Sunday, July 28, 2013

My end is my beginning?

My devoted readers (parents) might recall that a recent blog post featured a "backwards" version of Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1 in which its phrases are played in reverse order. Fast-forward to an evening last week as I'm driving home from work; I turn on WGBH and find myself in the middle of the finale of Brahms' Symphony No. 3, incidentally one of my least favorite works of this composer whose music I generally love. But, Brahms is clearly working hard so I decide to stick around to the end. Much to my surprise, the ending of the symphony is immediately followed by the opening of the first movement. OK, now I'm hooked - what will happen next?

It's surely evidence of my own quirkily subversive listening tastes that I felt more compelled to keep listening by this strange circumstance than I would have if they'd just played the symphonic drama according to the plan Brahms intended. In this case, I did something I almost never do upon arriving home which was to rush into the house and turn on the radio to see how things ended. (My children were clearly confused by this behavior. Usually I ignore them because I'm at the computer, not because I'm listening to the radio.)  The hard-working radio orchestra proceeded to plow through movements 1, 2, and 3 which brought us to the real moment of truth. Were we about to cycle through the 4th movement again? Was this some "Brahms 3 Marathon" like those 24-hr showings of A Christmas Story that happen on TBS every December 25? No, the calm, confident voice of the announcer came on to let us know we'd just heard Brahms'  Symphony No. 3, performed by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Nothing to see here.

OK, it's kind of awkward that he didn't even seem to know what happened, but I'm going to make the generous assumption that his voice was either pre-recorded or that he wasn't listening to what was going on. (Perhaps he was a Siri-like robo-DJ.) Ending with that melancholy 3rd movement would be a strange thing indeed - I'd certainly hope any announcer actually listening would realize something was amiss. Of course, it's not the first time I've heard strange goings on on the radio. I remember once turning on WGBH in the middle of a viola/piano performance of Schumann's Fantasy Pieces only to have the announcer gleefully tell us we'd just heard Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata. Fantasy, indeed! I have vague memories of times when a CD started skipping on the air (so exciting!) - I suppose stations are more likely to play straight from hard drives now, so the skipping is less likely, but mislabeled tracks (as probably happened with Brahms 3) might be more likely.

So, yes, I enjoy this kind of thing and it does invite some thinking about why order matters, and also whether, in a world in which many listeners know this music backwards and forwards, there might be some merit in not always going forwards. Brahms 3 played 4-1-2-3 did NOT work, I can tell you, but I like the broader idea of playing with expectations. That's why I so enjoy listening to "Satie Surprises" and I remain quite proud of one of my finest blogging achievements, the stitching of three separate Mozart concerto movements into a single, classically elegant hallucination. (Why shouldn't hallucinations be elegant?)

I also wrote a few years back about the possibility of a "free the movements" movement in which individual movements of major works are allowed to roam free. Yes, this kind of thing happens all the time in certain kind of educational contexts. Just last night,  I attended a 4-hr recital at my daughter's camp in which we jumped merrily back and forth from Haydn to Hindemith, from Brahms to Bridge to Britten, from Dvorak to Dello Joio to Janacek, from Mendelssohn to Andriessen, etc. It didn't all work - the inelegant bustle of two movements from Dvorak's wind serenade were hard for me to take after the suave first movement of Ravel's string quartet, but I ended up Facebooking the following when the evening had ended. I don't have that many rules in life, but one of them is, "if you're gonna have a 4 hour chamber music recital, you better end with the last mvt of the Mendelssohn Octet." Check. I'd listen to that at 3 in the morning, even if my hair was on fire...
Would I have rather heard the entire Octet played 1-2-3-4? In some cases, yes, but for this evening, the wildly frenetic finale did just fine on its own as a thrilling nightcap. (It helps that this work, justifiably, has a kind of legendary, cult-status at the camp. A movement shows up on just about every program, and every student hopes to get to play some of it - it's treated like the rock star it is.) Of course, the more low-brow classical radio stations used to get bashed for playing single movements from symphonies and sonatas, and I suppose the BSO would take a beating if some conductor decided to stitch together his own patchwork program, but I think it could be pretty cool if done thoughtfully. A maestro mix-tape, if I may mix my meta-media.

But if you're gonna play music backwards, probably better to choose Satie or Haydn over Brahms - Brahms likes to be in control.


Miguel Vicente said...

Nice blog!

I have always been puzzled by the fact that Mahler swapped the order of the middle movements of his sixth symphony just during the rehearsals for the première...but in later performances he returned to his orinigal conception, so noboby really knows how to do it now!

Nice Mozart 345! you might like also this one:
"Prelude to l'après midi de T"



Brilliant idea and well done, Miguel. Seems natural and inevitable. In turn, reminds me of: