Music and Visual Imagination

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The Russian poet Aleksandr Blok made the observation that there are only two kinds of time and therefore two kinds of space. The first is historical and is reflected in the calendar. The other dimension of time and space is musical. Blok speaks of the musical time and space as being tied essentially to nature as an experience that comes to us when we set civilized consciousness aside and surrenDer to “the global orchestra.” For the Russian Symbolists of the turn of the century, the search of the artist was to penetrate the artificial screen of realism and the illusions created by narrative coherency, and to find the cosmic in the specific. Andrei Bely, perhaps the most original voice of Russian Symbolism, placed music as the highest of the arts precisely because it proceeded through time and was not static. Rhythm rather than melody was the essence of music, since emotional expression required time to be felt. For Bely, passion and emotion, even when experienced visually, utilized the temporal dimension offered by music. Music dominated the other arts because it was beyond civilization and reason—at once utterly natural and earthbound, and at the same time pure and abstract. The laws of all art could be organized musically, so to speak, just as the laws of physics could be organized mathematically. The essence of the real was abstracted. Music was the guiding principle toward which art in the use of space, dimension and color should turn. With respect to meaning, visual art should thus be like music: indirect in its allusions and therefore ultimately symbolic.

However, despite the philosophical prejudice expressed on behalf of music during the era during which the music on this program was written, in terms of social history, precisely the opposite was occurring. In European culture, the nineteenth century can easily be regarded as the century of music. By 1900, however, the high-water mark of concert music’s significance as a social factor had been reached. The twentieth century would become the age of the visual, beginning with the explosion of innovation in painting and sculpture in the earliest decades, continuing through the rise of photography and the silent film, the sound film, and ultimately with television and video.

All of the composers on tonight’s program initially focused on music but eventually developed a deep interest in painting and visual imagery. One of them, Mikolajus Ciurlionis, eventually became better known as a painter than as a musician. The generation of Ciurlionis, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alexander Scriabin—all of whom were born in the same decade—was profoundly impressed by the aesthetic philosophies prevalent at the turn of the century. They sought to eliminate not only the boundaries between reason and emotion (and therefore between the rational and the seemingly irrational) but the demarcations between fields of knowledge: science, ethics, and epistemology. Central to their various mystical and pseudo-mystical speculations was an effort to seek meaning beyond language and to bridge the physical and metaphysical worlds. In the arts, much of this effort to find a unified theory through aesthetic experience had been propelled by Wagner, but this later generation went well beyond that starting point by actively seeking out the philosophical implications contained in the connections between sight and hearing. Schoenberg, for example, became friendly with the painter Wassily Kandinsky and contributed to the journal Blaue Reiter. Kandinsky for his part produced his own opera entitled Yellow Sound. Kandinsky would become the pioneer of non-objective art, just as Schoenberg would help return twentieth-century music to traditions of pure formalism.

At the turn of the century, visual art was both Schoenberg and Scriabin at the center of a new religion of art. The search for an underlying organic logic which could perhaps only be intuited through different aesthetic media working in concert together led Scriabin to resort to that panacea of nineteenth-century rationalism, mechanical technology. The remains of his efforts to design a sound-and-color machine still exist in a dilapidated state in the museum that was once his home. Ciurlionis, who like Scriabin died young (and within four years of the Russian composer), began to paint and write music almost interchangeably, in order to generate a fusion of both aesthetic experiences.

In tonight’s exploration of the early twentieth century’s engagement with the crossroads between the musical and the visual, Schoenberg’s Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (1930) represents a transition from the mystical symbolism of Ciurlionis and Scriabin to the reassertion of a less integrated parallelism between music and the visual evident in the Hindemith. Schoenberg wrote this piece many years after he had stopped working systematically as a painter. Nevertheless, the work owes much to Schoenberg’s remarkable gifts as a visual artist and his practical engagement with the making of art. The Mathis Der Maler Symphony, perhaps Hindemith’s most successful piece for orchestra, is in Bely’s terms, ultimately a work in which time is understood both historically and musically. Hindemith attempts to evoke the substance of the work of art, the experience of the viewer in front of the altarpiece, and the struggle of the artist in making it. Music assumes all the roles we might assign in a film or opera (from which the music is Derived). Although Hindemith’s strategy is more akin to that undertaken by Max Reger in his 1913 Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, (performed by the ASO in 1994), Hindemith’s music can be understood as having been influenced by the rising importance of the film medium. We should not underestimate how radically our sense of time and musical space has been influenced by the motion picture.

In the case of George Gershwin, many of the strands of speculation engaged in by his European contemporaries find American equivalents. Like Ciurlionis and Schoenberg, Gershwin turned to painting, and became obsessed by both making art and collecting it. More than Schoenberg and Hindemith, the film was a crucial part of the culture in which he worked, for it was America that pioneered the business of moving pictures. Like Scriabin, Gershwin was fascinated by technology and modern instruments of reproduction and the transmission of sound, (as is evidenced by the “city sounds” in the Second Rhapsody). In this sense too he was truly American. But what sets Gershwin apart from the others was not only his greatness as a composer of popular music. Precisely because his audience cut across social classes in a way unimaginable to the others on tonight’s program, he had an instinct for the listening habits of his age. Furthermore he knew that in the 1920s, many American artists including Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keefe, and Joseph Stella, were inspired in their painting by music. The synthesis of the visual and the musical was therefore not located so much in the work of art itself (as had been advocated by the Symbolists), as in the act of listening visually, and by being inspired through the auditory experience to see differently.

Gershwin’s visual ambitions were neither musical nor abstract, nor even symbolist. They reflect a much more common-sense realization that hearing and seeing both take place in time and space, making the cultivation of the eye a potentially powerful experience for the musician, just as the training of the ear might help the artist. As we celebrate the centennial of Gershwin’s birth, we should revisit his painting and engagement with visual art as a way of understanding his musical ambitions during the last decade of his life. Tonight’s concert-goers may encounter unfamiliar dimensions of the mature Gershwin’s ambition, including those of making a name for himself in the field of symphonic music as a “serious” classical composer, and of becoming a fine painter. Perhaps nothing represents these dimensions better than Gershwin’s portrait of Arnold Schoenberg. We present it here with other art works connected to tonight’s program, so that audience members may experience for themselves each composer’s intended connections between hearing and seeing.

Miske (“In the Forest”) (1901)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

M.K. Ciurlionis (1875-1911) is with little doubt the leading artistic personality of turn-of-the-century Lithuania. In modern history Lithuania has witnessed the subordination of its national culture (particularly linguistically) to those of Poland and Russia. Therefore, the need for a profoundly patriotic figure of international stature in painting and music has allowed Ciurlionis to emerge as a significant presence in Lithuanian art and has added immeasurably to his posthumous reputation. It is not simply coincidence that the first President of independent Lithuania after the fall of Communism, Vytautas Landsbergis, is a leading scholar of the work of Ciurlionis. Even in Soviet times, Ciurlionis was celebrated as manifesting in music and painting a distinctly Lithuanian voice.

Ciurlionis died young—just a few months before his thirty-sixth birthday. Nevertheless, during his short lifetime his work already attracted the attention of leading figures in St. Petersburg and Warsaw, where he had studied. He began his career as a musician, studying at the Warsaw Institute of Music, from which he graduated in 1899. In his twenties he also tried his hand at literary writing, although he would ultimately be best known as a painter. In 1901, the symphonic poem Mi_ke (In the Forest) was composed for and won a competition in Warsaw. In the Forest is particularly interesting because its composition coincided with Ciurlionis’s first efforts at painting. Only after completing his musical studies in Leipzig (under Jadassohn and Reinecke) did Ciurlionis begin formal training as a painter. Between 1902 and 1905 he studied painting intensively while supporting himself as a teacher of music. Although in retrospect Ciurlionis’s reputation is most firmly established as a painter, he continued to work as a conductor, teacher, and composer until the end of his life.

One of the most striking aspects of Ciurlionis’s work is the remarkable integration of the visual and the musical. Especially in his later work, Ciurlionis created paintings that were organized on a musical basis and were designed to embody musical concepts, such as the “sonata” paintings entitled The Pyramids (1909) and The Sea (1908). Indeed, there are seven visual sonatas with separate images corresponding to musical movements, entitled Allegro, Andante, Scherzo, and Finale. Among his earliest work is the cycle of seven paintings entitled Funereal Symphony. There are also a number of visual preludes and fugues. In addition to the specific paintings, Ciurlionis often created corresponding musical compositions as well, as in the case of The Sea.

