Musical Autobiography

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Musical Autobiography, performed on March 14, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

On some level all music is autobiographical. This can be argued even for instrumental music since at least the late eighteenth century, when music was explicitly conceived as a medium to communicate sensibility and refined feeling. The idea of music as expressing the emotional was a fundamental principle of Romanticism, and later, after the mid-nineteenth century, music was thought of as a psychological mirror of the will, manifesting those portions of human consciousness that could not find proper expression in language. It assumed the status of a private or encoded form of communication that was simultaneously public. Not only was the inexpressible or ineffable capable of communication through music, but a popular notion evolved which held that music was more accurate than spoken language in reflecting the human condition and the essence of feeling. Although the distinction between absolute music and illustrative or narrative music was debated endlessly during the second half of the nineteenth century, the early Romantics, including Mendelssohn, cherished the idea that music was in some way the clearest and most precise means by which a human being could publicly and properly express his or her response to experience of life.

Scholars have found autobiographical implications and narratives in the work of practically all nineteenth-century composers including Beethoven, Chopin, Rossini, and Schumann. Perhaps the most famous exponent of autobiographical experience in music was Hector Berlioz, whose centenary is now upon us. His Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy are two classic works with autobiographical dimensions. A musical response to critical moments in life was also the impetus for such great compositions as Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (1877), Berg’s Lyric Suite (1926), Janáček’s On the overgrown path (1901-8), Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (1888-94), Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (1898) and Symphonia domestica (1903), Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll (1870) and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (1893). Even Schoenberg, in one of the sketches of his Piano Concerto Op. 42 (1942), chose autobiographical designations for each of the four movements.

In each of these cases, as well as for the pieces on tonight’s program, a particular autobiographical impulse or event may have been crucial to the composition of the work, but it is not indispensable for the listener. To appreciate and follow a work, one doesn’t really need to know about the intentional meaning or the circumstances that compelled it to be created. In this sense autobiographical music functions on more levels than that of the composer’s intention. However, in explicitly evoking an autobiographical dimension, the composer draws out and highlights each listener’s inclination to weave into the sound some sort of plausible imaginary narration. Even if the autobiographical element is as indirect as in Lehár’s case, there is an intensity and immediacy that is implied by the acknowledgement that the work is a reflection of personal history. Autobiographical music seems the polar opposite of commissioned or occasional music. It embodies art as generated by inner necessity. Its intimate subject matter somehow seems to imply heightened candor and a greater sense of the autonomy of the work of art.

But anyone who lives in the society of others knows that self-representation is often far from honest—not because it is deliberately deceitful, but because the very act of self-analysis and description ignites all the wishes and despair of unconscious ambition, desire, envy, and doubt. To describe oneself without falling into the trap of instead describing how one wishes to appear to or hiding that which may have been from others is exceedingly difficult. The rendering of subjectivity that was prized and strived for in all the arts of the nineteenth century, and of which music was thought the quintessential medium, was clearly a quicksand, diversely exploited by such writers as Flaubert, James, and Dostoevsky. What is not said or perceived is infinitely more revealing than one’s calculated revelations and perceptions.

In music this tension between truth and subjective impression can also exist. Autobiographical music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries regularly functioned as a vehicle through which the composer could define his or her originality. Individuality was a prized attribute in the Romantic tradition of composition. The “artistic personality” was privileged as a reflection of human autonomy and freedom. Autobiographical music offered composers an opportunity to distinguish their music from that of anyone else. The autobiographical works of composers are therefore often considered in retrospect to be their most characteristic. This is certainly true of Suk and Schnittke. For Lehár, as Morton Solvik aptly points out, the autobiographical dimension of the work on tonight’s program resided in its capacity to express an unfulfilled ambition. It does not reveal that for which we remember Lehár but rather that which he wished to become but did not. It is therefore not surprising that the fantastic and the heroic often come to the fore in autobiographical music. Nowhere is this more apparent and chilling as in Wagner, whose autobiographical fantasy of heroism and chronic megalomania found unbridled expression in music. Contrast him to Richard Strauss, whose Symphonia domestica shifts between the fantastic and the shockingly candid and puts forward the most mundane aspects of daily life without embarrassment. In the American tradition, perhaps the most unusual and fascinating reflection of the autobiographical impulse is exemplified by the music of Charles Ives—particularly his Three Places in New England, in which the listener is invited to share the consciousness of memory and loss, particularly of childhood.

