Intuition, Paranoia, and Berlioz

By James David Jacobs

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It's Halloween, so it seems appropriate to consider the subject of fear. In my case, it comes down to trying to detect the difference between intuition and paranoia. You think something bad is going to happen - how do you know if that's a feeling you should listen to? Perhaps there was that one time when your prediction of doom was correct, so you think the voice that gave you that prediction is an accurate barometer, but maybe it was just a fluke. People are divided in how seriously to take gut reactions. After all, what you think may be your deep inner wisdom may just be a learned survival mechanism that you may no longer need and may even be hindering you. But how do you know?

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks about "the power of thin slicing," meaning that humans are capable of accurately assessing situations based on the "thinnest slice" of experience. This is the theory that holds that you know everything you need to know about a person within seconds of meeting them, or that your instant "gut" reactions concerning major decisions are usually valid. I don't really hold with that theory. But then, I'm not really one of those "first thought, best thought" people. When I work on a project, I'm less like Mozart, whose compositions just flowed from his spirit to his brain to his pen, and more like Beethoven, who constantly crossed things out and reconsidered every choice and made a mess of everything and drove everyone crazy and finally came up with the perfect composition years after everyone forgot he was working on anything at all.

One way to counter fear is to not be afraid of repeating yourself. One of the things one learns as both a radio host and as a musician is that people really don't mind hearing the same thing multiple times. Variety is not in itself as compelling as seeing a train of thought through to its natural conclusion. Furthermore, the best pieces of music reveal new meanings every time you listen to them. As a composer, revisiting the same idea may lead down a new path, or a variation of an old one, and for the listener following those just-slightly divergent paths can be a fascinating window into the creative process.

Speaking of repeating oneself, a couple of weeks ago I wrote a host note about Vivaldi concertos, and am now doing so again. The joke about Vivaldi is that he wrote the same concerto 500 times. Legend has it that a scholar at Yale back in the 1960s applied for a grant to go to Italy to burn all the undiscovered Vivaldi manuscripts to save the world from more concertos. This attitude is usually countered by musicians who enthusiastically talk about the breathtaking variety among the hundreds of concertos. Well, on Saturday's program I will be enthusiastically celebrating Vivaldi's LACK of variety. Among his many works are three concertos all entitled "La notte" - one for transverse flute, one for alto recorder and bassoon, and one for solo bassoon. There are many similarities among the three concertos, but there are subtle differences. They all seem to be portraying a nightmare - the first movements of all three are labeled "Fantasmi" - with these halting, portentous phrases followed by ominous silences. (You might consider using one of these for haunted house music Sunday night.) These are all followed by wild Presto movements that sound like Baroque versions of Night on Bald Mountain -- rocketing scales that seem to represent phantoms and demons. After this there is a movement titled Il Sonno (sleep) - a movement of eerie stillness that you may find familiar since he used in yet a fourth concerto, one of his most popular - "Autumn" from the Four Seasons. However, in that concerto the harpsichordist is instructed to improvise slow-moving arpeggios throughout the movement, while in the La notte concertos the harpsichord is told to be silent in this movement, giving the stark, slow chordal changes in the strings a much more unsettling, less comforting effect. It's in the last movements that the concertos diverge. While the flute and recorder concertos end in a minor-key Allegro that is the most fully developed of the movements and seem to denote a tragic denouement for the nightmare scenario, the bassoon concerto ends in a movement called "Sorge l'aurora" - a happy, comforting breaking of dawn, in which we wake up from our nightmare and cheerfully face a sunny day populated by happy bassoons. (That would make a great Twilight Zone episode, wouldn't it?)

(Incidentally, the best Halloween costume I've ever seen was someone who covered herself from head to toe in sponges. When asked what her costume represented, she replied "I'm self-absorbed.")

Someone who managed to be self-absorbed, paranoid and intuitive all at once was Berlioz, who turned his obsession with the actress Harriet Smithson into a self-mythologizing epic worthy of his namesake Homer. His Symphonie Fantastique charts his inner journey toward his artistic and romantic goals through the work's five movements. Since he declared that the program to his symphony is "indispensable to the full understanding of the dramatic plan of the work," here it is:

Part one
Daydreams, passions

    The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions (le vague des passions), sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.

    This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.

Part two
A ball

    The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.

Part three
Scene in the countryside

    One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their ‘ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own… But what if she betrayed him!… This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

Part four
March to the scaffold

    Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part five
Dream of a witches’ sabbath

    He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.

It should be noted that Berlioz' infatuation with the actress paid off - he and Harriet were married three years after he wrote this work. So perhaps he should be considered more intuitive than deluded.

On Saturday morning between 7 and 9 am you will hear all three versions of Vivaldi's "La notte," and at 10 am, following Kid's Classical Hour, we'll hear an extraordinary performance of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique as performed by the prodigiously talented young musicians of the New England Conservatory Philharmonia conducted by Hugh Wolff, as performed live in concert exactly one month ago, September 29 at Jordan Hall.

On Sunday, continuing our theme of intuition, we'll hear Harvard's Robert Levin perform Mozart's Piano Concerto in E flat, K. 271, in which he improvised the cadenzas in the recording studio. I was very privileged to be present at the conference in Ann Arbor, MI, in 1989 in which he first declared his intention to perform Mozart's concertos the way Mozart himself did, that is, with elaborations, ornamentation and cadenzas all improvised on the spot, even in the concertos for which Mozart wrote cadenzas. He was taken to task for this by Eva Badura-Skoda, who from her seat in the audience directly behind mine scolded Levin, saying that, regardless of how deeply you steep yourself in Mozart’s language, it was impossible to completely put yourself in the proper mindset to improvise in an authentic enough manner because “your ears have been polluted by all the modern sounds, like that rap music.” Levin replied that, whether we like it or not, both the performers and the audience are experiencing the music now and not in the 18th century, that modern influences like rap music can subtly affect even a non-improvised performance, and that the element missing from the most historically accurate note-perfect performance is the sense of danger and excitement of knowing that the performer was composing on the fly. He also mentioned that Mozart himself intentionally left some pieces incomplete to leave room for spontaneous invention and elaboration in performance. The exclamation point was a breathtaking, improvised cadenza to a concerto that Levin would perform again that night, playing completely different but equally brilliant music.

And in the 10:00 hour we'll celebrate a day in which people don costumes, disguises and alternate identities by playing Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite. The idea of identity is particularly confused here because he based the piece on works that he thought was by Pergolesi, but turned out to be by a variety of Italian Baroque composers. We'll also hear some of the original works Stravinsky incorporated into the ballet.

Happy Halloween!

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