At a recent concert in Frederick, MD I decided to experiment with the importance of sharing the story of a piece with the audience. We are living in an era where we need to be told what to listen for and what to expect. We cannot decide that for ourselves. Furthermore, this is an age where knowing which coffee Beethoven was drinking while he wrote his late string quartets is of highest importance. It will help us "understand" these pieces. Perhaps the better question here is what was he smoking...
Program notes these days are full of dry trivia points as well as anecdotes and stories about the pieces, most of which are superfluous. What's entirely missing are the tools given to the listener so he can make an internal dialogue with the music - one soul to another.
One of the pieces in my program was from Maurice Ravel's stupendous cycle called "Miroirs" (Reflections). The story, which I told the audience, had one major (or minor) problem, which I was wondering if someone would address, including the present reader of this blog.
This extraordinary tone poem is the impressionistic realization of the famous Goethe song "Erlkönig" - the devastating story of a young boy who is riding with his father on a horse through a dark forest. The boy cries for help when he sees the evil spirit of the Erlkönig. The latter tries to seduce the boy and ultimately steal his soul.
In Ravel's hands this frightening poem turns into a sensuous impressionistic tapestry - a mother is putting her little boy to sleep. She is singing to him the sweetest, most relaxing Lullaby. The boy who is afraid of bad dreams tells the mother of a demon that comes to him in the dream and asks him to follow. The little boy is filled with fear that if he follows he shall never return.
The music caresses the story - it carries it through the boy's emotional upheavals while the mother is sitting by his bedside singing. The sweet dream gradually becomes dark and menacing. The music changes its color. I posed a question to the audience - "Was the boy taken by the demon at the end of this eight minute piece, or would he wake up?"
I played through the piece and received a very warm applause mixed with appreciation. After all, this somewhat modern composition could not have been "understood" had I not mentioned the story. Most of the audience also participated in the questionnaire and said that in their opinion the boy would wake up.
Wonderful! All is working according to my plan! Well, it is more according to the late Leonard Bernstein's plan that did a similar thing in one of his legendary Young People's Concerts.
I then revealed to the audience the major problem (or minor) that my story had: It was definitely NOT Ravel's story! Actually, I can guarantee it had absolutely nothing to do with what Ravel was thinking. Ravel gave this piece a name: "A boat on the Ocean".
Now, was I wrong? Everyone followed the music. They all were so happy. The music certainly supported my made-up story.
Ravel's name is definitely the right one for the piece, but I don't think I was wrong with my story. It worked.
Most pieces do not have names by the composer, simply a number - Sonata number 1, 2, 3 or Symphony no. 4, 5, 6...
In such cases one can really let his imagination soar and come up with what might even seem absurd. In this particular piece by Ravel the given name should not "explain" the piece, but rather open the mind to the infinite possibilities of one's individual dialogue with this beautiful music. Perhaps next time I will follow along with a story about another demon... that of "Loreley" the beautiful water-nymph who sing to the men so they will follow her into the deep ocean.
I will sing to my audience...