Intimations of Mortality

Dilemma of the week: should I go to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall next Saturday and hear the Royal Scottish National Orchestra play Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique?  Three reasons to go:  (1) The RSNO is on top form.  (2) The orchestra has just returned to the concert hall following the hall’s refurbishment (they had decamped to the City Halls, which are beautiful but rather too small for the orchestra), and (3) the Tchaikovsky is wonderful, and I remember being greatly taken with it when I played it in orchestra as a teenager.  But against all that, it is cripplingly sad, even morbid.  As I’ve said somewhere before, sad music is an indulgence to the young.  It is only later that some sadnesses acquire a particularity.  There are irreversible sadnesses.   

All sorts of mythologies have grown up around Tchaik 6.  A week after the first performance the composer was dead, having drunk contaminated water and succumbed to cholera.  There is a conspiracy theory that the St Petersburg establishment found his homosexuality distasteful and, to all intents and purposes, left him alone in a room with a pistol containing a single cartridge.  I incline to think this is all nonsense, that Tchaikovsky was very proud of his work, and had no inkling that it was to be his last.  The symphony certainly looks ahead musically.  I would suggest that Stravinsky had in mind the descending clarinet solo in the first movement, marked adagio mosso and then ritardando molto, when he composed the descending clarinet solo leading to the final section of The Rite of Spring.  Tchaikovsky diminuendos to pppppp (he was prone to hyperbole), the last four quavers scored for bassoon, often performed on the bass clarinet because pppppp is extremely difficult to achieve on the bassoon.  Then there is a tremendous syncopated orchestral eruption, Allegro vivo.  Same in the Stravinsky, similarly syncopated, in which we commence the final, sacrificial dance of death.  This is why I also hesitate to attend a performance of The Rite.  Its closing passages are a depiction of a panic-stricken nightmare. 

Most mythologies that surround final works are worthy of debunking.  The last (second) movement of Beethoven’s last (32nd) piano sonata, Opus 111, has such an air of finality about it that it almost sounds like music from beyond the grave.  And didn’t Beethoven go on to say that he found the pianoforte (or perhaps fortepiano) an unsatisfactory instrument, and that he was abandoning it?  But then he went on to write the Diabelli Variations.  Diabelli only wanted one, and he gave him 33!  The last movement of Beethoven’s last work, the string quartet Opus 135, bears the portentous heading, “Muss es sein?  Es muss sein, es muss sein!”  Must it be? It must be, it must be!  It sounds reminiscent of Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament and his determination to carry on living, and composing, despite his deafness.  I will seize fate by the throat!  But Muss es sein turns out to be just a joke about his laundry bill.  The last movement of the Opus 135 is sunny, and it is impossible to think of it as an intimation of mortality.  Rather, the Op 135 is interpreted as the composer’s embarking on a “fourth period”.   

Gustav Mahler is another composer thought to be obsessed by his encroaching demise.  The mythology here is that he tried to dodge the poisoned chalice of writing a ninth symphony, by composing in its place a song cycle on a symphonic scale, Das Lied von der Erde.  Then he wrote the ninth symphony.  But he never got to finish the tenth symphony so in the end was unable to hoodwink fate.  The final song of Das Lied is overtly a farewell, “ewig, ewig…” – the passage that reduced Kathleen Ferrier to tears when she performed it with Bruno Walter.  It has to be said that Ferrier’s recording of Das Lied is beyond description.  But then she was a very rare creature.  A soul.    And Mahler 9?  I would suggest he got the idea for the protracted string section coda from the closing bars of Schubert’s Unfinished.  Maybe that was another attempt to cheat fate.  Mahler’s Unfinished Symphony.

We can’t talk about musical Schwanengesang without talking about Sibelius.  Retrospectively, his last (seventh) symphony, in its emphatic last cadence, has an air of finality about it, and his last significant orchestral work, Tapiola, dissolves into a terminal Arctic blizzard.  Yet at the time there was no intimation of impending closure.  Sibelius was working on an eighth symphony.  But any fragments have disappeared.  He seemed to lapse into a thirty year alcoholic silence.   

Still, I think there are expressions of finality in music that are not merely our own subjective and retrospective interpretation, but really exist within the music.  It seems to me that the closing passage of Arnold Bax’s last symphony, No. 7, is the culmination of a huge orchestral arc.  Bax favoured the compositional form of the epilogue.  Epilogues finish his second, third, sixth, and seventh symphonies.  The epilogue to the seventh is quite short, quite serene, and very beautiful.  It is an expressive articulation, so to say, this is my last symphony.

Again there is Shostakovich’s last symphony, number 15, with its playfully sardonic references to Rossini’s William Tell, and Wagner’s Tristan, punctuated by chilling and doom-laden chords, and culminating in the percussion section’s depiction of steadily ticking clocks.  Tick-tock-tick-tock.  This was Shostakovich’s last symphony but not his last work.  That was the viola sonata.  It seems to me to owe something to the mood of the close of Bela Bartok’s sixth (and final) string quartet, itself charged with the aura of culmination.  The Shostakovich closes in a slow threnody, ending in a protracted low E sustained on the viola’s C string, against the final utterances of the pianoforte.  Is there any more poignant expression of finality?

Yes.  Stravinsky again.  His last significant work, Requiem Canticles, and its last movement, Postlude.  Its duration is little more than two minutes, these containing protracted silences.  Then, at last, these quite extraordinary, quintessentially Stravinskian chords.  The last utterance.

But enough of pathos, gentle reader.  Sir Thomas Beecham used to end his concerts with a “lollipop”, designed to lower the temperature after all the doom and gloom.  From pathos to bathos, from the sublime to the Cor Blimey.  Talking of bathos, there are two radio trailers currently doing the rounds on Radio 4, for up-coming dramas.  They are risible.  Contemporary drama is incapable of freeing itself from “grittiness”.  Great Expectations sounds like a gangster movie.  Somebody – is it Miss Havisham or Mr Jaggers? – resembles a Dalek.  And Marie Antoinette…  The ham acting is absolutely excruciating.   “You think you’re really sumpthin’ don’t ya?”  So Louis XVI. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s