“Beethoven’s Fifth!”
Michael Torke b. 1961
Michael Torke
b. 1961
Michael Torke
Bright Blue Music

Michael Torke’s music has been called some of the most optimistic, joyful and thoroughly uplifting music to appear in recent years. He has written works in virtually every genre, combining a restless rhythmic energy with melodic lyricism.

Torke graduated in composition and piano from the Eastman School of Music in 1984, and pursued further studies in composition at the Yale School of Music in 1984-85. He has a rare phenomenon called synesthesia, a benign neurological condition that causes people to automatically and unconsciously associate images from one of the senses to those of another. When he hears or thinks of music, he sees vivid colors or other images. As a result, many of his compositions have titles that include color names. His first orchestral work, Ecstatic Orange, was commissioned by ASCAP and the Meet the Composer program. It was premiered by Lukas Foss and the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1985.

Torke composed Bright Blue Music in 1985. The title, like many other Torke titles, is partially a product of his synesthesia, relating music to everyday experience and concrete images that come to him during the compositional process. Synesthesia is a benign neurological condition, not that uncommon in ordinary individuals; many people unconsciously associate colors with numbers, tones or odors, letters of the alphabet or days of the week.

The composer writes: “Inspired by Wittgenstein's idea that meaning is not in words themselves but in the grammar of words used, I conceived of a parallel in musical terms: harmonies in themselves do not contain any meaning, rather, musical meaning results only in the way harmonies are used… If the choice of harmony is arbitrary, why not then use tonic and dominant chords – the simplest, most direct, and – for me – the most pleasurable? Once this decision was made and put in the back of my mind, an unexpected freedom of expression followed…The feeling of working was exuberant; I would leave my outdoor studio, and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed a bright blue.

“That bright blue color contributed to the piece's title, but in conjunction with another personal association. The key of the piece, D-major… has been the color blue for me since I was five years old. Bright Blue Music continues the compositional development of my past two pieces, but does so with a newfound freedom and lyricism, and a new language: tonality.”

Bright Blue Music recalls the joie de vivre of a Johann Strauss waltz, a factor that may be related to Wittgenstein’s nationality. The piece opens with a little rhythmic motive Example 1 that Torke employs in various contexts throughout the piece. Example 2

Leonard Bernstein 1918-1990
Leonard Bernstein
1918-1990
Leonard Bernstein
Serenade for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion

All his life, Leonard Bernstein vacillated between the two sides of his musical personality, producing such popular musical fare as Candide, Fancy Free and West Side Story on the one hand, and the Mass, the three symphonies and the Serenade on the other. Composed in 1954 on a grant from the Koussevitzky Foundation, Bernstein’s Serenade could be called a five-movement violin concerto in all but name. According to the composer the inspiration came from a reading of Plato’s dialogue, Symposium. Bernstein wrote: “The music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet. The “relatedness” of the movements does not depend on common thematic material, but rather on a system whereby each movement evolves out of elements in the preceding one.”

For the benefit of those looking for literary allusions, Bernstein gave the following guideposts to the five movements, but one should not think of each movement as a musical portrait of the speaker nor a description of his spin on the topic.

“Phaedrus; Pausanias (Lento; Allegro). Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros... Pausanias continues by describing the duality of lover and beloved.” The movement opens with an intensely romantic solo for the violin, Example 1 taken up contrapuntally with the string sections in turn. The theme of the violin solo will reappear throughout the piece, although often fragmented – as a kind of "love" motto. It is an introduction to the dance-like Allegro that recasts the theme in a more playful vein. Example 2

“Aristophanes (Allegretto). Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but, instead, that of the bedtime story teller invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love.” The movement is actually a modified classical minuet and trio, delicate and lightly textured. Example 3 The whimsical Trio takes off from the first notes of the violin motto. Example 4

“Erixymachus (Presto). The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.” In this work, Bernstein uses percussion as a kind of exclamation point, a means of announcing a new section of music. This movement features the xylophone, Example 5 and the violin later starts off the little fugue. Example 6

“Agathon (Adagio). Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue. Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s power, charms and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.” This movement recalls the romanticism and the motto of the introduction. The violas playing the motto as the violin floats above it with a seemingly endless cantilena. Example 7

“Socrates; Alcibiades (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love... The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration.” The first part of the movement has a dark, melancholy cast. The writing is more chromatic in both orchestra and solo violin setting up the abrupt change in mood. Example 8 The Allegro is suffused with a jazzy energy, Example 9 almost a contest of wills between the orchestra and the romantic violin. Although the soloist is soon caught up in the spirited dance, he seems determined to steer the discussion back on course with brief phrases of the first movement theme. Example 10 Nevertheless, both the romantic soloist and the dancing orchestra retain the first few notes of the motto. Example 11 In the final moments of the piece, the whole orchestra transforms the violin’s statement, redefining and energizing it until it gets swept away in the festivities.
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

The four most clichéd notes in classical music were once the most revolutionary. For the first time a rhythm, rather than a melody, became the main subject of a symphonic movement – and not merely as a first theme to be stated and picked up again for a while in the development and recapitulation sections. Beethoven wove the rhythm into the entire fabric of the first movement, and subsequently into the rest of the Symphony. The motive first appears as a repeated demand, subsequently expanded into a genuine melody in the first theme. It recurs as a throbbing accompaniment in bass and timpani in the second theme, all the way to the final cadence of the exposition.

Such an original symphonic structure did not come easily, especially to a composer who lacked the ever-ready melodic genius of a Mozart, Bach or Haydn, who all produced copiously on demand. A collection of the composer’s sketchbooks bears witness to the lengthy and often painful gestation of some of his greatest music. The Fifth Symphony took four years to complete, between 1804 and 1808. But Beethoven also had to eat, and during those four years he also produced the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the three String Quartets Op. 59, the Mass in C and the Violin Concerto.

Although Beethoven had already been at work on what was to become the Fifth Symphony, he composed the Fourth in fairly short order in 1806 on commission from Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The Count eventually paid the 500 florins agreed upon for the work and in 1807 commissioned another symphony with a down payment of 200 florins. Beethoven notified Oppersdorff in March 1808 that the Fifth Symphony was ready and that he should send the remaining 300 florins. But the Count sent only another installment of 150 florins, and by November Beethoven, in one of his less than ethical moves, apparently felt justified in selling the score to the publisher Gottfried Härtel. Upon finally paying in full, Oppersdorff received a copy.

The Fifth Symphony was premiered at one of those monster public concerts common in the nineteenth century; on the program were premieres of the Sixth Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto, the aria "Ah! Perfido, the Choral Fantasia and several movements of the Mass in C. One can only imagine the bewilderment of the audience on their first encounter in a single evening with the "Pastoral" and the Fifth.

Because the Fifth Symphony is so familiar it is difficult to think of it as innovative, but it was not only the integration of the four-note rhythmic motif into the first movement that was new. It is the fact that this little rhythm becomes the motto that unifies the entire symphony. Example 1 In the first movement, the principal theme hammers away at the rhythm in almost every measure. Then, the second theme, which should provide a significant contrast, starts off with the motto in the solo horn, only afterwards becoming somewhat more gentle and legato – although that, too begins to ramp up the emotional tension as it continues. Example 2

The second movement, marked Andante con moto, involves its own kind of innovation. It is made up of two short juxtaposed, contrasting themes, the first in dotted rhythm, Example 3 the second a slow almost military theme in the brass. Beethoven produces from the two themes a double set of variations. And it should be noted that the second theme contains within it in augmentation the germinal four-note rhythm of the first movement. Example 4

After what has been called a "ghostly" opening of the scherzo, Beethoven takes up the motto again prominently in the horns, and it is this segment of the third movement that he chooses to repeat in the finale. Example 5

Symphony No. 5 has frequently been referred to as a struggle from darkness to light, but it is a commonplace that has palpable grounding in truth. Not only does the symphony begin in C minor and end in C major, but there is also the magnificent transition between the third and fourth movements, a kind of breaking through of sunlight clouds with violins stammering over throbbing timpani towards a cadence. Example 6 The eruption through to the triumphant finale paved the way for the symphonic writing of the future, including Beethoven's own Ninth, Example 7 Mendelssohn’s Third (The “Scottish”) and Brahms’s First.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017