(This post was originally published in 2008, reprinted with slight updates.)
In 2008, the Metropolitan Museum held an extraordinary exhibition of paintings by Nicolas Poussin, the great master of landscape painting. Walking through the show was an exciting and emotionally gripping experience.
Surprising? The general conception of landscape paintings are as the art of choice for people with no interest in art; as safe and pleasingly banal as it gets. But there is nothing paint-by-numbers with Poussin. Amidst the extraordinary beauty and breadth of the pictures is a tiny piece of human drama, often tragic or unresolved, and also seen at some point in the middle of the action, a narrative that we’ve somehow caught in the middle, and the only context we have is the physical world in which Poussin places it. This gives the pictures a truly powerful sense of drama and tension, they are entrancing and unsettling at the same time.
And we should be unsettled. If we look beyond the superficial aspects of landscape paintings, then we are in the realm of nature, and we see it without ever truly belonging to it. We regard nature through our consciousness and our self-consciousness, but nature does not regard us back, it doesn’t even know we exist. The vistas of Poussin or Thomas Cole would be in place even if no human ever stood before them. The indifference of nature to us is a measure of its power, before which we should be both amazed and terrified – this is the scarred and forbidding rock of the sublime before which the Enlightenment crumbled into the Modern world, full of people fueled by the unstable amalgamation of logic and enthusiasm. Modern man faces nature with the same experience of Poussin’s shepherds, as a seeming Arcadia in which death has the ultimate say.
Of course, contemporary man has a perverted view of nature. As I look out my window in this moment I see tree branches rising amid brick townhouses and apartment buildings, congestion on the BQE, an Ikea sign, ferries and barges on the water and the infrastructure of the Port of Newark in the distance, with airliners crossing the horizon. Except for technology, not a great deal different from what Ralph Vaughan Williams confronted most days. Vaughan Williams lived in a modern, western country, and yet is seen as the ne plus ultra of pastoral composers, and that mainly on the basis of a few especially pleasing and consonant works amidst a vast production of music. There is always something sublime the Arcadia he depicts.
He’s most famous for his Symphony No. 3, the Pastoral symphony, but don’t hold that against him – more people know of that work than know it, and so think of RVW as a bucolic english farmer. The Pastoral symphony is the depiction of landscape, but it’s not the English countryside of myth, prior to the building of the dark, satanic mills – it’s the French countryside, underneath which were buried the bodies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians. The elegiac trumpet that calls from a great distance is just as alone and death haunted as the english horn in the Symphonie Fantastique, which realizes that it’s companion was merely an echo. And the solo voice that opens the final movement seems to be coming from the depths of the deep tunnel that Wilfred Owen saw in his nightmares.
That is RVW’s landscape, one of the mind and soul. It is the Romantic landscape, the vista of the inner eye. Fundamentally it is unknowable and mysterious, although evocative and enticing. The path of his symphonies after the third brings us through some strange and dark territory. While his 5th can be heard as a concentrated, powerful exploration of beauty, the rest would seem to belong to a Surrealist; the 4th is aggressively brutal and is commonly seen as pre-figuring World War II; the 6th is a puzzle piece that begins with great energy and tapers off into distant, attenuated mediation, seemingly on the threat of nuclear war; the 7th, originally accompaniment to a film about Scott’s disaster at the south pole, is another landscape piece that limns an alien and forbidding territory; the 8th and 9th are fascinating and impenetrable in equal measure, very much like Shostakovich’s 15th symphony, works which the ear eagerly follows and leave the mind with no idea what they are about.
I have concentrated on RVW because he opens the door on landscape in music, but he’s not alone. A companion of his is Bruckner, another great painter of aural landscapes, which again are scenes that exist only in his mind. Like the wanderer above the fog, in the greatest work of Caspar David Friedrich, Bruckner finds himself at a point which it seems impossible to reach, and contemplates the mystery of it all. Call it navel-gazing, but it is of the very highest form, unafraid to consider the greatest doubts and insecurities; Bruckner is simultaneously exalting the point at which he finds himself and almost terrified by the idea that he does not deserve to be there.
All of which make the great Romantic symphonists great companions, especially on those nights when talk is impossible, when the only understanding companion is the radio. Some of the greatest pleasures I’ve had in life are late nights in bed, tired and restless, and turning on a low-fidelity clock radio. Classical music stations not infrequently abandon the Baroque and Classical top 40 late at night for the longer, deeper, darker works of Romanticism. I first heard RVW’s 9th and Prokoviev’s 7th in just those moments, and was gripped by hearing music in conventional form but so full surprises and idiosyncrasies. It seemed I was hearing a profound riddle of a bed-time story, a lullaby of contemplation, and in my own moments of fear and doubt knew that there were others listening in tandem to the broadcast, and that the radio was offering companionship to us, and that we were not alone.