Music And Memory Part 1: Commemoration, Thoughts Of Passing

There is a long and rich history of music helping us to come to terms with loss.

The Philosopher in Meditation, by Rembrandt. Cropped.
The Philosopher in Meditation, by Rembrandt, 1632. Cropped from source.
 Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

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;
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.

Read more by Young-Jin on Corymbus:

Beauty In The Slow

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’).