I’ve been forcing myself to listen to 20th-century classical music composers. My parents mostly listened to music of the Classical era (1750-1820 – Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven) and of the Romantic era (1820-1910 – think Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rachmaninoff (late romantic). “Classical music” is an umbrella term that encompasses half a dozen “eras,” the Classical era among them.
Composers of the Classical era followed very strict rules of music composition. Romantics, in contrast, began to be influenced by the literary and art worlds, and their emotions started to slip into their music. The Romantics gradually cracked the rigid rules of the Classical era – but they still followed rules.
Enter the 20th-century, modern composers – Mahler, Dvorak, Shostakovich, Sibelius. Rules don’t exist for them. By breaking rules they created music that is free of constraints; it is full of emotion, unique sounds, and unpredictability. But that freedom comes at a cost: It is more taxing on a listener who hears it for the first time. Some pieces I have to listen to a dozen times before I start to appreciate them. Where I can relate to the bulk of Tchaikovsky’s or Rachmaninoff’s music, I can consume Mahler or Shostakovich only in small bits and pieces. I love the first part of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and the first and second parts of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
Thanks to Spotify’s “daily mix” feature, I recently stumbled on Sibelius’ fifth Symphony. Jean Sibelius was a Finnish composer (1865-1957). He is considered to be a late Romantic or early modern composer. He was a very important figure in Finland, a country of just 5.5 million people. His birthday is celebrated as a Day of Music, and his face was featured on the 100-mark bill until 2002. He was prolific until the 1920s but then did not compose for the last fifty years of his life. I wonder whether he felt unfulfilled in those last fifty years. I haven’t cracked parts one and two of his symphony, but I cannot stop listening to part 3.
Leonard Bernstein 1980s performance
Leonard Bernstein 1960s performance
Herbert Von Karajan
Louis-Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was not a child prodigy; at age 12 he was a latecomer to music (by that age Mozart had already completed his first performance tour). His father discouraged him from studying piano, so he did not. His parents wanted him to be a doctor (every Jewish mother wants her son to be a doctor), and Berlioz was sent to Paris to study medicine. At the age of 23, despite his parents’ objections, he formally abandoned the study of medicine and focused solely on music. Berlioz never received classical musical training, and thus it was easy for him to break the rules of music composition since he didn’t know them.
It’s hard to say whether Berlioz’s musical adventure would have amounted to much if he hadn’t fallen in love. When he was 27 he attended a performance of Hamlet. There he saw her: Harriet Smithson, Irish Shakespearean actress. He was fatally smitten. He wrote her love letters, but his love went unrequited. He rented an apartment across the street from her and then wrote her the ultimate love letter: Symphony Fantastique.
Fantastique was written in the pain of unreturned love. Berlioz wrote:
Oh, if only I did not suffer so much!… So many musical ideas are seething within me.… Now that I have broken the chains of routine, I see an immense territory stretching before me, which academic rules forbade me to enter.
In another letter he wrote:
Sometimes I can scarcely endure this mental or physical pain (I can’t separate the two) … I see that wide horizon and the sun, and I suffer so much, so much, that if I did not take a grip of myself, I should shout and roll on the ground. I have found only one way of completely satisfying this immense appetite for emotion, and this is music.
As a side note, the topic of pain and creativity is very dear to me. I strongly believe most creativity in the world is unleashed by pain. If it was not for pain we would not have Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which he wrote after suffering a three-year depression from the failure of his first symphony. Or think about this: Beethoven was deaf the last ten years of his life, and this is when he composed his best work.
Back to Berlioz. Either Berlioz could not take the pain or he needed additional stimulants to access his newfound creativity; in any case, he consumed a lot of opium in the course of writing Fantastique. Fantastique premiered to incredible success in 1830 and turned Berlioz into a huge star. Harriett was unfortunately not at the premier and only heard the symphony two years later. By then Berlioz is famous, and she recognizes his genius. They get married and … are unhappy and separate.
Nevertheless, we should all thank Harriet for this incredible masterpiece.
Here is how Leonard Bernstein summarized this symphony: “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”
Final point. Fantastique is a five-movement program symphony. (Program music means that the symphony follows written program notes; think of them as silent opera.) It’s the love story of Berlioz’s unrequited love for Harriet – on psychedelics. There is a glittering ball, a lonely idyll in the countryside, and other visions induced by opium. (I kid you not; here is what Berlioz wrote in his program notes: “The Artist, knowing beyond all doubt that his love is not returned, poisons himself with opium. The narcotic plunges him into sleep, accompanied by the most horrible visions.”) The symphony continues with the murder of the artist’s love interest, the execution of the artist after a stirring march to the gallows, the artist’s funeral, and the artist’s love interest’s reappearance as a witch). You can read the whole fantastical story here.
Leonard Bernstein conducts:
Mariss Jansons conducts:
I have to admit that a love for Bach’s music is fairly new to me. I felt Baroque music lacked emotion and was somewhat boring. Then one day I was perusing YouTube and stumbled on a video of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. I don’t know if it was Gould or Bach, but I was mesmerized by this piece and listened to it nonstop for a week. This was Glenn Gould’s first public performance. He is introduced to the world by the one and only Leonard Bernstein, who is also conducting the concerto.
Composing music is somewhat similar to writing a play – you can be as descriptive or undescriptive as you want to be. Bernstein makes this point in the lecture preceding the performance. A playwright may write, “John walked into the room and said ‘Hello Martha.” Imagine if you were the director and that is all you had to stage this scene. You don’t know how old John is or how he talks. How he looks. You know nothing about the surroundings. There is a lot of blank canvas to fill in here.
Or the playwright could describe John as a middle-aged, balding, overweight New Yorker wearing dirty jeans with giant holes in the knees, limping slowly into an empty room whose linoleum floor is barely covered by smelly red carpet and whose walls have been carelessly smeared with peeling white paint. The more descriptive the playwright is, though, the less creativity and imagination are left to the director.
Though to civilians (like yours truly) all scores look intimidatingly the same, a composer also has the option to either just provide the outlines of a story and a few snatches of dialog, or to go to the extra mile in describing how the music should be played. The more descriptive is composer is in the score, the less room for creativity he leaves for the conductors and performers.
Mahler was incredibly precise with his music: He described every little innuendo of his symphonies. Bach was not descriptive at all. He left a huge space for interpretation of his music, and you can clearly hear that in this concerto.
Glenn Gould’s performance is vastly different from any other performance of this concerto. He plays it noticeably slower and accentuates the notes significantly more – his performance evokes melancholy where others deliver energy. Gould could not, however, have been able to slow down the concerto on his own; he needed an accomplice: Leonard Bernstein.
Glenn Gould’s debut performance (rewind to see Leonard Bernstein’s lecture)
“The greatest misfortune of the wise man and the greatest unhappiness of the fool are based upon convention”. – Franz Schubert
A few weeks ago my father, my daughter Hannah, and I went to the Boulder Symphony to listen to Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” (conducted by Leonard Bernstein). Before the performance, Boulder Symphony’s conductor, Devin Patrick Hughes, gave a very interesting lecture on Schubert.
Beethoven’s genius and fame were (unintentionally) very toxic for his contemporaries (like Schubert) and composers who lived long after his death (Brahms and many others). Schubert grew up in Vienna, a few blocks away from Ludwig Van Beethoven and died less than a year after Beethoven. There are conflicting theories about whether Schubert ever met Beethoven. We know that he was a huge fan of Beethoven’s music. He was Beethoven’s pallbearer. He asked to be (and ultimately was) buried next to Beethoven.
Imagine living in Vienna in the early 1800s and trying to compose your own music when you have heard the ingenious 7th symphony composed by a fellow who lives a few blocks down the road. Any sound that comes to your head will seem to pale in comparison, and anything you put on paper will somehow seem insignificant.
Schubert was able to at least partially overcome the toxicity of living in Beethoven’s shadow, as he was one of the most prolific composers of all time, composing till his last breath. But living in Beethoven’s shadow prevented Schubert from publishing a lot of his work, as he felt unworthy of publication.
Tragically, Schubert lived all his life in dire poverty and only became famous after his death. Schubert would have been utterly shocked that, 200 years later, his name would be mentioned in the same breath as Beethoven’s. He would also be surprised that today he is known as one of the great symphonists. Schubert did not hear most of his symphonies performed, as they went unpublished.
Schubert’s 9th symphony was rediscovered by Robert Schumann. Today Robert Schumann is known as a great composer (and as the husband of Clara Schumann – another great composer). However, in his time he was a very well-respected and popular music critic. Schumann visited Schubert’s brother in 1838, ten years after Schubert’s death, and discovered the unpublished manuscript of a symphony. Schumann was shocked at how wonderful the symphony was and brought it to Felix Mendelssohn. Today Mendelssohn, too, is known as a great composer, but at that time he was also a very famous conductor. Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Schubert’s symphony, which today we know as the 9th.
There is an interesting lesson here: The greatness of others can be intimidating, and it could injure our own creativity if we let it. We should allow it to inspire us but not allow it to put us down.
I would be remiss if I did not mention how much we enjoy going to the Boulder Symphony. We live in Denver. The Colorado Symphony would be a much easier and shorter commute. But last year one of my readers introduced me to his father, Tony Santelli, who is on the board of the Boulder Symphony. Tony raved about the symphony, and we had to check it out. Unlike the Colorado Symphony, which employs its performers, the Boulder Symphony is run on pure love (most of its musicians are not paid).
I like the unpretentiousness of this experience. It lacks the fanciness, the black ties and clicking of Champagne glasses of your usual urban symphony. The performances takes place in a Presbyterian church that seats only a few hundred people – a very quaint venue with terrific acoustics. During the intermission you can come up and chat with the performers and even with the very talented conductor.
Obviously, I have no frame of reference, but I would like to imagine that in the time of Schubert and Beethoven, many orchestras resembled the Boulder Symphony – orchestras for commoners where people came not to show off their designer dresses but purely because of their love for music.
I am Jewish and, as was well-demonstrated by Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof, Jews crave tradition. If you do something twice, it automatically becomes a tradition. The last two times we went to the Boulder Symphony we stopped by Lark Burger before the performance, and after it we walked to downtown Boulder and the kids loaded up on sugar at a candy store. (I bribe my kids with burgers and sweets so they’ll keep coming with me to classical music concerts.)
Finally, I am writing this at midnight, listening to great music and thinking how lucky I am that a few of you will actually read these words. To these few – thank you.
Today I wanted to share with you Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 6, called “Pathetique” (which translates from Russian as “passionate”). It was Tchaikovsky’s last symphony. He conducted its premier just nine days before his death in 1893. He was 53 years old.
To understand this symphony, we have to understand the dark period in Tchaikovsky’s life.
Tchaikovsky was a master of emotions, because he was a neurotic, highly sensitive person, full of phobias (we know this from his letters). For instance, he had a phobia that his head would fall off when he was conducting. (He eventually overcame this phobia, as at times he had to earn a living as a conductor.) His music is ridden with emotions; it is manifestation of his emotions. It is his emotional confession.
Tchaikovsky wrote “Pathetique” when he was depressed and doubting his ability to compose. (He had destroyed his previous symphony because he was unsatisfied with it.)
Tchaikovsky died from catching cholera by drinking unboiled water, or at least this is the official story. However, there is another very plausible theory, which is that Tchaikovsky committed suicide. His gay relationship with a young nobleman was about to be exposed, which would have brought public shame and destroyed his social status. (Remember this was the homophobic Russia of 120 years ago, which actually is not much different from today’s Russia in this respect).
