Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Metamorphosis of Don Juan?

A Bold, New Discovery
(which probably isn't new, and which certainly involved no boldness)

I've written twice before about my experiences with "found music": 1) once, when I was entranced by the strange, loopy experience of hearing works by Mozart and Handel simultaneously; 2) later, when my iPod shuffled logically from Stravinsky to the Beatles, due to an odd coincidence of sustained tension and a connecting pitch. The connection I just stumbled on tonight is much less random than either of those and may well have been observed by many before, but I haven't Googled any mentions of it. In fact, it's quite startling given its implications.

Here's what happened. I was listening to Richard Strauss's Don Juan on iTunes while doing some work at the computer (if "surfing the net" can be called work). Don Juan is a brilliant orchestral showpiece, but it ends quite solemnly, as described here by Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise: "an upward-scuttling scale in the violins, a quiet drumroll, hollow chords on scattered instruments, three thumps, and silence." (14) I don't actually know Don Juan all that well, but I slowly realized the music playing had ceased to be Don Juan - in fact, iTunes had segued right into the next work on the playlist, Strauss's Metamporphosen. I skipped back to the end of Don Juan and discovered how seamless the transition had been: LISTEN.

So, Don Juan, written in 1888, one of Strauss's earliest successes, a youthful work about a famous rake, ends on those "three thumps," - in E Minor - "and silence." It's an expectant silence to say the least because the music hardly seems resolved. In fact, the silence before the final thump is long enough to make us suspicious of the final silence. Tonight, before that silence had had a chance to be convincing, however, Metamorphosen had dawned with its opening chord on E Minor! This is one of Strauss's final works, from 1945, and it is very much the reflective work of an artist at life's end. Of this period, Ross writes, "The composer was musing in some deep way on the course of his life, perhaps questioning the philosophy of individualism that had long guided him." (337)

Two works that reveal their composer's extremes, and yet the one flows into the other as if it had been planned that way - as if Don Juan (and the youthful Strauss) had not really died, but rather entered into some sort of . . . well, metamorphosis. In fact, the sudden shift to a new harmony after the opening chord of Metamorphosen is arguably less jarring when preceded by Don Juan, because the E Minor has a context. I'm no Straussian, and I don't really know either work well, but I'll never be able to think of them separately again. Again, maybe the connection between these works has been remarked upon by others, though a quick, and admittedly unscientific Amazon search has yet to turn up an album on which the two works appear back to back. Curiously, I have managed to find references to a 1959 (?) book by Leo Weinstein called The Metamorphoses of Don Juan. However, that book doesn't seem to have anything to do with Strauss.

One little postscript. As anyone who follows this blog would know, I'm fascinated by connections that my mind makes from one musical work to another. The lingering trill in the low strings that happens about 18 seconds into the Don Juan clip above immediately reminded me of something else, and I couldn't think what, which of course is insanely frustrating - like seeing the slightly familiar face of some actor and not being able to place it. I spent about 30 minutes obsessed with that trill, playing it over and over in my mind to find the link. Frustration aside, it's a fun process and an amazing journey into how the mind and memory work - just a matter of trying to hear the Strauss trill and then letting memory search for what comes next. Finally, I started hearing an oboe finishing a phrase . . . and then . . . yes, one of the slow variations from Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Here's the Strauss and Rachmaninoff trills, back to back. Now I'll be able to sleep tonight.

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