Tone Poem Tuesday (Halloween edition)

It’s Halloween week, and if you don’t think classical music can do “scary”, well then…you’ve never really listened much. Here are a couple of works that put the darkness of the universe on full display. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both these pieces are by Russian composers. I’m always wary of nationalistic stereotypes, but there’s just something about Russians when it comes to brooding fatalism. I genuinely think they do that better than anyone else.

First up is Modest Mussorgsky. Mussorgsky lived an unusually tortured life as a composer, and when he died in 1881 at just 42 years old, he left behind great piles of manuscripts, his work in such disarray that definitive versions of his pieces have been the object of scholarly work ever since. The versions of his work that ushered his name into musical immortality came via the pen of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose “assistance” with preserving Mussorgsky’s work has come to be seen as almost outright tampering. David Dubal, in The Essential Canon of Classical Music, offers this summation of Mussorgsky:

Mussorgsky was severely self-destructive, and his early death was inevitable. His reliance on instinct was an aspect of his personality, as if technical knowledge would limit his search for “truth”. He was far more than an artist who merely lacked discipline: he was incapable of surviving for long in the real world of naked, shattering truth. Like Tolstoy, he was wracked by the violence and heartbreaking injustice inflicted on millions of Russian serfs. Unlike Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, and Borodin, he could not find refuge in Romantic nationalism. He saw strife and bitterness as few of his class did–he acknowledged and faced it. Nothing in Musorgsky’s art is personal; he dissolved his entire being into the agonized fate of the Russian people, and he saw no hope for the future.

Small wonder that a work so fundamentally terrifying as A Night on Bald Mountain sprang from his pen, then. It is a work of sadistic hedonism, a Bacchanalia of the profane and evil. A Night on Bald Mountain became famous via Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement/orchestration, and its most famous appearance in popular culture was as one of the selections in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, where it was paired with Schubert’s Ave Maria in closing the film’s program.

A different kind of Russian brooding comes from Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff yields to no one in brooding, a quality which would shine to wondrous effect in some of his greatest music.

Again, David Dubal:

During the war years [World War I], Rachmaninoff, always on the brink of depression, learned to control his black moods. To the poetess Marietta Shaginian, his chief confidante through these years, he wrote, “Here am I, spiritually sick…I am afraid of everything–mice, rats, beetles, oxen, murderers. I am frightened when a strong wind blows and howls…when I hear raindrops on the window pane; I am afraid of the darkness, etc. I don’t like old attics and I’m even willing to admit there are goblins around.”

Where A Night on Bald Mountain depicts a terrifying Witches’ Sabbath, with its demonic orgy, Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead depicts the long, slow, sad trip to the underworld, starting softly with the boat rocking against the current. Rachmaninoff uses a 5/8 time signature to great effect, using the not-quite-familiar 5-beat bar to suggest that there is something vaguely unfamiliar, something not-quite-right, about this slow trek across calm, black water. Through all this Rachmaninoff employs snatches of melody, including the Dies irae chant that haunted him throughout his life, that lead to some of the saddest sounding lyricism in his entire output. There is a section in the middle of this work that is as intensely lyrical as anything Rachmaninoff wrote, complete with the kind of ever-yearning-upward thing that Rachmaninoff was so good at. (If I ever write my Love Letter to Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, this will be a point to which I return frequently.) But here, when we reach the apex of that section a stormy section soon follows, and given the piece’s overall mood, it’s hard not to hear this as someone trying desperately to cling to life, only to be pulled back toward the inevitable long abyss.

This is not scary music in terms of Things That Bump In The Night, but it is unnerving in its depiction of the cold darkness that awaits everyone and how, in the end, all we will have is the slow rocking of that boat as it takes us to the Isle of the Dead.


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