Monday, March 30, 2009

Every Thing That Lives Is Holy

It's "Music Monday" at Fosco Lives! Please enjoy at a responsible volume.

Fosco hasn't yet really talked much about classical music in this feature. Until today.

Thanks to Alex Ross's excellent music blog, Fosco recently learned that the new, improved Boston Symphony Orchestra (under the new direction of James Levine) offers a number of recent recordings for download on their website. The prices are surprisingly reasonable--cheaper than on iTunes, actually.

A couple weeks ago, Fosco downloaded the BSO's disc of William Bolcom works, including his Eighth Symphony and Lyric Concerto for flute. Bolcom is a contemporary American composer who teaches at the University of Michigan. For Fosco, Bolcom runs hot and cold: some of his works are thrilling, but some don't quite hit Fosco's sweet spot. He is particularly good at writing snappy songs, as Fosco learned several years ago when he attended the premiere of Bolcom's opera A Wedding at the Chicago Lyric Opera. As Fosco recalls, there was an amazingly charming song about the city of Tallahassee.

Bolcom's Eighth Symphony is about as current as recorded music gets, having been premiered by the BSO in 2008. It's a choral symphony, based on poems by the visionary (and bizarre) William Blake. Each of the four movements of Bolcom's symphony is based on a different prophetic text of Blake's, including excerpts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and America a Prophecy.

The symphony is pretty remarkable, if uneven. As John Rockwell notes, the symphony is

gigantic and impressive, but to my ears angular and empty.
I think this is a pretty accurate description, particularly of the first movement. The second movement, which narrates a rape, is absolutely terrifying--but not really in a good way. The approximate pitches in the first spoken lines do most of the atmospheric work here. You could probably play parts of this movement in a haunted house.

The third movement, however, is where things start to get interesting. The movement opens with a gorgeous tenor line, from Blake:
This theme calls me in sleep night after night, & ev’ry morn
Awakes me at sun-rise, then I see the Saviour over me
Spreading his beams of love, & dictating the words of this mild song.
Different combinations of the chorus then take up the Saviour's song. The orchestral line is slow and sinuous.

And then we have the fourth movement. It begins with a twelve-tone theme in the strings; however, there is a frisson of excitement in the music. Something big is going to happen--and soon. The text is A Song of Liberty, a story of destruction of nations as a prelude to a new world. After about eight minutes, the movement reaches the height of its drama, and then something strange happens. As the chorus sings the final line of Blake's text, "For every thing that lives is Holy," we find ourselves in the musical equivalent of daybreak. As Bernard Holland notes in the Times:
If the universal calamities of his first three movements keep our attention, “A Song of Liberty” at the end does something more. With “For every thing that lives is Holy” as the text, rising scales and rich counterpoint in the chorus part create a deeply affirmative ending. Loud though it is, its loudness has substance. I was very moved by it.
I agree with Holland. As the chorus repeats the line ascending, accompanied by the brass, I feel like this heavy, powerful beast of a symphony is taking flight. With every repetition the music becomes more grand and the message more insistent, until we are left with nothing but the sheen of brass and the thrum of timpani. It's a heck of an ending, both poetically and musically, and it makes this symphony a welcome addition to the repertoire.

You may enjoy the poetry of William Blake:

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Jeremy said...

Have you seen the Blake Archive? It has many of the variants of Blake's hand-printed engravings.

(Not to discourage your readers from buying either or both of the books you suggest. I recommend especially the Complete Illuminated Books.)

Thanks for alerting me to Bolcom's symphony; I used to like his music quite a lot but haven't listened in a long time.

Jill said...

Great post...very insightful.