Sounding the Mysteries: Nature, Music, and the Human Soul

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Thomas Ades leads the TMC Orchestra. Photo Hilary Scott.
Thomas Ades leads the TMC Orchestra. Photo Hilary Scott.

Sounding the Mysteries: Nature, Music, and the Human Soul

The TMC Orchestra plays music of Britten, Adès, and Sibelius
Ozawa Hall, Monday July 24 at 8 pm
Britten – Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from “Peter Grimes” (1947)
Adès – Polaris (2010)
Sibelius – The Bard (1914)
Symphony no. 7 in C (1924)

TMC orchestra performances tend to be somewhat haphazard assortments of repertory, mostly of high quality, but diverse rather than coherent as programs. Monday night’s concert was different: there were resonances among the works that indicated a triangle of influences and artistic interests with the apex being in the music of British composer Thomas Adès, who conducted half of the program.

In contemplating the two later orchestral compositions by Sibelius, I found myself wondering what makes his music so uniquely personal and strangely eloquent. Indeed, this music is strange, not in the modernistic way in which his younger contemporaries Schoenberg, Stravinsky, et al. cultivated new sounds by overturning conventional practice in harmony, melody, and rhythm, but in the more subtle and subversive manner in which he continued to use the materials of the past in ways that increasingly sounded nothing like his predecessors.

True, his early works show clear lineages from Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and Liszt, with folkloric elements common to his contemporaries, including fellow Scandinavian Grieg. But by the time he had arrived at what Eric Tawaststjerna calls his “dark period” starting in 1908, he found an enigmatic, dark-hued voice and a mysterious rhetoric unlike any other composer (but possibly influenced by Mussorgsky and Debussy). His musical sentences mutter, sigh, break off, repeat themselves, metamorphose; phrases end with question marks but no answer follows; familiar harmonies sometimes go where you expect, but just as often do not; the larger gestures build up to climaxes that do not arrive, turn the mood dark or light unpredictably, and generate an atmosphere that is thoroughly compelling and, above all, mysterious.

Mystery has always been an essential part of music. One thinks of the way Gregorian chant and medieval church music were performed in specially created, highly resonant acoustics behind choir screens that obscured the source of the sound as a carefully crafted mystical experience associated with the magical ritual of Communion. A similar purpose lies behind Thomas Tallis’s famous forty-voice motet “Spem in alium,” and in the multi-choral works provided for the San Marco cathedral in Venice by Giovanni Gabrieli, with their structuring of musical spaces and resonant acoustics.

In the more rationalized music languages of the eighteenth century, mystery seems a bit harder to come by. For the Protestant Bach, the next life lay just around the corner and was always there as a comforting presence. The Viennese classicists could provoke a wonderful sense of rational form and beautiful balance, but the mysteries of sublime experience did not truly emerge until Beethoven’s music began transgressing against classical practices. Even there, the sense of wonder at life’s unknowns is a rare occurrence: in the Ninth Symphony, it appears at the words “Seid umschlungen, millionen” but it is clear that the source of wonder is the vision of a utopian communalism fully achieved. It is only in the late quartets, which were opaque to his contemporaries, that Beethoven stared into the abyss and threw in his musical questions about what it means to be human. In this regard, it seems reasonable to propose that the successor to these late quartets is to be found in the later symphonic works of Sibelius, which seem to emanate from this same abyss, and in which the human voice is present continually interrogating the void in which it finds itself. While the most radical works in this respect might be his Fourth Symphony (1911) and his final tone-poem Tapiola (1926), both works on the present program seem to be emanations from the same source, emotionally, acoustically, and philosophically. While less overtly disturbing, they maintain a steady sense of mysterious and magical events that leave me in a constant state of wondering where the beauty of this music comes from, where it is going, and what is its source. Despite its traditional surface, this music may be more radical than those younger modernists’ in that it anticipates the work of Messiaen, Takemitsu, and many contemporaries. All these composers position the sounds within the “emptiness” of a resonant silence that is both part of the music and contains it, offering a mysterious presence, as if of a cosmic ear.

The British composers Benjamin Britten and Thomas Adès share a feeling for the mysterious potentialities of musical tones, but add powerful elements of human drama. In the instrumental excerpts from the opera Peter Grimes, Britten paints portraits of the sea in the first, second, and fourth Sea Interludes. The third and the Passacaglia, also included in this performance, focus more directly on the social context of the outsider Grimes’ struggles with society and with himself. Britten’s nature-painting includes a powerful human presence, and the self-conscious modern artist maintains a dialectic tension between the ideal of natural beauty (the dignity and nobility of the mighty ocean, for example) versus the malignant and misanthropic qualities of the individual in relation to conventional society, as is appropriate to the operatic context.1

Britten’s music is superbly dramatic, capable of conjuring up both the mysteries of nature and of the human soul in concise and vivid strokes, finding the crux of the drama in their confrontation.

Thomas Adès is a versatile presence as composer, conductor, and pianist on the contemporary music scene for at least twenty-three years, and now at Tanglewood this summer and next, when he will direct the Festival of Contemporary Music. He has been appointed to the new post of BSO Artistic Partner. His fifteen minute tone poem Polaris from 2010 is the latest in a series of such works dating back to Asyla of 1996. It deals with questions of navigation using a fixed point in an increasingly changeable and disorienting environment. This is an abstract program, but its musical realization is lucid and brilliantly scored. Solo brass instruments provide a slow “cantus firmus” over the tonal burbling of, piano, harp, flute, chimes, marimba, and pizzicato strings which offers a steady flow initiating the main sections of the musical structure, each of which becomes increasingly obscured by thick and active textures from the rest of the orchestra. This includes spatially separated groups of low brass that were positioned for this performance behind the audience in the top balcony of Ozawa Hall. The layering of these components can be compared to Ives’s The Unanswered Question, another work that explores the mystery of the place of humanity within the cosmos, but one with an entirely different aesthetic impact.

