[All links in this post are to Spotify unless otherwise indicated.]
Junior year, thru a convoluted chain of circumstances, I found myself in possession of an omnibus edition of Walt Whitman's poetry. Now that I actually have time to read for pleasure, I've been making my way thru the leaves, taking the opportunity to connect with a part of my cultural heritage.
Many of the poems, of course, are famous in their own right — this is far from my first exposure to "O Captain! My Captain" or the rambling "Song of Myself". Many of the others, unsurprisingly, are totally new to me, obscure outpourings from the nineteenth century. Some of them are striking, others forgettable, but they're all new to me. But then there are the ones I know thru a sideways route, the ones that composers have set — in whole or in part — to music that I know well.
As I flip from page to page, my head is periodically invaded by melodies written decades, even more than a century, after the lines that trigger them. The ones I don't know well may trigger only the briefest of notes, or a vague half-forgotten sound-color from a concert I played back in high school, but the ones I know well take over and control my entire reading, dictating the pace at which I take in each line. And sometimes something jarring: A composer omitted a line or entire passage, and the music in my head goes into an awkward holding pattern, uncomfortably waiting for the familiar words to resume. Whatever Whitman wanted, his version will always feel wrong next to the one Vaughan Williams, Hindemith, or Adams pre-installed in my head.
I can never unhear these things. I can never read the "Song for All Seas, All Ships" without Vaughan Williams standing over my shoulder, can never bathe in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" without Hindemith whispering in my ear. Nor, in a similar vein, can I see a version of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream without being surprised at moments when the actors don't burst into song.
Dmitri Shostakovich's fifteenth symphony is a brooding, cryptic work shot thru with quotations from earlier works. The first movement, in particular, periodically bursts out into the finale of the William Tell Overture, bouncing along for a few bars of Rossini before haring off back into the fragmented landscape of Shostakovich. It's not easy to say what these quotes are doing there. They're not a clear parody — as is Bartók's treatment [ca 2'00"] of Shostakovich's seventh symphony [pertinent bit at ca 7'45"] in the Concerto for Orchestra — nor are the obviously a challenge or homage — think Brahms tipping his hat to Beethoven's ninth symphony or Mahler looping back to do the same thing to Brahms in turn [Kenneth Woods's blog]. Instead they feel like memories, echoes, devoid of context. These things happened, and I remember them. "These fragments I have shored against my ruins" [The Poetry Foundation].
These connexions run both ways. Shostakovich is tied backwards to Rossini, but Rossini is also tied forward to Shostakovich. Just as I can never read the "Beat! Beat! Drums!" without thinking of Vaughan Williams's Dona Nobis Pacem, I can never hear the William Tell Overture without drifting into the phantasmagoria of Shostakovich's final symphony.
We sometimes talk about cultural traditions as tho they're made of a bunch of discrete works, but this isn't wholly true. Even leaving aside the question of what counts as a "work", these things are embedded in a tangled network of association and commentary. They bleed across boundaries, forward and backward in time, contaminating each other with traces of their influence. Vaughan Williams sets Whitman, and suddenly the American Civil War poet is tied up with inter-war Britain (and associated with John Bright and the Book of Isaiah). Murakami writes a piece by Janáček into a series of books [Wikipedia], and Czech trumpet fanfares become pertinent to alternate realities. Hindemith cannibalizes Bach, and a Baroque fugue gains connotations of appropriated Ragtime.
This, after all, is what it means to work in a tradition. Traditions aren't built by the mere accumulation of inert work after inert work, but by the interaction, the linkage, the bickering and back-and-forth. New works aren't incorporated by repetition alone, they're bound together by the other things they point at, and the subsequent things that point to them, whether in honor, critique, challenge, or merely echo, association, memory. Working in the western art music tradition is much less like adding bricks to an expansive building and much more like adding a few choice ingredients to a vast cauldron of endless recombination, where, with enough time, everything bleeds over into everything else. These works aren't atoms in a rigid crystal lattice, but dancers in a free-wheeling dance, mixing with great abandon, leaving something behind and taking something forward at every turn, whether pulling from melodic stylings of Rossini or Bach or the words of Whitman or Shakespeare. To work in it isn't to etch clean, new facets, but to join the rowdy dance.
*I'm aware of the Vaughan Williams setting of this text, of course, but the one I have in my head is by Theodore Morrison, which, sadly, doesn't seem to have been recorded, or perhaps even formally published.