Visions of the Beyond

Classic Arts Features   Visions of the Beyond
Beginning this month, the Philharmonic will explore music's unique ability to penetrate the ineffable in its Visions of the Beyond Festival. Critic and writer Paul Griffiths explores some of the festival repertoire, and music's unique power to communicate the unknown and the unknowable.

Where does music come from? Of what realm is it offering a glimpse‹beyond and through the notes on paper, the sounds in the air? A musical composition will often seem, like a painting, to be communicating a vision as real as the view through a window‹or perhaps more real. The only difference is that we cannot find a door to take us into music's gardens or cities or skies or landscapes. Nor can they be found on any map.

They are like those places we enter in dreams or fairy tales, places where the mind, but not the body, can walk. Hence the ease with which music can evoke, for example, the enchanted wood where young Athenian lovers mingle with fairies and artisans‹or at least the ease with which Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream does so, by virtue of its orchestral magic and its brilliant interplay of musical characters: the prosaic, the romantic, and the airborne.

Supreme among untreadable spaces are those of the dead and departed. This is where, in Finnish mythology, a swan swims on the dark waters of Tuonela, the underworld, its perpetual glide serenely mirrored in the English horn melody Sibelius found for his tone poem. The underworld is also where ghosts gather to address us in Goffredo Petrassi's powerful and somber Coro dei morti, a work for men's voices and chamber orchestra written in the darkest days of World War II. Perhaps this is where we could also situate the unearthly sounds of György Ligeti's Atmosphères, those glowing clouds of slowly changing color, which he dedicated to the memory of his fellow composer Mátyás Seiber.

Sounds of the beyond may come from composers thinking of death, as in those works, or contemplating their own mortality, as Bach did in his last years, when he put together several compilations in preparation for an entrance into an everlasting celestial order. From among those late collections, The Art of the Fugue is represented in these concerts by some movements recently orchestrated by the Japanese composer Ichiro Nodaira.

At an extreme from Bach's equipoise of feeling and intellect, comes raging, demonic energy from those 19th-century composers who were excited by Goethe's dramatic tale of Faust and Mephistopheles:the melancholic thirsting for knowledge and the devil who provides it, at a price. The versions by Berlioz and Liszt are paramount, and, in collegial fashion, each dedicated his score to the other. Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust is a movie in music, sweeping over earth and down into hell on a bound of glorious songs and symphonic thrills. Liszt's A Faust Symphony is no less vivid, with its character studies of the contemplative Faust, the pure Gretchen, and the diabolic Mephistopheles making mock of them both.

These works of Berlioz and Liszt are both hell bent. For visions of paradise one must turn to Messiaen, and especially to the enormous score he wrote on commission from the Philharmonic: Éclairs sur l'au-delà . . . , (Illuminations of the Beyond . . .). The 11 movements are "flashes" (the literal translation of Éclairs), only on an eternal time-scale, for they are each several minutes in length and some, such as the finale, proceed at the sublime adagio of confident arrival. Enormous orchestral resources are used to perform feats of dizzying, dazzling color. Immensities of space and time are revealed, with the calls of birds, the ringing of stars, and the gentle consolatory touch of the divine. For the duration of the piece, at least, the beyond may seem right here.

Paul Griffiths is the author most recently of The Penguin Companion to Classical Music.

Recommended Reading: