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  • Writer's pictureHelsingin Kamariorkesteri

Francophonia Concert: Apollonian and Dionysian

Concert at Temppeliaukio Church on March 21st 2019. Iván Bragado Poveda, harp |

James Kahane, conductor. Buy tickets here.

French and Austrian Music of the early 20th Century; an expression of the Apollonian and Dyonisian concept.

The Apollonian and Dionysian is a philosophical and artistic concept, or dichotomy, loosely based on Apollo and Dionysus in Greek mythology. Some Western philosophical and literary figures have invoked this dichotomy in critical and creative works, most notably Friedrich Nietzsche and later followers. In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus: Apollo is the god of the sun, of rational thinking and order, and appeals to logic, prudence, and purity. Dionysus is the god of wine and dance, of irrationality and chaos, and appeals to emotions and instincts. In Music, as in other forms of art, the dichotomy principally rests to which sensations the piece appeals to: a rational and exterior notion of beauty, or an instinctive and interior feeling.

Every culture that has lost myth has lost, by the same token, its natural healthy creativity. Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture. The forces of imagination and the Apollonian dream are saved only by myth from indiscriminate rambling. The images of myth must be the daemonic guardians, ubiquitous but unnoticed, presiding over the growth of the child's mind and interpreting to the mature man his life and struggles.” Friedrich Nietzsche

While Apollonian music relates to critical distance, the Dionysian demands a closeness of experience. According to Nietzsche, the critical distance, which separates man from his closest emotions, originates in Apollonian ideals, which in turn separates him from his essential connection with himself. The Dionysian composers embrace the chaotic nature of such experience as all-important; not just on its own, but as it is, intimately connected with the Apollonian. The Dionysian magnifies man, but only so far as he realizes that he is one and the same with all ordered human experience. The godlike unity of the Dionysian experience is of utmost importance in viewing the Dionysian as it is related to the Apollonian, because it emphasizes the harmony that can be found within one's chaotic experience.

They would be astonished to discover the seriously German problem that we are dealing with, a vortex and a turning-point at the very center of German hopes. But perhaps those same people will find it distasteful to see an aesthetic problem taken so seriously, if they can see art as nothing more than an entertaining irrelevance, an easily dispensable tinkle of bells next to the 'seriousness of life': as if no one was aware what this contrast with the 'seriousness of life' amounted to. Let these serious people know that I am convinced that art is the supreme task and the truly metaphysical activity of this life in the sense of that man, my noble champion on that path, to whom I dedicate this book.“ Friedrich Nietzsche

The early 20th century was one of the periods where the dual nature of this concept has been expressed the most significantly. While the Austrian and German music of the time was still closely tied to the romantic and deeply Dyonisian notions of human experiences and passion, French music took a radical turn and used music as an evocative tool for concepts and images transcending human emotions. As a whole, French culture detached itself from the Romantic notions relating to the individual experience, well implemented in the 19th century, and instead started to relate to the Apollonian ideals of purity, logic, and beauty as an exterior element. In the meantime, British music, while close to the Apollonian notions, held an interesting and ambiguous place by not distancing itself as strongly to the human element as much as French music did, and deliberately remained "earthly".


  • Arnold Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht

  • Claude Debussy: Danse sacrée et danse profane

  • Gustav Holst: St-Paul Suite

Arnold Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht

Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4, is a string sextet in one movement composed by Arnold Schoenberg in 1899. Composed in just three weeks, it is considered his earliest important work, and while written for 2 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos, Schoenberg also produced an arrangement for string orchestra in 1917, revised in 1943, and the present performance will showcase the piece in its string orchestra setting. Verklärte Nacht was inspired by Richard Dehmel's poem of the same name, combined with the influence of Schoenberg's strong feelings upon meeting Mathilde von Zemlinsky (the sister of his teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky), whom he would later marry. The movement can be divided into five distinct sections which refer to the five stanzas of Dehmel's poem; however, there are no unified criteria regarding movement separation. The poem itself describes a man and woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares a dark secret with her new lover: she bears the child of another man. The stages of Dehmel's poem are reflected throughout the composition, beginning with the sadness of the woman's confession, a neutral interlude wherein the man reflects upon the confession, and a finale reflecting the man's bright acceptance (and forgiveness) of the woman: O sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert! Es ist ein Glanz um Alles her (See how brightly the universe gleams! There is a radiance on everything).

Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood; the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze. The moon moves along above tall oak trees, there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the radiance to which the black, jagged tips reach up.

A woman’s voice speaks:

"I am carrying a child, and not by you. I am walking here with you in a state of sin. I have offended grievously against myself. I despaired of happiness, and yet I still felt a grievous longing for life’s fullness, for a mother’s joys

and duties; and so I sinned, and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex to the embrace of a stranger, and even thought myself blessed. Now life has taken its revenge, and I have met you, met you.”

She walks on, stumbling. She looks up; the moon keeps pace. Her dark gaze drowns in light. A man’s voice speaks:

“Do not let the child you have conceived be a burden on your soul. Look, how brightly the universe shines! Splendor falls on everything around, you are voyaging with me on a cold sea, but there is the glow of an inner warmth from you in me, from me in you.

That warmth will transfigure the stranger’s child, and you bear it me, begot by me. You have transfused me with splendor, you have made a child of me.” He puts an arm about her strong hips. Their breath embraces in the air. Two people walk on through the high, bright night.

Schoenberg, the 20th-century revolutionary and later inventor of the twelve-tone technique, is perhaps best known among audiences for this early tonal work. The piece derives its stylistic lineage from German late-Romanticism, and is a such a clear expression of the Dionysian ideals in music. Indeed, the piece expresses the inner feelings and turmoil of the characters, and at moments evidently takes a chaotic turn in accordance with their conflicted emotions.

Claude Debussy: Danse sacrée et danse profane

In 1904 Pleyel, the famous Parisian firm of instrument manufacturers, approached Debussy with a commission for a new test piece for chromatic harp, intended for use in the diploma examinations at the Brussels Conservatoire. Debussy's response to Pleyel's request was to compose his Danse sacrée et danse profane, which eventually took a place among the best-known and most frequently performed works for harp in the concert repertory. Almost from the outset, Danse sacrée et danse profane was played more often on the conventional orchestral harp, since the chromatic harp (which has no pedals, but instead a separate string provided for each chromatic note throughout its range) was soon abandoned, mostly because of its unwieldy size and the inordinate amount of time required to tune it before every performance. According to the conductor Ernest Ansermet, the main theme of the first section was inspired by a piano piece by the Portuguese composer Francisco de Lacerda. This has not been proven, however, and it seems more probable that Debussy, with due regard for the antiquity of the harp (one of the oldest instruments in existence), based this slow, modally inflected piece on what he imagined Greco-Roman music must have been like, in an effort shared by many other composers of the Belle Époque to showcase aspects of music from faraway cultures. Another likely source of inspiration may well have been the antique flavor of Erik Satie's Gymnopédies for piano, which Debussy greatly admired, and two of which he orchestrated. The second part is much faster, and takes the form of a waltz in the key of D major, a direct illustration of the common romantic style musical of the time. Still, the music is filled with harmonic contradictions, particularly evident in the use of such "primitive" effects as the lowering of the seventh scale degree.

Gustav Holst: St-Paul Suite

St Paul's Suite (Op. 29, No. 2), originally titled Suite in C, is a composition for string orchestra by the English composer Gustav Holst. It was written in 1912, but owing to revisions was not published until 1922. It is named after the St Paul's Girls' School in the United Kingdom, where Holst was Director of Music from 1905 to 1934. It was written in gratitude to the school, which had built a soundproof studio for him. This suite is the most famous of the many pieces he wrote for students at St. Paul's, and is also interesting in the sense that it reflects the two side of the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy. While not expressing any of the Romantic ideas of the previous century, the music doesn't detach itself completely from it, nor philosophically or stylistically. Additionally to the Romantic musical style and tonal system used in the composition, and while the human component within the music doesn't seem to be at the heart of the piece, it is nevertheless very present in its dancing character. Combined to the musical language of Holst, the piece, therefore, sits at an ambiguous place in regard to the Apollonian and Dionysian ideals, and encompasses elements from both.

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