Compelling Backstory Explains Everything

I personally believe that music can (and most likely should) be enjoyed simply as a musical experience. However, I understand that some people get great enjoyment from extra-musical information. The life of the composer, the circumstances or inspiration for a particular piece can indeed provide a context that enhance our enjoyment of a musical performance. There's no doubting that...but it's not everything, right?

Review: Grand Rapids Symphony's Classical Series concert features glowing performances, low notes
Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk, The Grand Rapids Press, October 30, 2010

Sometimes knowing the backstory means everything.

Sometimes not. I guess it depends on what you mean by "everything". Or by "knowing".

The Grand Rapids Symphony's Classical Series concerts this weekend in DeVos Performance Hall has several.

Backstories? Can't wait!

For openers, the titles to the pieces can be misleading.

Misleading titles? You're suggesting that composers misled audiences?

figure misleading: Not me.

Plus, how much of a backstory is a misleading title anyway?

But you've got my attention...I'm racking my brain to think of a title I consider misleading. Maybe...Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson (which contains some 20 saints in four acts).

What egregious examples of misleadingly titled compositions did the Grand Rapids Symphony perform?

There's nothing pathetic about Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony.

[smacks forehead]

Its composer dubbed it "passionate," which the French translated as "pathetique," and there it stuck.

Seriously, you don't have to speak French to know that is a pathetic translation.

"Pathetique", in French, denotes a feeling of passion and sorrow, and while sharing the same root (and being a literalistic translation), is not really a direct equivalent to the English concept of pathetic as "miserably or contemptibly inadequate". Context people. Context.

By the way: Great. Backstory.

Richard Strauss took his title "Also sprach Zarathustra" from a philosophical treatise by Friedrich Nietzsche, and thankfully little else.

Well, other than the inspiration, the movement titles, and the general narrative of the piece.

In a letter to Otto Florsheim (I assume of Florsheim Shoes fame), Strauss wrote:

“I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche’s great work. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to Nietzsche’s genius, which found its greatest exemplification in his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra.”

But what I want to know is why this is "thankfully" so? It's a difficult read, yet Nietzsche created an original and radical philosophical which sent shockwaves throughout religious communities. Not to mention it's the book which contains the famous maxim, "God is dead." Whether or not you subscribe to any of the philosophies of Nietzsche, he is significant figure in literature and philosophy. How weak must one's beliefs be to feel threatened by a book written over a 120 years ago.

figure same name: They share the same name, but little else...thankfully.

But again, I guess the title's misleading. I guess.

Actually, no...wait, it's not misleading at all, since it tell us exactly (with no room for mistake) the source/impetus for it's composition.

Great backstory, though. I really feel like I know everything about the piece.

Tchaikovsky conducted his premiere 117 years ago last Thursday; Strauss conducted his premiere 114 years ago next month.

You're right. The titles don't give any reference to when the premieres took place. That is misleading.

For an audience of 1,048 on Friday, music director David Lockington led glowing performances of both major works, performed this month in part to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the opening of DeVos Hall in October 1980. Both were part of the orchestra's first season in the 2,400-seat auditorium.

Seems fitting. By the way...another great backstory. I wonder what tragedy befell those of the 1048 in attendance who were not aware of this important backstory.

figure backstory: Wait, is this the right backstory?

But thinking of misleading titles...your review title suggested something about "low notes". Did something go wrong at the concert?

No guest stars were on the program, apart from a lot of extra players and plenty of very, very low notes.


Strauss' tone poem, famous from the opening minutes used for Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," is an expansive, imaginative portrayal of the evolution of man.

As opposed to the text by Nietzsche?

And the obligatory reference to 2001 here...really? Does that count as backstory, or just a pointless aside?

Where Strauss' audience was fascinated by the technological advances allowing man to overcome nature, today's audiences are more interested in the technological advances allowing them to reach out and touch someone else, nature be damned.

O-kay. Where are you going with this?

Thus, the importance of the nine or so themes don't always resonate.

Not sure I follow. We have facebook instead of electric light, and therefore, the musical themes don't resonate? Are you sure?

Nor does the dichotomy of two different keys, B-flat for humanity, C major for the universe, seem as jarring.

Because of technology? Cellphones are the reason B-flat and C don't seem jarring?

Wow. You totally understand the last 100 years of music. Not to mention the advent of radio and television. I mean I just love how NBC has always insisted that every jingle used in advertisements be in the key of G to avoid any cosmic disharmony.

Timing and balance is everything in the famous introduction. The former was elusive, the latter better.

The balance was better than elusive? That's quite the compliment.

But I thought knowing the backstory was everything? And if the timing and balance are everything, can both things be true at the same time?

I'm going to chalk up this last one to hyperbole...for now...

"The Great Yearning" theme expanded lushly. The conclusion of "The Convalescent" shook mortar loose in the walls. The solo in "The Dance Song" was deftly handled by concertmaster James Crawford.

So, what's the backstory here? If not the Nietzsche text, then what??? It is everything you know.

The "Song of the Night Wanderer" at end floated away unresolved, as intended.

So, the performance was apt? By the way, how misleading were these thematic titles. The image of "The Convalescent" doesn't usually bring to mind building code violations. And "The Dance Song" doesn't even begin to tell me it's for a soloist. Maybe you were on to something.

Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony was a tale of unrequited love, and the power of that theme hasn't dimmed a bit.

Yes, unrequited love could never be thought of as "pathetic" or sorrowful...or the sixth.

It's also a well-known war-horse that demands attention to detail.

As opposed to new, unfamiliar music which, well, no one knows what the hell it's supposed to sound like, and therefore deserves no attention to detail.

Lockington took the long view, not giving overt attention to the big moments, but leaving himself elbow room for later.

Sounds rather unsatisfying. Aren't the big moments, you know, the climactic moments of which the rest of the piece is constantly building? And "later"? Big moments mostly come at the end, no?

Also, "long view"? It's a symphony, not policies to avoid the complete collapse of civilization. Any view that looks at least an hour into the future should be adequate. One might even suggest you take it in four smaller parts.

figure long view: Taking the long view to parking at the airport. The hourly lot just doesn't make a lot of sense for my week long trip.

Somber at the outset, the famous second theme unfolded as a sunrise of its own, Lockington moving it along nicely, the orchestra responding rapturously.

Rapturous sunrise...sounds like a fabulous second theme indeed. But since we're saving elbow room for later, it's only a sunrise and not a supernova, right?

Some syncopated passages were slippery,...

No worries...it's a common problem. I've found that a little pine tar, or at least some rosin, goes a long way.

...but Lockington drew powerful sonorities from the strings, ending the long opening with a satisfying sigh.

Slippery, but powerful sonorities, ending in a sigh. Are any of these things "everything"?

But before you answer that...it's time for some Detritus Review Madlibs!

Tonight's entry comes to us from the home box office in Grand Rapid, Michigan -- discussing the third movement of the Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony, Mr. Kaczmarczyk wrote:

The _____ third movement was a(n) _____ moment of _____, _____ wrapped around _____, all on the road to a(n) _____, _____ conclusion.



I'm liking these options...so let's try...

The upbeat third movement was a magical moment of fluidity, lovingly wrapped around precision, all on the road to a triumphant, brassy conclusion.

Ooh. That's nice. But...it could be...

The brassy third movement was triumphant moment of precision, lovingly wrapped around fluidity, all on the road to a magical, upbeat conclusion.

It's tough call...let's just say they both work.

If some of the audiences don't applaud here, you know you've done it wrong.

Or perhaps those audiences who didn't clap are just stupid...did you ever consider that?

Friday's certainly did, and they were right.

Did what? Right?

Oh, they clapped. At least we know they're not stupid -- who doesn't know that you're not not suppose to clap between movements during certain symphonies?

Anguish poured out in the heartbreaking finale with its despondent chorale in the lower brass.

Again, I think just how right you are that the title "Pathetique" is just so misleading. And how that backstory was everything.

Lockington on the podium was visibly distraught afterward.

Really...but why?

It helps to know the backstory.

Yes, that may help, given that I can't divine the why from that one sentence.

Nine days after conducting the premiere, Tchaikovsky was dead.

I see. The symphony killed Tchaikovsky, and therefore Lockington feared for his own life. You're totally right...cholera couldn't have possibly been the culprit. If titles of popular novels tell me anything of the world, it's that cholera is a time of love, not death.

figure cholera: I've always thought that cholera would make a great backdrop for a love story.

He was 53.

Ahem. He was 53 and a half.

figure knowing: And now we know!


A.C. Douglas said...

Well, as long as we're being picayunishly pissy, your,

"'Pathetique', in French, denotes a feeling of passion and sorrow, and while sharing the same root (and being a literalistic translation), is not really a direct equivalent to the English concept of pathetic as 'miserably or contemptibly inadequate,'"

is quite misplaced.

The principal modern English meaning of "pathetic" is not as you've above asserted it to be. Rather, "pathetic" denotes,

"Affecting the tender emotions; exciting a feeling of pity, sympathy, or sadness; full of pathos."

So, the English, "pathetic" is in fact directly equivalent to the French, "Pathétique".

So there! (And yer mama wears army boots!)


Gustav said...

I would agree with this, Mr. Douglas. I'm merely providing further refutation that "Pathetique" is a misleading title. Because, in its colloquial use, pathetic has very negative connotations...at least in my experience. But I'm happy to accept your further clarifications.

A.C. Douglas said...

Just FYI, and not to prolong this, your definition of "pathetic" is listed as the 6th definition of the word in the OED. The one I gave is the first listed definition (right after the obsolete definition which obsolete definition is essentially the same, but broader in scope).