There is a saying about music criticism: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Some interpret this to mean that music is subjective and that all attempts to give it meaning will be futile and pointless. I disagree. Writing about music may be difficult, but it is not impossible. The problem is not in music’s subjectivity but its overwhelming power. Hence the composer Mendelssohn once wrote: “What [the] music I love expresses to me, are not thoughts that are too indefinite for me to put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.”
This is what makes music so wonderful. It conveys a reality, but one that sometimes transcends the power of language to describe.
On November 20th, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra gave a captivating performance of Claude Debussy’s (1862-1989) Printemps (Spring), Bela Bartok’s (1881-1945) Violin Concerto No. 1, and Ludwig Beethoven’s (1770-1827) Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral.” Gemma New was the Principal Guest Conductor, and Nathan Olson was the Co-Concertmaster and main violin for the Concerto. The three pieces varied significantly in compositional style, but they each in their own way provoked the contemplation of truth, goodness, and beauty.
The subject of Bartok’s concerto is well known, and the Pastoral Symphony is one of Beethoven’s few deliberately programmatic pieces. Each composer declared they wrote their piece from a place of love, yet the music feels in some places opposite in mood and style. In the same way, the kinds of love expressed seem almost antithetical to each other.
A short announcement by Olson which preceded the performance of Bartok’s Concerto explained to the audience the reason and purpose of its composition. Bartok was deeply in love with Stefi Geyer, a staunchly Catholic violinist. In a letter, he described his love as a “kind of opium” necessary for his work “even if it is nerve-wrecking [sic], poisonous, and dangerous.” He composed the concerto as a picture of his love for her, as a portrait of her as seen through his love. Stefi broke up with Bartok before he could complete the piece, but he decided to finish it for cathartic purposes.
Olson did an excellent job capturing the toxic nature of Bartok’s love as expressed through the music. The first movement represents, in Bartok’s words, the “idealized Stefi Geyer, celestial and inward.” This is conveyed in the violin’s opening gesture, which seems simultaneously to suggest romantic yearning and a refusal to rest contentedly in any concrete tonality. As the pitch slides upwards, a sense of unease grows. The image conveyed by the squealing violins and dreamy woodwinds is phantasmagoric and ethereal, perhaps celestial, as it floats somewhere unreal and beyond reach. The movement seems to capture the sadness that idolization brings as it is unnatural and prevents real connection. There is no genuine joy or delight in the love’s object.
The second movement represents Stefi’s quick wit, stinging words, and unloving nature. An ominous feeling hangs in the air as the movement begins. Whereas the first movement proceeds at a slightly agitated pace, the second is positively frantic. Olson performs the piece with feeling. His body curls in on itself as he enters an accelerando. He scratches at the strings as if at an unrelenting itch. Bartok’s hysteria is clear. The kind of love expressed by the concerto seems much like that of a drug addict and entirely self-centered. Bartok does not paint a loving picture of Stefi so much as he explains the way he feels around her. Perhaps in the music itself we gain insight into why their relationship could not last.
The Bartok Concerto was deftly juxtaposed with Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, which depicts a different kind of love. The concert program describes it as one of his most “pictorial” works, although Beethoven himself cautioned that “all painting in instrumental music is lost if pushed too far.” In fact, the notes point out that Beethoven originally titled the piece “Pastoral Symphony or Recollection of Country Life, an expression rather than a description.” However, four of the five movements are titled as distinct scenes. For example, the third movement is called “Merry Gathering of Country Folk.” The theme of the whole symphony is Beethoven’s deep and profound love of the countryside. Of the five movements, the first and fifth are the most expressive and least programmatic, and they invite deeper contemplation than the others.
The first movement, bearing the lengthy title of “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings on Arrival in the Countryside,” offers a wonderful depiction of love and joy. While the Bartok Concerto produces nervous apprehension in the listener, the opening bars of Beethoven’s 6th produce heartfelt excitement and anticipation. It beckons the listener onwards, and it is difficult to resist tapping one’s fingers. While the first movement is certainly full of forward momentum, it is also filled with contentment — the contentment of a pilgrim who knows his final destination and can therefore enjoy the entire journey. The mood reminds one of C.S. Lewis’ description of smelling “the scent of a flower not yet found, the news of a country we have not yet visited” (The Weight of Glory). This is how Lewis understood joy as experienced in our present life. It involves a kind of contentedness and a love utterly different from the kind expressed by Bartok.
The fifth movement of Beethoven’s 6th, entitled “Shepherd’s Song. Cheerful and Thankful Feelings After the Storm.”, is more elusive. While the movement begins with the bucolic call of the Cuckoo, it develops into gestures suggestive of the triumph of the human spirit. Thus, rather than composing a thankful prayer quietly uttered, Beethoven shows us something like a shepherd venturing forth over a mountain knowing a difficult path lies ahead but ready to engage it nonetheless. The movement culminates with a sense of personal achievement announced resolutely by the strings.
The concert program suggests that in this movement, Beethoven sought to express the sacred and depict it as filled with “the miraculous specificity borne of endless repetition and regeneration” and the “eternal processes of gradual change.” As a depiction of the Divine, I think the music falls short, yet Beethoven successfully captures the beauty of conviction in the human soul, the readiness to travel long and difficult roads to meet obstacles head on out of love for the destination. Thus, the 6th Symphony ends, grateful for the leagues already conquered and for the destination which lies ahead, but with a promise to continue onwards and upwards, painful as it may at times be.
The kinds of emotions conveyed by Bartok and Beethoven are quite distinct, but they also have something in common, which is that they go beyond the power of language to fully capture reality. This is the beauty of classical music — that it transcends language. This is all the truer in the concert hall (as opposed to on Spotify). In the concert hall, one feels the full energy of the performers as they endeavor to express the musical content. One feels the pressure of an anticipated percussive outburst and the full intensity and subtlety of a singing violin. If future performances at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra will be anything like this one, I would encourage my fellow students to attend.