The Ideal Symphony
Last time in the NEPR classical blog, we took you inside a contemporary classical spat over one note in one piece, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Not to belittle the importance those participating invest in the note and all that radiates from it, but it's fair to say that despite how big a deal it is to them, the general musical public will remain blissfully unconcerned whether the flute plays an F or a B-flat in its second movement solo. Either way, the Concerto goes on, the world keeps spinning. That's the way it is with insufficiently relevant art forms: The insiders argue over every little thing; the rest of us couldn't care less.
But once upon a time, in a place a continent away, what happened in classical music didn't stay in classical music. It mattered, and not just to its practitioners. Such a time was the mid-nineteenth century, and such a place wasGermany. It was already a time and place of shifting tastes in classical music; indeed, one could point to mid-century Germany as the starting point of our "classical music" culture — where dead composers are revered, new works regarded with suspicion, and a small canon of "classic" works dominate concert programs. It wasn't always that way, but has been that way ever since, including, I will admit, on NEPR's classical shows.
Of course, there were some pretty classic composers around then, producing some of those classic works — the last generation to do so, in the ears of the most conservative of the canon-worshippers. You know their names: Felix Mendelssohn. Robert Schumann. Johannes Brahms. Upholders of the faith, conscious of tradition, they produced symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other works in the classic forms, as did such hallowed predecessors as Haydn, Mozart and the untouchable Beethoven. With few exceptions, these pieces weren't "about" anything. They were just music, which was all anyone needed.
Except music for music's sake wasn't sufficient for a pair of influential composers. They advocated new forms, new harmonies, and a new way of thinking about music in relation to the other arts. For Franz Liszt, it was the Symphonic Poem — a piece of symphonic music that told a story, painted a picture or represented an idea. For Richard Wagner, music was to blend with all the other arts into a single Gesamtkunstswerk — "total art work." Neither, of course, was music the only thing on Wagner's mind; indeed, he may have been the first composer famous, or infamous, for his Weltanschauung ("world view"). Would that he were also the last.
OK, so some composers wanted to compose one way, and others wanted to compose in a different way. Live and let compose, right? Wrong. The composers, or mostly their mouthpieces and advocates, formed camps or "schools" from which to tout their music and imprecate the other. On the one hand was the conservative Leipzigcamp, on the other, the Neudeutsche Schule ("New German School") based in Weimar. Read more about the so-called "War of the Romantics" in a well-written Wikipedia entry.
But what was really different then as opposed to now? Back then and over there, your average cultured person really cared! This was hot stuff, covered not just in numerous music journals but in the general press. And its leading figures were honest-to-goodness celebrities. Indeed, my first UConn music history professor, the late Robert Hill, told his class that other than Jesus, Richard Wagner was the most written-about figure in history. Could that be true? I have no way of knowing, but just to consider the possiblity gives one the idea Prof. Hill was making.
With the exception of Robert Schumann, as much a man of letters as a man of notes, the great composers on the "conservative" mostly let their music do the talking, befitting their belief in music's suffiency. And to make an already overlong blog entry short, the most eloquent defense of pure, unadulterated music to emerge from the era comes up during the11am hour of Friday's NEPR classical music. Taut, tragic, implacable in its logic, unwavering as an arrow, Brahms's Symphony No. 4 represents the symphonic ideal as masterfully as any other work in the form. You'll hear it today in a no-nonsense, to-the-point performance by Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra. And now, as a lover of the symphony, in all its music-for-music's-sake glory, I rest my case.