There is an argument that “Pathetique” is Tchaikovsky’s suicide note. Historians and musical critics are divided on this point. They don’t know, and we will probably never know the truth, but I would like to zoom in on fourth movement of this symphony and let the music help you decide.
The first three movements are gloriously optimistic– there is a waltz; beautiful, lingering melodies; and ballet dances. You don’t need much imagination to see a sunrise, vast Russian landscapes, troikas, and bright white snowfields (Doctor Zhivago-type).
The fourth movement is different. It starts with a cry for help (voiced with the violins). It builds on melancholic, depressive overtones. Tchaikovsky masterfully borrows melodic elements from the first three movements, but these melodies are barely recognizable are as they are painted over with deep sadness. And unlike Tchaikovsky’s other pieces that arrive at a natural finale (you can feel they are about to end), this symphony (like death) ends in nothingness, absolute nothingness – the music just fades out.
Here are performances of the full symphony. I suggest you listen to them first:
- Herbert Von Karajan
- Leonard Bernstein
- Yuri Temirkanov
- Valery Gergiev
- Mstislav Rastrapovich (1993 100 year anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death)
And then listen to the fourth movement. We are lucky to have many performances of it.
- Herbert Von Karajan
- Leonard Bernstein
- Yuri Temirkanov
- Valery Gergiev
On Saturday I was browsing TED talks and stumbled on this incredible talk by Itay Talgam, “Lead like the great conductors.” Even if you’re not a big fan of classical music, watch it to learn a lot about different management styles (I watched it five times!).
I am a civilian when it comes to classical music – I don’t play an instrument, I don’t read music; I am just an amateur who loves to listen to and learn about great music. Like most civilians, I have always been somewhat mystified by the role the conductor plays in the orchestra. Was a performance good or bad because of the orchestra, or because of the conductor? Hard to tell – maybe the conductor is really on stage just to entertain the public? I feel like there is a secret handshake among musicians – they know the truth, but they won’t share it with civilians.
Of course there is the story of how Leonard Bernstein became an overnight sensation. On November 14, 1943, Bruno Walter, who was the guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, got sick. Twenty-five-year-old Leonard Bernstein was asked to step in the last minute, but he didn’t have a chance to rehearse with the orchestra. The performance happened to be broadcast nationwide on the radio. Everyone was amazed at Bernstein’s performance, and he became an overnight sensation, and the career of one of America’s true musical treasures was launched. Talk about luck! This is a great story, and maybe it is even true. Or maybe Bruno Walter did a terrific job prepping the orchestra, or the orchestra was just very, very good.
Watching Mr. Talgam’s talk sent me on a whirlwind of YouTube viewing. I spent almost the whole weekend watching everything I could I find about conducting, great conductors, and especially Leonard Bernstein. (Watch the last two minutes of Mr. Talgam’s talk and you’ll see why I was so motivated.)
The kids and I watched an incredible movie, The Making of West Side Story. In 1984, a few decades after West Side Story came out, Bernstein – who had composed the music for West Side Story – wanted to make a recording on which the arias would be sung not by singing dancers (musical singers) but by traditional opera singers. He recruited Spanish tenor Jose Carreras to sing Tony and New Zealand’s Kiri Te Kanawa to sing Maria. I enjoyed watching this hour and a half movie as much (or maybe more) than watching the musical.
Here is a short video of Leonard Bernstein discussing role of the conductor,
and here is a much longer biographical video about Bernstein.
I’d like to leave you with Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Adagietto and this thought from Milan Kundera:
If the apple had fallen on Isaac Newton’s head, it might have killed him and he wouldn’t have come up with the Universal Law of Gravitation. Some other scientist, maybe hundreds of years later, would have formulated the laws of gravitation. But if there had been no Rachmaninoff, Mozart, or Mahler, nobody else would have written their wonderful music.