Pre-Virus, Music Often Reveled In Sound Of Silence

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György Ligeti wrote eight pianos, indicating extreme softness, in the fourth of his Piano Etudes.

COMMENTARY – Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has silenced thousands of musical events around the globe, leaving a huge vacuum in the world of sound. What better time to take a look at the phenomenon of silence in music? While the very idea may seem at first a contradiction in terms, innumerable composers have sought either to evoke or to invoke silence in sound in various ways.

The iconic example is of course John Cage’s infamous 4’33”, a “composition” for which a pianist comes on stage, sits at the piano, plays nothing for the duration of the title, then leaves. The “composition” is in fact the noise in the concert hall  – a disturbing thought! The first “performance” of 4’33” was given by David Tudor in 1952; well over half a century later, it is still sending out reverberations as audiences, at least in North America, become increasingly noisy.

But Cage’s work is not really a depiction of silence; rather, it draws our attention to the contrast between notated and non-notated sounds. Non-notated sounds “appear in the written music as silences, opening the doors of the music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment,” wrote Cage in 1961. “In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

In John Cage’s ‘4’33,’ a pianist comes on stage, sits at the piano, plays nothing for the duration of the title, then leaves.

Even if true silence is impossible, composers still attempt to write extreme quietude into their music. One of the most famous examples is the final movement, “Neptune,” of The Planets by Gustav Holst. In music that seeks to depict the quiet mystery and frozen silence of deep space, the composer directs the orchestra to play pianissimo throughout.

Adding to the effectiveness of the scoring, which features the icy sound of the celesta and shimmering harps, is a wordless female chorus, which at the end sings alone, slowly fading into silence and leaving the listener with the impression that its song nevertheless continues on into the infinity of space. One recalls Irving Berlin’s words (though in a very different context!), “The song is ended but the melody lingers on,” the first line of his popular song from 1927. The end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde provide further examples of this phenomenon.

Another entire orchestral movement whose effect depends on total, pervasive pianissimo is the Epilogue (fourth movement) of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony. The lack of dynamic shading in the fugal treatment of its ghostly theme, and the absolute insistence by the composer that the music remain gray, featureless, and forbiddingly bleak, has given rise to the belief that he was trying to depict a vision of a desolate world in the aftermath of some future nuclear war (the symphony’s first performance was given in 1946). When properly performed, its impact can be devastating. Deryck Cooke reported, following its premiere, that “the Symphony, as a work of art, more than deserved the overwhelming applause it got, but I was no more able to applaud than at the end of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony  ̶  less so, in fact, for this seemed to be an ultimate nihilism beyond Tchaikovsky’s conceiving: every drop of blood seemed frozen in one’s veins.”

Beginnings can be just as quiet and mysterious, with the music seemingly coming out of nowhere. Well-known examples are Bruckner’s two most popular symphonies, the Fourth and Seventh. Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé begins at the very threshold of audibility, with just the faintest murmur of low strings. But the most elemental of all beginnings is surely the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, which evokes a primordial state of creation. One does not so much hear the single pitch E-flat, deep in the double basses, as sense a vibration in the air.

The end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony becomes softer and softer before dying away.

Entire compositions have been entitled Pianissimo  – by Donald Martino, Alfred Schnittke, and Bengt Hambraeus. Saint-Saëns and Enseco wrote songs entitled Silence, James MacMillan a symphony (No. 3), John Weinzweig and Nikolai Myaskovsky symphonic poems, Kalevi Aho and Halvor Haug short pieces for string orchestra, and Sofia Gubaidulina five pieces for accordion, violin and cello. John Tavener wrote Towards Silence, Timothy Geller Where Silence Reigns, Wim Henderickx In Deep Silence, Jonathan Harvey From Silence, and Pavel Mihelčič Return to Silence. The antithesis to all this quietude might well be Brian Current’s This Isn’t Silence, a work that rises quickly to fortississimo and stays there for most of its 12-minute duration.     

