Saturday, January 18, 2020

Stravinsky: Svadebka (Les Noces)

Stravinsky's piece for vocal soloists, choir, four pianos and percussion was begun in 1917 (though conceived earlier) and premiered in 1923. It is a work strongly based on Russian folklore, particularly the melodies, lyrics and traditions of the peasant wedding. In English we should probably just call it "The Wedding." The piece is the culmination of years of exhaustive study of Russian folklore that included the composition of Petrushka, the Rite of Spring, Pribaoutki and other pieces. Stravinsky's reputation as an uncompromising modernist that de-emphasizes the Russian traditions is one that Taruskin specifically set out to correct in his two-volume work on Stravinsky. Of course, Stravinsky utterly transformed the folk material, but its influence is deep and thorough. The other modern composer who owes a great deal to folklore is Bartók, but that has always been prominently acknowledged by the composer himself. With Stravinsky it is more complex as his own relationship with his Russian origins changed as he settled outside Russia, living in France, Switzerland and ultimately the US.

I am going to write more about Svadebka in future posts. One thing I notice already is that this has been a difficult work to perform and many older performances are stiff or awkward. Here is a recent one that is very convincing. This is MusicAeterna conducted by Teodor Currentzis.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

There is no doubt in my mind that an engagement with the fine arts, music in particular, is psychologically healthy. I think it helps to prevent falling into some of the typical failings of our time: narcissism, neurosis, excessive emotionalism. So it is nice to see the idea echoed in a scientific study: Want to live longer? Art museums may be the key, study suggests.
“While previous studies have shown the association between arts engagement and the prevention and treatment of mental and physical health conditions, including depression, dementia, chronic pain, and frailty, whether arts engagement actually confers survival benefits remains unclear,” the study read. “Some research has proposed that the universality of art and the strong emotional responses it induces are indications of its association with evolutionary adaptations, while other research has questioned whether art is an evolutionary parasite, with no particular evolutionary benefits to our species.” 
Researchers found that adults 50 or older who engaged with arts frequently, or every few months or more — whether by going to the theater, museums, attending concerts, the opera or visiting art galleries and exhibitions — had a 31% lower risk of dying in the follow-up period.
What is left out of this discussion is the benefit accruing from the discipline of practicing the arts. Learning a musical instrument, for example, involves developing all kinds of disciplined approaches and techniques.

* * *

Norman Lebrecht has a rather breathless and inaccurate post over at Slipped Disc about the passing of the last "true" musicologist that I felt impelled to comment on.
 The Czech-born ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl died yesterday at 89. 
A child refugee from Hitler, he taught at the University of Illinois and conducted research among Native Americans, and in Iran and South India.
One of the other comments is such a hilarious parody that one suspects it is from the Babylon Bee. It received unanimous down votes...

* * *

I mentioned how sad it was that musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason had to stop posting on her blog due to her battle with cancer. She just passed away at the tragically young age of thirty-six.
Rebecca Schaefer Cypess: I never had the chance to meet Linda Shaver-Gleason in person, but conversing with her and reading her work was a great blessing for me, just as she was a blessing to the whole field of musicology. Her early death–she was, as she put it, “assassinated by cancer”–is a tremendous loss. She was a public scholar with grace and humor, in addition to being a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend. My heart goes out to Chris Gleason and Linus at this unbearably difficult time. Toward the end of her life Linda was interviewed numerous times by other journalists, but I’ll share the link to her blog because it’s best to let her speak for herself.…
* * *

Yes, this is the bicenquinquagenary, or two hundred and fiftieth anniversary, of the birth of Beethoven so we should be listening to quite a lot of Beethoven this year. Norman Lebrecht has a non-recommendation of an integral symphony recording: A BEETHOVEN A DAY: THE CYCLE QUESTION.
In all of my listening, I have yet to encounter a boxed set without flaws. Not just minor lapses, but fundamental, stagnant black holes like the indeterminate Pastoral in Hebert von Karajan’s otherwise imposing first Berlin cycle of 1963 (he went on to record seven or eight more), or the far-too rushed Eroica in Nikolaus Hanoncourt’s refreshing 1990 set with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.  Boxed sets, I’ve always understood, are for Christmas. Beethoven is for the other 364 days of the year.
The last one I listened to and quite enjoyed was the Roger Norrington box with the London Classical Players. The idea that every single cycle has "flaws" assumes that there is a Platonic Ideal Form of performances of the Beethoven symphonies. Does anyone actually believe that?

Oh, and could any of my readers either correct or support my attempt at finding the Latin equivalent of "two hundred and fiftieth anniversary"?

* * *

 I have seen a number of disturbing stories of public libraries that are more or less doing away with actual books. But maybe there is also an upside: Public Libraries’ Latest Offering: Musical Instruments. This is what is happening in Brooklyn:
But in one quiet wing on the third floor, the 78-year old institution goes beyond a place to read and rent books. There, it becomes New York City’s only library branch where patrons can take home musical instruments — for free.
For a 30-day period, any library-card-holder (with the permission of an adult, for minors) can take home instruments that range from electric guitars and keyboards to drum pads and cowbells. The library also boasts on-site recording studios, where borrowers can freely play.
But I gotta ask, who is actually going to take out cowbells?

* * * 

We had something on this story in the New York Times recently. Here is another take from Rolling Stone: How Music Copyright Lawsuits Are Scaring Away New Hits.
In the five years since a court ruled that “Blurred Lines” infringed on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 “Got to Give It Up,” demanding that Thicke and Williams fork over $5 million to the Gaye estate for straying too close to the older song’s “vibe,” the once-sleepy realm of music copyright law has turned into a minefield. Chart-topping musicians have been slapped with infringement lawsuits like never before, and stars like Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry are being asked to pay millions in cases that have many experts scratching their heads. Across genres, artists are putting out new music with the same question in the backs of their minds: Will this song get me sued?
“There is a lot of confusion about what’s permissible and what’s not,” says Sandy Wilbur, a forensic musicologist who served as an expert witness for the defense in the “Blurred Lines” case. Because cases are decided by “the average listener, who is not an educated musicologist or musician,” she notes, “labels are very afraid.” Since that game-changing ruling in 2015, Wilbur says, she’s received triple the number of requests from music companies to double-check new songs before they are even considered for release.
I have at times dreamed of being a "forensic musicologist" called to crime scenes to identify a musical murder weapon: "this man was strangled by a set of sleigh bells imported from Austria," or perhaps, "what a horrible death--bludgeoned to death by a contrabassoon!" But alas, it seems that what you really have to do is listen to a whole bunch of 70s tracks. Oh well, this is how dreams perish...

* * * 

I once horrified a writer on music by saying that Beethoven did not write very well for the voice to which he replied "But Fidelio is one of my favorite operas!" "Exactly!" was my response. I'm not the only one who wonders about FidelioDavid Lang: why I freed Fidelio's other prisoners. After discussing the problems with the original opera, composer David Lang explains how and why he decided to re-write it.

* * *

Damian Thompson at The Spectator is overcome with the marvelousness of Beethoven: Beethoven wasn’t just history’s greatest composer but also one of its greatest human beings.
That was Beethoven’s message to himself: to revolutionise music as economically as possible. And he succeeds, even when the page is black with notes that make terrifying technical demands. Although some of his later music may sound wild, verging on the atonal, it is not confused.
The strangeness does not reflect the chaotic despair of Beethoven’s drink-sodden personal life (he may unintentionally have drunk himself to death). On the contrary, Beethoven is making musical recompense for his behaviour. Some aspects of composing, such as counterpoint, didn’t come naturally to him. His two great fugues, the finale of the Hammerklavier sonata and the Grosse Fuge for string quartet, reach unprecedented levels of experimental complexity which still scare off some 21st-century listeners. But every note justifies itself. Beethoven sweated over them through fevers and hangovers. People in Vienna sometimes mistook him for a tramp; what they were actually witnessing was the ultimate musical perfectionist, albeit after a few too many beers.
There is absolutely no doubt about the astonishing quality of Beethoven's music, but it is hard for me to extend that to saying that he is one of history's greatest human beings. I just don't think it works like that.

