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How Symphonies and Things Begin

February 22, 2017

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .”

“Midway on life’s journey I found myself in a dark forest. . . .”

“In a village of La Mancha whose name I have no desire to recall. . . .”

“All happy families are alike. . . .”

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead. . . .”

“Call me Ishmael.”

How powerful and arresting these beginnings are, how full of promise, how intriguing when we meet them for the first time, when they make us ask where this is going. Then again, how charged with memory and association they are when we greet them as old friends—yes, it really is A Tale of Two Cities again, or Moby Dick. Such openings offer two kinds of thrill, deeply different, equally potent.

The curtain rises, or the stage lights go up. Who is that man, and why is he sitting like that, head in hand, left leg extended? What time of day is it, and what season? What does the furniture tell us, and the clothing? That pistol on the wall or on the table—is it a bit of designer’s fancy, or is it meant to tell us something?

Music, too, is an art of powerful beginnings that stick in the memory. Think of Beethoven symphonies: the Eroica, with two simple chords that together announce the key, the tempo, and the mood; the Fourth, palming mysterious walls in the dark; the Fifth, the most famous of all beginnings, which might be Fate pounding on the door or our introduction to a rhythm that will serve the whole movement as motor; the Pastoral, whose gentle current seems to have begun before the music actually became audible; the Ninth, another mystery, music that allows us to witness the birth of a theme.

Beethoven is almost the inventor of such beginnings, of opening gestures that offer us our first knowledge of a work’s essence. Some of Mozart’s operas begin in this sense. Don Giovanni with those magnificent D minor chords is an example, chords that, to those familiar with the work, immediately look forward to the moment when the avenging statue makes his numinous entrance and whose solemn sonority cannot fail to make an impression on the attentive memory of even the new listener. The hieratic trombone triads that begin The Magic Flute are similarly potent. And how perfectly those conspiratorial eighth notes and odd phrase rhythms of the Figaro Overture do their job of dropping us into the middle of all the goings on, comic and serious, in the household of Count Almaviva!

The idea of beginning with sounds whose sonority and voicing is so special as to make them unmistakable even though they just constitute a chord of E-flat or D or whatever is one that has always fascinated musicians. The opening chords of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 and Beethoven’s Eroica and Fifth Piano Concerto are just chords of E-flat, but you cannot possibly mistake one for another. Musicians in fact like to tease one another by playing just the first chord or even the first note of a piece and asking, “What is it?” (A more refined version of this game has the pianist placing his hands in readiness to play a certain chord but without actually sounding it.) 

But back to Figaro. I have sometimes wondered if the 1780s audiences in Prague and Vienna really could hear that rustling pianissimo. I don’t mean that they were hard of hearing or that they had significantly worse manners than an audience in the twenty-first century, but they had less to alert them that very quiet music was about to begin, nothing to transform the audience from chatterers to listeners, no house lights that could be dimmed in a candle-lit theater, no custom of applauding the conductor’s entrance into the pit, not even if the conductor was W.A. Mozart. That is why introductions at that time, especially in the opera house but also in the concert room, so often begin with a forceful call to attention, even when overall the music is piano and dark in character.

Haydn’s great London symphonies are striking and imaginatively devised instances. Eleven of the twelve symphonies for London begin by suggesting at first that mere formalities are at hand, but in fact nowhere is invention higher. Some of them start out in minor, to set off dramatically the major-key brightness of the allegro to follow. It is the low-ceilinged, semi-dark moment in the narthex before we enter the grand space of the nave. Interestingly, four of the six symphonies Haydn wrote for his second visit to London have slow introductions that begin piano: The composer was coming to trust his British audiences.

I have begun this discussion with pieces from the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven period before and just after the year 1800. Music earlier than that usually began at the beginning, that is, with its first theme, not with a special exordium. (It usually ended that way as well.) I would like to continue with mention of some special cases. I often find myself wishing I could have heard the premiere of Tristan or The Rite of Spring or some other iconic masterpiece, to experience something no one else in the room had experienced before either. What must have been the impact of the Tristan Prelude when no one in the audience had any idea what the conductor’s first signal would elicit?

What would one have made of the large and adventurous introduction to Mozart’s Prague Symphony or, less than two decades later, of Beethoven’s even larger and more adventurous emulation of it in his Symphony No. 2? Or the wide-ranging introduction to Beethoven’s Seventh, which sets the agenda for the harmonic travels of the whole work? This is a device called “Chekhov’s Gun” in honor of the Russian playwright, who said that, “If in the first act you see a rifle hanging on the wall, then in the last act someone has got to fire it.” (Uncle Vanya shows us how.)

