Das Siegeslied and bad genes

Alan Dean Foster

Das Siegeslied and bad genes - Alan Dean Foster There is more compositional skill and musical invention in Brian’s fourth symphony than most composers can muster in a lifetime. Hell, there’s more in the last movement of the symphony than most composers can muster in a lifetime. It’s awe-inspiring, belly-churning, utterly overwhelming music. Hearing it, your chest swells, visions of massed forces triumphant parade before our half-closed eyes, and the legions that have preceded us and secured our civilization stride gloriously onward and upward.

And that scares me.

It scares me because Siegeslied provokes the most schizoid response of any piece of music I’ve ever listened to. On the one hand, Brian’s Fourth lifts you up, inspires, makes the heart pound and the blood rush faster. On the other, deep down within myself, I know that it shouldn’t. As a modern, cultured, reasonably mature human being who considers himself an amiable and peace-loving Weltburger, I should not be reacting viscerally to all this furious, euphonious Sturm und Drang about spilling the blood of mein enemies. It’s just too, too medieval.

Unfortunately, it’s also very twentieth-century. We may live to hope that it is also not very twenty-first.

A few years ago I wrote a trilogy subtitled The Damned. In it, an alliance of intelligent beings from other worlds is forced to combat the incursion of another dominant species and its allies. War having been regarded for thousands of years as a highly uncivilized pursuit, the alliance is understandably having a hard time of things, until in their search for additional allies they encounter—us. And lo and behold, it turns out that war is not only something that’s not abhorrent to us, we’re actually very good at it. In fact, it’s what we do best.

I do not personally subscribe to that thesis, but it made an interesting theme for a trio of books. It harks to the same perverse thrill we get when watching patriotic films about previous conflicts, whether typical WWII adventures with John Wayne single-handedly destroying the sub-human, unspeakably evil enemy; more balanced accounts such as Zulu where both sides are accorded relatively equal treatment; or even avowedly anti-war films like Saving Private Ryan. Incidentally, given his sardonic outlook on war in The Tigers, I always wonder what kind of score Brian might have concocted for that estimable piece of recent cinema.

Siegeslied makes us want to, if not run out and pick up the nearest sword, at least feel certain non-intellectual stirrings inside that might better be left undisturbed. It opens doors in the mind that lead to places we like to think, sitting comfortably in our studies or workplace or in front of a newspaper or book, that we have left behind, together with such discarded antediluvian habits as human sacrifice, the mass killing of prisoners, and the burning of witches.

And just when we’re congratulating ourselves on stepping out of the caves and into the sunlight of logic and reason, along comes a Kosovo, or a Rwanda, or an East Timor, and we discover that the veneer of civilization is very thin indeed, and that we are not so far removed as we would like from our club-wielding, chest-beating, bloodthirsty ancestors. We’ve just grown more sophisticated at it.

Siegeslied speaks to all of that. With great musical skill and talent, yes, but still to that feral small something that hides deep, deep within us, just waiting for the right and proper outrage (Saddam? Idi Amin? Osama bin Laden?) to be let out. Brian knows where it sleeps, rattles it awake, and stirs it to life in the concert hall (or will, when some conductor and orchestra summons up the nerve to play it again). Leni Riefenstahl knew where it abides as well, and brought it to life in Triumph of the will. It’s war and combat as directed by Cecil B DeMille, with an unlimited budget provided by the imagination. It’s every great war film and war novel and piece of combat correspondence ever written.

You can intellectualize Siegeslied all you want. You can sit and listen and dissect the awesome orchestration section by section. You can follow Brian’s astonishing grasp of polyphony bar by bar. You can sit back and pretend you’re only responding with your mind and not your gut. But your insides won’t let you. Brian won’t let you. This is music that speaks directly, nakedly, brutally, to the emotions. Emotions we probably wish we didn’t have. Emotions that go back to when the first humans came down out of the trees, fashioned drums from animal skins and the trunks of trees, and beat out the first crude march to inspire them to take over the next waterhole from an opposing clan.

Emotions that scare us.

There are hundred of compositions that can lull us with their beauty, or inspire thoughts of love, or longing for a place, or for a time. But those that are simultaneously genuinely frightening and inspiring are scarce as a Thatcherite in Sweden. A Night on bald mountain? Mozartian compared to Siegeslied.

Still wonder why there are so few women members of the Society? It’s because Brian was the most testeronic of all composers, and Siegeslied the undisputed Schwarzeneggerian champion of them all. Whether we like it or not—and I’m not sure that I do.

It’s just that, see, I can’t stop listening.

NL148 / © 2000 Alan Dean Foster

Newsletter, NL 148, 2000