Thursday, November 27, 2014

Followup on Nature and Intention

A few days ago I did an post titled "Nature and Intention" that took an article from the Guardian about the sounds of space exploration as the occasion to make some comments about aesthetics. My point was that natural phenomena that we perceive as beautiful, whether sunsets or the sounds of Saturn, while they might be aesthetic objects, are not aesthetic expressions because there is no creative agency. This is a question of the ontology of the work of art: what sort of thing is an artwork. A simple description is found in "The Ontology of Art" by Amie L. Thomasson in the volume The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 2004), p. 78.
We normally think of works of art as things created at a certain time, in particular cultural and historical circumstances, through the imaginative and creative acts of an artist, composer, or author. Once created, works of art are normally thought of as relatively stable and enduring public entities that may be seen, heard, or read by a number of different people who may enter legitimate arguments about at least some of the work's features.
The whole essay is worth reading as it has a lot of sensible observations about artworks. Thomasson comments about the score of a classical composition that
although we may privilege the author's signed manuscript, it is only of historical interest, and may be destroyed without the work itself going out of existence.
An original painting may, however, be destroyed as photos and digital copies are not considered to be the artwork. Music is a bit tricky because if the original manuscript is of only historical interest (though very useful to check various editions against), then what is the actual piece of music? Is it the recording? Is it only a live performance? Is it a particular live performance? Can a performance, live or on recording be faulty to the point of NOT being an instance of the artwork? Is the real, definitive Beethoven Symphony No. 5 only an Idea floating in the minds of musicians and audiences? Some interesting questions, certainly. All these sorts of questions are what philosophers call "ontological" questions, ones that relate to the being of something.

My previous post elicited a very interesting comment by one of my readers:
"On a simple level we can see this in the movies where the subtle repartee of movies of the past is currently replaced by Things Going Boom and Things Moving Very Fast accompanied by Whoosh and Pow."
Any specific examples in mind?

Anyways, one of the failings (or successes, depending on who you ask) of late modernism was the lack of intention. I suppose Cage didn't care about intention (due to the randomness in his music) but the serialists who took absolute control over every musical aspect still managed to get something that sounds awfully close to John Cage's randomness and with almost no sound of intention to it.

I think that for a regular composer there's a good balance between intention (form, keys, dynamics etc.) and randomness (in the sense that musical ideas come out of improvisation, directly from the head or in various other ways and it's a more uncontrollable aspect than for instance choosing form or keys for various sections). I guess it can be seen as a balance between analytical creativeness and emotional creativeness.
 Oh yes, just about every movie from Hollywood I have seen recently has had an excessive use of computer-generated imagery to create a frenetic, hyperrealistic experience. Along with a really loud soundtrack, the source of the booms and whooshes. I suppose the archetypal examples would be the Fast and Furious franchise. One longs for some really good dialogue instead, like Bogart's line from Casablanca:
"I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue.
This was when the Germans captured Paris in WWII.

Yes, the whole idea of 4'33 was to have no aesthetic intentions. By the way, if you look at the original score for the piece (first published in an art magazine as I recall), you see that it is not actually written for any particular instrument. There are three movements, each with a specified duration (in the original), but indicated "tacet", i.e. be silent, for all movements. The total duration adds up to 4:33. As Cage says in the introduction, this was how David Tudor performed it in 1952, but it can be played on any instrument and last any length of time. This is to aggressively shirk the whole idea of aesthetic intention. Most hilariously, I think, you can purchase the score for this piece for $6.25 here.

By the way, the idea of aesthetic intention has been suspect since an article by Wimsatt and Beardsley, published in 1946, argued that "the intention of the author was neither available nor desirable as a standard for the interpretation and evaluation of the literary text." But there are two schools of thought on this and while it may be a useful tool to discourage interpretations of an artwork based on autobiographical details ("Beethoven wrote the Moonlight sonata about this woman he knew and it is all about their love") which are almost always irrelevant, it is claiming too much to say that the intention of the author is always unavailable. My point about intention was the more general one: whether we know anything specific about the composer's intentions, we do know that he intended to write a piece of music and, presumably, that it was meant to entertain us, move us in some way. And that is enough to distinguish composed music from the random sounds of the cosmos.

My commentator makes reference to randomness in a different sense: the chance discoveries that come from improvisation. While I don't use this a lot in my work, I certainly appreciate its value. Improvising is a kind of intuitive and physical activity that can turn up all sorts of interesting things. But then the composer's work consists in shaping and using these ideas in the structure of a piece.

I suppose the only logical choice of music to end this post would be either the Moonlight Sonata or 4:33 by John Cage. But I think I will choose this instead, from Casablanca:


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Concerto Guide: C. P. E. Bach, part 2

I talked last time about C. P. E. Bach's style in terms of its eccentricities and harmonic adventurousness. From a different angle, music historians refer to this new style as Empfindsamkeit or "sensibility". It was more, in a way, romantic than the unified style of his father, J. S. Bach. Instead of the objective and consistent older style, C. P. E. Bach created an introspective, variegated, sometimes fragmented music in which the rhythmic intensity and sudden contrasts had an integral place. Before the Romantic era proper, beginning around 1830, there were two harbingers to this style. The style of C. P. E. Bach and one phase of the music of Joseph Haydn, around 1770, that is usually described as "Sturm und Drang" (storm and stress) both exhibit qualities that would later on be described as essentially romantic (by E. T. A. Hoffmann).

A famous description of this kind of emotion in music comes from an essay on music criticism by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg:
The rapidity with which the emotions change is common knowledge, for they are nothing but motion and restlessness.
That's a pretty good description of the music of C. P. E. Bach! In the case of both the empfindsamer style and the Sturm und Drang style, there is a literary connection. For Bach it was the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock who was Bach's neighbor in Hamburg. For Haydn, though less directly, it was the play by Friedrich Maximillian Klinger titled Sturm und Drang, though Haydn's music came before the play.

One of the best examples of the empfindsamer style is the slow movement from the Prussian Sonata No. 1 in F. Although this movement has no key signature, it is, with a great deal of chromatic wandering, in F minor:


So why am I telling you all this? What's this got to do with the concerto? The style of this movement is very much like a stylized operatic aria, perhaps even an instrumental recitative. Aria style is very closely connected to the development of concerto style because in both cases the fundamental texture is that of a soloist, often highly ornamental, contrasting with an ensemble. The devices used in opera, the brilliant display and the emotional intensity, transferred over to the concerto.

One of the more popular keyboard concertos by C. P. E. Bach is the one in D minor, Wq 23:


The outer movements certainly demonstrate the impetuous intensity that I have been talking about. For another example, we can listen to the Concerto in F major. The second movement, Largo e sostenuto, shows more of the emotional style. It manages to be simultaneously agitated, touching and tempestuous. That movement begins around the 9 minute mark in this recording:


I hope that you might be getting more used to the style of C. P. E. Bach. I find that with time, it grows on you and is well worth your time. Only recently has his music started to see a bit of a revival and this year is the 300th anniversary of his birth in 1714.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Mountain to Mohammad

The origin of the phrase "If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain" is in a slight misquotation of a passage from Francis Bacon's essays. It gives us a bit of perspective on the trend towards taking classical ensembles out of their usual environments and putting them in unusual ones like subway stations, clubs, and chapels. There is an article outlining the success of these efforts in the Independent:
In 2013-14, we saw a 54 per cent increase in new attenders to see our chamber orchestra, Manchester Camerata, compared to the previous season. We have a restless ambition to redefine what an orchestra can do. We’re constantly challenging how we engage with audiences – so if that means we perform in a grand concert hall one day, and a car park the next, so be it.
Like any big city, there’s a real wealth of performance spaces in Manchester – clubs and bars, chapels and cathedrals, impressive concert halls and everything in between. We’ve found that by performing in venues like Gorilla Bar or the Royal Exchange Theatre, we’re cultivating a new audience for our work – taking the music to them, rather than expecting them to come to us.
This seems like a real success--read the whole article for more details. These days you have to applaud any strategy that increases attendance by 54%! My own experience with unconventional venues was also mostly positive. I once toured around in Italy playing outdoor concerts in plazas including the Piazza Signoria in Florence, bordered on one side by the famous Uffizi Gallery, and it was a wonderful experience. The audiences were numerous and enthusiastic and there was absolutely no question that they were there solely for the music as they could walk away at any time.

But I want to look at some of the history here. The idea of a performing space designed specifically for the presentation of concerts of classical music was one that originated in the late 18th century. As the patrons of classical music at that time were either members of the nobility or the Church, the two options were either a private concert space, a "chamber" in a private residence, hence the name "chamber music" or, of course, a church. Churches do have elements that are specifically included for the presentation of music--mostly things like choir stalls and organs and some churches like the San Marco in Venice have multiple choir stalls which led to pieces by the Gabriellis and Vivaldi for multiple ensembles, but most of church design is for worship, not music specifically. Members of the nobility who were particularly fond of music, like Prince Nikolaus Esterházy and Frederick the Great, would have specific rooms for playing and listening to music in their palace residences. Here is a portrait of Frederick the Great playing the flute in a concert at his palace Sansouci at Potsdam. His composer in residence, C. P. E. Bach is at the harpsichord:

Click to enlarge

Here is a photo of the large music room at the Esterházy palace where Haydn's symphonies were premiered:


As you can see, nobility who loved music did not hesitate to provide a spectacular setting for its performance.

The public concert began a few decades into the development of the dynamic and popular Classical style. In the 1780s Mozart typically gave a series of concerts during Lent in Vienna in which he premiered his piano concertos:
Mozart arranged for his Lenten concerts of 1784 to be given at a salon in the residence of the court printer and publisher, Johann Thomas von Trattner (Frau Therese von Trattner was a piano student of Mozart and the dedicatee of the Sonata and Fantasia in C minor, K. 457 and 475), on the last three Wednesdays of the season — March 17th, 24th and 31st — and he was overjoyed to have as subscribers 174 the most genteel representatives of the Austrian aristocracy, the worlds of finance, government and scholarship, foreign diplomats and other wealthy patrons of music.
Given in a private salon because there was not yet a public concert hall in Vienna! Also, notice the size of the audience: 174 people. For comparison, the typical audience in Prince Nikolaus' hall for a Haydn symphony would have been much smaller: ten or twelve perhaps, or smaller than the orchestra itself, which numbered 16 to 20 in the early days. A generation later Beethoven would premiere a symphony in the Karthnerthor Theater which was the lower-class German language theater in Vienna, still it could hold a much larger audience than any private salon.

In the 19th century the audience for classical music increased a hundredfold and this sparked the construction of halls designed specifically for the public performance of both chamber and orchestral music. One of the earliest was the Hanover Square Rooms in London where Haydn's music was performed during his London visits in the 1790s:


I recall reading somewhere that the large hall could hold perhaps 800 listeners. The first real concert hall in Germany was the Leipzig Gewandhaus, built in 1781. Only in 1831 did Vienna acquire its own designated concert hall, built by the private association of music-lovers the Gesellschaft der Musicfreunde. Most urban centers followed suit and by the end of the century concert halls had grown to seat 2,000 or more listeners. This, along with the growth of subscription series and the immense growth of both music publishing and the purchase of pianos for middle-class homes, was the economic base that supported the enormous 19th century orchestra and the enormously long symphonies written for them.

The 19th century was the century of music. Music was the chosen avenue for the expression of the emotional life of the middle class and so it was given special halls--temples, almost--in which music could be listened to in comfort and concentration. This trend continued well into the 20th century with newer centers of musical life being built like Lincoln Center in New York, Place des Arts in Montreal and so on.

But now the emotional life of the middle class is more to be found in yoga classes and their smartphones I suspect. The concert hall is no longer the center of things and so smart organizations like the Manchester Camerata (part of whose name, ironically, dates back to the private club of aesthetes in Florence in the late 16th century) go to the audience. The mountain does indeed go to Mohammad.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nature and Intention

Tom Service has been really struggling to find a new theme for articles over at the Guardian. His latest effort is to collect together several "soundtracks" from space explorations and call it "implacable awesomeness." These are electronic emanations from comets, Saturn, the sun and Jupiter simply (though one wonders about the details) transposed into human auditory range.

I suppose the rough equivalent would be the beauty of a sunset or any other natural phenomenon. But these sounds of space exploration are special because they are relatively new. Our ancestors did not have access to them. But while they sound "spacey" enough, there really isn't much there to be interested in. While I love and appreciate natural beauty, and I suppose this could be characterized as a kind of natural beauty, there is a fundamental aesthetic emptiness to all this sort of thing.

What I think is important about natural beauty is our witnessing of it. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in the First Duino Elegy:
Ja, die Frühlinge brauchten dich wohl. Es muteten manche
Sterne dir zu, dass du sie spürtest. Es hob
sich eine Woge heran im Vergangenen, oder
da du vorüberkamst am geöffneten Fenster
gab eine Geige sich hin.

Yes--the springtimes needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it. A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past, or as you walked
under an open window, a violin
yielded itself to your hearing.
[from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell p. 150-151]

We are the witnesses and real art is the expression of our reaction to the world's beauty (and ugliness and every other aspect). It is one of the fundamental dumbnesses of our time that we are getting a bit foggy about this. But there is another even more disconcerting aspect: we seem to be losing our ability to notice the difference between aesthetically finer expressions and cruder ones. On a simple level we can see this in the movies where the subtle repartee of movies of the past is currently replaced by Things Going Boom and Things Moving Very Fast accompanied by Whoosh and Pow.

Getting back to the spacey music of Tom's article, he says:
Thanks to Cassini, Voyager and Rosetta, we can encounter the music of the spheres as a physical, sonic phenomenon rather than only as an abstract philosophical concept
The "only" is the interesting word. Tom is making a typical move in valorizing the "physical, sonic phenomenon" over the "abstract philosophical concept". What are, more or less, random clickings and sheaths of sound are less interesting than the philosophical idea behind the music of the spheres, aren't they? What is perhaps appealing about these kinds of aesthetically vacuous sounds is that they are indeed empty of meaning. The wonderful thing about that for our narcissistically obsessed generation is that we can derive or impose or simply imagine any content at all. It's all about us!! I suspect that this might even be some of the appeal of the music of John Cage where you can also pretty much imagine whatever content you wish.

But real aesthetic expression does have content--not always obvious or simple, but really there. Whatever the inspiration might be, natural beauty or philosophical concept or Greek myth or just the musical materials themselves, the composer crafts his or her music as an expression of or reaction to (or against) something in his or her experience. Gustav Holst wrote a suite of pieces for orchestra called The Planets whose inspiration is more astrological than astronomical, but it still gives us something of a musical example:


The difference between this and the soundtracks that Tom has in his article is intention. Composers usually mean something by their music, though due to the abstract nature of music, we need to use a rather broad definition of "meaning". Some of the meanings found in the "Mars" movement of the Holst are martial. This is an otherworldly march, otherworldly because it is set in 5/4. But the stern, martial qualities are evident. What are missing from the space soundtracks are any intentions or meanings. Saturn is not trying to tell us anything or express anything; this is literally nothing but the swirling of atoms in the void. To our time, in which all meaning and intention seems fraught with danger, this is refreshingly empty, it seems. But empty it is.

Some composers have managed to capture both the spaciness that we seem to like, but within the context of an expressive musical composition. One of the best examples of that that I have heard lately is Nyx, named for the Greek goddess of the night. This piece uses, as Salonen describes them: "the almost constant flickering and rapid changing of textures and moods" to capture a kind of contemporary spaciness, but still the music is highly organized and "meaningful":



Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

If you haven't seen the classic Monty Python sketch about Beethoven, then you really must:


You have to love the madly wandering plot that leads back to Beethoven. Wagner apparently at one point lived in an apartment across from an iron-monger, which made composition rather difficult.

* * *

Tom Service over at the Guardian is looking around for another project after his two year-long ones on contemporary composers and symphonies. In the meantime he is putting up the occasional article that seem to be oriented towards pumping traffic. Lists, when in doubt do lists! So here are "10 of the best: where jazz meets classical". As Tom says:
As the London jazz festival gets into full swing, this week’s 10 picks are devoted to that much denigrated, occasionally inspired, sometimes insipid, but also genuinely fruitful interzone between jazz and classical. There’s a deeply problematic but potentially catalytic cultural politics and musical symbiosis between the practices and possibilities of both worlds - as if it were possible to reduce the massive diversity of both “jazz” and “classical” to single musical planets rather than the musical multiverses that they both are. The point is, composers and musicians over the last century have wanted to make the most of everything in the sonic world around them, trying to create something that sounds like a distinctive, single thing rather than that most benighted of phenomena, a “fusion” that sounds like neither one thing nor the other.
Well, I'm deeply grateful that I didn't write that! Tom's first example is Mr. "Third Stream" himself, Gunther Schuller, who really wanted to unite jazz and classical:


Twenty seconds of modernist meanderings followed by a whole lot of bebop pretty much shows it is a bad idea in my book. But that may be just because it combines two kinds of music that I particularly don't like! Next is Duke Ellington, which is quite a different story. But it is kind of interesting that he only performed it complete three times in his career. Next is a piece by Milton Babbitt for jazz ensemble that is not likely to have too many fans in either genre. Then the Ebony Concerto by Stravinsky which is not one of his better pieces. Are we starting to get the impression that trying to fuse together jazz and classical usually brings out the worst in both? I think we can skip over jazz versions of Mahler and Bach, don't you?

* * *

Here is a little piece about Sibelius' Valse Triste and copyright law over at Slipped Disc. The interesting thing is the discussion in the comments section that takes Norman to task, then goes into detail about copyright law and the "corporate murder of classical music".

* * *

Tomorrow, November 22, is Saint Cecilia's day, the patron saint of music. Here is Henry Purcell's Ode to St. Cecilia:


* * *

Here is an exhaustive statistical analysis of female versus male players in American orchestras. It is fascinating to note that 95% of harp players are female while 95% of tuba players are male. Conductors are 91% male. Only one orchestra has a preponderance of female members, that's the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with 53% female. What I would really like to see is a discussion of what these numbers might mean other than a conspiracy by the heteronormative patriarchy! And can we please get more male harp players? I mean, only 5% male? That's a disgrace!

* * *

Can being open and tolerant to diversity be taken to excess? Well, sure, as evidenced by this article in NewMusicBox: "Listen To Music, Dammit!" The opening is not too promising:
Too often I hear people say things like “pop and rock concerts are a massive snore, unless you live and die by A minor and C major.”
C'mon, nobody says that--nobody talks like that! This is slightly more plausible:
There is no way to make an argument that one type of music’s formal devices are better than another’s. This is not to say there isn’t a range in the quality of how well pieces take advantage of those devices.
But since the writer, Nick Norton (whose schtick always seems to be the same: there is no right and wrong in music), offers no specifics and doesn't even try to make an argument, one wonders. Nick meanders his way to this sanctimonious close:
Ultimately, it comes down to this: what, as an artist, is the benefit of being closed-minded or closed-eared? There isn’t one. What are the benefits to listening to and being aware of as much music as possible? There are about a zillion. Make it a mission to hear something new each day. Even if you hate it, figure out why you hate it. It’ll make you a better musician.
That's called beating a straw man to death. There is just something so deliciously inept about arguing vehemently and so very definitively about something that is stated in such vague terms! Here are some of my thoughts on the same topic: "How to listen to music: the Boring Quotient".

* * *

To clear the audio palette, let's close with some Sibelius. Here is Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic in the magnificent Symphony No. 2:


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Four Influences

But enough about you, let's talk about me! Wait, I mean, enough about all these famous composers from the past and present, who are all, face it, boring old white guys. Let's talk about my music, after all I'm a, um, well, sure, another boring old white guy. But, as Harrison Ford averred in Six Days, Seven Nights, I have "skills". Sure, I can't repair a de Havilland Beaver like he did, but I can write music.

Back in October I put up a post on my Symphony No. 3. One of these first few symphonies is going to be premiered in an orchestral concert in January (or maybe February). I didn't get many comments on this symphony, so I request you visit that post and give it a listen. I think it has some nice bits!

What I want to talk about today is why I started writing symphonies, after just writing for guitar or chamber music with guitar for most of my career. Coming out of that will be some thoughts on just what composers inspired me and influenced me.

I started composing just a few months after I started playing an instrument. The instrument was the bass guitar and what I wrote were songs. I probably wrote forty songs before I was twenty years old. They are all lost, except someone might have a reel-to-reel tape of three or four of them.

After I became a classical musician, at around twenty, I spent a number of years simply mastering the technical challenge of the guitar before returning to composition. I wrote a couple of pieces for solo guitar, but the best one from those years was a piece, inspired equally by Ligeti's piece for harpsichord, Continuum and by Steve Reich. My piece was titled Music for Two Guitars and Harpsichord and it was very well received by the audience. Unfortunately, both the score and recording of it are also lost (don't ask, evil moving company!).

