Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Concert of Beethoven and Boulez

Blogger and music reviewer Jessica Duchen writes about a concert this week in London, part of the annual BBC Proms concerts. The program consisted of Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 of Beethoven and a piece for solo violin and electronics by Pierre Boulez: Anthèmes 2. I've been listening to Beethoven for over forty years and Boulez for nearly that long--I think I bought a copy of Le marteau sans maître in the early 70s.

What I find interesting about the review is not its rah-rah enthusiasm for the performance (which may have been completely deserved) or the little nuggets of information about the electronics in the Boulez, but the avoidance of any mention of the ideology of concerts like this. Nowadays we accuse one another of ideology a lot, but we don't talk much about how ideology actually works and we avoid completely any mention of aesthetic value especially when talking about works of art. Now there's a conundrum for you!

So I thought I would, as a public service, provide a little discussion of all the things Jessica Duchen avoids discussing. First of all, to program a concert, let alone a series of concerts, devoted to just two composers is to make a very large aesthetic claim: these two composers may be different, but they have equal claims to our time and attention. Therefore we are asserting that they have, in some way, equal aesthetic value or status. Never mind whether this is true or not, this is the underlying claim. After all, why Beethoven and Boulez? Why not Beethoven and Brahms, Beethoven and Berlioz, Beethoven and Babbitt or Beethoven and  Beyoncé?

I used the word 'ideology' so let me indicate what I mean by it. The word goes back to 1796 when it was coined amid the political disputes following the French Revolution. Whatever the ostensible meaning of the word, I find that it usually indicates a kind of underhanded argument where one assumes the conclusion and then uses any means necessary to reach that conclusion. A political ideology is one that has certain core assumptions that cannot be questioned.

I think that the ideology of this concert programming is that of progressive modernism: Beethoven was a good composer for his time, but since then we have made a great deal of technical progress in music as demonstrated in the piece by Boulez. What is the key word here? "Technical". Boulez in particular has been a strong proponent of the technical evolution in music as his leadership of IRCAM (the electro-acoustic research institute set up by the French government) has long demonstrated. Indeed this kind of piece, for live instrument with considerable real-time computer-guided electronic processing, is at the very heart of the IRCAM project. Boulez has long been an ideologue for the extremes of modernism. As early as 1952 in his essay manifesto "Schoenberg est mort" (Schoenberg is dead) he demonstrates the terrible force of modernism: the tyranny of the new and ever newer. Here is how the essay put it: "Since the Viennese discoveries, any musician who has not experienced -- I do not say understood, but truly experienced -- the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his entire work brings him up short of the needs of his time." By "Viennese discoveries" he is referring to the 12-tone system of atonality developed by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. The music of Webern was the model for modernist composers in the years immediately after the Second World War.

A certain ideology has also been associated with Beethoven as well. He was a young man in the years of and following the French Revolution and certainly felt the tremors as it shook the foundations of aristocratic society. We can hear in some of Beethoven's music the liberated energy of whole classes of people sensing the possibility of a new freedom. That is some of the background to the composers in the concert. Now let's listen to the music. The concert began with the Beethoven Symphony No. 8. Here is the last movement performed by Tafelmusik:

Next is an extended excerpt from Anthèmes 2. This piece is a development of an earlier piece. Anthèmes I is a short piece (c. 9 minutes) for solo violin, written in 1992 and commissioned by the 1991 Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition. The second version is about twice as long, dating from 1997 for solo violin and live electronics. There is quite a lot of information about the work available including academic papers and a public lecture by Boulez himself. The salient elements of the music include a seven-note series taken from another piece (groups of seven permeate the music), and the note D which begins and ends the piece and is a focus at important points. One of Boulez' later criticisms of twelve-tone music was that it prevents the assigning of different weight and importance to different notes. An inspiration for the work was the chanting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah during Easter holy week. Boulez' music is immensely complex and these few sentences merely scratch the surface. However, complexity  is no guarantee of aesthetic quality. Here is that excerpt:

The concert ended with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. Here are Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw with the second movement, the most famous movement from the symphony:

So, interesting concert? The idea of putting different things like this together in the same concert seems to be in the air. Two seasons ago I heard a pianist give a concert that consisted of alternating preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach with other pieces by Rameau, Beethoven, Debussy, Schoenberg and, in the second half, with jazz, popular and world music. I think that the ideological point there was something about the universality or diversity of music, but what it really showed was that Bach was a better composer than any of the other guys. The act of putting two different pieces of music side by side is a very powerful one and often results in things you did not intend. What impressions do we get from putting Beethoven and Boulez side by side?

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