Sunday, February 26, 2017

Unsung Heroes?

This will be one of my "finessed openings" where I sort of back into my topic from somewhere else. A while ago, on a whim, I asked a friend who it was exactly that was most responsible for defeating Adolf Hitler in WWII. She was puzzled to come up with the answer--I was rather expecting her to name someone like Winston Churchill. In actuality, from what I know of that history, it was the Red Army of the Soviet Union that did the lion's share of defeating Nazi Germany, though the Allied D-Day landings were crucial in landing the final blow.

Sticking with WWII, it is an interesting intellectual exercise to dig down a bit and see if we can come up with the names of two individuals that were key to the way the Second World War ended. Who are they? Mikhail Koshkin and Frank Jack Fletcher. Huh?, I hear you expostulating! Who the heck are these guys? Of course the war was an immense struggle between tens if not hundreds of millions of individuals, but if you look closely at the details, these two men emerge as being at the core of the events. The Red Army was successful in resisting and finally defeating the enormous forces launched against them largely because they had the best tank in the first years of the war, the T-34. This had a powerful main gun and brilliantly designed armor that could not be penetrated by the Wehrmacht's standard anti-tank weapons. This came as a huge shock to the Germans who had become used to their Panzers simply rolling over everyone. The T-34 medium tank was designed by one Mikhail Koshkin (whose Wikipedia article is probably the smallest possible given his historic importance). The Russians built around 80,000 of the T-34 and that was pretty much what defeated the Nazis on the Eastern Front.

Frank Jack Fletcher is much better known. As Vice Admiral Fletcher he was in tactical command at both the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, the crucial turning points in the Pacific war. Since these battles the US has been the dominant military power, not only in the Pacific, but globally. Sure, he had a lot of help, from Navy cryptologists who decoded the Japanese transmissions, and from the Navy Yard workers at Pearl Harbor that repaired the USS Yorktown in an astonishing 72 hours from damage suffered during the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Japanese estimated it would take three months and were very surprised to find her at Midway. But it was the decisions made by Fletcher during the battle that enabled the Americans to sink all four of the Japanese large aircraft carriers which pretty much meant that the war was lost in a mere two days, the 4th and 5th of June, 1942.

So we can see that it is often figures who are less or little known that are the most crucial in shaping events behind the scenes. Because I think that something similar is at work in music history. The two figures who are most responsible for creating or discovering the basic principles of the musical structures that have given us most of the great music of the last three centuries, while certainly not unknown, are actually less known than their importance warrants. Who are these people? Claudio Monteverdi and Joseph Haydn.

I devoted a large number of posts to Joseph Haydn from October 2013, largely focusing on his symphonies--over a hundred simply remarkable works. I have also written quite a lot about his string quartets. But the other important figure, Claudio Monteverdi, has been overlooked here at the Music Salon and my intention, over the next couple of months, is to devote enough posts to him to rectify this fault. I won't start immediately because I have to do some background research first, but I thought that today we might listen to the most formidable piece of religious music written before the great Passions (and Mass) of J. S. Bach. This is Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine dating from 1610. Taking an hour and a half to perform it is an astonishing work of compositional virtuosity with sections in nearly every style and genre available: there are even elements from Monteverdi's opera Orfeo appearing in the beginning.

John Eliot Gardiner directed a brilliant and creative performance of this filmed at Versailles with the English Concert, the Monteverdi choir and soloists. I love the three theorboes in the center.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Doctor Who?

If you don't know about the British television series Doctor Who, well, I wouldn't let that go on too much longer! In any case, here is a very enthusiastic orchestral and choral rendition of the Doctor Who theme for your listening pleasure:

Yes, ok, it does sound a bit like Carl Orff, what's your point? Now if you will excuse me, I seem to have misplaced my sonic screwdriver...

Deconstructing a Quirk

Before we let Alex Ross' piece on Kate Soper's "philosophy-opera" drift away in our rear-view mirror, let's have a look at the genuflecting paragraph that he opens with:
There is a good argument to be made for retiring the words “genius” and “masterpiece” from critical discourse. They are artifacts of the Romantic religion of art, implying a superior race of demigods who loom above ordinary life. Such terms are rooted in the cult of the male artist—the dishevelled Beethovenian loner who conquers an indifferent world. Above all, these words place an impossible burden on contemporary artists, whose creations are so often found wanting when compared with the masterpieces of the past—not because the talent pool has somehow evaporated but because the best of the present diverges from the past. In a decentered global culture, a few great men can no longer dominate the conversation.
This is a kind of stylistic quirk that might be fun to deconstruct. Mind you, I have my little quirks too, among which is my liking to start off in a place very different from my main theme. Don't know what we should call that: the "finessed open" maybe? But Alex Ross' gesture is a rather familiar one that has sometimes been called "virtue signaling." In a social environment where certain ideas are thought to be self-evident, but about which there still seems to be, mysteriously, a controversy, virtue signaling is simply a kind of shibboleth indicating to your fellow travelers that you are on their side, one of the good guys. So let's unpack Mr. Ross' opening gambit and see what lies therein.

