Friday, February 06, 2009

Erwartung*: Expectancy is a Psychologic Drama and a Convergence of Persons

Dear Francis Schaeffer, Arnold Schoenberg (Schönberg), and Jessye Norman,

I suppose you are all wondering, "Why is she writing to all three of us at once?" And well you should be.

When I was young, Francis, you were my first teacher of things philosophical. Wikipedia says that your ideas sparked the rise of the Christian Right. That may be true in one sense, but it is very off-track in another sense. Your thinking was foundational for many of us who had been raised in the embrace of a Christian religious fundamentalism. The magic of 'Francis Schaeffer,' for many of us, was that you pulled back the curtain on philosophical thought. You said, "Think!" to those of us who were ready to do so. The key here, is that you encouraged intelligent Christians to maintain spiritual belief while continuing to think, the two things not being mutually exclusive. And so, under your tutelage, I began hearing of philosophers and artists--in both positive and negative terms--that I had never heard of before. You, in fact, did not speak particularly kindly of Arnold. Yet it was you who first introduced me to the music of Schoenberg. And for that I am grateful.

In the book, How Should We Then Live? you said, "Schoenberg totally rejected the past tradition in music and invented the '12-tone row.' This was 'modern' in that there was perpetual variation with no resolution." And you are right, exactly right. However, I think you were wrong to assume that Arnold's exploration into 12-tone expression was the "death of tonality." It was just music without the use of tonality. That is different, don't you think?

And it was from a series you did on modern music that I first actually heard Arnold's music performed. (I pirated a cassette tape.) It was not Erwartung. Perhaps it was Pierrot Lunaire. Nonetheless, thanks for the introduction.

But Jessye, it was you who introduced me to Erwartung. You, with your magnificent stage presence, first rushed into my hearing and sight, and did the "howdy do's" for Expectancy as they say in our language here in the US. I was living in West Virginia at the time. The Metropolitan Opera sent out it's weekly Texaco radio broadcasts, but in 1989, they also did a TV production of two short operas, Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, and Arnold's Erwartung. In the 29 minutes of this one woman opera, I can't say that I came to enjoy the music, but I will say I was dumbfounded by it and that I was made ready to hear more.

Erwartung is a psychological drama whose musical expression more adequately portrays our moments of personal psychological angst than anything previously composed. Schoenberg entered a dark corner of the Western musical house that had never been properly explored before armed only with 12 tones and a dark drama. He left behind any remnant of the harmonic resolution which certainly does not exist in the mental anguish of a psyche in turmoil.

With touches of sprechstimme, and Stravinskyesque meteoric meter, and, yes, Francis, a very modern interpretation of music, this piece reveals a part of the human soul that had not been expressed in quite this way before. And it is an expression that parallels my own human experience. In that, no matter the isolation of this presentation, I am left, less alone, more understood, and more understanding.

It is Erwartung that brings the three of you together in my mind, and gratefully so, for the three of you have given me great gifts, and unexpectedly.


*Note: This monodrama investigates the mind of a woman entering a forest where we believe she is going to meet her beloved. Some of the words that it uses are dread, horror, louring, gloom, shadows. She trips over a tree-trunk and immediately assumes that it is his body. This is our first clue that we are with someone who is tortured, perhaps by more than a lonely path through a dark wood. The bright moon becomes pallid, then red. The drama ends with musings that include, "It is morning. . . Light will come for everyone but me, alone in my darkness?"


cadh 8 said...

Wow, great post. It is interesting how music can capture something that is hard to describe in words. But music is an emotional experience and can mirror the feeling we have.
I remember Bluebeard so clearly from watching it while growing up. Such a strange thing for children to watch, but we did with you. We would always groan when the Texaco broadcasts started...the sounds of the audience gathering and talking, Gil Wexler prepping the sound....he did the sound, right? But it became a ritual. It is amazing what those rituals mean in the life of a child. Like the walls in a building, they give order and purpose and guidance. I am thankful for the rituals you put in my life.
And getting back to the point of your post. Music without order is like a child with no rituals. It is not safe, it is wild and unpredictable, it can be dangerous or disturbing. But that is how life is for all of us some of the time and for some of us all of the time.
Exploring these ideas musically is not wrong; it is important to do. As you said, not death of tonality, just "other" than tonality. Liking it...well that is a bit harder. :)

brd said...

Gil Wexler! Not sound. Lighting! Oh and how important that is to opera. Even in the 45 second clip here.

I feel a letter coming on for Gil!!!!

brd said...

Cadh8, it is amazing to me that: 1. I forced you to watch Bluebeard's Castle, and 2. That you remember it clearly. How very strange it is. If it makes you feel any better, and I'm sure you couldn't remember this. . . your first TV opera was Cenerentola (Cinderella) by Rossini. You were probably about 1 year old. The sextet from this opera is one of my favs!