Sunday, April 4, 2010

The "Reformation" Symphony

Several weeks ago my roommate and I had a debate about music, what it is and what it's for. As a classically-trained musician, I've come to appreciate the styles and techniques of music, and how they evoke particular emotions or feelings. As someone who took courses on rock music in undergrad, my roommate countered that rock music was just as subtle and evocative.

He had argued that classical music is highly repetitive and pretentious, that the composer crafts a piece to deliberately elicit a specific emotion or scenery in one's mind, and it almost "tricks" the audience to think about music a certain way. I countered that while classical music may have that intention, the intentions of the conductor and the musicians also add uniqueness each time a piece is played - there is a marked capacity for personal expression with almost any classical piece. However, technique-wise, one can't compare rock music to the layers of sound in a symphony. My roommate also finds the 4th movement of symphonies the most boring, because it's "simply" a recapitulation of the previous 3 movements. I . . . respectfully (but vehemently) disagreed.

When I was in DC over Spring Break, I brought this up with my friend Jake. He, unsurprisingly, aligned with my views. He played trombone in marching band and concert band in high school, and has perhaps a greater appreciation for classical music than me.
Anyway, I present the 4th movement of Symphony No. 5, Op. 107 by Felix Mendelssohn, or more commonly known as the "Reformation" Symphony. I had last played this piece in high school and it has remained one of my favorites. Follow along as I comment on what I feel in this piece.

In the 4th movement, the piece begins with a wind chorale of Martin Luther's hymn, A Might Fortress Is Our God. The flutes and piccolo first sing alone, their sounds like prayers floating high into the air. Soon more wind instruments join in as the theme is repeated (0:25), adding their lyrical voices to the flutes and piccolo. Finally, the strings join in (0:46). Then together, the music steadily climbs higher, starting with an ascending scale (0:53) and culminating as if with arms outstretched at the sky (1:02) before lowering briefly. This is followed by a determined declaration (1:15) that builds up to a kind of expectant tension, resolving only as the cellos and tympani enter galloping (1:39).

When the theme recurs (1:45), it takes on a different character than the previous lyrical chorale - it is now almost like returning traveler whose home is within sight. As this traveler nears his destination, his excitement builds and builds (2:06) until he arrives and lets out a deep sigh at the bottom of a descending scale (2:13).

Thus begins the second theme, a joyous and elated moment, a celebration as the orchestra embraces the reunion. The cellos take their turn, skipping down a descending stairs (2:34) before racing back to the top (2:38) and shouting out again with the rest of the orchestra. There are hugs and cheers all around, the brass calling out in fanfare. The cellos begin a kind of hearty chant (3:00) that is then passed around amongst the strings.

The violins and violas build their excitement in their arpeggios (3:31). Then the strings almost seem to say "tell us about your journey" of the traveler (3:42). The brass respond in fanfare alone (3:47) and begins to tell the tale. The strings, holding a single chord, wait and listen attentively for the lyrical winds (3:59), which sound like chirping birds with their trills. Like children satisfied with a good story, the strings boom out their joy (4:19) and their excitement builds again, almost uncontainable. The strings scramble all over up and down with their quick arpeggios, children running at top speed (4:37).

Then, tired of running, the violins and violas calm down (4:54). In this rare moment, the cellos take the time for introspection, repeating the first theme (5:01). Like the chorale at the beginning, the cellos seem to stretch their arms skyward (5:08). Slowly, the strings seem to awake from a nap (5:37) and then repeat the second theme (5:50). This time, the violins switch places with the cellos and begin the round (6:02). Almost restless and annoyed with the strings, the winds and brass play the first theme over them (6:37) - a slower, bolder, and more forceful iteration, as the strings continue playing underneath.

