Peace on Earth

I’ve never been so physically affected by a piece as I was by listening to a stunning performance of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden. 

This Sunday marked the closing concert of the Tanglewood 2019 summer season, and per tradition, it included a rousing, crowd-pleasing rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth enjoyed by all.  But that piece was prefaced by a first: the chorus singing on the Shed stage unaccompanied, with our chorus director James Burton conducting.  It was a reprise of Friede auf Erden, the closing number for the Friday prelude concert that I had missed. I was determined to hear it up close. So I waved my chorus pass in the faces of ushers and grabbed a good spot in the back row seats.

The piece is unrelentingly challenging for a chorus to sing — so much so, that Schoenberg was forced to write an instrumental accompaniment to support initial chorus performances. The tonality of the piece is constantly swirling, in complex voice leading dances that literally measure by measure transform from one harmonic space to the next. Triads are superimposed atop other triads.  A note that’s the third in one chord suddenly pivots in context to become the fifth of another.  The recurring word Friede has a theme that’s an odd but distinct juxtaposition of major chords.

Before the concert, I had experienced only brief flashes of the piece through some additional rehearsals that our conductor had arranged during my previous residencies.  He intended them as a jump start for choristers singing in this residency, but non-participants like me could join in. Those sing-throughs reminded me of the parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. As the parable goes, since each can only feel one part of the elephant at a time, they can’t truly explain or understand the whole beast. In those rehearsals, James often broke the piece down into two to four measure chunks, and walked through the extensive theory behind the phrases in each part. Here the basses were in one tonality, but pivoted two measures later to a related tonality as flats became sharps.  The sopranos get their entry note here, from this tenor note there; the altos and basses should target tuning to this perfect fifth like so, because they’re leading the way for the other voices to turn the dominant into the new tonic, and so on. James patiently (and excitedly) talked through the harmonic logic like a magician showing an apprentice where to hide the foam balls to make the trick work. I walked away from that with an appreciation of the complexity of the piece… but I only got to feel the trunk and the tusks.

With translation in hand, I sat with rapt attention and quickly lost myself in the piece. An MRI on my brain would have shown it lighting up all over, trying to keep pace with the harmonies, but also suddenly appreciating the powerful story being told. Divorced from the clinical this-then-this nature of the rehearsal segments, the totality of the piece consumed my cognition. At the warmup, James told the chorus singers that above all, they should move the audience. Fully concentrated on what I was hearing, I was subsumed by the emotional subtexts and subtleties that I had no idea were buried in the twists and turns of the harmonics. Somehow James and the chorus were bringing them out.  My invisible internal objects were fully connected as dissonant counterpoints became dramatic storytelling.

Then, at the closing lines of the piece…. how do I explain this? As the powerful choral forces climaxed and came into alignment with a brilliant D major finale, my shoulders started uncontrollably heaving.  There were no tears in my eyes, but my upper body just sort of began convulsing as if I were sobbing.  I felt so shaken by the enormity of the anti-war, somewhat naive message of hope: denouncing the complexity of our world and its faults, the bloody swords and shameful behavior of its population, with angels pleading for us to return to the Peace on Earth message they proclaimed at the Nativity, and us unable to get there on our own… but that some day we will get there, and that peace will once again be glorious. I was overcome for a few moments by the beauty and futility of it all right before the applause started, and then as the applause died I had sort of an aftershock as I returned to our family’s picnic spread.

To my wife, and all the other chorus members of that performance: all the hard work you put into perfecting those chromatic turns, aligning vertically with other parts, chanting text in warmups together, and pushing to get that last 5% of performance perfection… know that it was worth it and you achieved something monumental.  I can’t speak for what Beethoven-loving Romantic-era-craving audience members thought of it, but I was deeply moved. Congratulations.

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