But precisely because instrumental music is not linguistic and the specifics of any autobiographical narrative can never be pinpointed, sometimes the difference between truth and subjectivity can be expanded beyond the ordinary oppositions that are delimited by the written word. The autobiographical in music is offered as an emotional characterization of the composer that is inferred by the listener. In this sense, music perhaps possesses a great advantage over the written word in representing subjectivity. Not bound by the limits of linguistic description, composers have sometimes used the intimacy of the autobiographical and the subjective as a covert act of artistic freedom. For example, Schnittke, who lived and worked in the Soviet Union, used, as did Shostakovich, autobiographical elements to express a range of responses to conditions of life not permitted in painting or literature. For the composer, musical autobiography unfettered by descriptive clarity could publicize private impressions and sentiments without endangerment.

The biographical details of each of the composers on tonight’s program suggest different ways in which lives could intertwine with musical creation. Franz Lehár (1870-1948), for example, may be famous for his operettas, but happiness and merriment were not the hallmarks of his life. The Merry Widow (1905) was particularly beloved by Hitler. Lehár (whose wife was Jewish) conducted himself through the Nazi era with unheroic ambivalence. The Viennese operetta, of which he was the most famous practitioner after Johann Strauss, had been until 1938 nearly dominated by Jewish colleagues among composers and librettists. His own work was thus easily appropriated as the true Aryan, rare, uncorrupted form of a popular genre. He died in 1948, long after his greatest success, a wealthy but isolated figure from the past. Despite the fact that he never achieved the respect he sought in the public imagination as a serious composer (even though his music was far superior to that of many of his fellow operetta composers), he did gain the high regard of none other than Arnold Schoenberg.

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) is widely regarded as the most successful and important composer of the Soviet era after Shostakovich. His music had an enormous currency and popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in the West. Like Shostakovich he suffered the disapproval of the regime. In the 1970s he was persecuted by the head of the union of Soviet composers Tikhon Krennikov, and was almost entirely ostracized in his native country. In 1991 Schnittke moved to the West even though in the era of Perestroika his music had been embraced by a new generation of Russian musicians in the Soviet Union. Schnittke’s work was immensely influential in its austerity, irony, appropriation of historical fragments and models, and the composer’s determined desire to bridge the gap between the popular and concert genres. Schnittke fused a unique synthesis between modernism and post-modernism. Much of his music has, like the Viola Concerto, an explicit connection to narrative. Since his death his popularity has receded somewhat, but there is little doubt that despite the changing tides that often plague the posthumous reception of composers who enjoyed enormous success during their lifetimes, Schnittke’s music will remain a vital part of the canon of music composed during the second half of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the least known composer being performed tonight is Josef Suk (1874-1935). The name may be familiar to many concertgoers because of the violinist Josef Suk, the composer’s grandson, whose recordings and performances have earned him a place as one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. Music was a long and proud tradition in the Suk family. The composer’s father (also Josef) was a music teacher and choirmaster. The composer himself was also the second violinist in the famous Bohemian Quartet (also called the Czech Quartet). But Suk’s real ambition was to compose. Consequently he studied composition with Dvořák and went on not only to become Dvořák’s favorite pupil but also Dvořák’s son-in-law. Suk was himself a teacher of considerable importance whose own pupils included Bohuslav Martinů. Suk was also responsible for bringing Janáček to the attention of the writer Max Brod (who had written extremely laudatory essay on Suk’s music). Suk urged Brod to go to a performance of Janáček’s Jenůfa in Brno. As a result of that performance, Brod arranged to bring Jenůfa to Prague and ultimately to Vienna and Berlin, thereby launching the international career of the then sixty-year-old Janáček. Unlike many of his Czech colleagues, Suk’s relationship to folk elements was not very pronounced. He saw himself a multi-faceted composer in the European tradition. Among his finest works are the Piano Quintet Op. 8 and the String Quartet Op.11, both of which reveal the enormous craftsmanship at his command. In this regard he can be compared to his contemporary, the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi.

