Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto (2005)
A short exploration of the first movement of Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto 'Concentric Paths'....
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‘In it’s dialectical nature, in its role as criticism, and in its seeking not to displace the classical masters but to join them, Brahms’s music has served as the most important model for composers of the past hundred years, challenged only by the influential avant-garde movements after the Second World War’ - J. Peter Burkholder. In a postmodern situation characterised by the dethroning of the avant-garde, to what extent can Burkholder’s assertion be seen to hold in the work of a currently successful composer like Thomas Adès? ID: 1257212 Composer, conductor, and pianist Thomas Adès is undoubtedly one of the world’s leading composers, and certainly the youngest to be held in such high regard. An interviewer wrote in 2008 that ‘while many contemporary composers note that getting a premiere is not as difficult as being asked back for subsequent performances […] much of Adès’s work has entered the repertoire’ (Wroe 2008), evidence for which has become even clearer in recent years. After retrospective festivals (such as Traced Overhead at the Barbican in 2007) and new international productions of his enormously popular 2004 opera The Tempest, in October 2014 Sadlers Wells presented Thomas Adès: See the Music, Hear the Dance. In this mixed programme of four dance works choreographed to established concert pieces by the composer, his works are treated as fixed entities ripe for and worthy of interdisciplinary interpretation. That by his early forties Adès has found so much of his music firmly “canonised” is testament to its popularity with both concert-going audiences and the contemporary music elite of critics and academics - a rare success that Adès has achieved by composing music that follows a model established Brahms, that which J. Peter Burkholder has termed the ‘museum piece’.
In ‘Museum Pieces’ (1983) and ‘Brahms and Twentieth Century Classical Music’ (1984), Burkholder traces the nineteenth century conversion of the concert hall into a museum, becoming a place for the performance of a fixed canon of masterworks where appreciating the music played was primarily ‘a learned rather than culturally native activity’ (Burkholder 84: 177). He cites Brahms as foremost among the first generation of composers to have to respond to an established historical repertory and compose for the concert hall museum by writing music that met the requirements of a ‘museum piece’:
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‘(1) it must visibly participate in the tradition of serious art music; (2) it must have lasting value, rewarding rehearings, study, and analysis, becoming loved as it becomes familiar; and (3) it must proclaim a distinctive musical personality, different enough from other works in the collection to justify its inclusion while not so radically different as to exclude it entirely’ (Burkholder 1984: 77)
The vast majority of Adès’s music also matches these requirements, though it is ironic that the first example Burkholder uses to demonstrate his point - the chaconne finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony - has been dismissed by Adès in his typically provocative fashion as ‘a terrible waste of space’ (Adès and Service 2012: 174). Nevertheless, Adès’s most recent orchestral work Totentanz (for mezzo-soprano, baritone and large orchestra and premiered at the 2013 BBC Proms) clearly corresponds in its similar adherence to the conventions of museum pieces. The work can be seen to situate itself with the mainstream classical repertory from its title alone, inviting comparison with famous ‘Death Dances’ from the repertory - most obviously Liszt’s own Totentanz (1859), but also Saint-Saën’s Danse Macabre (1874), and the second movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1900), to name but three. Despite this, Adès’s Totentanz possesses many distinctive features that have come to be recognised as typical of his musical personality; much of his music, particularly his larger-scale orchestral and stage works, operate at an expressive level of heightened, volatile drama sometimes verging on hysteria, characterised by extreme textural complexity and sudden stillness. In order to achieve such contrasts Adès is known for requiring great virtuosity of his players, with intricate rhythms often played at extreme tessituras, and a particular predilection for stratospherically high string harmonics and inventive use of percussion (Totentanz requires eight percussionists playing a vast array of instruments, including a selection of whistles, eighteen animal bones, and a sixty-inch Japanese Taiko drum). However, alongside these distinctively ‘Adésian' properties and other progressive musical features - not least its extended and often very dissonant post-tonal harmony - are conspicuous elements of more conventional ‘museum piece’ practice, so as to ensure its inclusion in the tradition. In keeping with its broad and historicallyinformed subject matter - Adès draws his libretto from a medieval German poem depicting all ranks
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of society from Pope to infant in turn being forced into a dance with death - Totentanz acknowledges its place in a lineage of classical music on the theme of death by conspicuously basing its main musical figure on the oft-quoted Dies Irae Latin hymn (ex. 1). Elsewhere the work
Ex. 1: Extract from Dies Irae and quotation in Totentanz b. 21
unmistakably hints at the music of composers from the canon; after the premiere critics pointed out features they felt were variously ‘Mahlerian’ (Telegraph), ‘Straussian’, and ‘Bergian’ (Guardian), and other moments, such as the arrival of the peasant heralded by dancing pastoral horn calls towards the end of the piece, are clear references to the conventions of Classical topoi. The result is that ‘it seems at once traditional and fresh, ancient and forward-looking’, and ‘its aspiration to the label “classic” is unmistakable’ (Burkholder 1984: 78). Although Burkholder was writing with reference to the finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, the description applies just as well to Totentanz.
It is then primarily the complexity of the orchestral writing, and its ‘web of allusions’ (Burkholder 1984, 80) to serious art music of the past that causes Totentanz to reward subsequent hearings, and ensures that it is worthy of study (although an in-depth analysis has yet to be published). Burkholder describes webs of allusions such as that which is demonstrated in Totentanz as being ‘the core of modern music’ (Burkholder 1984: 80), as established by Brahms in response to the concert hall museum. However, whilst for modern audiences Brahms can appeal to both the musically educated and the more casual listener, with the allusions acting as an extra layer of detail for those who can appreciate them, Burkholder argues that:
‘If to experience Brahms’s music fully one must know what Brahms knew about music, and if the same hold true for Schoenberg, then to experience Babbitt’s music - which cannot even be approached without an understanding of the music
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of the Schoenberg school - will be an impossibility for all but the very few. Here is where something has been lost […] with a few exceptions modern music has lost its ability to appeal to the naive listener’ (Burkholder 1984: 81)
Totentanz is just such an exception. In the music, amongst the allusions to Romantic composers and Classical topoi, are onomatopoeic references that echo the words being sung and help to orient the listener, such as the sound of tolling bells that introduces the Abbott, the use of clanking metallic percussion and snare drums to signal the Knight, and the irregular rhythmic clicking of a typewriter that underscores the music sung by the bureaucratic Mayor. With regard to appealing to the naive listener the most striking feature of all, however, is Adès’s sudden use of functional tonality for the work’s poignant and affecting conclusion, as an infant sings ‘O Death, how can I understand? I cannot walk, yet I must dance!’ to a plaintive melody underscored by warm alternating I-V chords, the switch from dissonance to consonance signalling a newfound expressive sincerity.
Many other appearances of conspicuous consonance and functional harmony can also be found elsewhere in Adès’s oeuvre. At the end of the second movement of his Violin Concerto (2005), after a protracted and heavily dissonant uphill struggle the solo violin stumbles upon and uncovers an oasis of major chordal harmonies, which sound all the more blissful after the preceding chaos. As Adès acknowledges, ‘there was a time thirty years ago when a C major chord was a shocking thing in the context of modern music. But now it all depends […] on context’ (Adès and Service 2012: 38). Adès’s willingness to move freely between extremes of dissonance and consonance for the purposes of expression - emphasising the qualities of one by establishing it in a discourse with its opposite and exploring everywhere in between - is just one example of his dialectical approach to composition. In addition to unambiguous elements of consonant harmony, Adès’s music is full of other features plucked from the past to jostle alongside more conventionally contemporary elements, particularly with respect to structure and form; whilst the large-scale orchestral work Asyla (1997) is a four-movement symphony in all but name, with a singular kind of third movement
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scherzo, Adès’s Piano Quintet from 2000 is in strict sonata form complete with a full repeat of the exposition. At the work’s German premiere in 2002 such a gesture was considered so provocatively archaic that ‘a palpable shock ran through the avantgardiste audience when Adès turned back 16 pages of score to begin the repeat’ (Fox 2004: 48). In more recent work, Adès’s piano concerto In Seven Days (2008) features theme and variation development and a fugal movement, while many have noted the orthodox structure of his second opera, The Tempest, with Christopher Fox commenting: ‘it looks like an opera and it behaves like an opera, offering a musical drama in which the traditional operatic virtues of musically delineated characterisation and musically satisfactory dramatic pacing are wonderfully sustained’ (Fox 2004: 53). Similarly, whilst he has written for a variety of unusual instruments, - particularly percussion - in orchestral contexts, Adès consistently favours writing for traditional ensembles like string quartets and orchestras, explaining simply that ‘the orchestra, as a basic palette, still has the most variety’ (Adès and Service 2012: 71). Given the enormous amount of detail present in his scores it would not seem surprising for Adès to wish to venture into electronic music, where the final product does not involve handing control over to performers. However, he has definite reservations; when asked if he could ever see himself writing electronic music, he says ‘never say never. But I doubt it’ (Adès and Service 2012: 99), elaborating that he doesn’t know how electronic music operates expressively compared to acoustic music - ‘it’s to do with the organic nature of somebody picking up an instrument and blowing or scraping it, and it makes a noise and it’s your work’ (Adès and Service 2012: 96).
Clearly, Adès does not subscribe to modernist or avant-garde notions of ‘progress for the sake of progress’, but rather is concerned primarily with making his music communicate as expressively and intelligibly as possible, and is happy to participate in whichever tradition he feels best facilitates that goal. It is in this respect that Adès’s approach differs somewhat from Brahms’s; whilst Brahms laboured under the great weight of the canon, worrying over his first symphony for fourteen years for fear of doing a disservice to the form and his predecessors, Adès is a typical postmodernist, displaying a cheerily flippant attitude towards his musical heritage as he rummages
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through it at will. Summed up by his comment that ‘it’s not just a pluralistic world we live in, it’s also one where times and eras no longer have to be put in a particular order… one can use any model and still be in the present’ (Wells 2012: 6), his postmodern outlook is apparent in another dialectic his music addresses - that of ‘high’ and ‘low’ musical genres, the free mixing of which helps his work’s ‘museum piece’ credentials by further cementing its distinctive musical personality. For example, within the symphonic structure and swirling, intricate soundworld of Asyla sits its third movement, the famous Ecstacio, a sudden blast of electronic dance music thrashed out on pounding bass drum and cumulative layers of syncopated chords, seemingly entirely at odds with the idiom not just of the rest of the work, but with serious art music of the late 1990s in general. Elsewhere, Adès’s first opera Powder Her Face (1995) caricatures early-twentieth music hall genres, the third movement of the Violin Concerto is suffused with jazz harmony, and prominent use of repeated melodic cells in America: A Prophecy (1999) and In Seven Days recall 1970s American minimalism. However, despite this plethora of contrasting styles, Dominic Wells warns against characterising Adès as a polystylist, which implies ‘the often-harsh juxtaposition of disparate musical styles, whereas Adés’s music generally avoids this extreme conflict. Rather than a polystylist, he is a stylistic pluralist, allowing his music to converse with whatever music he hears, be it ‘low’ or ‘high’ art, historical or contemporary’ (Wells 2012: 2). When speaking of ‘[Ades’s] music’ as opposed to the ‘music [Adès] hears’, Wells is referring to the composer’s distinctive musical personality not only in terms of the recurring features discussed earlier (textural complexity, extremes of pitch, etc.), but also to a specific musical signature that can be traced across at least ten of his works. Wells points out occurrences of this ‘5+2’ progression, consisting of a stable perfect fifth or fourth undermined by the introduction of a minor second, at the start of pieces ranging from 1992’s The Origin of the Harp to the Violin Concerto in 2005, arguing that while ‘allusions to earlier composers have been noted by journalists and musicologists, there has been scant mention of the composer to whom Adès refers most frequently of all: himself’ (Wells 2012: 7). This ‘self-reference’ makes clear another, even more significant dialectic at work in Adès music: that of the play between originality and emulation. Thus, a recent Adès work such as the Violin Concerto demonstrates three interrelated levels of dialectical interaction (eg. 2).
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Emulation ‘High Art’ Old Musical Style Traditional threemovement concerto form • Consonant harmony in the second movement. •
• • •
New Musical Style Dissonant harmony Virtuosic writing Complex textures
Originality • ‘5+2’ harmonic ‘Popular Art’ signature • Jazz harmony in third movement. Dance-like • rhythms in third movement.
Eg. 2: Interrelation of Old/New, High/Popular, and Emulation/Originality dialectics in Ades’s Violin Concerto (2005) Again Adès is following a model established by Brahms, whose music, despite a very different overall aesthetic, similarly engaged in multiple dialectics, ‘addressing not only the opposition of old and new musical styles and techniques, but also, even more importantly, the tension between emulation and originality […] This kind of dialectic within music approaches a species of criticism, as if Brahms were writing in his music a commentary on his own experience as a musician, or indeed, given his wide knowledge, a rumination on the entire previous tradition of music’ (Burkholder 1984: 79). This use of dialectics as a form of musical critique is also apparent in works by Adès, and it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that nowhere is it seen more clearly than in his piece Brahms (2001), a five minute work for baritone and orchestra. Something of a curiosity in the wider context of Adès’s oeuvre (it doesn’t even get a mention in his 2012 book of interviews with Tom Service, despite pages dedicated to discussion of Brahms), the piece is a setting of a tongue-in-cheek poem by Alfred Brendel, satirising Brahms’s unavoidable influence on modern music by depicting the composer as a ghost haunting the music room of a house and irritating its residents with his late-night piano playing. In ‘Thomas Adès and the Spectres of Brahms’ (2015) Edward Venn demonstrates, using the aptly analogised Derridean theory of ‘hauntology’, that in his setting of the poem Adès renders Brendel’s satire in purely musical terms, ironically forcing the ghost of Brahms to have a taste of his own proverbial medicine by writing a critical gloss of his music in the same way that Brahms did to the music of his own past, but with none of his signature
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reverence. By unsympathetically exaggerating Brahms’s compositional tics, such as consecutive descending thirds, rendering them absurd and mechanical, and hanging quotations from Brahms’s oeuvre in front of dissonant backgrounds so that they sound strange and uncanny, Adès creates an austere and alienating musical idiom that has much more in common with the music of the Second Viennese School than with Brahms himself. In inviting this comparison Adès inevitably alludes to Schoenberg, and specifically his influential characterisation of Brahms as a musical progressive. Thus the conflicting ghosts of both ‘Brahms the progressive’ and ‘Brahms the historicist’ are summoned into the work, and by being forced to face both forwards and backwards in history Brahms becomes unstuck in time, providing a compelling critique of Brahms’s multifaceted reputation and seemingly perpetual presence as a model for twentieth and twenty-first century composers. Furthermore, Adès manages to articulate this complex multilayered critique in Brahms within the confines of Brahms’s own model as interpreted by Burkholder: that for the modern audience his music can be appreciated by both the musically educated and the more casual listener. For the naive listener, the harshly dissonant and alienating musical idiom is expressively justified by the face value of the comical supernatural narrative unfolding in the text, with the layers of satire and critique adding ‘an extra layer of detail to the unfolding narrative for those able to ‘share that pleasure’’ (Venn 2015: 189).
In ‘Aimez-vous Brahms? Reflections on Modernism’, Peter Gay argues that Brahms can be viewed as a compound, a combination of seemingly contradictory elements without a contradiction: ‘Brahms was both a traditionalist and an innovator, both a conservative and a radical, both a craftsman and a creator; he was an emotional intellectual, without crippling conflicts, without paradox’ (Gay 1977: 34-35). In his own postmodern context, Adès has achieved the same status by decisively rejecting the air of crisis, the self-conscious historicising and the rigid commitment to notions of progress that characterised post-war avant-garde movements and much subsequent art music of the twentieth century, favouring instead a broader, freely dialectical approach, managing to critique and innovate without alienating his audience in the concert hall museum. Thus Burkholder’s assertion that ‘Brahm’s music has served as the most important model for composers
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of the past hundred years’ (Burkholder 1984: 80) holds remarkably well when applied to the work of Thomas Adès, whose compositional method, comprising a dialectical approach, use of music as critique, and association with the composers of the past, is substantially inherited from Brahms., and neatly summed up by Adès’s proclamation that ‘we’re in a time of total freefall. Not even freefall - zero gravity’ (Adès and Service 2012: 45).
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Bibliography Adès, T. and Service, T. (2012) Thomas Adès: Full of Noises. Conversations with Tom Service. Faber and Faber. Burkholder, J.P. (1984) Brahms and Twentieth Century Classical Music. 19th-Century Music, 8 (1): 75-83. Burkholder, J.P. (1983) Museum Pieces: The Historicist Mainstream in Music of the Last Hundred Years. The Journal of Musicology, 2 (2): 115-134. Clements, A. (2013) Prom 8: BBCSO/Adès - review. [Online]. Available from: http:// www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jul/18/prom-8-bbcso-ades-review [Accessed 01/10 2015]. Fox, C. (2004) Tempestous Times: The Recent Music of Thomas Adés. The Musical Times, 145 (1888): 41-56. Gay, P. (1977) Aimez-vous Brahms? Reflections on Modernism. Salmagundi, (36): 16-35. Goehr, A. (1998) "Brahms's Aktualität" In Finding the Key Faber and Faber. pp. 175-188. Hewett, I. (2013) Proms 2013: Thomas Adès, review. [Online]. Available from: http:// www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/proms/10187948/Proms-2013-Thomas-Ades-review.html [Accessed 01/10 2015]. Roeder, J. (2006) Co-operating Continuities in the Music of Thomas Adès. Music Analysis, 25 (1-2): 121-154. Schoenberg, A. (1975) "Brahms the Progressive" In Stein, L. (ed.) Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg University of California Press. pp. 398-441. Venn, E. (2015) Thomas Adès and the Spectres of Brahms. Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 140 (1): 163-212. Wells, D. (2012) Plural Styles, Personal Style: The Music of Thomas Adès. Tempo, 66 (260): 2-14. Wroe, N. (2008) Adès on Adès: Interview by Nicholas Wroe. [Online]. Available from: http:// www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jul/05/saturdayreviewsfeatres.guardianreview15 [Accessed 01/10 2015].