Mimesis: Musical Representations

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

This season’s opening concert addresses a basic and persistent question that has remained the subject of endless debate and speculation. The answer remains unresolved and contested, a fact that inspired Leonard Bernstein to appropriate the title of a work by Charles Ives, “The Unanswered Question,” for his Harvard Norton Lectures on music. This concert invites the audience to explore the character of music through the medium of “classical” (or, as Bernstein once put it, “exact”) music written during the past century and a half.

The program seeks to inspire each of us to ask: How does music mean? What resemblances or divergences does it have to words and images? What did composers intend to communicate and can we know that from hearing the music? Do we perceive or attribute significance in music differently from previous generations? Is listening, like seeing, a human experience that changes over time, rendering listening as an historical phenomenon? Has something changed over the past century in our perception of the musical experience?

The oldest piece in this concert, and its closing work, was written at the end of the 19th century. It is the best known and perhaps the most candidly philosophical work of the four on tonight’s program. Richard Strauss was influenced, as were many in his generation, by Nietzsche’s startling poetic masterpiece, the epic Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). Strauss read literature and philosophy closely. His encounter with Nietzsche informed, among other things, his lifelong atheism and his skeptical attitude to an idealistic view of music as a medium of metaphysical truth. Despite his deep admiration for how Wagner wrote music, he remained skeptical about Wagner’s extravagant claims on behalf of music with regard to philosophy and politics.

As the famous opening of Nietzsche’s poem (and Strauss’ tone poem) make plain, Nietzsche’s ambition is to force us to fundamentally invert our inherited scale of values. It is not a metaphysical God or the Sun whom we should worship and feel beholden to. Rather it is the Sun who should be grateful to the human individual, for only humans create value and meaning. If it were not for someone to shine on, the Sun would have neither purpose nor meaning. It is not God (our invention), the heavens, or our soul that is of greatest value, but the body, the physical, the time bound, mortal character of real human existence on earth that is our greatest gift and merits celebration. It is we, after all, who have invented the idea of the soul. Our very mortality and earth-bound world permit us to love, sense beauty, and think. The glorious, triumphant, and sensual opening (made famous by Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey) of Strauss’ tone poem is not a musical depiction of the sun rising, but is rather the bold expression of an individual imagination that helps vest what we see with a grandeur that is not inherent in what is out there, but exists only in the act of lending experience meaning. What Strauss drew from Nietzsche is the conviction that the making of art, and music in particular, was the highest and most fully human expression of greatness and the most powerful medium by which to define, represent, and conjure human reality and experience. As Strauss traverses Nietzsche’s poem, he displays his unrivaled command of musical thought and sonority to evoke the language, events, and ideas of the text, and to match the poetry with a musical interpretation as moving, beautiful, and dramatic as the literary text itself.

Next in chronological sequence is the late Gunther Schuller’s best known orchestral work, the Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Written in the late 1950s, a half-century after Strauss, Schuller’s concerns were more formalist in nature. Schuller, an eclectic and astonishingly versatile modernist composer, explored the formal parallels between music and the visual arts. By the mid-twentieth century, modernist painting rejected the illusions of visual realism, in which art gave the viewer the sense of seeing some “objective” external reality or seeing how the painter saw external reality subjectively. Consider a portrait, a landscape, or a genre scene. The most aggressive retreat from any such connection between representation and the clearly artificial frame of a painting was abstraction and non-objective art, both of which sought to celebrate the self-referential formal elements of the visual as autonomous and divorced even from an impressionist or expressionist subjective response to the external world. In Klee, Schuller found a painter who sought to do something similar to what modernist composers in the twentieth century hoped to achieve: a distancing from any overt inherited connection between musical rhetoric—the shape of melodies and the use of rhythm and harmony—and ordinary meaning. Music ought not illustrate or represent reality in any manner reminiscent of realist painting. Music had to become free of overt mimesis and create new meaning within the framework of its own elements and practices, using sound, silence, and time. Klee, who was also a fine musician and a devoted listener, found inspiration for his visual creations in music, and Schuller, in turn, took inspiration from Klee’s unabashedly “musical” approach to painting.

Henri Dutilleux, one of the great composers of the late twentieth century, in his song cycle Correspondances explores, as Byron Adams points out, not only the link between language and music, but between the visual and music. Using the tradition of speculation about art centered in Baudelaire, Dutillieux also references letter writing. Dutillieux uses music to augment and divert from linguistic meaning and seeks to work out from language. The letter, as a medium, is the most direct form of communication; it is private writing between two people. Dutillieux explores how composed, written music can create sensibilities and meanings beyond the range of words. In letters there is a writer and a recipient: two subjective voices. In music, a unifying temporal frame is created. The writer and reader meet simultaneously, and share in a transformative reading that extends the boundaries of the text. Music neither represents nor interprets the text. Yet it reveals a nascent presence of something in words that without music never comes into being. The descriptive language about the visual experience only deepens the link between music and words. The irony in the title becomes evident. When we write, do we actually correspond, and match our understandings? Does the reading of a recipient match the intentions of the writer? If that is clearly a complex and open question, might one also ask whether there are correspondences between music and words?

Last but not least, this first ASO concert of the season presents a contemporary work by a celebrated young American composer, Nico Muhly, whose long association with the American Symphony Orchestra dates from well before he came into the limelight. Muhly’s music explores not only the nature of music, but also its potential connections to reality, to the contemporary social fabric, and the cultural conceits and expectations of audiences. What are the unique possibilities facing new music today? What functions can be ascribed to contemporary music written within the classical tradition in the context of the rich varieties of music that flourish today?

Music is not strictly mimetic in the literary sense, particularly as most famously elaborated by Erich Auerbach’s classic book Mimesis. But it is clearly in some sense mimetic of the human experience, of memory, joy and suffering, tied to concrete realities that disappear, fade, and dissolve. Music does so in a manner that neither falsifies nor hides the more familiar physical and historical dimensions of the external world. Music’s temporal nature, its capacity to be remade, reheard, and recreated, its distance from but affinity to the linguistic and the visual, may ironically make it the most profoundly mimetic, with respect to the human experience, of all the arts.

Gunther Schuller, Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born November 22, 1925, in Jackson Heights, NY
Died June 21, 2015, in Boston
Composed in 1959
Premiered on November 27, 1959, at the Northrop Memorial Auditorium in Minneapolis by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati
Performance Time: Approximately 21 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 3 piccolos, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (vibraphone, glockenspiel, snare drum, bass drum, wood block, guiro, claves, triangle, hi-hat, suspended cymbal), 1 piano, 1 harp, 32 violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, and 8 double-basses

Gunther Schuller was a brilliant polymath: a virtuoso horn player, a visionary administrator, a celebrated conductor, an author, an influential teacher, and a gifted, self-taught composer. His career began as a choirboy at St. Thomas Church Choir School in New York, where he also began lessons on the French horn. By 1943, he was appointed principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra—at the age of eighteen. He then joined the horn section of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he remained until 1959. Schuller taught composition at the Manhattan School and at Yale University before joining the New England Conservatory; he was president of that institution from 1967 to 1977. He taught composition at the Berkshire Music Center from 1963 to 1984. Much honored for his music as well as for his championship of American composers, Schuller earned a Grammy in 1974 for a recording of Scott Joplin’s music. He received a McArthur Foundation “Genius” Award in 1991 and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1994.

An unusually intellectual composer, Schuller made a connection between the expressionism of Schoenberg and the bebop style of jazz developed during the 1950s by Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane. Never a snob, Schuller sought to combine progressive classical music and modern jazz into a “third stream.” In addition to jazz, Schuller was powerfully inspired by visual art. Several of his scores, such as the coruscating Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, are musical analogues of sculpture or paintings. Schuller wrote that in Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee he sought a “retranslation into musical terms of the ‘musical’ elements in certain Klee pictures . . . Each of the seven pieces bears a slightly different relationship to the original Klee picture from which it stems.” Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee includes one of Schuller’s chief preoccupations: the movement entitled “Little Blue Devil” is an engaging example of the composer’s “third stream” practice, a witty evocation of Klee’s sinister and gleeful image.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Henri Dutilleux, Correspondances

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born January 22, 1916, in Angers, France
Died May 22, 2013, in Paris
Composed in 2003
Premiered September 5, 2003, at the Philharmonie in Berlin by the Berliner Philharmoniker, which commissioned the piece in 1983, conducted by Simon Rattle with soprano Dawn Upshaw
Performance Time: Approximately 23 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (suspended cymbal, tam-tam, 3 bongos, 3 tom-toms, snare drum, bass drum, marimba), 1 celeste, 1 harp, 1 accordion, 32 violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, 8 double-basses, and solo soprano

A noble man who participated in the French Resistance during the Second World War, Henri Dutilleux was, with Messiaen, one of the two true heirs to the grand tradition established by his predecessors Fauré, Ravel, Dukas, and Debussy. But these composers in turn inherited the aesthetic principals bequeathed to them by the incandescent poet Charles Baudelaire. Both Fauré and Debussy set poetry by Baudelaire, and Ravel cultivated the idea of the Baudelairean dandy in both his life and art. Like Ravel, Dutilleux was a fastidious composer who refused to court easy popularity. Dutilleux composed slowly and meticulously: he was undisturbed if a score took twenty years to complete. In other words, he valued perfection over facility, elegance over prolificacy, and the lapidary over the ephemeral.

So it comes as no surprise to learn that Dutilleux’s ravishing song cycle Correspondances was commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1983 and premiered in its final form on September 5, 2003—twenty years later. Dedicated to Dawn Upshaw and Sir Simon Rattle, Correspondances is a Baudelairean score filled with subtle connections between music, literature, and painting. As the composer noted, “The work’s general title, Correspondances, beyond the different meanings that could be given to this word, refers to Baudelaire’s famous poem, ‘Correspondances,’ and to the synaesthesias he himself evoked.” The opening lines of Baudelaire’s poem may well provide a clue to Dutilleux’s music: “Nature is a temple where living pillars / Let escape sometimes confused words.”

