Sunday 17 May
Symphony No 6
We hope that you enjoy this broadcast from our archives, recorded in January 2017.
Mark-Anthony Turnage Remembering – In Memoriam Evan Scofield*
Mahler Symphony No 6
Sir Simon Rattle conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
*LSO co-commission generously supported by Susie Thomson
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Remembering – In Memoriam Evan Scofield
Music is above all the art of memory. We may think of music as tunes, tones, rhythmic sequences; even as notes congregating silently on the page. But all these things would lie flat were it not for the way our memories rise up to meet them half way. Accumulated deep in the movements of our bodies and minds are our senses of how music goes, how it once went, how it might go again. And of how it shines, how it splinters, how it lights up the dark places, how it breaks us with its beauty. Without memory, music would be dry as ashes. In remembering, we give music life.
This is perhaps why music, though celebrated as a force of life, and love, is so often drawn to death as if to its own likeness. For just as it is the activity of remembering that allows the ashes of music to rise up and take shape, so too do the dead keep their shape in us, resuscitated by acts of individual and communal memory. As with music, it is the often painful practice of remembering which embodies the lives of the dead in our ways of thinking and moving; our memories of them, while often shared, ultimately remain private and intangible, hidden from plain sight. Music, at least, and perhaps at most, helps to give them form.
The music of death has taken many forms, from the exhilarating pantheism of the Totentanz and the rituals of consolation and disconsolation enshrined in the Requiem and its secular successors, to the morbid obsessions of Romantic opera and song.
Totentanz meaning ‘Dance of Death’, is a medieval allegory: an image of a reaper summoning people to follow him in a dance to the grave reminds us that no matter who we are, we are all united in death, and that life itself is fragile.
In a society in which we have become ever more alienated from the reality of death, its statistical ubiquity notwithstanding, these forms have an oddly vital role to play. And all have played their role in the music of Mark-Anthony Turnage. For while best known for its feisty confrontation between the hard-bitten materials of musical modernity and the ebullient, brash gesturing of contemporary urban existence, a dark strain runs right through Turnage’s music, both in a generalised form (such as in 2013’s Speranza, also given its premiere by the LSO) and in the guise of many specific commemorative movements and pieces, such as Elegy for Andy (Turnage’s brother, who died at a young age) and a new percussion work commemorating the composer Steve Martland.
Remembering, written in memory of Evan Scofield, opens with music which is neither overtly elegiac nor ritualistic. Instead, the symphony teems with barely restrained vigour. The first movement’s opening gestures are shrill wind blasts and jabbing thrusts from the brass, gusts of energy which set in motion chains of ostinato figures, bristling with as yet unrealised expressive possibility. Melodic figures break away from the swirl, but never establish themselves in fullness. Toward the movement’s end, one such melodic figure takes on an almost Debussyian sweep, drawing the entire orchestra into its contour. Just as it is about to take flight, the movement stops.
Thus emerges the figure of Evan, who died in 2013 at the age of 26, from cancer. Turnage knew Evan as the son of family friends, the jazz guitarist John Scofield and his wife Susan, and the sister of Jeannie, the partner of Ursula. A boy whose quirky but deep- rooted enthusiasms – for cinema, axes, hyacinths, friends – reflected a readiness to take on life in all its fullness, a young man whose ways of seeing seemed so good, so full of promise and possibility. Such early deaths strike us less like personal tragedies and more like cosmic catastrophes. What kind of a world is it which allows such things to happen?
The symphony thus speaks both of the young, dead Evan Scofield and of the desolation which accompanies the sudden blacking out of the most powerful source of light in our lives. The slow second and final movements seem to explore this desolation most directly, but even the mercurial third-movement scherzo, brushed in similar contours to Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales but hammered out in 21st-century colours, confronts the darkness in a slower middle section which twists and fractures the once joyful figures as if, in the half-light of remembering, the very possibility of meaning becomes thrown into doubt. The question is not how to recover, but how to live when so much of what remains has been swallowed in darkness; how to go on remembering.
The fourth movement opens with the very simplest of figures, a tone which briefly rises a step before falling back, breath at its bare minimum. A solo viola and cello (the piece is scored without violins) teasing out the lines of a knotted melody, carefully and patiently so as not to break the thread. Deep in the contours we can glimpse the wholeness of what is lost, a song of joy and possibility. In this way, the process of grief affords its own comfort, by freeing the dead from the narrative of their dying, we seem, for fleeting moments, to get the whole person back. But grief is not something that can ever end. It is just a path we follow. There is no grandeur to the close of Turnage’s Remembering, no tying up of threads or crying out in agony. Just a retreat to alternating chords, breathing between hope and despair, each with its own weight, fullness and allure. In the spaces between, the path continues, we go on. The living and the dead.
Note by Guy Dammann
Guy Dammann is a music critic for the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. He also teaches at the Guildhall School.
