Betrayal as Artistic Technique

In any given medium there is an established relationship between the composer, musician, artist, author, (etc.) and the audience. We often waltz into concert halls or museums, start novels and short stories with abandon, not realizing there can be emotional consequences. We forget sometimes that art and knowledge can be moving; dangerously so because the violation of the established relationship with an audience is a tool great artists have in their arsenal.
Many of us listen to music or look to art for some kind of aesthetic pleasure. Who doesn’t (at least outwardly profess to) enjoy beauty, education, and culture? But often the manufacturer of the art has a different view of what the established relationship is; the purpose of their art is not just beauty, but truth and truth in life.
In our society…one that values the arts as something that is Good for us, we often trust the manufacturer subconsciously. We go to movies and concerts thinking they will be like Wheaties for the soul not knowing that what is “good for us”, especially as a society is sometimes a betrayal and ravaging on the personal front. People and their societies do not need a bland Arts!, but a dangerous one where composers and artists are willing to betray and violate their audiences the way life does.

Some recent artistic betrayals in my own life:

Betrayal N. 1 (how is this not a perfume name already?)
– I had the pleasure of hearing Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony twice recently. This is a lot compared to how many times I’ve heard it before…(never.) The 2nd movement, while being utterly beautiful, has a lot of trouble deciding on an identity as nebulous and brooding or a hopeful song from Cinderella. At the end of the movement, the Cinderella theme having been through too much from the brooding aspects of the movement is stated in three broken exhales. Gradually, the strings restate the theme, now a shimmery farewell. When they’re just about to disappear, a single clarinet blooms and ends the piece with a slight lean (appoggiatura* on e) before the last note d.

This was a beautiful movement to hear on its own. The multiple cadences at the very end gave the movement and theme a finality and rest (finally, D major!) The next movement starts as a frothy ambling thing, very pleasant to listen to, though the mode vacillating to minor makes the listener cautious. Even though this movement is in A major, it always seems like it is about to go back to the theme of the 2nd movement which is confusing after how finally it ended. In the live performance of the 3rd movement that I saw, I was pretty confused by this innocuous movement which seems almost unaware of itself.  It ends triumphantly and painfully in A Major. Painful because it is a series of V-I’s but the V’s are all minor. So it goes, d minor, A major, d minor, A major. This d minor makes for a bittersweet end to the movement anyway, but especially in context with the 2nd movement. Before the last few A major cadences, the whole orchestra is pulsing d and e, and getting faster and faster before erupting in d minor, and ultimately, A major. The orchestra pulses and gets faster on the reversed notes of the previous movement, undoing all the rest achieved and destabilizing the note “d” as a note we identify with as home and rest. If you’ve really gotten attached to “d” as a place of rest, you could even say Tchaikovsky is destabilizing your identity and trust. We can call this one Tchaikovsky gives you home, you trust him, and he takes it away in the next movement. Like taking candy from a baby.

Betrayal N. 2
-We are playing Mendelssohn Italian Symphony in CityMusic Cleveland this week. The first movement is primarily a sunny and joyful A major. After an intense fugue and development buildup, there is a massive arrival and statement of the theme in C Major. The recap doesn’t happen (for us) until the next page. So what is this C Major doing here? And why does it hurt so much? Because C major is good, but not when it isn’t what the composer has established to be good for the moment. And it hurts because we are trying everything we can to get out of this terribly stressful development section, even if it means just arriving temporarily on another key. Which just goes to show, what’s good isn’t always good at the wrong time. (and countless other cliches, really…)

Betrayal N. 3
-This is not a recent betrayal, but I still think about it probably once a week. A few years ago I read a novel… “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.” After finishing the book around midnight in the summer, I stayed up until 3 am in despair. I could not believe the ending to a book could hurt me this much. Who would end it this way? Why would you do this to your audience after the commitment of getting to the end? Don’t get me wrong, this is a really fun read… the writing acrobatics are incredible and it is highly entertaining as well as intelligent. But because of a difference in established relationship opinions, I did not expect the author to give me such a life-like ending. Since I read the book years ago, Things have happened in life and I feel I am better prepared having been through a small taste of a similar betrayal. Having seen a character live through some of these things, I know better how to proceed. I bring this book into the discussion mainly because I want to show how betrayal is also a literary technique and because I think that this kind of emotional response is what will help books and music endure in the future. I still think about and recommend this book so many years later because of the emotional impact. 

*some thoughts on the appoggiatura.
The appoggiatura comes from the Italian “to lean” and is an ornamental note that “temporarily displaces and subsequently resolves” to the main note. For me, the appoggiatura is an act of rebellion. I have often encountered appoggiaturas at the ends of slower cadences or pieces. (This doesn’t mean that’s where they usually are, but rather speaks to my limited hearing of music.) Take the Tchaikovsky 2nd movement ending. To me, the end of that movement really sounds like a final resting; a death. The appoggiatura then, is for me the theme or “hero”, gracefully refusing to go into the mundanity of finality without an individual gesture. A leaning into or accepting of the situation? An extra clandestine inhale? Curving of the lips into a smile? Whatever it is, it is an act of individuality in the face of Death, the thing which recognizes no individuality, and because it is eventually hopeless to fight Death, to die yourself seems a rebellious victory to me.

thanks for reading!

Ling Ling

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