Ire and Fury

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

So wrote William Congreve in 1697, as the opening lines of his poem The Mourning Bride. I’m sure we’ve all experienced music’s power to calm us down, chill us out and turn our doldrums into a more optimistic state of mind. But how about the reverse of the coin? How do composers summon up the atmosphere of fury in their works with writing that can impart intimidation, or at least give a third-party description of the emotion?

I’ve chosen some extracts to exemplify the sounds composers imagine when appending the word furioso to the performance directions for their music. We have to advise some caution when thinking of the phrase ‘fast and furious’, which simply implies extreme speed, and not depth of emotion. So, how well does Allegro furioso translate into musical settings? You can decide for yourself, whilst maybe getting to know a few relatively unknown works in the process.

Slightly with tongue in cheek (but only a little!) we start with the Concerto for Alphorn and Orchestra (8.555978) by the Swiss composer Jean Daetwyler (1907–1994). The composer recalled his reaction on first hearing the request to write such a piece:

“I burst out laughing and objected that nothing could be done with an instrument that could produce so few notes [five]. When I heard it, I no longer hesitated. I noted at once on a scrap of paper what the instrument could do, its good and bad notes, the notes it could slur or separate, and the possible speed of articulation. When I returned home, I wrote in a few hours the first movement of my concerto.”

The finale is headed Barbaro – Furioso – Barbaro. Here’s an extract.

On slightly more familiar territory, I’ve chosen music by Eugène Ysaÿe for our next example: his Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor (8.572995). The fourth and final movement is headed Les Furies: Allegro furioso. In Greek mythology, the Furies were female infernal goddesses of vengeance who pursued their victims relentlessly and struck down offenders with madness. And there is none better to paint such a scene of furious torment than Naxos Artist Tianwa Yang.

Now to music by Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983), the foremost Argentinian composer of his epoch, who developed his art over the years into a profound synthesis of national and contemporary elements. His style evolved from the vividly nationalistic works of his early years into a musical language that was modernistic yet constantly evoked the roots of his cultural identity. By the time he wrote his String Quartet No. 2 (8.570780) in 1958, Ginastera had progressed to his third phase, that of neo-expressionism, involving serial composition, microtones, indeterminacy, and polytonality. The quartet’s finale, marked Furioso, brings the work to an exciting conclusion with agitated rhythms, perpetual motion, syncopations and explosive energy.

Anyone who has been scolded by an authority figure knows how the silences between the expressions of displeasure can be even more intimidating than the outbursts. Music by György Ligeti (1923–2006) seems to exemplify this notion of controlled fury during the fourth movement of his Second String Quartet (8.570781), its five-movement format recalling the quartets of Bartók. The work was written in 1968. The fourth movement, blending brutal sounds and glacial inaction, is headed Presto furioso, brutale, tumultuoso.

Furioso (8.555884) is probably the best known work by the Swiss composer Rolf Liebermann (1910–1999). In the 1960s, 70s and 80s he held administrative posts at radio stations and opera houses; this took him away from his composing pursuits. His orchestral work Furioso, however, was written much earlier; the first performance in 1947 was conducted by Liebermann’s friend and patron, Hermann Scherchen. It’s cast in a simple tripartite structure; here’s the first section.

The Catalan composer Benet Casablancas was born in 1956. One of his best known works is Seven Scenes from Hamlet (8.579004). Premiered in 1989, it was commissioned by the Barcelona Teatre Lliure Chamber Orchestra, and is described as “a theatrical mosaic of images inspired by the play’s depiction of the world beyond the grave, unbridled passions and the maelstrom of life at court.” For Casablancas, Shakespeare was the supreme master of that power to stir the emotions. Here’s the opening of the suite’s closing scene, The Ending: Allegro furioso.

Finally, to the music of Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975). One can only begin to imagine the emotional implications of having to work as a composer under the repressive Stalinist regime for most of his life. He wrote his Tenth String Quartet (8.550977) during a 10-day period in July, 1964. The work is dedicated to the composer Moisey Weinberg, who had been briefly held in detention in 1953. Shostakovich held the highly prolific and original composer in great esteem. The string quartet’s second movement is headed Allegretto furioso. Don’t be fooled by the diminutive -etto. These four staves of music are seriously mad with each other.

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