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Old 06-01-2014   #1
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Topic Winner Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (and Other Morbid Classics)

Has everyone heard Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), Ninth Symphony and last songs on texts by Ruckert? Perhaps I didn't perform the search correctly, but it appeared to me that no one had mentioned them here so far.

For that matter, I thought that the Fourth Symphony by Sibelius (also Kullervo, Tapiola, The Swan of Tuonela and Pohjola's Daughter) might be relevant to people's interests here, as well as the work of my favorite composer, Alban Berg (Lulu, Wozzeck, the Violin Concerto (really a requiem), songs on Baudelaire and the Lyric Suite). Other relevant pieces might include Henze's songs on "Whispers from the Heavenly Death" and "Being Beauteous" and the post-homicidal madrigals of Gesualdo. Schumann's Dichterliebe are also delicately grotesque; less delicately so, R. Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten. And I can think of no greater setting of a symbolist poem than Faure's "En sourdine" on the poem by Paul Verlaine.

Also: Erwartung, by Schoenberg; Bluebeard's Castle, by Bartok (adapted beautifully for film by Michael Powell); the great piece, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, which I hate to mention because it is associated so closely with Kubrick's The Shining that its own emotional palette can be difficult for people to reclaim. There's also Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs and gloriously pessimistic "Dover Beach."

I haven't searched for Penderecki's opera, The Devils of Loudon, or his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, but I would assume they've been mentioned here. I might also mention Pelleas and Melisande by Debussy, but only because it's an opera based on a symbolist play that manages to convey Maeterlinck's technique of employing surgical vagaries.

There's also "Lasciate mi morire," by Monteverdi, "Dido's Lament," by Purcell and Bach's Crucifixus from the Mass in b minor, all of which incorporate the same descending chromatic scale as "Dazed and Confused" and, in a different way, the Billie Holiday arrangement of "Gloomy Sunday." And of course, Sibelius's Symphony No. 4, like the music of several Swedish black metal bands, makes extensive use of the tritone -- the interval that might, in the most extreme cases, have caused good Christians of the dark ages to lop off the fingers of the person who played it or the tongue of the person who sang it. A similar case is that of Morricone's passacaille, which is the entire soundtrack of Argento's flick, The Stendhal Syndrome. Classical music from the medieval to the romantic tends to shun the augmented third in its themes and voice leading, using appoggiaturas and the like to avoid it, but Morricone imbeds it -- twice -- in the eight-note-long ground bass of his extended composition.

And then there is Scriabin's Ninth Sonata, which he called a "sonata of insects," and his "Vers la flamme." And his Prometheus as well, which also uses the tritone extensively. And Liszt's La lugubre gondola, as well as his Csárdás macabre; Funerailles; Bagatelle without Tonality; Nuages gris (with its famous use of the whole tone scale and augmented fifth chords, presaging Debussy's use of the whole tone scale even though the mood is far darker than his tends to be); Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro.

Also: Shostakovich's October Symphony, Eighth Symphony, 14th Symphony and Eighth String Quartet.

How do you feel about these various pieces -- is there a connection between them and the sort of fiction and philosophy that interests you? Also: Can you think of other examples?

Last edited by scrypt; 06-06-2014 at 04:16 AM..
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Old 06-01-2014   #2
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Re: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (and Other Morbid Classicals)

That's a wonderful post, Scrypt. Thanks. I love all the music you mention.
There is an excellent story by Aliya Whiteley in the anthology I edited and published of Classical Music Horror Stories in 2012, a story entitled 'Songs for Dead Children' based on the Kindertotenlieder by Mahler.
The most delightfully mournful music I can think of is 'The Curlew' song cycle by Peter Warlock. And I always think that music by Xenakis pretty nightmarish!

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Old 06-01-2014   #3
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Re: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (and Other Morbid Classics)

If only I'd known about that anthology in time -- I'd have loved to submit a story. You seem to have unusually good ideas for anthology themes -- ideas that I'd have thought publishers might resist as they do intricate literacy.

I've studied and taught composition for much of my life, and made my living for many years as a studio musician and keyboardist, so the parallels between classical music and fiction are as close in my mind as skull to brain. I've written dissonant fiction and poetry based on musical forms more than once; reassuring to hear I'm not alone in that.

