I received the New Yorker this afternoon. This is high humor of the type that people like myself find quite amusing. "People like myself", he said...in that stuffy, New Yorker sort of way.
Claude Debussy—“La Mer” by Yoni Brenner
Though poorly received by critics at its 1905 première, “La Mer” (“The Sea”) has survived to become one of Debussy’s most beloved and enduring orchestral works. A brilliant exhibition of cascading motifs and shimmering orchestration, “La Mer” was a deeply personal project for Debussy, who had long been fascinated by the sea, having roomed with a langoustine at university. For years, he had sought to capture the majesty of the ocean in various quartets and sonatas, but he destroyed them all, explaining, “They never sounded wet enough.”
The opening section, “From Dawn to Midday at Sea,” begins with the plaintive call of the oboe, announcing the rising sun. The English horn and the trumpet answer in a minor key, as if to say, “Thanks for the tip, asshole.” The flutes quickly change the subject, introducing the famous surging triplet melody. The theme bubbles and courses through the orchestra, constantly elaborated and ultimately recapitulated in a massive crescendo of horns and trumpets, at which point the flutes are totally drowned out and seem not a little jaded and you have to wonder if they regret having introduced the theme in the first place.
“The Play of the Waves” is often described as a scherzo, light and humorous, although, as in much of Debussy’s work, the laughs come at the expense of the violas.
“The Dialogue Between the Wind and the Sea” pits roiling strings against strident brass, belligerent woodwinds, and unhinged timpani bent on physical reprisal. Again, the composer ingeniously juxtaposes regular and triple figures, a development that for many years was hailed as a breakthrough in modern composition, although it is now generally acknowledged to have been a printer’s error. Still, the layered rhythms create a spectacular lurching effect that vividly evokes the roll of waves, as well as a tremendous desire to urinate.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky—Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Tchaikovsky wrote only one violin concerto, or, as he himself said, “one too many.” Tchaikovsky had always had an uneasy relationship with the violin, which scholars attribute to a childhood nightmare in which he found himself violently and relentlessly rubbed against an enormous brick of rosin. Though he had already employed violins to magnificent effect in the Second Symphony and in “Romeo and Juliet,” he never trusted them, a neurosis that only intensified when an unbalanced concertmaster sucker-punched him during the first performance of “Swan Lake.”
The composer’s anxiety is manifest in the turbulent Allegro Moderato—among the most vindictive movements of the Romantic canon. The violin plays nearly continuously through the movement, introducing the theme and weathering a ferocious cadenza, while several other instruments, including the trumpets and the second bassoon, luxuriate in anywhere from thirty-five to forty-seven measures of rest. It is unclear whether this accommodation was made specifically to taunt the soloist, but many conductors will encourage idle instrumentalists to doze off or grab a sandwich or something to heighten the effect.
Quiet meditation gives way to exuberant pyrotechnics in the finale, in which the composer either eschews or forgets the theme from the first movement. Instead, the violin launches into a galloping melody that catches everyone by surprise except perhaps the basses, who had a sectional rehearsal earlier in the week. A brilliant, robust allegro follows, packed with dynamic swings, dramatic key changes, and a delightful murder mystery featuring an intrepid dowager and her endearing but accident-prone Portuguese gardener.The searing Andante has been variously interpreted as Tchaikovsky’s anguished confession of homosexual love for his nephew Vladimir Davydov and as a metaphor for the Resurrection of Christ. As always, the truth is somewhere in between: the movement is in fact a metaphor for Christ’s anguished homosexual love for Tchaikovsky’s nephew.
Johannes Brahms—Symphony No. 2, Op. 73
Little is known of Johannes Brahms. He is believed to have been Dutch and to have possessed at least a rudimentary knowledge of music composition and theory. No photographs exist, but he has been described as five feet seven or five feet eight, with small, piercing eyes—one green, one blue—and extremely annoying.
“A genius,” the Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec once said. “His appetite for life was surpassed only by his appetite for food, which was surpassed only by his appetite for crossbreeding house cats with wild squirrels. Also, he smelled of cumin.” Although the two artists never met or corresponded—nor were they really contemporaries—their unique and idiosyncratic bond remains one of the most fascinating artistic partnerships of the nineteenth century.
The Second Symphony was written at a moment of great trauma. Brahms had suffered from bouts of paranoia for years, convinced that a man named Meier was trying to steal the “h” from his last name. Just two weeks before the première, Brahms caused a scandal during a state dinner when he put Franz Liszt in a headlock and refused to release him until he confessed his homosexual love for Tchaikovsky’s nephew. Brahms was briefly imprisoned, but was granted clemency when Liszt intervened on his behalf. This led to a poignant moment, three years later, when a chastened Brahms visited Liszt at his summer retreat in Weimar, and solemnly resumed the headlock.
Even though Symphony No. 2 is believed to be Brahms’s first symphonic work, the composer demonstrates a sure hand from the outset, with a glowing thematic statement from the horns. The flutes answer with a supple ascending line, requesting that the horns be more specific. But the horns simply re-state the same phrase a half step up, which only serves to irritate the flutes, who promptly hand the melody to the violins, as if to say, “Here, you deal with them.” Brahms sustains this call-and-response pattern throughout the movement, a motif that he first explored in the little-known Variations on “The Dreidel Song,” Op. 34 together, the second and third movements constitute one of the most elegant and sophisticated symphonic interludes of the Germanic repertoire. Taken separately, they are cloying, derivative, and sort of hard to take seriously. Regardless, authentic performances are rare, owing to the difficulty of securing a bullfrog who can transpose to E-flat.
The last movement, Allegro con Spirito, is nothing short of a miracle. Lush, organic, effortlessly powerful, it resolves the major themes of the symphony with phenomenal grace and imagination. Like all great art, it imparts to the audience a profound sense of empathy and belief, as well as a tremendous desire to urinate.
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