Then the entire orchestra realigns and plays the second theme in unison (7:03). As the winds and brass drop away, the strings being their climb up (7:22). But then even the strings drop suddenly (7:30), now quieter and more legato, as if motioning for the winds and brass to catch up. Together the entire orchestra builds in intensity, gathering force until the first theme reemerges at last (8:18). This last version of the theme is anything but the same as the chorale at the beginning, now a powerful exaltation of the entire orchestra at the end of the symphony.
You can imagine playing a piece such as this has an almost spiritual quality/aspect to it. Even now after so many years, I can still envision the music in my head. The transformation from the reflective chorale to the powerful ending, all the while using the same two themes, exemplifies the composer's skill in modulation. Repetitive perhaps, but at least each repeat is different with its own unique tones, qualities, and emotions.

Anyway, I somehow thought this piece to be strangely apt for Easter. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have. :-)


Anonymous said...

I do not like this piece because it doesn't fit my mind. Bad music is bad, no matter the genre, and good music is good, no matter the genre. Discussion of "subtlety" or "layers" or any of that is mostly nonsensical and pointless since those terms do not apply equally well to all forms of music. Just because red lacks any hue of blue does not make it any less or more beautiful.

The problem I have with shorter pieces of music is that, if they are good, they generally don't last long enough. The problem I have with classical is that, if the piece is mediocre or bad, the unpleasant parts generally drag on too long, and they spoil any good that might be there. It's rare, especially since the late 19th century that I've found a classical piece of music I've liked all the way through.

The only redeeming quality this piece of music you've listed here might have is that it's a rip off of the original hymn, which I very much like. Unfortunately, Mendelssohn couldn't leave well enough alone, and felt that perverting and gussying up the original would somehow improve it. In the process he's managed to ruin the whole thing.

(Goes back to listening to "Eh Eh" by Lady GaGa...)

Anonymous said...

I do think Dave of DazeGoneBi has entered blog heaven. It's been more than a month since his last posting. Regardless of the blog, I hope Dave is OK.

joe said...

Classical music isnt about leaving soething as is, its about celebrating it. if you dont like a certain piece. then dont listen to it. the greater diversity of classical music is lost to many listeners. i myself have just discovered what i like and where to get it. repetition is in all music. classical is perhaps one of the LESS repetitive forms. have you listened to I kissed a girl? the crap they call music these days is 10 times more repetitive and doesnt change until 2/3 of the way through and then is a half step up to "shake things up". bloody crap if you ask me.

classical music contains thought YOU the listener have to find and interpret for yourself. the composer can only convey what he feels and the rest is left up to you. go listen to brahms, beethoven, mozart and tell me they arent masterpieces.

comparing music can be done to ALL forms by talking about layers and subtlety. i cant fathom how you dont see that even in the modern music of today. lets take rude boy by rhianna. crap. total crap. but hey, its music right?

it starts out with synth and drum set. this brief intro is followed (:12) by a synth piano playing dissonance with a its hard to dertermine sound when they are made up. at :58 there is repetition echoing rhiannas lyrics in the background layered over synth layered over drum line with tamberine over the top. not to mention this song repeats about every 35 seconds. same thing. for 3:45 second.

perhaps this isnt the same music you were talking about. perhaps "your music" is oldies, disco, early rock, classic rock, what ever. every damn song in history is based on the precedent set by classical music. the theory involved in classical music can be found in every song since the beginning of time. take the time to think about a piece, not just this garbage they assault your ears with before turning it up so loud it doesnt matter anymore cause you cant hear it anyways.

Dating said...

The problem I have with shorter pieces of music is that, if they are good, they generally don't last long enough. The problem I have with classical is that, if the piece is mediocre or bad, the unpleasant parts generally drag on too long, and they spoil any good that might be there. It's rare, especially since the late 19th century that I've found a classical piece of music I've liked all the way through.

Aek said...

James: We have our disagreements, clearly. Enough said.

joe: I think your comment is a reply to James' right? Anyway, thanks for the comment. :-)

Dating: Who are you? You just copied & pasted part of James' comment. o_O