Monday, 20 February 2017

Creativity and aging.

In this blog I want to make reference to the first movement of Ralph Vaughan William’s 9th symphony, his last symphony, but before considering some features of the music I would like to reflect on how age plays a part in the creative process, and how it may help us understand RVW’s symphony and other 9ths.

Most of us associate one’s later years with decline. Our newspapers are filled with the notion that the growing numbers of over 60’s, over 80’s and over 100’s are an increasing burden on our financial resources and services. Younger members of society are encouraged to take out pensions to guarantee their well-being into extreme old age.

It may surprise some readers to know that this view of decline is not universally held and there are challenges to the notion that the reduction of ability and physical well-being is an inevitable result of age, rather they are a result of treatable disorders. In the simplest terms the difficulties we associate with age can be regarded as a challenge to physicians to find remedies. In terms of creativity we have the potential to keep developing our ideas into extreme old age.

We recognize that many musicians retain their powers of expression and interpretation into late life, many conductors continue their careers well past their 80th year, (Karl Boehm, 86; Adrian Boult, 100; Arturo Toscanini, 90; Leopold Stokowski, 96, Boulez 90) and a glance at the works produced by Elliott Carter after his hundredth birthday shows that artistic enquiry remained a significant factor to the end of his life.

We must move away from the belief that such people as mentioned above are the exceptions to the rule, many artistic fields have similar examples, and I understand that for folk-art the larger proportion of craftsmen/women are in the later stages of life.

Psychologists have identified an inner compulsion towards creative work throughout our life,
but also recognize that this compulsion changes in the way it manifests itself.

There are recognizable periods or phases in the approaches we take to creativity in our“second-half” of life. Psychologists have also stated that people have a greater sensitivity to their inner-world and creative imagination in later life.

A link may help those who wish to look at greater detail into the phases of creativity in ageing,
it is not an overlong PDF:

Cohen (the author of the above PDF) identifies the following stages:

“Midlife Revaluation”: confronting one’s own mortality.

“Liberation” phase: freedom from paid work and the time available to follow own interests.

“Summing-up” phase. Looking at the events of one’s past and creating a narrative from these

“Encore” phase: reaffirming beliefs and opinions and exploring variations on those opinions.

Earlier reference was made to 9th symphonies, there are of course late symphonies which are 10ths, Maxwell Davies’s is a recent example. Written during his treatment for leukaemia (approaching his 80th birthday) it revisits interests developed in his time as a student in Rome and his awareness of the architect Borromini. The architecture of music is a key consideration for Davies, this short quote gives a flavor of his thinking:

One has to try as a composer, I feel, to improve the quality of listening by putting pointers in one's work to help people to hear in a way, not so much as they did, but which will make clear to them the new architecture which is crystallising out of the music of the early part of this century.

I mention these points as they show aspects of the phases referred to earlier. Whether 9th, 10th or 32nd (as in the case of Brian), it is the maturity reached through working a set of large scale composition that interests me here.

RVW’s 9th symphony (in E minor) was composed during the period 1956 to 1957. Vaughan Williams died on the 26 August, the day on which the symphony was due to be recorded by Sir Adrian Boult, (there is a 30" recording of Boult sharing the news with the orchestra on the day).

Vaughan Williams's original idea was to create a programmatic symphony based on Thomas Hardy’s book Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Knowledge of the intention may help illustrate the thinking e.g. behind the contrast of the “Stonehenge” melody for saxophone and the “drummer boy” theme in the second movement. It is known that Holst and Williams held Hardy in high regard, our blogs have touched on Holst’s “Egdon Heath” and its contrasts of harmonic language.

Once again we are in the area of the “Encore” phase, there are reference to earlier, indeed very early works, while the opening chords of the 9th show a striking resemblance to the close of the final movement of his 6th. We may also consider that RVW is revisiting discussions with his friend Holst (who by this time had been dead for over 20 years), compare the similarities between the harmonic language of the opening of “Egdon Heath” and the opening melody of RVW’s 9th symphony.

The first movement, originally titled “Wessex Prelude” has a beautiful curve as its opening 4 bar phrase, rising from E to D flat. If we examine this as a set we have a 0,1,3,5,6,8,9 collection. If we compare the flute figure at rehearsal mark 3 we have a closely related theme in outline (the essential difference being the F natural to A flat upper notes, this interval is to become significant later in the movement) yet both set structures are identical, while the following violin melody shown forms a subset of 01368.

The saxophone texture alters the structure 0,1,3,4,6,7 but is aurally related to the surrounding thematic material. Similarly in the 2nd movement the saxophones stand apart as mentioned above. The remaining material is always traceable to the first set, even with the rhythmically distinct figure at 5, preceded by the cantabile clarinet figure at 4, one of the most beautiful transitions in RVW’s works.

Follow the comparisons on the manuscript provided and it can be seen that there is a symmetrical character to the music.

All of this only touches on the mastery of developing thematic characters from the original “curve”, but it does show RVW’s firm grasp on the technique of musical development at the end of his life, while revisiting ideas from his past, an endorsement of the “encore” and other phases of life.