration based on largely personal encounters, there are traces of evidence demonstrating that reminiscing is a powerful experience. David Hume’s (1711-1776) psychological account in explicating human’s enjoyment of things of the past is deeply revealing: ‘[…] the imagination, passing, as is usual, from the consideration of the distance to the view of the distant objects, gives us a proportionable veneration for it; and this is the reason why all the relicts of antiquity are so precious in our eyes, and appear more valuable than what is brought even from the remotest parts of the world.’ This may explain how the appreciation of the past of looking back in time never exhausted itself of interests, throughout history and through differing professions, including music.
In the final article on music and memory, Young-Jin looks into how memory can be manifest in the narrative of music, which will be followed by a short conclusion.
Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).
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In this first of three articles, Young-Jin Hur explores the role of memory in music, both in processes of its creation and experience. Part one covers the representation of memory in music, through looking at works that deal with passing.
Memory plays a fascinating role in many things, and music is no exception.
For reasons of immediacy of associations, it seems appropriate to start with works of a commemorative nature, where the memory of the passing of someone, or something, forms the basis of compositional inspiration.
Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) Passacaglia, perhaps the most lyrical of his 31 published Opus numbers, is known to have been composed in the aftermath of his mother’s passing. Moments of lush sweetness become a palette for the impending desolation so central to the piece and the composer’s thoughts during the time of its inception. Given that such lyricism and Late-Romantic orchestration was something that Webern would rarely return to again in the future, the Passacaglia stands out among the composer’s wider oeuvre.
Nevertheless, prevalent in most of Webern’s works, including this Passacaglia, is a sense of bleak poetry. In a message Webern wrote to Alban Berg, a fellow contemporary Second Viennese School composer, he admitted that: ‘All of my works from the Passacaglia on relate to the death of my mother.’
If Webern’s remembering of his mother was emotionally direct and perhaps even outright dramatic, Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) thoughts of his mother’s passing takes a more intimate yet strange path in his Piano Quintet. Schnittke makes no secret of its autobiographical roots, (the third and fourth movements being ‘real experiences of grief which I would prefer not to comment on because they are of a very personal nature’), and moments of uncompromising bareness are intertwined in bizarre fashion with waltz-like rhythms. Seaming through the quiet notes is a relentlessness that shudders.
The Finnish composer Leevi Madetoja’s (1887-1947) Second Symphony was retrospectively dedicated to his mother after her death, but a number of other tragedies surrounded the composer at the time of its conception. He originally set out to lament the fate of Finland during the Finnish Civil War, and the deaths of two close individuals – his brother Yjrö and fellow composer Toivo Kuula, the latter a wonderful composer known for his melancholic songs – must have exacerbated this mood. As is reflected in the composer’s letter to his mother at the time, an unmistakeable nostalgia forms the very flesh of this wound-driven symphony: ‘Oh when will we see the day when the forces of hatred vanish from the world and the good spirits of peace can return to heal the wounds inflicted by suffering and misery?’
Similarly, the Czech composer Josef Suk’s (1874-1935) Asrael Symphony is consumed by memories of dear ones. Initially conceived as a commemoration of Antonin Dvorak, Suk’s longstanding mentor and father-in-law, the work began with four movements; a darkness-to-light narrative beginning with the tragic mood of Dvorak’s death, and ultimately ending in triumphant glorification of Dvorak’s accomplishments. Yet at around the time Suk completed the third movement, his wife tragically passed away. He would attach two more movements from the material already written to commemorate her.
It is understandable that Suk gave the title ‘Asrael’ (the Angel of Death of the Hebrew Bible) to the symphony. Yet for all its haunting funeral marches, there are glimpses of hope in the tranquillity that resonates after the C major conclusion. While not necessarily a triumph as initially conceived, this is far away from defeat – there is an undeniable sense of inner strength and promise for the future. The composer himself remarked, ‘When, after the stormy and nerve-wracking last movement of the symphony, the mysterious and soft C major chord is heard, I often notice that it brings tears to people’s eyes, and these tears are tears of relief, tears that purify and uplift – they are, therefore, not just my tears.’
Not all commemorations deal with the loss of close ones. In Memoriam by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), for instance, is a work created by the composer’s contemplation of his own mortality. Written in a period (around 1906) when Sibelius underwent operations on the throat to remove life-threatening tumours, the work reflects the composer’s fear and resignation over his life, and hence reveals a spiritual kinship with his desolate and brooding fourth symphony, a work that is representative of this period. Sibelius is known to have requested In Memoriam to be played in his own funeral, which he perhaps expected to happen not long after the completion of the work. In fact Sibelius would live for another fifty years. In accordance to his expectations, the piece was played at his funeral in 1957.
As I alluded to when discussing the Madetoja symphony, the object of remembering may expand beyond individuals, to societal levels. Such is the case of Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) Metamorphosen, a work which is believed to have been composed to commentate on the destruction of history and culture of Germany in the Second World War. It is a painful reminder that after the destruction of a physical body, only memories linger to console. The composer’s own remarks in his diary a few days after the completion of the composition are telling: ‘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.’
Also striking is the first symphony of Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), Essay Towards a Requiem. Hartmann being a fervent critic of the Nazi regime, his first symphony represents an artistic outcry against a totalitarian government and violence, expressed in its texts by the poet Walt Whitman. Here, the socio-political entity of Germany is personified, such that the downfall of a country to Nazism is aptly portrayed through the means of a requiem. Quite unlike the unaffected regret of Strauss’ metamorphosis, Hartmann’s symphony, as if to convey the violence of the present state itself, sways between inundations of driven outbursts and still despair. If there is little sweetness around, there is plenty of bitterness to be found. It is as though through depicting the atrocity of the present, the decency of what was before is remembered.
Memory concerns what is no more. The past is relived against the present. Death, the transition of an entity to become no more, then, is the making of a kind of memory; thoughts of death are the unconscious striving to gather all that was. As a result, regardless of whether it is an individual, society or culture that is concerned, death and memory are inseparable.
But death is an inevitable force of nature. Nothing is free from the erosion of time, and insofar as there is birth of something/someone there will always be the death of something/someone on the other hand. The acknowledgement and acceptance of this condition brings about a bittersweet scent of transience, and the premonition that our very existence too shall not be an exception of this natural law.
