Is It Possible to Narrate With Music?
Programmatic Music and Absolute Music by Beethoven and Sibelius
Antoni Pizà―Musicology Professor at The City University of New York
Most music history textbooks usually explain that, during the 19th and part of the 20th century, many composers wrote music according to two principles: One is programmatic music – works for which the composer builds a plot, and the other is absolute music – compositions without any plot. Among other things, this evening’s programme leitmotif includes the following two musical formats: On the one hand, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and Sibelius’ Suite Pelléas et Mélisande (programmatic works), and on the other, symphonies number 4 by Beethoven and Sibelius (absolute works, that is, without a plot).
Premièred in 1807, the Coriolan Overture, op. 62, in C minor by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), is inspired by a stage play by Heinrich Joseph von Collin, who rewrote the Roman general Gaius Marcius’ life. Exiled from Rome, Gaius joined with the Volsci – an enemy people against whom he had previously fought – and rose against Rome. During the war drive, some Roman women, including his mother, were killed to dissuade him from the invasion. After this tragedy, Coriolanus felt guilty about his mother’s death and committed suicide. Shakespeare also wrote his version of this Roman hero though his protagonist, more dignified, does not commit suicide. In any case, it is not difficult to guess that Beethoven was particularly attracted by this Roman warrior’s tragic and heroic figure.
The overall great philosophical question about programmatic music and this Beethoven Overture is how to represent all this plot confusion in sounds―in music. Beethoven makes it by presenting the first furious and violent theme in C minor, which intends to describe Coriolanus’ independent and rebellious nature. The second theme is in a higher tone and represents his mother wanting to convince him to desist from attacking Rome. Shortly after, the theme returns in a significantly weakened self-doubting C minor―Coriolanus. The music collapses here, just like Coriolanus, who understands death as his only possible destiny, hence falling on his sword in a suicide act.
The second part of this concert begins with another programmatic piece from 1905―the Suite Pelléas et Mélisande, op. 46 by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The composer wrote this work to join the famous 1892 play by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) ―a drama which had already incidentally been or would be musically approached by composers such as Debussy, Fauré and Schoenberg. Pelléas’ plot addresses a love triangle: The brothers Golaud and Pelléas fall in love with Mélisande. On a leap of jealousy (or betrayal), Golaud kills Pelléas and wounds Mélisande to death. Sibelius creates some mimicry between the plot and the music, translating a few aspects into particular elements like the English choir that represents Mélisande, yet also with more abstract elements like the plot’s unreal atmosphere translated into the strings starting the work and creating an atmospheric, unreal, nebulous atmosphere, very close to Maeterlink’s symbolist aesthetics.
However, this evening’s concert also features two works in the absolute music sphere. The Symphony No. 4 in A minor, op. 63, by J. Sibelius, presents some of the great post-Beethoven European symphonism features. Written in four beats and using a sumptuous, post-romantic orchestration, the composer described this work as a “psychological symphony.” And this is not actually a joyous and mere entertainment work. Written in 1910, it is an artistic expression that anticipates the disaster of the Great War (1914) and indirectly incorporates Freud’s ideas very broadly. The human being is not just a rational element ― dreams, sexuality, dark feelings such as resentment, envy and the desire for power and violence are the main drivers of human behaviour. And in some way, this symphony – the slowness and heaviness of its tempos, the sonorous density of its instrumentation – reflects this whole world we could call expressionist, so to label. Sibelius had cancer before―he had financial and personal problems, and despite being a hero of Finnish nationalism – recognized by almost everyone in his country – he stopped composing at sixty-one, thirty years before he died. Why this creative silence? In addition to the personal circumstances already noted, Sibelius considered that music had taken an absolute drift. Schoenberg and Stravinsky’s revolutions ― incorporating dissonance and rhythmic irregularity ― seemed an atrocity to him.
The concert programme ends with an unfairly underrated work – Symphony No. 4, op. 60, in B flat major by L. v. Beethoven. It is often claimed that the big issue with this 1806 symphony is that it sits between two colossal Beethoven works: Symphony No. 3, “Heroic”, which “invents” – if one can say, European musical Romanticism, and Symphony No. 5, which skyrockets its composer into the pantheon of geniuses, with its emblematic beginning (ta-ta-ta-TAAA). Anyhow, this Symphony no 4, imprisoned – so to speak, within these two unquestionable masterpieces, also asserts its merits.
The case can be outlined as follows: Symphony No. 3, “Heroic”, launches the symphony genre into Romanticism – the pure and uncontrolled expression of feelings, while the work that follows it – Symphony No. 4, seems a return to classicism, to Haydn teachings and expressive moderantism. Its orchestral dimensions are indeed smaller; the instrumentation is simplified, and for instance, it eliminates the third horn and uses a single flute, unlike the three horns and two flutes on the “Heroic.” The musical form also is simpler. And despite its four movements, its duration is around thirty minutes, while the “Heroic” exceeds forty-five. The harmony is also more classical than romantic, and the tonal relationships follow conventions, while in the “Heroic”, the modulations involve journeys to distant tonalities.
Anyhow, Beethoven achieves a beaming, joyful and bright work that includes even doses of humour. And what is Beethoven trying to say in this work so as not “like him” and such against the embittered genius stereotype? What is its plot? What does Beethoven want to narrate here? Well, this is absolute music and not programmatic music so listeners can interpret it however they want. In any case, the message is full of optimism, or if you like, it is not as pessimistic as his other works.