When Mark-Anthony Turnage emerged among the front rank of British composers in the 1980s, he did so by swimming against a strong tide of specialisation and stylistic concentration in contemporary composition. A graduate of the Royal College of Music (where he is now Professor of Composition), his eclectic style and diverse range of influences – from Stravinsky, Britten and Henze (all notably eclectic figures themselves), from other musical genres such as jazz, rock and, more recently, R&B, and from a wide range of literary interests – set him apart as a figure in tune with both the serious and popular culture of his time and singularly unafraid to plough his own furrow.
If this was the impression made by early successes such as Night Dances (1981) and Lament for a Hanging Man (1983), it was redoubled by the overnight international success of Turnage’s first opera, Greek, at the 1988 Munich Biennale. Based on Steven Berkoff’s play of the same name, Greek revealed a remarkable technical and dramatic assurance, cocking a snook at opera’s grand pretensions to recreate ancient Greek tragedy while simultaneously affirming them. A similar coup was effected in his 2011 opera, Anna Nicole, whose wide spectrum of styles allowed for sympathetic and satirical modes to be combined in a single glance.
While Turnage’s operas have been among his most high-profile successes, the backbone of his career has really been his extensive catalogue of music for orchestra (often in combination with voices), born of a mixture of a deep understanding of the orchestra and a child-like fascination for its power and sonic possibilities. One of his longest-standing champions has been Sir Simon Rattle, who invited Turnage to become composer-in-residence at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1989 and who has continued to programme and commission works.
As with his operas, Turnage’s orchestral output admits a wide range of musical, literary and artistic influences ranging from Beyoncé to Francis Bacon. In doing so, it resists a strong tendency to abstraction and worldly withdrawal in western music. A melting pot of the personal and political dimensions of existence, Turnage’s music has always been about full immersing in the everyday, life in all its brightness, brashness and, as often as not, loneliness.
Profile by Guy Dammann
Symphony No 6 in A minor
1. Allegro energetico, ma non troppo: Heftig, aber markig (intense, but pithy)
2. Andante moderato
3. Scherzo: Wuchtig (powerful)
4. Sostenuto – Allegro energico
When Mahler began work on his Sixth Symphony in 1903, he thought about giving it a title: ‘The Tragic’. But he had already begun to lose faith in titles, programmes and other literary props, and by the time the symphony was finished, two years later, the name had been dropped for good. But ‘tragic’ remains most commentators’ verdict on the emotional content of this work, however much the shading of that interpretation may vary. For the great Mahlerian conductor Bruno Walter, the Sixth was ‘bleakly pessimistic … the work ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul’. But Mahler’s biographer, Michael Kennedy, sees something more positive in the symphony’s message: ‘It is a tragic work, but it is tragedy on a high plane, classical in conception and execution.’
For Mahler there was clearly a dark saying at the heart of the Sixth Symphony, especially in the huge finale. His wife Alma reports him as saying that this movement tells of ‘the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him like a tree’. Before long these words were to acquire an added eerie significance. In 1907, the year after the symphony’s far from successful premiere, ‘three blows of fate’ fell on Mahler himself: he was forced to resign as conductor of the Vienna Opera; his four- year-old daughter Maria died of scarlet fever; and he was diagnosed as having a potentially fatal lesion of the heart – the condition that was to kill him four years later, at the age of 50.
To the myth-makers it was a gift. Deep in his prophetic soul Mahler had sensed his own fate and spelled it out in music. Some went even further: Mahler hadn’t just foretold his own grim future; he had looked into the abyss of the coming century and portrayed its horror with exceptional power. Where else could those violent march rhythms, those vivid depictions of vanquished hopes and crushed innocence have come from?
But there is another possibility. As a young man, Mahler had been deeply impressed by the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. For a while he thought of calling his Third Symphony Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science) – the title of one of Nietzsche’s most celebrated works. The idea of tragedy was central to Nietzsche’s world-view. Nietzsche felt that the tragedies of the Ancient Greeks represented some of the sanest – or as he put it ‘healthiest’ – achievements of mankind, created ‘out of the most profound need’. In tragic art, the Greeks had been able to look ‘with bold eyes into the dreadful destructive turmoil of so-called world history as well as into the cruelty of nature’, and thereby create an art that was ‘uniquely capable of the tenderest and deepest suffering’. By experiencing this through the medium of tragedy, the spectator could acquire the strength and courage to face the horror and meaningless cruelty of existence – or as Nietzsche put it, ‘say ‘Yes’ to life.’
Mahler’s attitude to Nietzsche fluctuated widely in later life. In 1901 he told Alma, on finding that her library contained a complete Nietzsche, that the books ‘should be cast then and there into the fire’. But according to the conductor Otto Klemperer, who worked with Mahler from 1905, the composer was ‘an adherent of Nietzsche’. This apparent contradiction isn’t really surprising. Mahler was subject to violent swings – of belief as well as mood. But it’s easy to see how Nietzsche’s idea of the tragic would have appealed to an artist who throughout his life was obsessed with death, suffering and the apparently arbitrary cruelty of life, and who strove continually to make sense of them. Perhaps this ‘tragic’ symphony can be seen as a sustained attempt to do just that in music.
If so, that might account for a paradoxical aspect of the Sixth Symphony. However violent, pained or ultimately bleak the emotions it expresses, there is also – for many listeners – something exciting, exhilarating, even uplifting about much of it. It is as though Mahler were at the same time exulting in his mastery, his ability to express what Nietzsche called ‘the artistic conquest of the terrible’ with such power and virtuosity. After all, the Sixth is also one of those works in which Mahler’s command of the orchestra is at its most dazzling. In his handling of the huge forces – including instruments never before used in a symphony (celesta, cowbells, whip and a hammer to represent the blows of fate), as well as one of the largest woodwind and brass sections in the standard repertory – Mahler reveals himself as a brilliant magician as well as a tragic poet.
Detailed analysis of a 90-minute symphony, packed with incident from start to finish, is impossible in a short programme note, but a few pointers may be helpful:
The first movement follows the outlines of Classical sonata form. Two main themes – in this case an intense, driven march tune and an impassioned major-key melody (apparently identified with Alma Mahler) are juxtaposed, developed at length, then brought back in something like their original form, leading to a triumphant, major-key conclusion. At the heart of the movement, however, in the midst of all the violence and passion, is a passage of magical stillness, with atmospheric contributions from celesta and cowbells – in Mahler’s words ‘the last terrestrial sounds penetrating into the remote solitude of mountain peaks’.
The Andante moderato is like a haven of peace: meditative, songful, an exploration out of the Alpine solitude glimpsed at the heart of the first movement. But there is bitterness mixed with the sweetness.
Pounding march figures begin the Scherzo, the return to the minor mode negating the major key ‘triumph’ of the first movement’s ending. (Abrupt major-minor juxtapositions occur throughout the first, third and fourth movements – a clear ‘tragic’ motto.) Now the violence has a grotesque edge. Even the seemingly innocent Trio theme (introduced on the oboe) has a strange, limping four-plus-three rhythm. This time the ending is hollow, desolate, with fragments of motifs on double basses, contra- bassoon and timpani.
After this, the finale is like a vast summing up of all that has been heard before, fused into a compelling musical narrative, by turns weird, desolate, heroically determined, joyous and catastrophically thwarted. The first two of Mahler’s ‘three blows of fate’ are underlined by the hammer; but Mahler removed the third hammer blow – whether for superstitious or more practical reasons is hard to guess. In any case the most devastating stroke is left to the end. Tuba, trombones and low horns develop a grim threnody, then a full orchestra chord of A minor falls like an iron curtain, leaving the march rhythms to tail off into nothing.
Note by Stephen Johnson
Stephen Johnson is the author of Bruckner Remembered (Faber). He contributes regularly to BBC Music Magazine and The Guardian, and broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 (BBC Legends and Discovering Music), Radio 4 and World Service.
MAHLER ON LSO LIVE
Mahler’s early experiences of music were influenced by the military bands and folk singers who passed by his father’s inn. He received formal piano lessons from local musicians, gave his first recital in 1870 and, five years later, applied to the Vienna Conservatory.
After graduation, Mahler supported himself by teaching, before accepting a succession of conducting posts, culminating in the position of Resident Conductor and then Director of the prestigious Vienna Hofoper. The demands of both opera conducting and administration meant that he could only devote the summer months to composition. Working in the Austrian countryside he completed his nine symphonies and a series of eloquent, often poignant songs.
An anti-Semitic campaign in the Viennese press threatened Mahler’s position at the Hofoper, and in 1907 he accepted an invitation to become Principal Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. In 1911 he contracted a bacterial infection and returned to Vienna. When he died a few months before his 51st birthday, Mahler had just completed part of his Tenth Symphony and was still working on sketches for other movements.
Profile by Andrew Stewart Andrew Stewart is a freelance music journalist and writer. He is the author of The LSO at 90, and contributes to a wide variety of specialist classical music publications.
Take a closer look at the life of Gustav Mahler on our blog:
Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle was born in Liverpool and studied at the Royal Academy of Music. From 1980 to 1998, he was Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and was appointed Music Director in 1990. In 2002, he took up the position of Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic where he remained until the end of the 2017/18 season. He became Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra in September 2017.
Sir Simon regularly tours within Europe, North America and Asia, and has long- standing relationships with the world’s leading orchestras. Initially working closely with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestras, Simon has also recently worked with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. Sir Simon is also a Principal Artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Founding Patron of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
Sir Simon Rattle was knighted in 1994. In the New Year’s Honours of 2014 he received the Order of Merit from Her Majesty the Queen.
Image: Ranald Mackechnie
London Symphony Orchestra © Ranald Mackechnie
London Symphony Orchestra © Ranald Mackechnie
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Thursday 21 May 2020, 7.30pm BST
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