After yesterday's exploration of the premise that a musical performance could be viewed as a designed artifact (albeit a dynamic one), it seems worth while to consider the parallel premise that every musical composition is just as much a designed artifact. Those who romanticize the arts tend to eschew such thinking, forgetting the old saw about art consisting of only 10% inspiration but 90% perspiration. The idea of design as a conscious and highly reflective activity accounts for all of that perspiration; and sometimes our abilities to listen to the results can be facilitated by taking such an "artefactual" stance. I would argue that such a stance was valuable in approaching this week's San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Symphony Hall.
The program was arranged in reverse chronological order, beginning with Aaron Copland's concert version of music he had written for the 1940 film Our Town. This was followed by the 1929 orchestration of Alban Berg's Opus 6, the three pieces for orchestra, which had been completed in their original form in 1915. The program after the Intermission consisted entirely of Johannes Brahms' first (Opus 68) symphony, completed in 1876.
Much is written about how long it took before Brahms composed his first symphony. There are, of course, those documents that allude to Brahms having been "haunted by Beethoven's shadow;" but my more recent thoughts seem to have tended less to a haunting ghost and more to a passing torch. On the other hand Brahms may well have been haunted by the idea of symphony-as-artifact. Beethoven had certainly broken with any number of conventions as a symphonist, and Robert Schumann was only too happy to pick up that torch in his four efforts to reconceptualize what he felt a symphony could and should be. Given Brahms' closeness to the Schumann family, one could appreciate his reluctance to approach the turf where Schumann had been experimenting so energetically; and that may even explain why it took about twenty years after Schumann's death for Brahms to finally seek his own path on that turf.
Opus 68 is definitely Brahms' own path (Brahms' Way?). Like Schumann, he was interested in taking a more integrated approach; but he was more interested in integration within, rather than across, movements. We encounter this at the very beginning, when the Un poco sostenuto of the first movement reveals itself as an "abstract" of the following Allegro. This, however, is only a "warm-up" for the final movement, whose opening Adagio again lays out the "building blocks" for the Allegro ma non troppo, ma con brio, but with a new architectural twist to the traditional exposition-development-recapitulation structure. The twist comes from folding development and recapitulation together into a single structural unit. As a result the ear experiences the materials of this movement on three scales:
- The abbreviated "abstract" of the Adagio
- The elaboration of that "abstract" in the exposition
- A "higher level" of elaboration that follows the basic plan of the exposition (as the recapitulation does), while introducing development-like embellishments along the way
Brahms definitely found his own turf with this symphony; and, while he never repeated this trick, he was now free to explore new experiments in symphonic structure.
Others have already written about the rather brisk and energetic approach that Michael Tilson Thomas took to conducting this work. Personally, I felt that his sense of pace was exactly what was called for in clarifying all three of those scales of the last movement. This was hardly surprising from a conductor who has mastered the pacing of Gustav Mahler's eighth symphony in order to elucidate its far vaster, but still structurally coherent, architecture. Indeed, if we wish to think in terms of a torch passed from Beethoven to Brahms, possibly by way of Schumann, then the next stage would be the passing from Brahms-the-symphonist to Mahler-the-symphonist, with the latter's eighth symphony apotheosizing the entire process. In such a setting we can appreciate the extent to which Thomas brings to his podium an understanding not only of the composition being performed but also of the historical context of that composition.
This brings us to the next chronological level, so to speak, since Thomas tends to approach Berg's orchestral writing in terms of a torch received from Mahler; and part of the historical context has to do with the naming of the composition itself. We already see Schumann resorting to the non-committal noun "piece" (Stuck) for several of his compositions; and we encounter that nomenclature again in Brahms' final piano works. Arnold Schoenberg did the same for his initial experimental ventures for both orchestra and piano, as did Anton Webern as well as Berg. Nevertheless, his Opus 6 "pieces" still have highly dramatic connotations; and it is no surprise to read in Michael Steinberg's program notes that he first saw a performance of Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck while working on these pieces. The result is a synthesis of a retrospective view of Mahler with what is almost a sketchbook for the orchestral rhetoric that Berg would summon for his opera based on Büchner's play. Personally, I find it hard to listen to Opus 6 without hearing fragments from the Wozzeck libretto in the back of my head, particularly in the round-dance piece (Reigen) and the concluding surrealistic march.
Also, as is the case with Mahler, this is music that simply cannot be accommodated by the limitations of recording technology. Too many things are happening, and Thomas was in peak form keeping them all properly under control. Indeed, so much is happening that the ear benefits significantly from visual cues as to "where the action is." The result is a ride wilder than anything the Disney folks could have ever conceived and a reminder of just how energizing the experience of musical performance can be.
From an artefactual point of view, Copland's composition was an artifact for an artifact (the film, which was actually an artifact based on an earlier artifact for the stage). Furthermore, that sense of artifact was foremost in Thornton Wilder's mind for the stage play, drawing upon a bare minimum of resources and leaving the rest to the imagination of the audience. I was pleasantly surprised at the extent to which the film honored Wilder's deliberate artificiality, rather than smoothing it over with a "Hollywood treatment." However, if director Sam Wood managed to avoid sliding into Hollywood sentimentality, I fear the same cannot be said of Copland's score. This is not a problem when it is kept under control by skillful film editing; but, taken on its own, it seems to miss the darker and more ironic points that Wilder was able to tease out from his deliberately artificial pastoral setting. Thomas had no trouble giving all of Copland's expressiveness its proper due (thus making up for the brutality of the editing table); but that expressiveness covered up the deliberate artificiality of Wilder's original conception. On the other hand, in the context of the intensity that would follow in the music of both Berg and Brahms, it may have been a good idea to begin the evening with this bit of "quiet time."