Musical manifestations of love and desire:
Music from the radiant to the ribald in works that exalt and glorify the life
force that is desire
by Thomas May
Desire is the basic current of the life energy. It's the vital force charging through us that not only underscores the intensity of feeling alive but prompts us to seek beyond ourselves for connection and meaning. And there's a notable philosophical tradition that sees music as the most immediate artistic conduit of desire.
But if desire has been a constant throughout human evolution, the issue of how it is channeled entails cultural values that have changed and adapted over time. Nowhere is that mutability more dynamically manifested than in the very idea of love as we most typically tend to think of it: the romantic concept of passionate love, that is, between two "soul mates," in which sexual, emotional, and spiritual desire become fused together. It's the idea, after all, that's the lifeblood of Hollywood and Hallmark alike.
In his still-provocative classic from 1940, Love in the Western World, the Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont argues that however "natural" it now seems to us, this idea of romantic love was a revolutionary invention of the High Middle Ages. It incorporated pagan and heretical influences, as seen in the 12th-century recasting of the Tristan and Isolde legend. This period of tremendous ferment became domesticated into the cult of courtly love, but it also inspired the creation of the bawdy verse that would make its way into the collection later known as the Carmina Burana.
This evening's program presents love in manifold guises and contexts as the shape we try to give to desire. Alongside the Western notion of romantic love - indeed in some ways helping to crystallize it - are other wisdom traditions such as Platonic philosophy and Christian, Sufi, and Kabbalistic mysticism, which perceive desire as a gateway to ecstatic union with the transcendent Cliff Eidelman's rapturous setting of passages from the "Song of Songs" touches on both the romantic and the mystical. Meanwhile, Carl Orff’s scenic cantata based on the Carmina Burana offers a Rabelaisian carnival of earthly delights that rarely fails to bring down the house.
Wedding in the Night Garden
The impulse to song-the intensified expression of the human voice- is the most elemental analogue in a musical sense for desire. That's why we never grow tired of love songs. After all, they are overwhelmingly represented in our popular music, and the hunger for them seems never to be satiated. Love songs are also firmly nested within the most "abstract" works of the classical repertoire, even where the singing is done by instruments alone. One famous example is the "Adagietto" of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, now recognized as a love letter to Alma, the young woman he had recently married.
Los Angeles native Cliff Eidelman contributes to this tradition of transforming the personal into a vehicle for the universal with Wedding in the Night Garden, his paean to the uplifting power of love. Eidelman wrote the piece in 2000 as a wedding gift for his wife Claire. The initial seeds for the piece centered around the human voice singing a melody that had no words. Eidelman then immersed himself in a number of Romantic poets but didn't find the ideal text he was searching for until the Biblical poetry of Solomon's "Song of Songs" riveted his attention. There he recognized a complement to his musical depiction of "one soul trying to connect with the other in a profound, elevated way." Eidelman chose just a few verses, here given a new context by his music.
As a prolific composer of film scores, Eidelman has worked with epic orchestral canvases, but Wedding in the Night Garden demonstrates his gift for conveying intimacy. He originally scored the piece for mezzo and chamber string orchestra. The revised version performed tonight gains a dimension of radiance with its added choral parts, which echo and cushion the soloist's reflections.
The work is divided into two larger sections - both framed by a luminous E major - beginning with a sense of the mysterious yearning of love and concluding with its affirmation. Eidelman describes the sound of the mezzo he had in mind as "like a voice that has no body but is in the wind that flows through the night garden." Note how he revels in the soloist's rich lowest range, used to great effect in the expectant opening against the resonant layering of the chorale. It serves as a counterweight to her climactic ascent during the moment of awakening that signals love's triumph.
Carl Orff: Carmina Burana
Carl Orff commenced his grand ode to desire's sway with an epiphany that was at once visual and literary. It was an encounter in 1935 at a used bookstore where he chanced upon the miscellaneous anthology of medieval poems known as the Carmina Burana. Orff recounted how he was at once taken with the words as well as the famous illustration of "The Wheel of Fortune" in the edition he thumbed through.
Orff was already widely celebrated as a humanist educator who touted the idea of universally innate musical ability. He believed it was best cultivated as part of a holistic program incorporating gymnastics and dance. Orff conceived his own composition in the mould of ancient Greek theater as a project to join the performing arts into a unified spectacle. Writing in a fit of white-hot inspiration, he soon produced his "scenic cantata," which was premiered in 1937. Orff imagined full scenic complements for his score in the form of backdrops, costumes, lighting, and dance. Even when presented, as it usually is, in a concert setting, Carmina Burana particularly benefits from the feedback of live performance.
The work exhibits an uncanny indestructibility, having somehow survived countless recyclings in the scores of B horror films. Much more seriously, it has with stood the guilt-by-association tainting it during the Nazi era. True, Orff was essentially apolitical and Carmina Burana originally raised hackles for its "licentious" sexuality (made graphic in the music - listen carefully for the male and female orgasms in Nos. 22 and 23). But the work eventually became a favorite of Third Reich officials. Still, as Richard Taruskin notes in his brilliant new Oxford History of Western Music, "if Bach and Beethoven could not prevent Nazi barbarity it is hard to claim that Orff could have inspired it"
Orff's musical strategy is to use a large orchestra with an expanded percussion section-all deployed to add color and create large but simple blocks of sound that reinforce the mostly choral vocal parts (the subtitle in fact refers to the piece as songs "accompanied by instruments"). The musical focus lies in a magnification of striking rhythms and percussion effects and almost ritually repetitive melodies.
It is interesting to consider Orff here as a forerunner of Minimalism, radically stripping away rhetorical complexity to reconnect with music's incantatory, pristine magical power. The original image of Fortune's Wheel that early inspired Orff becomes an organizing principle in the way he selects and groups his texts. Their source is a motley collection of poems from the medieval goliards (and/or their educated imitators). These were essentially the wandering hippies of the era who dropped out and indulged in profane lyrics with a satirical, anti-clerical, and frequently obscene bent. The goliardic poems, firmly anchored in the id, make a stark contrast to the lofty tone of the troubadours and the emerging cult of romantic love.
But the chaotic urges of that id become oriented around the figure of Fortune, who embraces the ebb and flow of energy in its positive and negative states. Carmina Burana itself is framed as a vast circle, ending with the chorus which begins the piece as if to signal the eternal return of the cycle of life.
Orff reinforces the rotations of the wheel - a basic emblem itself of desire - through his stanzaic repetitions of melodic material, evoking a sense of pre-Christian, pagan wisdom. The wheel is echoed in the poems' recurring images of the cycle of seasons, the luck of gambling, the Feast of Fools-style role reversals, the swan turning on its spit, and - in perhaps the musically most enchanting sections - the emotional ups and downs of sexual passion.
By the time the image of Fortune returns to conclude the cycle, we sense how knowingly Orff has balanced the score's vigorous exuberance with introspective calms, leading us to an understanding of pleasure and pain as opposites of the same coin.