Yet many of us, both the readers and the writer, without the need to necessarily look into the future or to others, have already experienced a passing, namely the passing within us through the experience of growing up.
We understand by now that childhood is an idea, an idea constructed in an adult mind, looking back, with a simple and unconscious desire to capture the moments now forever lost. Yet this is also an acceptance of the victory of time over matter, that things will be lost necessarily, even things within ourselves. In this respect, thoughts of one’s own childhood are not too dissimilar with thoughts of death.
When Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) therefore sings in his On An Overgrown Path for solo piano the innocence of a long-gone childhood, the overall emotional ring of bittersweet yearning is strongly felt. The musical nostalgia is both of simple and tender nature, yet with an incredible sense of personality and depth. In moments of harshness, expressions are seldom with rawness but with a confession which has worn the wisdom and sadness of time. Hence within the sweet sorrows of Janáček’s work lies a universal understanding of the consequences of time on us.
If Janáček’s piece presents an intimate and wordless picture of childhood nostalgia through a single piano, Gerald Finzi’s (1901-1956) Intimations of Immortality takes on a more ambitious scale. Involving a full size orchestra, a chorus, and a vocal soloist, this 45-minute work is based on William Wordsworth’s ode of the same name. Whilst such physical scale may imply a form of monumentality, Intimations of Immortality is a work full of gentle beauty of tender spirits. The work’s conclusion reveals a poignant linking between nature, childhood, and the passing of things:
And, O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, Forbode not any severing of our loves! Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might; I only have relinquish’d one delight To live beneath your more habitual sway: I love the brooks which down their channels fret Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they; The innocent brightness of a new-born day Is lovely yet; The clouds that gather round the setting sun Do take a sober colouring from an eye That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality; Another race hath been, and other palms are won. Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
If one can attempt to generalise a commonality among these works, it is the unmistakable sense of yearning for what has become a past tense for the creator. And although a resurrection of what is already passed is not expected, rarely forgone at the end of each work is a sense of hope and personal catharsis. Life will go on, and it does.
Passing and accepting, including the acceptance of passing, are genuine human stories. Despite the evident sorrow present in these works, we are deeply moved because we can sympathise with the creators on a human level.
In part two, Young-Jin considers how the yearning for the past is an important aesthetic category in its own right.
Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).
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There is something intriguing and exciting about music that is ambiguous. Often, what makes music stimulating is the difficulty in labelling the musical processes that are going on. This was part of what attracted me to the symphonies of the monumental Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1953) when I was first introduced to studying his works as a second year undergraduate. I have been studying and writing about Nordic music since then and continue to be drawn to the challenge of understanding the subtle and complex processes of composers from this region. The somewhat grandiose title of this article might be in danger of over-simplifying the geographical and cultural influence on the repertoire, but Fenno-Scandinavia has produced a number of composers who demonstrated an alluring complexity which often comes down to their treatment and advancement of that old chestnut: tonality.
Traditionally, tonality established a musical hierarchy that became familiar. A seven-note scale would establish one important note (the tonic). This ‘functional tonality’ revolved around a resolute harmonic relationship between the fifth chord of a scale and the tonic chord. Later tonally-driven works by certain twentieth-century composers moved away from this functional harmonic relationship, but still extracted and developed other tonal characteristics.
One of the reasons for this change in tonal practice was that, around the turn of the twentieth century, very different views on composition were being put into practice. The uses of tonality itself, and the question of whether composers should still incorporate it, were central to this musical disparity. Tonality, however residual, continued in some shape or form after the First World War. But, in order for tonality to survive, composers had to do something new with it. This desire for change was perhaps only natural. Following the massive social and technological upheaval of the First World War, there was perhaps a feeling among some that late-Romanticism, and its increasingly diluted tonality, had run its course. It was time for something different. Really different.
The fascinating thing about 20th/21st-century music (the times of modernism, post-modernism, and as many clever-sounding ‘isms’ that take your fancy) is the number of wildly varied musical approaches that were explored. Between the late 19th-century and the mid-20th century, classical music became less of a neat, linear, progression as an excitingly multifarious mess of compositional possibilities.
Whilst tonal language was continuing, the new twelve-tone technique was being developed by Arnold Schoenberg, as a ‘post-tonal’ response. Schoenberg wished to develop a new, highly-ordered system – one based on a democratic use of all the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, to replace the tonal system. And here is a fundamental point: many composers who chose to take on board tonal aspects managed to prove that tonality was not a spent force, that change need not be so extreme.
One of the ways in which Sibelius expanded tonality was to combine it with an even earlier musical resource: modes. A mode, like a tonal scale, is a pattern of intervals in a particular combination, yielding a unique ‘quality’ or sound from which a composer can then draw both melody and harmony. The combination of tonality and modality opened a door to whole new possibilities.
Sibelius, both during his lifetime and even today, has been labelled as ‘conservative’ in his use of tonality – a potentially damaging view that can lead to missing the subtlety of Sibelius’s sonorities. Sibelius might not have been so radical as to disregard tonality, but there seemed little need to be radical when he could see with apparent clarity how to develop a ‘traditional’ musical aspect further.
Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6 in D minor (1923) is his most well-known orchestral work that incorporates modes within an otherwise tonal sound world. As musicologist Tim Howell has discussed in detail, this later symphony uses an old church mode which predates tonality: the Dorian mode on D. This mode is similar to the more recent tonal minor scale, but with one note changed (it uses B natural instead of B flat). Because the Dorian mode has many notes in common with not just the D minor scale, but also major scales such as F major and C major, its combination with these tonal scales opens the door to ambiguity. Sibelius takes advantage of this harmonic uncertainty in order to expand his tonal language beyond the confines and expectations of a single scale. This fusion of multiple scale types makes for a richer palette to draw from. And yet, the music does not sound alien. It is not far removed from traditional tonality, but is more difficult to put under one convenient label.
Sibelius puts this ‘same-but-different’ effect into practice in the very opening of the sixth symphony. The key is not clear: a few seconds into the music, the keen ear might latch onto the note D as a pitch centre, but this is tantalisingly indirect. In reality, Sibelius really avoids any sense of a key centre in these opening bars.
Listening to the sixth symphony in full, in a darkened room, and with good headphones, is an experience I would recommend to anyone. The tension between the D Dorian mode and tonal scales, creating exquisite ambiguity (and therefore an expanded and richer musical vocabulary), runs right through the symphony. The synthesis of tonal and modal is paramount to the work’s chilly and fastidiously economic being.
The retention of select tonal aspects, combined with modes may have seemed strangely retrospective to some. But Sibelius seemingly recognised a durable compositional principle, which indiscriminately incorporated and welcomed the developments of the past. The influence that this standpoint had on other composers from England and America, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, suggests that Sibelius must have been doing something right.
Sibelius’s free tonality manifested itself in another way. Playing around with time is an intriguing aspect of Sibelius’s orchestral modus operandi. There are numerous highly sonorous passages orientated around stasis. In such cases, Sibelius avoids chord progressions as such, and instead emphasises sonority itself by exploring the notes within a key in a static, non-directional way. Such sonority is often centred on a chord or pedal note, but notes from the scale based on that chord move around over the top. This tonal stasis is heard in Sibelius’s last symphony, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924), during the trombone solo early into the piece.
Such a method explored tonality with such freshness, and with such personality. This sense of a single, prolonged and intricate soundscape (built over pedal tones deep in the orchestral texture) has undoubtedly helped fuel the notion that Sibelius’s music is evocative of Finnish landscape – a phenomenon that has been explored in depth by musicologist Daniel Grimley. It is all too easy to get carried away, when listening, with wide-shot images of Finnish forests and lakes, but there is something in the shimmering qualities of Sibelius’s static tonality that makes chilly landscape images come back again and again.
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), from Denmark, is often put together with Sibelius – a habit no doubt explained by Nielsen’s reputation as the ‘other’ Nordic symphonist of the early twentieth century, born in the same year as the Finnish composer. In Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 (1922), he too carved out ways to build on the tonal language. Again, there is the fusion of tonal and non-tonal forces; the exciting potential of tonal suggestiveness and ambiguity.
In the opening of Nielsen’s fifth symphony, two bassoons begin a melody that sounds diatonic (i.e. it makes the listener think of some kind of tonal scale or mode), but this melody is not bound by a seven-note scale pattern. And yet, residual features of diatonicism remain, such as the consistent use of ‘tonal’ sounding intervals like thirds, and the movement between whole tones and semitones. This melody takes place over a deliberately ambiguous pedal in the violas on two notes: A-C.
As with Sibelius, Nielsen expands his melodic/harmonic resources by breaking down traditional seven-note tonality, whilst taking forward tonal principles and developing them in new, complex contexts.
In this two-movement symphony, Nielsen also impressively intensifies the traditional process of tonal resolution. A Mozart symphony will begin in one key and, after moving through other harmonic regions, will return home to that key. In certain late-Romantic works such as Mahler’s Second Symphony (1888-94) the music begins in one key and progresses to end in a different key – so called ‘progressive’ or ‘directional’ tonality. But with Nielsen’s fifth symphony, the progression is not from one key to another, it is from the absence of a key (i.e. tonal ambiguity and non-tonality) to a single, unambiguous key. When the symphony reaches the climactic finish, an E flat major chord catches the listener unawares. And yet the long-term, organic tonal struggle built over the whole work makes it seem that there could be no other musical conclusion. Nielsen, in short, took a governing principle of tonality (tension followed by resolution) and expanded it tenfold.
In 1954, Sibelius – now the grand old man of Finnish music – was asked to recommend a composer of his choice for a Koussevitzky Foundation Scholarship to study at Julliard School of Music. Sibelius chose the young Finn, Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016), after being deeply impressed by the young composer’s early brass work, A Requiem in Our Time (1953).
Rautavaara’s early contact with Sibelius unsurprisingly prompted the Finnish musical world to view him as something of a successor to the Finnish musical cause. The mantle had been passed on.
However, from around the 1950s onwards, the expectation to write in a more outwardly modern style had escalated further still. It would have been tremendously difficult, and unwise, for the young Rautavaara to avoid the plethora of compositional views and approaches that, in Finland, had developed over a startlingly concentrated period.
Charting the development of Rautavaara’s music is therefore fascinating. Here was a composer who experimented with Neo-Classicism; all-out twelve-tone music; electronic music, and Neo-Romanticism. Rautavaara’s later style saw a return to tonal-sounding sonorities – a decision that has drawn criticism from those who felt this to be a regressive step. But within these more ‘tonal’ works are also some of the most recognisable and original Rautavaarian sounds, which take what they need from tonality to effectuate a confident musical independence.
In Rautavaara’s Symphony No. 8, ‘The Journey’ (1999), can be heard the amalgamation of: temporary, constantly shifting harmonic centres, underscored by deep pedal tones; wide-spanning harmonies often using the interval of a fourth; and cluster chords which colour otherwise tonal-sounding melodies. All within a purposeful and spacious work which charts the symphonic ‘journey’ of melodic material from beginning to end.
Fewer pieces than we might think abandoned tonality completely. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) did not use an unrecognisable musical language. Many parts of this ‘radical’ work incorporate aspects of bi-tonality, diatonicism, and modality which grow out of Stravinsky’s two previous ballets, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911).
So much inspiring and important music has been written through creative and independent incorporations of select tonal aspects, and these three Nordic composers have taken this skill into their works in a way that is particularly their own. The richness, depth and complexity of this music make listening to it, and understanding it, all the more rewarding.
Owen Burton is a first year PhD candidate in Musicology at the University of York. He gained both his BMus (Hons) and MA from Bangor University. Owen also writes concert programme notes for the North Wales-based Ensemble Cymru and hosts pre-concert talks at the Llandudno arts centre, Venue Cymru. He is also the conductor and tutor with the Lifelong Learning Orchestra at Bangor University. He tweets as @OwenBurton_1.
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The dawn of the twentieth century was a particularly fascinating time. This new century paved the way for so many advances across the sciences, engineering and the arts. Marconi sent the first Atlantic wireless transmission, Orville and Wilbur Wright took flight, and Henry Ford produced the Model T. Matisse led the Fauvism movement, and literary greats were being turned out by Ford Maddox Ford, Conrad, Joyce, Scott-Fitzgerald and Hemingway – to name just a few.
