About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

June 10, 2016

Love Music from the End of the 19th Century; One love lost, two ‘happy’ endings

Notes for July 10 concert in memory of Nancy Hatz

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Sibelius, Rakastava (Beloved)

“Born in 1865, Sibelius was not merely the most famous composer Finland ever produced but the country’s chief celebrity…. Asked to characterize their culture, Finns invariably mention, alongside such national treasures as the lakeside sauna, Fiskars scissors, and the Nokia cellular phone, ‘our Sibelius.’” The composer may account singlehandedly for the fact that, “The annual Finnish expenditure on the arts is roughly two hundred times per capita what the U.S. Government spends on the National Endowment for the Arts.” (Alex Ross)

Finland has one of the richest stores of folk poetry in the world. Poems were passed on by word of mouth over centuries until finally written down by scholars like the Finnish physician Elias Lönn-rot (1840) in the belief that national identity has its roots in folklore. The Kanteletar, a collection and companion to the better-known Kalevala, may have inspired Sibelius to write Rakastava in 1894, originally as a cycle of four songs for men’s a cappella chorus. In one song a girl misses her beloved (here translated from Goethe’s German translation of the original, the combined result, I assume, losing the traditional poetic meter of the spoken Baltic-Finnic language):

Should my treasure come  
my darling step by 
I’d know him by his coming 
recognize him by his step 
though he were still a mile off 
or two miles away. 
As mist I’d go out 
as smoke I would reach the yard 
as sparks I would speed 
as flame I would fly; 
I’d bowl along beside him 
pout before his face. 
I would touch his hand 
though a snake were in his palm 
I would kiss his mouth 
though doom stared him in the face 
I’d climb on his neck 
though death were on his neck bones 
I’d stretch beside him 
though his side were all bloody.

Sibelius used the song cycle as the basis for a three-movement orchestral suite, Rakastava, for string orchestra, percussion and triangle(!), to which he assigned the opus number 14. He completed it in 1912, the year of his Fourth Symphony, “music as forbidding as anything from the European continent at the time” (Ross) that mystified the audience at its premier. Sibelius often conducted the Rakastava suite together with his symphonies into the 1920s, because, he said, the piece "captivated audiences.”

  Rakastava, “The Beloved”
Rakastetun tie (The way of the lover)
Hyvää iltaa ... Jää hyvästi (Good night, farewell to the beloved),

The cumulative effect of the first movement is one of bittersweet happiness--the remembrance of an absent lover. In the choral version of the third movement a solo tenor sings of the two lovers' sorrowful parting, "Goodnight-Farewell," a Renaissance-inspired piece with modal (Dorian) shadings, and a constantly changing metrical scheme using measures of five and seven beats. By the dark Dorian ‘farewell’ ending we are not feeling happy.

Wagner, Siegfried Idyll

Wagner wrote about his second meeting with his future wife Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt and still married to composer/pianist Hans von Bülow: "She fell at my feet, covered my hands with tears and kisses ... I pondered the mystery, without being able to solve it.” 

Wagner composed Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present to Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. It was first performed on Christmas morning, 1870, by a small ensemble of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich on the stairs of their villa at Tribschen (today part of Lucerne, Switzerland). The late conductor Hans Richter played the 13-measure trumpet part in that private premiere performance.

On awakening Cosima responded: “As I awoke, my ear caught a sound, which swelled fuller and fuller; no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming: music was sounding, and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room with the children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so were all the rest of the household. Richard had arranged his orchestra on the staircase, and thus was our Tribschen consecrated forever.” (The couple obviously had a keen sense for publicity!)

The original title was Triebschen Idyll with Fidi's birdsong and the orange sunrise, as symphonic birthday greeting. Presented to his Cosima by her Richard. "Fidi" was the family's nickname for (son) Siegfried. The birdsong (that bird will be me!) and the sunrise probably refer to incidents of special significance to the couple.

The Idyll music also sounds toward the very end of Wagner’s opera Siegfried (of Der Ring des Nibelungen) after Siegfried awakens the exiled Brünnhilde on her rock and beholds a woman for the first time in his life. (He discovered that anatomic fact after cutting the shield from her breast with his sword before she awakened.) After a short period of confusion, his passion kicks in and he starts after Brünnhilde (“eye to eye, mouth to mouth”) who, to the Idyll, recognizes her vulnerability and briefly pleads for preservation of her virginity (“do not touch me, do not upset me!”). Her resistance is but short-lasting and they embrace in “radiant love, laughing death!” as the curtain falls. (I didn’t make that up!) A happy ending —  until the next opera.

Wagner originally intended Siegfried Idyll to remain a private piece, but financial pressures led to his selling the score to a publisher in 1878 after expanding the orchestration to 35 players to make the piece more marketable. Though the original is for a more cost-effective chamber orchestra of 13 players: flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello and  double bass, we will augment the strings for our performance. 

Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht

Premiered in 1902 Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) was inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel in which a ‘legitimately pregnant’ but unfaithful wife confesses her ‘guilt’ to her lover, a story that Schoenberg admitted in 1949 that “many a person today might call ‘repulsive.’” In 1997 Richard Taruskin wrote, “I suspect that today it would be the poem’s misogyny (a sinful modern Eve forgiven and redeemed by a godlike magnanimous man) that offends.” In our contemporary world I suspect that the poem wouldn’t even cause modern readers to blink.

Dehmel's poem describes a man and woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares her dark secret with her new lover: she bears the child of another man. The stages of Demel's poem are reflected throughout the music, beginning with the sadness of the woman's confession, a neutral interlude wherein the man reflects upon the confession, and a finale reflecting the man's bright acceptance (and forgiveness) of the woman: O sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert! Es ist ein Glanz um Alles her (See how brightly the universe gleams! There is a radiance on everything), so there is a happy ‘radiant’ ending similar to Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s.

Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood;
the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze.
The moon moves along above tall oak trees,
there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the radiance
to which the black, jagged tips reach up. 
A woman’s voice speaks:
“I am carrying a child, and not by you.
I am walking here with you in a state of sin.
I have offended grievously against myself.
I despaired of happiness,
and yet I still felt a grievous longing
for life’s fullness, for a mother’s joys
and duties; and so I sinned,
and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex
to the embrace of a stranger,
and even thought myself blessed.
Now life has taken its revenge,
and I have met you, met you."

She walks on, stumbling.
She looks up; the moon keeps pace.
Her dark gaze drowns in light.

A man’s voice speaks:
“Do not let the child you have conceived
be a burden on your soul.
Look, how brightly the universe shines!
Splendour falls on everything around,
you are voyaging with me on a cold sea,
but there is the glow of an inner warmth
from you in me, from me in you.
That warmth will transfigure the stranger’s child,
and you bear it me, begot by me.
You have transfused me with splendour,
you have made a child of me.”
He puts an arm about her strong hips.
Their breath embraces in the air.
Two people walk on through the high, bright night.

Mention of Arnold Schoenberg on a concert program can keep audiences away in droves, as many did when we programmed Pierrot Lunaire in 1989. Some view the composer as a 20th century revolutionary, inventor of a wretched atonal system called the twelve-tone technique. Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4, however, is a tonal work from the composer’s early 20’s when his “typical utterances sounded like Haydn sonatas” and he had not yet even ventured upon “adolescent Wagnerism.” As for other modernists, Charles Ives was already evolving his “incredible ultramodernism of the American ’90’s” but the youthful Stravinsky, years before Le Sacre, was still “playing marbles in Oranienbaum.” (Lawrence Gilman in the New York Herald Tribune in 1939.)