In many ways, Suk innovated on the training of his celebrated teacher and father-in-law. Like Schumann, Suk’s piano works often have a powerful and intimate quality and are deeply personal and autobiographical works. Most commentators, however, consider Suk’s orchestral music his finest, which makes it difficult to understand why so little of it survives the standard repertory. (His wonderful Violin Fantasy, Op 24 (1903) was performed by this orchestra at the Bard Festival in New York in 1993). After the Asrael Symphony, Suk completed in 1917 the other orchestral work, entitled Ripening, Op.34, that one might still find on the occasional concert program. But it is clearly Asrael that stands as his orchestral masterpiece, and for some, his greatest work in any genre. In this work, Suk integrated the finest traditions of the Lisztian tone poem with that of the symphony. This work represents a musical experience that can certainly hold its own alongside Strauss, Elgar and Mahler.

Music that reflects the deeply personal and autobiographical creates a form of intimacy between creator and audience that exploits the exclusive qualities of musical communication. In a way that is quite distinct from reading a novel, attending a play, or gazing at a painting, the listener can accept the candor and specificity of another person’s experience of life without being locked into the passive position of an observer. The sense of communication through the evoking of corresponding emotion allows for the translation of another’s sensibility into the listener’s own. As the works on tonight’s program make plain, the autobiographical in music depends on a kind of empathetic parallelism. It is this singular form of connection that makes instrumental music an utterly unique medium for autobiographical introspection and expression.

A Vision: My Youth (1907)

By Morten Solvik

Written for the concert Musical Autobiography, performed on March 14, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

For all of the fame he achieved in his lifetime, Franz Lehár (1870-1948) remained something of a frustrated artist. His most famous composition, The Merry Widow (1905), ranks as arguably the most successful operetta ever written. Many more stage works also enjoyed widespread acclaim during the composer’s life. Indeed, his music brought him considerable wealth and made him a celebrity far beyond the borders of his native Austria. Nevertheless, Lehár could not escape the feeling that his accomplishments were not taken seriously, that despite his popularity – indeed, perhaps because of it – his rank as a composer would never rise above that of a talented entertainer.

Lehár objected strongly to this prejudice and, for a time at least, sought to convince the public of his stature as a serious artist. In an autobiographical essay published in 1907 he defended the consummate skill required in composing a successful operetta and made a special point of highlighting the strength of his musical background. In casting the story of his life, Lehár invoked the familiar travails of genius: a childhood prodigy, who, as the son of a military bandmaster, grew up in many corners of the Austrian Empire and was sent off for schooling at the Conservatory in Prague. Here he was misunderstood, forced to hone his considerable skills as a violinist while inwardly devoted to composition. Private lessons from the highly respected Czech composer, Zdenek Fibich, subsequent contact with Dvořák and even attention from Brahms held out the promise of a bright future for the teenager. There followed years of hardship: toiling with trivial duties as a military bandmaster while in his precious spare time working on his serious compositions. So convinced was he of his first major work, an opera entitled Kukuschka, that he laid aside his baton and uniform for the life of a freelance composer. The opera enjoyed only limited success and he was soon back in the military, simply to earn his keep. Only upon turning to operetta, so ends the story, did he finally gain the recognition he deserved.

It can hardly be a coincidence that a few months prior to the writing of that essay, Lehár made his debut as a composer of symphonic music with the first performance of A Vision. The choice of venue for the tone poem had symbolic meaning, for the premiere served as the curtain-raiser to the 400th performance of The Merry Widow, which – astonishingly – had its first performance barely fourteen months earlier. By presenting his operetta audience with a work from a weightier genre, Lehár was clearly trying to make a point. As a reviewer declared in open admiration of the piece and in tacit agreement with the low regard for operetta: “We know he is capable of writing more than dance music.”

That Lehár would choose this work to lay claim to the stature of a composer of broad talents reveals a noteworthy attempt at grappling with his musical identity. Research for this program note has uncovered that A Vision was originally conceived as a work entitled “Huldigungs-Ouverture” and composed in 1900. The music is reminiscent of the self-consciously Slavic composers that, by Lehár’s own admission, had played such an important role in the formation of his early musical training. Little wonder that the delicate orchestration, festive rhythms and folkish melodic gestures of Lehár’s work contain more than a hint of Dvořák‘s Slavonic Dances or Smetana’s Ma Vlast. For Lehár, this ‘vision of youth’ (as indicated in a later title for the work) no doubt symbolized his efforts to return to his roots as a serious musician.

For audiences it was a different matter. A Vision made no lasting impression. And while Lehár may have made his point, he had not altered expectation. The public continued to demand the catchy melodies, attractive characters, and frivolous nostalgia that he had been able to give them with such finesse. Although from now on essentially free to compose as he desired, success had made Lehár a captive of the musical style that had propelled him to fame. While managing to bring considerable sophistication to his operettas, he did not succeed in breaking the mold of his public persona. The composer of substance, like the past he so ingeniously recalled in his works, had been left behind.

Viola Concerto (1985)

By Gerard McBurney

Written for the concert Musical Autobiography, performed on March 14, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

One of the great advantages of being a composer in the Soviet Union – and there were many disadvantages – was that as long as you had something serious to say with your art, instead of being isolated as so many Western artists are, you were part of what Russians call the ‘intellighentsia,’ the community of friends and kindred spirits who were as interested in your work as you were in theirs. One of the effects of this was that Soviet composers often had extremely close working links with some of the finest performers of their day. Prokofiev and Shostakovich famously worked with Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, while for the next generation of composers there was not only Rostropovich (who is still working with composers today), but a roster of such startlingly brilliant younger players as the violinists Gidon Kremer and Oleg Kagan, the violist Yuri Bashmet and the cellist Natalya Gutman.

Alfred Schnittke composed for all these great musicians and for many other wonderful performers too. His numerous concertos, in particular, are a panoramic record of a lifetime of such musical friendships and working relationships. For example, his Third Violin Concerto (1978) was written for Kagan, while the Fourth (1984) was for Kremer. His two cello concertos were for Gutman (1986) and Rostropovich (1990). Altogether, over a period of more than thirty years, Schnittke wrote around twenty such concertos, most of them for close friends who played stringed instruments.

One of the grandest and finest of these is his Viola Concerto, composed in the summer of 1985 for Yuri Bashmet. Especially in later years, it was Schnittke’s habit when writing music for his friends to encode their name in musical letters into the score. This Viola Concerto is no exception. Very near the beginning of the work we hear the viola soloist spelling out the letters of Bashmet’s name as a melody. That is, in a mixture of German and French notation: B – A – Es – C – H – Mi… or, in more familiar Anglo-Saxon notation: B flat – A – E flat – C – B natural – E natural. From this tiny six note phrase, Schnittke builds almost the entire structure of this concerto, nearly forty minutes of music.

Schnittke’s Viola Concerto has three movements, each longer than the last. The slow first movement, which lasts just over five minutes, has the character of an introduction, launching the main images and melodies of the whole piece. After an agonised opening declamation for the viola, in which the orchestra functions like an echo chamber sustaining every note the violist plays, we hear the eerie ‘Bashmet’ melody harmonised by the orchestral strings with simple old-fashioned chords almost like church music. This is followed by a second and longer version of the declamation which culminates in a terrifying chord from the full orchestra (also made of the same six notes from Bashmet’s name). Then a third idea appears, something like a delicate baroque cadence from a piece of eighteenth-century music by a composer like Bach.

The second movement – Allegro molto – begins with frantic arpeggiation from the soloist, like silent-movie music, almost as though the soloist were being hunted down by the orchestra. In the course of this very varied movement, Schnittke weaves in not only the three ideas from the first movement but a whole series of sometimes upsetting references to other quite different kinds of music: film-music, cheap dance-music, brass-band music, Soviet military marches and so on. Schnittke loved to do this kind of thing. He felt passionately that the musical rubbish of our lives needed to be drawn into serious works of art, that connections needed to be made between what he called the “high” and the “low.”

