Telling the Story

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Every picture tells a story.

That’s utterly true, regardless of Rod Stewart. And if every picture can speak, so can all the music ever made. It’s always useful to remind ourselves of just how that works.

Let’s begin with Bach, specifically the Prelude from Cello Suite No. 4 in E-flat:

To recap: (1) Up to 26”, we’re setting the scene. It consists of a series of arpeggiated chords, each launched by a bass note and a leap upward, then statements of the chord that drift downward before another bass note launches another leap, and so forth. The scope of this chord sequence is limited; even though each chord-phrase is immediately repeated, our sequence returns safely home to the tonic chord in under half a minute. (2) At 27” the harmonies begin to wander further afield: our heroine’s adventure into a wider world has begun. Now chords are less likely to be repeated, as the material plunges into territory that feels darker, more complex, more significant somehow, even while the basic chord-phrase remains consistent. You can think of that basic phrase as our heroine, whereas the rapidly changing chords represent the path she’s taking through the forest, a path that becomes ever more twisty, the trees looming overhead ever more ominously. (3) At 2’27”, anxiety overcomes our adventurer. She slows, then stops. The next sound we hear is not her arpeggio figure, but a skittering, anxious series of scales. She attempts to return to the chord-phrases, but that’s not easy. Panic has seized her; the crisis will not abate without a struggle. But (to abandon the fairy tale for a moment) this is a short instrumental piece, not a grand opera or a Beethoven symphony. And so, (4) soon after the 3-minute mark, peace begins to return. Although the clouds never entirely lift—how could they?—our heroine safely reaches her grandmother’s house.

My point is, there’s always a story. If you’re going to have maximum fun with music, you should accept—nay, abandon yourself to—the notion of narrative. While you’re at it, you may as well learn all the different ways narrative can function. Three excerpts from Haydn symphonies offer pointed lessons. First, the Adagio of Symphony No. 26 in D Minor, “Lamentatione”:

One of Haydn’s early biographers asked the old composer whether he sought to “treat this or that literary subject of his own choosing” in his music. Haydn’s answer was emphatic:

Rarely. In instrumental music I generally gave entirely free rein to my purely musical imagination. Only one exception occurs to me now, when in the Adagio of a symphony I chose the theme of a conversation between God and a foolish sinner.

One musicologist has suggested that this Adagio was that of Symphony No. 26. You hear oboes and (eventually) horns play a Gregorian chant melody associated with Passiontide; meanwhile the first violins weave a garland of more ornate figures around the chant’s simple notes. As the movement goes on, that garland becomes increasingly active, gradually dominating the texture.

But it’s not convincing as a conversation, really. Where’s the back-and-forth? In fact Haydn was contributing to an established 18th-century tradition in which soloists added embellishments to a chant line. There’s no real exchange of remarks here; it’s the most static dialogue ever. He offers more compelling story-telling mimetics elsewhere. For instance, in a symphonic movement adapted from music for a play, Le distrait, we hear a portrait in swift strokes of two female characters, the ingénue Isabelle and the older Madame Grognac, who sternly countermands Isabelle’s graceful theme with pompous, martial motifs:

Talk about a Song Without Words; this suggests a whole scene!

The literary device of the unreliable narrator also pops up in Haydn symphonies, as well it might: early volumes of Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy began to appear in 1759. Although it’s unlikely Haydn ever read it, the novel has a playful way with narrative—Tristram can’t explain anything simply, so he spends more time in digressions than in actually telling his life story—which exemplifies the epoch’s obsession with intellectual games, satire as social critique, and more. Here is a similarly playful passage from Haydn’s Symphony No. 80 in D Minor, the likes of which were sharply criticized by certain contemporary critics because of their eccentric ( = unreliable) tone:

Following a grimly dramatic Sturm und Drang opening and modulation to the relative major, we get a secondary theme that minces along seemingly unaware of its triviality. Shocking! The development proceeds with similar alternations of the sublime and ridiculous. Having heard such juvenile nonsense, Hiller asked, how could anyone sustain belief in “the dignity of music”? How indeed?

We’ve been hearing clips from Giovanni Antonini’s remarkable series of Haydn symphonies and other 18th-century works for Alpha Classics. Two volumes, Nos. 5 “L’Homme de Génie” and 6 “Lamentatione,” appeared in 2017, none in 2018, but more are promised. I hope they arrive soon; these are hands-down the most engaging performances I’ve heard in years. They are surrounded by thematically related photos, essays, and contemporaneous music that provide a feast for listeners. Antonini honed his skills on Vivaldi, but his Haydn shows the same energy, wit, and attention to detail.

At this point our discussion should move to large-scale orchestral narratives, like those in symphonies by Shostakovich and his hero Mahler. Not going to happen! There’s scarcely space enough here to do justice to even a single such work, and long ago you will have already investigated (and re-investigated) your favorite “program” symphonies anyway. These works have staying power. Note that new recordings of Mahler’s Sixth and Shostakovich’s No. 11 “The Year 1905” were among the 25 Best Tracks cited in TMT #74. The latter work speaks—as symphonies are meant to speak—on behalf of an entire nation, remembering a historic cataclysm that, in 1956, resonated with fresh horror for many Russians. It’s one more reminder that a “classical” work can speak anew—even if ironically and unintentionally—to succeeding generations. (For Shostakovich, I’ll stick with Petrenko and the RLPO on Naxos, even though I’m happy the Boston SO is in Andris Nelsons’ hands these days.)

Let’s end with a small-scale work, David Lang’s mystery sonatas (Canteloupe). Like the Passacaglia in Biber’s “Mystery” Sonatas, these works are to be performed by a solo violinist without accompaniment. But whereas Biber’s mysteries are complex both technically and artistically, Lang’s are simple. That is a general characteristic of his music, and it can be vexing. Several years ago I happened to be at Zankel Hall when Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices gave the U.S. premiere of The Little Match Girl Passion. In conversations afterwards with a couple of composers—out-of-towners like myself—I was struck by their vitriolic dismissal of Lang’s music, especially by comparison with Luciano Berio’s A-Ronne, also on the program and a work of stunning virtuosity. Wasn’t Lang cheating to write something as simplistic as Little Match Girl? How dare he?

Later in the season he won the Pulitzer Prize for it.

Back to mystery sonatas: in order to perceive this work as a story, you need to experience each movement in turn, accepting the narrative plan as a series of emotional states, not unlike the string of da capo arias that feature in a typical Handel opera. There, each aria features a single, unchanging Affekt that contributes to a sufficiently convincing flow of events and feelings. Lang’s seven movements are titled “Joy,” “After Joy,” “Before Sorrow,” “Sorrow,” and so forth. (Like I said, simple.)


Next time, we’ll tackle voiced narratives, especially requiems (by Berlioz, Harbison, Kastalsky) and opera (by two Finns, Saariaho and Fagerlund).

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