Music at the threshold

I would love to read a collection of papers on compositions whose liminal character represents a turning point in classical music.  I am thinking about works which might have taken different directions.  In which particular pieces can we see a composer negotiating between two or more musical idioms and traditions?  To put it in a counter-factual way, what might have been the course of music history if such ambivalent pieces had taken an entirely different approach?

One such intriguing work is Sibelius’s 5th Symphony, op. 82, which the composer started drafting in 1914, directed in 1915, revised and directed in 1916, and further revised and directed in 1919 in what became the standard version.  Now that we have access through recordings to the 1st version, we can see why Sibelius was determined to alter and reconfigure it thoroughly even though the first premiere was an immediate success.  For those of us who grew up with the final version, the first one is a revelation.

With the exploratory undermining of tonality launched in his “bleak,” difficult 4th Symphony, op. 63 (1911), Sibelius tried to respond to the creative crisis generated by his encounter with the work of Modernists like Schönberg and Stravinsky.  Following the lukewarm reception of the 4th, he may have felt that it was too late to follow their radical path but he might still be able to join Mahler, whom he had met right after the premiere of his (Sibelius’s) 3rd Symphony, in his symphonic adventures.  I see the first version of the 5th as a grand venture in this direction.

Long, occasionally dissonant, episodic, with unclear connections between themes, unfocused and uncertain, the symphony sounds mysterious as it seems to be searching for a firm structure.  It opens a Mahlerian expanse with its cosmic ambition.  However, by the time Sibelius reaches the third revision, the instrumentation, the proportion of movements, the disposition of motifs, the circulation of themes, everything becomes tighter and cleaner.  Cosmic ambition yields to natural breadth and simplicity.  Instead of development by inner necessity we get unfolding by physical flow.  The famous concluding six orchestral chords are now interspaced with raw silences instead of flowing above the Mahlerian tremolo of winds and strings in the first version.  Sibelius has decided to become a conservative Modernist.  Thus, these chords also create a silence, as it were, between the 4th and the 5th Symphonies.

A game that my other self, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, and I love to play when hanging around a piano is, taking a piece of the standard classical repertoire and spinning it midway in a different direction:  What if at some point the composer had decided to turn in another way?  How would it sound if it evolved in an alternative and unexpected manner?  It is a fascinating exercise in counter-factual music history.

In our era of performative interpretation, I place great value in interventionist approaches which revise and remake works in order to foreground, in a quasi-deconstructive fashion, their constructedness, including paths which for whatever reason they did not take.

13 February 2020

This entry was posted in Classical Music and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.