Music was no exception. In Paris, Debussy’s innovations were causing quite the stir amongst his contemporaries. Interestingly, as a prolific writer, Debussy also expressed his opinion on a melange of musical matters in journals and letters. His persona of ‘Monsieur Croche’, an alter ego with a pen as quick as his tongue and manner sharp as a razor, would say what he meant, and meant what he said. One extract, from a letter to his friend, the music critic Georges-Jean Aubry, mentions a certain young composer:
This Caplet is an artist. He knows how to find a sonorous atmosphere and, with an attractive sensitiveness, has a sense of proportion; something which is more rare than one would believe in our haphazard musical epoch patched or closed up like a cork!
This is praise indeed for a composer relatively unknown today, and certainly begs the question who exactly was André Caplet…?
As an established figure in Parisian musical society, André Caplet was well known and respected for his craft during his lifetime.
The public mourned his tragically early death in 1925, when, at just 46, a simple cold developed into a fatal case of pleurisy. This was a true loss to the 1920s artistic scene – Caplet was an upstanding and musically adventurous personality who had much to give. Perhaps it is due to his untimely end that Caplet’s memory remains, to a degree, somewhat indistinct in music history.
Nonetheless, tracing Caplet’s movements could unravel some of the history behind this artist; the one who, according to Debussy, knew the key to a sonorous atmosphere.
Born in Le Havre in November 1878 to a modest family, the young Caplet spent his childhood by the sea; as a boy he was fascinated by the wind in the sails and sounds of the waves. This love of all things marine would stay with him all his life. Caplet began early music lessons with Henri Woollett, who himself had been a student of Massenet. Woollett and Caplet developed a warm rapport, and Woollett is known to have held Caplet in the highest esteem. In Le Monde Musicale February 1922, Woollett wrote:
I have spoken about the joy and pride of the professor who, discovering among his students a beautiful and strong musical nature, and about the satisfaction, after having guided his first steps, of opening to him little by little all the mysteries of the art, of having him taste its sublime beauties, of putting into his hands a tool with which he will force open the secret doors jealously closed on so many treasures, and finally, in leaving, to see him throw himself out on foot on the perilous road which leads to the conquest of dreams […] This joy […] never was it so great or so complete as when I had to form the fingers and the brain of an artist so accomplished.
When the time came for Caplet to move to Paris to continue his education, he entered the prestigious Paris Conservatoire, where he become a successful student of teachers Xavier Leroux, Paul Vidal and Charles Lenepveu. Caplet won numerous prizes for composition, accompaniment and counterpoint. It was in 1901 that the most prestigious prize of all was awarded to him: the Prix de Rome – the grand scholarship which allowed young artists to study in Rome. Other competitors for this year included Maurice Ravel, who won third place, and Gabriel Dupont, who won second. Caplet’s cantata Myrrha was assured and confident in style, demonstrating his outstanding technique, and unlike Ravel’s submission, the tone of Caplet’s cantata did not annoy the judges; instead, it expressed the religious nature of the subject in a sensitive and appropriate manner.
1901 was a good year for Caplet. He was a rising star in Paris, and just ahead of his Prix de Rome prize in May, this year saw a concert fully dedicated to his music, organised by the Société de Musique Moderne pour Instruments à Vent (Society of Modern Music for Wind Instruments), held at the Petit Salle Érard on the evening of March 9, 1901. The societywas led by Georges Barrère, renowned flautist and active chamber music personality. Caplet and Barrère had a great working relationship; Barrère supported and encouraged Caplet’s musical efforts and the two collaborated on the concert platform on numerous occasions. Caplet even dedicated some of his flute compositions to Barrère.
The concert presented a programme of music which revealed Caplet’s compositional range to its fullest. This included Quintet for Piano and Winds, (which, incidentally, was awarded a prize of 500 francs by the illustrious Society of Composers), the Suite Persane (Persian Suite),a three movement opus based upon Persian-inspired themes, and the complete Feuillets d’album(Album Leaves), five pieces for flute and piano. The latter featured Caplet himself at the piano.
According to research carefully gathered by Nancy Toff, the critics’ reviews of the concert were enthusiastic: in Le Monde Musicale, the Suite Persane ‘affirms again the highest qualities’, and it was called ‘a very ingenious work of instrumental combinations and much inspiration’. The suite does indeed offer a lot to the listener. In this work, each movement embraces a stylistic freedom and modality which would become so intrinsic in the later works.
Sharki, the first movement, states an Eastern-style modal theme in flutes and clarinets from the outset, which then are joined by bassoon. Following incarnations of the theme are placed throughout different instrumental groups and further developed.
The stately swirling chordal movement in fifths opens the second movement, Mihawend, paving way to a melodic theme in E minor.
The final movement Iskia Samaïsi is the longest of the three, and consists of two main motifs; an energetic dance theme first heard on oboes, then a second theme in triplets is introduced, based upon a whole tone scale. These motifs weave around each other towards a repeat of the first section, and ending with a loud fluttering coda.
After the excitement of this concert, the next project for Caplet was his residency at the Villa Medici, as part of his Prix de Rome scholarship. Perhaps he was still searching for his compositional voice and hoping to fully broaden his horizons, but soon after arriving in Italy, Caplet’s travels took him beyond Rome and throughout Germany. Caplet pursued well known conductors (Felix Mottl and Arthur Nikisch), and perhaps this exposure fed his desire and interest for more involvement with conducting. For reasons which are still unclear, Caplet turned in his resignation from the Prix de Rome, and had returned to Paris by 1906.
Paris at this time was teeming with creative energy and innovative artistic style. A lot was happening. Before leaving for Italy, Caplet had associated himself with circles of young artists partial to both the modern and exotic, and he rekindled these connections upon his return. One such group was Les Apaches.
This was a collective of musicians and artists, originally started by Florent Schmitt. Fellowship grew, and before long it included Ricardo Viñes, D.E. Inghelbrecht, Paul Sourdes, Manuel de Falla, Maurice Ravel, and of course, André Caplet. They would gather in the welcoming home of artist Paul Sourdes in Montremarte, and discuss music, literature and the arts. Theirs was a shared love of oriental art, the literary work of Mallarmé and Verlaine, the music of Chopin to the Russian school of composers, and naturally the latest creations of Debussy himself. According to an account by one of the first Caplet scholars, Willametta Spencer, the group’s nickname came about in quite a spontaneous way:
One Saturday afternoon, after a concert, they were walking down the rue de Rome en masse. They bumped into a newsboy who shouted ‘Attention, les Apaches!’ Ricardo Viñes picked up the slogan, and thus the group was named.