The subject of tonight’s piece is a landscape, a theme which resonates throughout his painting. Ciurlionis painted a number of works entitled Mi_ke; the first dates from 1904. The painting reproduced here (1907) is among the best known of his many landscapes. The symphonic poem In the Forest was perhaps Ciurlionis’s first major musical success. It begins in C major and although a fantasy, has a clear process of thematic development. There are hints of Lithuanian folk-sources. The piece is significant because it gives the listener an insight into Ciurlionis’s sense of organic unity and his concern for instrumental color. Although the later tone poem The Sea has often been presented as a superior work, In the Forest engages precisely because of its unabashed expression of the composer’s intense attachment to his native environment and culture. It is free from the self-consciousness and lack of economy that characterizes The Sea, written after Ciurlionis went to Leipzig to study.

Despite the fact that his posthumous reputation is most heavily weighted toward his painting, we must remember that Ciurlionis above all remains a musician. What one hears tonight are not the efforts of a young painter dabbling in music, but of a young musician with a complex understanding of the relation of music to other arts. In this sense, Ciurlionis’s synthesis of music and painting associates him with Russian Symbolism, a powerful artistic movement during his lifetime. Music takes primacy in the relationship between the visual and the musical because, the Symbolists believed, it was the proper objective of painting to turn from discrete representation and narration toward a status more like music, a sensory experience independent of the familiar physical objects around us that we mistake for “reality.”

But while the intellectual influence of the Symbolists, and the musical legacy of Wagner and Chopin (in the piano music) may be discerned, there is also something different here. The originality of the music reflects two central ambitions of the young Ciurlionis: first, to find a voice that is distinctly Lithuanian without being provincial through music, that assists in evoking the essential experience of being in the Lithuanian landscape; and second, to use art and music in a free, mystical fashion, employing color and light. It is precisely the atmospheric and coloristic instincts of Ciurlionis the musician that led him to experiment with color, fantasy, and symbol in the painterly work, which has ensured his lasting fame as an artist.

Second Rhapsody (1931)

By. Carol J. Oja, College of William and Mary

Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“Play me a Cézanne,” an art collector once requested of George Gershwin. The composer reportedly sat at the piano and did just that. “I haven’t got any more idea than the man in the moon what he played,” recalled the collector, Chester Dale, “but emotionally there was Cézanne to both of us.”

A composer for film and musical theater and a painter in his own right, Gershwin was as famed for evoking images through music as he was for issuing bold challenges to the long-standing divide between “popular” and “classical” music. All these factors came together in Second Rhapsody, one of Gershwin’s least famous concert works. Called by many titles, its first incarnation was dubbed both “Manhattan Rhapsody” and “New York Rhapsody” when it appeared in Delicious, a 1931 film starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The film was about a young Irish woman living in New York who falls in love with a wealthy man. And it included tunes, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, such as “Delishious” and “Welcome to the Melting Pot.” There, “New York Rhapsody” was 8 minutes long, and it accompanied an urban sequence with “noise,” as the accompanying dialogue put it, and “riveters drumming your ear from every side.” Night fell and with it came silence.

When Gershwin doubled the length of “New York Rhapsody” and reshaped it into an independent orchestral composition, he wrote his biographer Isaac Goldberg of his progress, revealing other titles for the work. “In the picture for which it was written,” he informed Goldberg, “it may still be called Rhapsody in Rivets . . . [but] I am calling it just plain Second Rhapsody.” Gershwin felt this title was “much simpler and more dignified,” as Edward Jablonski, another of his biographers, reports.

Over the years, Rhapsody in Rivets has stuck as a moniker. Gershwin acknowledged that he used “a rivet theme” as “a starting-point.” “But after that, I just wrote a piece of music without any program.” The opening orchestral section of Second Rhapsody resounds with visual images, although more of urban congestion than of a riveter’s assault. It echoes the city scenes of American in Paris. Throughout, the piano is intensely integrated with the orchestra, with the two often sharing thematic material. The composer who had made the piano central to Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F kept it at the core of Second Rhapsody. At times, the piano’s persona is that of a quiet individual amidst chaos; at others, it is a boisterous participant in the action. The piano has blues-tinged passages and ones of solo bravura. But it is equally compelling when layered over the orchestra, producing the multiple levels of activity that we now associate with the Gershwin sound. At one point, the opening theme returns with a Latin flare, heralding Cuban Overture, which was to be Gershwin’s next large orchestral work.

About half-way through Second Rhapsody, a “sweet” theme enters in the orchestra. Listeners will hear its harmonic gestures and overall shape as foretelling yet another Gershwin work—this time Porgy and Bess, which Gershwin began writing a couple of years later. The opening “rivet” theme returns briefly at the end.

In spite of this conventional two-part structure with reprise, Second Rhapsody splices together brief fragments. Taking its model from film techniques or, just as likely, from the parade of tunes that makes up an overture in musical theater, the work is constructed of short segments, continually varied and abruptly juxtaposed. This was also the case with Rhapsody in Blue in fact it is a hallmark of Gershwin’s style as a whole. With Second Rhapsody, however, the number of thematic ideas is contained, as is the transitional material. Or to use the language of film: there are only a few images here, each frequently reshaped, and the editing is tight.

Unlike Gershwin’s earlier concert works, Second Rhapsody waited a few months before receiving its premiere. Gershwin completed the work in May 1931 and tried to interest Arturo Toscanini in it (Toscanini was then conductor of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York). He passed up the opportunity. The work was finally premiered in January 1932 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, the same conductor who over the last several years had been vigorously promoting the work of young Americans such as Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions.

Such an auspicious launching could distract today’s listeners from a key point: Second Rhapsody is understood most meaningfully in terms of the world of film. George Gershwin found many ways to cross over.

 “Mathis der Maler” Symphony (1934)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It may seem curious that a composer as closely allied as Hindemith to the central tradition of German music should not have produced a substantial series of orchestral works bearing that most centrally traditional of titles, “symphony.” The duly numbered cycle of eight symphonies left, for example, by his younger compatriot Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) is much more what we expect, and even Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926), despite profound alienation from the political and social aspects of his German roots and consequent relocation to Italy, has followed suit.

By contrast, the E-flat Symphony of 1940 was the only one to which Hindemith assigned a tonal designation and no other distinguishing adjective or title. That exuberant and refreshingly unpompous symphony nevertheless takes its place with five others that he composed, in addition to two works (one early and unpublished) bearing the title Sinfonietta. Clearly he did not lack the impulse to organize his thought symphonically. It may be that what inhibited him from producing a symphonic “corpus” along traditional lines was the same consiDeration that held Brahms back until well into his forties before he released his First Symphony to the world: that is, the sheer weight of prestige that this of all forms possesses, and more specifically the burden Beethoven’s genius and fame have laid on the shoulDers of all his successors, especially those whose birth and background stamp them as bearers of the August Austro-German banner.

Of Hindemith’s six full-scale symphonies, three were originally conceived as orchestral works: the E-flat, the Symphonia serena of 1946, and the Pittsburgh Symphony of 1958. The B-flat Symphony of 1951 is scored, not for orchestra, but for concert band. The other two stem from operas whose titles they share. These are the Symphony Die Harmonie Der Welt of 1951 and the Mathis Der Maler Symphony that concludes this program.

Where Ciurlionis and Schoenberg evoked various aspects of the picturesque and the dramatic, and Scriabin celebrated a hero of universal mythic stature, it was the figure of the artist as hero that furnished Hindemith with the subject-matter for Mathias the Painter. It is perhaps appropriate that he, of all composers, should have been the man to tackle the story of the German painter Matthias Grünewald, for Hindemith took a deeply serious view of the artist’s responsibility to society. His glowing portrait does justice to a great predecessor who went to the length of abandoning the practice of art to devote himself instead to his people’s political and military struggle for freedom.

The historic struggle that seized Hindemith’s attention was the bitter conflict known as the Peasants’ Revolt (1524-25). The composer wisely concentrated his thinking on the experiences of one individual, the painter of the celebrated Isenheim altarpiece, created between about 1512 and 1515, and now housed in the museum of Colmar in eastern France. Grünewald was a man who, according to Hindemith, “speaks to us still today through his art with uncanny intensity and warmth”; his exploits, Hindemith wrote later, “shattered my very soul.” Born Mathis Gothart Niethart, circa 1460, Grünewald wielded a brush that renDered apocalyptic scenes of terror with rare vividness. He died in 1528, and is now widely regarded as not only the last but the greatest exponent of the German Gothic style.

The composer started work on his opera in 1932, creating his own libretto, and devoting most of his energies to this one project over the next three years. Laid out broadly in seven scenes, Mathis Der Maler remains one of the masterpieces of 20th-century lyric theater, and probably Hindemith’s finest achievement. It had its premiere on 28 May 1938 at the Stadttheater in Zurich–by then one of the few remaining German-speaking cities in Nazi-shadowed Europe where an opera on so politically provocative a subject could be produced.

