Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Loathesome Music

I may have mentioned before that, as a ravenously curious student of fine art music, I used to spend hours in my alma mater's music library pouring over scores and listening to recordings. One composer whose orchestral works I surveyed in detail was Alexander Scriabin, an early-20th-century Russian who suffered from grandiose delusions, and composed accordingly. I painstakingly scrutinized his symphonic output, and finally concluded that it could be summed up in one word: "loathesome."

I guess I've just never been much of a fan of gushing sentimentality. Even clothed in groundbreaking, modernistic harmonies, Scriabin's music achieves an overwhelming pitch of emotional intensity and sustains it until it becomes monotonous. His 20-minute Poem of Ecstasy is living proof that even an orgasm can become tedious if it lasts long enough.

Nothing in the art-music world had turned me off more profoundly than Scriabin's orchestral works... until a couple weeks ago. I was driving along, listening to classical radio, when Tchaikovsky's orchestral suite known as "Mozartiana" came on the air. Part of it was a lush, Romantic orchestration of Mozart's sacred choral piece Ave verum corpus, which I have sung in one choir and conducted in another. It's a lovely, tender, devotional piece full of expressive harmonies, that nevertheless conveys a sense of awesome stillness.

My favorite moment in the Ave verum comes near the end, when a seemingly routine cadence takes a surprise turn. It's a moment of haunting beauty that I looked forward to as I listened to Tchaikovsky's instrumental version. Imagine my shock when that moment came and went - and there was no surprise twist! The only surprise was that there was no surprise, only a conventional, uneventful ending.

Tchaikovsky had bowdlerized it. He had castrated it. He smoothed out the wrinkle of Mozart's genius. He covered up the beauty spot with a shmeer of beige music. He reined in Wolfgang's dangerous, risky impulsiveness and transmuted it into safe, stylish, tasteful blandness. Was I disappointed? No. I was outraged! I plan to comb through my dictionary of Russian obscenities (I'm not kidding about owning one) until I find the equivalent of "What a shmuck!"

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