Les Apaches even had their own theme tune.Spencer goes on to mention: ‘soon they even adopted a code of their own by which they could communicate. The first theme of the Symphony No. 2 by Borodin was adopted as their rally call, which served to help them find each other in various places’.
Les Apaches was not the only musical society with which Caplet associated. The Société Musicale Independente (SMI) was a group formed in 1910 by Ravel, amongst some other young composers, mostly in reaction to the earlier established Société Nationale de Musique (SNM). The SMI aimed to promote an inclusive and progressive approach to modern music of the day. It was this group who brought about the premiere of Caplet’s Septuor (Septet) for ladies’ voices and string quartet, and again in 1922 the premiere the vocal work Le Pain Quotidian (The Daily Bread).
Around the time of his return to Paris in 1906-07, Caplet had also become well acquainted with Debussy. Before long, the two were working closely together. Debussy wrote a lot of letters to Caplet between 1908 and 1914, and these give great insight into their relationship, which was clearly based upon mutual respect and admiration. Caplet assisted Debussy in correcting proofs of scores, transcribing music, reducing orchestral scores for piano (it was Caplet who transcribed Debussy’s La Mer for four-hands piano), as well as making orchestrations of piano works (such as Pagodes andthe Children’s Corner Suite). Caplet also completed the orchestration of La Boîte a joujoux(The Toy-Box) and aided Debussy significantly with preparing Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien.
These years were good to Caplet, and his role as a conductor would become even more elevated with his appointment as conductor of the Boston Opera between 1910 and 1914. Caplet’s time in Boston was fruitful; he introduced audiences there to French music and his choices of concert programmes received much acclaim. The Boston Globe carried positive reports – this one, reporting on Caplet’s orchestration of The Children’s Corner in 1910 mentions: ‘Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite will be an interesting novel of the orchestral programme […] Were it not for André Caplet, it is likely that Boston would never have heard this delightful suite’.
Caplet returned to Paris in early 1914, and was only a short time in his position as Director of the Boston Opera when war broke out. Caplet spent most of the war firstly as a soldier, then as sergeant in Verdun, France. Caplet was awarded the Croix de Guerre (with a silver star) for bravery in 1916 and when the war ended he was released in April 1919, remaining in the territorial reserve until 1924.
The kind of artistic socialising to which Caplet had become accustomed in the pre-war era had greatly changed during the war years. Caplet had huge responsibilities to his unit, less independence, limited supplies of instruments and only sporadic contact with Debussy. Fortunately, Caplet was not the only musician in the trenches, and he very soon surrounded himself with a circle of like-minded artists. Music making in this situation had an extra incentive; to lift the morale of the soldiers, generating some kind of respite from the surrounding tumult. This became a more pressing reason for Caplet to immerse himself in as much musical activity as possible. Through music, he could provide solace for his compatriots as well as using it as the channel for his personal responses to war. It is likely Caplet encountered soldiers equipped with musical abilities broadly ranging from rudimental to advanced, and possibly from all corners of France; perhaps a much greater spectrum of musical attitudes than that with which he engaged before active service.
There were some outstanding personalities with whom Caplet forged musical alliances. His relationship with one, the virtuoso violinist Lucien Durosoir, forged a friendship that would transcend the war years. Durosoir and Caplet were the same age, both educated at the conservatoire during the same period, and understandably a strong rapport developed. Amidst the difficulties surrounding them, the musicians found time to study scores by Debussy and others, and work together on music at quieter opportunities. But Durosoir was not Caplet’s only musical ally at this point. Cellist Maurice Maréchal was known to play Debussy’s works for the regiments, and while Durosoir continued his musical studies with Caplet, there was still plenty of music making procured by Maréchal and others where possible. In fact, Caplet, Durosoir and Marechal would regularly host concerts and soirees for other officers.
Although for Caplet there still remained at least a semblance of musicality, the war had a profound effect on him, as it did on so many other musicians at this time. Caplet did not produce a large body of work during the war years, and there is a very noticeable streamlining of musical genres.
Gone are the large-scale piano transcriptions and orchestrations with wide instrumentation; instead we are left with a small pool of songs. Mélodie as a genre was not new to Caplet – evidenced by the range of songs reaching as far back as the late 1890s – but it was during these war years that he began to delve deeper into the potential of harmonic language, modality, song structure and texture. Paradoxically, it was Caplet’s paring back of his artistic language which seemed to liberate his musical identity. It is to the tumult of war that we must attribute the inspiration behind the modest but valuable collection of mélodies dating from 1914-1918, amongst which lies a wealth of gems. From the song cycle Le vieux coffert (The Old Box), to the haunting diminished and octatonic strains of Détresse (Distress), to Quand reverrai-je, hélas (When Shall I See You Again, Alas), and La Croix douloureuse, (The Sad Cross), Caplet’s sensitivity and delicate treatment of war and other themes began to lay the foundations for an individual musical voice, which would come into full maturity after the war ended.
Upon returning to civilian life, Caplet found himself unable to continue conducting to the degree he had been previously. His lungs were weakened due to exposure to gasses during the war, and he simply did not have the stamina to meet the demands which came with a full and intense conducting schedule. His compositional output began to expand more, and around 1919-1920 we see a proliferation of mélodies: the 3 Fables and simultaneously melodious and lively Cinq Ballades Françaises (Five French Ballades) date from this time respectively. In the 3 Fables, we see Caplet bring the animals depicted in Jean de La Fontaine’s texts fully to life; wide-ranging vocal lines juxtaposing in equal partnership with the piano parts place Caplet’s authenticity within this genre firmly alongside Ravel’s Histories naturelles.
However, the lure of conducting had a strong hold on Caplet, and in 1922 it was he who held the conductor’s baton at the French premiere of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, an event which resulted in policemen on horseback being dispatched to calm the commotion of the audience, who erupted in uproar upon hearing Schoenberg’s music! Webern, speaking of the SMI in a letter to Ravel in 1927, mentions:
Such an international embrace of new works signifies the SMI’s high standards for compositional excellence, where a composer’s worth is based not on nationality but on style, aesthetic, and quality. This truth grants composers the rewarding knowledge that, should their works be selected by the SMI, it is because their craft is deemed valuable, not because their piece fulfils a national stereotype.
In the final years of his life, Caplet commanded a lot of respect as a conductor, composer and all-round musical persona of his time. No mention of Caplet would be complete without a nod towards some of his large-scale later works. The harshness of war affirmed Caplet’s strong Catholic faith, and this religious theme was one to run through some of these. Le miroir de Jésus (The Mirror of Jesus), composed in 1924, encapsulates some of Caplet’s most distinctive characteristics: a combination of modal and chromatic harmonic movement, even with Schonebergian flavour at certain points, yet with an intensity and spirituality that is truly Caplet’s own sound. This spiritualism is continued in other works from this era – Epiphanie for cello and orchestra composed in 1923, after an Ethiopian legend, and Mystères du Rosiere (Mysteries of the Rosary) composed in the same year, share this search for spiritual meaning and evoke the mysterious and exotic, all the while encapsulating Caplet’s sensitivity to the subject without any over-emotionalism.
André Caplet was an artist in possession of an empathy and musical intuition which did indeed enable him to create a sonorous atmosphere – whether by his own compositions, or through the conductor’s baton, through a musical language of consistent inventiveness and design.
Indeed, Caplet’s part within the tapestry of early French modernism can be seen as that of a transitionary figure. His dignity and forward-looking use of modal structures places him beyond the realm of Debussysme and facing towards the direction that Messiaen would later expand upon both modally and approaching the creation of synthetic scales. Caplet was a figure who favoured different musical conventions. Perhaps he is best remembered with respect for his individual artistry amongst the true post-Debussyan composers of the 1920s and beyond.
Clare is a third year PhD candidate at the Faculty of Music in Ulster University. She holds a Masters in semiotic approaches to the music of Debussy, diplomas in piano performance and teaching, and has recently been awarded Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Fuelled by both plenty of coffee and a passion for early twentieth century French music, Clare’s doctoral research focusses on rigorous analysis of the mélodies of Caplet. Through her current and future work, Clare hopes that she can help bring about more recognition for André Caplet. Clare divides her time between Belfast and Dublin, and as an enthusiastic piano teacher, is committed to supportive teaching and learning in higher education. She tweets @claero.
I’ve cheated a bit with that title – I actually want to write about only one body of repertoire, but in the years I’ve been studying this subject I still haven’t found a single adjective that covers the music I work on.
In fact, I don’t even have a word for the subject I study. I’ve moved from the History Faculty at the University of Oxford, through an MSc in Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (which included Ethnomusicology), to the Music Faculty, but I think I’m really studying the history of collecting. I’m now in the second year of my DPhil, and my thesis goes by the working title ‘The tunebooks of J. B. Malchair, Oxford c.1770-1812’ – vague enough to avoid naming the contents of those tunebooks.
Born in Cologne, John Malchair (1730-1812) was a drawing master and professional musician, who came to England at age 24 where he led the Oxford Music Room band between 1760 and 1792 – retiring after his violin was broken by an orange thrown from the audience during a student fracas. Concerts were hazardous places in those days: for example, in 1773 the audience was asked not to allow dogs to wander into the Music Room; in 1787 audiences at the Sheldonian Theatre were instructed to refrain from requesting encores so that the performances could progress; and in Edinburgh there was a prohibition on throwing things at the band. Malchair’s violin was broken, according to a letter by witness John Guard, ‘in the midst of such an uproar as I never heard before at any place of public entertainment’.
Malchair collected tunes in his spare time – though also ‘necessary busness was at times incrotched uppon when the fitt of collecting grew Violent’. He collected at least four volumes of tunes, although only Volumes III and IV remain extant, the latter being titled ‘The Arrangement’. Malchair’s collection today is preserved in three manuscript tunebooks: two pocket-sized notebooks in his own handwriting which together contain 847 tunes, and a further 90 tunes in a larger volume compiled by his friend William Crotch from Malchair’s playing – after Malchair’s sight began to fail in the mid-1790s – alongside others published by Crotch in Specimens of Various Styles of Music in 1807.
Members of Boldwood play ‘La Fete De Village’, printed on a dance fan in the Ashmolean museum, 1789, in the BBC’s adaptation of Poldark:
Most tunebooks of this era were used by musicians as memory aids, and often contained tunes played for dancing alongside the melodies of church hymns. Malchair’s two extant tunebooks are different to this in both content and function. Rather than containing tunes he played and learned from fellow musicians, they form a consciously-made collection, with which he aimed to showcase the best music of a range of nations. He often gave full provenance for tunes and included an introduction to the collection, which together hint at his motivation and methods. From this information we learn that, in addition to seeking out old tunes from books, Malchair received music via letters sent from contacts in different locations, and scribbled down melodies played by street musicians.
But what kind of music are they?
The tunes are labeled (in Volume III) and grouped (in Volume IV) by nation. There are tunes from fourteen nations in all: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Turkey, Scandinavia, China, Virginia, the West Indies, and Persia. Malchair’s introduction to Volume IV, and his choice of arrangement of the tunes into national groups, suggests that he believed the music should be categorised according to its national character (as he perceived it) rather than its geographical origin as we would do today. Thus, for instance, he included tunes that we would today call ‘Scottish’ or ‘English’ in the ‘Irish’ section of his book, and vice versa.
His concern for national groupings makes clear that Malchair’s collection is one of ‘national music’. But ‘national music’ is not what Malchair himself called it: he refers instead to ‘English Tunes’, ‘Scottish Tunes’, ‘Irish Tunes’ or ‘Welsh Tunes’, as well as ‘old tunes’, ‘The Music of our ancesters’, ‘Cunning Music’, ‘admirable tunes’, ‘music of antient times’ and ‘the old Melodies’ – in contrast to ‘Elegant Moderne Music’.
The first person to refer to Malchair’s collection as one of ‘national music’ was William Crotch, when later acknowledging the help he’d had from Malchair (who ‘has made National Music his study’) in putting together Specimens of Various Styles of Music.
So should I refer to Malchair’s collection as ‘national music’ if he never referred to it as such himself?