* * *

We have not had much Beethoven lately, so let's listen to an excerpt from Igor Levit's new integral recording of the piano sonatas. This is the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, "Pathétique" which Blogger won't embed:

Incidentally, he will be playing all the sonatas in a series of concerts at the Salzburg Festival this coming August.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Roger Scruton, R.I.P.

I just learned that Roger Scruton passed away on Sunday. Have a look at his Wikipedia article. I had a great deal of respect for him as a writer on philosophical aesthetics. When I have a chance, I will do a post on him as, glancing at the article, there is a great deal I did not know of his life and work.

I have got to organize my library. I think this is the only book I have of his, but I can't locate it at the moment:

UPDATE: Here is an interesting conversation between Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson under the auspices of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Socio-Economic Theory of Guitar

I had an odd thought I wanted to share: I notice that fine classical guitarists seem to come in waves from different parts of the world. Here they are over the last hundred years.

  • First wave from Spain late-nineteenth through first half of 20th century: Francisco Tárrega, Miguel Llobet and Andrés Segovia
  • Second wave from Latin America and southern Europe: Alirio Diaz, Abel Carlevaro, Oscar Ghiglia
  • Third wave: the UK and Australia: Julian Bream, John Williams, Pepe Romero (the Romeros are a bit of an anomaly--they moved from Spain to the US in the 1950s)
  • Fourth wave: the US, Cuba, France: Manuel Barrueco, Eliot Fisk, Sharon Isbin, Leo Brouwer, Ida Presti and Alexander Lagoya
  • Fifth wave: Eastern Europe, Canada: Ana Vidovic, Marcin Dylla, Drew Henderson
I'm not doing any actual research here and closer examination might reveal something quite different, but it seems to me as if the classical guitar is something of a transitional instrument. It does well in cultures that are neither wealthy nor highly developed culturally. And as a particular culture becomes wealthy and more developed, young musicians tend to gravitate to instruments other than the guitar. For example, there don't seem to be too many first rank players coming from Spain these days (or am I wrong?) or the UK, or the US. Instead they are coming from places like Eastern Europe. I could have included China there, but while there is one very fine Chinese guitarist, Xuefei Yang, most music students in China are singers, violinists or pianists. That's where the money is!

The other thing I notice is that, with each wave, the economic rewards grow less and less. Segovia did very well, as did Bream and Williams, Pepe Romero had a rewarding career as did Manuel Barrueco. But since then, even very fine guitarists, easily as accomplished as any of those, have meagre careers with very modest rewards.

Here is the terrific Canadian guitarist Drew Henderson with some fine Bach:

What is Tonality?

Music composition and philosophy share the occasional tendency or need, perhaps, to be perplexed by things that everyone else takes for granted. Take tonality, for example. I can't locate it at the moment, but at the beginning of one of his texts, Schoenberg says that the easiest way to achieve unity in a composition is through tonality. But this does not necessarily mean "tonality" as it is described in a first-year harmony course.

What is tonality? You could argue that any music that organizes structure through pitch is, in some sense, "tonal." Most of Steve Reich's music is tonal as is that, most certainly, of Philip Glass. There have been arguments that a lot of Schoenberg's music is tonal in a very broad sense. Some pieces by Berg likely are. Perhaps some pieces by Ligeti. Certainly music by a great number of 20th century masters from Stravinsky to Shostakovich to Britten to Messiaen. The term "extended tonality" was doubtless coined to describe the many different ways composers have approached tonality. It is no longer, if it ever was, a question of following a fixed set of "rules" governing how tonality must be used. It would be hard to find a composer who didn't break the rules whenever it was necessary or useful--even Haydn and Beethoven!

So we find ourselves on the verge of claiming that any music that organizes pitches is in some sense "tonal." I don't find that terribly problematic, frankly. There are, of course, pieces that are in no sense at all tonal such as this one:

But how could you argue that this piece is not tonal:

Schoenberg fiercely resisted classifying his music as "atonal," he preferred "pantonal" or "music written with twelve-tones equally" or some variation of that. Because certainly his music uses tones in various structural ways. Only a piece without tones could accurately be called "atonal" as a person without a moral sense would be called "amoral."

The two biggest differences between traditional or common practice tonality and extended tonality are first, the tolerance of higher levels of dissonance and second, the organization of pitches in a symmetrical rather than asymmetrical way. If you replace perfect 4ths and 5ths with tritones you make a profound change in harmonic structure by dividing the octave equally. Similarly, if you use an octatonic collection you also divide the octave equally. This leaves it open as to which pitch you choose as a "final." Using the whole-tone scale has a similar effect as we see in Debussy. Incidentally,  Messiaen was referring to these symmetrical pitch collections in his "modes of limited transposition" because, yes, they can only be transposed a limited number of times. Also, a symmetrical rhythmic structure is, in his terminology, "non-retrogradable" because, like a palindrome, is it the same backwards or forwards.

Setting aside the more extreme approaches such as we find in Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, it seems to be mostly true that 20th (and possibly 21st) century composers have taken a myriad of approaches to the tonal organization of music without actually casting aside the idea of tonal organization! Asking the question is a particular piece of music tonal or not is actually a very, very complicated question. For most purposes I am going to answer "uh-huh, probably."

Here is a nice example for you: Renard by Stravinsky. In A. Or "on" A. Or "in the general neighborhood of A".

Friday, January 10, 2020


This missed making the Friday Miscellanea, but I just couldn't wait until next week to share it with you:

You know, I am pretty eager to hear that disco treatment of Operation Barbarossa, which, I'm pretty sure, will be a fresh approach to song-writing.

Friday Miscellanea

Here is an odd little ad from Advertising Standards Canada:

Now is this valid aesthetic criticism or just a cheap shot? Is there any reason it can't be both? I'm reminded of that fantastic scene in Green Card where Gérard Depardieu fakes an avant-garde performance on piano--or does he? At the end he just gives a Gallic shrug and says "it's not Mozart." Here is another ad from the same folks:

Same idea, but with painting. Incidentally, the music is the Badinerie movement from the Orchestral Suite No. 2 by Bach. Let me make one crucially important modification to their premiss that creativity is subjective. The reception of creativity (art, music and so on) is subjective. The aesthetic objects themselves are not. They have real existence just like anything else. But how you take them, interpret them, perceive them as beautiful, is indeed subjective. Up to you, in other words. By the way, the Advertising Standards folks ought to take a look at political advertising. I understand some of it is pretty uh, subjective!

* * *

Bachtrack has crunched the numbers for 2019 in music. Let's look at a few. But first here are some of their premisses:
It’s not unknown for us to groan in despair at how slow classical music is to change and, indeed, some of the stats for 2019 show, shall we say, a degree of continuity (Beethoven and Mozart the top two composers, with Brahms and Bach in the top five).
As a person of a certain age, I am rather in favor of things, especially good things, staying just as they are. Would they prefer that Beethoven was largely replaced by Nico Muhly? Ah, but that's not what they mean:
But look into the numbers more closely and you’ll see that slowly but surely, there’s progress: more women composers and conductors, more contemporary music being played, more variety of operatic repertoire. The whole scene feels pretty vibrant from where we’re sitting, with our reviewers getting every bit as excited about the music and the musicians they’ve seen during the year.
So, just the usual virtue-signalling. Passing that by, here are some of the actual numbers. The most-performed concert piece: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" by Beethoven. Here are the top ten:
1 Beethoven: Symphony no. 3 “Eroica”
2 Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
3 Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 5
4 Vivaldi: Four Seasons
5 Handel: Messiah
6 Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
7 Brahms: Symphony no. 1
8 Brahms: Symphony no. 2
9 Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
10 Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
No Mozart, no Bach? Mozart gets on the list of the top three opera composers preceded by Verdi and Puccini. Lots of statistics about the increasing numbers of women composers and conductors. Here are some miscellaneous statistics: 29% of opera productions in Austria were new in 2019. The busiest conductors?
1 Andris Nelsons
 2 Valery Gergiev
 3 Paavo Järvi
 4 Jakub Hrůša
 5 Jaap van Zweden
=6 François-Xavier Roth
=6 Yannick Nézet-Séguin
=8 Herbert Blomstedt
=8 Daniel Harding
10 Semyon Bychkov
And the busiest pianists:
Yuja Wang
Jan Lisiecki
Emanuel Ax
Daniil Trifonov
Rudolf Buchbinder
Sir András Schiff
Dénes Várjon
Yefim Bronfman
Leif Ove Andsnes
Kirill Gerstein
Igor Levit
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
* * *

The New York Times has a piece on the increasing litigation in pop music: It’s Got a Great Beat, and You Can File a Lawsuit to It. My feeling is that since this end of the music business has become so engorged with revenue, then opportunistic lawsuits are sure to follow. I'm pretty sure no-one will be coming after me, though!
Occasionally, pop innovates in a hard stylistic jolt, or an outlier comes to rapid prominence (see: Lil Nas X), but more often, it moves as a kind of unconscious collective. An evolutionary step is rarely the product of one person working in isolation; it is one brick added atop hundreds of others.
Originality is a con: Pop music history is the history of near overlap. Ideas rarely emerge in complete isolation. In studios around the world, performers, producers and songwriters are all trying to innovate just one step beyond where music currently is, working from the same component parts. It shouldn’t be a surprise when some of what they come up with sounds similar — and also like what came before.
The idea that this might be actionable is the new twist. Every song benefits from what preceded it, whether it’s a melodic idea, a lyrical motif, a sung rhythm, a drum texture. A forensic analysis of any song would find all sorts of pre-existing DNA.
Yabbut, what about cultural appropriation? Oh, never mind. What the above boils down to is that pop music is a high-revenue version of folk music, the result of a kind of collective unconscious and with not a huge amount of creative individuality.

* * *

Who or what is "Musicology Duck"? Not sure, but they do have an interesting proposal: why don't we expand our listening habits in the new year: Listen Wider Challenge 2020. Sounds good!

Well, it did sound good, right up to the virtue-signalling thingy. Really, if you decide to base your musical explorations ONLY on things like gender and skin color, isn't that just a category error? Or sexism and racism? For more examples of the above see their list of how you should broaden your horizons. Some of them are pretty good, such as "A composition written when the composer was older than age 80." I'm sure there are possibilities other than Elliot Carter? Or: "A concerto for tuba, bassoon, or double bass." That could be interesting. But at least half of the suggestions are mere political correctness run amok: "An opera with a libretto by an author of color."

* * *

Taking a cue from that last item, why don't we resolve to expand our listening in the new year? I think I will listen a bit more to some of these:
  • Morton Feldman: I don't think I know much of his music and I probably should.
  • Luigi Nono: same thing. I started to do some posts on him and got sidetracked. But I want to do more reading on him and more listening as well.
  • Mozart Piano Sonatas: there are a bunch of them and I have only the vaguest sense of them.
Others will likely turn up.

* * *

I am astonished to hear for the first time about an interesting musicology blog just as it comes to an end: Myth-busting music blogger honored, mourned online in her final days.
Beethoven’s late music sounds the way it does because he was already deaf when he wrote it. The premiere of “The Rite of Spring” was a historic explosion of anti-modernist outrage. Music is a universal language.
These are things that everyone knows, or at least everyone with an interest in classical music. They go with other familiar stories, like Bach’s houseful of 20 children or Mozart’s deadly feud with Salieri.
And they’re all wrong.
Please don’t take my word for it. For the details on these and other musical yarns ripe for debunking, you could scarcely do better than to consult a blog with the winningly outraged name Not Another Music History Cliché! 
Since 2016, California musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason has been using that site to compile a clear-eyed and level-headed accounting of the ways in which the conventional wisdom about classical music (like conventional wisdom in all walks of life) consistently leads us astray. She’s tackled issues as specific as whether a newly discovered flute concerto is really by Mozart, and as broad as the role of beauty in music, with particular application to the “ugly” sounds of contemporary composition.
How terribly, terribly sad! I am going to follow her advice and read her blog even though it will no longer be added to.

* * *

 For our envoi today, here is the Orchestral Suite No. 2 by Bach from the Netherlands Bach Society's mammoth project: