Saturday, September 5, 2009

Nine Lives: Intro to the lives of nine 9th Symphonies

I have been mulling over a series of essays on 9th symphonies for some time. My recent post on Lawrence Kramer's engaging book, Why Classical Music Still Matters, has spurred me to at least take a stab at it. Kramer talks about one of classical music's singular and defining features via the personality a major work assumes. Separable from the performers who recreate the music, a great symphony, quartet or concerto takes on a metaphorical, allegorical, and--seemingly-- literal life of its own.

It is not difficult to ascertain why this anthropomorphic status should be assigned to the great symphonies. From Beethoven onward, the symphony evolved with its parallel form in literature, the novel. And the symphony in the 19th century would develop & change like its romantic & modern cousins, the roman a clef & Bildungsroman (simply put, the narrative novel--unfolding from or about the life of its protagonist--the French term applies more to satire &/or allegory, the German to the "coming-of-age" novel).

It is also with Beethoven the quasi-mythological status of the 9th symphony comes into being. Beethoven's magnum opus, the first symphony to employ vocal music (the famous "Ode to Joy" finale), is at once a starting place and endpoint of the work as "thing-unto-itself"--an alpha and omega of classical music's unequaled claim to transcendence. Its unique power is in evidence from its 19th century origins to monumental appearances at the end of the cold war to recent incarnations in the aftermath of September 11 and hurricane Katrina.

I became more fascinated with the idea of the 9th symphony as I grew more enamored with the life and music of Gustav Mahler. One of Mahler's teachers and mentors, Anton Bruckner, did not live to complete his own 9th symphony, and that shadow only strengthened the mythological spell cast by Beethoven. Some believe Mahler attempted to outwit Fate by calling his ninth entry in the symphonic genre Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). His last completed Symphony was numbered the 9th, but is the tenth symphony he wrote. His Tenth symphony remained unfinished at his death in 1911.

The opening adagio of Mahler's Tenth, interestingly, has taken on a life all its own. Schubert's so-called "Unfinished" symphony (his 8th) and Bruckner's 9th are multi-movement torsos of what would have been larger works. I can't think of a single movement that has the afterlife of Mahler's valedictory Adagio. Rilke's brilliant sonnet, "Archaic torso of Apollo," with its images of radiance and power still emanating from the incomplete, headless statue, will certainly be a source to which I return often in discussing the unfinished lives of these works. This is from the excellent edition of New Poems [1908], The Other Part (A Bilingual Edition, translated by Edward Snow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

We never knew his head and all the light
that ripened in his fabled eyes. But
his torso still glows like a candelabra,
in which his gazing, turned down low,
holds fast and shines...

Rilke's sonnet crackles with the energy of a great work of art, able to transcend its history & location--its specificity--and speak across time and space. This is another defining feature of the "classical" work, one which rewards those engaged with it, charged and changed by the very act of participation. As the actor Jude Law recently said--on playing Shakespeare's Hamlet--these speeches still resonate today because we have not found a better way of saying things in 400 years!

The inextinguishable resonance of the 9th symphony is such that a handful of major essays in the genre are, if not ignored, overlooked (and though Alban Berg said "there is only one 9th"--Mahler's, Beethoven's is the one most refer to as THE 9th).

9 is the ultimate number for composers around whom less aura has accumulated. From Schubert to Dvorak to Vaughan Williams, the 9th symphony would be a crowning achievement. Even further removed from the smoke and mirrors of myth is the American modernist, Roger Sessions, whose 9th is an incisive, tightly argued work.

Though not their final essays in the genre, Dmitri Shostakovich and Hans Werner Henze both wrote 9ths that were products of their time and in very different ways, responses to the dilemma of the post-Beethovenian, post-Mahlerian "9th lives." Following the brooding, massive, post-war canvas of his 8th, Shostakovich was expected to compose a heroic, Beethoven-inspired 9th honoring Stalin and the Soviet Union. This 9th, however, is a bird of a different feather. It is one of its composers most compact & drolly ironic scores. Henze has lived in Italy in self-imposed exile from his native Germany since the 1950's. His 9th is a choral symphony throughout, based on the anti-fascist novel of Anna Seghers, Das Siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross). It was by hearing and studying this engaging, committed, and moving work (and considering it as my dissertation topic) I first hit upon the idea of a "nine lives" series of essays exploring these symphonies.

Whether living in the limelight or abiding in obscurity, these works are bursting with energy and personality all their own.

I look forward to spending more time with these works and musing on the fascinating life of each of them in the coming weeks & months.

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