Kiss me, I'm Catholic.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

"You go, hein? We drink the Slivovitch. It warms you after so much beer."

Dvorâk and Mozart have the distinction of being two composers who have never bored me, not even once. They always have something important to say. They share the same quixotic blend of levity and pathos; songs that inspire not happiness, not sadness, but something proceeding from both - Joy, Sehnsucht, or whatever those feelings were that C.S. Lewis was always trying to figure out.

I have been listening to a lot of Dvorâk lately. I really need to get the New World Symphony, considering Charles de Nunzio's recent thoughts. I have been listening to the Stabat Mater, but it is very long and I keep getting sidetracked and losing my place on the CD. I did find a fantastic article on the Stabat Mater, with lots of information about Dvorâk in general for good measure. There is also Direct Testimony. Or, for analysis, quotes, and anecdotes: Program Notes. Because I like to rhyme!

Most things remind me of Belloc sooner or later, and Dvorâk does, unmistakably. Why? Perhaps it is the delicious mix of pathos and frivolity in his art - that, and his ability to drink everyone else under the table...

From music critic James Huneker:

Old Borax, as Dvorâk was affectionately called, was handed over to me by Madame Thurber when he arrived [in New York]. He was a fervent Roman Catholic, and I hunted a Bohemian church for him as he began his day with an early Mass. Rather too jauntily I invited him to taste the American drink called a whiskey cocktail. He nodded his head, that of an angry-looking bulldog with a beard. He scared one at first with his fierce Slavonic eyes, but was as mild a mannered man as ever scuttled a pupil's counterpoint. I always spoke of him as a boned pirate. But I made a mistake in believing that American strong waters would upset his Czech nerves. We began at Goerwitz, then described a huge circle, through the great thirst belt of central New York. At each place Doc Borax took a cocktail. Now, alcohol I abhor, so I stuck to my guns, the usual three-voiced invention, hops, malt, and spring water. We spoke German, and I was happy to meet a man whose accent and grammar were worse than my own. Yet we got along swimmingly - an appropriate enough image, for the weather was wet, though not squally...

I left him swallowing his nineteenth cocktail. "Master," I said, ratherly thickly, "don't you think it's time we ate something?" He gazed at me through those awful whiskers which met his tumbled hair half-way, "Eat. No. I no eat. We go to a Houston Street restaurant. You go, hein? We drink the Slivovitch. It warms you after so much beer." I didn't go that evening to the East Houston Street Bohemian café with Dr. Antonin Dvorâk. I never went with him. Such a man is as dangerous to a moderate drinker as a false beacon is to a shipwrecked sailor.

Nineteen cocktails. As StrongBad likes to say, "Holy crap!"

But I was going to talk about his music, wasn't I?

I think I'll look at the 8th Symphony, which my youth symphony played in Italy last summer. The third movement has an especially mysterious beauty. Its structure is easily discerned; it can be divided into four parts. First there is a passionate, unsettled dance, in 3/8 time and a minor key. Strong but confused desires, rising hopes that are inevitably dashed. "All mere complexities,/ The fury and the mire of human veins." This dance ends, and a new theme begins suddenly in a major key. The change from minor to major has the effect of an epiphany. The strings keep up a quiet staccato that mirrors the listener's own joyful shivers of anticipation, while soaring over them, a clarinet plays a melody of pure yearning. Then the strings leap up into a crescendo of aspiring, impatient desire. The violins climb to a high register, peak at fortissimo - and then sink in pitch and volume, rebuffed. The single clarinet repeats its longing melody. It cuts deeper the second time; it seems to have gotten a step closer to the revelation it desires. Then the strings repeat their storming of heaven. And something wonderful happens...

The clarinet's melody is taken up by the violins, who turn its yearning into something close to ecstasy. The first time I played it at symphony practice I was completely taken by surprise, and I actually wept. The more keen, raw, open sound of the violin and the addition of harmony make the melody transcend itself. This part of the third movement is simply soaked in Sehnsucht. You could practically call it the Blue Flower Theme. It reminds me of something from All Quiet On the Western Front. Why do German authors seem to understand this feeling so well? Is it because they have a special word for it?

The noises without increase in volume, pass into my dream and yet linger in my memory... a clear voice utters words that bring me peace, to me, a soldier in big boots, belt, and knapsack, taking the road that lies before him under the high heaven, quickly forgetting and seldom sorrowful, for ever pressing on under the wide night sky.

A little soldier and a clear voice, and if anyone were to caress him he would hardly understand, this soldier with the big boots and the shut heart, who marches because he is wearing big boots, and has forgotten all else but marching. Beyond the sky-line is a country with flowers, lying so still that he would like to weep. There are sights there that he has not forgotten, because he never possessed them - perplexing, yet lost to him. Are not his twenty summers there?

How satisfying even this desire can be, unfulfilled...

But somehow we have to get down from this emotional high. The strings become lower, slower, quieter, slipping the melody line to the woodwinds who turn it to a minor key and bring it to a funereal halt. The vision has been taken away. The dance from the beginning is repeated as if nothing had happened.

Then the fourth part: an unexpected coda, played molto vivace at 2/4 time, which wrenches the music back into a major key. It is fiery, energetic and light-hearted, and its ebullience changes everything.

Instrumental music, unless you're talking about something like the Four Seasons, doesn't seem topical enough for us to "find its inner meaning." (Though that doesn't stop idiot Gender Studies people from saying stuff like, "Beethoven's Ninth is about rape.") Music like the Firebird Suite, Francesca da Rimini and Pictures At An Exhibition are telling stories; Capriccio Espagnol and Night on Bald Mountain evoke definite atmospheres - but your average symphony or sonata doesn't come with a storyline. (I was just thinking the other day that Mendelssohn could have switched the titles of the Scotch and Italian Symphonies, without anything clashing.) Still, composers like Dvorâk and Mozart choreograph such a variety of human emotions in their music that you feel sure they have some message, that they describe a real scene - as though you're listening to a soundtrack for a movie that was never filmed. Maybe this is where you should head over to Erik's Rants and Recipes and read his post on musical semiotics.

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