We can justify this in two ways: firstly by assuming that he did in fact refer to it as such, but that there are simply no references to this that have survived to the present day. After all, we only have two of his tunebooks; and his introduction to Volume IV, at 1,697 words, is only about the same length as this blog post. Secondly, we might conclude that, for Malchair, the fact that his collection was one of ‘national music’ simply went without saying at a time when concerns for the ‘national’ permeated discourse, both politically and culturally.
In either case we can be in no doubt that Malchair would have understood the phrase, being well-read and in regular communication with other musicians and in particular with William Crotch, who seems to have taken it for granted that the phrase ‘national music’ accurately described Malchair’s collection. A quick search of ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online, a searchable repository of digitised books from the eighteenth century) reveals use of the phrase ‘national music’ in print from at least 1755, and of ‘national song’ since at least 1719.
Malchair collected the tune to the song ‘Roast Beef’, grouping it among the Irish tunes, although it was composed by English playwright Henry Fielding in 1731 for ‘The Grub Street Opera’, then made popular in a new setting by Richard Leveridge.
So if we accept that Malchair probably thought of his collection as one of ‘national music’, why have I muddied the waters by calling it ‘folk music’ and ‘street music’?
I often refer to Malchair’s collection in conversation as one of ‘folk music’ because outside of a handful of people in the Music Faculty it is the quickest way to describe what I’m studying. However, the phrase ‘folksong’ was only invented in 1773 (by Gottfried Herder in his Essay on Ossian) and didn’t come into regular usage in English during the eighteenth century at all – according to another search on ECCO.
However, in its twenty-first century form, the phrase ‘folk music’ describes how the tunes that Malchair collected are viewed by musicians today. The majority of the tunes in Malchair’s tunebooks are country dance tunes, and many he copied out from publications such as Playford’s Dancing Master (first published 1651), which Malchair viewed in the Ashmolean Library – now part of the Bodleian. Malchair wrote in his introduction to Volume IV that ‘many of them are so uncommonly beautyful as to captivate the most refined Eare, they are, it is true, involved in a crowde of Vulgarityes but it is well worth the trouble of fighting through that mob in order to save them from oblivion.’
The Playfords, and later publishers such as Allan Ramsay in Edinburgh and George Thompson in London, were making a profit by putting down in print tunes that were in general circulation among musicians at the time, whether the tunes of songs, melodies played for dancing in assembly halls, or taken from the works of known composers, or the arias of the most popular operas.
Though the term ‘folk’ existed in certain musical contexts in the eighteenth century, Malchair and his contemporaries would not have used this word, and could hardly have predicted that the repertoire these publishers brought together in print would later become the bread and butter of the instrumental folk music world two centuries later.
‘Beggar Boy’ was Malchair’s ‘most favourite’ tune – he said of it that ‘this Melodie is admirabely calculated to rise compassion and has in it the Pure Voice of Nature’.
And why ‘street music’? If the phrase ‘folk music’ is anachronistic, perhaps ‘street music’ would be more appropriate, as it locates the music Malchair collected in a physical place and among real people.
Malchair records in detail where he found some of his tunes, and while the majority are from printed collections, there are a handful with much more lively provenance. For example, he recorded three tunes ‘written down from hearing them playd by an Irish Piper and Fidler at Oxford. May 15 – 1784’, one that he heard ‘Played by a Piedernontese Girl on a Cymbal in Oxford Streets, December 22 1784’, and another ‘From the Singing of a Poor Woman and two femal Children Oxford May 15 1784’.
In addition to revealing his sources, these marginalia also give us some insight into his methods. While Malchair was known for carrying his sketchbook with him, it is clear that he did not only collect tunes when he was thus prepared and, one day, ‘heard a Man whistle this tune in Magpey Lane Oxon Dbre 22 1789. came home and noted it down directly.’
Malchair also collected songs from friends, both from live singing and sent to him by letter. Many of his contacts were university men such as ‘the Honble Mr Linsey of Baliol Coll. Oxon.’ and ‘Mr Cunningham of Christ Ch. Oxon.’; and although he was opportunistic, such as when he noted down a tune he ‘heard a man sing in Harlech Castle’, he also actively pursued repertoire, as is implied by his comment that one tune was ‘Noted down from having it sung to me’, presumably at Malchair’s request, by another acquaintance.
Since Malchair collected only a handful of tunes from the street, and a handful more from the singing of friends, can I really refer to the collection as one of ‘street music’? Practically speaking, while not all of his collecting was done on the street, it is likely that many of the tunes he collected were known by people in and around the streets of Oxford. If the tunes he collected from live performance are also to be found in historic printed collections, we can assume that the reverse was also true – that many of those tunes he took from printed music collections were actively being played, sung, and even whistled on the streets of Oxford in the 1780s and 90s, when Malchair collected the bulk of his tunes.
This aspect of Malchair’s collecting practice is of particular interest to me, because most historical commentators place the start of this process in the mid-nineteenth century. By collecting from life, whether from friends, performers or street musicians, Malchair was collecting in a way that has not yet been written about for the eighteenth century, and whatever we call his repertoire – national, folk, or street music – it is his methods and activities as a collector that make him and his work a fascinating subject to study.
Alice is a DPhil candidate in the Faculty of Music at Oxford University; she holds the Hélène La Rue Scholarship in Music at St Cross College. Her doctoral work explores collectors and collections of music in the eighteenth century. In the past she was Assistant Curator of Musical Instruments at the Horniman Museum, and has also worked at the British Museum, the Museum of the Royal Military School of Music, and at the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter.
Music that unfolds gradually and slowly brings about a unique quality of emotional gratification. While there is plenty of enthusiasm arising from the incisive excitement of scintillatingly brisk performances, beauty that is to be found in the ponderously lasting presents a differing world altogether.
The apparent impact of slowness in music emerges when one compares interpretations of a piece of work by conductors favouring opposite poles in tempo. Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s lively account of Beethoven’s 9th symphony shows how a work can sound when played at an unusually swift tempo (by 20th-century interpretative standards). A sense of lightness and urgency prevail, at times resulting in feelings of breathless fury.
In contrast to the daring athleticism found in Gardiner’s work, the sound-world shaped through Karl Böhm’s majestically slow vision – one of the last recordings of the great Austrian conductor – calls for weight and the monumental, an aged grandeur that imposes and sweeps with bold conviction.
