I’ve just listened to a recent recording of Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony by The Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Nielsen named it “The Inextinguishable” and gave us to understand that, in a very broad way, it’s about the spirit of humanity surviving whatever is thrown at it.
I’ve always liked this symphony since the first time I heard it on a recording by the Cincinnati Symphony long long ago. (I think I’ve heard it only once in a concert hall, I’m sorry to say.) Now, “like” is the wrong word, of course. I don’t exactly like being battered about and whipsawed and overwhelmed by dissonant battles between two sets of timpani. It might be better to say that I’ve always been captured by the piece. It takes command of my attention and never turns it loose.
There are elements of it, to be sure, that are quite pleasing to the ear, even occasionally quite lovely. And I think they’re essential to the work’s power, just as they’re essential to any account of human life. But what makes all the violence of the symphony so riveting—at least to me?
One clue comes from the coincidence that I’m currently re-reading Euripides’ Medea to accompany my friend Nancy through it. She is gamely tangling with the complexities of Attic tragedy, its complex constructions, specialized vocabulary, and allusive style—a challenging job for someone whose first exposure to ancient Greek was in terms of the New Testament. And, I confess, it’s been challenging for me, too. But then it has been more than fifty years since I first read it in an undergraduate Greek course.
But there is something mysteriously powerful about reading Greek tragedy in Greek, something no translation that I have encountered quite manages to convey. The performances of Greek tragedy I’ve seen have also missed it. The problem seems to be that a Greek tragedy starts at such a peak of crisis and emotion that there is no place for modern actors, used to more realist styles, to go from there. The first scene is already fraught and well before the play is over my emotions are exhausted and increasingly unresponsive.
So what makes a Greek tragedy so powerful when read in Greek? I often think one vital component is that the tragic course of events is presented in a poetic speech that was distinct from everyday language and so created a sphere of action that was not itself realistic but aimed at going deeper than realism. In some ways that may sound like modern Surrealism, but it’s not at all the same. It doesn’t replace the everyday world with one full of private symbols (melting watches and so forth); it just gives you, as it were, a different set of eyeglasses with which to view it. Another vital component is the poet’s capacity and willingness to evoke great beauty even in the context of the tragic action. Somehow, in the face of disaster, the poetry manages to give us reminders of beauty, coherence, hope, endurance.
Elder’s interpretation of “The Inextinguishable” is certainly among the best I have heard, possibly the very best. Disparate elements—the struggling charm of the allegretto, the grimness of the adagio, the hopeful theme of the finale, the brutal interruptions, the approach to chaos, the final reassertion of the human will to continue despite it all—all stand alongside one another without apology and therefore interpret one another and limit one another.
Julian Haylock, who wrote the liner notes for this recording describes the ending as “a blaze of E major that, far from being an exultant triumph, sounds as though it is pounding the music into submission.” Actually, in this performance, not quite. “Pounding” suggests desperation. There is a strength in the E major intervention that belies that. Perhaps we should be desperate after so many reminders of human frailty, but we are not. We’ve been reminded that there is something more beneath the surface, that there is a beauty and wonder in human life, even when it is under enormous pressure. The conclusion, as a result, is not merely defiant. It is, as Nielsen christened it, “inextinguishable.”