Long before the opera reached the stage, Hindemith had produced his symphony of the same title, naming its three movements after the three panels of the Isenheim altarpiece: Concert of Angels, The Entombment, and Temptation of St Anthony. It holds in Hindemith’s orchestral production a place as central as that of the opera among his stage works. In some moods and contexts, Hindemith may fairly be accused of dryness, or in his early period of an enfant terrible approach that comes close to frivolity. But the nobility of this music, by turns muscular, contemplative, and radiant, presents a vivid summation of German traditions, and in particular of the Lutheran chorale style that is specifically recalled at its climactic moments.

The technical means to this exalted end are of particular interest at a time when attitudes to the classical key system have shifted away from the hard-nosed atonal position espoused by many composers in the middle years of the century. Sometimes described in his own day as an atonal or polytonal composer, Hindemith himself repudiated such labels; atonality, indeed, he dismissed in characteristically bracing terms as a cheap excuse for mental laziness. He based his highly personal harmonic language on the application of acoustical laws to the notes of the chromatic scale, treating its various degrees as harmonics ultimately Derived from one funDamental, and grading chords from strong to weak depending on the relative nearness of their component notes to the funDamental. His concern was always to organize the melodic progress and rhythmic pulse of his music in a harmonic “rise and fall” that places the weight of any passage just where it is needed. While his mature music is seldom straightforwardly tonal, it inhabits a world with many parallels to that of tonality. The multiplication of technical terms is not in itself a good thing; but since, by Hindemith’s own avowal, the wrong ones have been applied to his work, it might be a good idea to distinguish his method by a new and more accurate one and call it “paratonal.” His firm opinion was that composers have always been subconsciously aware of the harmonic laws he explicitly codified. For rules he had no use.

Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (1930)

By Joseph H. Auner, State University of new York at Stonybrook

Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Film music for a nonexistent film. Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene, Op. 34, was conceived independently of any specific film or scenario, beyond the sparse programmatic outline, “threatening danger, fear, catastrophe,” indicated in the subtitle. The absence of a film has posed a problem since its completion in 1930. A Dresden critic wrote of one of the first performances, “I kept asking myself for several painful minutes, what sort of film, in heaven’s name, is supposed to go with this abstract music?” Even Schoenberg’s pupil Alban Berg commented circumspectly on the lack of a film, “of course it is a complete work or art, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could be heard synchronically (or whatever it is called) with a film created by you?”—a suggestion Berg may have recalled when he included a film sequence in his own opera, Lulu, left unfinished at his death in 1935. In recent decades several attempts have been made to provide the missing film, employing either silent films of the twenties or creating new productions specifically to accompany the music.

Yet it is precisely this independence from any one film, the invitation to see what can only be imagined, the substitution of a communal spectacle with a private, internal drama, and the creation of functional music that eludes its function, that are most characteristic of Schoenberg’s complex and confrontational relationship to artistic and cultural developments in Weimar Germany. When he wrote the piece during the fall and winter months of 1929-1930 Schoenberg was a professor of composition at the Prussian Academy of the Arts in Berlin, a prestigious position which he held from 1926 to his departure from Europe in 1933. In contrast to the common view of Schoenberg as standing aloof from the contemporary scene, his works from these years illustrate his engagement with the social and technological changes that were bringing about a new mass culture, as well as his insistence on approaching these developments on his own terms.

The work was premiered under Otto Klemperer on November 6, 1930 in a symphony concert at the Kroll Opera in Berlin (preceded a few months earlier by a radio broadcast with the Frankfurt Symphony under the direction of Hans Rosbaud). Though not without protests, the work was generally well received in these and other performances, a fact that caused Schoenberg some concern, as he wrote to his pupil Heinrich Jalowetz who had conducted it in 1931: “What you told me about the performance pleases me very much. … People do seem to like the piece: ought I to draw any conclusions from that as to its quality? I mean: the public apparently likes it.”

Schoenberg’s irony here reflects a funDamental conflict he felt between the Weimar ideal of art serving the public and his sense of the moral and spiritual mission of the artist-a tension that is dramatized in his opera Moses und Aron which occupied him precisely at this time. This conflict is evident in every aspect of the Accompaniment to a Film Scene. On a practical level, the attractions of the marketplace must have played a role in his accepting the commission to contribute to a special series for the Heinrichshofen publishing house, which specialized in scores for the thriving German silent film industry. Yet while the relatively small orchestra, expanded percussion section, and stripped-down textures reflect the practices of silent film scoring, the work’s complexity, and dissonant, twelve-tone language would have prohibited its performance in a theater.