To be sure of getting the orchestra to play super softly, Puccini wrote pppp at the end of Act I of La bohème. Likewise, Tchaikovsky wrote four ps in the last bar of the Pathétique Symphony, went up to five at the end of the slow movement of the Manfred Symphony, and six in the first movement of the Pathétique for first bassoon (often replaced in this four-note passage by bass clarinet, which can play much softer), just before the development section begins with a “bang.” But even six ps apparently weren’t enough for Ligeti, who wrote eight of them in the fourth of his Piano Etudes and at the beginning of his Cello Concerto.

Pulitzer prize-winning composer Michael Colgrass came up with a clever idea that combined quietude with whimsy. As Quiet As (1967) was inspired by the answers of fourth-grade children asked by their teacher to complete the sentence beginning “Let’s be as quiet as …” Colgrass chose seven responses, including a leaf turning color, an ant walking, time passing, and the first star coming out. Though it is written for large orchestra, instruments are used sparingly, and the predominant dynamic level is soft to very soft. Nevertheless, there is an occasional forte and even one fortississimo, whose effect is all the more startling as it comes out of an environment of near silence. “My purpose was to depict the very nature of each metaphor, as if I were demonstrating to a blind person the essence of [each phenomenon],” explained Colgrass.

Operaphiles can point to two operas that focus on silence: In La Muette de Portici by Daniel-François Auber (1828), the title character (La Muette — French for a mute girl or woman) sings not a single word; the role is taken by a dancer or mime. The title role in Richard Strauss’ comic opera Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman, 1935) goes to a soprano who actually sings, but the plot centers around the search for a wife who is something more than a mere chatterbox. In Puccini’s Turandot, the title character makes a brief, silent appearance in Act I, but does not begin singing until midway through Act II. And then in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, we find Papageno sworn to a vow of silence as part of his initiation ceremony, a vow that this lovable character manages to keep for barely a few minutes.   

Tchaikovsky writes six pianos in the first movement of the Pathétique for first bassoon (often replaced in this four-note passage by bass clarinet, which can play much softer).

Norwegian composer Halvor Haug points out that “silence can be perceived in many different ways; some experience it as depressive, whilst others feel great freedom, or both for that matter, depending on what sort of a mood one is in and what one is searching for. A contemplative person would feel silence on the surface, as something calm and quiet, whilst deep inside a turmoil may be raging. As a threatening force, silence can appear to be cold, but when truly desired, silence can be a sheltered bower, warm and cozy.”

It is surely in this “warm and cozy bower” that Dvořák’s Silent Woods belongs, a beautiful miniature for solo cello and piano (later orchestrated) inspired by walks in the quietude of the countryside. Written in a similar romantic vein is The Sleeping Forest by the Norwegian Arvid Kleven. Born of “the overwhelming silence of the forest,” this lushly orchestrated, 12-minute symphonic poem would do credit to a Richard Strauss or a Delius in its splendid depiction of natural beauty. And speaking of the beauty of silent forests, let’s not forget Sibelius’ Tapiola, his last orchestral work and one of his best – a creation of near-uniform grayness, oppressive darkness, and pervasive quietude occasionally punctuated with fearsome outbursts, and depicting the vast, silent forests of the north.

Perhaps it is only natural that composers have attempted to evoke silence in their music, for as Aldous Huxley noted in his collection of essays Music at Night (1931), “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10, contains extremely thin textures and hushed dynamics punctuated more by silence than by sound.

Huxley’s observation brings to mind an amusing anecdote. At a performance of Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10, music of extremely thin textures and hushed dynamics, punctuated more by silence than by sound, one concertgoer commented to his neighbor, “If the composer didn’t want us to hear it, why did he write it?”

Probably the most famous silence in the popular repertory is that moment in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony where, following a passage in which the full orchestra has been playing at full throttle for some time, there is a sudden and total cessation of sound. We go back a few decades to the era when proper Bostonian ladies religiously “went to Symphony” on Friday afternoons, whether they liked classical music or not. It was the thing to do. At one concert, when that moment of silence arrived in the Tchaikovsky symphony, loud and clear from the back of the hall a voice could be heard exclaiming “ … but I always fry mine in butter.”

Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S., and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News, and Opera Canada.