is a social problem which influences both the Mass Man
and the individual. Individuals may be the victims of singular violent acts such as rape or assault; they may also be a part of a large group perpetrating violence upon another large group, as in war. Historically, war has had an indirect influence on the artistic communities contained within warring cultures and the art those cultures produced.
Ancient Greek vases bear depictions of the Trojan War
, Iwo Jima
is immortalized in American sculpture, and music throughout the modern age has borne the imprint of war in a more abstract way. Structural functionalism dictates that artistic impetus is a function of war, and it is not altogether unreasonable to make this assignment no matter how indirect. Consider modern American pop music
as an example: how many great pieces were written in protest or lamentation of the Vietnam War
? How many patriotic tribute songs have been recorded and released in reverence to the terrorist
attacks on America on September 11th? Even the words of America’s National Anthem were written by a young lawyer (Francis Scott Key
) sent into the fray of the war with Great Britain
in 1814. Key had become inspired by his experiences in and around a naval battle, specifically the sight of the American flag flying over Fort McHenry the morning after an austere bombardment by English ships: upon seeing this, he knew that the Fort had not surrendered. He then wrote down a poem which eventually became the lyrics to the National Anthem. (Ironically, the melody came from a then-popular English song, To Anacreon in Heaven
weighs in on the value of personal expression as a form of communication, thus outlining the creation of art specifically in reference to war or an environment created and/or effected by war as a means of communicating the artist’s perception of his environment.
A good example of this would be patriotic
music or music dealing programmatically with participants in an armed conflict, and it is here we meet our two subjects for study: Ludwig Van Beethoven
and his Eroica
symphony and Sir Edward Elgar
and his Cello Concerto
Beethoven is known throughout the world for his turbulent music and bold, searing expression; it is works of this ilk that populate his “Heroic” period (1803-1816), and it is also during this period that the majority of his music was composed. The beginning of this period and Beethoven’s ascension from mortal man to towering musical genius were both inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte
and the revolution in France.
Beethoven was having a rough go of it in 1802. On October 6th he wrote the famous Heiglnstadt letter to his brothers professing (in summary; Beethoven had a penchant for the super-dramatic) that life was crushing him, that his deafness was destroying him, and that he did not think he could go on. However, he soon found inspiration within Bonaparte’s conquests in France and indeed Bonaparte the man. From this came the third symphony, the Eroica. (Beethoven, The Creator; p.79)
What is interesting about this one work in particular is that its title was once the Bonaparte Symphony. Beethoven had found so much to admire within Napoleon that he wrote an entire symphony (of enormous length) extolling the man’s virtues; his expression of those heroic aspects of Bonaparte’s character led to bold innovations in music composition
, and theory that would change music forever. Not only did he accomplish all of this, but he also used the force of this creative process to lift himself out of his chaotic depression and charge headlong into the most prolific
period of his life. However, before the symphony was sent to be printed or was even entirely finished, Napoleon declared himself Emperor
of France and Beethoven came apart in outrage. Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s student at the time, remembered Beethoven "flew into a rage and cried out: 'Is he then too nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he too will trample on the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others and become a tyrant!' Beethoven then went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two and threw it on the floor." (Beethoven: Letters, Journals, and Conversations; p. 43) In 1806, when Eroica was published it bore the inscription “Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” Historians agree that this acts as a reference to a younger, more idealistic, and less power-hungry Napoleon that Beethoven had personally identified with as a heroic figure.
So here we have both structural functionalism
and symbolic interactionism evinced within a two-year period of Beethoven’s life, during which music took up a course entirely different from the one it had been following. A war in France led by one man indirectly caused a revolution in music forged by another individual. Functionally, the French Revolution brought about the composition of the Eroica and ushered in Beethoven’s so-called Heroic period.
