The following text was written as a preface to the score
of James Sellars's orchestra work, "Afterwards: Identity and Difference,"
which was premiered on 4 October 1996, by The New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by James Bolle.
Afterwards is an extensive re-composition of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, effecting a transformation of Beethoven's original intention and musical meaning. In part, Afterwards is a response to the writing of a new breed of critics and musicologists (Susan McClary, Richard Leppert, John Shepherd, Lawrence Kramer, Suzanne G. Cusick, and Elizabeth Wood, to begin a long list), who borrow, from current literary criticism, strategies that center on a method of textual analysis and philosophical argument known as "deconstruction," and apply them to music. Simply put, deconstruction seeks to demonstrate that meaning or significance does not inhere in a text or even in the words themselves, but is "constructed" by the reader, built up historically, and determined culturally. Beethoven's music, it turns out, encrusted with decades of cultural meaning and centrally positioned in the canon of Western music, is a favored target of deconstructive criticism. Afterwards, in musical terms, takes a similar critical approach; and, as a construction itself can now be de- and re-constructed, the beginning of a process not unlike the compositional practice of musical troping in the Middle Ages. In other words, Afterwards is but one among an infinite series of possible re-readings of the Beethoven original.
There is, of course, a well-known and distinguished history of recycling older music: Bach's arrangements of Vivaldi and Stravinsky's arrangements of Bach, Gesualdo, and Pergolesi immediately come to mind. Afterwards, however, is considerably different from these previous works in that it takes a critical stance toward a past masterpiece, substantially altering its form and content so that Beethoven's resolution and firmness of purpose are rendered ambivalent and ambiguous. Afterwards is not a simple inversion of Beethoven's intentions, but a pervasive revision made from our retrospective, historical position, always with regard to the culturally constructed meaning of Beethoven's original.
Actually, a deconstructive approach to a piece of music demands a written critique, not another musical composition, but after reading a number of these critiques, especially those which take Beethoven to task for "subjugating the feminine to the masculine," for "his pounding, thrusting gestures," for "his violent climaxes and the absolute closure of his overpowering cadences," I asked myself: What would a deconstructed Beethoven's Fifth (one that answers these deconstructive critical issues) sound like? Afterwards is the answer, in music, to my question.
There is another, larger, over-riding reason I composed a new orchestra piece based on a famous one from the past: "Classical" music has reached a critical turning point. Most composers (though there may be a few sado-masochistic exceptions) are generally constructive and productive, concerned with the well-being of music and protective of the past repertoire. As is the case with many composers (and as a critic and teacher) I feel as if I am continually on a rescue mission. Musicians, critics, and concert and recording producers, are well aware that a rescue of music is in order. Musicologist Lawrence Kramer, in his new book Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge baldly states the present situation:
For those who care about "classical" music...[I]t is no secret that, in the United States anyway, this music is in trouble. It barely registers in our schools, it has neither the prestige nor the popularity of literature and visual art, and it squanders its capacities for self-renewal by clinging to an exceptionally static core repertoire. Its audience is shrinking, graying, and overly palefaced, and the suspicion has been voiced abroad that its claim to occupy a sphere of autonomous artistic greatness is largely a means of veiling, and thus perpetuating, a narrow set of social interests.
Kramer goes on to say that "the possibility of tapping new sources of cultural and intellectual energy may come not a moment too soon." He proposes bringing the autonomous "masterpieces" out of their unapproachable realm, back into the world of living art, and offers a quote from Goethe(!) as leading the way: "There is absolutely nothing so extraordinary that it cannot be brought into association with the relationships and conditions proper to the human character." One must consider that the last major orchestra piece to be placed in the reliquary of Western music masterworks was Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra in 1945. Since then, the reliquary has been sealed shut: nothing old gets out, nothing new gets in. Facing this state of affairs, it occurred to me that composers today must deal not only with the task of writing quality music, but, more importantly, with a music world in which past works have been rendered inviolable and untouchable, perfect creations that cannot be equaled in our imperfect times. The masterpieces in the reliquary have long been validated by the formalist/positivist methods of modernist musicology and are not subject to reinterpretation or to discussion of musical meaning. Musicologist Carl Dahlhaus wrote of the inescapable canon of relatively autonomous German masterpieces that must be held exempt from any social-cultural understanding. This, it seems to me, is bad for both old and new music. It is my hope (at risk of hubris) that Afterwards may bring Beethoven's famous movement back into play for those dutiful concert listeners whose paralyzing respect no longer allows them to question the musical meaning of a masterpiece, as well as for the hierophantic scholars who guard the sacred reliquary. To be sure, Afterwards was not written to "improve" the famous Fifth musically, but to call its constructed, acquired cultural meaning into question. Consequently, the two works may be seen to play off one another.
It may be asked why I chose, of all music, the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth to operate upon. Indeed, in the conservative world of "classical" music, one does not dally with any masterpiece without good reason, considering that even the new performances of the classics on "original instruments" often raises critical hackles. But because of its (over)familiarity to the concert music audience and its central position in the canon, this most famous movement of "Fate Knocking at the Door" seemed the perfect choice. Perhaps more importantly, given the strength of this autonomous work, virtually frozen in formal perfection, and with its honored place in music history, Beethoven's monument is not in any real danger here. After all, rock bands have had at it for years.
Despite any risk of danger to Beethoven, Afterwards was great fun to compose, done with much jouissance (as the postmodernist are wont to encourage), but the outcome, in my opinion, is a serious comment on the condition of music today. I firmly believe that to place any art in a sacred realm is to lose art itself. Art is, after all, always theatrical to a degree, and would not be art at all if it were not constantly reminding us of its own artificiality. Because of its supposed lack of concrete meaning, music, of all the arts, is especially susceptible to sanctification, and to becoming the object of such high respect that it is simply left out of the living culture. Short of vandalism, anything that relativizes our music, that makes us reconsider its meaning, that brings up for discussion not necessarily the performance, but the music itself, is generally good for its lifeblood.
"Identity and Difference," the sub-title of Afterwards, indicates an important dimension of the work: the Beethoven original is the ground (Identity) against which the compositional game (Difference) is played. By offering a contrast to the original, this play of difference disrupts the historically constructed meaning of the Beethoven movement. Afterwards does not attempt to solve musical problems by posing musical answers, but instead addresses cultural-social-historical problems. Although this may seem an awfully convoluted, intellectual game, I hasten to add that knowledge of the Beethoven movement and its relationship to Afterwards is not necessary for an understanding or appreciation of my work. Nonetheless, it is through familiarity with the original that the game is enhanced.
If the name of the game is "Difference," allow me to point up some other contrasting elements that differentiate Afterwards from its referential base. Substituting difference for unity, Afterwards arouses the desire that is absent in the mastery of the Beethoven movement. There is nothing more utilitarian, more economical than the opening of Beethoven's Fifth. Nothing is extrinsic to its form; there is no useless beauty. Afterwards contains the superfluous, the not-self, the incidental. It loosens Beethoven's celebrated architectonic structure, mixing the music's conventional stable and unstable elements so that one is "always already" in the process of becoming the other, a matter of a digressive and excursive versus a dialectical and discursive form.
The above-mentioned transformations of expressive intent can also be described in terms of concrete musical elements. For instance, the Beethoven work opens with a (masculine?) major 3rd, followed, a step below, by a (feminine?) minor 3rd. Or, avoiding the controversial issue of gender, we might say that the major 3rd is closed, more final, whereas the minor 3rd is open and inconclusive. Afterwards reverses the quality of these two opening intervals, placing the minor over the major 3rd. In general, the sections, phrases, and cadences are considerably extended beyond Beethoven's compact classical proportions, and, where the Beethoven is loud and declamatory, Afterwards is soft and reticent. The new work augments Beethoven's instrumentation with low woodwind and brass, harp, piano, and extra percussion. One might say that Beethoven's original orchestration has been Tchaikovsky-ized
In overall design, Afterwards is an analog of sonata allegro form, although the traditional argument of tonic (thesis) and dominant (antithesis) and its resolution in the recapitulation (synthesis) is considerably weakened by a non-hierarchical series of tonal centers. In addition, the tonal centers themselves are further weakened by the use of modal scale degrees and a "floating" tonic or final. (In less technical terms this may be said to soften the harmonic progressions, which avoids closure and finality.) As in the conventional sonata, the two themes of the exposition are one sharp apart. But contrary to convention, the development section adds yet another sharp before veering off into a brief atonal passage (analogous to the chromatics in the Beethoven development) before a brief reference to C minor, the key of the Fifth Symphony itself. The recapitulation of the second theme, a slow section in three with a hint of Mahler's world, is furthest from the Beethoven original, and the Coda attenuates Beethoven's themes in the aeolian mode before fading away on a harmonically unsupported A in the bass. The duration of Afterwards is about twice as long as the original.
I like to think that had Beethoven been composing today, aware of our social conditions and knowing the standing of the West in our global culture, his "Fifth" might have sounded something like Afterwards. Of one thing I am more certain: Mendelssohn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven would think it strange that we do not have our own music. Rock, which is often put forward as the real music of today, is, I think, too market driven to represent much more than money and manufactured celebrities. Nor can performance of concert music, however great, replace new composition, which is a reflection of our time and place. Certainly, a Shostakovitch symphony or a Copland ballet tells us more about ourselves than a thousand philharmonics.
In the late 1970s I asked John Cage if he thought listening to Beethoven's music was harmful to society. He answered, "You will have to determine that for yourself. If I were to determine it for you there would be no determination, would there?" Since he often answered such leading questions with another question, I never found out what he thought of a culture saturated with classical symphonic music from the past, but I did go on to "determine" for myself that listening even to Beethoven's most aggressive works was not harmful, unless they were heard as musical absolutes. At risk of being marked as an iconoclast, the decadent "other" of our time to the preeminent Beethoven of an idealized past, I hope that Afterwards will cause people to listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in a different way. This is important because music, whatever its origin, is largely created by the listener. Even Beethoven changes every day.
©Copyright 1995 by Hog River Music