What is music? What is it for? And what does it do, if anything? Was Heine close when he suggested that ‘where words leave off, music begins’? Or was Stravinsky on the money when he pronounced that music was ‘powerless to express anything at all’ and that composers ‘combine notes, that’s all’?
To my ears Igor Fyodorovitch must have had a few too many glasses of the whiskey he loved, as music has always seemed to me to be the perfect conduit for the delivery of emotion, from joy to despair. Here, in a marriage of image and sound, we explore the nature of sorrow, and how great art can be borne of it.
The great Russian musician Sergei Rachmaninov knew about sorrow. Virtually abandoning composition after the October Revolution, he emigrated to the USA, never to see his homeland again. To support his family he endured the life of an itinerant piano virtuoso to pay the bills, only later finding some consolation in Switzerland, building a house on Lake Lucerne, and returning to the creation of music. His extraordinary ability to create a yearning melodic line, and extend and develop it, is no better illustrated than in the wonderful clarinet theme from his E minor symphony.
The feature films of Andrei Tarkovsky are small in number (7) but huge in influence. No greater talent than Ingmar Bergman felt moved to declare him ‘the greatest of us all’, and his slim output has influenced countless movie-makers, most obviously his friend and colleague Alexander Sukarov, whose Mother & Son is featured below. As a true poet of film he was constantly asking ‘what is there?’ and ‘what is it like?’, and although not always finding the answers, watching him ask the questions is a humbling experience. Here, perhaps his least effective film Solaris, towers over the best of the rest.
On it’s release in 1999, the Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia created little traction. An ensemble piece, three hours long, made in LA, about a disparate bunch of LA misfits, it certainly didn’t chime with our expectations of what Hollywood movies are, and how they are made. There may be a few reading this who have never heard of it, let alone seen it. But let me say that I believe it to be the greatest US movie of the last 30 years, and one of the best ever. The clip shown here cranks around most of the main characters – Tom Cruise as a sex-guru; Julianne Moore as the flakey wife of the dying Jason Robards, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the nurse attending him; William H Macy as a gay loser, dreaming of a barman falling in love with him, if he gets his teeth fixed – and Philip Baker Hall as a dying game-show host. The only ‘normal’ in the movie is John C Reilly’s honest cop who, by some magic, ties the whole thing together. This masterpiece is capped by a stunning soundtrack, and here we have Aimee Mann singing Wise Up, joined in misery by the rest of the cast. What a movie!
In just a few years at the dawn of the 20th Century Gustav Mahler composed the 5th, 6th and 7th Symphonies, as well as ten settings of poems by Friedrich Ruckert. Five of them became the dreadfully sibylline Kindertotenlieder (‘Songs on the Death of Children’) as, a few years later Mahler lost his own daughter Maria to scarlet fever, his sorrow further compounded soon after by Alma, his frisky wife, embarking upon an affair with the Bauhaus luminary Walter Gropius, a double blow that almost felled him. The other five songs became known as the Ruckert Lieder, and here we have the devastating Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (‘I am lost to the world’), Mahler’s greatest song. Film buffs who know Visconti’s Death in Venice may recognize orchestration from the famous 5th Symphony Adagietto, which opens the movie. This three-hankie double-header is completed here by a few scenes from Alexander Sukarov’s poetic masterpiece Mother and Son, the influence of his friend and mentor Andrei Tarkovsky (see above) being the most obvious in his refusal to disturb the tranquil stasis, and a willingness to allow events to unfold as naturally as they sometimes do in real life – the events here being an exploration of the love, moving in both directions, between a dying mother and her devoted son.
The great Catalan ‘cellist Pablo Casals was one of the most revered instrumentalists of the 20th Century and he also composed, albeit on a fairly small scale. In a long and spectacular solo career, he would often play this sorrowful self-penned lament, El Cant Dels Ocells (‘The Song of the Birds’) as a concert encore, and further ravage an already emotionally drained audience. Slight it might be, but with the master playing in that deceptively simple manner, perhaps in his own front room, the magic is plain to hear, along with his life-enhancing humility.