Symbolically, Beethoven identified with Napoleon as someone from a low station in life who had been elevated through his ideals and his uncompromising nature, and likewise with the war in France as a defense of democratic ideology. One interesting point: twenty years after Napoleon’s proclamation, Beethoven was with a friend at a coffeehouse in Vienna
and spied a book on the life of Bonaparte. “Napoleon!” he said. “Formerly I disliked him. Now I think quite differently…” (Beethoven: Letters, Journals, and Conversations; p. 224) This provides evidence that the heroic image of Napoleon the composer had constructed in his mind was so strong, even after Napoleon betrayed that image by waylaying everything he had claimed to stand for, Beethoven could not shake his original perception of Napoleon as a symbol of democracy triumphing over royalty and the old world order.
Similarly, Sir Edward Elgar
was almost wholly broken by World War I
and the effect it had on England
as a country. A staunch patriot and already prone to some degree of melancholy, Elgar was so singularly effected by World War I that although he did not die for twenty more years, Elgar was in a continual state of depression from when the war began in 1914 until his death in 1934.
Before World War I, Edward Elgar was an assured, swaggering young composer who was favored by high society and the royal family itself: on more than one occasion he was commissioned to write pieces for royal functions and his Second Symphony is dedicated (with the royal family’s permission) to the memory of King Edward VII
. Here is the man who composed the light-hearted, almost poppy Pomp And Circumstance
, the beautiful and heartfelt Enigma Variations
. The only clue Britain or the world at large had of Elgar’s vulnerability or sensitivity was deeply buried in a work from 1912 called The Music Makers. An intensely personal work, The Music Makers was composed with the literal intention of illustrating the creative artist’s positive influence on society as a whole. It also clued the attentive listener into Elgar’s well-hidden loneliness and vulnerability, mostly displayed through his orchestration. During the war, Elgar would use orchestration
as a literal illustration of his personal turmoil when he wrote his final great masterpiece, his Cello Concerto.
When war did begin, the entire Elgar family initially put on the super patriotic can-do visage that most citizens of a civilized country try on when they are openly and aggressively attacked. His wife Alice began to get involved in nursing and Elgar, a gentle and non-violent man, volunteered to become a Special Constabulary Staff Inspector – in other words, he had become a police officer to serve in the place of those officers who had been called to war. In a letter to family friend Marie Joshua, he even went so far as to proclaim, “It’s a pity that I am too old to be a soldier.” (Letters of a lifetime; p. 276) Other family friends who lived in England and were able to see an older Elgar in his uniform carrying a truncheon
were quick to remark on how surreal it was, their gentle artist dressed thus.
Despite the time he devoted to the war effort, Elgar managed to produce a few patriotic pieces early on in the conflict. One in particular, For The Fallen, a setting of a memorial poem by Lawrence Binyon
was particularly well received but almost never happened. A younger, unknown composer had already set the poem and Elgar’s first instinct in his newly anxious state was to abandon the project altogether, despite the other piece’s obscurity. Although he finished the project, conducted the premiere, and was widely praised for it, Elgar began to steadily lose confidence in himself and his music, constantly worrying to friends that “…no one would want it.” (Spirit of England; p.98) This was ludicrous as all aspects of English society showed enthusiasm for all of his patriotic works – symbolic interactionism dictates that not only is Elgar expressing his own feelings about his country through music, he is also giving the English people something they can readily identify with. After several more bits of patriotic music and a few chamber pieces over five years, in 1919 Elgar began composition on the Cello Concerto, and within would finally address his feelings about WWI rather than his feelings about his country.
The Cello Concerto can be described as a severe, stark contrast to everything he had ever written, but this is a gross oversimplification. The Concerto was dramatic, but other pieces had been dramatic; the concerto was beautiful, but so too was everything else he’d ever written. The instrumentation was not markedly different or unusual for the composer or the time. So what is it about the Cello Concerto that is so different? In truth, it is a combination of things.
In a way, the tone of the piece is what so readily separates it from the rest of his work. Every moment is built to convey futility, sorrow, and loneliness. During the process of composition, Elgar pursued two goals: to give clarity to the solo cello and to create a feeling that the cello was isolated. These were both important for musical reasons – the cello is sonically situated in the middle of the orchestra and most other instruments are louder than it. Hence, Elgar had to write music at the very highest and lowest ranges of the orchestra in order for the cello to project. In doing so, the cello becomes a lonely voice occupying the entire middle of the orchestra: it is now audible and isolated. Creating this kind of literal isolation within the score evokes an empathic feeling of isolation within the listener, and Elgar had thus achieved his goal.
Elgar would also make use of deceptive resolution, or fooling the listener into thinking the music was going one way while actually taking it in another direction. This common device in music was used to a very high degree of effectiveness in this piece, as it is usually the device of composers of dark music, which up until that time, Elgar most certainly was not. He used this device to create a dialogue between the solo cello and the orchestra, a sort of question and answer theme during which no answers were found due to deceptive resolutions.
Throughout the first three movements of the Cello Concerto, everything going on (be it harmonic or melodic) happens in a downward motion. Everything, everything descending, either into hell or depression or even at some moments, despair. (Sir Edward Elgar; p. 193-198) This motion causes the fourth movement to be agitating, almost difficult to listen to. We hear the opening theme again, but for the first time in the entire piece, the music seems assured of itself, and it’s a good thing: it has to claw its way out of the musical basement. Because all of his previously presented material has a downward slant, every new spin on anything previously introduced seems to be battling against its established downward nature. This work begins with an almost unbearably sad statement, and then keeps descending tonally from that starting point, and I think this is why it is so hard to listen to. We start out in a bad place, we get worse, and then spend the entire final movement struggling to just get back where we began.
The close of the fourth and final movement features a direct, unified return to the opening idea. While it is by no means happy or uplifting, it is certainly stronger and begs one to think of the facing of fears, of taking equal shares of joy and sorrow out of life, or perhaps even dwelling in the past. As to how this relates to the entire concerto
and how the entire concerto relates to sociology
, it is necessary to speak of Elgar the composer in hopefully less technical terms than I have previously used.
Elgar always wrote for the individual rather than the masses; he also always wrote for the aesthetic intellectual rather than the musical theorist. Certainly, the ideas and methods he presents are musically interesting, but his music was never about breaking new musical ground. About Pomp And Circumstance, he is rumored to have remarked, “Oh, do I have a tune that’ll knock ‘em dead!” Although this statement represents young Elgar, I don’t think any of this was lost in the older Elgar. Some consider the cello concerto to be more of an insightful work of art rather than a masterpiece of music. It offers the listener a less structured, more romantic and expressive view into the older man, feeling his years and seeing his country torn apart by war on a daily basis. When asked about his melodies for solo cello, Elgar remarked that the up-and-down sad meanderings of the instrument were an exploration, a lament, and a musical discourse of past ways and days gone by. When a friend publicly inquired as to the meaning of the Cello Concerto, Elgar tersely replied, “It is a man’s attitude to life.” Indeed, the emotional outpour involved in the composition of such a work must have been harrowing: a friend who saw Elgar directly before he began work on the concerto and then directly after it was finished said that his hair was whiter and he looked older. The Cello Concerto took just over four months to write.
Quite obviously, World War I
had a severe effect on England’s favorite musical son in personal, emotional, and musical ways. Functionalists could state that if it were not for World War I, Elgar would never have been so horrified by the destruction of his civilization
, and hence would never have written his Cello Concerto In E Minor, which raised the bar for both cello writing and the concerto form so high that it has yet to be surpassed, 80 years hence. Elgar’s very perception of what the concerto was about lends itself to symbolic interactionism
; so too does the expressionist intent, process, and feel of the final product. Here is a man who was so deeply affected by violence that it altered his life, his emotional state, his family life, and his creative output to reflect the state his spiritual and societal environment. (A Creative Life; P. 740)
I had a hard time placing within the borders of my discussion. It did, however, occur to me that during war most composers who are not famous or very well established end up fighting or pursuing war work. It is only those composer
s afforded money to live on and time to write (both being scarce resources) that produce works of any note during war. However, these few works are usually of the highest craftsmanship, as are the works I have presented here.
may be a necessary thing, it may be a unifying thing, but it is rarely a good thing. While the creative circumstances of some of our best musical works are unfortunate (and those presented are not unique in this area), the severity of the emotional stress placed upon the creators of such works is quite possibly a necessary factor within the creative process.
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