Did I miss anything? Would you add any other pieces to the ones I've mentioned?
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Old 06-01-2014   #4
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Re: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (and Other Morbid Classics)

I was amazed how you covered the ground - Scriabin, Richard Strauss < Four Last Songs, Death and Transfiguration >, Mahler, Schoenberg, Penderecki, Berg, < I love Webern > , Sibelius...

Just off the top of my head, some others that may not be overtly morbid but for me they are morbid:
Much of Schubert, Winnterreise, Piano Sonatas...
Universe Symphony by Charles Ives
Some Rachmaninov like Isle of the Dead.
Beethoven's Late String quartets
As I said before, Warlock's Curlew
Britten - Death in Venice, Tenor, Horn and Strings, Turn Of the Screw
Stockhausen, Boulez, Barraques, Michael Finnissy, Schnittke, Arvo Part

Wagner - Parsifal

This type of music has in common the ability to change the rhythm of the mind. Making the inside of the head feel sometimes like a sumptuous cathedral, sometimes like a foundry of noise. Essentially Godless, but spiritual nevertheless.

I'll be back when others have left their footprints on this thread.

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Old 06-01-2014   #5
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Re: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (and Other Morbid Classics)

So happy to hear you say you love Webern! I only left him out (as well as a lot of my favorite music) due to the rather specific criteria.

I own the scores to several Webern pieces and have gotten into arguments with other musicians by insisting that his music is even more perfect than Bach's. And while he had one of the least morbid dispositions in the history of music, I think his compositional models and mentors left their imprint: specif. in the decadent refinement of orchestral color evidenced in Mahler and which Webern took further than anyone before him. The fact that his over-refinement was meant to express an elision between the implications of Schoenberg's method and those of medieval composers like Ockeghem and Dufay (cf. the hocket's influence on Klangfarbenmelodie) doesn't diminish the slightly creepy effect of, say, his Symphony op. 21: perfectly mirrored sculpted gardens made entirely of stained glass and engineered in the shapes of vicious insects. It's hard to think of anything more gorgeous.

The Grosse Fuge, the a minor Quartet (op. 132) and the Missa Solemnis are probably my favorite pieces by Beethoven; but again, I'm not completely sure that the grotesque mutation of classical form in his later work is what I'd characterize as morbid. In late Shostakovich, you can practically hear the bones of skeletons clinking.

You said exactly the same thing in your post, so I'm not trying to contradict you. I'm only pointing out why I didn't include some of the pieces I love beyond nearly all others.

Now that I think of it, though, there is a paring away of the physical in late Beethoven that could be seen as morbid; you can hear that in the Sanctus of the Missa Solemnis and in the head music at the center of op. 132's second movement. I take it back; I think you're right about him.

I ought to have included the Boulez of Le Marteau sans Maitre and Pli Selon Pli; we're absolutely in agreement about that. I find Strauss's four last songs to be tragically insincere, but perhaps that's the influence of Donald Jay Grout's prejudices (he called Strauss "devoid of spiritual refreshment"). I do prefer Strauss at his most deliberately twisted and complex (as in the fugue from Thus Spake Zarathustra, which I like to scrutinize after listening to the Bach b-minor fugue that *also* contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale -- as you probably know, it's at the end of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol. 1).

I'm delighted you mentioned the piece by Peter Warlock, because he's a composer I don't know and that's a composition I've never heard.

I wanted to include Schnittke, but even his Faust doesn't strike me as particularly morbid. Interesting thing about him: Right after college, I realized that postmodernism made it possible to use styles as one would themes, and that entire pieces could be organized around the technique of switching or combining centuries. Not knowing anyone else had done it, I coined what I thought was a new word -- polystyle -- only to discover Schnittke and the fact he'd been doing it -- as Gerhard Richter did representational/nonrepresentational switching -- since the late '60s.

The first piece I ever heard in my life was Gesang der Junglinge by Stockhausen, which my mother had because of the similarity of the boys' voices to those of cantors (she was a music and English teacher). Again, I don't think it's an accident you included him even though I wouldn't call his music morbid. There's a specificity to his Webern-informed technique of total integration that complements morbidity's over-refinement so well that you wish there had been a morbid Webern simulacrum. In that sense, I would actually draw parallels between Mahler, R. Strauss, Karl Kraus and Ligotti.

Do you know Krenek's Jonny Spielt Auf? He's another one. Christine Schaefer has done an absolutely brilliant version of his art songs; I love her version of Pierrot Luniare, too, and especially that neglected masterpiece, Herzgewächse.

I've heard all of the Britten you mentioned except Death in Venice, which is an interesting choice for him. I love Britten, but I've always thought he was the wrong composer to set the Illuminations (Henze's score for four celli, two harps and soprano is the perfect expression, I think, of Rimbaud's discorporate sexuality: "Our bones are clothed in a new and amorous body"). I'm so used to the Visconti adaptation that I'm almost afraid to hear Britten's version -- but I'll have a listen because you recommended it.

Wagner can definitely be strange, morbid, perfumed and convoluted, as Visconti's Ludwig II should make clear to anyone. Again, it was probably prejudice on my part, leaving him out (my Jewish mother use to tell me ridiculous stories about playing in productions of Wagner -- she hated him for reasons that probably weren't musical at all). She was the one who first told me that Nietzsche threw up during the climax of Tristan, which is not really how it happened; F.N. worshiped Wagner and even tried to compose like him.

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Old 06-01-2014   #6
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Re: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (and Other Morbid Classics)

[Double post; disregard; I was attempting to correct Monteverdi's name.]
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Old 06-02-2014   #7
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Re: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (and Other Morbid Classics)

I notice you originally mentioned Shostakovich's 14th Symphony. There's a story by Nicole Cushing (a TLO member) about it in the book I mentioned earlier.

I don't think Messiaen has been mentioned yet: The Quartet at the End of Time, for example.

The whole 'Death in Venice' opera by Britten is on YouTube.

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Old 06-02-2014   #8
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Re: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (and Other Morbid Classics)

As an aside, I'd say much of the many individual segmented works of so called Classical Music is morbid at least in parts (the essential movements by mood) and specific movements, if not whole works, have generally more morbid power to worm into the mind both constructively and destructively, I feel, than most rock music or heavy metal etc. etc.

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Old 06-02-2014   #9
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Re: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (and Other Morbid Classics)

Richard Powers' latest novel, Orfeo, contains lengthy passages about Messiaen and Quatuor pour la fin du temps. As always with Powers, the sentimentality and cutesiness are sometimes cloying, but underneath is unblinking intelligence and ontological chill. Orfeo is partly about morbidity in classical music, and I think it might be of great interest to some who are following this thread.
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Old 06-02-2014   #10
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Re: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (and Other Morbid Classics)

Thank you for the excellent recommendations in this thread. I am especially interested in listening to the Sibelius pieces mentioned above, as they are unfamiliar to me.

To the works already listed, I’d like to suggest the following:

• “Le Streghe” (1813) and “24 Capricci” (pub. 1819) by Niccolò Paganini. Paganini’s extraordinary talent as both violinist and composer was said to have arisen from a pact with the devil. I highly recommend Salvatore Accardo’s superlative recordings of these pieces, if you haven’t discovered them already.

• Symphony No. 8 (“The Apocalyptic,” 1887-1890) by Anton Bruckner. Around this time last year, I attended a live performance of this work by the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann, and I’ll never forget the mightiness of it. This symphony is a genuine manifestation of what Thomas Ligotti has called “a greater blackness” – “a greater blackness than most would care to contemplate.”

• “Pavane for a Dead Princess” (1899; orchestral version, 1910) by Maurice Ravel. This meditation is particularly otherworldly in its original arrangement for piano.

• “O Fortuna” and “Veris leta facies” from Carmina Burana (1935-36) by Carl Orff. The former theme has been used so many times as dramatic “horror music” in films that it’s become familiar to the point of cliché. The latter is played to chilling effect toward the conclusion of Pasolini’s “Salò” . . . the “merry face of spring” is anything but.

• “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (1947) by Samuel Barber, based on a 1938 prose poem by James Agee. This, in my opinion, is one of the most powerful attempts (in Agee's phrase) to “tell the sorrow of being on this earth” in music. I have listened to several different recordings of this piece over the years, and each one has moved me beyond words.

• “Vanitas” (1981) and “Infinito Nero” (1998) by Salvatore Sciarrino. The ghostly ambiance of Sciarrino’s music – indeterminate sounds heard at intervals, seemingly from great distances, as if in a dream – is both disorienting and beguiling.

Thanks again, and keep the “Morbid Classics” posts coming!
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