Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Devil's Music

Sergei Rachmaninov

A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul. [Goethe]

I know little about classical music. Little indeed. This prompted my friend Luís—who loves classical and particularly opera—to record for me some classical works that might be accessible to me “based on your personality,” he said. OK, I’m into Freudian approaches. And so we did. We went through Mahler’s “The Titan” in fairly good shape; Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 11, and a few others. All went well I must happily say. While the music at first seemed to my untrained ear to lack the passion of Bruce on the boardwalk, the strangeness of Floyd’s “Animals” or the psychedelic vision of Hendrix, overall this “classic”, sit-in-the-dark-study-stuff turned out quite promising and, ultimately, dangerous. The devil’s music, I’ve no doubt.

While listening to Rachmaninov for the past couple of weeks (cause Luís means business when he shares his passions), I suddenly had this urge to read Faust. I’d been through it years ago in English and so I thought why not give it a go in Spanish. So I began to read Fausto leisurely. Half-hour here, half-hour there. But this strange desire to read Goethe kept pushing and pushing at me. And I kept listening and listening to Rachmaninov; the reading feeding the music and the music the reading. How strange, no?

And then suddenly today I jumped on Google for no reason other than to know something about Rachmaninov. (The copy of the CD Luís made for me only had the picture cover of The Piano Concertos.) So what was the story behind them, I wondered? Interestingly —shockingly— I found this in reference to the First Piano Sonata:

The First Piano Sonata dates from 1907, only slightly earlier than the Third Concerto. Rachmaninov was characteristically modest about the work's prospects, stating that "no one will ever play this work because of its difficulty and length and perhaps too... because of its dubious musical merits." In fact the sonata is extremely interesting, not the least due to its hidden program. That the work was inspired by Goethe's Faust and that its three movements seek to portray in turn Faust, Gretchen (Margareta), and Mephistopheles was not revealed even to Konstantin Igumnov, who gave its first performances. Yet a number of musical ideas in this sonata can only be explained in terms of this program. For example, according to Rachmaninov scholar Barrie Martyn,

The Faustian motto with which the sonata opens consists of two elements: the first starkly arches the interval of a fifth in quiet questioning; the second, marked forte, peremptorily dismisses the preceding phrase and emphatically asserts a perfect cadence. The juxtaposition of abruptly contrasting dynamics and of doubt and certainty seems to reflect the struggle of opposing aspirations that goes on in the mind of Faust and Everyman.*

So there you have it. Mephistopheles at work; it wasn’t only Led Zeppelin that spoke the devil’s words in music, backwards. What messages lurk behind sound and cadence? Some of this —somewhere— has to do with poetry.

* Lyn and Lawrence Schenbeci, quoting, Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor. London: Scolar Press, 1990, p. 188.


  • Of all the classical music I've heard in my life, I love the Russian composers the best, especially Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Their music is rough, sexual, and desperate. I'm hot for that kind of thing.

    By Blogger Charles, at 12:22 AM  

  • Hi Charles,

    Yes, they’re quite impressive composers. Very passionate and romantic. I guess that Rachamaninov was one of the last from that school. With the little I know I can assure you that his Piano Concertos are absolute beauties.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 12:36 PM  

  • alber, i wrote my first novel while listening to adagios. always my music of choice in writing. in fact, when i hear those classical songs now, i remember the very moments i was sculpting words, sentences and images together. classical music has a certain quality of depth that is difficult to find in modern music today.

    great music--the voice of god, indeed. great poetry, his tears. and me, his mere naked servant.

    good morning. thanks for the lovely things . . . now, back to work. naked, of course.

    By Blogger bino, at 12:48 PM  

  • Alberto, Sadly, I am not naked. But I so love the Piano Concertos you mentioned above. And I love Mahler's First, so I was happy to read you had recently listened to it as well. There is a lot to learn from music about sound and cadence.

    By Blogger C. Dale, at 5:49 PM  

  • Hi, dear Bino,

    I can see (hear) how music can cling to certain memories, or is it the other way around? The Concertos are extremely nostalgic, or so they sound to me. They carry a sadness of years. I don’t find them sentimental at all, but rather very filled with legitimate feeling. Very special, indeed. (By the way, what are you doing naked? Thought it was blizzard weather in the Big Apple?)

    Keep on with the writing, Bino.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 9:44 PM  

  • Now how can that be, C. Dale? You’re fully clothed in San Francisco and Bino is naked in New York! Something wrong with both your winters.

    I had read about Mahler’s First in your blog—something about that horizon line, if I recall correctly. That also made me go back to it again, and then again. Such lovely stuff. The closest of any art to poetry.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 9:57 PM  

  • Makes sense to me. I remember being naked a lot more in NYC than SF. But I was also younger then. Ha! Mahler is incredible. If you can ever find the Adagio Movement of the his Fifth, take a listen. You haven't felt heartbreak and the nostalgia of heartbreak until you hear this. It kills me every time.

    By Blogger C. Dale, at 10:34 PM  

  • Actually, it is the Adagietto, the 4th movement. After posting, I ran and put it on. Staring out at the Pacific, while listening to this, I almost had tears in my eyes, almost. It remains as heartbreakingly beautiful as always. Mahler understood that under everything beautiful, there is darkness and unrest.

    By Blogger C. Dale, at 10:39 PM  

  • Sounds interesting. I’ll ask Luís for the Adagietto, 4th movement, and see what it does staring over the old Atlantic. Thanks, C. Dale.

    By Blogger A.R.B., at 11:50 PM  

  • Alberto,
    For me, it's all about the piano sonatas: Rachmaninov, Mozart, Schumann, Beethoven, Chopin, and on and on. The piano speaks to me like nothing else.

    By Blogger Suzanne, at 1:05 AM  

  • Fascinating post, Alberto. There must be something to the music being able to send you that aubliminal Faustian message. Devil music indeed! (I wonder what my friend Rebecca Loudon, who is a classically trained violinist, would have to say about it?)

    I'm not much of a classical music buff, either. But my most visceral response to a piece of music has been to Albinoni's Adagio (I think it's the one used in the movie Gallipoli). It always makes me burst into tears, or at least have to fight them back, and I'll always remember being in the square outside the Ufizzi in Florence with my partner Dean, and hearing a guy playing it on an electric violin as the sun was going down and the sky was red as a wound, and we just sat together and listened, sitting on this stone bench. Amazing.
    And then last month, Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe" played on the radio, and I had to pull over the car on the side of the road, I was bawling so hard. And it is such a simple campy song! Weird, eh?


    PS: LOVE the Goethe quote.

    By Blogger Peter, at 1:08 AM  

  • Alberto, amé tan su poste que hice un poste entero mis el propios para responder. Usted tiene que encontrar una copia de la quinto sinfonía de Mahler. Después de que usted escuche el cuarto movimiento, déjeme saben lo que usted piensa.

    By Blogger C. Dale, at 7:09 PM  

  • Sorry, I am pretty out of practice writing in Spanish.

    By Blogger C. Dale, at 7:10 PM  

  • That’s a great story, Peter. Quite romantic. I wonder if Dean has a similar memory or if this was your memory alone, like the music clinging to you and that moment. It sounds unforgettable and quite beautiful. There are so many things at work when we deal with emotions. I know I couldn’t convey it, but it was a truly amazing coincidence that I should think of Faust when listening to Rachmaninov. Almost eerie, but somehow I felt so excited about my discovery. Thanks for sharing yours.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 11:32 PM  

  • Querido C. Dale,

    Tu español se entiende perfectamente. Buscaré la Quinta de Mahler y la escucharé tan pronto como pueda. Me alegro de que mi “post” te haya inspirado. Estas son las cosas de la vida—las pequeñas cosas—que nos hacen muy felices.

    Un abrazo,

    By Blogger A.R.B., at 11:36 PM  

  • Dear Suzanne,

    Your post almost got crushed in there. Almost missed it. I’m also finding a great attraction to the piano pieces. I don’t know why. Maybe there’s a subtle beauty about it. I don’t know that much about these things, but they’re so damn beautiful that I guess it’s time to learn.


    (P.S. “Biquiños” as in little kisses, cute little ones, like grammar school xxxx’s. Galician has such a way—like a bunch of sentimental babies.)

    By Blogger A.R.B., at 11:41 PM  

  • Alberto:
    re: your question. Yes, Dean was feeling/thinking the same thing as I. (We are often thinking/feeling the same thing at any given moment). That we could both die then and there. And it would be alright.

    By Blogger Peter, at 4:49 AM  

  • A couple years ago, while researching a Powerpoint for a hand surgeon who specialized in injuries in musicians, I bought a CD called "Dances Of Death", with the excellent conductor Paul Paray and his Detroit Symphony Orchestra playing compositions on the topic by Liszt, Saint-Saens, Strauss, Schmitt and von Weber. At the time, I was a boarder in a rooming house in Brookline, Mass. It was fall and the many trees were changing. My window, covered with a sheer curtain, overlooked a sloping backyard and park. After coming home from work I would open the window, put on the Dances, and lay on my futon, listening as the wind moved the curtains and the trees, watching the shadows cast on the floor, listened to the movements of the leaves. Over a period of few weeks, just as the leaves color reached its crescendo, their sounds began to change from lustrous and lush, to dry and brittle. Listening to the Dances in that setting over the course of a few weeks, I felt all possibility for urgent life. I highly recommend it.

    By Blogger hackzkztv, at 8:57 PM  

  • That’s a wonderful description, Michael. Somewhat eerie, too, when you think about “Dances of Death”. Leaves rustling always have that sort of connotation for me. I haven’t heard that CD but I’ll look for it. My favorites list is growing by leaps and bounds. But there is much to be done in that arena—that inevitable relation between poetry and music. Such passion and feeling!

    Thanks for dropping by.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 11:17 PM  

  • Hi Alberto~ I just found this most interesting thread. I played Mahler last weekend to a full house, Kindertotenlieder, Death Songs for Children. I think about this relationship all the time, no, am immersed in it, the relationship between music and poetry, in my head there is no relationship since they are one and the same. I am writing the libretto for an opera, work closely with a composer, have written for him for many years and am a musician as well. I think art becomes art and less segmented, poetry, painting, music, dance, when one allows the barriers to break down. It is all the same. Some generative, some interprative, but the same art. I am probably not making much sense here. I am on my way to a dress rehearsal of Magic Flute~ ciao.

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