Concert Life Punishes Those Who Come Too Early
Death of a queen: Cléopâtre by Hector Berlioz
That Hector Berlioz failed several times in his attempts to win the Prix de Rome is a story that has been told again and again, but no one can recount it as complacently as the master himself in his memoirs. The avant-garde stroke of genius Cléopâtre, a “lyric suite” for soprano and orchestra, plays a central role in the story. What shocked the jury of the Académie des Beaux-Arts so much that they did not want to award the prize to Berlioz in 1829 – it was not given to any other candidate that year either – had to do with the revolutionary musical language of this cantata. France loved sociopolitical upheavals, but not musical. For Berlioz, it was the opposite.
Cléopâtre commemorates the suicide of the Egyptian queen with realistic precision; the work is a thriller and psychogram rolled into one. The orchestral introduction reflects the inner psychological conflict and sorrow of the protagonist. Her situation is extremely tragic: Cleopatra lost the naval battle of Actium in early September of 31 BC; Mark Antony, her lover and the opponent of the victorious Octavian, took his life, and the new ruler of Rome humiliatingly rejected the queen. In her first recitative Cleopatra contemplates the hopeless situation. A Lento cantabile is devoted to the memory of her two Roman lovers, Caesar and Mark Antony. But she gives a terrible cry as the memory of Actium interrupts her thoughts. A Largo misterioso with the heading Méditation presents Cleopatra’s invocation to her ancestors, the glorious pharaohs, with sounds evocative of an ancient Egyptian funeral vault. Her last hope seems to be the deadly bite of a viper. In a weakening voice she once again thinks of her lover Mark Antony, hoping to prove herself worthy of him through this end. The orchestra depicts the death spasms and increasingly faltering heartbeat of the greatest queen of antiquity.
Death through jealousy: Antonín Dvořák’s Othello, op. 93
In 1893 Antonín Dvořák had completed “From the New World”, his Ninth and last Symphony, followed in 1895 by the Cello Concerto in B minor and the last two string quartets. After that he avoided absolute music. The four subsequent tone poems, based on horror stories by Karel Jaromir Erben, his last instrumental work A Hero’s Song from 1897 and three operas, including Rusalka (1900), confirmed his self-assessment as a primarily dramatic composer. But the dividing line is not as easy to draw as Dvořák maintained. He had already written programmatic orchestral dramas prior to 1895, and they actually made use of symphonic forms. They include the Hussite Overture from 1883 and a cycle of three concert overtures composed in the early 1890s. These overtures originally formed a thematically and harmonically connected triptych entitled Nature, Life and Love, but Dvořák decided to publish them individually and gave the overtures more concrete titles: In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello. Dvořák thought very highly of these works; he bid farewell to the Prague public with two of them in April of 1892 and conducted them at his inaugural concert in New York in October.
The change in title suggests that Othello was meant to depict the darker sides of love in general terms, the destruction of happiness through demonic jealousy. The work is based on the confrontation between two symphonic thematic groups: Othello opens with a peaceful chorale representing fulfilled romantic bliss, which is already interrupted by the piercing cry of the strings in the tenth bar. The chorale returns briefly, then the “nature” motif familiar from the first overture is heard in the woodwinds, still indifferent to begin with but immediately taking on demonic dimensions. The dark side of nature, symbolizing destructive passions, emerges as the main theme of the work, which is not sparing with brutal attacks in triple forte and at the close threatens to shatter the compositional structure itself.
Death and deliverance in a seedy hotel: Béla Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin
Béla Bartók’s pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin, composed for orchestra, chorus and dancers, was shouted down at the premiere in Cologne in 1926. The local press described it with phrases such as “proof of moral depravity” and “Hottentot village music”; a sanctimonious Berlin critic deplored the fact that they had dared “to present such a miserable piece of work as this in ‘holy’ Cologne”. As a result, Cologne’s mayor Konrad Adenauer had the work withdrawn immediately. The theme of forced prostitution could be scandalous if one did not understand the deeper philosophical meaning, namely the invocation of indestructible sexual drive – the composer himself referred to a symbol of “all-conquering love”. The work depicts how three tramps force a girl to attract men from the street. A shabby old gentleman and a shy young man are thrown out as poor devils. The third guest is a sinister Mandarin. The girl tries to overcome her fear and disgust for him with a dance, but then flees, terrified. After a wild chase, the exotic suitor overtakes the distraught girl. The tramps rush out of their hiding place, rob him and attempt to suffocate him with pillows, stab him with a sword and hang him on a lamp, but the Mandarin cannot be killed. He does not die until the girl embraces him.
Because of the scandal Bartók feared that other theatres would reject the work. Therefore, he composed a concert version which met musical rather than dramatic requirements. He used only the first two-thirds of the stage version up to the chase, the chorus was omitted, and there was a new concert ending. Bartók thus dispensed with the moral point of the pantomime, the mystical idealization of love, which no one understood anyway.
Silenced: Miloslav Kabeláč and his Mysterium času
Miloslav Kabeláč’s Mysterium času (Mystery of Time) touches on entirely different dimensions. Structured monothematically in the style of a cantus firmus, the work leads in an enormous arc from timelessness through time and back to timelessness, depicting the mystery of becoming and passing away. This music does not have antagonisms as its theme, but rather the effect of elemental forces which originate from the same source. Kabeláč used the same structure later in his Seventh Symphony, whose movements are entitled “Eternity – Human – Eternity”. He called Mystery of Time a passacaglia, but it could just as well be a chaconne or neither of these. It is unquestionably an immediately compelling tone poem, an introspective yet majestic meditation on the nature of time, without which there would be neither human beings nor music.
Kabeláč is one of the most tragic figures of modern music. During the German occupation in the then Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia his works could not be performed, and he gave up all of his official duties because he did not want to leave his Jewish wife. The couple only survived thanks to the selfless help of a few friends. Unlike many of his colleagues, Kabeláč rejected the political and aesthetic doctrines of socialism from 1948 onwards. The party punished him with permanent marginalization. After years in which only grey concrete was poured, the apparatchiks also liked to distribute a few flowers occasionally – then Kabeláč performances were possible from time to time. After the opening of the Iron Curtain, this master finally began to be rediscovered. The culmination came in 2016 with the complete recording of all eight symphonies by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marko Ivanovič.