Links in this week's editor picks are to Amazon.com so that you might go listen to samples of some of the things discussed. In many cases, Amazon does not have a sample of the exact thing I mention, but it's better than nothing.
Once, while sitting in the music library in college, I found myself listening to an odd recording of Der Kunst Der Fugue (The Art of Fugue) by J.S. Bach. It's a long work with examples of the most simple fugue elements all the way up to massive orchestral works and was intended to be a bit of an encyclopedia of what a fugue is and how to write one. It was a massive undertaking and took an extremely long time to write -- so long, in fact, that Bach never finished it. He died while writing the last piece and, years later, one of his sons (I forget which) finished it.
But the recording I had found was unique among the various recordings of this work, in that it was the original version -- the one that J.S. Bach had written and failed to complete. There are two notable things about the final movement, the first being that it contains the musical signature (BACH -- in German the note for "H" is C#) that Bach had placed in the work as a signature for all of his creations. It was his intention that this be the last thing he wrote, not knowing of course that he would die before he finished it. This musical signature stands out. If you're near a piano or any other instrument and can, go play it. It definitely doesn't belong in the Baroque era -- it's too chromatic. Anyway, the second notable thing about this work is that in the recording of the original score that Bach wrote (and didn't complete), the performance just stops in mid-sentence. The work builds up to a tumultuous roar of a fugue that's one of Bach's most impressive, I think, and then, suddenly the roar comes to a halt and in the sudden quietness you hear this strange motif appear that sounds more like a melody that Beethoven or Ravel would write. In this quiet moment it sounds as if the fugue will start over with this new motif as its theme, as it weaves in and out among a half dozen string instruments. Then, as suddenly as this new section began, it stops, mid-sentence. One hears the echo of the last note -- part of this BACH string -- trail off in the reverb of the hall in which it was recorded. It's like hearing the last breath of a dying man or a ghost whispering to you from over your shoulder as you read a book. It freaked me out at the time and ever since then has been one of my favorite works.
It made me realize that music is capable of communicating something literal. Usually you go see something obvious like The Marraige of Figaro (Mozart), or something more abstract like Stravinski's The Rite of Spring and you have a vague understanding that this work has a plot (and if you happen to catch the ballet it was intended to score along with the symphony, then you understand that there is, indeed, a plot). But here was a blatant message. And what's more, the punctuation of the work is the composer's actual death. Granted, I don't think that Bach died with the pen in his hand -- this was just where he got to the last time he worked on it. But still....It floored me.
Later on I would find myself inspired by Bartok's computational approach to composition (for those of you who have never heard Music for Percussion, Orchestra, and Celesta -- especially the movement "Andante Tranqillo" -- I strongly suggest it. It's quite possibly the most astounding crescendo ever written), Mussorgsky's blatant disregard for music theory ("Baba Yaga" from Pictures at an Exhibition still sends chills up my spine [here's the only version I could find on Amazon -- from Ravel's Orchestration, though I prefer the original piano work more], and Night on Bald Mountain, which we all remember from Fantasia with its giant demon beckoning skeletons from their graves, was as impressive now as when I was seven), and Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima, where one gets the impression that perhaps Penderecki has placed a microphone at ground zero and then transcribed the sound for an orchestra to reproduce (a sound later echoed by George Crumb's Black Angels (especially "Night of the Electric Insects"), the best recorded performance of which is by Kronos Quartet. But when it came time to write my final thesis for my music theory classes I chose Dmitri Shostikovich's Quartet Number 8 as my topic.
Perhaps it was because it reminded me of Der Kunst Der Fugue because it featured another musical signature, this time DSCH (again, in German the note E is pronounced "Es", and the note H is a C#) or, Dmitri SCHostakowitsch -- the German spelling of his name. Schostakovich, a Russian composer continually haunted by the Communist Party that ruled his country at the time and all but ashamed of his nationality and certainly oppressed by it, had meant Quartet No. 8 to be a suicide note. It's a short work that is a synopsis of his entire life (his success following college, the Party condemnation of 1936, his rehabilitation engineered by the Party, but always the pervading image of his being a prisoner of the Soviet system) and the first thing one hears is the DSCH and as the work goes through its five movements, the motif returns again and again. The second movement (Allegro Molto) is one of the more brutal and relentless works I've ever heard. I didn't realize it but the first time I had heard this melody had been in Faith No More's (still one of my favorite bands) Angel Dust track "Malpractice." But that's not important.
The story behind this quartet starts with a 1960 trip Shostakovich made to Dresden, East Germany to write a score for a film. The rumor then was that he was so shocked by the ruins of the city that he wrote the quartet (in three days' time) as a message depicting his horror of Facism. In reality it was a suicide note. For years he had been hounded by the government, forced to join the Communist Party (with whom he dreaded any affiliation), and all but forced to write works that praised the Russion Goverment (and on more than one occasion he earned the scorn of Stalin). Here was a man trapped in his home and unable to voice his true feelings about much of anything. His only recourse for a suicide note that could possibly escape his country, something he could not do himself, was to bury it in music, and declare its meaning to be something the Russian government would cherish. This tactic worked and the Russian government hailed the work was a masterpiece, which of course it is, unaware of its real message.
It's a haunting work and still inspires me every time I hear it. It's worth mentioning that Shostikovich didn't kill himself. Stalin's death in 1953 marked the beginning of a relaxation on artistic constraints. Though he wrote his suicide note to the world in 1960, he lived till 1975. Here are two movements from Quartet Number 8 including the striking second movement, "Allegro Molto." I hope you find them as intriguing and inspiring as I do.