When I started teaching a lot and chairing a guitar department at a conservatory, I began to think about writing for students and I wrote a few pieces for a guitar orchestra I was conducting. I do actually have a recording of one of those pieces, Long Lines of Winter Light:

video


This is in moment form, invented by Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1950s. How that works is there are a number of small musical "cells" arranged in a kind of flow chart. The conductor indicates what level in the flow chart the players are and when to move to the next one. At each level, the players have options as to which cell they choose to play. The conductor can also select particular players to go back or forward and play particular cells. For example, in this performance, I pick the very first cell, the "snare-drum" effect one, and have it keep intruding later on, threatening to blot out whatever else is going on. The piece ends with a few players playing a little lyric melody.

I didn't continue with this sort of thing. In fact, for quite a few years composition was rather hit and miss as I didn't consider it my central musical activity. This changed several years ago. I realized, bit by bit, that the really important activity for me was composition. I started out writing again and the influence of Steve Reich was important. But soon I drifted away from that and realized that what I wanted to compose was music that used more traditional devices, especially harmonic ones. My feeling was that harmony was where a lot of the most interesting, subtle and affective musical impact came from. Most contemporary music, Steve Reich included, does not make a lot of use of harmony in this manner. Harmony for Steve Reich is rather static and for a lot of other composers it is unrelieved dissonance. Mind you, with composers like John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov and Esa-Pekka Salonen, this is no longer true as they seem to be using harmony in a lot of interesting ways. Not to mention Philip Glass!

So as I worked with various pieces for odd ensembles like violin, harpsichord, harp and guitar, or two guitars, or violin, viola and guitar, I was trying to rediscover harmony. I wrote a couple of suites for guitar with this aim. I recorded and posted the five movements of the first suite here, here, here, here and here.

As I worked on the pieces for solo guitar, I discovered that fully half of the ideas I was having simply could not be fitted onto the guitar. So the radical idea occurred to me of writing for orchestra! I was encouraged in this by discovering that it was not so difficult to write for violin and I had previously written for flute. I had never written for brass or percussion so I wrote a short piece for choir and brass to try it out. Then I set out to write an overture for orchestra. This was so exciting and fulfilling that decided me on writing symphonies.

Who influenced me? I have owned recordings and attended concerts of symphonies by the Big Three, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, for many years. But recently, much as I love Mozart and Beethoven, it is really Haydn that keeps interesting me. Over his 106 symphonies he did an astonishing number of remarkable things. The next, chronologically, would be Jean Sibelius. Yes, I'm skipping over everything written between 1830 and 1900 (Sibelius' first symphony was written in 1898/99, but it is really his second that grabbed me), but the very large 19th century symphonies really aren't an influence. I must give a mention to Franz Schubert, though, whose last two symphonies are simply magnificent.

Of the 20th century symphonists it is Sibelius that really grabbed me first. Then I did a seminar on the symphonies of Shostakovich and that has really stuck with me. Utterly unlike Sibelius--unlike anyone else, really, largely tonal, but powerful and expressive. The last of the four influences is Philip Glass who has to date written ten symphonies. Yes, I like them and I think they are good music, but I think what I get most from Philip Glass is simply permission to write symphonies. You might think that the romantic idea of composers responding only to their inner muse or compulsion is the truth, but it is not. In fact, composers, from before Haydn on, tend to respond to the needs of their patrons. Or, in the 20th century, the fashions of the day. If everyone decides the cool thing to do is to write multi-media oratorios, then a surprising number of composers will do just that. Have a look at a lot of the stuff written in the 1960s if you don't believe me. So the fact that a cool composer like Glass is writing symphonies tells me that there may even be people who want to hear them.

So those four influences I mentioned in the title are Haydn, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Glass. Let's have a listen to one of them to end. Here is Philip Glass' Symphony No. 3 played by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies (the same ensemble who recorded the complete Haydn symphonies!):


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Concerto Guide: C. P. E. Bach

C. P. E. Bach (1714 - 1788)

The German music historian Hermann Abert has noted that in the mid-18th century there were two main approaches to instrumental music. One is a Viennese tradition which used a lot of thematic material and affective contrast. Think of J. C. Bach, whom we talked about last week, and his successor, Mozart. The other approach, a North German one, is found in the music of C. P. E. Bach. Charles Rosen talks about him in Sonata Forms:
The most prominent representative of the North German tradition was Philip Emanuel Bach, a composer whose interest in intimate and intense expression led him to explore the possibilities of dissonance and remote key relationships (i.e. dissonance on a higher structural level). Striking modulations in Scarlatti are generally more coloristic than expressive; in C. P. E. Bach, they have a remarkable and sometimes incoherent passion which is reflected in the intense and idiosyncratic character of his themes. The highly individualized motif or theme was to become central to sonata style. [Sonata Forms, p. 143]
Of course, the successor to this tradition was Joseph Haydn who is known for his use of many of the features of C. P. E. Bach's style including juxtaposition of remote keys, sudden silences and irregular phrase lengths. Rosen points out that it is the memorability of C. P. E. Bach's themes that allowed their transformation during development sections to be heard thus having a large influence on the development section of the sonata. Incidentally, while he had a short-term influence on Haydn, you might even notice some on another North German composer from Hamburg where C. P. E. Bach spent the last part of his career: Johannes Brahms.

Why this division between two sons of J. S. Bach, who was based in Leipzig in Saxony? J. C. Bach, like so many before him and Mozart after him, went to Italy to study. From age 21 he studied in Bologna. Later on he pursued his career in London. C. P. E. Bach, on the other hand, went north. His first employment was in Berlin and he spent the last and most prolific part of his career in the northern port of Hamburg.

C. P. E. Bach's concerto output was enormous: many times that of his symphonic output. He wrote numerous concertos for flute for his patron in Berlin, Frederick the Great, but also many for oboe and cello. But the largest category is for his own instrument: keyboard. He wrote about fifty concertos for one and two keyboards.

Today I want to look at his Concerto for Cello in A minor, Wq 170, written in 1750. This is a powerful, tempestuous piece with enormous rhythmic energy. Think Vivaldi, but painted in richer colors. Here is a performance:


There is not a good score online; all I could find was a so-so piano reduction, but here is that first, chromatic, angular theme:


































Some things to note: the arpeggios get some of their drive from where the semitones are placed: as upbeats to the next harmony. That first idea takes up five measures and the next, a sequence, takes four, followed by two different three measure sequences. The total of this opening phrase: fifteen measures. The last measure on the page is the beginning of the next, six measure idea which finally has an irregular cadence (viiº 6/4 of D minor) on the minor iv chord in first inversion. If you want to think of all this, five different thematic ideas, as a single phrase, it is twenty-one measures long.

When the cello enters it has an entirely new theme, a lyrical one to contrast with the orchestra's, firmly in A minor:

Click to enlarge
This goes on for a while, then the orchestra returns with its opening theme, but this time in the subdominant, D minor. In a Baroque concerto, the ritornello would always come back in the tonic, but that system is breaking down. The new kind of concerto in the classical style will take a different kind of approach that I will get into in some detail in future posts. For the moment, let's just notice how little the dominant has been emphasized so far. No significant cadence on the tonic in the opening section, the cello solo starts in A minor, but cadences, as I said, on D minor. A lot of this opening movement wanders between A minor, E minor and D minor -- sometimes within a single measure! The only prominent cadences are to first inversion chords. Even at the cadence setting up the cadenza there is no standard cadence:


How odd is this? In the Classical period, every cadenza by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven begins with the orchestra and soloist sitting on a V7 chord, usually with a trill. What we have here is a tonic! But the preceding chord is equally odd: D# A C F# is viiº7 of V, but here it prepares the tonic. (UPDATE: True, the underlying skeleton, considering the measure before, is V to i, but the V is underemphasized, mostly in first inversion, and it is that odd viiº7 of V that gets the accent.)

C. P. E. Bach, though acknowledged as an important influence by both Mozart and Beethoven, is really going in a completely different direction than they did, harmonically. His is the path not taken: more obscure harmonically, without the clear definition afforded by the Classical tension between dominant and tonic found in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Like Domenico Scarlatti, he is carving out a territory all his own that will not be taken into the mainstream after his death--at least not the harmonic structure.