Music and Metaphor

I am dead to the world’s tumult,

And I rest in a quiet realm!

I live alone in my heaven,

In my love and in my song!

These are the final lines of Friedrich Rückert’s poem, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (“I Am Lost to the World”), which Gustav Mahler, in the summer of 1901, set as the fourth song of his Rückert-Lieder and which also inspired the breathtakingly beautiful “Adagietto” of his Fifth Symphony, composed in the same period.

This was a turbulent time for Mahler. In February 1901 he had suffered a severe hemorrhage and nearly bled to death. His recovery took months. Also during this time, he met and married Alma Schindler who in 1902 and 1904 gave him two children. A mere three years later, tragedy struck. Under pressure from fierce detractors, Mahler left his post as director of the Vienna Court Opera. Moving from Vienna to Maiernigg, Mahler saw both his children take ill with scarlet fever; his firstborn, Maria, did not survive. Shortly thereafter, Mahler learned that he had a heart defect that would eventually lead to his death. (He died at 50). Was there any connection, any discernable relationship, between these turbulent events in Mahler’s life and the distinct musical qualities of his mature work?

These are the kinds of biographical details and searching questions one finds in Robert Philip’s magisterial guide, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music. For his part, Philip takes a balanced view on the Mahler question. “Connections with Mahler’s own life are impossible to untangle, and the music exists in its own right without the need for such conjecture.” Still, he points out: “Mahler’s [mature] symphonies are full of struggle, disappointments, glimpses of what might be and what might have been, and eventual hard-won triumph—fleeting or not.” Moreover, the presence of Alma in Mahler’s life “certainly unleashed a sustained burst of inspiration, of which the Fifth Symphony was one of the major fruits.”

Philip’s Companion is 949 pages long, including endnotes and an index. It covers sixty-eight composers, presenting them in alphabetical order from J.S. Bach to Anton Webern, and more than four hundred individual works from concertos and overtures to symphonies, tone poems, and ballets, but not operas (n.b. Wagner lovers). This is a monumental achievement by any measure and an invaluable resource for classical music enthusiasts.

Robert Philip is a well-known presenter on BBC Radio. He was for many years a senior lecturer in music at the Open University and the author of an award-winning book, Performing Music in the Age of Recording. Most importantly, Philip has the rare ability to write about music in a highly accessible, casual style, free from overly technical language, while nevertheless offering much that even experts will value.

His treatment of each composer begins with a section that supplies historical and biographical context. He then turns to musical analyses of specific pieces. Of course, he cannot cover every composer’s entire oeuvre. But Philip is judicious and generous in his selections. His account of Aaron Copland (to take just one example) covers Fanfare for the Common Man and the concert suites from Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid, as one would expect. But it also includes Copland’s less well-known Clarinet Concerto and his one-movement orchestral piece, El Salón México.

A strength of Philip’s introductions of particular composers is that, besides offering biographical and historical details, they often describe overarching trends and movements. In his introduction to Beethoven, for example, he describes some of the characteristics of romanticism, that “the artist—musician, poet, painter—came to be regarded as a sort of priest, and art as a sort of religion;” that the romantic evinces a “sense of contact with ideas of creation, of the spirit, and of what later came to be known as the unconscious.” Descriptions like this will be useful for listeners unfamiliar with periodization in classical music and with the basic characteristics of various genres.

In his introduction to Debussy, to take another example, Philip usefully assesses the revolutionary break from the Post-Romantics. “The figure who is often seen as most revolutionary is Schoenberg,” he writes. “But Schoenberg was, in essence, a traditionalist, developing the chromaticism of Wagner and Liszt into a language without familiar harmonies but with its own fearsome internal logic.” No, the real revolutionary was Debussy, Philip argues. For Debussy “preserved many conventional harmonies but threw the traditional relationship between them to the winds. . . . creat[ing] a new sense of time in music.”

In traditional musical language before Debussy, time moves on inexorably, with the progression of harmonies pushing it forward like a stream. But with Debussy it is as if we have left the ground. There are still harmonies, many of them chords familiar from nineteenth-century music, others suggesting no specific key. But whether the chords are familiar or unfamiliar, they often seem to come into existence and evaporate, placed side by side without the next necessarily being the consequence of the last. The result is more like the motion of the air—sometimes static, at other times swirling in circles, changing course abruptly, rising or falling or coming to a stop.

Looking back from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we see that Debussy’s innovations have proved significantly “more influential and long-lasting” than the musical serialism of Schoenberg. Philip is to be applauded, in my view, for noticing that Schoenberg’s serialism has not aged as well as his twentieth-century enthusiasts expected.

When Philip turns to describing actual pieces, he is a master. Anyone who has tried to write about music knows how difficult it is. Besides outlining a piece’s formal structure—for instance, explaining that Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings opens with “an abbreviated version of ‘sonata form’ . . . lacking the ‘development section’ in the middle”—one must also attempt somehow to describe complex musical events using nothing but words. How is that possible?

Philip relies to some extent on technical knowledge: the movement resolves in D major. But that is not the difficult part. Instead, the challenge lies in carefully constructing apt metaphors, well-chosen images that seem to explain what is going on, what the sounds “are like.”

Of course, sounds can be dissected into their various components: pitch, intensity, and timbre; and the temporal compounding of sounds can be described in terms of melody, harmony, and rhythm. But none of this really gets at what makes any particular piece unique. To do this, commentators must say something about what a piece seems to be evoking and how it does so. Herein lies Philip’s genius. Of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Philip writes:

we seem to enter a different world. The rising scale might almost be meant as a wistful memory of the waltz theme. But it is more as if we have entered a cathedral while a choir is chanting—it is the first moment in the serenade that sounds specifically Russian. Four times the chant rises. Only at the fourth attempt does it find a resolution to a sonorous chord of D major.

Descriptions like this profoundly enhance our experience of music, but the ability to offer them is much more an art than a science. True, Philip relies to some extent on technical knowledge: the movement resolves in D major. But that is not the difficult part. Instead, the challenge lies in carefully constructing apt metaphors, well-chosen images that seem to explain what is going on, what the sounds “are like.”

One final virtue of Philip’s Companion is that it does not shy away from making aesthetic judgments. Regarding a brass climax in Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Philip writes: “we have to switch off memories of all heroic film scores in order to avoid hearing such grandiosity as banal.” With respect to Richard Strauss’s tone poems in general he remarks: “at their best [they]. . . stand entirely on their own as powerful musical structures—though there are undoubtedly moments when the narrative dominates the music in a way that can seem merely clever.” And in his analysis of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, he teaches readers how to hear musical irony, triumphant chords that are too innocent and pure to be believable and which Shostakovich almost certainly composed tongue-in-cheek in order to please his censors.

The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music is a real treasure. Within the compass of one (albeit sizeable) volume, Philip manages to introduce readers to most of the major orchestral composers and most of their best-known compositions. One should resist the temptation, I think, to complain about what is not in the book when it offers so much, and of such high quality. I have used the book in the classroom for students with no musical training; and they found it not only accessible, but warm and inviting. I have also discussed passages of the book with close friends who are seasoned aficionados; and we found much to enjoy and to savor.

Philip’s account takes readers from the year 1700 to 1950 and no further. But the timeframe he covers is less important than what he teaches his readers to do—namely, to appreciate the profound ways in which music affects the human soul and to describe its effects in words. I shall close by quoting the final sentence of Philip’s book, which relates to the last variation of Anton Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, but which speaks well to our ongoing encounter with music in general: “There is no sense of this being an end, any more than the start seemed like a beginning. The music is simply there (wherever ‘there’ is), and we must take it as we find it.”