Adventures in Good Music
Works from the 20th and 21st Centuries
Symphonic Psychoanalysis: Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony
Lenny would have been pleased! At the spiritual centre of this concert is a work by the composer Bernstein, who too often had to defer to the charismatic conductor: The Age of Anxiety – a remarkable work, which is symphony and piano concerto, philosophical poem and jazz study rolled into one. And a work with which its composer identified strongly, as he wrote in his prefatory note to the score: “The pianist provides an almost autobiographical protagonist, set against an orchestral mirror in which he sees himself, analytically, in the modern ambience.” This mirror effect is explained by the literary source, the poem The Age of Anxiety. A Baroque Eclogue by Wystan Hugh Auden. Written in 1946/47 under the shadow of war and the Holocaust, Auden’s poem revolves around the existential questions of life and the future, subconscious fears and religious expectations of salvation, social rejections and political perspectives. Auden bases his complex lines of thought on a dramaturgy which draws on Carl Gustav Jung’s theories of psychoanalysis. The four protagonists Emble, Quant, Malin and Rosetta – symbolizing the splitting of the ego – strike up a conversation at a New York bar. At first they talk about the seven ages of life from birth to death, then the subconscious, with all its anxieties and taboos, increasingly forces its way into the conversation – also because of the effects of alcohol. The couples combine in various configurations as though in a dream while they wander through seven further stages. The bar closes, and they move on to Rosetta’s apartment. The pessimistic mood (“The Dirge”) is followed by Rosetta’s frenetic dance with Emble (“The Masque”). But a feeling of uneasiness lingers below the surface: Quant and Malin leave the apartment, Emble falls asleep – and Rosetta, who is Jewish, seeks solace in a return to religion.
Despite his emotional involvement with the work, Bernstein succeeded in translating Auden’s poem into his own musical language by focusing on the essentials. He followed the dramaturgical sequence of the text closely but integrated it into the large symphonic form, drawing his inspiration from Gustav Mahler. The two sections “The Seven Ages” and “The Seven Stages”, together with “The Prologue”, form the extensive first part. The second major section is divided into a slow movement (“The Dirge”), a jazzy scherzo (“The Masque”) and a brief “Epilogue” as the finale.
From a musical standpoint, Bernstein followed the principle of composition that he applied throughout his life: “It’s very hard trying to be eclectic.” This sentence reveals two things: on the one hand, Bernstein’s image of himself as an eclectic who dispenses with originality in the sense of an unmistakably individual style, and on the other, his desire to take up the challenge of producing a tradition-conscious adaptation. Many eclectic features can be found in The Age of Anxiety. At the end of the Prologue, which begins with two clarinets, a descending scale played by the solo flute leads downwards to the realm of the subconscious; Bernstein makes use of a figure that became an established device in music history for depicting such emotional states. It is no accident that the scale ascends upwards again – into consciousness – during the Epilogue, at full fortissimo in the orchestra.
Bernstein chooses an unusual technique of variation for connecting the Seven Ages and Seven Stations. Instead of always presenting a theme differently, for each variation he develops a new starting point from which the next variation follows – an associative process in the style of a dream sequence. Bernstein achieves a denser symphonic quality in the second part; the entrance, with a stacked twelve-note chord in the piano, characterizes the disorientation of the individual. The oppressive atmosphere culminates in an outcry by the orchestra. The scherzo, which follows without a break, forms a striking contrast: the soloist pays a spirited tribute to the world of jazz. The close, with its thick string colours, resembles a swan song. Bernstein had originally dispensed completely with the piano here, but when he revised the work in 1965 he changed his mind and even inserted an opulent solo cadenza. Many question marks remain at the end of W. H. Auden’s poem; with his optimistic rounding off, Bernstein opted for a different interpretation.
Three Tapas for Orchestra by Andrew Norman, Magnus Lindberg and Brett Dean
During the past three seasons Sir Simon Rattle has frequently made a point of whetting the audience’s appetite for contemporary music with short premieres. Three such “tapas” mark the end of the appetizer series at this concert. The Australian Brett Dean places a Notturno inquieto on the orchestra members’ music stands, and it appears that he especially wanted to remember his former colleagues in the viola section. They provide an atmosphere of nocturnal unrest, which gradually becomes more intense until it is finally superimposed with a kind of wind chorale. “With new energy” the work pushes towards a powerful climax, from which it quickly retreats into stillness again with a reminiscence of the opening.
The American Andrew Norman likes to tell stories with his music, at the same time applying editing techniques from other media such as film and video to the symphonic form. The third member of the trio is the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, whose orchestral piece Agile lives up to its title. It is characterized by an energy that is accelerated in clear rhythmic structures by the expressive gestures of the orchestral sections, which are often strikingly juxtaposed in blocks.
From the Cinema to the Concert: Film Scores by Scott Bradley and Erich Wolfgang Korngold
The last third of this concert transports listeners to the film and television studios of Hollywood. Composer Scott Bradley went to work for Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) in 1938. He supplied the music for the cult series Tom and Jerry from the first episode (1940) until he gave up his composing career with MGM and retired in the late 1950s. His scores made use of elements from big band music, jazz, folk tunes, sentimental violin melodies, chattering winds and all types of sounds, vividly depicting the exciting chase scenes of the cat Tom and mouse Jerry, even without a screen.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the child prodigy from Vienna who rose to the ranks of the most successful composers of his day with the opera Die tote Stadt in 1920, was of a different calibre. In 1934 he accepted an offer from Max Reinhardt to come to Hollywood for the first time to compose a new soundtrack for Reinhardt’s film A Midsummer Night’s Dream by reorchestrating Mendelssohn’s music. The film was a flop, but Korngold’s arrangement became a milestone in modern film music.
Despite favourable conditions and remarkable fees (he received $12,500 for his score for Robin Hood), Korngold constantly found himself in a conflict. Here, the romantic artist who wrote symphonic and operatic works in his own right, there, the composer who produced music commissioned by others. But what Korngold created was no less than the new genre of “symphonic film music”. In the case of his score for Robin Hood, which was composed in 1939 and won an Oscar, he incorporated archaic echoes of “old England” as well as an anachronistic Viennese waltz and a robust march. The composer was on his own terrain during the love scenes, whose seductive sounds (with saxophone solo!) could also have come from one of his successful operas. The brilliant close demonstrates that grand operatic gestures stood him in good stead here as well.