Why Music?

Why Music?

On the “About” page of the new book blog I started, Great Books of Old Stream,  I spent some time thinking about why I read.  I asked myself, why is it important for people to read great books?  Also,  why do I continue to read challenging things as often as I can?  Here on my music blog, I was naturally led to ask myself a similar question, “Why Music?”.  That is almost a more difficult question for me to tackle, because I take music for granted.    I am like a fish trying to explain water, because for me music is everywhere and I am immersed in it.  Music making, music listening, and being engaged in musical activities is like breathing air.  I don’t remember a time in my life without music.  I imagine I was born in a hospital delivery room with something wonderful playing over the radio speakers, although due to the therapeutic effects of pain medicine, not even my mother remembers exactly which song.

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
― Bob Marley

i-love-music-quotes-6hotuf304I think this is a common phenomenon among musicians, one whereby music is ubiquitous in their lives, but articulating exactly why it is important is something of a challenge.  I can’t tell you why I compose, it is simply an inner compulsion.  I do it because I have to, it is who I am.  It matters not if no one listens, I compose anyway.  Much music is very emotionally expressive, but I don’t find an answer to my question “Why Music?” in the endless parade of empty platitudes, such as, “music gives a soul to the universe”, or “music heals the heart”, or “music is the language of the spirit”.  I don’t know where the soul-giving, heart-healing, spirit language is in the score, or when it might go on sale at Guitar Center.  Even an explanation of music as an “expression of the human”, falls short for those of us who have met some wonderfully talented musicians who were simply awful human beings.  The sublime beauty of the operas of Richard Wagner, for example, are the product of a man who was a despicable person.  I have to separate the music from the man, the art from the flawed human creator, in order to live with myself for enjoying it.

““And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Conductor Benjamin Zander has amazing energy and a wonderful sense of humor in his TED talk, “The transformative power of classical music” from 2008.  The talk is very engaging, and very powerful if you do what he suggests, and imagine someone you love who is gone, while you listen to the “shopping” piece.  I don’t think it is a complete answer to why music is important, but it is a great twenty minutes that demonstrates at least part of the answer.

“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life — music and cats.”
― Albert Schweitzer

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

Of all the things that music is said to do, what I most hope it has the power to do, is bring people together.  People need to come together now, more than ever.  The most powerful music I know about bringing together the Brotherhood of Man (forgiving the all-male tense, I mean all humankind), is the setting of “Ode to Joy” in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.  Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the Ninth on December 25, 1989 in East Berlin as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin wall.  I found a video of some comments Lenny made about the “Ode to Joy”, recorded about fifteen years before that Berlin performance.  I am saddened by how current Bernstein’s comments sound today, forty years later, as he goes on a tangent about war, refugees and bloodshed.  I hope music does have the power to unite people, and like Bernstein, I pray that we all grow into something worthy of being called the human race.

Leonard Bernstein talking about “Ode to Joy”

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary!
Your magics join again
What custom strictly divided;
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

10,000 people singing in  the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth

All Four in One, or One For All

All Four in One, or One For All

When you pick up your smartphone and Google the definition of “symphony”, you will see this:


An elaborate musical composition for full orchestra, typically in four movements, at least one of which is in sonata form.

At the conveniently named website Dictionary.com, you could find this definition for “symphony”

An extended musical composition for orchestra in several movements, typically four.

Merriam-Webster offers up this definition:

A long piece of music that is usually in four large, separate sections and that is performed by an orchestra.

The two necessary skills for an audience during an orchestra concert are, the knowledge to wait until after the last movement of a symphony to begin your applause, and the ability to turn off that smartphone so the darn thing doesn’t ring in the middle of the performance.  The four movement “sonata-cycle” (with an opening sonata-form, a slow movement, a dance-like movement, and finale), has been the “normal” convention since the time of Haydn.  Birds fly, fish swim and symphonies are big works in four movements.  Like a child’s parental upbringing, this symphonic convention is something that composers worked with, enhanced, expanded, rebelled against, loved or hated, but could not ignore.  When the late romantic composers Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss wanted to approach orchestral writing with a newer literary inspiration, they called the works “tone poems” or “symphonic poems”.  What they were composing was wonderful music, but could no longer be considered a “symphony”.