The implicit claim is that what we are reading is in fact "critical discourse" which, these days at least, prefers to eschew the terms "genius" and "masterpiece". Yes, they were terms that came into currency in the late 18th century and were used frequently during the 19th and part of the 20th century. My feeling about them is not that they imply a "superior race of demigods" --please!-- but that this was part of the changing nature and function of the fine arts as they came more and more to fulfill a role in the identity of the middle class and less and less were just an ornament to the aristocracy. In the ancien regime, the important person was the patron, the nobleman, who commissioned the work. If the work was truly masterful, as so many of them were, then this just redounded to the glory of the patron, as it should. But as the middle class began more and more to be the widely diffused patrons of art, the idea of the genius of the creator became a crucial selling point and hence a central theme of aesthetics. This "superior race of demigods" phrase is just a clumsy way of sneering at the people who wrote masterpieces in the 19th century and as such is hardly "critical discourse" but mere regurgitation of an ideological talking point.

Dragging in the misandrist "male artist" smear is just more of the same. Poor Beethoven, who has to bear the responsibility for so much historic badness! Sadly, the creations of contemporary artists are so often found wanting in exactly the same way that the creations of most of the composers contemporary with Bach and Beethoven are found wanting compared to theirs. No news there.

Now what could Ross possibly mean by "the best of the present diverges from the past?" All I can deduce from that is that what someone like Steve Reich (or, sure, Kate Soper) is doing is different from what Bach or Beethoven were doing. Yeah, sure, ok. I kinda knew that already.

For his final genuflection, Mr. Ross tosses in a couple of standard ideological planks: "decentered global culture" which likely means little more than culture these days is no longer centered on Paris and New York (and isn't that an ironic observation by the music critic for the New Yorker?) and one last weak uppercut to the chin of "a few great men".

If I were unkind, and I am, I would characterize this typical example of Ross' prose as semi-clever smoke and mirrors concealing a rather vacuous ideological stance. Doesn't anyone else ever notice this?

For an envoi let's pick something by Beethoven that goes against the "dishevelled loner" meme and shows rather his genius for whimsy and humor. This is the Piano Sonata op. 31 no. 3 in E flat major played by Daniel Barenboim:

Friday, February 24, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

This probably violates some progressive strictures, but then, what humour doesn't?

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We just have not talked enough about Monteverdi here, of which I am reminded by this article in The Spectator: The true radical genius of Monteverdi is not in the operas but in the madrigals:
Monteverdi’s eight books of madrigals span more than 40 years of his life, and condense the emotions of that lifetime into a sequence of miraculous miniatures that hit the ear with shocking force. A narrative in thrall to greatness, which cannot forget the operas, sees these madrigals as apprentice pieces, growing in sophistication and innovation until they graduate to the late, great works — Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea. But this is writing history backwards.
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If government can do this, then why can't it do something about disco Mozart? Iceland's president wants to ban pineapple on pizza:
Pineapple on pizza would be a forbidden fruit, if the president of Iceland had his way.
President Gudni Johannesson hates the hotly debated topping so much, he wants to ban it, according to a report Tuesday.
Johannesson slammed the sweet yellow fruit as a pizza world abomination while visiting a school in Akureyri in North Iceland
* * *

 Last Friday I included an item about a university taking a four million dollar donation from a librarian and putting one million of it into a new hi-def scoreboard for the football stadium. This provoked a bunch of comments about the validity--or not--of allowing political themes to intrude into the Music Salon. Opinions were divided! So this week I run into this item in the Guardian: John Adams: ‘Trump is a sociopath – there’s no empathy, he’s a manipulator'
“The question I’m now being asked, and it’s almost corny,” Adams says, “is will I write a Trump opera? So far I’ve always said a categorical ‘no’.” What drew him to Nixon was his aspect of self-doubt. “Unlike JF Kennedy, say, he came from modest circumstances, a Quaker upbringing, a moral universe. Perversely, Nixon was destroyed by his own uncontrollable paranoia. Trump, however, is not interesting because he’s a sociopath. There’s no empathy. He’s a manipulator. We all have our paranoia. It’s how you handle it that counts. When Obama suspected people hated him he controlled himself and kept his eyes on the prize … ”
What do my readers think would be the best policy regarding this sort of thing? Simply ignore it under the "two wrongs don't make a right" principle? Push back? Offer supportive praise? If we adopt the general principle that gratuitous political remarks in an item about music are as offensive as gratuitous nudity in a Disney movie, then shouldn't we take John Adams to task as well? Just askin'...

