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Music and metaphor

I am dead to the tumult of the world

And I rest in a quiet realm!

I live alone in my heaven

In my love and in my song!

These are the last lines of Friedrich Rückert’s poem I am lost in the world, which Gustav Mahler wrote in the summer of 1901 as the fourth song of his Rückert lieder and which also inspired the breathtakingly beautiful “Adagietto” of his Fifth Symphony, which was composed during the same period .

This was a turbulent time for Mahler. In February 1901, he had suffered severe bleeding and was almost bleeding to death. His recovery took months. During this time he met Alma Schindler and married her, who gave him two children in 1902 and 1904. A tragedy struck just three years later. Under pressure from fierce critics, Mahler left his position as director of the Vienna Court Opera. Mahler moved from Vienna to Maiernigg and saw how his two children fell ill with scarlet fever. his firstborn Maria did not survive. Shortly thereafter, Mahler learned that he had a heart defect that would eventually lead to his death. (He died at 50). Was there a connection, a recognizable relationship between these turbulent events in Mahler’s life and the special musical qualities of his mature work?

These are the types of biographical details and searches found in Robert Philipps’s guide, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music. For his part, Philip sees the Mahler question as balanced. “Links to Mahler’s own life are impossible to unravel, and the music exists on its own without such a guesswork required.” Nevertheless, he points out: “Mahlers [mature] Symphonies are full of struggle, disappointment, glimpses of what could and what could have been, and ultimately a hard-won triumph – fleeting or not. Furthermore, the presence of Alma in Mahler’s life “undoubtedly created a sustained surge of inspiration, of which the Fifth Symphony was one of the main fruits.”

Philip’s Companion is 949 pages long, including endnotes and an index. It comprises sixty-eight composers, who present them in alphabetical order from JS Bach to Anton Webern, as well as more than four hundred individual works, from concerts and overtures to symphonies, tone poems and ballets, but no operas (nb Wagner lovers). This is a monumental achievement in every way and an invaluable resource for classical music lovers.

Robert Philip is a well-known presenter on BBC Radio. He was a senior lecturer in music at the Open University for many years and the author of an award-winning book, Performing Music in the Age of Recording. Most importantly, Philip has the rare ability to write about music in an accessible, casual style that is devoid of overly technical language, yet offers much that even experts will appreciate.

His treatment of each composer begins with a section that provides the historical and biographical context. Then he turns to musical analysis of certain pieces. Of course, it cannot cover the entire work of every composer. But Philip is sensible and generous in his choices. His account of Aaron Copland (to name just one example) covers Fanfare for the Common Man and the Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid concert suites, as might be expected. This also includes Copland’s lesser-known clarinet concerto and his one-piece orchestral piece El Salón México.

One of Philip’s strengths in introducing certain composers is that they not only provide biographical and historical details, but often describe overarching trends and movements. In his introduction to Beethoven, for example, he describes some characteristics of Romanticism: “The artist – musician, poet, painter – was seen as a kind of priest and art as a kind of religion.” That Romanticism was a “feeling of contact with ideas Creation, the spirit and what later became known as the unconscious “shows. Descriptions like these are useful for listeners who are unfamiliar with the periodization of classical music and the basic characteristics of different genres.

In his introduction to Debussy, to give another example, Philip makes a sensible assessment of the revolutionary break with the post-romanticists. “The figure who is often seen as the most revolutionary is Schönberg,” he writes. “But Schönberg was essentially a traditionalist who developed Wagner and Liszt’s chromatics into a language devoid of familiar harmonies, but with its own terrifying inner logic.” No, the real revolutionary was Debussy, argues Philip. For Debussy “many conventional harmonies have been preserved, but the traditional relationship between them has been thrown to the wind. . . . creat[ing] a new sense of time in music. “

In the traditional musical language before Debussy, time goes on inexorably, and the progression of the harmonies drives it on like a river. But with Debussy it is as if we have left the ground. There are still harmonies, many of them chords familiar from 19th century music, others not suggesting a particular key. But whether the chords are familiar or unfamiliar, they often seem to exist and evaporate, juxtaposed without the next necessarily being the consequence of the last. The result is more like the movement of air – sometimes static, sometimes spinning in a circle, changing course abruptly, rising or falling, or stalling.

Looking back at the 21st century standpoint, we see that Debussy’s innovations have proven to be significantly “more influential and long-lasting” than Schoenberg’s musical serialism. In my opinion, Philip is to be welcomed for noticing that Schoenberg’s serialism has not aged as his 20th century enthusiasts expected.

When Philip turns to describing actual pieces, he’s a master. Anyone who’s tried to write about music knows how difficult it is. In addition to the presentation of the formal structure of a piece – for example, the explanation that Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings begins with an “abbreviated version of the sonata form”. . . Lack of the ‘development section’ in the middle ”- you have to try somehow to describe complex musical events with just words. How is that possible?

Philip relies to some extent on technical knowledge: the movement is resolved in D major. But that’s not the hard part. Instead, the challenge is to carefully construct metaphors, selected images that seem to explain what’s going on, how the sounds “are”.

Of course, sounds can be broken down into their various components: pitch, intensity and timbre; and the timing of sounds can be described in terms of melody, harmony and rhythm. But none of this really comes down to what makes a particular piece unique. To do this, commentators need to say something about what a piece seems to produce and how it does it. This is where Philip’s genius lies. Philip writes about the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings:

we seem to be entering another world. The rising scale could almost be thought of as a wistful reminder of the waltz theme. But it’s more like entering a cathedral while a choir is singing – it’s the first moment in the serenade that sounds specifically Russian. The chant rises four times. Only on the fourth attempt does it resolve to a sonorous chord of D major.

Descriptions like this improve our musical experience fundamentally, but the ability to offer them is much more an art than a science. Philip relies to a certain extent on technical knowledge: the movement is resolved in D major. But that’s not the hard part. Instead, the challenge is to carefully construct metaphors, selected images that seem to explain what’s going on, how the sounds “are”.

One of the last virtues of Philip’s companion is that he does not shrink from making aesthetic judgments. Regarding a brass climax in Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Philip writes: “We have to switch off the memories of all heroic film scores so as not to hear as great as banal.” With regard to Richard Strauss’ tone poems in general, he remarks: “ at their best [they]. . . as powerful musical structures all on their own – although there are undoubtedly moments when the narrative dominates the music in ways that can only seem wise. “And in his analysis of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, he teaches readers how to hear musical irony, triumphant chords that are too innocent and pure to be believable and that Shostakovich almost certainly composed ironically in order to defeat his censorship like.

The companion of the lover of classical music to orchestral music is a real treasure. Within one volume (albeit a considerable one), Philip succeeds in introducing readers to most of the great orchestral composers and most of their most famous compositions. I think one should resist the temptation to complain about what is not in the book when it offers so much and such high quality. I used the book in the classroom for students with no musical training. and they found it not only accessible, but also warm and welcoming. I have also discussed passages of the book with close friends who are seasoned lovers; and we found a lot to enjoy and enjoy.

Philip’s report takes readers from 1700 to 1950 and no further. The timeframe it covers, however, is less important than what it teaches its readers – namely to appreciate the profound effects of music on the human soul and to describe its effects in words. To conclude, I quote the last sentence of Philip’s book, which refers to the last variation of Anton Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, but speaks well to our ongoing encounter with music in general: “There is no point in this ending more than the beginning seemed to be a beginning. The music is just there (wherever it is) and we have to take it as we find it. “

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