Saturday, May 23, 2015

Memento Mori

Listening to certain favorite pieces of music can call up strange and sudden intimations of mortality wrapped in a perfectly consonant sense of transcendence - all of which is, admittedly, temporary if a bit heady. One such piece is Jehan Alain's organ piece, the "Litanies," which comes out of the quiet with suddden bravura, high tones bordering on atonalities that lend a kind of awful immortality to its young composer, a sense that the listener may also share in such good fortune.

The Litanies is probably the most remarkable of Alain's not so many other organ compositions, mainly written in the 1930s when he was a young organist at the church of Saint-Nicholas de Maisons Lafitte in Paris. Alain was a regular prize winner at the Conservatoire de Paris, a composer of ethereal and dissonant "modernist" compositions - tight, structured, mostly meditative rather than exuberant - whose tonal qualities (not entirely "harmonies") are perfectly matched to the high, reedy tones of a French organ, an instrument which exchanges the grandeur of a German cathedral organ for refinement, a high madness and finesse which suggests immortality founded in spirit and irony rather than in forcefulness and overbearing strength. The Litanies seems to me the swelling exception to this, the intimation of death and transcendence.

Jehan Alain (1938)

" . . Alain was a skilled motorcyclist and became a dispatch rider in the  . . .French Army," Wikipedia records. "On 20 June 1940, he was assigned to reconnoitre German advance . . . and encountered a group of German soldiers at Le Petit-Puy. Coming around a curve, and hearing the approaching tread of the Germans, he abandoned his motorcycle and engaged the enemy troops with his carbine, killing 16 of them before being killed himself. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre . . . and was buried, by the Germans, with full military honours."  He was all of 29 years old, and a musician at that. It is not implausible that the mechanical sound of such a near and sudden approach of the rebarbative was sufficient to make him die for music.

The other bits of music that have something of the same effect - a kind of transcending of thought, an immediate sense of something supra-human which religion never seems quite able to illumine in an ironic soul - are Beethoven's symphonies, especially the Third, the "Eroica," (with its grand and awful 'marche funebre); the Seventh (with its even more g. and a. funeral march); and of course the choral Ninth which, with its depth, power and optimism, subverts our post-20th century judgment that (given what we've done to one another in the interim) such a sanguine view of humanity must have been naive.

The 'Eroica' was written as a tribute to Napoleon, a tribute which was rescinded when, in 1804 Napoleon declared himself "Emporer of the French," thereby becoming, according to the composer, "no more than a common mortal." As are we all. But perhaps, Beethoven seems to whisper and shout, mortals all, we can do better than where the last two centuries incline us.

After 11 Israeli athletes, in Munich for the 1972 Olympics, had been held hostage and then assassinated by Arab terrorists in the wake of Israel's six-day military assault on Arab territories, the Munich Philharmonic under Rudolph Kempe performed a memorial performance of the "Eroica" - less than three decades after the liberation of Hitler's concentration camps, a memorial to Jews performed freely and in great deference by Hitler's hometown orchestra.  If nothing can ever be said, say it with Beethoven.

Hostage takers, Munich 1972

 And then there is Max Bruch's violin concerto #1, Romanticism in its dark and driving quintessence, the violin wafting in just after the first dark bars of ominous strings, the solo persisting in fleeting and answering strains. A swallow chasing a wasp above a deep and uncompassed sea, the picture of any soul, today and tomorrow.

A lost happy soul

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