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Germany is another country. A country where Franz Schubert makes a good jingle to sell Filet-O-Fish sandwiches:

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Terry Teachout has an excellent piece at the Wall Street Journal on marketing symphonic music to millennials:
What the California Symphony discovered, in short, was that “almost every single piece of negative feedback was about something other than the performance.” Another important discovery was that it’s single-ticket buyers, not veteran subscribers, who are most likely to use the orchestra’s website. They’re less experienced in the sometimes arcane ways of classical concertgoing—but far from stupid: “We can be informative to smart, curious people who want to learn and want to know very much why each concert is special without dumbing it down. Casual and approachable does not equal dumb.”
It seems to me that it really boils down to casual and approachable information being made available. And not assuming that the potential audience members have any prior knowledge of who Mozart and Beethoven are. It's education, really, but without any trace of condescension.

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Alex Ross has a fascinating new piece up at the New Yorker on a new work by composer Kate Soper: a piece of music theater using Aristotle's Poetics and other works as libretto. Here is an excerpt to give you an idea:

He calls it a "philosophy-opera" which indeed it seems to be! Both the article and the excerpt really whet one's appetite for the whole work.

* * *

For our envoi today a good choice would be some madrigals by Monteverdi. This is the sixth book in a performance by Concerto Italiano, dir. Rinaldo Alessandrini:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

I'm not surprised...

You know those delightful contrafactual things people like to say sometimes? Like "what if they gave a war and nobody came?" or "Imagine if your local school district was well-funded and the Pentagon had to hold a bake sale?" I'm having a moment: what if a radio station stopped playing all the recent pop music? What if they only played music from before 1946? They'd lose a lot of listeners, right? But what if their listeners increased by 20%? Never happen, right? But it did! And not only one radio station, but all the radio stations in a whole country. Here is the story from the New York Times:
SOFIA, Bulgaria — Because of a recent copyright dispute, Bulgarian National Radio, the public broadcaster for the country, has been limited to airing music recorded before 1946. And so far, their listeners seem to have no problem with it.
The station had a 20 percent increase in listenership in January, the first month in which the change was in effect, over December’s numbers, said Bulgarian National Radio’s chief, Alexander Velev. He cited an audience report conducted by the consumer research company Ipsos.
Bulgarian National Radio has only been playing old music — classical music, early-20th-century jazz and concert recordings of traditional folk music, drawn from the organization’s archives — since the beginning of the year.
The reason for this policy was not a sudden burst of sanity on the part of the broadcasters, but a huge increase in fees from the local copyright organization from a little over a quarter million dollars a year to nearly a million dollars a year. I guess they will be rethinking that policy!

How cool would it be if some other countries adopted a similar policy? It might be safe to venture into restaurants and coffee shops again without having to fear being belabored about the head and ears by the latest musical unpleasantness.

Since I'm Canadian I'm imagining the CBC with no Justin Bieber! That alone might increase listeners by five or ten percent.

Apparently I'm not the only mossback reactionary in the world. You ever hear of the phenomenon called "preference falsification"? That's when everyone pretends to like something because they think everyone else likes it? Similar to the Emperor's New Clothes? What if the reality were that a lot of people really don't care for recent pop music, but just pretend they do? Seems to be the case in Bulgaria. We really need to try it out in some other countries, don't you think? Just for the science...

Our inevitable envoi just has to be some Glenn Miller who went missing over the English Channel in December 1944. This is Chattanooga Choo Choo from 1941:

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Many Notes and a Note

I'm reading a fairly recent biography of Prokofiev right now, written by Daniel Jaffé for Phaidon. It is safe to say that few composers have had quite as much turmoil to deal with in their life as Prokofiev: The 1905 Russian Revolution, which interrupted his studies at the St. Petersburg conservatory, World War I, the two revolutions in Russia in 1917, the Russian Civil War from 1917 to 1922, the Great Purge of Joseph Stalin and, finally, World War II. Whew! Can you imagine trying to arrange a trip from Russia to Italy to meet with Diaghilev to work out the details of a ballet he has just commissioned you to write? In the middle of the First World War?

But even years, like 1913, when wars and revolutions were not tearing the world apart, he had a remarkable amount of upheaval to withstand. For much of his youth, Prokofiev's best friend was Maximillian Schmidthoff, a fellow student at the conservatory and a fellow lover of philosophy, caustic humor and intellectual banter. Quoting from Jaffé, op. cit. pp 33-4:
On 26 April 1913, shortly after his twenty-second birthday, Prokofiev received a note sent by Max from Terioki, outside St Petersburg on the Finnish Gulf: 'Dear Seryozha, I'm writing to tell you the latest news--I have shot myself. Don't get too upset but take it with indifference, for in truth it doesn't deserve anything more than that. Farewell. Max. The reasons are unimportant.'
Schmidthoff had committed suicide. The reason, as given by Jaffé, was that Max, despite or because of his extravagant lifestyle, was penniless. Prokofiev dedicated four pieces to his friend, including the one he was working on at the time of his suicide, the Piano Concerto No. 2.

As a rule, I dislike inserting biography into music or attributing aesthetic characteristics to mere biographical incidents, but I can't listen to the concerto in quite the same way now. The apocalyptic moments, such as at the end of the first movement, seem keener than before. And I am surprised to be reminded that the composer was only twenty-two at time of writing.

Let's listen to the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 16. The original was lost and had to be reconstructed from a piano score in 1923. The pianist is Aleksander Toradze with the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev:

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Now that's funny! Commentators add additional anecdotes to one related by Norman Lebrecht:
At the end of the opening movement of Brahms’s first symphony, a cellphone went off at Charlotte, NC, on Friday night.
At the third ring, Charlotte’s British music director Christopher Warren-Green turned round to the audience and said: ‘Answer it. It might be Brahms.’
For example:
Among the best was Jac Van Steen at the Halle Orch. As a ringtone rang and rang, piercing the slow mvt of Brahms 4th. Van Steen put down his baton, turned to the audience and said: “If that’s my wife, tell her I’m not here.”
* * *

 Montreal-born composer Samy Moussa has just won the 20,000 Euro Hindemith prize. Let's have a listen. This is Crimson, for large orchestra:

For some reason that reminds me of Richard Strauss "through a mirror darkly." Which is pretty good, actually.

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The top-selling musician of the year in 2016 is Drake, a Canadian! Here is his single One Dance (Blogger won't embed so you have to follow the link):

What is it with these interminable, inarticulate melodramatic introductions?

* * *

And the world's least sexy musical genre is NOT, oddly enough, chamber music or latin motets, but show tunes, musicals! We know this because the BBC tells us so. I suspect you still can't go wrong with Barry White:

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I spoke too soon when I said in last Friday's Miscellanea that we didn't know Trump's musical tastes; apparently he is a big Puccini fan, according to Slate:
Trump’s interest in Puccini goes beyond “Nessun Dorma.” In February, he used an arrangement of the composer’s aria “O mio babbino caro” in a video touting his building projects. In his 2004 book How to Get Rich, he praised the late soprano Beverly Sills, stating, “I may not enjoy sitting through opera, but I have always respected opera singers and enjoy the highlights of opera.” Opera, or at least the “highlights” of the genre, easily plays into the image of an outsized billionaire.
Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, a Georgia College music professor and creator of Trax on the Trail, a website devoted to presidential campaign music, believes opera suits him. “There’s certainly a disconnect on many levels between Trump and the leftist artists he uses despite their protests,” she says. “But opera is believably Trump’s music.” 
So there you go. Obviously we need to launch a serious Puccini boycott--or maybe opera in general?

* * *

Sadly, universities have long since ceased to be the oases of learning that they used to be. Case in point:
Last year the University of New Hampshire made news when one of its librarians, Robert Morin, who had saved almost 50 years of paychecks, left $4 million to the university upon his death. UNH spent $1 million of the librarian’s gift on a 30-by-50-foot high-definition scoreboard for the new, $25-million football stadium. The university defended its decision by stating that the donation had been used for "our highest priorities and emerging opportunities." Adjuncts in the English department there reportedly receive $3,000 per class. They already knew they weren’t a high priority.
This is from a fairly lengthy article on the astonishing exploitation of non-tenure-track professors: The Great Shame of Our Profession.  Worth a look.

* * *

NPR has an interesting interview with the composer of the music for Game of Thrones, Ramin Djawadi:
You were telling me earlier that sometimes ideas strike you at the weirdest hours. What does that look like? Do you sneak out of bed and start recording something?
I used to just scribble things on a piece of paper whenever an idea came to mind. Now with cellphones, that's gotten a lot easier. I can just take it out and sing into my phone. Sometimes I just wake up — usually at night, actually, at night or first thing in the morning, that's when I have ideas because it's quiet. I sneak into the bathroom so I don't wake up my wife.
What do you do then? Are you humming?
Yeah, humming — sometimes I whistle. The main title theme for Game Of Thrones, for example, I was humming in my car after I saw the visuals. As I was driving back to the studio, I had the idea to the theme.
Wait a minute — you were in your car, humming what has become one of the most iconic themes on television.
Yeah, that little melody can just come at any time.

* * *

What shall we choose for our envoi today? Have we had the aria "O mio babbino caro?" I don't think so. I used to play an arrangement of it for flute and guitar. Simply lovely tune. This is Montserrat Caballé in a concert performance in Munich in 1990: