By Ivan Hewett
06 May 2014
Tate Britain’s current exhibition Ruin Lust may disappoint in many ways (see Alistair Sooke’s review) but it’s still worth a visit, because the pleasurable note of melancholy grandeur that the sight of ruins conjures up is certainly struck at times. There’s a lovely early watercolour by Turner of the roofless ruins of Tintern Abbey, which inspired one of Wordsworth’s greatest poems. A whole room is given over to 18th and 19th century portrayals of classical ruins, including examples by Piranesi. These have a different sort of feeling, more to do with Romantic ideas of the sublime than regret for a vanished era.
This got me thinking about where one might catch these feelings in music. You might think the whole idea of “ruin” is impossible to apply to music. Ruins embody a feeling of vast tracts of time. We look at the weed-infested, crumbling remnants of a castle or abbey, and compare them in our imagination with their original pristine state. Sounds can’t stir those kinds of feelings. They only exist in the present tense.
But note this: the great romantic composer Robert Schumann actually gave one of his greatest pieces the title of “Ruins”. Admittedly he thought better of it, and called the piece Fantasie in C instead, but it suggests the idea of conjuring up the pathos of ruins was on his mind. How can one do this, in a medium that can’t decay?
Of course there are pieces of music which are literal ruins, in the sense that there are bits missing or lost. The catalogue of the great romantic composer Franz Liszt is littered with unfinished pieces. Mozart’s Requiem was finished by another hand, and the ghostly presence of what it might have been adds to the grandeur of the piece. The same is true of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. These pieces are imaginary ruins, if you like. More striking is Bach’s Art of Fugue, which he didn’t live to complete. The last fugue literally stops mid-bar, leaving one part hanging.
Is it right to compare this moment to the broken arches and toppled pillars you see in Renaissance paintings of The Flight into Egypt? Not really; I just find it hugely frustrating. These “accidental” musical ruins aren’t the place to look. More interesting are the deliberate ruins, those pieces where the composer has set out to make something feel unfinished.
You might ask why composers would do such an odd thing, and one straightforward answer is; to keep people listening. It’s been a common trick in pop music every since A Hard Day’s Night to keep the listeners hanging on for the next track on an album, by fading out a song rather than ending it. Jazz musicians do something similar, by ending a piece on a surprising harmony.
It’s a hammy device, because these non-endings are so obviously tacked on to something that could end perfectly normally. The really interesting cases are the pieces that can’t do that. They’ve been cunningly designed to float in a state of uncertainty, or go round in circles. Once a piece of music has dithered long enough, the idea of a neat, rounded-off ending becomes impossible in principle. By the same token, these pieces never really get going. They start with a gesture that sounds like an introduction, but the music never gets beyond it.
Schumann was a master of this effect. The first song in Dichterliebe circles round on itself, and at the end we’re left hanging.
In the first movement of the piece he nearly called Ruins, Schumann does something different: he takes a famous song by Beethoven and keeps nearly quoting one phrase from it. It sounds as if the music is trying to remember something, and can’t quite manage it.
All this preparation means that when the phrase is finally remembered, right at the end, it’s become supercharged with feeling. It sounds as if it’s coming from somewhere way back in the past, shining mysteriously like a decayed church caught in the setting sun. For a few seconds we see a noble ruin in music.
That was nearly 200 years ago. In more recent times, the Italian composer Luciano Berio has found a different way of suggesting ruins in music. He based his piece Rendering on the fragmentary score of an uncompleted early symphony by Schubert.
He left the score intact and filled in the gaps in his own style, but used bits of Schubert’s melodic material. The effect is weirdly haunting. We hear Schubert’s original rising out of Berio’s own aqueous, soft-edged music, and vanishing back into it. It reminds me of those romantic paintings of ruined cities where you can’t tell quite where nature ends, and the ruin begins.