CDs: Part and Elgar

Alina (Spiegel im Spiegel, Für Alina, Spiegel im Spiegel, Für Alina, Spiegel im Spiegel), by Arvo Pärt

A strange little CD; it’s a CD seemingly intended to be a CD – rather than other CDs, which are only recordings of music intended for other formats. True, neither of these two Pärt pieces were designed originally for this presentation, but the CD as a whole is presented as, as it were, a single piece of music in a rondo form. The repetitions are not simply reproductions of the same recordings, but were extracted from countless hours of recorded repetition of these pieces. To be honest, my ear is too blunt to really appreciate the slight differences.

Both pieces are from the late 1970s, and are in the tintinnabular style – Für Alina in particular was one of the first attempts at tintinnabulation, while the more famous Spiegel im Spiegel is from a few years later. To be honest, the CD displays both the good and the bad of tintinnabuli: both pieces, particularly Spiegel im Spiegel, are beautiful and serene; yet after an hour of beautiful white light and serene stillness, one does come to wish for a little ugly motion, a little ungainly change, some saving flaw to draw the attention. Spiegel im Spiegel itself is most often used, and probably best used, for a minute or two of beauty or tearfulness, a momentary pause in the action of some film or TV show – and this is very proper, because it is the sort of music that comes closest to a sort of Schopenhauerian clarity-through-the-veil-of-Maya, a momentary ecstasy of nothingness that can be joyous or painful or even both at once. When I listen to the whole of Spiegel im Spiegel, however, I fear I lack the mystical training necessary to fully appreciate it: sometimes it’s difficult with a composer like Pärt who has his mystical personal union with God going on – it feels like overhearing someone else’s conversation. When you put three renditions of Spiegel im Spiegel alongside two renditions of Für Alina… well, I’m very impressed that the result never becomes annoying. Most music, after an hour of it without change or variation I’d be wanting to smash things, but Pärt really does achieve something beautiful in his simplicity. Unfortunately, stale beauty fades into a background pleasantry that never angers but fails to keep the attention. It becomes easy listening; it becomes good music, fantastic music, to play in a lift.

It’s a good CD, for what it is. In fact I’ll go further: it’s a brilliant CD for what it is. Anyone who wants to explore how minimalism can be beautiful, or who is in to all those ‘relaxing classics’ compilations, and maybe anyone who wants a mystical spiritual form of modernism, those people should all buy this CD. I’m glad I own it, there are always times when something like this is good to have around.

But… I remained unpassionate about it.


Symphony No. 2 in E-flat major, by Elgar

Sorry… I don’t get it. Don’t understand it. There are moments here and there that sound like Elgar, confident and melodious and distinctive… but for the most part it’s a whole lot of whistling this and clashing that. Although apparently parallels have been drawn with Brahms, Mahler and Wagner (three composers I also am not greatly fond of), the piece seems very modern to me: slightly unusual time signatures, hemiolas, offbeat accompaniment, tonal ambiguity, reliance on the subdominant rather than the dominant, whole-tone scales…

It’s certainly not just modernist showing-off, though. Elgar was passionate about the work, which he said displayed the whole of his soul. I’m afraid I can’t interpret it, however.

It’s a strange thing about classical music – well, music in general, although most pop music is so similar as a whole that it’s not encountered much in that area – that there is an immense gulf between understanding a piece of music and not understanding it. You can hear the same notes, but the experience is utterly different – exactly like hearing the same words in the same language, depending on whether or not it is a language you understand. It’s an experience I’ve only otherwise had in reading poetry, most of which I admit I just don’t get.

I’m somewhat relieved, on looking this up, that I’m not alone when it comes to this symphony. Two newspaper reviews of the time I would largely find myself in agreement with:

“Elgar’s original charm and his power of surprising us into wonder have diminished rather than grown as his craftsmanship and subtlety of fantastic variation have increased … we can hardly say that the work contains any melody in the full sense of the word. Neither can we say with confidence that it quite vanquishes the impression of coldness and hardness.” (Manchester Guardian)

“One cannot listen to even the most eloquent pleading for nearly an hour without fatigue, and that was the first impression this music made – of restless, unpitying earnestness…not only is no concession made to the sensuously pleasing, but little regard is paid to the psychological need for contrast, for relief. It is a devotee exhorting a congregation assumed also to be devotees.” (The Times)

It wasn’t without its fans at the time, of course. My liner notes suggest that it has become more popular than his more populist 1st, over time – I wonder whether that is simply a reflection of the shrinking of the interested market, the falling away of the general public from symphony-listening in general, leaving only the ‘experts’. In any case, it’s not a symphony that is widely known by the public today, and I’m struggling to lament that fact.

One thought on “CDs: Part and Elgar

  1. I used to ponder about the gulf between understanding a work and not understanding it, but that has kind of gone away the more that I have worked on my art to be replaced by another conundrum.
    For example, when I create some new work it needs to lie partly in the zone of what is known, and partly outside. If it lies fully outside then no one has any key to understanding it – it is just random data until someone builds a bridge to it. We only ‘know’ a fairly finite number of things, but out there is an infinity of things, and without the knowing then what we make is just chaos.
    On the other hand, if what I create lies fully in the zone of known, it lacks creativity – it is just yet one more kitchen cupboard door in a world full of them. It might be pretty, beautiful even, but it is just another reshuffle of what we already know, something we can find a craftsman to produce based on a set of standardized design principles.
    However, to be something worthwhile, what we produce should lie partly in the unknown – it should contain the risk of the unknown.
    The second issue concerns that of the bridge we are building into the unknown – on what shores does it stand? In reality, we all build our own bridges, but we build them by copying the bridges other people have built. Therefore our understanding is largely dependent on our experience, but there is no measure of quality that says one set of experience is any better or worse than any other. We could, in fact, meet someone from the Amazonian rainforest who values a piece of music as highly as we do, but based on an experience quite alien to our own.
    What, then, is understanding?
    When I exhibit my pictures, it is fascinating to listen to other people’s interpretations, because you can see the differences in experience in their choice of words.

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