Classical Music Stories

Classical Music Stories #1: Anna Karenina (Part 5)


At last we come to the final movement. But first, let’s indulge in a quick recap:

  1. Anna arrives by train to help mend Dolly’s and her brother’s marriage after the brother was unfaithful.
  2. Anna falls desperately in love with Vronsky.
  3. While among highbrow, sophisticated society, they try to contain their emotions.
  4. But then Anna is dying and Vronsky doesn’t matter anymore—she only wants her husband. Unfortunately for that husband, those feelings don’t last long.

So now we come to the fifth and final movement. What is Grieg going to leave us with?

Holberg Suite, Op. 40: V. Rigaudon (Allegro con brio) by Edvard Grieg

Well, first of all, the music starts extremely buoyant and lively—I apologize in advance for any medical bills resulting from that extreme whiplash. How could we go from utter tragedy to lighthearted fluffiness??

To me, this is so powerful and poignant. It’s like we’re jolted back into society as a whole. Anna’s problems are absolutely real, but she lives in a world that requires a perfect façade to be retained at all times. In fact, most people in the book don’t even care that she’s having an affair. The real problem for them is that she doesn’t try to hide it…yes, that’s the problem.

So the light, energetic music of the opening = society. We even hear a bit of the ballroom music again.

(1:20) In the middle, though, we get a much sadder, longing sound. It’s like we’re back to some version of Anna’s and Vronsky’s problems. But the opening music just comes back all over again, emphasizing the terrible callousness and refusal of society to help or even acknowledge the two lovers.

Looking at the piece as a whole:

Overall, I hear the entire piece as Anna’s personal transformation from a woman of society to a very real outcast:

In the first movement the music sounds very similar to the society/ball music in the third and final movements. And if you think about it, this totally fits: the point of that trip is to patch up a failing marriage. But what Anna doesn’t realize is that their problems run a whole lot deeper—the adultery is just a symptom of a bigger issue that needs to be resolved.  She doesn’t understand that you can’t just slap a bandaid on that kind of a problem and expect things to be okay.  (This Taylor-Swift-quotable opportunity shall not be lost by me: “bandaids don’t fix bullet holes!”)

But then once Anna commits adultery herself, just like her brother, the tables are turned and she is ostracized from society. Each movement takes her deeper into the abyss, from the second movement where she initially falls in love, to the third movement where she is sort of able to hide her feelings and save face, to the fourth movement where everything is just falling apart, and finally to the last movement where the contrast between her emotions and society’s actions are too deep to reconcile. She keeps getting farther and farther away from the woman she was at the beginning.

Before I end this series I just want to reassert that this is not what Grieg had in mind when he wrote the piece.  And it is definitely not the only way you can hear it.  (For example, you could actually hear the carefree ending as a promising ending instead of an ironic one.)  But despite the depressing ending I heard, I’ve had a lot of fun hearing Anna Karenina in this music! And there are so many things about the book and music that I never picked up on before. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, too!

[By the way: in the future if/when I do another Classical Music Stories series, I’ll probably only post once or twice a week.]

Comments? Questions? Please feel free to comment below!

2 thoughts on “Classical Music Stories #1: Anna Karenina (Part 5)”

  1. Very interesting, especially because I wrote my first novel while “under the influence” of a cocktail of classical, soundtracks, and ethnic music (all instrumental). The selections evolved a little over the three years I was writing it, and of course the characters did, too, as they should in any novel. It’s too bad that we’ll never know what the stories were that the classical composers were “scoring,” but for that reason, their music can help us get into learning the stories of their lives. Thank you for this series of posts. I look forward to experiencing more of the same.

    Liked by 1 person

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