September 24, 2020

Classical music to escape the summer | Babelia


Nothing invites you to think that next fall will be better than this summer, or that the previous spring. But, exceptional contingencies aside, summer is by no means a season for everyone’s taste, and music allows us to leave it behind before its time and even move mentally to other less hurtful lights, to less suffocating temperatures, to cloudy skies, to longer nights.

Autumn is usually the preferred season for summerphobes, not only because it means that the heatwave is finally behind us, but because the next summer is further away than ever. In one of the unknown chamber gems of the 20th century, the Notturno op. 47 by the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck, for baritone and string quartet, the third movement is inspired, like the previous two, by a poem by Nikolaus Lenau, Ein Herbstabend (An autumn afternoon), and the change of nature’s skin helps him to ask himself several questions with a clear philosophical bias: “Is life on earth an illusion? Is it not more than the return / of a mirage, the reflection trail of the Eternal? / But why then does life on earth produce fear / if it is nothing more than an illusion prior to its extinction? / Is this fear only of what is going to survive, / a reflective shine that his image does not want to disappear either? / Is this fear also just an illusion? This is how thoughts crowd together, / Like the mists of autumn trembling through the deserted valley ”.

The leaves of the trees begin to turn yellow, to break away little by little from the branches and to pile up on the ground, like memories and regrets, in Les feuilles mortes, Jacques Prévert’s poem set to music by Joseph Kosma and which changed its name by becoming one of the favorite melodies of jazz musicians and becoming Autumn leaves (Autumn leaves). It seems that autumn invites loneliness, as happens in the second Lied of The song of the earth by Gustav Mahler, “The Lonely One in Autumn”, which contains an unforgettable verse in which the composer, already mortally wounded when he wrote this work that closes with a long and moving farewell, had to feel identified: “My heart is tired ”. Another late-season song, in this case by Franz Schubert, Herbst, affects loneliness and the progressive dispossession of nature when the end of the year approaches: “The winds / autumn and cold are blowing; / The fields are barren, / the forest is defoliated ”. But autumn is also synonymous with vintage and, therefore, with celebration and joy, as one of the choirs of Stations by Haydn. And melancholy does not necessarily have to be painful, or at least that is how Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky conceives it in his Autumn song.

There is no music more persistently wintry than that of Winterreise by Schubert, a journey between snow and ice of an unnamed person of whom we ignore almost everything. There is also no image of a more extreme cold than that conveyed by the third song: “Icy tears / fall from my cheeks: / have I not noticed / that I have been crying?” At this stage of the trip, the traveler still retains a warmth in his interior that, however, will go, song after song, disappearing: “Still, you spring from the source / from my chest so hot / as if you wanted to melt / the ice of all winter ”. Another no less graphic image is the one that reveals the only clue that Wilhelm Müller (author of the poems) and Franz Schubert allow us to glimpse of the age of their lonely walker: “The frost has spread / a whitish shine on my head. / Well I thought I was already an old man, / and I was very happy “, he sings to us in Gray head. The moments of joy in Winter trip they are always fleeting, or a mirage, a dream: “But it has melted immediately / and my hair is black again. / My youth terrifies me: / how far the grave is still! “


Snow covered road in Steamboat Springs, Colorado (United States).enlarge photo
Snow covered road in Steamboat Springs, Colorado (United States). GETTY IMAGES

Schnee (Snow) is a work that has already acquired cult status by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, which premiered a few months ago in Munich the opera The queen of the snow, based on the homonymous story of his compatriot Hans Christian Andersen. Two of his ten canons bear an indication that partly reveals his compositional philosophy: “In the tempo of tai chi ”. And another work by Abrahamsen that has aroused admiration wherever it has been performed by Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, her inspiring muse, is. let me tell you, a cycle of seven songs based on poems by Paul Griffiths written with the limitation that they cannot use other words than those that Shakespeare puts in Ophelia’s mouth in Hamlet. The last song, a slow farewell, places a lonely being on the snow again: “The snow falls. / I will continue, then, in the snow. / I will have my hope with me. / I look up, / as if I could see the snow as it falls, / as if I could keep my gaze on a small fragment of it / and watch it descend / fall without stopping to the ground. / I can not. / The snow flowers are all the same as each other / and I can’t keep my eyes on one. / I’ll give this up and move on. / I will continue”.

The cold is almost seen, and felt, in the Antarctic Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams, as in a juvenile work that showed the enormous talent – soon confirmed in many other works – of his compatriot George Benjamin, A mind of winter. The poet Wallace Stevens and his poem The snow man (The Snowman) are the source of inspiration for this warmly cold music: “One must have a winter spirit / to observe the frost and the verdascas / of the snow-encrusted pines; / and to have been cold for a long time / to contemplate the junipers covered with ice, / the curled fir trees under the remote glare / of the January sun ”.

Winter invites shelter. So does the mother who sings to her child in Wiegenlied im Winter (Lullaby in winter), by Hugo Wolf: “Go to sleep, my sweet child, / outside the wind is blowing. / He knocks on the window and looks inside, / and if he hears a child screaming, / he scolds, growls and howls loudly, / immediately prepares a bed of snow, / and places it in the crib / if the child he does not want to be silent ”. The young protagonists of La bohème of Puccini fight without means against the Christmas cold in their poor Parisian attics: that is why Mimì’s hand, when Rodolfo gropes her, is like an iceberg.

This contrast between the cold outside and the seclusion inside is admirably captured in Der Winterabend (The winter afternoon), another Lied by Franz Schubert, an invitation to reflection: “Now everything is calm, the blacksmith / or the plumber is not hammering, the people have left, tired. / And to avoid the rattling of the cars, / even a blanket of snow has covered the streets. / How good this blessed peace does me! / I sit in the dark, totally apart. / Embedded in myself. Only the light of the moon / softly enters my bedroom. […] I remember the past, the distant past, / a beautiful time that disappeared. / I think of her, of the happiness of love, / I sigh in silence and I think, I think ”.

Georg Trakl knew snow and cold very well as a native of Salzburg that he was. His poem Winternacht (Winter Night) inspired another purely instrumental composition by Hans Abrahamsen, while the one who has been perhaps Franz Schubert’s most worthy heir in the composition of German songs in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Bavarian composer Wilhelm Killmayer, converted the poem Ein Winterabend (A winter afternoon) by the Austrian in one of those characteristic songs of his, which, stripped of anything that is not absolutely essential, almost resembles a tree without leaves: “When the snow falls by the window / evening bell. […] The traveler enters silently; / pain has petrified the threshold. / There they shine with a pure radiance / On the table bread and wine ”.


An aisle of jacaranda trees in bloom in Grafton, Australia.enlarge photo
An aisle of jacaranda trees in bloom in Grafton, Australia. GETTY IMAGES

Spring and love have a very long poetic and musical association. Sometimes, however, it is not without ambiguity, as in the first and extraordinary Lied with which it opens Dichterliebe (Love of a poet), a cycle by Robert Schumann based on poems by Heinrich Heine: “In the wonderful month of May, / when all the cocoons sprouted, / then in my heart / love burst forth. / In the wonderful month of May, / when all the birds sang, / then I confessed to her / my wishes and my wishes ”. Heine is also, as always, concise and his verses leave the door open to different interpretations. That same duality is found in Im Lenz, by Peter Cornelius: “In spring, when countless violets bloom, / be careful, because they wake up tears. […] Be careful, because this is the course of things: / the flowers and the wounds open in spring ”.

The reverse of Gustav Mahler’s earlier “lonely in autumn” is the “drunk in spring” by The song of the earth: “What do I hear when I wake up? Listens! / A bird sings in the tree. / I ask him if spring has arrived. / For me it’s like a dream. / The bird chirps: “Yes! Yes! Spring, / spring is here, has come tonight!” / I hear you staring at it, / the bird sings and laughs! / I fill my glass again / and empty it to the bottom / and sing until the moon gleams / in the black sky! / And when I can’t sing anymore, / I go back to sleep, / what does spring matter to me? / Let me be drunk! ” And in Winter trip From Schubert we find the same association of spring with a dream, fantasies in which the composer momentarily abandons the minor mode: “I dreamed of colored flowers / like those that bloom in May; / I dreamed of green meadows / and joyful bird calls. / And when the roosters crowed, / my eyes woke up; / It was cold and dark, / crows squawked from the roof ”.

Sometimes the arrival of spring is perceived not in the appearance of the first flowers, but in that its own voice is heard, as in the waltz by Johann Strauss, although the Viennese satirical singer-songwriter Georg Kreisler used the 3/4 of the Austrian national dance to accompany a much more macabre spring pastime: “Honey, the weather is wonderful, / I can’t stand home anymore; / today you have to go out to the park, / to the multicolored spring. / All the boys and their girls / with a bag of food / sit on the grass today. / Honey, I have an idea: / Look, the sun is hot and the air is warm, / we are going to poison pigeons in the park! […] Can there be a greater pleasure in life / than poisoning pigeons in the park? / Hansl is delighted with Mali, / because it is Mali that pays for the potassium cyanide. / Hearts are weak and love is strong / by poisoning pigeons in the park … / Take something to bite us / in the other pocket! / We are going to poison pigeons in the park! “

Returning to orthodoxy, for the peasants, spring comes as a “gift from heaven” that will begin to fill the fields and their crops with sprouts: this is how it is sung in the first great choir of Stations by Joseph Haydn. Tchaikovsky imagined a spring splendor much more intimate and collected to the rhythm of the barcarola, while his compatriot Igor Stravinsky preferred to link the sudden, almost brutal arrival of spring in a pagan Russia to ancestral rites, dances of the land, evocations of the ancestors , young virgins and sacrificial dances.

Summer has been forcibly left off this list, although there are also a multitude of music inspired by it, some even refreshing. But those are for the moment parked for their nostalgia until winter.

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