Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Classical Music Criticism

Alex Ross has a post about the disappearance of one of the last classical music critics from the Toronto Star. The Globe and Mail and La Presse still have classical music critics, but that's a small number for a big country. In fact, the situation is possibly even worse than it seems. Music criticism as it is practiced in newspapers and magazines these days seems to consist largely of news about orchestra budget problems, news about programming, news about artists--mainly celebrity artists--and reviews of performances. This is all useful and necessary information. But it is not what I would really call "music criticism" which I naively think should involve criticism of music. Yes, of course there is some of this. I just read an article discussing the fortunes of the music of Jean Sibelius as they rose, fell and possibly are going to rise again over the last 100 years. But even in that article there was mostly peripheral discussion of biographical and other details and virtually no discussion of the actual music. In this blog I focus on the music.

Speaking of Sibelius, on whom I will do a more extended post soon, I recall a day in my 20th century theory undergraduate class. We had spent several classes doing a fairly thorough analysis of the string quartet op 28 by Webern:
After this a rather talented violinist in the class asked "why can't we spend some time studying the Sibelius violin concerto?" The answer: "it's derivative." The professor, a composer (at that time all the theory courses were taught by composers, not theorists) had been a student of Milton Babbitt at Princeton. While not a serial composer himself any longer, he certainly shared the aesthetic. So is that evaluation, 'derivative' both true and, as lawyers say, dispositive?

Sibelius is primarily a composer of symphonies and other music for orchestra, including that violin concerto. He was hugely popular in the first half of the century, but stopped composing in the mid-1920s, just about the time the atonalists such as Webern were coming into their own. He was certainly influenced by composers such as Wagner and Tchaikovsky, but he has very much his own style. Webern is influenced by the contrapuntal techniques of 15th and 16th century composers, but we don't call his music 'derivative'. There are virtually no composers whose music is so experimental that we can say they derive little or nothing from previous music. Even composers like Steve Reich have influences. So I think that the accusation 'derivative' is an empty one, even if true. Now is it dispositive? In other words, is Sibelius' music so obviously a copy of things that have been done before that it is not worth our time? Here is the first movement of his 4th Symphony:

What do you think? I'll just leave you with that and soon I will delve into Sibelius a bit more.


Hucbald said...

Any response to, "it's derivative" as a criticism should begin with hearty laughter: If it is music that is part of a TRADITION, it is, by definition, derivative of all that came before it in that tradition, and so it is an outgrowth of said tradition. That's why western art music was able to progress from Bach to Beethoven through Haydn and Mozart in less than 100 years: They all built on the work of those who came before.

What has happened from Schoenberg to the present? Not squat.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, "it's derivative" is an ideological ploy. I got into the whole question of progressive vs conservative in this post:

I think quite a lot has happened since Schoenberg. Once the avant-garde had shot their bolt, we could see what others were doing. Shostakovich is a very fine composer who very much is in the lineage Bach--Beethoven... Then the minimalists went back to the very roots and are still in the process of rediscovering harmony.