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber

With this definition in mind, you can imagine my curiosity as a student, when scouring through the works of my favorite composer Samuel Barber, I find that his Symphony No.1 is in one movement!?!?  Barber had more musicality in his little finger than you would find if you cloned six versions of me.  What is a symphony in only ONE movement?  What could make it a “symphony” and not a “tone poem” or something else?  Where is the sonata form?  How could he give us a slow movement and a dance-like Scherzo in triple meter, all in one movement?  Fortunately, Sam provided a bit of a description of his Opus 9 first Symphony at the time of the premiere. (I have included this quote once before on Good Music Speaks.) Here is Barber’s own description, quoted from his biography “Samuel Barber, The Composer and His Music” by Barbara Heyman:

The form of my Symphony in One Movement is a synthetic treatment of the four-movement classical symphony. It is based on three themes of the initial Allegro non troppo, which retain throughout the work their fundamental character. The Allegro ma non troppo opens with the usual exposition of a main theme, a more lyrical second theme, and a closing theme. After a brief development of the three themes, instead of the customary recapitulation, the first theme in diminution forms the basis of a scherzo section (vivace). The second theme (oboe over muted strings) then appears in augmentation, in an extended Andante tranquillo. An intense crescendo introduces the finale, which is a short passacaglia based on the first theme (introduced by violoncelli and contrabassi), over which, together with figures from other themes, the closing theme is woven, thus serving as a recapitulation for the entire symphony.

Barber’s work has four distinct sections that correspond with the four movement scheme of the “normal” symphony, but they are all played without pause.  The work is unified by its thematic content, with the initial themes of the “exposition” serving (transformed) in the other sections.  This was a brilliant way for Sam to show off his musical gifts in the setting of a “symphony”.  At the core, Barber was a lyrical, melodic composer.  He didn’t often work in the manner, similar to Beethoven, with small motivic ideas that get developed in a musical cuisinart.  Barber had a gift for writing a long, flowing, gorgeous melody.  He very cleverly created his Symphony No.1 in a way that economically incorporated all the elements of symphonic writing, with the lyrical gift with which he excelled.

Some recordings of Barber’s first symphony play the work all in one long track, but others actually break the piece into four tracks (still played without pause).  I would recommend a recording that marks each section in this fashion, if you are looking to know where each partition starts.  One of my favorites is by Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Samuel Barber, Symphony No. 1 in one movement, on Spotify

Barber Slatkin

One of the other bits of information I mined from Heyman’s biography of Barber is that he looked closely at another one movement symphony when he was composing his first.  The work he studied was the Symphony No. 7 by Jean Sibelius, which is also in a single movement.  I have to confess that I had avoided the music of Sibelius for a long time, a prejudice I picked up trying to emulate my mentor.  My teacher thought that Sibelius’s music contained some potentially bad habits for the developing composer to imitate.  At the time, I lived to please my mentor, so I immediately began scoffing at every note of the Finnish composer.  Knowing that Sam Barber had looked so closely at a Sibelius symphony gave me the mental permission to look closer at it myself.

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

The idea of a one movement symphony by Sibelius is even more curious than the one by Barber.  Jean Sibelius is a composer that wrote BOTH multi-movement symphonies AND picturesque tone poems.  What made his Symphony 7 an actual symphony and not something else?  This is a question that Sibelius himself deliberated about at some length.  The piece was premiered with the title “Fantasia sinfonica” (symphonic fantasy), and only later on did Jean finally call it his Symphony No. 7.  It actually was the last symphony he completed, although he lived another 30 or so years after it was completed.

The form and construction of Symphony 7 is strikingly original, idiosyncratic, and truly unique.  It is somewhat ironic that it is composed in the key of C major, a tonality once thought to be used up with nothing left to offer.  Ralph Vaughan Williams commented, “only Sibelius could make C major sound completely fresh”.  Although there are several tempo changes in the movement, Sibelius moves through them seamlessly.  One really cannot break this work up into sections in the fashion we did the Barber composition.  Even the important themes of Sibelius seem to sneak up on you, like out of a mist.  The eminent Donald Francis Tovey wrote:

“In any tolerably competent performance of a typical work of Sibelius, the listener my rest assured that if he finds that an important melodic note has been in existence some time before he was aware of it, the composer has taken special trouble to conceal the beginning of that note.  If the listener feels that unformed fragments of melody loom out of a severely discordant fog of sound, that is what he is meant to feel.  If he cannot tell when or where the tempo changes, that is because Sibelius has achieved the power of moving like aircraft, with the wind or against it.”

Sibelius has hit upon a new approach to symphonic composition.  Careful study of the score could reveal ten or more actual themes, yet the work is unified and economical.  Sibelius has used just a handful of smaller musical germs that have become the DNA of all the themes.  These musical ideas are transformed, recombined, pressed into service as both main theme and accompaniment figures, and are all bound to the home key of C major.  It is a remarkably original achievement, and it serves as Sibelius’s last word on the subject of “symphony”.

Jean Sebelius, Symphony No. 7, on Spotify

Sibelius Bernstein

It is not that Jean Sibelius didn’t try to compose another symphony.  There were sketches and attempts at an eighth, but Jean was never satisfied with it.  I believe his attitude was that if he didn’t have something better to offer than his seventh, he wouldn’t publish anything more.  He must have believed this with great conviction, for his wife told a story of a day in 1943:

In the nineteen-forties there was a great auto da fé at Ainola,” she said. “My husband collected a number of manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room. Parts of the ‘Karelia Suite’ were destroyed—I later saw remains of the pages which had been torn out—and many other things. I did not have the strength to be present and left the room. I therefore do not know what he threw onto the fire. But after this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood.

That fire insured that the world would not know what was in the attempts at an eighth symphony for Sibelius.  I must respect his wishes, for in any case his Symphony No. 7 is going to keep me busy for quite a while.



The Fifth is an accursed work.  No one gets the point

  • Gustav Mahler

Gustav+Mahler smilingI think Gustav may have been a little hard on himself in this case.  The form of the last movement is surely difficult to describe.  Well, maybe not.  If one is looking for a classical Rondo, the form of this movement is a big sprawling hot mess.  The form, however, is not the point.  The expressive qualities of the music is the real point, and here the Rondo-Finale is a great success.  Anyone can get the point of the finale.  Paul Bekker saw it as a “crowning affirmation of life”,  and Heinrich Kralik called it a “musical declaration of joy”.  The Fifth Symphony balances the grief and anger of the opening by closing with positively ebullient, joyous music.  This is Mahler with a happy face.

The hyphenated name that Mahler provides, Rondo-Finale, should alert us that the form of this movement is a very individualized hybrid.  The last movement of many symphonies in the repertoire take the form of a Rondo.  The defining element of a Rondo is a section of music that keeps coming back to us after a contrastic section.  If the “rondo” music is labeled “A”, then a Rondo form movement might follow the pattern A-B-A-C-A-D-A.  The point is you have this familiar stuff returning several times in the music.

Other finale movements, many times the serious ones, will follow a Sonata form similar to most first movements.  This especially happens when a composer still has some things to work out in a development section.  Gustav has given us a combination of both, with elements of a Rondo and lots of heavy development.  As if that weren’t complicated enough, there are several fugato sections of music, those highly contrapuntal chunks of music in the style of a fugue.  Clearly, happiness for old Gustav is no simple thing.

We, as listeners, have traveled through an hour of music to this point.  The despair of the opening funeral march, and the anger of the second movement sonata form.  We recovered from grief a bit in the Scherzo dance movement, one that declared life must go on.  We saw Mahler’s love note to his future wife in the famous Adagietto fourth movement.  In this closing music of unbridled joy, Gustav is going to give us his compositional everything.   He is going to leave it all out there on the podium, and that notion deserves a bit of my respect.

Leonard Bernstein Conducting Boston Symphony

The Rondo-Finale starts out with some preparatory measures, then right into the bright Rondo music at bar 23 of the score, 0:42 in the video.  The first fugato style music is at bar 56 (1:16), and the Rondo theme returns to us in bar 136 (2:38).  More fugato, more thematic sections until we come to some sort of punctuation at bar 240.

What follows from bar 241 is a long development section that flows for about 265 measures, a full four minutes of music until the main Rondo theme returns to us (altered) in the original key of D major at bar 497 (8:33).  One could spend hours pouring over the score and learning all the details of craftsmanship that Gustav has included in this final movement.  For our purposes, it is sufficient to quote Constantin Floros in saying “the music displays great brilliance”.

sunshineThe highlight that we cannot miss, the exclamation point on Mahler’s declaration of joy, is the appearance of the gorgeous D major Chorale that we first heard a snippet of in the second movement.  This occurs at bar 711, about 12:16 in the video, but don’t worry about the time.  You can’t miss it.  In the second movement, we were not completely ready for the joy of the Chorale, and it faded out.  That was 40 minutes of music earlier, and we have healed since then.  Now the Chorale can take hold, blossom, and reach its full potential in capping the bright euphoria of this music.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement V, Rondo-Finale

There we have it.  It has taken me 7000 or so words, and six blog posts, to simply summarize Mahler’s Fifth.  It has remained one of my favorite works since I first listened all those years ago with a used LP in my parent’s house.  The Fifth pulls us along a journey whereby the “emotional progression of the symphony has marched from deep despair and anger to love and then pure joy” (to quote Kelly Hansen).  If all of this joyful euphoria is a bit too much for you, then I would have to recommend Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.  That work is labeled the “Tragic”, and also starts off with a funeral march.  The mood of the work just deteriorates from there.  The final moments of the Sixth are some of the most brutal in all of music.  Alas, that would be a subject for an entire different set of blog posts.  Another time, perhaps.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 6, “Tragic”, Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic