Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Concerto Guide: Edvard Grieg, Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16

If this is Tuesday, this must be Belgium, goes the old joke about package tours of Europe. Actually, Belgium was last Tuesday when I talked about the Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto No. 5. This week we are in Norway, well, Denmark to be more precise, where the 24-year-old composer wrote this very popular concerto when on holiday from his native Norway. The year was 1868, nine years after the Vieuxtemps. This is the only concerto Grieg wrote and it is one of the most popular piano concertos. Arthur Rubinstein relates in his autobiography that at a fairly young age he memorized the whole concerto in eight hours!

If you will recall, I mentioned in my discussion of the Schumann Piano Concerto that one of its innovations, the big, forte chords hammered out by the solo piano at the very beginning, was very influential on later composers. It is rare to find a popular 19th century piano concerto that does not begin with a similar gesture--and it is almost never found in pre-19th century concertos. Here is how the Grieg begins:

Compare to the Schumann opening:

They are even in the same key. Of course the details are different. Schumann tonicizes several different keys: A minor, C major (with a secondary dominant to viiº7!), B flat, A minor, and D minor to mention a few. The Grieg is actually much simpler, harmonically, with that stirring gesture only involving two harmonies: V and i. Grieg does add one interesting touch: the piece actually begins with a tympani roll that crescendos into that opening orchestral chord. Here is the main theme of the first movement, as it appears in the piano quite early in the movement:

This is more akin to a motif than a theme: two measures repeated at a different pitch and that's it. Mind you, as Beethoven and Haydn have shown over and over, a brief, succinct motif is great material for a movement. Some of the strongest elements in the theme are the dotted rhythm and the syncopation in the second half of the first and third measures.

Grieg heard the Schumann concerto in either 1858 or 59 played by Clara Schumann and was obviously influenced by it. Other influences seem to be Norwegian folk music, especially in the last movement. Here is the theme of that movement, often compared to the Halling, a Norwegian folk dance accompanied by fiddle:

There is a fine video of Rubinstein playing the concerto, the orchestra conducted by a young André Previn:

And for contrast, here is a recent performance by Khatia Buniatishvili:

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Thoughts on Boulez' list

There are a few interesting things about Pierre Boulez' list of 10 great compositions of the 20th century. Perhaps the most striking thing about it is not so much what it includes, a lot of justifiably famous 20th century pieces, but more what it excludes. First of all, let's have a look at when the pieces he selects were composed:

  1. Varèse, Ameriques: 1918-1921, revised 1927
  2. Berg, Three Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6, 1913-1915
  3. Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, 1913
  4. Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 1936
  5. Webern, Six Pieces for Orchestra, 1909-10, revised 1928
  6. Berio, Sinfonia, 1968-69
  7. Stockhausen, Gruppen, 1955-57
  8. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, 1903-04, revised 1906
  9. Schönberg, Erwartung, 1909
  10. Boulez, Répons, 1984
There are two enormous omissions, at least they seem enormous to me. The first is a surprising one: a composer who is not only one of the most influential of the century, but one who shares his nationality with Boulez: yes, of course, Claude Debussy. We might argue as to which piece to mention, perhapPrélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (even though it was composed in 1894), perhaps his late ballet Jeux. But I think few would disagree with how Wikipedia describes Debussy's influence:
Claude Debussy is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His innovative harmonies were influential to almost every major composer of the 20th century, particularly Maurice RavelIgor StravinskyOlivier MessiaenBéla BartókPierre BoulezHenri DutilleuxNed RoremGeorge Gershwin, and the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass as well as the influential Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. He also influenced many important figures in jazz, most notably Miles DavisDuke EllingtonBix BeiderbeckeGeorge ShearingThelonious MonkBill EvansJimmy GiuffreAntônio Carlos Jobim, and Herbie Hancock. He also had a profound impact on contemporary soundtrack composers such as John Williams, because Debussy's colourful and evocative style translated easily into an emotional language for use in motion picture scores.
So why would Boulez omit him? Perhaps because Debussy contradicts one of Boulez fundamental assumptions: that great music cannot at the same time be popular. This is a core assumption of 20th century modernism in music, at least up until the mid-century. But just looking at the list above shows that Debussy's influence was very, very broad. Why ever would Boulez include a piece by Mahler and not one by Debussy?

The other omission is more subtle: notice how, with just a couple of exceptions, the list avoids any mention of music written after the mid-century. Note the inclusion of Boulez' own Répons, which is the newest piece on the list! Setting aside that, there are only two pieces written after 1950, Gruppen by Stockhausen which is just barely after 1950, and the Sinfonia by Berio. Boulez includes his Pantheon of great pieces, meaning the ones that were very important to him, but at the same time omitting perhaps the most important, Debussy, while avoiding any hint that the course of 20th century music has changed since the maximal complexity of the mid-century.

So we pose the question, what might we suggest are some great works from the second half of the century, as Boulez has not troubled himself with that? Some names that seem to be important are John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, Thomas Adès and Esa-Pekka Salonen. These figures are likely anathema to Boulez because they repudiate some of his fundamental beliefs about music: that you cannot write great music and be popular, that music, in order to be taken seriously has to always strive for the maximum complexity and that tonality is dead.

I think my list of 10 great pieces of 20th century music would look something like this:

  1. Debussy, La Mer, 1903-05
  2. Sibelius, Symphony No. 4, 1910-11
  3. Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire, 1912
  4. Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, 1913
  5. Berg, Wozzeck, 1914-22
  6. Bartók,  Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 1936
  7. Cage, 4'33, 1952
  8. Pettersson, Symphony No. 7, 1966-68
  9. Reich, Drumming, 1970-71
  10. John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer, 1991
A lot of this list needs no special justification. You could argue for a different piece by Debussy and the only reason I did not cite the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is that it was composed in 1894. There was another odd omission in Boulez' list, no opera or vocal works, and I have tried to correct that by including the obviously most important piece by Berg, Wozzeck, and Pierrot by Schoenberg. A couple of pieces might be surprising to readers of this blog: the silent piece by Cage and the very controversial opera by Adams which Taruskin accused of "moral blankness and opportunism", both of which might be true. But both these pieces, for different reasons, have had an important and wide influence so I thought they needed inclusion. As for the Pettersson, I honestly can't think of a more powerful work from the 1960s, a decade really dominated by the Beatles. And I continue to believe that the most radical work of the century has to be Drumming by Steve Reich, whether you like it or not. It pared music down to its absolute essence and rebuilt it--you don't get more radical than that.

I would very much have liked to include something by Shostakovich, either the Symphony No. 5 from 1937--perhaps it could share billing with the Bartók--or the String Quartet No. 8 from 1960. Certainly, if I were to follow my own taste I would drop the Cage in favor of the quartet. But I think that my list leans as far as possible in the direction of historical importance while also considering aesthetic importance.

Hmm, what to pick as a musical envoi? I suppose the most unfamiliar piece on the list is the symphony by Allan Pettersson, so let's hear that. Here is Sergiu Comissiona conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Boulez on the 10 greatest works of the 20th century

This week was the 90th birthday of one of the central figures in 20th century music after World War II. Born in 1925, Pierre Boulez has been one of the great conductors of the last several decades and a composer of great influence. For Soundcheck he recently provided a list of the ten works that he thinks are the most significant in 20th century music. This, along with his comments, is well worth taking a look at. Here is the article. If you accept the basic assumption, that the most important criteria is technical novelty, doing something as differently as possible from what has been done before, then there is not much to argue with in this list.

The thing is, that while I am in complete agreement with a lot of the pieces, I don't think that every piece, in order to be great, has to be so difficult, both for the performers and listeners, all the time. I think that aesthetic greatness has more criteria: expressive intensity, humanity, breadth of expression and so on. Nearly all of Boulez' choices, including his music, are harmonically dissonant, dynamically extreme, rhythmically jagged and with pointillist texture. I don't think all great music must be like that, even in the 20th century. But that being said, yes, these ten works are classics of 20th century music.

I think I will make up my own list so we can argue about it. Some pieces I would consider including would be something by Steve Reich, something by Sibelius (if Boulez can include Mahler, I think I can include Sibelius), and something by Shostakovich.

But there is no arguing about this piece, which would easily make my list as it did Boulez'. Here is Boulez conducting the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of Bela Bartók played by the Vienna Philharmonic in a live concert in 2007:

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

This piece at the Wall Street Journal by David Gelernter reads like a cry in the wilderness. He identifies a few problems, but I wonder if they are not just symptoms:
Most children learn nothing about serious music in school and don’t expect to learn anything. Outside school, the music world is being upended and shaken vigorously. The ways we choose music and listen to it are being transformed by iTunes and Spotify and other such sites.
For most young people, music is a minor consumable, like toothpaste. Musicians and music majors aside, my students at Yale—and there are no smarter, more eager, more open students anywhere—just barely know who Beethoven is. Beethoven. “He composed music”—that is the general consensus.
To know nothing about Beethoven? That is cultural bankruptcy. That is collapse. It goes far beyond incompetence, deep into betrayal and farce.

* * *

You rarely see it stated quite this baldly as we read in the Guardian how "Philosophy has to be about more than white men." This is a representative paragraph:
Critics of the campaign argue that it undermines academic freedom; that all knowledge is of equal worth; that students ought to transcend cultural background in the interest of expanding knowledge; and that there are very good reasons why a philosophy, economics or history curriculum might be full of the works of dead white males. Very good reasons indeed: some of these include the systemic killing of female philosophers, massacres of some of our earliest thinkers such as the Aztec; and the destruction of ancient African cities that illuminate the thinking of old civilisations.
Representative in that it gets tangled up in its own logic, then blurts out some astonishing falsehoods. I doubt very much that critics of the campaign to remove white dominance in philosophy are making the claim that "all knowledge is of equal worth". But I would love to hear the defence of that claim! I am also deeply amused to read what great thinkers the Aztecs were. These same Aztecs who sacrificed a thousand prisoners a day to "consecrate" the Templo Major in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). We read in the Wikipedia article that:
Each day blood ran like a river onto the pavement of the Great Plaza, and the stairs of the great pyramid were literally bathed in blood.
This is the kind of thinking that we are going to replace Plato with? Count me out. I mention this here because very similar campaigns have been undertaken to dethrone the canonic composers as well: white males such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

* * *

There is a pretty interesting discussion about the challenges to musicians in today's online environment in the MIT Technology Review: "Survival in the Age of Spotify." Here is a sample of the discussion:
I’ve been frustrated that artists are not allowed to have a nuanced position. We seem to get shoehorned into the extreme camps of “completely pro–free culture” or “completely anti-technology.” When the record labels or publishing houses get together to hammer out deals with intermediaries (be they ISPs, streaming services, or digital storefronts), we are rarely, if ever, invited to the table and have no choice but to react to what’s already been decided. As someone who loves the Internet but hopes for more creative solutions to “free vs. paid” than the binary extremes we seem to be forced to choose between, I am pretty tired of that language. It’s off-putting to have a book that purports to have your best interests at heart open with so much of that language of conflict.
* * *

Does anyone want to take a stab at explaining what is going on here, aesthetically?

Here is where I found the image: "Jeff Koons churns out new factory art." I see the industrial side of it, which is a bit similar to the industrial nature of a lot of current pop music. But in the visual arts world, I suspect that success depends on doing something as new and peculiar as possible, while in music it depends on doing something familiar, but slightly different.

* * *

String instruments made from carbon fibre are getting better and better quality-wise as shown by this one that shared a prize with an instrument made from conventional wood:

* * *

Two days ago was the 90th birthday of one of the great iconoclasts of 20th century music: Pierre Boulez. The Guardian has a collection of some of the more outrageous things he has said over the years:
His incendiary comments, whether directed at his contemporaries (he has described Duchamp as ‘a pompous bore’, Cage as ‘a performing monkey’, and Stockhausen, ‘a hippie’), or more general topics such as culture and history, however, suggest that he enjoys the controversy.
Boulez seems to have some strange obsessions:
“I believe a civilisation that conserves is one that will decay because it is afraid of going forward and attributes more importance to memory than the future. The strongest civilisations are those without memory - those capable of complete forgetfulness. They are strong enough to destroy because they know they can replace what is destroyed. Today our musical civilisation is not strong; it shows clear signs of withering… […] Conducting has forced me to absorb a great deal of history, so much so, in fact, that history seems more than ever to me a great burden. In my opinion we must get rid of it once and for all.”
To which I reply: name one! Name a civilization that is without memory. Better, name a strong civilization that is without memory. This is a strange obsessive fantasy of 20th century radical modernism. It is an echo of the zero hour of the Russian Revolution when the new man was to be created who owed nothing to the past. This is not only an absurd fantasy, it is a dangerous one, because it always seems to lead to Siberia and the death camps for those who don't want to go along.

* * *

I think this gives us our envoi for today. Let's hear something by Pierre Boulez. Dérive I was composed in 1984. It is a six-minute chamber work for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone, and piano which was spun out of sketches for a larger work from 1981, entitled Répons.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Symphony-Cantata

There is a symphonic mainstream, but there are also subsidiary currents that depart from it. One of the most interesting--and peculiar--is the "symphony-cantata", that is, a piece that combines the symphony genre with the cantata genre. The symphony is usually defined as a serious piece for orchestra in several movements and the cantata as a piece for voices and orchestra, also in several movements, usually with chorus. Both genres have a long history, as you can read in the Wikipedia articles I linked. But they have only been combined on a few occasions. What distinguishes a "symphony-cantata" from simply being a cantata is the orchestra being given more of an independent role.

The most famous example of a symphony-cantata is never, to my knowledge, actually called that, but it obviously fits the definition: this is the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, often nicknamed the "Choral" Symphony. It is the only one of his nine symphonies to make use of vocal soloists and a choir. You might think of it as a normal symphony with a cantata as the last movement. Indeed, it is a characteristic of all the examples I am going to look at, that there are purely instrumental movements as well as movements with soloists and choir (or just choir). One other example is the Symphony No. 13 of Shostakovich for orchestra, bass soloist and bass choir on poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The Symphony No. 14 of Shostakovich is for two vocal soloists and orchestra, no choir, so it does not quite fit the definition. On the other hand, some of Mahler's symphonies certainly do, but they are a whole subject in themselves so I won't look at them here.

Beethoven burst the bounds of the symphonic genre in a very significant way with the Symphony No. 9. A very long work, at well over an hour, even longer than his Symphony No. 3, it is scored for a large orchestra, a quartet of vocal soloists and four-part choir. The text is a poem by Friedrich Schiller that celebrates the unity and brotherhood of mankind--sentiments we might link to the ideals of the French Revolution. Beethoven's setting in the fourth movement of the 9th Symphony illuminates an important transition in music history: the change from the aristocratic patronage of the arts to broadening out to appeal to the middle-class, newly liberated, to some extent, and newly prosperous as well (due to the industrial revolution). Let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven which I have blogged about in detail here, here, here and here. This is Daniel Barenboim conducting in his complete survey of the symphonies during the 2012 Proms:

As I mentioned in my post on the last movement, linked above, this movement is a bit of a dog's breakfast, meaning rather a mess, with awkward vocal parts that are just barely singable. Verdi in particular noted that, while praising the first three movements. Despite this, there is that great tune that Beethoven struggled a long time to create. The piece has far more admirers than critics, of course. But what is interesting is to set it alongside some subsequent "symphony-cantatas" which is the subject of this post.

The second example is a rarely-performed piece by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1840 there were festivities in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing and Mendelssohn wrote a piece that he termed a symphony-cantata which was performed in Leipzig twice, once at the command of the King of Saxony and again at the Birmingham Festival in England. It was a very popular piece in the 19th century, but has been almost forgotten today. The Symphony No. 2 in B-flat majorOp. 52, is commonly known as Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) and uses texts from the Bible which you can find at the Wikipedia link.

What is particularly interesting is the historical context. Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family; he was the grandson of the famous philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. But he, like other musicians of the time, was baptised a Christian and rose to the very heights of power in the musical world of Germany. He was also famous internationally, being particularly successful in tours of England. For much of the 19th century it seemed as if the revolutionary ideals of the late 18th century were being realized. Prejudice was diminishing, peace, at least in Europe, was widespread, and the middle-class was becoming more and more prosperous. Science and industry were moving forward with great success. By the end of the century the time was being referred to as the "Banquet Years" (see the book by Roger Shattuck).

The symphony by Mendelssohn is a fine work, well worth listening to, and one that wholeheartedly celebrates the good fortune felt in 19th century Europe. Here is a fine performance from the 2009 Proms:

One suspects that the fact that the symphony is not popular now is that so much of the 20th century seemed to utterly repudiate the comfortable optimism of the 19th century, of which this is such a fine example.

The 20th century saw the near-extermination of Jews in Europe. Those composers who did not flee from Germany in the 1930s often ended up in concentration or death camps. Music recalling this dark time is deeply bitter and pessimistic. The Symphony No. 13 of Shostakovich is an excellent example of this type of symphony-cantata, with its denunciation of anti-Semitism. Here is a performance conducted by Valery Gergiev:

But in between the slightly bland, from our point of view, optimism of the Mendelssohn and the sardonic bitterness of the Shostakovich comes a very odd example of the symphony-cantata from, of all people, Charles Ives. Written between 1910 and 1924, bracketing the First World War, his Symphony No. 4 consists of four movements, two of which have choral parts and the other two being purely instrumental. It is a very complex work, but one rife with oddities and aesthetic inconsistencies. Ives' earlier symphonies tend to be derivative of works by Schubert anDvořák and with the Symphony No. 4, one senses that he is experimenting with the form. He finally seems to have worked out a successful approach to the multi-movement orchestral form in his two Orchestral Sets composed around the same time. The spirit of the symphony, one gathers from Ives' comments, is existential and questioning. Here is a performance conducted by David Robertson:

Apart from the choir, there is also a prominent part for piano. The first movement is a meditative hymn setting an Epiphany text by John Bowring. The second movement is one of Ive's complex tapestries weaving together all sorts of disparate elements and tunes. The third movement, most incongruously, is an updated setting of a student exercise in fugue! The last movement combines the choir of the first movement with the complexity of the second.

For me, this is an aesthetic hodge-podge that is simply unsuccessful. But it is much admired in some quarters. I suppose you could consider this a very early attempt at the multiplicity of post-modernism. Or an experiment that just doesn't work!

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Concerto Guide: Vieuxtemps, Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, op. 37

The next concerto chronologically is the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor by the Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps. Completed in 1859, it is the most popular of his six violin concertos. In his own performing career he leaned away from the superficial opera potpourris that were so popular at the time and towards a more classical repertoire, specifically of Beethoven. As a composer he was encouraged by both Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz.

I chose this piece for a couple of reasons: it is a good example of the mid-19th century violin concerto with its wealth of passion and expressivity. IMSLP does not have the full score, just a violin/piano arrangement. It begins like this with the minor dramatic mood so much in favor for 19th century concertos (which undoubtedly goes back to the Mozart D minor piano concerto):

The other reason is that this was on a Pinchas Zuckerman album I used to own many years ago. I would listen to it every morning to remind me that the universe had a transcendental dimension: music!

Let's listen to a performance. This is Shlomo Mintz, Violin with the Sinfonieorchester des Südwestfunks (Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra) conducted by Myung-Whun Chung:

Hilary Hahn is just releasing a new recording pairing the 4th Violin Concerto of Vieuxtemps with the 5th Violin Concerto of Mozart. This is the kind of thing an artist of her stature tends to do: rather than recording the same popular works by the same composers, she introduces us sometimes to new composers as in her encore album, or to less known works by familiar composers, such as the Vieuxtemps 4th Concerto here. UPDATE: Alas, that one was taken down. Here is a different performance, also with Hahn:

Interesting piece. I think you can see why the 5th is popular. But the 4th is perhaps structurally more interesting with its contrasting moods and unconventional layout.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What Tribe Are You?

Every now and then I wander just slightly off the reservation and talk about something that is not totally focussed on music. But I will get to music eventually!

I just ran into an interesting comment on a website:
Many socio-political forces today are about the return to tribal identity. Tribes are isolated from the Other and easily coerced through emotional appeals to identity rather than universal logic. This has picked up methinks because information and people are increasingly ignoring the borders and authority defined by the state. So the thugs among us look to draw new boundaries based on race, gender, language etc. The new tribes destined to wage continuous and pointless war.
"Methinks?" Obviously a British commentator. A hundred years ago we here in the West were part of something called "Western Civilization" and had a set of shared values. But, as the commentator says, that seems to be passing away and we now are a set of different tribes with different values and ways of living. One of the many reasons for this is that it is very convenient for politicians that this be the case, because they can exploit these differences. And yes, we do seem to be moving towards a condition of continuous strife and conflict.

So, if we are separating out into separate tribes, I guess we have to figure out what tribe we are in. For a long, long time I thought I was in the tribe of "classical guitarists" and I suppose I was. But not completely. The things that did not seem to jibe with that identity were that I would compose music from time to time and I like listening to and talking about music that was not written for the classical guitar. So I was actually more part of the larger tribe of "classical music performers". I also had membership in the tribe of "music teachers". But after a time, all of this weighed heavily on me and I decided I needed to try a different tribe. So I went back to school as a doctoral candidate in musicology. This had the unexpected benefit of reawakening a lot of intellectual energy. I hadn't realised it, but spending twenty years or so telling people over and over that there are two beats in a half note does tend to dull your mind a bit! The musicology tribe was not ultimately compelling enough so for a number of years I departed the music tribe altogether and was part of a tribe we might call "private investors".

But eventually deeper levels of my tribal identity reasserted themselves and I came to realise that what I am, and what I have always been is a member of that tribe called "composers of music". Not the easiest tribe to be a member of! For one thing, when someone asks you what kind of music you write, you never know what to say. I'm working on a set of humorous answers:

  1. Just like Bach, only better!
  2. Chopin with a backbeat.
  3. Think middle-period Tom Waits, but with more counterpoint.
  4. Imaginary music to a documentary film about Monty Python.
  5. Very, very long quartets for flugelhorn, triangle, cowbell and glass harmonica.
But I will probably have to explain them...

And while we are in a comic mood, let's look at some of the new frontiers in the marketing of classical music. These folks are obviously onto something: