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Category: elegies – threnodies

twice upon a dirge – Beethoven / Chopin

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   Owl on a Grave” / “Eule am Grab (c.1836 – c.1837) 

          Caspar David Friedrich

                   _______

following my nose rather than 
my intellect in my exploration 
of musical treasures, like a very 
Aladdin uncovering at the click 
of my password a cave full of 
priceless wonders, I might find 
stuff out of sequence, but gems
nevertheless, and I can’t just 
whisk by without acknowledging 
them, however peripheral to my 
main task  

it’s like heading towards the Eiffel
Tower in Paris, and not stopping 
at the Arche de Triomphe

though I’d debated so soon 
presenting these two pieces, 
not because of their chronology 
especially, though also that, but 
mostly because of their dour 
content, I’ll point out that the 
move from Classicism to 
Romanticism is the transition 
from dance music, delightful 
music, to drama, passion, 
powerful emotions, dirges, 
therefore, are not out of place, 
however mournful

thus the two most famous 
funeral marches, Beethoven’s,
Chopin’s, the third movement 
in either of their home sonatas

the clincher for me was the 
immaculate performance of 
the Chopin herea revelatory 
moment, though the Beethoven
significantly earlier, the tune, 
1801, 1837, is nevertheless 
unimpeachable, however still 
underdeveloped – four variations 
only in the first movement, for 
instance, and all of them 
elementary – the caterpillar had 
not yet become the butterfly, the 
apple blossom the apple

note that each movement in the 
Chopin, apart from the last, has
two distinct tempi, executed 
effortlessly and nearly 
imperceptibly, a total of six, you 
can’t see, you can’t hear, the 
seams as you listen, which, with 
its virtual therefore episodes, 
conflicting and tortuous 
emotions, constitute collectively 
a drama, a narrative, music has 
become literature

the last movement of the Chopin
moves beyond even tempo – 
Beethoven’s also, incidentally, 
nearly – creating therefore 
very challenge to it, both trying 
to transcend tempi, an area to 
closely watch

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no 12

Chopin’s Piano Sonata no 2

take your pick

both are supremely, mark, 
instructive


R ! chard

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different trains – Reich / Bach

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     “Saint-Lazare Gare, Normandy Train (1887) 

            Claude Monet

                   ________

since I’m on the subject of trains, let me
once again highlight a piece that, to my 
mind, is one of the most significant 
works of the 20th Century, Steve Reich’s
Different Trains“, an extraordinary 
homage to the victims of the Holocaust 

it is in three movements, America – 
Before the War”, “Europe – During the 
War“, andAfter the War“, Reich
recounts his impressions of train trips
that marked him throughout, therefore
this is an autobiographical work, as 
well as being an historical document,
and add to that a profoundly moving 
musical meditation on a pivotal 
moment in our history

I used to say that if you’re going to 
open your mouth, you should be 
either entertaining or informative,
preferably both, otherwise keep 
your mouth shut, many took 
offense, I must’ve been 
insufferable

but, I would opine, life is short, 
you’ll have to, I’m afraid, deal 
with your own shortcomings

Reich here has no shortcomings,
though at first you think this might 
be a long trip, with so many 
repeated musical clusters, not to 
mention the strident atonality, it  
soon becomes evident that this  
piece is amazing, a personal and
powerful evocation of a particular 
transformational event seen 
through the eyes of an innocent,
an American child, a poet, 
experiencing, however 
metaphorically, the horror of this
defining moment

style and content, information and 
entertainment, indissolubly gel to 
deliver an unforgettable experience, 
my own such pivotal moment 
would’ve been the Cold War air raid 
shelters, the nuclear threat

Reich holds on to Classical 
conditions by a mere thread, tempo, 
however variable, is solid throughout 
as a rock, dictated by the prepared 
tape that the instrumentalists must
follow rhythmically like a clock

another divergence from the 
Classical model is that tonality  
and recapitulation, apart from the 
repetition of musical clusters, is 
entirely jettisoned 

note, however, the same use of 
repeated clusters in Bach, to 
simulate propulsion, the 
minimalism of the 20th Century is
already prefigured in Bach’s stuff

plus ça change, as we say in French,
there is nothing really new, in other
words, under the sun


in the spirit of juxtaposing items
to discover much more than the 
sum of their parts, listen to Bach’s 
Second Suite, in D minor, for 
inspirational clarification 


R ! chard

psst: there were no trains at the time 
          of Bach, I should note, they were 
          a product of the later 19th-Century,
          its Industrial Revolution, see, for 
          instance, here, or above

Symphony No 3 in Eb major, op. 20, “The First of May”

the-1st-may-demonstration-on-the-red-square-at-1929-1930.jpg!Large

   “The 1st May Demonstration on The Red Square, 1929 (1930) 

            Konstantin Yuon

__________

let me correct something I wrote in my 
last comment, inadvertently, misleading
you somewhat with my inappropriate 
use of the word “movement”, that the
Symphony no 2 had only one, I stated, 
by which I meant that there were no 
pauses throughout, there are, however, 
indeed four movements in the Second
four distinct sections that have been 
joined together, such an uninterrupted 
piece would usually have been given 
an appropriate title, or an opus number, 
to identify it, but would not have been 
called a symphony, a symphony is by  
very definition a clearly segmented 
composition, like chapters in a book, 
they might follow a theme, though not
necessarily, see Mozart, but the breaks
are integral, where you get a chance to
cough, or to get up and replenish your 
glass of wine 

the Second could have been, should 
have been, called simply, October“, 
and, ergo, left at that 

but it wasn’t

the very same must be said about the
Third Symphony, “The First of May”,
you can already probably hear the 
jubilation and fanfare in just the title,
another milestone of the Revolution, 
the anniversary of Lenin’s death, the 
final chorus sings a lyric of a poet of
the Revolution, Semyon Kirsanov, a
sure nod to the symphony‘s political, 
however peripheral, intent 

what you’ll note, however, is the 
sensuality of the music, above
whatever weight of a, perhaps 
more fitting, dirge, or the bombast 
even of a commemorative, an exalting 
tribute – though these are determinedly 
there – going back to the orchestral 
triumphs of the Romantic Era, with 
its lush rallentandos and its voluptuous
ritardandos, the better to seduce
 
Shostakovich is getting ready for the 
real thing, a piece with any partisan 
message, he must sense, can never 
work


by the way, should you disagree 
with any of my evaluations, this 
would not at all be offensive, but
even wonderful, I have been 
wrong, I can prove it, I have the 
dates, they are listed somewhere 
in my papers, but it would mean 
you’re paying attention, listening, 
which is the entire purpose, more
than anything else, of this 
exploratory exercise, should you
wish to participate 

R ! chard

on “Elegy for the Victims of the Tsunami of March 11, 2011 in Japan” – Nobuyuki Tsujii

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    Tsunami (1998) 

         Jacek Yerka

          __________

while watching Nobuyuki Tsujii play the
extraordinarily demanding Tchaikovsky 
First Piano Concerto on television the 
other night, with no less than Valery
Gergiev, conducting the resident 
orchestra at the Mariinsky Theatre in 
Moscow, for its White NightsI was 
wonderstruck by the challenges a 
visually handicapable pianist would 
have to conquer in order to reach 
such an apogee 

everything must be learned by ear, all
items must be discovered tactually, 
from the piano itself to the very 
individual keys, not to mention 
the player’s very own fingers

there can be no visual contact with a 
conductor, either, for cues, for 
instance, nor for any other 
accompaniment, for neither even an 
audience, it would all take place in 
the dark recesses of the head, the 
amorphous and, I suppose, 
confounding, cerebellum

later he played for an encore his own 
composition, Elegy for the Victims of
the Tsunami of March 11, 2011 in Japan“,
a fine addition to my budding collection 
of threnodies

and a very, very moving piece

an elegy, incidentally, is usually written,
while a threnody is composed, but these 
terms are often used interchangeably, as, 
indeed, they are here

you’ll note the utterly Classical mode of
composition of the Elegy“, it adheres to  
a uniform tonality, a consistent tempo, 
and the grounding and comfort of 
repetition, returning always to the main, 
endearing air, rather than more modern 
tripwires and stridencies, traditionalism 
being not an inappropriate, nor ineffective,
mode of address for honoured forebears 

long live Classicism

 

R ! chard

an homage to the victims of the Titanic

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  The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up (1839) 

          William Turner

                _______

while I’m on the subject of threnodies
which is to say “song[s] of lamentation
for the dead”, as I earlier statedlet me 
bring your attention to this extraordinary 
piece, an homage to the victims of the
Titanic
 
it doesn’t even have a title, much as 
Mozart and Haydn didn’t before music 
went mainstream, into public forums 
rather than merely aristocratic salons, 
and when an identifying moniker 
instead of a number became manifestly 
more practical, especially when the 
emerging Middle Classes were 
becoming the ones who were paying 
the composer’s bills, at the opera 
houses and the other sprouting 
concert venues, when some composers 
had even up to 32 sets of piano sonatas 
to remember, three and four often to 
a single set, opus number, as many as 
there are movements in a very sonata

and that’s not counting the numbered 

symphonies and string quartets of 
theirs, left to similarly calculate, 
decipher, extricate

it doesn’t have a title, I think, because
to my knowledge, it is the first of its
kind, a composition created by 
computer, for computer, an entirely 
self-contained digital work of, 
manifestly, art – I’d been waiting, 
diligently, for one – and like Beethoven, 
after the work was done, the artist(s)
just felt the title best left to the 
wordsmiths, thus – you’re welcome –  
Threnody for the Victims of the 
Titanic

sure, computers have done practical
things before, admirably, but never 
told a story, and certainly never one 
as profound as this one

these are the last moments of the 
Titanic, digitally reproduced, in real 
time, 2 hours and 40 minutes, they
are mesmerizing, you don’t want 
to miss a thing

there are no voices, apart from a 
few radio transmissions at the 
start, spotting the iceberg, calling 
out commands to beware, stop 
the engines

afterwards only silence, and the 
sound of the waves, the churning
of the engines, which have been 
restarted, sounding as rhythmic, 
incidentally, and numbing, as the 
wheels on the railroad tracks of
Steve Reich‘s Different Trains“,
another powerful threnody 

later the flash and crack of flares,
the crunch of the ship sinking  

the pervasive, however disrupted, 
silence and the inexorable passage 
of ever ticking time combine to be, 
thereafter, transfixing, meditative, 
ultimately transcendent, a fitting 
setting for a threnody 

I know of only another work to take
you to that venerable place,
Beethoven’s opus 111

and often enough Pink Floyd, for 
that matter, and the visionary 
Alan Parsons Project, of course, 
discoursing on inexorable Time 

and, now that I think of it, Elgar‘s
The Dream of Gerontius, whose 
character goes from his deathbed 
in the first act, to his afterlife in 
the second, effecting transcendence
for us by, yes, ingenious 
metaphorical proxy

but I digress

what I call Threnody for the Victims 
of the Titanic is a narrative with 
sound, not a movie, not a television
program, it has more commonality 
with a musical production than 
anything else but painting in art 
history, though its means are 
intuitively literary, ship stories go
back to The Odyssey through
Gulliver’s TravelsTreasure 
Island and to one of my very 
favourites, Ship of Fools“,
relatively recently

I could add Mutiny on the Bounty“,
Moby Dick“, “The Caine Mutiny 

in art, a precedent would’ve been set
in our collective consciousness by 
William Turner‘s celebratedThe 
Fighting Temeraire …, but I would 
mention as well Caspar David 
Friedrich‘s The Wanderer above 
the Sea of Fog for its existential
pertinence

a few literary points I’d like to stress
to back up my overt adulation, I find  
it impressive that the Classical rules
of tragedy have been maintained, 
unity of action, time, and place, 
prescriptions going back to 
Aristotle‘s Poetics in our cultural 
history, to profoundly express 
tragedy, iconic, epic, misfortune

not to mention the Classical musical
imperatives of tempo, tonality and 
repetition, none of which can be 
faulted here in this consummate 
composition

there is a no greater leveller of tempo 
than time, larghissimo here*, in the 
largest sense of that word, the 
cosmic, the inexorable pace of 
temporality in our brief heavens

a greater leveller of tonality neither  
is there than the rigorously impartial 
hum of the imperturbable Cosmos 

nor is there greater repetition than 
uniformity, however disrupted by  
however fervent ever human 
intervention, see Sisyphus, or 
Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Woolf for iconic disrupters

R ! chard

*   Shostakovich had asked the 
     Beethoven Quartet to play the first 
     movement of his 15th String Quartet,
     “Elegy: Adagio“, so that flies 
     drop dead in mid-air, and the 
     audience start leaving the hall from 
     sheer boredom  

     well this inspired elucidation is even  
     slower than that

threnodies: to the victims of Hiroshima, of the Holocaust, and to the Canadian North

The Scream, 1893 - Edvard Munch

       The Scream (1893) 

             Edvard Munch

                    ____________

before we leave too far behind the 
anniversary of the annihilation of
Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, let me 
introduce you to a piece that 
purports to pay it homage

if I didn’t bring it up before, it’s 
because the date was wrong, but
especially because the work 
offends me, the only thing I like
about it is the title, a thing of 
beauty, poetry – Threnody to the
Victims of Hiroshima – a threnody
is a song of lamentation for the 
dead, which worked for me, this 
one, no further than its title

there is nothing remotely 
reminiscent of the tragedy
throughout the piece, it is a 
collection of academic exercises,
pretensions, I think, without a 
heartbeat 

let me compare Steve Reich’s 
threnody to the victims of the 
Holocaust, the other signature 
Twentieth Century atrocity, his 
Different Trains“, a work in three 
movements, America – Before the 
War”, “Europe – During the War”, 
and After the War”, for string 
quartet and tape, upon which 
Reich has recorded interviews 
with people relating impressions 
from before the warduring, and 
after, according to the movements

the quartet, you’ll note, must keep 
time with the tape, and in this 
production visuals have been 
effectively added 

Glenn Gould had done something 
like this several years earlier,
incidentally, in his The Idea of 
North“, a threnody itself to that 
very idea, a masterpiece, a
groundbreaking transcendental
work of the imagination, with 
overlapping voices, which is to 
say human counterpointthough 
without string quartet

you’ll note that distressing tonalities
affect throughout this other, much 
more successful however, tribute
but the different rhythms of the 
recurrent, which is to say minimalist, 
rails keep you emotionally, as it were, 
on track

Different Trains is appropriately,
and profoundly, commemorative, 
not to mention unforgettable 

Richard