Few pieces can have surprised an audience more than Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. After all, everyone in that chilly Viennese concert hall knew that concertos began with a lengthy exposition of themes by the orchestra. But here orchestra and conductor were still, while the pianist, who that night was also the inventor, played a meditative phrase all alone. Moreover, that phrase was asymmetrically shaped, and the orchestra’s response to it was no less confounding. And Beethoven’s next piano concerto, the Emperor, must have been no less astonishing, beginning with a series of cadenzas—mighty and brilliant fountains of notes—that are usually part of the apparatus of a movement’s close, not its opening.    

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony invents a beginning with mysterious low strings that composers would emulate through the nineteenth century and beyond, at least as far beyond as the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. I imagine Schubert found the idea for it in Haydn’s Drumroll Symphony, No. 103, leaving the mystery undiluted by omitting the attention-summoning timpani.

One of the strangest beginnings—a most characteristic Romantic invention—is the start of Schumann’s Manfred Overture, music as wondrous and as mad as Byron’s hero himself. Schumann gives us a very slow introduction, beginning pianissimo, preceded by three chords in a very fast tempo, loud with a crescendo. Schumann places an unmeasured silence before and after those three chords, but at the same time sets the three chords on off-beats. Because of the silence, the listener can’t tell that the chords are on off-beats, so what Schumann has accomplished is exactly what he intended: to ensure that the three chords are attacked by the conductor and orchestra in the highest possible state of nervous tension. Of course the conductor could cheat by renotating those chords to make them occur on rather than between the beats, and I wouldn’t be prepared to swear that on a recording one could hear the difference, but he is honor-bound not to do that. It is a most extraordinary opening to one of the nineteenth century’s most extraordinary pieces.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—a drama about which Lisel Mueller wrote a marvelous poem titled Music: The Power to Disturb—has the most famous beginning after the Beethoven Fifth, but also one far more discussed, puzzled over, talked and written about.  Here, together with some of music’s deepest silences, are dissonances resolving to more dissonances.  You have to wait some five hours for the release of consonance.  

Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto begins with music parallel to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. We can hear the Beethoven and delight in how exuberantly it is telling us: ”I am a piano concerto.” Berg begins with extremely quiet sounds, but the slow ascent and descent across the solo instrument’s open strings tell us just as surely, “I am a violin concerto.” And where Beethoven is all confidence and dazzling virtuosity, Berg, even while he shows us how deeply violinistic this music is going to be, is at the same side deeply tender and vulnerable, as befits an elegy “to the memory of an angel.”

Brahms, a splendid inventor of arresting beginnings, ran a tight ship as a composer, and it is no surprise that his interest in coherence, economy, and multiple connections sometimes led him to the idea of making his beginnings also serve as endings. Bruckner loved that, too, but how different their purposes are, and their results. With Bruckner those returns come at the end of huge mountain climbs, and they are heart-pounding affairs, most so at the culmination after ninety minutes of tension and Wagnerian search for resolution of his Eighth, one of the most magnificent symphonic structures ever conceived. Brahms on the other hand associates those last returns with deep quiet, and his closes to the German Requiem, the Third Symphony, the G major Violin Sonata, and the Clarinet Quintet are sublime musical realizations of what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote in Little Gidding, “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”

I could go on with miraculous beginnings. I have not yet mentioned Elgar’s sublime melody on the first page of his First Symphony, nor the Violin Concerto’s passionate opening phrase that makes such a heart-stopping return in the musing cadenza near the end. I have said nothing of Richard Strauss and his near-Mozartian gift of setting a scene or a character before us in one deft gesture, nor of Jean Sibelius, the master of openings that quietly grab you, immediately leaving you wondering what will become of this—those horns at the start of the Fifth Symphony, the angel voices of strings in the Sixth, the mysterious drum-taps in the Seventh. And no less enigmatic are the pieces that begin with solo voices—Debussy’s magic flute in the Prelude to L'Après-midi d'un faune, Stravinsky’s magic bassoon in The Rite of Spring (as startling as ever a century later), and a special love of mine, the one trumpet whose melancholic song is the first music we hear in the great Fourth Symphony of Franz Schmidt.

They are wondrous to contemplate, these beginnings, the ones that fiercely grab you (and which need not be loud) and those that insinuate their way into ear and mind and heart, the ones that are promissory notes, the Chekhov guns, the ones that simply raise the curtain and open the door. They are magic first steps that lead to destinations we cannot yet imagine. Or suppose we can imagine those landing places, hearing the Fifth Symphony again, or re-reading Moby Dick: Because of the way memory works, we are granted the beautiful gift of living those first moments as though they were new again and full of mysterious promise.

Endings are special, too. But that is a tale for another evening.    

— Michael Steinberg

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