- 13 December, 2013
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I do find it difficult to keep up with all the new words that are finding an accepted place in dictionaries nowadays. Although I’m told that it’s been around for at least twenty years, I’ve only just caught up with the meaning of ‘twerking’ (something that at my age is no longer viable on the dance floor anyway). Then there’s a ‘looky-loo’, which is a sort of bystander of a window-shopper, who prefers gawking to hawking, so you won’t find the word being used very much in London’s Harrods or New York’s Macy’s in the next few weeks.
Although I can’t muster the enthusiasm to take one, at least I’m well-acquainted with the term ‘selfie’. Taking a snapshot of yourself on your mobile device and posting it wherever your ego takes you is now common practice. This got me to thinking about musical selfies.
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t write a symphony about myself. I think I’m at least as interesting as
Napoleon or Alexander.” Thus spake Richard Strauss who then proceeded to write his Symphonia Domestica (8.571216) to record the domestic happiness he enjoyed with his wife Pauline and their son Franz. Each has their own theme, and Strauss’ original intention was to include in the work “a triple fugue [that] will bring together Papa, Mama and Baby.”
Less rose-tinted was the rationale for Dmitry Shostakovich‘s weaving of a reference to himself into several of his works. To understand how this was possible, his surname needs to be presented in the alternative spelling of Schostakovich. Taken with the initial of his first name, the first four letters now spell out D-S-C-H. Using the German nomenclature, this equates to the notes D, E flat, C, B. Applying the motif was his cryptic method of standing in defiance of Joseph Stalin and the atrocities he committed in the Soviet Union.
Shostakovich had been heavily bruised by Stalin’s rubbishing of his music, notably in the Pravda newspaper article that attacked a performance of his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District in 1936. The composer fell in and out of favour with the dictator over many years and it’s interesting to note how the end of his Tenth Symphony (8.572461), completed in October 1953, seems to set a seal on this underlying enmity by crushing the music representing Lenin with clear statements of the D-S-C-H motif. Stalin had died in March of that same year. But Shostakovich’s inclusion of the motto in his sorrowful String Quartet No. 8 (8.550973), written in 1960, is less of an exercise in triumphalism. It carries the inscription:
“In memory of the victims of fascism and war.”
Many composers had to tweak their names to be able to incorporate a selfie in their works. Robert Schumann discarded letters 4, 5, 7 and 8 from his surname to give S-C-H-A (E flat-C-B-A) and used the resulting motif to allude to himself in Carnaval (8.550784), his collection of short pieces for piano solo, which also exploits several other cryptograms.
Perhaps the most commonly found use of a composer’s name, however, takes the form of reverence rather than vanity. The motif B-A-C-H (B equates to B flat in the German system) has been used by numerous composers to honour the memory of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Schumann himself wrote Six Fugues on the Name of Bach, which can be performed on the pedal piano or organ. Franz Liszt wrote a mighty Fantasia and Fugue on The Theme B-A-C-H, also for organ, with the motif thundering out on the pedals at the dramatic opening; the composer later transcribed the work for solo piano (Marco Polo 8.220399). Max Reger produced his tribute, also written for organ and using the same title as Liszt’s, in 1900; and the theme can also be found in Schoenberg‘s 1928 Variations for Orchestra Op. 31 (8.557522).
All these and other composers had a good example to follow, since Bach himself popped his selfie into a number of works, including The Art of Fugue and the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her (8.550927).
Perhaps the composer who most deserves the title King of the Selfies, however, is Arnold Schoenberg. In addition to being a composer, music theorist and teacher, he was also an accomplished painter. Several self-portraits appear in his catalogue, where the themes of gazing and visions recur, but I bet he never foresaw the development of the technological ease and wizardry of the 21st century. Thank goodness, however, that the easel hasn’t become extinct in the process.