Sunday, December 21, 2014

Top-Selling Classical Artists of the Year

According to Billboard (and thanks to Norman Lebrecht) the top classical albums by sales start with the Benedictines of St. Mary:

Nothing wrong with that. Followed by the inevitable Andrea Bocelli:

But the third one is a bit of a surprise:

Nothing much wrong with that either. But you should read the comments at Slipped Disc for the meanness factor. People should really try and get a grip. Yes, sales and aesthetic quality are rarely consonant (not since the Beatles, at least), but this is hardly news.

As a bit of an antidote to this, later I will put up a post listing the recordings and performances I have enjoyed most this year. The most fun live performance was definitely the Afiara Quartet with Adrian Fung's own arrangement of a tune by Devotchka played as an encore. You can hear it in this clip along with some other brief snippets:

They are very fine Beethoven players and have a CD of him coming out any day now.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Best Music Salon Posts of the Year

As the year winds down I will be going out of town on vacation, so I won't be doing a lot of blogging over the next week or so. So I would like to point you to what I consider to be some of the best posts of the year. Here they are, one from each month:

Best Posts of the Year

  1. January: Haydn Adagios, Part 2
  2. February: all the posts reviewing Hilary Hahn's encore project especially the last one.
  3. March: Lots of good stuff in March, especially on Sibelius, but I'm going to pick a post about the typology of music, how we categorize stuff called Musical Style and Genre.
  4. April, lots of possibilities of which I am going to pick a post surveying the String Quartet Since 1900.
  5. May: one post was on Music and Self-Expression.
  6. June was the month I really got into Swedish composer Allan Pettersson and his fifteen symphonies. Here I talk about their Stormy Weather and Lyrical Islands.
  7. In July I put up a post about phrase structure in Baroque, Classical and Modern music called Harmony and Phrase Structure.
  8. In August, I put up a couple of posts about the Greatest Composers Before Bach (and part 2)
  9. In September I put up a think piece on how philosophical talk about music sometimes goes astray. The title was Music Utters the Unutterable.
  10. For October I am going to pick one of my early posts in my Concerto Guide series titled: Origins of the Instrumental Concerto.
  11. In November I talked about some of the failings of music critics in a piece called Music Writing Then and Now.
  12. And just a few days ago I did a post on Mozart's wonderful Sinfonia Concertante.
So go have a look. There were lots of other posts this year that you might have missed.

Here is a piece by one of those greatest composers before Bach, Guillaume de Machaut:

UPDATE: The link to "Harmony and Phrase Structure" was incorrect and has been fixed.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah and best wishes for the holidays.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Here's something really fun to start off with. The question is "Lennon or McCartney?" and the answers come from 550 musicians, songwriters and actors collected over the last ten years:

Of course quite a few answered "Harrison" and at least one answered "Ringo". Now I want to do the same thing except the question is "Bach or Beethoven?" And your answer is? (And don't say "Mozart".)

* * *

And on a more serious note, or several notes, this report from the Guardian purports to reveal a breakthrough in our knowledge of early polyphony:
Typically, polyphonic music is seen as having developed from a set of fixed rules and almost mechanical practice. This changes how we understand that development precisely because whoever wrote it was breaking those rules. It shows that music at this time was in a state of flux and development. The conventions were less rules to be followed than a starting point from which one might explore new compositional paths.
Well, no, actually. It is pretty well attested that polyphonic singing was around for a long, long, long time before methods were found to write it down. And it likely was not governed by "fixed rules and almost mechanical practice". Where did that come from? What is it with this fixation on rules and the breaking thereof?

* * *

Somehow I missed the beginning of this: the Guardian is launching a new guide series, this time an Introduction to Opera. When I get a chance I will sample some of them and report back. In the meantime, have a look for yourself.

* * *

Here's a nice little tune. Sting accompanies singer Rachel Tucker in a song from his musical The Last Ship, currently playing on Broadway. I've always rather liked Sting: I was a fan of The Police and quite liked his Dowland album. He's a pretty fair classical guitarist as well:

Mind you, a guitarist only needs to warm up their hands and, possibly, forearms. The rest is just posing. Plus, Bach is normally played while wearing a shirt.

* * *

A short miscellanea today as I mostly ran across news items, like the New York Times slashing a lot of people from their cultural desks including music critic Allan Kozinn, author of an excellent book on the Beatles. Not too much of more musical interest. Let's end with some music. Here is some very early polyphony from the monastery of St. Martial. Nothing fixed and mechanical here:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Concerto Guide: Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364

The sinfonia concertante genre is the turducken of the classical world. Whazzat? A "turducken" is a particularly extravagant holiday meal consisting of a boned turkey, stuffed with a boned duck, stuffed with a boned chicken. Supposedly quite tasty. But a definite mix of different things. So too is the sinfonia concertante genre, which is really a blend of the two genres of the symphony and the concerto. Think of it as a symphony stuffed with a concerto.

In any case, probably the only reason we pay much attention to the genre today is because of a superb composition by Mozart, the Sinfonia concertante, K. 364, in E flat for violin, viola and orchestra.

The Wikipedia article on the sinfonia concertante form is not very good. It seems obvious to me that the genre is a holdover from the Baroque concerto grosso, though reinterpreted in the Classical style. In any case, the only important piece in this genre is the one by Mozart, but it's a good one.

The Sinfonia concertante in E flat is a unique piece with a unique sound. Mozart loved the viola and may have written the viola part in this concerto for himself to play. In any case, the sound of the whole orchestra is imbued with the timbre of the viola. Take the first chord for example:

The violas, divisi, are playing quite high double stops, in the same range as the violins, in their lowest register, with the oboes in their low register, the horns doubling the oboes and cellos. The effect is to the give the piece a characteristic sound, shaped by the viola. Rosen remarks that this is a "milestone in Mozart's career: for the first time he had created a sonority at once completely individual and logically related to the the nature of the work." [The Classical Style, p. 215]

Though the slow movement and rondo finale are very fine, the real weight of the piece is in the somber first movement. The themes are closely linked:

The solo parts are written with both brilliance and pathos. They often echo one another so closely that listening to a recording without the score you might at times be puzzled as to who is playing what. While the timbres are different, the instruments are handled very similarly. Here is the brief but effective cadenza at the end of the first movement:

This concerto represents a considerable increase in maturity in Mozart's writing and also is his final example of a concerto with more than one soloist. From now on he will compose only concertos for solo piano and orchestra, mostly for his own use. And that we will take up next week. In the meantime, here is a performance of the Sinfonia concertante in E flat with Gidon Kremer, Kim Kashkashian and the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by a young Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Progress in Music?

In the past I have ranted that there is no progress in music, that what people are writing today is not better than what people wrote two hundred years ago. And there is certainly a sense in which that is true. But let's take another look at the question: is there progress in music? The idea that we are always moving towards a brighter future, a staple of politicians' speeches, is what is called "Whig history" from the British political party. Though the idea that humanity is ever marching to a more just and equitable future still seems a staple of some political factions, in general the idea has been debunked--especially in the arts.

But let's take another look at music. There are certainly aspects of music that show a definite progression from less complex to more complex or from simple and limited to more ample and extensive. For example, a great deal of what we know of the music of the early Middle Ages consists of simple, one voice melodies that we call "Gregorian Chant" used by the Catholic Church:

Scholars, when discussing this or any other musical form or genre, cannot avoid using the word "development" which implies progress over time. For example, the Wikipedia article on Gregorian Chant linked to above describes it like this:
Gregorian chant developed mainly in western and central Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries, with later additions and redactions. Although popular legend credits Pope St. Gregory the Great with inventing Gregorian chant, scholars believe that it arose from a later Carolingian synthesis of Roman chant and Gallican chant.
The origins are obscure, as they are with many musical genres, but it most certainly developed over time. You could argue that the changes were not a progression in an aesthetic sense, but you could also argue that they were. Simply melodies were refined and varied and honed over time. Most of all, added to the single voice of the earlier repertoire, were additional voices to create a polyphonic texture and ways were devised to write this down. We also see a similar  progression over a larger field if we look at the technical resources of music. Without confusing notation with practice (it is certain that polyphonic, chordal choral music was sung long before it was written down), we can, by examining the history of what was written down, see a definite accretion of more and more potential resources for composers. As long as we avoid making the crude claims of a linear progression over time, I think that we can certainly see development in the history of music.

What I mean by "crude claims of a linear progression" is the obviously erroneous idea that music written in 1800 is always better than music written in 1700. Absurdities like this are why it is often said that there is no progress in music. But if we fine-tune it a bit, we might say something like in 1800 composers commonly used a wider harmonic palette than composers did in 1700. This is obviously true. While there are some interesting eccentricities like the chromatic harmony of Gesualdo, in general, while there are waves back and forth, there does seem to be a progression from a more limited, consonant harmonic space to one that accepts a higher level of dissonance and more remote modulation. Again, with the recognition that the development is not linear. The late Baroque was far more likely than the Classical to use minor keys, for example, and the wild harmonic ventures of C. P. E. Bach are more extreme than those of the later Joseph Haydn.

But while recognizing these truths, we must also see what are the unmistakable development of resources. Take meter, for example. There were certain metric devices that were common currency in the 17th and 18th centuries. An example would be hemiola that I wrote about here. This is the relatively simple, though very effective device of changing the subdivision within a measure so as to change the feeling of the beat. An example would be to write three half notes in a measure of 6/4 to change the feel to 3/2. Or you could turn two measures of 3/4 into one measure of 3/2. This was often used to set up a cadence. It is still used a lot in Spanish music. But a composer working now has an incredible range of possibilities: hemiola is still available, of course, but irregular meters like 5/4 are also in common use and then there are the complexities of meter that we find in Stravinsky, the "phasing" and other devices in the music of Steve Reich, developments of hemiola with subdivisions of 3+3+2 in Philip Glass and the much more complex metric modulation as is found in the music of Elliot Carter.

Now, of course, there is no guarantee that access to a wider variety of technical possibilities will result in a better piece of music--often the opposite is true! But we can certainly speak of a general tendency of development. As long as we are careful to compare apples to apples and not to oranges, we can look at, for example, the harmony of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms and see that there is a development of wider possibility.

But considering the history of music, or any art, purely from an aesthetic standpoint, we should be very hesitant to claim anything more than merely local progress. Over the greater span, any attempt to claim that Beethoven is on a higher level than Bach aesthetically, or Bach than Josquin, or Stravinsky than Mahler, is simply going to dissolve into fractious debate. What each of these composers set out to do was so different that straightforward comparisons cannot be made. Some things really are incommensurable.

Here is a chromatic madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo:

And here is a consonant work by Arvo Pärt:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Mozart's Divertimenti

All 18th century music, in the second half of the century at least, is usually meant to be diverting. This even extends to the church music of Haydn and Mozart, which is typically rather too bouncy and cheerful to be entirely suitable for religious meditation (Mozart's Requiem aside). But, interestingly, the pieces Mozart wrote titled "Divertimento" are often more substantial than the supposedly more serious chamber music titled "string quartet" or "sonata". Since we think of divertimenti as being rather trivial, they are often neglected. So let's have a look at some of Mozart's divertimenti. We will have lots of choose from as in the 170 CDs of his complete works, 41 discs are devoted to divertimenti.

Mozart's divertimenti often run up to forty minutes in length, i.e. longer than his symphonies or string quartets which run typically to 20 or 30 minutes. Many are of similar quality. So let's look at some. I have chosen three examples. The first is an early one for strings, the Divertimento in F major, K. 138 written in 1772 when Mozart was only fifteen or sixteen. He was in the employment of the Archbishop of Salzburg and had just returned from an extended journey to Italy with his father. Much of his musical training as a composer took place on this and other travels where he met composers like J. C. Bach in London and studied counterpoint with Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna. We can hear some of the Italian influence in the limpidity and charming melodies of this divertimento. This and its two companion pieces are often called Salzburg Symphonies. Usually I like to look at the beginning of the first movement for a clue as to the character, but this piece has such a lovely Andante middle movement that I want to quote it. Measures 9 to 12 in the second phrase are very touching with their "Corelli seconds":

Click to enlarge
Here is that movement. You hear those harmonic clashes first at the 36 second mark:

And here is the whole divertimento with Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Total duration is only 14 minutes:

Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein said of the much later Divertimento in F major, K. 247 that it, along with its companion pieces, "belong to the purest, the liveliest, the most cheering, the most perfect compositions that ever assumed a musical form." Dating from 1776, when Mozart had turned 20, this is more typical of the genre with its six movements, including two minuets (with trios) enclosing an adagio. There is also a second slow movement in the form of an Andante grazioso theme and variations. Together with quicker opening and closing movements this makes up the usual divertimento layout. The total duration is about 31 minutes and it is scored for string quartet plus two horns. Here is the first page:

And here is a complete performance:

Honestly, has there ever been more delightful and diverting music?

Late in life, immediately after composing his two great string quintets Mozart wrote one more, final, divertimento. This piece, the Divertimento K. 563, benefits from all his experience in writing chamber music and is a distillation of his talents into the concentrated form of the string trio. Charles Rosen says that "no other composer of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries ever understood the demands of writing for three voices as Mozart did, except for Bach..." Rosen describes this piece as being far above all other works in the string trio form. It is also the only string trio he composed. Mozart manages to perfectly synthesize the demands of three-part counterpoint with those of a popular genre. Here is the opening:

Click to enlarge
And here is a performance by the fairly stunning trio of Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman and Leonard Rose. The total duration is about 45 minutes:

UPDATE: I forgot to include the movements. As in K. 247, there are six movements laid out as follows (from Wikipedia):

  1. Allegro (E-flat majorsonata form, 4/4)
  2. Adagio (A-flat major, sonata form, 3/4)
  3. Minuet - Trio (E-flat major, ternary form, 3/4)
  4. Andante (B-flat major, theme and 4 variations, with the third variation in B-flat minor, 2/4)
  5. Minuet - Trio I - Trio II (E-flat major, rondo form, with the first trio in A-flat major and the second one in B-flat major, 3/4)
  6. Allegro (E-flat major, sonata rondo form, 6/8)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Death of a Pianist

I hesitate to write anything about this sad end to an outstanding musician's career, but perhaps something should be said. Music critic Scott Cantrell writes in the Dallas Morning News:
It’s hard to imagine that we won’t be seeing Jose Feghali around town anymore: that million-volt smile, that well-focused baritone always bursting with enthusiasm. As winner of the 1985 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the Brazilian-born, London-trained pianist had a major career early on, and, as artist-in-residence at Texas Christian University’s School of Music, he had become a go-to teacher. He was very much a presence on the Fort Worth musical scene, and those who knew him loved him.
What went wrong? On Tuesday, the day after he had been discussing future projects with his dean, Feghali’s body was found in his bed, a bullet hole in his head. The medical examiner ruled suicide.
I have very mixed feelings about competitions generally. They force young musicians to subject themselves to unbelievable pressures with, I'm sure, long-term psychological results. We don't know and the article offers only speculation about the reasons for Feghali's taking his own life. A lot of the comments at Slipped Disc condemn the tone of the article's reporting for its insensitivity and invasion of privacy. Let's not commit any of that here!

 Perhaps I can talk a bit about the pressures on a classical musician through my own life. The most harsh disciplines are those we impose on ourselves and developing the technical and musical resources to be a touring soloist has to be one of the toughest disciplines of all. For hours every day of your life you must perform a series of exercises that are as mentally tiring as they are physically demanding. In addition, you must learn new repertoire from memory and polish old repertoire. You must travel to play concerts and this gets more exhausting every year with the ever-growing security requirements and the capriciousness of airline employees regarding transport of your instrument.  For most of us the fees are tiny and the expenses high. There are an ever-ready host of those eager to exploit your naiveté, your time, your talent, for their own purposes. Yes, of course, there are profound rewards for all this, I'm just pointing out the pressures.

So, it is perhaps inevitable that some musicians simply crumple under the constant strain. Perhaps even contemplate suicide. One's identity is so wrapped up in being a musician, it might be difficult to even imagine other solutions. But they exist. I think there are always paths out of a difficult situation in your career or personal life. Sometimes you need some patience to wait for a solution to present itself. That's about all I have to contribute...