I have a history of investigating pieces of music based solely on the title. If it sounds interesting, I will inevitably be curious to know about why it bears that title. This natural curiosity has cost me hundreds of dollars in the past, and the results were not always what I had hoped for going in.
I paid a pretty decent sum for a disc of orchestral works by Granville Bantock some years ago because the main item on the recording was a piece called Thalaba the Destroyer. How could I possibly resist? Fortunately, Bantock is a hidden bad ass of the English Romantics, and the whole disc delivered, including Thalaba. I was not so fortunate when I plunked down the cash for Adventures in a Perambulator by John Alden Carpenter. Sometimes God hands you good shit, sometimes He hands you the music of John Alden Carpenter.
It was in this spirit that I explored a concert uploaded a couple weeks ago featuring some pretty unheralded music (that’s a nice way of saying that nobody knew what they were hearing when they walked in the door). There was a very nice Symphony in D major by Jan Vaclav Vorisek, which gave off a pretty strong Schubert by way of late Haydn vibe…a very enjoyable work if not earth-shaking in its inventiveness. There was also Don Quixote tanzt Fandango by Viktor Ullman, a very colorful and vibrant work of interest that completely betrays its origins (Ullmann worked on its composition during his incarceration in Theresienstadt and finished it only months before being moved to and killed at Auschwitz).
But for me the gem was Mystery of Time by Miloslav Kabelac, not the least of which because it had the title that caught my attention. I’ve long admired Kabelac’s music, going back to my first encounter with it back in…I’m just playing. In truth, I was like “who the fuck is Miloslav Kabelac?” It turns out he’s Czech, he worked for Prague Radio, and his music did not fare well during that stretch of 40 years where the Commies ruled Czechoslovakia, in spite of Russia’s clear taste for open and transparent embracing of all the arts! He composed 8 symphonies, a couple handfuls of orchestral works, and another 30 or so works for various forces. He also has the Wikipedia page most likely to have somehow been made by his mother, including the following champion of a sentence: “New ways of expression presentated by Kabeláč in his eight symphonies and the perspectives opened by him to modern understanding and conception of this traditional genre have not yet penetrated our general conscience in a way corresponding to their importance and impact.”
No matter. If Mystery of Time is any indication, his mom just may be on to something. Mystery of Time is a passacaglia, and a gargantuan one at that. I wish I could break it down in detail, but I don’t even know where to begin in trying to find a score for this thing…talk about a mystery. There is one commercial recording available, and it was recorded by Karel Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic way back when. But, while I can’t break down the nuts and bolts of it, I can certainly go as far as saying that it takes on a massive arch structure, travelling from an unsettling and laconic beginning through an unrelentingly intense middle section (unrelenting as in a good 15 minute barrage of impending doom right to your face, bitch!) before concluding in a contemplative and peaceful mood that always seems to leave me letting out an audible sigh.
If I could be so bold as to describe the sound world contained in Mystery through a reckless and ill-conceived attempt to relate it to something we’re all a little more familiar with, I would use three names that lie pretty far from one another on an isosceles triangle. This music sounds like Shostakovich at his most rampaging, Hovhaness at his most zen-like, and Elgar at his most “I have an amazing moustache equalled only by my gift for orchestral color”-ish.
In all seriousness, I have known of the existence of this piece for two weeks now, and I have listened to it, including as I’ve been typing this, over a dozen times. It manages to combine everything I like about an orchestral work into one incredible journey: vivid colors, an easily discernible arch structure, drones and pedal points, drama, and a genuine sense of release when it’s over, and it’s all done within the confines of a certain cold and dispassionate insistence on what is inevitable. This probably sounds a little creepy, hyperbolic, or whatever, but I’ve been waiting for this piece. It has easily become one of my absolute favorite pieces of music, and it has done it with the same devilish insistence that the music so astoundingly evokes.
Listen for yourself: Mystery of Time with Tomas Hanus conducting the BBC Symphony – 2 April 2008