"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 3, 2013

Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard

This post starts a small series about unique symphonies from the 20th c., written by composers who were considered as "eccentrics"  and sometimes even "outsiders."  It was Stravinsky who once asked the question: "Is it possible to link a musician like Scriabin to any tradition? Where did he come from? Who are his predecessors?" Inspired by this question, I have looked for symphonies by Scriabin and other 20th c. eccentric and intriguing composers. In this post and following ones I plan to write about Rued Langgaard, Jon Leifs, Alan Pettersson, Matthijs Vermeulen, Havergal Brian, Charles Ives, Olivier Messiaen, Alexander Tcherepnin, Charles Koechlin, Alan Hovhaness and others. What were they, mystics or madmen? Visionaries or imposters? Bring on the mavericks and listen to the answer in their music!

[Scriabin - Photo Wikipedia]

1. Alexander Scriabin, Symphony No 3 in C minor Op. 43 "Le Divin Poème" [1904]
  • The Russian composer and pianist Scriabin (1872-1915) was a sort of solipsist, Nietsche's Übermensch in a sickly body. He considered himself as God and proved it by being born on the same day as Jesus, and by managing to die during Easter. He embraced Helen Blavatsky's Theosophy, because it agreed with ideas he had already developed for himself. He was an aristocrat with a sound musical education who went off in a never before explored dissonant direction. Although famous during his lifetime, he was soon forgotten after his too early death as the Soviets didn't like him. He wrote a sonata called "Black Mass," but also one called "White Mass." In works as "Poem of Ecstasy," he introduced sexual orgasms in music. He devised a color system for musical keys based on the circle of fifths, in which C is bright red, a form of synesthesia. In his "Poem of Fire" he used a specially developed color organ, that projected colored light on a screen in the concert hall rather than making sound. His music was increasingly dominated by "mystic chords" and grew more and more dissonant. At the time of his death, he worked on a final, apocalyptic masterpiece, "Mysterium." This multimedia work that also included a light show and the scattering of perfumes, would have to be performed at the Himalayas, after which "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts would herald the birth of a new world." Scriabin saw music as a synthesized art form that could put humans in touch with a spiritual realm.
  • Scriabin in the first place wrote for his own instrument, the piano. There are preludes and etudes, an early piano concerto, but the greatest achievement here are the ten sonatas. He also wrote five symphonies, including the Divine Poem (1903), the Poem of Ecstasy (1907), and the Poem of Fire or Prometheus (1909). 
  • The Third Symphony which I have selected here, is a sort of Fin-de-siecle Gothic "soul drama," written for vast orchestral forces. It came into being at a happy time in Scriabin's life when he had left his teaching post in Moscow and was free for creative composition, but also a time he was reading Nietsche and Marx, abandoned his wife and children for a young mistress and moved to Switzerland for new inspiration (this was in the summer of 1903). The subject matter of the symphony is the development of the human spirit towards the divine. Man's Ego consists of a "divine part" and "slavish part" and these continually struggle with each other, until they finally attain unity and bliss and so true freedom. The symphony consists of three parts, linked without pause: (1) Luttes ("Struggles"), a mysterious and tragic Allegro in "red" c minor; (2) Voluptés ("Delights"), a sublime Lento in "white-blue" E major; and (3) Jeu divin ("Divine Play"), a radiantly joyful Allegro in "red" C major. The work starts with a short prologue (Lento) which introduces the three "leading motives " of the symphony : "Divine Grandeur" (an unforgettable motif in the low brass), "The Summons to Man" (an ascending trumpet call) and the " Fear to approach, suggestive of Flight" (literally "flighty" strings). These are combined throughout the work with the various subjects, and indeed some of the subjects are derived from them; the climax is reached in the "Ego theme" of the finale. And of course, if you prefer to regard all these metaphysics as so much hot air, you can also enjoy Scriabin's music on a purely abstract level!
  • Website of the Scriabin Society of America
  • Recording listened to: The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi on Chandos

    [Ives as businessman - Photo Wikipedia]
2. Charles Ives, Symphony No. 4 [1910-1916]
  • The composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) was completely out of sync with his time. His music was too modern for the ears of his contemporaries and remained largely ignored. Even professional musicians did not understand him - when he showed them his scores, they would respond by either laughter or anger! Ives was the ultimate outsider - although he was already a professional organist at age 14 and trained in music at Yale, he decided to pursue a career in business due to lack of musical perspective. Ives went into insurance in New York and was so successful that he managed to establish his own company. He became a radical in suit and tie. Of course, this meant a dual career, for Ives composed in the evenings and weekends, creating a sizable oeuvre that often had no chance to leave his desk drawer. Indeed, most of his works went unperformed until a decade before his death, when the world finally caught up with him - in 1947, his Third Symphony was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, although it had already been written between 1908 and 1910! And today, Ives is considered as the greatest, truly American composer who ever lived...
  • Ives was born as the son of a bandmaster in a small Connecticut town. His life was full of music and he early learned to play the piano and organ. His music is permeated with the marches and hymn tunes he heard in his youth. What especially impressed him was the sound produced by two town bands marching up against each other and mingling their music in dissonance. It was even better when at the same time a hymn sung in a nearby church was mixed into the cacophony! Ives was so impressed by this phenomenon, that as a boy he already wrote bi-tonal pieces and experimented with multi-rhythm - two elements that would become the main stage of his mature work, together with the mixing of popular music with serious music. Perceptually, Ives was influenced by the New England transcendentalist writers Emerson and Thoreau.
  • Charles Ives wrote 5 symphonies, 3 orchestral sets (in fact, also a kind of symphonies), 4 violin sonatas, 2 piano sonatas, 2 string quartets, works for organ and hundreds of songs. He wrote most of his music in the 1900s and 1910s, after 1918 when his health deteriorated he wrote very little and after 1926 he wrote no new music at all anymore. The irony about Ives is that the rural, patriotic America he so nostalgically recreated in his music, had no use whatsoever for that same music.
  • The first modernist works Ives wrote were Central Park in the Dark, where one hears strains of music from bars and music halls mingle, and The Unanswered Question, a dialogue for a questioning trumpet and answering strings, with the final question about the meaning if life remaining unanswered. Ives left behind material for an unfinished "Universe Symphony," which reminds me of the largely unwritten Mysterium by Scriabin - two huge works that tried to encompass the whole world, but took on more than their composers (or in fact anyone) could bear. 
  • Perhaps the most remarkable piece of orchestral music Ives completed was his Fourth Symphony (1910–16). The list of forces required to perform the work is extraordinary and eccentric in the sense that although six trumpets are called for, one of them only plays one note in the whole piece; and a whole choir has to join and sit on stage during the length of the symphony, while it only sees 30 seconds of action at the beginning and again at the end. For a certain part of the work, a second conductor is necessary. No wonder this symphony, although considered as the culmination of Ives' musical achievement, is seldom performed. The first complete performance was given in 1965, more than a decade after Ives' death. The symphony starts with a prelude that asks questions to which the succeeding movements try to provide answers - in the style of The Unanswered Question. It also contains a hymn, "Watchman, tell us the night." The second movement is a riotous multiphony quoting dozens of well-known American tunes, an Allegretto inspired by a story of Hawthorne. Ives himself described the third movement, a fugue, as "an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism." The final movement, Largo maestoso, is a sort of struggle between dissonance and traditional tonal music, taking up earlier motifs and building to a tremendous climax (with the choir) after which the piece ends quietly with just the percussion playing as if from a distance. Ives said this "had something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience."
  • Website of the Charles Ives Society
  • Recording listened to: Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Deutsche Grammophon.

[Rued Langgaard - Photo Wikipedia]

3. Rued Langgaard, Symphony No. 6 "Det Himmelrivende" [1919-20]
  • Rued Langgaard (1893 - 1952) was a late-Romantic Danish eccentric composer and organist. We have heard the same story in the case of Ives: his music was so unconventional that it went often unperformed until more than a decade after his death - not because he was radically avant-garde, but because he was so completely "different." Langgaard was not appreciated by his contemporaries and came into conflict with the powers that be of Danish music - in the person of Carl Nielsen - , losing any chance of being performed. Langaard only late in life managed to land his first fixed job, as church organist in the small old town of Ribe. At the time of his death he was already completely forgotten, but since the 1970s, Langaard has been rediscovered as an "ecstatic outsider" and is now considered as an important and visionary composer. 
  • Langaard has more than 400 works to his name, including 16 symphonies, the Music of the Spheres150 songs, works for piano, organ, and an opera entitled The Antichrist. Langaard saw music as a fight between good and evil and the 6th symphony, with the title "The Heaven Storming" is the embodiment of such a cosmic conflict. Langgaard's music is visionary, extreme and bizarre. 
  • The Sixth Symphony of 1919-1920 is one of Langaard's strongest works. The subtitle means "The Heaven Storming." Here Langgaard releases the forces of good and evil, light and dark, and God and Satan against each other. This Christian-based contrasting of "good and evil" is not my worldview, I rather think in shades of grey, but it makes for good drama. The apocalyptic symphony is in one continuous movement that takes the form of variations on a theme. That theme permeates the whole symphony and has two different shapes, a pure, light one, and a dark, chromatic one. Langaard displays absolute technical mastery of the orchestra and invokes the enormous power of the brass to drive "the storming armies of evil under the canopy of heaven." One of the most astonishing symphonies I know. 
  • Rued Langgaard website. 
  • Recording listened to: The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi on Chandos (with symphonies 4 & 5)

    Posts about classical music include: