Richard Strauss is said to have stated that he could set a glass of beer to music in a manner that one could tell whether it was export or pilsner; and many works prove the evocative power of his virtuosic mastery of the orchestra. In his Symphonia domestica, first performed in 1904, Strauss draws us into the tonal midst of his family life – between himself, his wife and their son, complete with garrulous relatives, squealing children and a fiery marital row. About 100 years earlier it was a different stroke of musical genius with which Ludwig van Beethoven stunned his audience at the premiere of his Fourth Piano Concerto: for the first time ever, a concerto wasn’t opened by the orchestral tutti but by a solo instrument. And Elliott Carter certainly knows how to captivate his audience: “Fantastic music,” the Boston Globe exclaimed after the debut of his Three Illusions in 2005, “surprising, inevitable, and vividly orchestrated.”
Image and counterimage
Dreams, illusions and ideals in music
Illusion – the idea of playing with appearances – has always been an integral part of our lives as human beings. Indeed, it sometimes helps us to make those lives bearable. Or does it not serve, rather, to point us in the wrong direction? Elliott Carter, the grand old man of American music, who celebrated his one hundredth birthday on 11 December 2008, has an almost unique perception of the changes that have taken place in the course of the 20th century. He has seen systems emerge and crumble, while ideologies have turned out to be aberrations – in art as in politics. Whenever an eyewitness like Elliott Carter explores the subject of illusions, what he has to say is bound to carry weight.
When James Levine was appointed principal conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carter was commissioned to write a new work to celebrate the occasion. He chose an episode from Cervantes’s Don Quixote telling how Queen Micomicona’s kingdom is stolen by a giant and how the Knight of the Doleful Countenance is tricked into helping her regain it. Don Quixote immediately feels called upon to avenge the beautiful but badly duped queen. Yet it all turns out to be a trick devised by Don Quixote’s companions to cure him of his delusions. His dreams are revealed as shadows.
Levine must have understood the message of Carter’s orchestral miniature, which he introduced to Boston audiences on 15 January 2004, for he encouraged the composer to add two more pieces to it to mark the orchestra’s 125th anniversary in 2006. There was no lack of phantasmagorical inspiration. For the first of his two new pieces, Carter decided to draw on the tale of the fountain of youth that confers eternal youth on all who bathe in it or drink from it. And for his second source of inspiration he turned to the English humanist Sir Thomas More, whose novel Utopia was published in 1516. Satire or not, More uses his novel to depict an ideal society that eschews property and money and accords the community precedence over the individual.
Three Illusions was the name that Carter gave to the three-part work that received its first performance at the start of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 125th anniversary season on 6 October 2005. Their literary points of reference notwithstanding, none of these three short pieces could be described as an example of programme music. Rather, they reflect the general atmosphere of their respective sources of inspiration. The score is notable for its clarity and translucency – it would never occur to Carter to write music “that no listener will ever understand or enjoy”, as he once explained. In Micomicón he draws a clear dividing line between two divergent sound worlds: the chorale-like melodies of the strings, which may perhaps be interpreted as a symbol of the world of dreams, are attacked by striking interjections from the winds and percussion that are like so many irruptions of brutal reality into this world of dreams. By contrast, Fons juventatis – the fountain of youth – reveals lighter, more ethereal textures, making the listener think that he or she can hear water spraying, splashing, gurgling and dripping. Carter’s vision of the state of Utopia, finally, proves to be rigid and gloomy, the block-like entries of the different orchestral groups seemingly hewn from granite. His nightmare-like vision ends abruptly with a fortissimo chord, as if the head of Sir Thomas More, who was beheaded on 6 July 1535, can be heard hitting the ground with a thud.
Faith, Hope, Charity: for Elliott Carter, these virtues, at least, are no illusions. “I believe in humanity, in life. And in the fact that we can solve everything and somehow improve it”, he admitted in an interview only a few weeks ago. Our countless false starts in life and the catastrophes and crises that he has seen for himself in the course of his exceptionally long life have not succeeded in disillusioning him – we may all draw comfort from that.
Orpheus at the piano
False expectations, too, are illusions – and it may prove salutary to reveal them as such. Ludwig van Beethoven proved to be a past master of this art when he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major op. 58. It was above all as a piano virtuoso that he had made a name for himself in Vienna, the city he had chosen to make his home in 1792. The piano concerto as a discipline was still in its infancy, but in his first three contributions to the medium, Beethoven had already invested the soloist’s role with a new, heroic dimension, raising it to new and uncharted heights: the individual had to assert himself in the face of the “mass” of orchestral musicians and stand up to them in terms of his powers of self-assertion and dominance and his ability to open up a whole new world of sound that could compete with theirs.
What, then, were his listeners expecting when Beethoven sat down at the piano one March evening in 1807 and introduced his Viennese audience to his Piano Concerto No. 4? First of all, they would have expected to hear the full orchestra, but Beethoven took the unprecedented step of consciously breaking with tradition and launched his opening movement with a passage for solo piano. And yet the performance markings are “piano” and “dolce”, ensuring that the passage, however surprising, remains muted, thoughtful and dreamy. The orchestra takes up this mood and for the present makes no attempt to provoke the soloist, still less to outdo him. Generally concerned with matters of celebration, brilliance and bravura, the socially ambitious genre of the piano concerto becomes a vehicle for intimate emotions.
The second movement is no less surprising. Here Beethoven allows starkly contrasting elements to clash with one another in an irreconcilable dialogue in which rigidly marshalled tutti passages abruptly alternate with the solo piano quietly stating a chorale-like melody. Recitative is confronted with cantilena, objectivity with subjectivity, society with the individual. Time and again comparisons have been drawn with Orpheus, the Thracian hero whose singing subdued the implacable Furies. With Beethoven, too, it is the human voice that triumphs at the end, embodied here by the piano as the mirror of the self.
After so many novel ideas, the cheerfully relaxed final rondo seems almost conventional in character – and yet even here Beethoven may have played a trick on his listeners and confounded their expectations: after all, they can hardly have anticipated that the work would end with a homage to tradition.
Family fugue with little boy counterpoint
When an artist depicts himself in his art, the result does not always have to be naturalistic. Quite the opposite: there is a natural tendency for the artist to gloss things over and paint an idealized portrait of himself. In short, we find illusions here too. In his tone poem Ein Heldenleben of 1897/98, Richard Strauss had already made himself the object of a piece of music: the work is an act of outright self-glorification. Five years later it was the whole of the Strauss family that he sought to depict in music.
Symphonia domestica was the title that Strauss gave to the idyll whose scenario he sketched out in May 1902: “Idea for a family scherzo with a double fugue with three subjects,” he noted during a visit to England. “F major 1st subject: Papa returns from a journey, tired. B major 2nd subject: Mama. D major 3rd subject: Little Boy, a mixture, but greater similarity with Papa. All three go for a walk in the country. In the evening a cosy family meal. Mama puts the Little Boy to bed. Papa works. Papa and Mama alone: love scene. Morning: the Little Boy screams, joyful awakening. And then a bit of a quarrel and an argument (Mama starts it but Papa ends it), reconciliation, it all ends in mirth.”
Strauss’s Symphonia domestica thus confronts the listener with a world that seems safe and uncomplicated. The work is based leitmotivically and harmonically on three central themes. Strauss ascribes to himself the key of F major, characterizing himself as down-to-earth, relaxed and conciliatory, whereas his wife, Pauline, is highly-strung and capricious but also loving and devoted. Her theme is rooted in the key of B major and is his own theme in inversion, a form capable of expressing both genuine emotion and anger. Their point of intersection is their son Franz, who was born in 1897 and who is here called “Bubi”. His theme takes us to the key of D major, a third lower than his father’s and a third higher than his mother’s.
Strauss’s ability to develop, vary and superimpose these three themes in the course of the work’s four seamlessly interlocking sections is not just remarkable, it also reveals the most consummate craftsmanship. This is particularly true of its final double fugue that describes a marital row between the composer and his wife. The man’s theme is stated first, followed by the angry variant of the wife’s, with the young boy’s theme adding the counterpoint. All the central ideas then reappear in a stretto passage, polyphonically superimposed, before the excitement dies away and yields to a happy ending.
The Symphonia domestica received its first performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall on 21 March 1904. Strauss himself conducted the performance and struck a note of self-satisfaction when reporting on the event: “I succeeded with ‘Domestica’, it sounds magnificent, though it’s very difficult.” In Europe this enthusiasm was not shared by everyone. Above all, commentators criticized the fact that Strauss had used a vast orchestra to give expression to private experiences. But the composer remained unimpressed by such strictures, rejecting even the objection that his music was self-aggrandizing: “I don’t see why I shouldn’t write a symphony about myself”, he rejoined. “I regard myself as just as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander.” Playing with appearances is a never-ending story.
Translation: Stewart Spencer
Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long musical partnership that started in September 1961. Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936 and studied under Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. The winner of the 1958 International Conductors’ Competition in Liverpool and of the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood, he was by his mid-twenties already principal conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where he remained from 1961 to 1967, while holding a similar appointment in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1978. Also at this time he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and replaced an ailing Eugene Ormandy at the helm of the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. Since 1985 he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence: both institutions have named him their conductor for life. He was also principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. In addition to his engagements in the concert hall, Zubin Mehta has also appeared in many of the world’s leading opera houses and from 1998 to 2006 was general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and Orchestra in Munich. Among the numerous honours that Zubin Mehta has received are the United Nations’ Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award in 1999, membership of the French Legion of Honour in 2001 and the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2005. He last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker only a few weeks ago, in December 2008, when he conducted another Mahler’s Third Symphony.