A teaspoon of music

In the middle of May I found myself in the Southbank Centre to hear a programme of piano music performed by the wonderful Paul Lewis. I was drawn to the programme by its Brahms and Schubert and my sister Jenny agreed to join me when I told her that Paul Lewis was playing Après une lecture de DanteFantasia quasi sonata from ‘Années de pèlerinage’, my sister being somewhat of a Dante aficionado.

Paul Lewis opened with Franz Schubert’s Sonata in B (D.575) followed by two sets of pieces by Johannes Brahms: Four Ballades (op.10) and Three Intermezzi (op.117). This was, for me, very much in my comfort zone of Romantic nineteenth century music, and I loved all these pieces and Paul Lewis’ performance of them. They were each in their own way lyrical and I responded to them intuitively and personally.

The final piece on the programme was Franz Liszt’s Après une lecture de DanteFantasia quasi sonata. This gripped me in a very different way with its drama and crashing movement up and down the keyboard. Not having bought a programme, and armed with only a hazy memory of The Divine Comedy which I read almost ten years ago, I tried to fit bits of the music around this. My sister and I agreed at the end that the opening theme certainly sounded hellish and the circling higher and higher and then lower and lower we felt could be the screaming of Hell’s victims. There is definite shift partway through to more hopeful-sounding keys which seems to allow Dante to be led from Hell to Purgatory to Heaven, which naturally is in a major key, although interrupted by notes and short sequences as if still ricocheting from Hell.

But I wondered if we had heard the piece under a different title and without the reference to Dante, would we have heard the same representations or would we have come to very different conclusions as to its meaning? Once music is known to be programmatic, can it ever be stripped of its story and returned to ‘pure’ music again?

Just one week after this concert I had the enormous pleasure of hearing with a good friend Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester for a rare performance of Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel (op. 109), a symphonic poem for orchestra. I include Sir Charles Mackerras and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance below.

Helpfully, I can direct you to my friend Aimée’s excellent blog about the performance and its fairytale story. As you will read, Sir Mark Elder beautifully walked us through the story and its orchestral representation. We heard the horses’ hooves during the Prince’s hunting party, the lyrical lovesong of the Prince and his new-found love, and as the story progresses different instruments chime in to speak different parts. Sir Mark Elder argued – convincingly for me – that Dvořák paid careful attention to the detailed rhythms of the original Czech poem and imitated these rhythms in his own symphonic retelling of it. Not only do different instruments vocalise different characters – a young boy, naturally, is the high-pitched piccolo – but their tunes mirror the rhythm of the words the characters speak in the Czech poem.

This seemed to me to be the perfect fusion of Czech poetry and symphony and that the poem is somehow bound up in the symphonic performance. I wished Paul Lewis’ Après une lecture de Dante had been so eloquently interpreted for me before the performance. Surely this is a piece that would make a fantastic lecture-recital, and no doubt it has been treated as such before.

Earlier this month, I heard Tom Service’s programme titled ‘How do you describe a teaspoon in music?’ in which he explores how music is able to tell stories in sound. This is available as a podcast here. Tom Service explored how we listen to music and create meanings and connections that make sense to us and conjure up an image or story. His answer, without wishing to spoil the ending, is both yes and no. Tom Service also quotes from a lecture by Leonard Bernstein, which talks of trying to listen to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony without being influenced by its programmatic aspects, its cuckoo, brook, and storm. This video interview of Leonard Bernstein includes some of these ideas:

I am currently reading Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time bringing to life Shostakovich’s conflicted life under Stalin. Stalin and his political pawns find fault with much of Shostakovich’s music but I read:

“Stalin had expressed a great appreciation of Dmitri Dmitrievich’s soundtrack for the Maxim trilogy… It was the view of those at the highest level that Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was not a lost cause, and capable, if properly directed, of writing clear, realistic music. Art belonged to the People, as Lenin had decreed; and the cinema was of much greater use and value to the Soviet people than the opera. And so, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich now received proper direction, with the result that in 1940 he received the Red Banner of Labour as a specific reward for his film music. If he continued to tread the right path, this would surely prove the first of many such honours.”

(page 75; Julian Barnes The Noise of Time. Penguin Random House, London, 2016)

Shostakovich is chastised for his opera and symphonies but his film music pleases the political power of Soviet Russia. I felt this was because film music is fully programmatic and has meaning superimposed on it, which has the effect of simplifying and even restricting individual responses to the music. The film interprets the music for us, which for Soviet Russia is much safer than encouraging audiences to find their own meanings within music.

I remember hearing the potter, writer and now patron of music Edmund de Waal saying that he liked facetiously to mislead audiences with titles that sometimes had nothing whatsoever to do with the piece of pottery. It is this playfulness that reminds me that both music and art never have just one meaning, and that we as creative individuals bring our own experiences, responses and feelings to bear.

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