Archive for the ‘symphonic poem’ Category

Tone Poetry: A Category Mistake?
February 5, 2010

Last week, when Pinchas Steinberg summarized the story that Smetana’s Vlast narrates through music, he implied several times that the listener does not need to know the story but can understand it through the music. The following post is my trying to work through the idea that music can tell a story.

Symphonic poems and the pastoral: the association seems inescapable. Coming out of German Romanticism, tone poems focus on harmony, voicing, and texture to paint a musical image of mountains, trees, rivers, lakes, clouds, pastures, etc. I have three major problems with the concept of symphonic poems.

First, the phrase smells funny: a symphonic poem is neither a symphony nor a poem. A poem can–and usually does–have musical qualities, but to say that a poem can exist in music is to cheapen poetry. Poetry is made out of words, and while the sounds of those words certainly contribute to the poetic effect, they do not count as a poem themselves.

Second, the phrase reduces music to mere signifier; the pastoral images become the referent, the desideratum of significance. A symphony can conjure poetic images, but describing a bucolic scene in music relegates music to the purely representational. If that doesn’t sound like a problem, see my friend Dan Clemens’s recent blog post for a short plea for alternatives to representational theories of art.

Third, the phrase reinforces the historically dependent association between tone poems and the pastoral. A poem can also do much more than recount emotion recollected in tranquility. Not all poems are about communing with Nature. Could there be industrial tone poems? mechanical, fierce, humorous, sarcastic, spooky, silly, spritely tone poems?

The source of the problem is not the need to name the form of a musical work, but rather has to do with the conceptual limits of symphonic poems. They are like reverse ekphrasis. Instead of being about another work of art, tone poems attempt to do what another art form already does. They have another mode of art thrust upon them.

And they can’t handle it. The listener can follow an already known story as the music provides a soundtrack, but music cannot narrate a story. This conclusion (which will remain tentative) is not a complaint about music’s shortcomings, but an affirmation of music’s non-linguistic powers.

The Dallas Debut of a Deaf Composer’s Symphonic Poem Cycle
February 1, 2010

Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, January 30, 2010
8:00 p.m.

Pinchas Steinberg, conductor

Smetana – Má Vlast (My Fatherland)

Bedřich Smetana’s cycle of six tone poems, Má Vlast, takes place in the rolling meadowlands of current day Czechoslovakia and tells the story of the mythic early days of the Czech people and their land, Bohemia. Most of the movements describe the landscape or take the listener on a journey through the countryside, but the third and fifth give the work its drama. The third tone poem, Šárka, is based on a Czech folktale in which a young maiden, betrayed by her lover, exacts her revenge by slaughtering him and his army with the help of a group of warrior women. The fifth movement, Tábor, depicts the fifteenth-century Hussites battling against the Germans for their freedom.

Smetana offers us a beautiful symphonic work that is both traditional and forward-looking for its time, traditional in its nationalism but forward-looking in its diversity. As he aims to incite national pride, Smetana is usually able to stir the emotions without pulling cheap musical tricks. He reveals the diversity of emotion, action, and scenery of the Czech people and their land through swelling melodies, careful melodies, delicate textures, fugal counterpoint, and of course, polkas. Although it skimped on the horns, Má Vlast uses the entire orchestral palette, and its dynamic character is operatic rather than limply pastoral.

Steinberg took the stage and then the microphone before the baton. His long introduction gave a more intimate account of Smetana’s life and the story he tells in Má Vlast. Although Steinberg is a good story-teller, he talked too long. Since Má Vlast was the only work on the program for the evening, there was no short piece at the beginning to buy a moment to seat the latecomers.

Five minutes into the first tone poem, I realized the Steinberg had no music stand in front of him. He conducted the whole work from memory. He used no score. That is when it became clear that Steinberg’s opening monologue was not just a proxy for the “seating music,” but he told the audience what he believed. He is passionate about the piece, and his conducting showed that he feels deeply connected to it.

Steinberg demanded a lot of sound from the DSO, sometimes more than the strings were willing (or able) to give him. He also demanded the other extreme of volume as he hushed certain sections often to allow a surprising counter-melody from across the orchestra to rise up and add another dimension to the music. The polka in Vltava (The Moldau) was delightful thanks to Steinburg’s cheery upbeats and buoyant bass lines. Later in the same movement, the first violins had an intonation problem with the exposed octave jumps. The reeds had similar problems in the chorale section in Šárka.

After the intermission, the fourth movement opened up a window into Smetana’s psyche. Smetana went deaf over night and suffered from a high-pitched tone constantly ringing in his mind. Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Forests and Meadows) is an experiment in counterpoint. Writing multiple overlapping melodies without being able to hear the result is a feat of musical genius. Steinberg did not give the counterpoint of the fourth tone poem a baroque clarity. Instead, it was as if the audience listened through the fog of Smetana’s deafness and experienced the music only as clearly as he ever imagined it.

Tábor, is the best of the six tone poems, the most musically engaging, and the most dramatic without falling into trite patriotism. Blaník, however, is an unfortunate ending to the cycle because the patriotic fervor does not translate well across time and geography.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening, the first time that Má Vlast has ever been performed in its entirety in Dallas.