This should not be thought a miscalculation, but rather, as some critics of the time noted, as a challenge to the new medium. Schoenberg had seen in moving pictures a danger for opera and theater, and he protested against the vulgarity of the majority of films. But, as with many of his contemporaries, he also had high hopes for the possibilities film offered. In 1927, the year of the first full length talking film, The Jazz Singer, he envisioned film “as a completely new and independent instrument for innovative artistic expression.” Rejecting “marketability of wide mass appeal” as the sole factor determining production, and concentrating on “true and deep ideas and emotions,” Schoenberg believed film in Germany could rise to the level of its poetry and music.

Schoenberg’s particular interest in film can be linked to his strong visual imagination and the important role that movement, light, and color played in many of his works. The most obvious evidence of this was his talent as a painter, but even his instrumental works often have a visual component, in particular programmatic pieces like the “Colors” movement of his Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16, or the vivid imagery of the winter night in the Richard Dehmel poem that is represented programmatically in Transfigured Night, Op. 4. The most striking work in this regard is the opera Die glueckliche Hand (an untranslatable title, meaning literally “The Lucky Hand.”) In a 1928 lecture, Schoenberg explained the opera’s elaborate colored lighting and complex staging in terms of his vision of a new form of theater that he called “making music with the media of the stage.” As he was finishing the score in 1913 Schoenberg wrote to his publisher about the possibility of a film realization, with scenes to be designed by Kokoschka, Kandinsky, or Alfred Roller. He wrote that he was interested in film not only because it offered technical solutions to the problems of staging, but because of its potential to create “the utmost unreality … the opposite of what the cinema generally aspires to.”

The whole thing should have the effect (not of a dream) but of chords. Of music. It must never suggest symbols, or meaning, or thoughts, but simply the play of colors and forms. Just as music never drags a meaning around with it… so too this should simply be like sounds for the eye, and so far as I am concerned everyone is free to think or feel something similar to what he thinks or feels while hearing music.

If this imagined film was to be “sounds for the eye,” the Accompaniment to a Film Scene might be thought of “sights for the ear,” with the absent film as the best guarantee of “the utmost unreality.”

The eight-minute long film music is in three continuous sections following the programmatic subtitle, “threatening danger, fear, catastrophe,” (though significantly, the precise locations are not indicated in the score, and commentators disagree on where the third part begins.) Strings tremolo softly to begin the opening section. Fragmentary motives in the wind instruments coalesce into a regularly shaped melody in the oboe against a nervous string accompaniment. This theme is the first linear statement of the twelve tone row, which in various transformations makes up all the melodies and harmonies of the piece. A series of increasingly distorted variations on this melody make up the remainDer of the two minute long first section, with the idea of “threatening danger” suggested by the melody’s struggles to maintain its identity as the orchestra builds to a climax.

Beginning the approximately three minute second part, “Fear,” the melody dissolves entirely into complex repetitive figures moving at a much faster tempo. These figures gradually splinter into sharp gestures that surge through the orchestra, interrupted by powerful brass chords. As if to recapture the comparative calm of the first part, a variant of the opening melody reemerges in a strange dance-like passage, creating something of the effect of “whistling in the dark.” But this suggestion of stability dissolves, as the prominent piano part leads a massive crescendo to the shattering climax of the work.

The moment of “catastrophe” slowly subsides into the desolate third section as a variant of the melody asserts itself in the low strings against a solemn wind chorale. The mood of resignation in this most stylistically retrospective part of the piece is underscored by this melody’s resemblance to the “Muss es sein?” [“Must it be?”] theme of the last movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet, Op. 135. As the melody unfolds, the motive is presented in various transformations, mirroring what occurs in the Beethoven work. (Notably, Schoenberg discussed Op. 135 as a prototypical twelve-tone piece in his 1941 essay on “Composition with Twelve Tones.”) But whereas the Beethoven answers the question “Muss es sein?” with joyful affirmation, the Accompaniment to a Film Scene presents no such positive solution. Instead the work concludes with a distorted recollection of the opening measures, eerie timbral effects intensifying the mood of profound disquiet.

Promethee, le poeme du feu (1910)

By Royal S. Brown, Fanfare

Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The bulk of the work by Alexander Scriabin, who was born in Moscow on January 6, 1872, and died there on April 27, 1915, is for piano solo. Not surprisingly, the influence of Chopin and Liszt looms over the composer-pianist’s early compositions, which include three piano sonatas and a large number of short works. Even here, however, the listener can sense, particularly in the richness of Scriabin’s chord structures, doors opening onto new territory. By the turn of the century, Scriabin seems to have passed through those doors with his Fourth Piano Sonata, Op. 30 (1901). Here, the patterns of tension and resolution characteristic of conventional, tonal harmony begin to be replaced a more unified harmonic sound in which both thematic motifs and chordal structures expand and contract out of a single, original chord with only tenuous ties to tonality. And after writing two more or less conventional symphonies, Scriabin produced, in 1903-04, the first of his three “Poem” symphonies, the so-called “Divine Poem,” which calls for massive orchestral forces and which continues to define a new harmonic and structural language for music.

Unlike a composer such as Arnold Schoenberg, however, who was born only two years after him, Scriabin did not create his revolution out of purely musical or even purely aesthetic consiDerations. By the dawn of the new century, Scriabin was firmly ensconced in a kind of mysticism that was wholly characteristic both of various philosophies, such as Theosophy, and of the particular brand of literary Symbolism flourishing in Russia at the time. In a world increasingly dominated by industrialism and materialism, Scriabin sought a liberation from the time and space of the present that would ultimately allow him and others oneness with the cosmos, its rhythms and its mysteries. And the means via which Scriabin hoped to accomplish this was music. The composer, who early on was influenced by the theories of Nietzsche, saw himself as nothing less than a god who, via his art, would not just reveal the cosmos to his listeners but in fact allow them access to it. Part of Scriabin’s aesthetic and philosophical strategy in doing this involved the nineteenth-century theory of synesthesia, which proposed equivalencies between the various sensorial elements-smells, colors and sounds in particular-that the work of art can mobilize. Rather than creating a quasi-Wagnerian synthesis of the arts, Scriabin hoped instead to present, by adding smell machines and color “keyboards” to almost every type of musical timbre imaginable, a quasi-comprehensive but non-theatrical spectacle of sensations. Out of this dazzling multiplicity would emerge the cosmic unity envisaged by Scriabin’s particular philosophies and theologies.

It should come as little surprise, then, that the subject of the composer’s final “poem” for symphony orchestra, Prometheus, “The Poem of Fire,” is the Titan who stole the fire of the gods and brought it to humankind after Zeus had refused its use to mortals. Composed between 1909 and 1910 and marking the outset of the third and final phase of Scriabin’s musical career, Prometheus, which runs only around twenty minutes, is part symphonic poem, part piano concerto, and part symphony which, like the final five piano sonatas, is in a single movement. For the “Poem of Fire,” Scriabin actually included an “instrument,” indicated as tastiera per luce (keyboard for lights) in the score, that would “play,” usually two at a time, colors corresponding to various tones: CT was violet, A was green, etc. In fact, Scriabin possessed only a very primitive model of such an instrument, a device made by his friend Alexander Mozer, a professor of electrical engineering, and attempts to include this facet of the score in performance have been rare. The symphony mobilizes a vast array of instrumental timbres, including, beyond the normal instruments of the symphony orchestra (plus a beefed-up brass section), solo piano and organ. Later in the score a mixed chorus joins the orchestra, vocalizing different vowel sounds that also, for Scriabin, had color equivalents. As the harmonic basis for the score, Scriabin, imagining no difference between harmony and melody, devised his so-called “mystic chord,” a broadly spaced chord configured as A-DT-G-CT-FT-B. Played pianissimo by the winds and tremolo strings over a hushed bass-drum and timpani roll to open the symphony, this chord represents the cosmos out of which everything takes form, just as almost every musical structure, horizontal or vertical, in the work can be traced back to this chord. Moving in and out of the expanding and contracting timbres and harmonies, the solo piano frequently offers almost playful figures, suggesting the presence of man dancing to the rhythms of the cosmos. At those moments when the piano plays fragments of the mystic chord, one has an almost palpable musical translation of the theft of fire. At the end, the symphony, having built up to a massive climax, closes, after a glorious restatement of the opening motif, on an unexpected FT-major chord, perhaps suggesting the triumphant presence of the human within the cosmos.