The Unanswered Question from Two Contemplations
Charles Ives wrote this existential music, subtitled “A Cosmic Landscape,” as a counterpart to his Central Park in the Dark. Ives paired the two compositions: “1. ‘A Contemplation of a Serious Matter’ or ‘The Unanswered Perennial Question’ and 2. ‘A Contemplation of Nothing Serious’ or ‘Central Park in the Dark’ in ‘The Good Old Summer Time.’” He included these comments in the score:
“The strings play ppp throughout with no change in tempo. They are to represent ‘The Silences of the Druids – Who Know, See, and Hear Nothing.’ The trumpet intones ‘The Perennial Question of Existence,’ and states it in the same tone of voice each time … the hunt for ‘The Invisible Answer,’ undertaken by the flutes and other human beings, becomes gradually more active … as the time goes on, [the flutes], after a ‘secret conference,’ seem to realize a futility, and begin to mock ‘The Question.’ After they disappear, ‘The Question’ is asked for the last time, and ‘The Silences’ are heard beyond in ‘Undisturbed Solitude.’”
The strings provide the harmonic underpinning, floating a series of slow-moving shimmering chords that seem revealed, rather than composed. Ives shuns traditional harmonic progressions; the chords evolve with no linear directionality. Over the strings, a solo offstage trumpet plays a haunting, ambiguous five-note question, repeating it seven times. Six of the “questions” trigger responses from a quartet of woodwinds. These responses range from a tentative restatement of the question to angry outbursts that seem to refute it.
Ives’s explanation of the trumpet solo as “The Perennial Question of Existence” is deliberately ambiguous. The question is not only unanswered but unspecified, each listener being free to interpret its meaning. In the context of tonight’s program, “Music for a Time of War,” the question could concern the senselessness of humanity’s inability to avoid bloodshed.
In 1988, John Adams’s father died. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for several years, during which time Adams’s mother nursed him. Adams watched his mother devote her life to caring for her ailing husband and as he also witnessed the ravaging scourge of AIDS on many friends and those who loved them.
Adams writes: “I was plunged into an awareness not only of dying, but also of the person who cares for the dying. … The bonding that takes place between the two is one of the most extraordinary human events that can happen – something deeply personal of which most of us are completely unaware.” This powerful human interaction moved Adams to compose The Wound-Dresser, which is based on excerpts from a poem by Walt Whitman about his experiences as a nurse during the Civil War.
“The Wound-Dresser is the most intimate, most graphic and most profoundly affecting evocation of the act of nursing the sick and dying that I know of,” Adams says. “It is also astonishingly free of any kind of hyperbole or amplified emotion, yet the detail of the imagery is of a precision that could only be attained by one who had been there.” The Wound-Dresser, he adds, “is not just about the Civil War, nor is it just about young men dying (although it is locally about both). It strikes me as a statement about human compassion of the kind that is acted out on a daily basis, quietly and unobtrusively and unselfishly and unfailingly.”
The instrumental interludes signal the shifting moods of each stanza; Adams also features solo instruments, in particular an ethereally high violin and a lingering trumpet melody. Throughout this elegy, Adams’s accompaniment tends toward restraint, giving Whitman’s most graphic lines even greater emotional impact.
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20
In 1940, the government of Japan commissioned works from composers around the world, including 26-year-old Benjamin Britten, to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese Empire. Britten was an ardent pacifist, and as Japan was allied with Germany, which was itself at war with England, Britten hesitated before accepting. He eventually did so, with the condition that he not be required to write what he termed “musical chauvinism.” Instead, Britten produced a work that served a dual purpose: it expressed grief over the deaths of his parents a few years earlier and made a pointed statement about his anti-war beliefs. The resulting Sinfonia da Requiem, as its title suggests, alludes to the Catholic Requiem Mass.
The Japanese were outraged that Britten wrote a memorial to his parents (music, furthermore, with overt Christian theological underpinnings) to mark a Japanese national celebration. In his rejection of the work, Prince Fuminar Konoye, president of the Committee for the 2,600th Anniversary, wrote to Britten, “Besides being a purely religious music of a Christian nature, it has melancholy tone both in its melodic pattern and rhythm, making it unsuitable for performance on such an occasion as our national ceremony.” Why Britten thought the Japanese would approve his finished work is something of a mystery, but he was unapologetic. In a letter to a friend he explained: “I’m making it just as anti-war as possible. I don’t believe you can express social or political or economic theories in music, but by coupling new music with well-known musical phrases, I think it is possible to get over certain ideas.”
Musically, the Sinfonia da Requiem hints at Mahler, particularly in its shifting tonalities and in the way in which it juxtaposes a chamber-music style of writing for a few instruments with the power and sweep of the full orchestra. In the opening Lacrymosa, an angular, dissonant main theme that appears first in the saxophone builds to an anguished clash of D minor vs. D major. In the Dies Irae, winds and brasses generate frenzy and tension. Here Britten effectively creates a sense of terror, which resolves with the calm of the Requiem Aeternam. Britten’s music publisher, Erwin Stein, described the delicate opening melody of the three flutes as a “slumber song,” a gentle lullaby that suggests the tranquility of eternal rest. The slumber song returns briefly as a concluding benediction.
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
Symphony No. 4 in F minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony is the first of his symphonies with no descriptive designation, such as “London” or “Pastoral.” This lack of program title immediately announces a departure from the lyrical Englishness often associated with his work. Both critics and colleagues were nonetheless determined to attribute non-musical meaning to this powerful, often dissonant music, much to the composer’s annoyance.
Due to the political situation in Europe in 1935, when the Fourth Symphony premiered, many listeners interpreted it as Vaughan Williams’s response to current events. One friend said, “Someone said it should have been called ‘Europe 1935’ [although the symphony was composed primarily in 1931-1932] and that is rather what it conveyed to me – the feeling of some huge force at work, driving us to fight and struggle, which may eventually shatter us to pieces, and yet we know in our hearts of hearts that there is something in life, which withstands destruction and brings order out of disorder.” Adrian Boult, who conducted the premiere, considered the Fourth Symphony “a magnificent gesture of disgust” against war and fascism.
Vaughan Williams’s wife, Ursula, probably came closest to explaining her husband’s intentions when she said, “He was experimenting with purely musical ideas. No sea or city, no essence of the country was at the heart of this score, and what emerged has something in common with one of Rembrandt’s self portraits in middle age.”
Although sonically a 20th-century work, structurally the Symphony No. 4 is consciously modeled after Beethoven, particularly his Fifth and Ninth symphonies. Vaughan Williams himself admitted as much. “I have never had any conscience about cribbing,” he wrote. “I cribbed … the opening of my F minor Symphony deliberately from the finale of [Beethoven’s] Ninth Symphony,” specifically the grinding dissonance of the brass fanfare that begins the Ninth’s final movement. Two four-note chromatic themes, heard back-to-back as they open the Allegro, recur as unifying devices throughout the rest of the symphony. The Fourth Symphony also features flashes of humor, particularly in the Scherzo, and moments of unconstrained romanticism.
© 2011 Elizabeth Schwartz