Symphonies and Their Meaning Part 5

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Suddenly over the hushed motion in soothing harmonies sings the hymn in pious choir of all the bra.s.s. Then the gathering speed and volume is merged in a majestic tread as of ordered array (_Maestoso a.s.sai; Andante_); a brief spirited prelude of martial motives is answered by the soft religious strains of the organ on the line of the hymn:

"Crux fidelis, inter omnes Arbor una n.o.bilis, Nulla silva talem profert Fronde, flore, germine.

Dulce lignum, dulces clavos, Dulce pondus sustinet."[A]

[Footnote A:

Faithful cross, among the trees Thou the n.o.blest of them all!

Forest ne'er doth grow a like In leaf, in flower or in seed.

Blessed wood and blessed nails, Blessed burden that it bears!]

As in solemn liturgy come the answering phrases of the organ and the big chorus in martial tread. As the hymn winds its further course, violins entwine about the harmonies. The last line ends in expressive strain and warm line of new major tone,--echoed in interluding organ and violins.

Suddenly a strict, solemn tread, with sharp stress of violins, brings a new song of the _choral_. Strings alone play here "with pious expression"; gradually reeds add support and ornament. A lingering phrase ascends on celestial harmonies. With a stern shock the plain hymn strikes in the reed, against a rapid course of strings, with fateful tread. In interlude sound the battle-cries of yore. Again the hymn ends in the expressive cadence, though now it grows to a height of power.

Here a former figure (the first motive of the battle) reappears in a new guise of bright major,[A] in full, spirited stride, and leads once more to a blast of the hymn, with organ and all, the air in unison of trumpets and all the wood. The expressive cadence merges into a last fanfare of battle, followed by a strain of hymns and with reverberating Amens, where the organ predominates and holds long after all other sounds have ceased.

[Footnote A: In the whole tonality we may see the "meteoric and solar light" of which the composer speaks in the letter quoted above.]



There is something charming and even ideal in a complete versatility, quite apart from the depth of the separate poems, where there is a never-failing touch of grace and of distinction. The Philip Sydneys are quite as important as the Miltons, perhaps they are as great. Some poets seem to achieve an expression in a certain cyclic or sporadic career of their fancy, touching on this or that form, illuminating with an elusive light the various corners of the garden. Their individual expression lies in the _ensemble_ of these touches, rather than in a single profound revelation.

A symptom of the eminence of Saint-Saens in the history of French music lies in his att.i.tude towards the art as a whole, especially of the German masters,--the absence of national bias in his perceptions. He was foremost in revealing to his countrymen the greatness of Bach, Beethoven and Schumann. Without their influence the present high state of French music can hardly be conceived.

It is part of a broad and versatile mastery that it is difficult to a.n.a.lyze. Thus it is not easy to find salient traits in the art of M.

Saint-Saens. We are apt to think mainly of the distinguished beauty of his harmonies, until we remember his subtle counterpoint, or in turn the brilliancy of his orchestration. The one trait that he has above his contemporaries is an inbred refinement and restraint,--a thorough-going workmanship. If he does not share a certain overwrought emotionalism that is much affected nowadays, there is here no limitation--rather a distinction. Aside from the general charm of his art, Saint-Saens found in the symphonic poem his one special form, so that it seemed Liszt had created it less for himself than for his French successor. A fine reserve of poetic temper saved him from hysterical excess. He never lost the music in the story, disdaining the mere rude graphic stroke; in his dramatic symbols a musical charm is ever commingled. And a like poise helped him to a right plot and point in his descriptions. So his symphonic poems must ever be enjoyed mainly for the music, with perhaps a revery upon the poetic story. With a less brilliant vein of melody, though they are not so Promethean in reach as those of Liszt, they are more complete in the musical and in the narrative effect.


Challenged for a choice among the works of the versatile composer, we should hit upon the _Danse Macabre_ as the most original, profound and essentially beautiful of all. It is free from certain lacks that one feels in other works, with all their charm,--a shallowness and almost frivolity; a facility of theme approaching the commonplace.

There is here an eccentric quality of humor, a daemonic conceit that reach the height of other cla.s.sic expression of the supernatural.

The music is founded upon certain lines of a poem of _Henri Calais_ (under a like t.i.tle), that may be given as follows:

Zig-a-zig, zig-a-zig-a-zig, Death knocks on the tomb with rhythmic heel.

Zig-a-zig, zig-a-zig-zig, Death fiddles at midnight a ghostly reel.

The winter wind whistles, dark is the night; Dull groans behind the lindens grow loud; Back and forth fly the skeletons white, Running and leaping each under his shroud.

Zig-a-zig-a-zig, how it makes you quake, As you hear the bones of the dancers shake.

But hist! all at once they vanish away, The c.o.c.k has hailed the dawn of day.

The magic midnight strokes sound clear and sharp. In eager chords of tuned pitch the fiddling ghost summons the dancing groups, where the single fife is soon followed by demon violins.

Broadly sings now the descending tune half-way between a wail and a laugh. And ever in interlude is the skipping, mincing step,--here of reeds answered by solo violin with a light clank of cymbals. Answering the summoning fifes, the unison troop of fiddlers dance the main step to bright strokes of triangle, then the main ghostly violin trips in with choir of wind. And broadly again sweeps the song between tears and

[Music: _In waltz rhythm_ (Flute) (Harp, with sustained ba.s.s note of strings)]

smiles. Or Death fiddles the first strain of reel for the tumultuous answer of chorus.

Now they build a busy, bustling fugue (of the descending song) and at the serious moment suddenly

[Music: (Solo violin) _Largamente_ (_Pizz._ strings)]

they skip away in new frolicsome, all but joyous, tune: a shadowy counterfeit of gladness, where the sob hangs on the edge of the smile.

As if it could no longer be contained, now pours the full pa.s.sionate grief of the broad descending strain. Death fiddles his mournful chant to echoing, expressive wind. On the abandon of grief follows the revel of grim humor in pranks of mocking demons. All the strains are mingled in the ghostly baccha.n.a.le. The descending song is answered in opposite melody. A chorus of laughter follows the tripping dance. The summoning chords, acclaimed by chorus, grow to appealing song in a brief lull. At the height, to the united skipping dance of overpowering chorus the bra.s.s blows the full verse of descending song. The rest is a mad storm of carousing till ... out of the whirling darkness sudden starts the sharp, sheer call of prosaic day, in high, shrill reed. On a minishing sound of rolling drum and trembling strings, sings a brief line of wistful rhapsody of the departing spirit before the last whisking steps.


On a separate page between t.i.tle and score is a "_Notice_,"--an epitome of the story of Phaeton, as follows:

"Phaeton has been permitted to drive the chariot of the Sun, his father, through the heavens. But his unskilful hands frighten the steeds. The flaming chariot, thrown out of its course, approaches the terrestrial regions. The whole universe is on the verge of ruin when Jupiter strikes the imprudent Phaeton with his thunderbolt."

There is a solemn sense at first (_Maestoso_), a mid-air poise of the harmony, a quick spring of resolution and--on through the heavens. At the outset and always is the pervading musical charm. In the beginning is the enchantment of mere motion in lightest prancing strings and harp with slowly ascending curve. In farther journey comes a spring of the higher wood and soon a firm note of horns and a blast of trumpets on a chirruping call, till the whole panoply of solar brilliance is shimmering. Now with the continuing pulse (of saltant strings) rings a buoyant,

[Music: _Allegro animato_ (Violins) _Marcato_ (Trumpets and trombones)]

regnant air in the bra.s.s. A (canon) chase of echoing voices merely adds an entrancing bewilderment, then yields to other symbols and visions.

Still rises the thread of pulsing strings to higher empyraean and then floats forth in golden horns, as we hang in the heavens, a melody tenderly solemn, as of pent delight, or perhaps of a more fatal hue, with the solar orb encircled by his satellites.

Still on to a higher pole spins the dizzy path; then at the top of the song, it turns in slow descending curve. Almost to Avernus seems the gliding fall when the first melody rings anew. But there is now an anxious sense that dims the joy of motion and in the

[Music: (With trembling of violins in high B flat) (Horns)]

returning first motive jars the buoyant spring. Through the maze of fugue with tinge of terror presses the fatuous chase, when--crash comes the shock of higher power. There is a pause of motion in the din and a downward flight as of lifeless figure.

Now seems the soul of the sweet melody to sing, in purest dirge, without the shimmer of attendant motion save a ghostly shadow of the joyous symbol.


The "Legend" is printed in the score as follows:

"Fable tells us that upon entering into life Hercules saw the two paths open before him: of pleasure and of virtue.

"Insensible to the seductions of Nymphs and Bacchantes, the hero devotes himself to the career of struggle and combat, at the end of which he glimpses across the flames of the funeral pyre the reward of immortality."

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Symphonies and Their Meaning Part 5 summary

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