Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Symphonie de psaumes

This may be too ambitious, but I am thinking about an ongoing series of posts about works of modern music which I like. I think I spend enough time dealing with the culture of one hundred years ago, which is - admittedly - the foundation, gut, and muscle of what passes for Western culture today. Perhaps, however briefly, I'll move the clock forward and give my devoted readership (ha!) a taste of my views on modern music. If I don't derail myself with introductions like this.

Serge Koussevitzky (a champion of modern music), then director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned Igor Stravinsky to write a work to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The composer turned in what has to be one of the masterpieces of modern music, his Symphonie de psaumes. Taking three psalms of David and setting them to neoclassical music, which prefigures the minimalists to a great degree, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms is a work that I find attractive - especially for modern music.

Dedicated, "Cette symphonie composée à la glorie de DIEU est dediée au 'Boston Symphony Orchestra' à l'occasion du cinquantaire de son existence," the Symphony is a haunting, driving work. To my mind, it relies on rhythm as much as melody or harmony to make its point. And, because of that, it has a ritualistic feel that is positively primeval. This is music, were the orchestration not so "modern," that would seem to roll out of the mists of time. Stravinsky accomplishes what Messiaen seemingly struggled to bring off with works like the Quatuor pour la fin du temps and the Turangalila-symphonie. Stravinsky creates music that stops time with its "liturgy." The classicist in me wants to make all sorts of comments-by-extension to liminal states and archetypal music, but Lévi-Strauss, structuralism, and all that will have to wait.

No, the Symphony is successful modern music (as opposed to avant-garde, and fundamentally specialist, works like Boulez' Le Marteau sans maître) precisely because it has a timeless style. It pays homage at almost every turn to older music, even as it drives forward and expands into the realm of new music. Benjamin Britten's War Requiem is successful for this reason, too. In other words, it works because it uses the language of the past to develop modern literature. In contrast, Leonard Bernstein's 1971 mess Mass is unsuccessful because it self-consciously mocks the music of the past. Stravinsky managed - by creating a work that is both undeniably modern and unquestionably in debt to composers of the Renaissance and Classical periods - to open up an avenue in music which would have never been paved by self-conscious, avant-garde serialists like Boulez and Stockhausen.

I could go on about the musical merit of the Symphony, but I think I've made my point. Of recordings, oddly enough, Pierre Boulez' disc with the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Berlin Radio Chorus seems to get high marks. I'll admit, I like it. Boulez' tendency to keep his tempi fleet and drive the music along fits with Stravinsky's rhythmic feel. However, unsurprising as this may be, Boulez has expressed indifference - if not outright contempt - toward Stravinsky's neoclassical output. For a recording by a conductor (no less controversial, though) without an expressed antipathy to Stravinsky's work, check out Sergiu Celibidache's 1984 recording with the Münchner Philharmoniker on EMI. Discs like this give me pause-enough to doubt Celibidache's critics, who contend that his tempi became too broad and his music making sloppy during his Munich period (1979-1996). Granted, his Bruckner was on the long side (and worse, if you listen to his 8th, which runs a half-hour over the usual timing), but the Symphony has a pace that just seems "correct." Celibidache's religious sensibilities, such as they were, also allow him to bring an almost-liturgical feel to the work. Ultimately, infintely better than Boulez' cut-and-dry postmodern approach.

I, if you couldn't tell, am a fan of the Symphony.