Adès’s full orchestral textures have a quality of “messiness” (also heard in Mark Anthony Turnage’s trumpet and orchestra pieces heard two weeks ago in another TMC concert): this is a carefully crafted blurring of lines and harmonies to suggest the power of disorientation, of the potential for “getting lost” which motivates the need for the fixed point supplied by the solo brasses. Adès’s affinity for Sibelius may be found in the interplay between the powerful but unruly (and apparently irrational) masses of sound and the mysterious presence of the fixed point; but in Polaris it is the chaotic forces that seem to prevail. The ending is a series of explosive accents separated by silences—inevitably recalling the end of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony—followed by an arrival at a sonority of white noise with a lone stratospheric note on the piccolo representing, perhaps, the remains of the fixed point, now infinitely distant. While other musical mysteries tend toward juxtapositions of quiet dynamics, long tones, and silence, Polaris culminates in a stark confrontation of powerful but disconnected events. It is the silences between and following these events that “speak” the underlying question: where are we now?

Sibelius’s tone-poem The Bard is a rare item—this was the first time I have heard it in concert. This has little to do with its musical quality: it is a superb piece and perhaps offers the clearest example of the way the mysterious dimension of musical tones can form a consistent basis for generating a musical architecture. It is a quiet, modest piece with little drama, few themes, fragmentary phrases and eloquent silences, but projects an increasingly radiant sense of poise, beauty, and timelessness. The bard in question is clearly singing an ancient epic accompanied by flourishes in the harp that introduce each verse; there is little contrast and the melodic gestures are confined to three notes in a scale moving up, then down. In other words, it almost seems to be built out of nothing, the way the poet-singer can conjure up imaginary pictures out of thin air.

This was followed by Sibelius’s final and culminating Symphony no. 7 in C (originally designated “Symphonic Fantasia”), which achieves the romantic ideal of three symphonic movements fully integrated into in a single continuity. The boundaries between its sections (corresponding to the classical structure of slow movement—scherzo—finale) are obscured by mysterious and artfully constructed transitions, and the minimal melodic material builds to one clear lyric moment that suggests a simple folk song or dance in the center of the work. There is also a stylistic integration between the composer’s idiosyncratic language and more traditional symphonic rhetoric: some of the dramatic confrontations in the music, especially in the last movement, generate a formal process reminiscent of Beethoven, without any loss of Sibelius’s unique voice. He seems to have pulled off an impossible trick, synthesizing the rationalized structure of classical symphonic style with the art of avoiding thematic statement and evading clear points of formal demarcation. At some point in the process of finding his style, Sibelius had declared that he was to be a composer of symphonic poems; from his titles it is clear that his material was mythology and portrayals of nature. Nevertheless, the backbone of his oeuvre are seven absolute symphonies which engage in a conversation between tradition and innovation, each in its own way.2 That this triumphant work of absolute musical structure was created at almost the same time as the grim, programmatic nature poem Tapiola (1925) is a valedictory witness to the two sides of Sibelius’s creative impulse at their most fully developed state.

All of the performances were eloquent and convincing. This year’s TMC orchestra was able to solve the challenging problems of expression, tone production, and balance posed by all the works, although in moments of enthusiasm, balances could briefly turn murky. But the strings produced rich, prismatic, transparent colors, and the rest of the ensemble played with rhythmic verve and technical security. All three conductors were effective in shaping their pieces despite contrasts in technique and personality. In the Britten, Vinay Parameswaran elicited characterful playing with his very relaxed but precise gestural style, and he skillfully managed the multi-layered textures, maintaining the necessary clarity. Nuno Coelho, working with simpler textures of The Bard, created flexible pacing with his clear control of tempo, and was sensitive to the crucial role of silence as well as to the work’s enigmatic and evocative qualities. Charles Overton performed the charismatic harp part poetically, receiving his own ovation.

Thomas Adès’s conducted with energy, using large, sweeping gestures that adhered to basic beat patterns but visibly urged his players to project every phrase; he rarely asked for a quieter dynamic level. The shapes of phrases and sections of the symphony were clearly registered; he communicated his concept of the music effectively to the orchestra in both his own music and in Sibelius, with powerful results. How this is accomplished on short notice is yet another kind of musical mystery.

  1. Sibelius only made one early attempt at opera, Jungfrun i tornet, “The Maid in the Tower,” 1896, but abandoned it and never tried another; it is hard to imagine what a mature Sibelius opera might have been like—perhaps more like Kari Saariaho’s L’amour de loin than anything else.
  2. Symphony no. 3 can be thought of as Sibelius’s version of a neo-classical symphony. In its lucidity and cheerful, even witty quality, it sounds like an updated version of Haydn, with Finnish replacing Austro-Hungarian as the basis in folklore. It is an underrated and underperformed work, especially in the United States.

2 thoughts on “Sounding the Mysteries: Nature, Music, and the Human Soul

  1. What else can I say but – an absolutely brilliant review. I was not present, but felt every musical phrase told me how the concert went from note to note, piece to piece. Also, the scholarship involved was not too overbearing and quite educational. Beautiful writing – worthy of any serious newspaper like The Guardian. Hint. Although in a foot note, I would avoid obscure references to composers the general public know not of ! Yes, I too wish Sibelius had written an opera. Yours Aye, Rex.

  2. HI Larry, some very interesting words about the mystery of Sibelius’s music. I tend to liken it to the weather, fast moving clouds and storms alternating with more relaxed skies and weather patterns. frank

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