The final movement, at a little over a quarter of an hour, is almost as long as the previous two movements put together. It is a spacious and desolate lament, in the course of which music from both the previous two movements reappears, but ruined and destroyed. Through a dreadfully bleak musical landscape, the viola soloist wanders as though searching for some echo or answer from the orchestra. At the very end, the music once again settles on the six notes from Bashmet’s name, drawing from them the only traditional chord they contain – a simple triad of A minor – which the strings of the orchestra sustain and sustain, while around the chord the soloist gasps and whispers on a series of low dissonant pulsing notes, like the beating of a heart.

Shortly after he finished this concerto, Schnittke was staying in the Black Sea resort of Pitsunda when, on the July 21, 1985, he had a severe stroke. Although he recovered partially, for the rest of his life his health was severely damaged. He later wrote movingly about the associations between this critical moment and the Viola Concerto:

“In a certain respect the piece has the character of a – temporary – farewell. For ten days after finishing work on it, I was placed in a situation from which there was hardly any way out. I could only slowly enter a second phase of life, a phase through which I am still passing. Like a premonition of what was to come, the music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement).”

Suk’s Asrael as Autobiography and More

By Michael Beckerman

Written for the concert Musical Autobiography, performed on March 14, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The writing of explicitly autobiographical works is an essential part of any putative “Czech tradition.” Though the string quartet has always had a reputation for abstraction, Bedrich Smetana called his first work in the genre “From My Life,” and included many programmatic clues including, most hauntingly, the high-pitched harbinger of his own impending deafness. Dvořák refers to himself (as soloist hero) in the Cello Concerto, and also refers to past (or present) romance, in the famous coda to the final movement, and several years later he writes “A Hero’s Life” with autobiographical strains throughout. Janáček composes his “Intimate Letters” quartet, providing a fairly explicit musical portrait of his love for a younger woman: “Today I have succeeded in the movement ‘where the earth moved.’” It is no wonder that Josef Suk, as self-proclaimed member of this Czech club, would be thinking about music and autobiography at a time of stress, mourning, and personal reevaluation.

Indeed, the origin of the symphony itself may be traced to a moment of trauma, the death of his father-in-law:

“I was suddenly handed a telegram: Return immediately – Dvořák dead [1/5/1904]. I shall never forget that terrible journey to Prague. Not only was I crushed to the depths of human emotion, I was also consumed with anxiety over whether Otilka’s failing heart would take it. This sad turn of events also marked a turning point in my creative work, and thus the symphony, bearing the name of the Angel of Death, Asrael, was conceived. I completed the first part of the composition, dedicated to the memory of Dvořák, but the last movement, which was to have been an apotheosis of the maestro’s work, was never written. The fearsome Angel of Death struck with his scythe a second time, and into eternity departed the purest, sweetest soul of my Otilka.”

Through his pain and attempts to understand the loss of his wife, Suk composed some of his most memorable scores. On an intimate scale he wrote the lovely piano cycle “About Mother,” for his young child. But he also was working on a larger canvas: “Such a misfortune either destroys a man or brings to the surface all the powers dormant in him. It looked like I might be of that first kind, but music saved me and after a year I began the second part of the symphony, beginning with an adagio, a tender portrait of Otilka. In a very short time, and with superhuman energy, I became immersed in the terrors of the last movement which nevertheless ends in the clarity and calm of C major. Blessed be the dead.”

Suk was unusually insistent about the autobiographical bona fides of his work, but he seems to have had some trepidation that the work might be understood in too narrow a context, and took pains to suggest that it had a more universal appeal. This “modest” second violinist also reveals that he, like his father-in-law Dvořák, had a firm sense of his own worth: “It’s been said of this work, and about other works of mine, that they’re subjective in the extreme. They do, of course, stem from life experience, but with their musical and human content they address all mankind. When, after the stormy and nerve-wracking last movement of the symphony, the mysterious and soft C major chord is heard, I often notice that it brings tears to people’s eyes, and these tears are tears of relief, tears that purify and uplift – they are, therefore, not just my tears.”