From a Vast Universe to a Small World
Thorvaldsdottir, Prokofiev and Strauss Explore the Cosmos and Home Sweet Home
Begin with an explosion and then build up very slowly? The old Hollywood rule may work when it comes to capturing the attention of cinema audiences. For composers, on the other hand, it was never easy to put into practice. If you begin with fanfare and celebration you put yourself under pressure. After all, a grand gesture is always associated with the assumption that the music which follows brings the dawn of a new era, or at least announces something special. A cursory glance at the repertoire, however, reveals that an attitude of self-confident triumph at the beginning of a larger work has become the exception since the Romantic period. Much more frequently we hear a cautious alignment with a world that is much larger and more expansive than anything the music can convey anyway.
Thoughtful soliloquies at the start
All three works on today’s programme begin softly and tentatively in the low register. Only a single voice can be heard at first. In Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos, it is a rumbling contra-E, from which the further movement develops. In Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, the solo violin plays a G minor triad completely alone on the lowest string, only to then withdraw into its melancholy cantilena. And in Richard Strauss’s Symphonia domestica, it is the unaccompanied cellos which present a “leisurely” upwards trudging theme in F major. Each time, we are essentially listening to monologues – someone, something is communicating with him-, her- or itself. But what are they talking about? The titles allow us to draw initial conclusions. The orchestral work by the Icelandic composer refers to the “cosmos”: it will obviously be about vast spaces, about volumes of planetary proportions. The scale is somewhat smaller with Prokofiev: his Second Violin Concerto is basically a reflection on social mechanisms; it ponders the relationship between the individual and the collective. Finally, Strauss’s penultimate tone poem chooses an even more intimate setting: that of private life.
Energy transfer in the ecosystem of sound materials – Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos
Anna Thorvaldsdottir studied in her native city of Reykjavík and at the University of California in San Diego, where she earned a doctorate in 2011. The reputation of the composer, whose aesthetic is compatible with both pop and ambient genres as well as classical music, spread from the US. Thorvaldsdottir has long been receiving commissions from major orchestras throughout the world; a CD was released by Deutsche Grammophon.
“The music is written as an ecosystem of sounds and materials that are carried from one performer – or performers – to the next throughout the progress of a work,” Thorvaldsdottir writes in the notes to the score of Metacosmos. “All materials continuously grow in and out of each other, growing and transforming throughout the piece.” Defined literally, a metacosmos is a world beyond the bounds of the actual universe. It is fitting that two realms confront each other during the 13-minute work: on the one hand, a wild, rough and dark place and, on the other, a peaceful, settled world. The work is constructed around “the natural balance between beauty and chaos,” Thorvaldsdottir writes, “how elements can come together in (seemingly) utter chaos to create a unified, structural whole.” More than before, the composer now provides recognizable points of reference on the path between the polar climatic zones of sound, harmony and rhythm. Although the optimistic B flat major sphere is only suggested after an initial approach, in the more vehement second build-up it finally prevails. The chorale-like string writing evokes gentle memories of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio. But at the close, nature again thrusts itself into the picture.
Scale and form in times of terror and reverie – Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto
Sergei Prokofiev’s G minor Concerto, composed in 1935 for the violinist Robert Soetens, dates from the time immediately prior to the final return of the new socialist state’s “prodigal son” to Moscow. Prokofiev had gone into exile in 1918, first in America, then in Europe. The reasons for the internationally sought-after master’s move to the capital of the Soviet Union are complex. A crucial factor was undoubtedly the difficult career prospects in the West in view of the severe economic depression, whereas impressive opportunities beckoned in his homeland. In any case, Prokofiev returned during the phase of Soviet cultural bureaucracy in which Stalinist terror strived to reach its pinnacle. At first, the 44-year-old cosmopolitan did not have to fear the ever-present accusation of “formalism”. In the G minor Concerto as well, his “new simplicity” contained unmistakable elements of the classical tradition, including a strict orientation towards conventional formal structure, lean, at times almost sparse scoring and a contrapuntally taut style. Grotesque or decidedly virtuosic passages are omitted; everything has scale and proportion. The fact that, despite many reminiscences of the traditional Russian idiom, a somewhat impersonal, chilly atmosphere has crept into Prokofiev’s music – especially compared to the emotionally passionate First Concerto – cannot be ignored, however.
An operatic composer warms up – the Symphonia domestica by R. Strauss
In his Symphonia domestica, Richard Strauss presents the alternation of musical characters as events between various figures and their roles: Strauss already has one foot on the opera stage. The Symphonia domestica, which had its premiere at New York’s Carnegie Hall on 21 March 1904, was initially a great success with the public. The critics, on the other hand, reacted negatively. Even well-meaning commentators deplored the questionable taste of a programme which, according to Romain Rolland, “diminishes the work and makes it puerile”. Strauss took the easy way out with his clever reply that the imagery of the programme was only a “pretext for the purely musical expression and development of my emotions”; thus, anyone who knew how to listen to music could feel free to ignore it. Although at most only a general situational framework is provided over long stretches, the number of elements referring to distinct extramusical aspects is unusually large. They range from the baby’s crying to the clock striking 7 o’clock twice to an impressive climax in the young couple’s bedroom. The latter not only energetically marks the crucial culmination of the entire work; in its overall formal development it also represents the contrast with the cheerful F major world of the three-person household. A brilliant stroke in a class by itself is the double fugue at the beginning of the finale, the break of the new day. The themes of the child and the mother boisterously struggle with each other, resulting in some of the most comical, turbulent and ingenious pages of modern orchestral music. The “domestic” Symphony is also extremely sophisticated formally. No less than three functional relationships are superimposed: the depiction of the family’s day, the development of a large symphonic movement with three inter-related themes and the organic sequence of a multi-movement cycle. Thus, the Symphonia domestica seems both pretentiously immodest and much too fainthearted: it scores remarkable triumphs between the kitchen and bedroom. But it could not care less about somehow changing the world or even improving it.