Saturday, October 25, 2014

Music You Can See

Some of the greatest pieces of music are not just beautiful to hear, but beautiful to see as well. I'm not talking about operas or ballets, in which the music is combined with stage business, scenery, costumes, and the human form. I mean pieces of pure music that conjure images in the mind's eye.

One of the first composers I encountered who impressed me in this way was Jean Sibelius, the Finnish symphonist, whose tone poem The Swan of Tuonela was part of the first album of classical music I ever listened to. I heard the heck out of it, repeatedly transferring it from vinyl to tape as I compiled collections of my favorites during a particularly lonely stretch of my childhood. Based on a myth about a swan gliding upon the river of death, the piece uses shimmering string textures to paint sound pictures of the shining surface of the water and a long English horn solo to depict the swan. Look it up on YouTube and try it if you don't believe me. This piece almost does not need the suggestion planted by the title to show you a great, graceful aquatic bird singing on the surface of a deep, dark, flowing body of water.

Another piece featuring a bird is Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. Another one-movement piece for solo instrument and orchestra, this one spotlights the violin. But before the violinist comes in soaring and singing, the orchestra lays down a soft, gently dissonant chord that just stays put for a long time in the background. It doesn't do anything. It doesn't go anywhere. It just establishes a sense of space, as when an artist begins a landscape picture by sketching in a horizon line. That chord, while it lasts, is the sky in which the lark does its skylarking.

This picture brings my mind back to Sibelius, and his final tone-poem Tapiola. Evoking the forest spirits of Finnish mythology, the piece features darting, flashing phrases of melody set against a backdrop of massive, static harmonies. I'll have to be spellbound if I ever hear this piece without thinking of gigantic, timeless trees holding up a canopy of branches and leaves, in whose shadow move strange, capricious things.

I recently gave The Unanswered Question another read-through in honor of the 140th birthday of its composer, American insurance tycoon and experimental composer Charles Ives. In this piece the strings set up a vast sense of space and, even more significantly, of time, with a very slow moving repeated pattern of tonal harmonies. Seven times spaced throughout the work, a solo trumpet repeats the same brief question-mark-shaped phrase of very atonal melody: B-flat dropping to C-sharp, rising to E-natural, leaping up to E-flat, and falling back to B-natural. The question this phrase poses is answered by a series of woodwind statements that do not seem to satisfy the questioner. The woodwind responses grow increasingly frustrated, then adopt a mocking tone before going silent and letting the question fill the space of a solemn, untroubled eternity.

The art form known as the Tone Poem, or sometimes as a Symphonic Poem, is the thing to look into if you are interested in the possibilities of music you can see. I recommend searching for pieces by Franz Liszt, Antonín Dvořák, Peter Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, and Claude Debussy, some of whose tone poems were really inspired by paintings. Mathis der Maler by Paul Hindemith is practically a symphony based on this principle. Other composers you may or may not have heard of, who likewise excelled at such music, are discussed in the Wiki on this type of music, which I choose not to plagiarize here.

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