I started writing this one and shoved it aside because I’m swamped with several things at the same time. That’s life in Toronto if you’re keeping up with the music or opera or theatre scene, let alone trying to see them all, as I sometimes attempt to do.
But writing in response to a performance is the easiest, passive rather than active. That’s the main reason I aim to write the night of the show, so that there’s no backlog of responses. Notice that I call it a “response”: as though it’s visceral & muscular, merely the twitching digits when electrodes are attached, fingers dancing on the keys, and not the conscious choice to write something. The brain doesn’t come into it. But –if you can excuse and even follow the plethora of parenthetical thoughts like side trips wandering away from the main track, the train of thought—when one is busy there must be more of a choice, what shows to see, what to miss.
I am coming back to something I started writing last weekend. It seems apt to come back to this today given that there was a surprising dusting of snow last night, interrupting the steady advance of spring. Hector Berlioz died on March 8th 1869, or in other words 150 years ago. There are lots of composer anniversaries, often the occasion for festivals or scholarly study. While this one might also trigger some activity—concerts conferences & book—its chief importance for me is simply that Berlioz is my favourite composer on most days. From time to time I will doubt it, and then revisit some of his music. While there are certainly many other composers who move me, particularly Debussy & Wagner, Puccini & Verdi, Mozart, Bach & Handel, and yes at times Tchaikovsky (Nutcracker! The solo piano music, and much more) or Saint-Saëns (that 2nd piano concerto) or even Percy Grainger..(?), it’s Berlioz who ultimately holds sway over my heart.
To commemorate the moment I looked at my bookshelf and when I saw the piano-vocal score of Damnation of Faust alongside his Requiem and the Berg sonata for piano
(the books are in alphabetical order after all… Carmen is on the other side), I impulsively pulled it out and started playing from the beginning. It felt right before I even remembered what the words are saying.
There’s a solo line on the piano, corresponding to a violin line, a melody that will wind its way through the orchestra, getting picked up by the tenor. It’s Faust alone with the orchestra (isn’t that a crazy thought? but if you’re a composer imagining, that’s how you’d picture it). And Faust is observing & thinking. That’s what the romantic hero in the sublime landscape will do, even if he sounds unhappy. While the tune is in major for the violins, Berlioz does that thing he sometimes does and fools us by changing the context even while using the very same motif, and so when Faust starts singing in the 9th bar (plus pickup) he seems to be singing a lament in F-sharp minor although of course it’s a D major key signature (F-sharp minor being the relative to A, which is the dominant to D). It’s so deliciously apt that he’s singing “Le vieil hiver a fait place au printemps”, or in other words, winter has given way to spring.
Friday March 8th (Berlioz’s day of passing), I wrote this: “Have you been outside today? I was breaking up ice, melting under the sun.” The sadness of that minor phrase matches the shift of mood, the seasonal affect disorder of February giving way to the sunny disposition we might feel, as the melancholy of winter is overwhelmed with the sensuousness of a warm sun and the smells of the ground as it comes back to life. You get up out of your winter cocoon and start moving outside, returning to life. Berlioz has all of that in the first pages of the score, an old man in the winter of his life wanting to be alive again, as the world renews itself & he watches & comments. The little tired line grows and swells like the feelings in your chest, breathing in the warm air.
I listened. I let myself be moved, thinking not so much of my pleasure & my decades-long affection for this music, but instead for a moment thinking of Berlioz. He wrote this, and I wonder what he was thinking. It doesn’t quite fit the generic pigeon-holes does it..!? In other words there’s much here that’s new, that still beckons to intrepid designers & directors.
I shared this to Facebook back on the 8th. Listen from the beginning, as you’ll hear exactly that same passage to start that I described, the sadness of winter give way to the joy of spring: and an observer who can’t quite manage to join in. I identify very strongly with this alienated observer.
I had thought I wanted to talk about some of my favourite pieces or aspects of the composer, the way I did with previous anniversaries of note (thinking of Debussy & Wagner), when I posted several times within a few days. Somehow this is different, not an intellectual exercise but something personal. Today, I have some fires to put out –figuratively speaking I assure you—so let me just say that I’ll stop here. I just wanted to post the thing I started last Friday, even if it feels like the beginning of something.
Or is it the fact that Spring hasn’t quite conquered Winter?
But lately I’ve been writing big long pieces, seeking to prolong my stay in the blogosphere, perhaps a bit like old Faust, hiding inside his head, avoiding real life. If I ever figure out a way to permanently stay there in the bloggy world, would that mean I stop writing?
Which reminds me of a joke.
- Pilot announces “we’ve lost power in engine #1. That will delay us for 90 minutes but we’re still safe with the other 2 engines.
- Pilot announces “we’ve lost power in engine #2. That delays us 3 hours: but we’re still safe with that last engine.
- Passenger pipes up “gee if we lose that other engine we’ll be up here all night”.