The great classical tunes are a source of unending wonder
I have recently been listening to and watching on TV a video recording of the greatest American musician/composer, Leonard Bernstein. In it he reflected about the act of composition: ‘One is never so active as when one is doing nothing, when one is alone. That’s when all one’s thoughts rise to the surface.’ He went on to say, ‘One does one’s best work in a trance-like state between the conscious and unconscious’. About composing music he said, ‘One must write it down quickly or it is lost. One can also improvise at the piano, to suggest sounds, one note connecting to another note, to suddenly become an idea, and one is filled with gratitude.’
Richard Strauss went a little further and commented, in so many words, that the inspiration of a melodic idea was very, very special and precious and could never be taken for granted. Tchaikovsky, the greatest melodist of all, told how he would wake up in the middle of the night with a tune in his head, complete with harmony and instrumentation, and have to get up and write it down or it would be gone in the morning.
Bernstein went on to say unequivocally, ‘I believe in tonality. It is something which is at the heart of what I do as a composer.’ He also continued by inferring that he believed that the musical, which was derived from opera, had all but taken opera’s place in American music, and certainly West Side Story and Candide nearly convince one that this is so. Yet music always confounds any such pronouncements. John Adams - undoubtedly the greatest American composer today - has sampled and rejected minimalism and atonalism and returned to singable melodic lines. His masterpiece, Nixon in China, may be an unlikely subject for an opera, but it is triumphantly successful.
When I was in my teens I went to a music appreciation class in the charge of a Mr Connolly, whom I shall never forget. He taught me a great deal and introduced me to many composers, including Vaughan Williams and his wonderfully evocative London Symphony. (I even bought the Stainer and Bell miniature score and discovered to my surprise that it didn’t agree with the recording, as VW had since revised it!). But alas, in general Mr Connolly’s musical horizons didn’t stretch much further than the German classics, although there were honourable exceptions. So the class asked him to talk about a Tchaikovsky symphony, and very reluctantly he agreed. I loaned him the Koussevitzky recording of No 4, which was on nine 78 rpm sides, with the delightful Waltz from the Serenade for Strings as a filler on side 10. He returned three weeks later and said ‘Ivan March has kindly loaned me this Tchaikovsky recording, but I cannot take it seriously as a symphony, except as a group of fine tunes’ and he then just played us the Waltz on the last side. He was right about the tunes, but little else.
Such a misguided view of one of the greatest of all composers was generally prevalent, and regularly expressed by professional critics in the pre-war years. But in the April 2011 issue of Gramophone, John Warrack, a very distinguished writer on Russian music, spoke of the work in glowing terms, commenting how ‘each of the themes returns in Tchaikovsky’s extraordinarily original structure’.
It is a work which has much to say to us. In the composer’s words, it is dominated by fate, ‘the inevitable force, which checks our aspirations towards happiness e’r they reach their goal. It is the sword of Damocles which hangs perpetually over our heads.’ What a basis for a major musical statement!
Yet what about the melodies themselves? Have you ever thought about how they are achieved? What is a tune but a string of notes (usually in Tchaikovsky’s music a simple scale, but which lights up with its underlying inspirational harmony). Of course it doesn’t always need the support of harmony – there are plenty of simple early examples, from ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’ onwards.
But let us take just one of Tchaikovsky’s inspirations, the ‘Panorama’ from The Sleeping Beauty. It’s a curving melodic scale that falls and rises over a rocking bass, which makes it totally magical (it brings tears to my eyes if it is beautifully played). But a sequence like this can’t simply appear - it has to be conceived and written down by an inspired musician who seldom guesses where his inspiration comes from.
I can’t even begin to provide a memorable tune myself, and those written by others are a source of unending wonder and gratitude to me. Composers who can’t or won’t write tunes have no hope of the survival of their music, and sadly there is much music that is barren in its ‘melodic’ content, already written and being written in our century. Yet I have hope now that some contemporary composers have realised this too, and are turning firmly away from atonalism and discordant groups of notes and chords, which entirely fail to appeal to the listener. If there is to be a future for ‘classical’ music, as Bernstein pointed out, it must have a diatonic framework.
Long-term Gramophone critic Ivan March began his musical career as a French horn player, performing professionally for the BBC and travelling with the Carl Rosa and D'Oyly Carte opera companies. He is a well-known lecturer, journalist and personality in the world of recorded music.