Two pre-concert talks

Well, it’s nearly show time in Biloxi. The week has flown by between rehearsals, a brief trip up to Birmingham and way too much MSNC.

Part of my time was spent giving two “Words on Music” lectures to local music lovers. The first took place at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art.

Frog with Iris 

I must confess, I didn’t know the work of Walter Anderson, a sort of Gulf Coast Van Gogh (“almost as talented and just as messed up” is Van Gogh is how he was described to me by one of the musicians on Sunday), until I got here, but he was an extraordinary talent and it’s a beautiful museum. Traveling can be hard on the body, and hard on your soul when you’re away from family, but it is the ultimate cultural enrichment method, and is really the only way to complete an education. I only wish I’d had more time at the museum


The second lecture was in a very grand restaurant on the top floor of the highest building in nearby Gulfport. This time it was a chat with lunch, so I finally got some gumbo, the absence of which was becoming a pressing concern on this trip. I should have gone to New Orleans on Monday, but I’m fighting a cold. Anyway, the view was rather commanding, and you could get a powerful sense of how much work is still being done 3 years later to recover from Katrina here. There is construction everywhere- casinos are still being rebuilt and old buildings torn down or restored. These casinos are HUGE buildings and many of them were nearly destroyed and one was destroyed- the sheer power of that storm is hard to imagine. I gave basically the same talk on the Elgar both times, so it was interesting to see how different the questions were from the two groups. I did something I wouldn’t normally do- I talked about the piece in terms of how I see it, rather than in universal “program note” language. They’ll get good notes in the program tonight. I thought that getting the conductor’s own thoughts might be more unique and interesting.

I explained to them that in a huge piece like this, you’ve got to have a concept of it as a whole, not merely as 170 pages of notes. With some works, one inherits such a concept, which you can keep or discard- such as the old “Fate knocking at the door” of Beethoven 5. The wise conductor always discards, because you’ve got to get to your concept from the score, not from what you’ve read in someone else’s program notes. This piece is less done and less discussed, so it’s really up to me to find my own concept- I couldn’t really cheat if I wanted to.

So, I told them my subjective, poetic take on the piece- that it represents an epic voyage home, much like Homer’s Odyssey. If the first statement of the great melody which opens the symphony in A-flat major is a powerful description of home, it is only the last statement at the very end of the symphony 55 minutes later that depicts our arrival at home. From that first statement in A-flat, we’re immediately thrown into stormy waters and distant lands in D minor, and when the melody returns near the end of the first movement it proves to be only a false hope- the music “fails” and disintegrates into a sad and contemplative coda.

The second movements are the Scherzo, a word which, of course, means joke, but it is a black joke. Full of maritime imagery and sinister, gargantuan marches which could easily depict the menacing approach Cyclops or an army of Titans. The Trio starts with music that sounds quite harmless and comforting, but which again becomes more menacing and even wicked sounding. This movement gives me ths most opportunites to take advantage of all those viewings of Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans as a kid. It’s really not far from being a nice mixture of the Sirens and Scylla and Charibdis-

Odysseus had been told by Circe that he would have a choice between two paths home. One was the Wandering Rocks, where either all made it through or all died, and which had only been passed by Jason, with Zeus’s help. Odysseus, however, chose the second path: on one side of the strait was a whirlpool called Charybdis, which would sink the ship; on the other was a monster called Scylla, daughter of Crataeis, who had six heads and could seize and eat six men. The advice was to sail close to Scylla and lose six men but not to fight, lest they should lose more men. Odysseus did not dare tell his crew of the sacrifice, or they would have cowered below and not rowed, in which case all would have ended up in Charybdis. Six men duly died. Odysseus announced that the desperate cries of the wretched, betrayed men were the worst thing he had ever known. Undoubtedly this affected morale and left the survivors feeling mutinous…

The men were soon trapped on the island by adverse winds and, after their food stores had run out, began to get hungry. Odysseus went inland to pray for help and fell asleep. In his absence, Eurylochus reasoned that they might as well eat the cattle and be killed by the gods as die of starvation, and claimed that they would offer sacrifices and treasure to appease the gods if they returned alive to Ithaca. When they slaughtered the cattle, the guardians of the island, Helios’s daughters Lampetia and Phaethusa, told their father, who told to Zeus that he would take the sun down to Hades if justice was not done. Zeus destroyed the ship with a thunderbolt, killing all but Odysseus. After sweeping past Scylla and Charybdis, whom he luckily escaped once more, he was washed up on an island.

Then there is the third movement, which I’ve always thought of as one of the most powerful expressions of longing in all of music. Interestingly, when I did this piece last year with WSO, I did not mention that (or any of my poetic notions about the piece), but at the pub after the concert, I kept hearing players saying the same thing I felt, that they were struck by the overpowering sense of longing in this music.

The island, Ogygia, was home to the nymph Calypso (daughter of Atlas), who held Odysseus captive as her lover for seven years, promising him immortality if he agreed to stay. He was strongly attracted to her by night but wept by the shore for home and family by day. On behalf of Athena, Zeus intervened and sent Hermes to tell Calypso to let him go.

Odysseus duly departed on a small raft, furnished by Calypso with provisions of water, wine and food, only to be hit by a storm from his old enemy Poseidon.

And the Finale, of course, begins with a nod to Bruckner (I always expect the opening of Bruckner 9 when the low strings start with that pianissimo tremolo d), but is really modeled (in its low-key way) on the opening of Beethoven 9. Elgar is summing up some of what we’ve heard- returning to a fractured and disembodied version of the home theme, and looking ahead with hints of the new themes to be heard in the main part of the Finale. Again, speaking purely poetically, the main body of the Finale represents the last great push for home- again we’re in D minor, and the driving ostinato that forms the spine of the movement is for me a perfect depiction of determination and desperation. Oh, and by the way, figure 143 is where the horns first see land!

Now, I was careful to make clear that this poetic take on Elgar 1 as paralleling themes of the Odyssey is neither accurate nor entirely original- Michael Steinberg describes the ending of the symphony as a ship fighting its way into port through a storm, buffeted on all sides. Nor do I feel wedded to this concept- I could radically rethink this at anytime because we’re only talking about extrinsic associations, not things that are intrinsic to the score itself.

The importance of this was brought home to me at the end of the second lecture when one of the audience members said that to her, the end of the symphony sounded like an “ascension to the promised land”- something that would never have occurred to me in a million years. But of course, this is the power of absolute music- freed from clumsy symbolism and the limitations of words, which are boxes after all- this is an art form that can speak a different language to each listener. Far from being a universal language, music can allow us each our own language of association and imagery, and gives us the chance to create our own relationship with the pieces we love.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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