Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony

Mahler-Klemperer S2 Album Cover

Introduction. Readers of The Orthosphere might approach the following essay as though it were an addition to a suite of music-appreciation essays that I have posted at this website.  Previously at The Orthosphere, I have commented on the music of Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959), Eduard Tubin (1905 – 1982), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958), and Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981).  Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) is by far a more important composer than any of those four despite the fact that each is a splendid and wonderful composer in his own way.  I have reason to believe that once, during his sojourn in New York State and on his way to Niagara Falls with his wife, Mahler passed through the small town on Lake Ontario where, in my exile from my native California, I have lived since the fall of the fateful year 2001.  A fair number of Mahler acquaintances made their way to California in the 1930s.  I knew musical people in California who had known Mahler – or who had known Mahler’s wife or daughter.  I knew others who, like me, had come powerfully under the spell of Mahler, whose influence may be heard in certain landmark film-scores, like those, for example, of Eric Korngold.  For me, Mahler has been a presence, immediate and personal, since my late teens, when I began to make my acquaintance with his extraordinary symphonies on record.  That was the heyday , at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, of the long-playing vinyl album.  Usually, the album came with extensive, small-type notes on the reverse of the cover or with a booklet inside the sleeve that was even more detailed than the back-of-the-sleeve essay.

It was possible in Los Angeles in the early 1970s to purchase “boxed sets” of the Mahler symphonies in the so-called Vox Box series – vintage (usually monophonic) recordings offered in three-disc sets for about a dollar per disc.  I probably first heard the “Resurrection” Symphony (Symphony No. 2, begun in the late 1880s and finished in the early 1890s) in one of the many recordings of that work made by Otto Klemperer, a Mahler-acolyte and noteworthy itinerant conductor, who became especially associated with Mahler’s “Resurrection.”

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The “Ula Lu La Lu” & Consciousness: Meditations on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

Botticelli Venus

Sandro Botticelli: Venus (1486)

Introduction. The American poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) began his authorship with imagist poems and quirky mixtures of prose and verse like Spring and All (1923), a book that intersperses paragraphs of speculation concerning poetry, consciousness, and the world with seemingly improvised but in reality carefully composed verse-effusions that attempt an audacious transformation of the banal into the sublime.  Scholars of Twentieth-Century American poetry invariably categorize Williams as modern or avant-garde, but I would argue that Williams continues strongly in the Transcendentalist or American-Romantic tradition of the century previous to his own.  Spring and All, supposedly an epitome of idiosyncratic American modernism, offers a case in point, even in those statements where Williams appears to reject tradition altogether and extols the virtue of “the imagination, freed from the handcuffs of ‘art.’”  In an early prose-sequence of Spring and All, Williams denounces those whom he calls “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism.”  Williams uses the term plagiarism in an unusual way, as a failure of consciousness  and perception to rediscover the newness and beauty – indeed even the sublimity – of the given world in all its particulars.  In effect, in Spring and All, Williams engages a new version of the Romantic critique of complacency, recording, as he puts it, “our despair at the unfathomable mist into which all mankind is plunging.”

Complacency is the failure of imagination to invest fully in the structure of reality and the order of being; complacency is the epistemological and cognitive counterpart of original sin.  Williams, like all good Romantics, aims at redeeming humanity from its wretched lapse, its Winter of Discontent, so as to establish men and women in the paradisiacal springtime of refreshed apprehension.

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A Sacred War

The Alexandrov Song and Dance Ensemble originated under the Stalin regime in Russia , but it transcended that regime.  The Ensemble sang soldier-songs, folk-songs,  and popular Russian songs.  About two-thirds of the Alexandrov Ensemble died last year in an airplane-accident over the Black Sea.  I might say that it was a suspicious accident, with suspicion lying in the direction of the Turks or Chechen terrorists.  The Sacred War (actually, Voyna Narodnaya or People’s War) is a WWII song. But are we not in a Sacred War?  To FunkyProfessor: The rod in narodnaya is the same as the rod in Rodino.   Long live the Rodino!

I was present at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in the late 1980s when the Ensemble sang this song by one of the foremost Russian composers —

Here is the last concert of the Alexandrov ensemble —

Howard Hanson: The Music of God in Nature

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Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981) circa 1930

Nebraska-born of Swedish ancestry, Howard Harold Hanson (1896 ─ 1981) became by his mid-thirties what he had determined to become from an early age, the most popular American composer of serious music in the European concert tradition.  He had also become a sought-after teacher, orchestra leader, and musical administrator.  Hanson poured his seemingly inexhaustible vitality not only into the promotion of his own creativity, but, generously, into the promotion of his fellow composers, many of them, as time went on, his students at the Eastman School where he presided.  A radio documentary about the composer from the late 1980s revealed another side of the man.  Several of those interviewed by the producer complained – one of them indeed rather bitterly – about Hanson’s alleged egocentrism and insistence on getting his own way.  No doubt but that Hanson, believing himself a force, often stormed over those who, as he saw it, put themselves in the way of his schemes, his magnanimity in other circumstances notwithstanding.  The man being dead, however, and his personal entanglements being buried with him, the impressive practical and artistic achievements remain.  Paramount among these stands Hanson’s compositional legacy: Seven substantial symphonies, at least as many symphonic poems, a handful of concerted scores, numerous choral works, and an opera, which should have a more active place in the repertory, and not only by way of recordings.

With his contemporaries Roy Harris (1898 ─ 1979) and Aaron Copland (1900 ─ 1990), and with the slightly younger Samuel Barber (1910 ─ 1981), Hanson created a recognizably American sound in concert music, and demonstrated that American composers could adapt European musical forms to the conditions of a new society seeking to set its own mark on an inherited culture.  It is useful to compare Hanson’s legacy with the legacies of his countrymen-composers in the first half of the Twentieth Century.  Harris certainly matched Hanson in egocentrism, maybe exceeding him; but Harris lacked Hanson’s talent, peaking with his Symphony No. 3 (1937), really an extended passacaglia for orchestra, and repeating himself, at ever lower levels, for the remainder of his career.  Copland began as an avant-garde composer in the 1920s, assimilating influences from Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky; he found his marketable voice in the “cowboy” ballets of the 1930s and the populist, large-scale Symphony No. 3 (1946), for whose finale he adapted his own earlier Fanfare for the Common Man.  Copland wrote a surprisingly small number of works and ceased to compose altogether after 1964.

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In the Fen Country: Landscape and Music in the Work of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams

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Robert Gallon (1845 – 1925): The Water’s Edge (1870s)

A strong sympathy for the landscape often entwines itself with a type of religious sensibility, particularly the pantheistic one.  In the decorative murals with which the wealthy classes of Rome during the Imperial centuries adorned their domestic lives, the idyllic scene, with its groves and grazing sheep, invariably contains a rustic temple.  In Hellenistic poetry, too, the writer – it might be Theocritus or at a later date Ovid – in describing the sylvan setting of Sicily or Arcadia emphasizes the presence everywhere of the nature-spirits.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses seem in part to be an explanation of why everywhere in the ancient world one encountered innumerable altars and shrines.  To the pagan mentality, everything, every tree and stream and mountain, shared in the quality of the sacred, and offered a home to the spirits and demigods.  So too in Romantic painting and verse, the artist’s response to the natural scene records his sense of the ubiquity of spirit.  Thus in William Wordsworth’s famous sonnet “The world is too much with us” (1802), the calamity of the emergent industrial and commercial order manifests itself most poignantly in the terrible loneliness of being cut off from participation in the aura of the elements –

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The lyric subject of the poem, concluding that the modern dispensation has left men “for everything… out of tune,” wishes that he were (although he is not) “a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” that is, someone who might “have glimpses that would make me less forlorn” of “Proteus rising from the sea.”  That men should have become acutely aware of nature in the early nineteenth century is hardly surprising.  The social and economic developments of the period, the hypertrophy of cities and the dissolution of ancient arrangements in the countryside, wrought changes in the very appearance of the rural landscape.  A generation later than Wordsworth, in the “Wessex” stories and novels of Thomas Hardy, the situation has grown even more acute.  In the short story “The Fiddler of the Reels,” the great fact of existence is the Crystal Palace, in the year of whose construction much of the action takes place.  The countryside is emptying into the great cities; railroads have appeared in the provinces to draw away the young people, and the expansion of a new order of industry and finance has begun to alter the familiar aspects of field and forest, river valley and hill.

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Consciousness, Culture, and Art: Informal Comments on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

flowers-in-pot-01

Ou Li Da

The poem to which this essay’s subtitle refers is one of the much-excerpted and much anthologized verse-interpolations in the Menippean combination of verse and prose, Spring and All (1921), that the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) produced at the acme of his self-consciously Imagist phase in the years after the First World War.  The poem carries no title, but, according to the tenets of Imagism, presents itself to the reader as an instance of res ipso loquitur or “the thing speaks for itself.”  In a later phase of his insistent creativity, Williams would adopt as his poetic motto the formula, “no ideas but in things,” the implication of which is that experience is not solipsistic, nor consciousness hermetic, but that any self-aware navigation of the world presupposes an intentional relation between the navigator and the world that he navigates, which he records as images, ideas, or concepts.  Williams’ poetry in all its phases possesses the charm that its author maintains equal interest in the reality and workings of the external world and in the mystery and joy of the mind that represents and cognizes that reality and those workings.

Williams’ oeuvre offers itself seriously in two other ways: Its author knew that consciousness, language, and culture intertwine with one another aboriginally, so that any investigation of one necessarily entails an investigation of the two others; and he knew that consciousness is historical, that it has traceable origins that suggest the mechanism of its making.

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