As Baudelaire’s aesthetic of synaesthesia, the blending of sensory stimuli and responses, included the visual as well as the auditory, Dutilleux likewise followed Baudelaire’s example by evoking painting through setting a text drawn from a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh to his devoted brother Théo: “I go outside in the night to paint the stars . . . to feel the stars and the clear infinite shining heavens above.” Indeed, during this movement, Dutilleux, himself the grandson of a distinguished painter, quotes from his orchestral score Timbres, espace, mouvement ou La Nuit etoilée (1978), a work that was inspired by Van Gogh’s magnificent painting “Starry Night.”

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Nico Muhly, Seeing is Believing

by Nico Muhly

Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born August 26, 1981, in Vermont
Composed in 2007
Original version premiered on January 7, 2008, at the Royal Academy of Music in London by the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon with violinist Thomas Gould
Full orchestra version premiered on January 23, 2015, at the Destiny Worship Center in Miramar Beach, FL by the Sinfonia Gulf Coast conducted by Demetrius Fuller with violinist Tracy Silverman
Performance Time: Approximately 15 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, 1 bass trombone, 1 tuba, percussion (vibraphone, claves, bass drum, marimba, wood block, metal pipe), 1 piano, strings, and solo six-string electric violin

Seeing is Believing references the exciting and superstitious practice of observing and mapping the sky; while writing it, I wanted to mimic the process by which, through observation, a series of points becomes a line—this seemed like the most appropriate way to think about a soloist versus an orchestra. The electric violin is such a specifically evocative instrument and has always reminded me of the 1980s, and I tried, at times, to reference the music attendant to ‘80s educational videos about science, which always sounded vast and mechanical—and sometimes, quite romantic.

The music begins and ends with the violin creating its own stellar landscape through a looping pedal, out of which instruments begin to articulate an unchanging series of eleven chords which governs the harmonic language of the piece. Three minutes in, the woodwinds begin twittering in what seems to be random, insect-like formations. Eventually, the piano and solo violin “map” them into the celestially pure key of C major; rapturous pulses ensue. A slightly more stylized and polite version of the insect music appears, and the violin sings long lines above it. After a brief return to the first music, slow, nervous music alternates with fast, nervous music. The fast music takes over, pitches are scattered around, the violin calls everybody back to order with forty repeated notes; rapturous pulses again ensue. The piece ends as it began, with looped educational music depicting the night sky.

Nico Muhly is a composer of chamber music, orchestral music, sacred music, opera, ballet, and music for collaborators across a variety of fields.

Richard Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born June 11, 1864, in Munich
Died September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Composed in 1896
Premiered on November 27, 1896, in Frankfurt conducted by Strauss
Performance Time: Approximately 34 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 B-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 6 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, suspended cymbal, chimes), 1 organ, 2 harps, 32 violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, and 8 double-basses

It is difficult to overestimate the dark glamour that the life and work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had for his contemporaries during the fin de siècle. André Gide traced his intellectual heritage to both Nietzsche and Wilde, and H.L. Mencken wrote the first book in English on Nietzsche. The works of such disparate authors as Jack London, Eugene O’Neill, and D.H. Lawrence rest on a foundation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Indeed, in his great novel, Doktor Faustus, Thomas Mann based aspects of the unhappy fate of his protagonist, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, upon Nietzsche’s own: Mann’s hero dies of syphilis, the same disease from which the philosopher perished.

Mann’s expropriation of Nietzsche’s biography demonstrated his canny awareness of the connections between the philosopher’s career and German musical life of the early twentieth century. Like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche was fascinated with music. Nietzsche had attempted to compose music, with varying success, and was first a worshipful friend—and later a bitter foe—of Richard Wagner. (In the diaries kept by Cosima Wagner, it is clear that her husband treated the young professor neither better nor worse than he might have treated an overenthusiastic St. Bernard.) Gustav Mahler set a text drawn from Nietzsche’s philosophical Bildungsroman, Also sprach Zarathustra, in his Third Symphony (1896), while Frederick Delius based his great choral fresco, A Mass of Life (which the ASO will be performing at Carnegie Hall in April 2016), on extended excerpts from the same volume.

The most famous musical work inspired by Nietzsche is unquestionably the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. (It is worth noting that Nietzsche was still alive, although in the throes of dementia, when Strauss composed his tone poem.) Strauss carefully described his score as “freely after Nietzsche”; he had earlier read attentively the philosopher’s writings. What Strauss sought to find were musical analogies to Nietzsche’s abstract ideas and exalted prose. In 1895, Strauss wrote to Friedrich von Hausegger, “While reading Schopenhauer or Nietzsche or some history book, I will get an uncontrollable urge to go to the piano . . . The intellect alone is engaged.”

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.