One can argue that the lightness so prevalent in Gardiner’s reading may be accounted for by the historically informed performance, with the period instruments and reduced size of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Yet even if one listens to another rapidly paced account, this time with the modern Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly, the overall impression is not too dissimilar.
As such, slowness in music can carve out a sense of the broad and immense; through taking a deliberate and slow tempo, a dimension of physical magnitude emerges. This may be in accordance with an ecological perspective, since most things large in real life tend to also be slow. Supporting this notion, Newton’s second law of motion, F=ma, implies that in changing a fixed amount of force, mass and velocity are in an inverse relationship, such that an increase of mass is connected with a decrease of speed/velocity, and vice versa (particularly relevant is the mechanics of momentum, a derivative function of F=ma, also known as p=mv). In either case, the mind may automatically ascribe a sense of mass and vastness to something that is (or sounds) slow.
This idea that slowness leads to a sense of grandeur is often applied as a dramatic device by some conductors. Within a unified tempo structure, unexpectedly slowing down the tempo of a subsection in a movement can, when applied suitably, release an energy imbued with a sense of scale and breadth.
The technique can have various names depending on the contexts, such as ritardando, rallentando, tempo rubato (‘stolen time’ in Italian) or ritenuto, amongst many others. The slowing down can be done within such a short amount of time that it even applies even to a single note.
A memorable demonstration of such effect comes from Leonard Bernstein’s recording of the 4th symphony of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) with the Vienna Philharmonic in the early 80s. While Bernstein’s overall conception of this work is of an expansive nature, the conductor significantly slows down the tempo at the apotheosis of the symphony, in the last few bars of the finale. The effect is deeply felt for its far reaching sublimity.
Comparable to this is the live recording of the same symphony by Yevgeny Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, where the tempo is picked up vigorously in the same section. While not short in intensity, the generated energy is of a different kind of sinew compared to the aforementioned recording by Bernstein. In place of the grand is a sense of electric relentlessness, a driving momentum that is gratifying with a raw edge, not shy of showing itself.
While it has been indirectly referred to, the slow itself warrants an observation. In essence, the concept of the slow is a mostly relative one; the perception of slow is slow insofar as when preceded by a passage of a quicker speed. Furthermore, it may be insightful to know that ritardando means to ‘slow down’, not ‘slow’ per se. Therefore, to judge Böhm’s rendition of Beethoven’s 9th symphony as slow is possible through the assumption of having heard other faster versions of that same work.
Likewise, tempo markings within a work are likely to represent a pulse intrinsic to the architecture, logic and ‘life’ given to the work during its conception by the creator. In the case of multi-movement works, composers are likely to allocate unique tempo markings to specific movements, or moments within a movement, in order to enhance the argument and flow of music. Therefore, the incipient slow sections in many first movements of Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) symphonies prepare an exhilarating delight at the arrival of the first – usually faster – theme.
Relatedly, a slow movement – usually marked as an adagio or lento – in a symphony or a similar large scale work brings about a sense of contrast between the more extroverted surrounding movements. The slow breath of the slow movement provides an equilibrium to the work’s overarching rhythm.
Similar observations can be made within scherzo (‘I joke’ in Italian) movements, where the ternary structure (i.e. ABA) consists of a short contrasting section – also known as the ‘trio’ – located in between two often dance-like sections. Certain composers insert a songful slow section in this central section. When section A is reprised, its return renews a sense of freshness, through which the movement regains and prolongs its rhythmic momentum.
Either as a slow movement of a symphony or as a poignant trio section within a scherzo movement, the revealed slowness plays the role of an oasis of cool poise in the midst of bumpy terrain. Anton Bruckner’s (1824-1896) scherzo of the 8th symphony demonstrates this notion well.
In Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, the slow movement being placed last, suggests a picture of a work that is overall solemn and elegiac. By concluding the work in such unexpectedly slow fashion, the listeners not only find the joyous moments of the 2nd and 3rd movements somewhat negated, but also understand retrospectively that these moments of joy are precursors to the inevitable melancholy of the conclusion. When the day is done, a sigh not only signifies an outlook towards the rest of the remaining day, but also a newly springing nostalgia of all what came before. As such, slowness may play an integral role in how one interprets and understands a whole piece of work.
Slowness, then, can also be used as a powerful structural device. If so, is there a unifying experience to the slow? While every piece of slow music is slow in its own way, in many examples mentioned so far the unique qualities of slowness in music depict feelings of a contemplative, often introspective and/or sombre nature. This is often opposed to the often active, buoyant, and/or light counterpart of faster music. If the world of the slow is the night or an afternoon of cool rain, the world of the fast is broad daylight or the blazing sun itself.
And if empirical research may shine additional light on this matter, recent studies in psychology have shown that slow tempo is associated with the experience of sadness among listeners. Conversely, speeding up a piece would elicit happiness (read research here). In other words, the interplay of tempos, by having a piece slow down and speed up, may play an important role in shaping the emotional tapestry of a given work.
I would like to think – should such scientific argument be true – that the principle would feed itself into the working knowledge of composers, to the degree that they would consciously or unconsciously choose a slow tempo for ‘sad-sounding’ musical sections. As an example, it is difficult to conceive of plaintive and reflective musical ideas created for deeply mournful purposes written in tempos of relative briskness. Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) inward-looking Funeral Sentence In the midst of life, written for Queen Mary II’s funeral, demonstrates this point.
Furthermore, slowness goes beyond a matter of music. While there is an increasing number of opinions in recent times towards the appreciation of a slow-paced life, slowing down cannot be a mere counterpart of, or panacea to, the hectic density of modern cosmopolitanism. Rather, to slow down is a quality intrinsic to life and its components. Accordingly, by immersing oneself into the slowness of a musical work’s life, one encounters an experience very true to being alive.
From the grand to the wistful, qualities of the slow in music play out a common denominator of austere sincerity, a sense of self-aware profundity. One can at least say that while not all slow music is ‘sad-sounding’, sadness is best executed in a slow pace. A similar pattern can apply for ‘grand-sounding’ music, too.
Needless to say, music is complex, and musical experiences even more so. There are numerous things to consider, such as memories of what came before and expectations of what might happen afterwards. There are also other factors such as rhythm, pitch and loudness that are crucial in shaping one’s musical experiences – this cannot be denied. However, that there is a special beauty in the slow in music – this also cannot be denied.
Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).
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