Too Much Tchaikovsky

Pan and Perséphone

Today we begin with Mahler and his Third Symphony. Then we move on to Perséphone, a melodrama for which Igor Stravinsky composed music in 1934. Both works—and a lot of other music from the last hundred years—draw upon various notions of the “classic.” So next time, we’ll sort out even more of that, using music from Prokofiev, Huw Watkins, and Mozart.

But first Mahler. Like Stravinsky and other “neoclassical” composers, he drew upon a bedrock of Western culture: Greek mythology. Timeless truths. Ripping good yarns, too. His approach, like everyone else’s, was quite flexible. Like Stravinsky, he had no interest in conforming to preconceived notions.

As early as 1895, Mahler began conceptual work on his Third Symphony as Pan: Symphonic Poems. At that point he envisioned seven movements with programmatic subtitles, e.g., “What the flowers of the meadow tell me,” “What the beasts of the forests tell me.” Central to the generative power of the overall program was Pan, “god of woods and fields, of flocks and shepherds,” in Bulfinch’s words. To Mahler those words did not go nearly far enough:

It always strikes me as strange that most people, when they talk about “Nature,” think only of flowers, birds, forest breezes, etc. Nobody knows the god Dionysius, Great Pan!

Mahler originally titled the first movement “Pan Awakes; Summer Marches In.” Just as Bulfinch got around to telling us Pan was no mere “rural deity” but rather a “personification of Nature,” enabling all life to form and grow, so did the composer soon enlarge upon his subject:

It’s eerie, the way life gradually breaks through. . . . And, as this life rises from stage to stage, it takes on ever more highly developed forms: flowers, beasts, man, up to the sphere of the spirits, the “angels.” . . . “Summer marches in” no longer fits the shape of things in this introduction; “Pan’s Procession” would be better. . . . Satyrs and other such rough children of nature disport themselves in it.

The opening, with its eight-horn paraphrase of the finale theme from Brahms’s First Symphony, leaves no doubt as to the world-shaking might of the forces being summoned. But the moment that seeks to introduce Pan is this:

Frankly, I’m glad Mahler provided a program for the Third, because otherwise I would have no idea this music depicts Pan. It could almost as easily introduce one of those Armageddon sci-fi movies. Only some of the music that follows gives us the “rough children of nature” beloved by Mahler. (Speaking of rough children: 25-year-old trombonist Franz Dreyer’s playing of the big “Pan” solos so impressed Mahler at the symphony’s premiere that he hired Dreyer away from Köln for the Wiener Philharmoniker.) The whole first movement, littered with bird calls and fanfares, takes at least a half hour to perform. Here is a passage, closer to the end, that actually suggests “Pan’s Procession” (and you’ll hear something of the quasi-Brahms tune too):

Mahler never could decide whether programs were a good idea. On the one hand, many people wanted a way into the music; on the other, no literary program could possibly give a full understanding, since it was so intensely personal (and necessarily abstract) an expression.

The recording that encouraged me to give Mahler’s Third another listen comes from conductor François-Xavier Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln (Harmonia Mundi), the same group that played the first performance. (Well, obviously not precisely the same group.) They bring a welcome spirit, alternately brash and tender, to the proceedings, and it’s well recorded. Strongly recommended.

And now to Stravinsky: If we recognize in Mahler’s Pan symphony the same primal power that animates the Rite of Spring (a work that relies on no classical mythologies), we might think of Perséphone as a companion to both, since it also works with the idea of the generative/regenerative power of Nature manifested in the changing seasons.

Trouble is, the protagonists this time are not rural deities, nor are they prehistoric hominids with violently libidinous tendencies. Rather, Persephone’s story outfits her for dual roles in management of the universe. Daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture, growth, and nourishment, she is linked with the springtime rebirth of flowers and grain, as is her future husband Triptolemus, who tills the soil. In the traditional version of the story, Persephone is abducted by Pluto, god of the underworld, who forces her to live with him in Hades, the shadows of which she illuminates by her presence—whenever she’s not upstairs helping out Demeter and Triptolemus, that is.

André Gide’s poetic adaptation for Stravinsky modernizes and humanizes Persephone. In Gide’s retelling, she plucks a “deep black flower,” whose scent induces her to take pity on the inhabitants of the underworld. Thus she chooses (!) to dwell with them as their queen but nevertheless yearns—especially after biting into a pomegranate—for those she knew in her previous life, and so she arranges to usher in springtime above ground every year.

Does all this sound rather precious? Are you wondering how Stravinsky and Gide came up with a theatrically satisfying narrative? Well, they quarreled. The hybrid work they produced—a ballet-cum-oratorio with monologues—met with an uncertain reception from its first audiences; thus a major work by a major composer remains relatively unfamiliar. Yet it occupies a special place in the hearts of connoisseurs: The Guardian’s Andrew Clements termed it “one of the most radiant and lyrically beautiful scores . . . in 20th-century music.” Conductors like Ludovic Morlot, Andrew Davis, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Esa-Pekka Salonen have recently championed it, so it is gratifying to see that Pentatone has captured one of Salonen’s performances. The sound is superb; you can click on the label link in the previous sentence and hear brief excerpts from each movement. You’ll get a much better sense from extended passages, though. Here are three.

As the work begins, Demeter has entrusted Persephone to the care of the Nymphs, who celebrate “the flowers and birds, the tender embrace of the stream.” “Stay with us,” they say, “and share in our joy; today is the world’s first morning.”

After Persephone becomes sensitive to the Shades, she sets out to console them with her presence (“Ô peuple douloureux . . . Vers toi j’irae”). Stravinsky’s language here—presumably a dance sequence—is dominated by neoclassical echoes of Bach and others, becoming distilled in a florid oboe line and punctuating bass:

Persephone languishes in the underworld, finding her powers there limited. She rejects Pluto’s gifts; instead of precious gems, she would rather be given something alive, like “the meadows’ most fragile flower.” The tenor soloist (who narrates throughout) tells us that clever Mercury brings her a pomegranate, the taste of which compels her to return to earth. “Where am I?” she asks, “The fruit has revived in me the taste for the land I lost.” (This is not the role the pomegranate originally played—click here for the classic story.)

Perhaps these excerpts will suggest the riches that lie within. Although Perséphone models Apollonian composure and balance, it also offers an enchanting array of musical events and a story grounded in modern psychological insight.

In Classicists Part Two, we’ll explore concertos and symphonies from Prokofiev, Watkins, Mozart and more, continuing our look at just how creatively the classical traditions could be reshaped.