Notes from the underground

Man, it feels good to be writing this column again after two weeks off. It’s what I live for, you know.

This week, I’m responding to a request from my friend Dan Perttu ’01 and reviewing Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4, a piece which is very dear to him. It’s strange to me that he would want me to review anything he likes; after all, we rarely agree in our musical preferences. Why is this? Most of it has to do with the fact that I’m right and he’s wrong. But more specifically, we listen to music in different ways.

I’m curious as to how many readers are familiar with the term “tonality.” I guarantee that most of the music you listen to is tonal in some way, though you may not be aware of it. This is a very difficult concept to explain in writing, but is extremely easy to hear. Think of our national anthem. It can be sung in any major key (C, A, etc.), but the important thing is that the first three notes (oh-oh-say) dictate what key the song is in by giving the “home” chord. For the rest of the song, that key is “home” – it’s where all of the musical phrases are heading and it’s where the song ends.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” is a very simple example of a tonal composition. It doesn’t move away from the home key – whatever key you start in is going to be the home key throughout the song. All of the classical music works that are well-known and generally considered to be “great” use the tonal system, and all use it in a much more sophisticated way than does our national anthem. What tonality does, in part, is build expectations by establishing chord progressions with which the listener becomes familiar. Of course, expectations are made to be confounded, and that’s where the interest in the tonal system comes from. Sophisticated 19th and 20th century composers would use such complex progressions that a tonally oriented listener could get “lost,” having no sense of how the “home” key had shifted and where it might be.

So now we return to my friend Dan, one of these tonally oriented listeners, who likes nothing more than tackling a complex web of shifting harmonic progressions. Now consider this passage from the liner notes (written by Ben Pateman) to the Fourth Symphony as recorded by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra (CD Si 24 1): “Among the various effects this [extensive use of the tritone] produces…most pronounced is the sense of uncertain tonality that pervades much of the music.” Throw in the fact that both Sibelius and Dan are Finnish and you have a match made in some metaphysical realm, full of musicologists.

I don’t listen with a tonally oriented ear. And my initial reaction to this Symphony was completely negative; I was unimpressed with the material and found little to grab my attention. However, after four listenings, it has grown on me a bit. That will tend to happen, though, with most well-written compositions. I still find much of the material completely uninteresting and feel totally bored throughout many passages in the Symphony. I suspect that there is some interesting tonal activity which takes place during certain of these passages, and while I find them uncompelling, a tonally oriented listener might find them to be the most interesting parts of the work.

Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony is in four movements. The first is slow and filled with solo passages, creating an extremely sparse texture. Sparse textures demand compelling material, and Sibelius provides this only some of the time. It is very difficult, as a listener, to be presented with extremely little on which to focus your attention, only to have the object of your focus be uninteresting. It’s like those modern art paintings with just a red square in the center of a white canvas – there’s only so much that you can appreciate about a red square, but since that’s all you’re given, you’re forced to spend time with it. The difference between viewing art and listening to music is that the composer dictates not only the object of your attention, but also how much time you have to consider that object. Sibelius gives us red squares and tells us to spend too long with them.

The second movement is fast and short. It is clear what Sibelius is trying to do: he uses the tritone (the dissonant, tonally ambiguous interval between a fourth and a fifth) throughout the work as a unifying principle, and this movement contains an extremely clear presentation of material based on that interval. But this reliance on clarity of expression leads to very uninteresting material, and the movement is uneventful. This slow, brooding third movement is my favorite of the four in the Symphony. It contains a gorgeous theme built around the tritone that is repeated throughout the movement. The textures are richer and more varied, and the climaxes are extremely satisfying. But the main difference is that the material on which the movement is based is extremely compelling. When solo instruments are presented, it is in contrast to the other textures that we have heard, and so these solos are more captivating to our ear. The last movement is boisterous in a sort of annoying way. Eventually, it moves to a climax of sorts, followed by a collapse to the end of the work. Listen for the annoying glockenspiel solos!

The rest of the disc contains two other Sibelius works: Luonnotar, with soprano, and the popular Finlandia. The former is a fabulous work, one of the best I’ve ever heard for soprano and orchestra. The soprano floats over the orchestra, telling the story of the world’s creation. She sounds totally free, as if she is leading the entire ensemble and they somehow know where to play around her. Listen to this work even if you don’t have time for the full Symphony. As for Finlandia, you’ve probably heard it somewhere in your travels, as it may be Sibelius’ most popular work. As Dan puts it, Finlandia is essentially another Finnish national anthem. Do with that what you will.

Before I let you go, I have to give a little plug for what promises to be an interesting presentation this Friday at 4:00 in Brooks-Rogers. Composers Christopher Dobrian and Daniel Koppelman are going to perform works composed by computers and works in which computers improvise music. This sounds like the beginning of the end for humanity, doesn’t it? And I bet you’d feel pretty dumb if you missed that.

As a final note, here’s a “Notes from the Underground” first: a correction! I, too, am an imperfect being. For some reason, I identified the cellist in the Williams Chamber Players concert as Music Professor Douglas Moore, who has performed with various campus ensembles for many years. However, the cellist for that evening was actually Nathaniel Parke, a younger player and a fine cellist himself. The error had nothing to do with playing ability, only with my early senility. My apologies to those involved, and rest assured that it will never happen again, at least not until Y2K.

Then who knows?

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *