Thursday, August 30, 2012

Music and the Sea

No, this isn't going to be a post about Debussy's La Mer. I've been re-reading some of my favourite novels by Patrick O'Brian about the Royal Navy. A few years ago the director Peter Weir filmed one (actually a composite of different novels) starring Russell Crowe entitled Master and Commander. It had a great ending, that I think I have mentioned before. As the Captain and his physician play a jaunty duet for cello and violin, the camera slowly rises up and up, high above the ship, until you can glimpse in the distance the ship they are chasing.

But music plays a very large role in the novels themselves, of which there are twenty. The very beginning of the first novel is set in the music-room of the Governor's House at Port Mahon on the island of Minorca, at the time a Royal Navy base. The novels take place during the Napoleonic Wars and as both main characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Steven Maturin, are avid players, music is a constant theme in the books. A C major quartet by Locatelli is on the program at the concert in the music-room which is also the occasion of the two characters' first meeting. They while away many hours at sea playing music of the time by Boccherini, Mozart and even Bach.

Among other things, the novels illustrate in sound historical fashion, some of the roles music played at a time before the mechanical reproduction of music. People played instead of listening to their iPod. Here is an example: Steven has just told Jack some very good news that eases his mind considerably and in response:
He threw aside the pen he had been chewing, walked across the cabin, took up his fiddle and played a wild series of very rapid ascending trills that vanished quite out of hearing.
 On another occasion Steven has learned that his wife, whom he loved deeply, has been killed in a carriage accident and composes a pavane. Jack, looking it over exclaims that it is terribly sad, then shocked that he said it aloud asks for forgiveness. Steven pauses for a moment and merely says that he believes that all music is sad (echoing something Schubert once said).

There are also other functions of music in the novel: work songs used by the sailors when hauling in the anchor or dance music for their free hours played by fife and drum.

The novels are a marvelous story of a friendship and a realistic historical picture, one facet of which shows the social aspects of music. It enabled the instant expression of emotions too pure for words, an outlet for sorrow, the easing of hard work and the delight of dance.

The question in my mind is regarding the difference between actually making music, which might involve an entirely different part of the brain than just listening to music. See this post for some reasons why. In our present day society by being mostly mere consumers of music made by others, are we short-changing ourselves by not developing this musical side of the brain?

Here is the ending to the film with music by Boccherini:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Musicians and the Media

Pop musicians have become masters at exploiting the mass media in order to promote themselves. A lot of this comes down to exploiting their own sexuality, which, since their sexuality plays a similar role in their music, makes a kind of sense. Lady Gaga's or Rihanna's public persona in the media and the one portrayed in the music videos are essentially the same thing.

But when it comes to classical musicians, there is an uncomfortable gulf between the musician and the persona crafted for or by the mass media. As an example, have a look at this interview with the British violinist Nicola Benedetti in the Scottish Sun. Nicola does everything she can to preserve both her own dignity and that of classical music in the face of an unending stream of insinuating questions about sex, drugs and pop music. In between quotes from Nicola, the writer inserts gratuitous comments about her "washboard tummy" and long legs. But her message about hard work, discipline and dedication comes through despite all this. Her message is exactly 180 degrees away from the message of popular culture, but she still gets it across.

It is popular culture that is in a state of free fall these days and a look at the typical behaviour of young Britons--the binge culture--confirms it. Nicola is trying her best, even in an interview trying to drag her into the midst of this popular culture, to communicate the message that all things worthwhile take hard work and discipline--and to promote her own career. More power to her.

A while ago I put up a post looking sardonically at how some violinists promote themselves by using semi-nudity. This was meant to be a kind of critique, but from the statistics, that post keeps getting a lot of hits. I'm sure this is due to the title "Naked Violinists". So, since that sort of thing is NOT what this blog is about, quite the opposite, and so as not to disappoint those people who google "naked violinists", I am going to delete that post!

Now let's hear Nicola Benedetti play something. Here is some Vivaldi:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Scarlatti K 213 - Some Comparisons

Something I haven't done for quite a while is compare different performances of the same piece of music. It can be very illuminating. About a year ago I did a fairly lengthy post comparing Nigel Kennedy's Bach with other performers. This was sparked by an interview Kennedy did in which he was rather disparaging of other people's Bach. Turns out that this, like so much else in the popular press, was mostly about self-promotion.

This time I'm inspired to look at different performances of a Scarlatti sonata simply because I'm learning it. This has pretty much been my standard modus operandi ever since I have been a performer. I'm curious to see what others have done with the piece. Sometimes I avoid hearing other versions until I have made some headway myself and then I am often surprised at what seems to be the standard interpretation.

Interpretations within a community of players can take on a life of their own. Everyone is copying aspects of the way everyone else plays the piece. I became aware of this after a concert once when a friend of mine, a composer, pointed out to me that I was completely ignoring some glissandi in the score. This was in the Prelude No. 4 by Villa-Lobos, a score he had studied when he was writing music for guitar. Of course he was correct! I, and pretty much everyone else, was simply ignoring some clearly indicated glissandi in the melodic line.

I first heard the sonata, K. 213 by Domenico Scarlatti in a wonderful vinyl recording by John Williams dating, I believe, from the mid-70s. One side was the Five Preludes by Villa-Lobos and the other was five sonatas by Scarlatti. Guitarists have been raiding the Scarlatti sonatas for a long time, starting with Segovia. Many of them are very effective on guitar as they often have a Spanish flavor and the textures are frequently spare enough to be able to be transcribed to guitar without much change. Here is a link to the score for keyboard. One of the most respected harpsichordists and the first one to record all 555 sonatas by Scarlatti was Scott Ross (who sadly, died young at age 38). They were recorded over an eighteen month period in 1984/85. Here is a selection. K. 213 starts exactly at the 9:00 mark:

Here is Dmitri Levkovich, a young Ukrainian pianist now living in Canada in a recent competition performance:

Another performance by the Dutch harpsichordist Gerard van Reenen:

Now for some guitar versions. Here is André Madeira:

Angelito Agcaoili in a concert performance:

And finally, John Williams:

This is, like quite a number of sonatas by Scarlatti, fundamentally a fairly simple piece. But it is amazing how individual each sonata is. Scarlatti is much-loved by composers because his music is such a beautiful example of pure invention. You really don't have to fuss around with it a lot in performance. This is not Schumann nor Brahms and milking every note for its romantic possibility is not the best approach. On the other hand, a little inspired connection, such as Scott Ross inserts leading into the repeat of the first half, works just fine. Scott Ross offers the best model of how Scarlatti should be played. Gustav Leonhardt does some very fine Scarlatti as well, but I don't think he recorded this particular sonata.

The version on piano by Levkovich is quite fine, but perhaps over-sensitive. Scarlatti should always have a bit of a gritty feel in my opinion, something the harpsichord provides naturally. So can the guitar, which is why they often work well on guitar. What about the three guitar performances? They all work, but they all seem to be making the same mistake: constantly fiddling with the tempo. Yes, even John Williams, whose second phrase is quite substantially rushed. His version is the best on guitar, of course, and most of it is excellent. But the wandering tempo of the beginning puts me off. Why is it that all the guitarists have trouble controlling the tempo and none of the keyboardists do?

Masterpieces of Music: Robert Schumann, Part 3

Robert Schumann's music criticism was very different from the usual sort. It often consisted of a conversation among members of a small circle of enthusiasts including Schumann himself and his imaginary characters Florestan, Eusebius and Meister Raro (for more about them, see my previous post). His review of Chopin's op 2, variations on Mozart's "Là ci darem la mano" is a good example. Eusebius drops by with the score and they look it over with delight, play through it and go over to Meister Raro's to share it with him. Chopin himself thought the review rather bizarre! But I rather like Schumann's approach as it reminds me a little of Plato's dialogues in which a small group of characters strive through discussion to unearth some truths. Sanna Pederson, a historian of music criticism points out that this sort of 'framing strategy' encourages the reader to have strong empathetic responses to the music. The act of choosing a particular piece of music is an aesthetic judgement in itself and the quality of the discussion serves to balance out the more shallow applause of the concert hall or, to choose a more current example, those fawning promotional interviews with musicians on television.

Come to think of it, the creation of imaginary interlocutors aside, that is a bit like what I'm trying to do here!

Today I want to look at another remarkable piece by Schumann, his song cycle Dichterliebe, sixteen songs on poems by Heinrich Heine. The song cycle is a remarkable musical phenomenon, not least because the really great examples are few indeed: Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, op 98, dating from 1816 is the first, followed by Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin of 1823 and Winterreise of 1827. The next important cycles are by Schumann, who composed them and a great number of other songs, one hundred and forty in all, in a furious burst of inspiration in 1840. The most highly-regarded of Schumann's cycles is Dichterliebe. Schumann had great regard for Schubert, especially his psychological quality, by which he meant 'momentary feelings' and mood and we find the same approach in his music. Of course, we should not jump to the conclusion that the momentary feelings and moods are autobiographical. Dichterliebe is a painful story of unrequited love, but in contrast, 1840 was the year that Schumann finally married his beloved Clara Wieck, so biographically, it was the time of his greatest bliss.

Here is the layout of the song cycle from Wikipedia:

  1. Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (Heine, Lyrical Intermezzo no 1). (In beautiful May, when the buds sprang, love sprang up in my heart: in beautiful May, when the birds all sang, I told you my suffering and longing.)
  2. Aus meinen Tränen sprießen (Heine no 2). (Many flowers spring up from my tears, and a nightingale choir from my sighs: If you love me, I'll pick them all for you, and the nightingale will sing at your window.)
  3. Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne (Heine no 3). (I used to love the rose, lily, dove and sun, joyfully: now I love only the little, the fine, the pure, the One: you yourself are the source of them all.)
  4. Wenn ich in deine Augen seh (Heine no 4). (When I look in your eyes all my pain and woe fades: when I kiss your mouth I become whole: when I recline on your breast I am filled with heavenly joy: and when you say, 'I love you', I weep bitterly.)
  5. Ich will meine Seele tauchen (Heine no 7). (I want to bathe my soul in the chalice of the lily, and the lily, ringing, will breathe a song of my beloved. The song will tremble and quiver, like the kiss of her mouth which in a wondrous moment she gave me.)
  6. Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome (Heine no 11). (In the Rhine, in the sacred stream, great holy Cologne with its great cathedral is reflected. In it there is a face painted on golden leather, which has shone into the confusion of my life. Flowers and cherubs float about Our Lady: the eyes, lips and cheeks are just like those of my beloved.)
  7. Ich grolle nicht (Heine no 18). (I do not chide you, though my heart breaks, love ever lost to me! Though you shine in a field of diamonds, no ray falls into your heart's darkness. I have long known it: I saw the night in your heart, I saw the serpent that devours it: I saw, my love, how empty you are.)
  8. Und wüßten's die Blumen, die kleinen (Heine no 22). (If the little flowers only knew how deeply my heart is wounded, they would weep with me to heal my suffering, and the nightingales would sing to cheer me, and even the starlets would drop from the sky to speak consolation to me: but they can't know, for only One knows, and it is she that has torn my heart asunder.)
  9. Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen (Heine no 20). (There is a playing of flutes and violins and trumpets, for they are dancing the wedding-dance of my best-beloved. There is a thunder and booming of kettle-drums and shawms. In between, you can hear the good cupids sobbing and moaning.)
  10. Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen (Heine no 40). (When I hear that song which my love once sang, my breast bursts with wild affliction. Dark longing drives me to the forest hills, where my too-great woe pours out in tears.)
  11. Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen (Heine no 39). (A youth loved a maiden who chose another: the other loved another girl, and married her. The maiden married, from spite, the first and best man that she met with: the youth was sickened at it. It's the old story, and it's always new: and the one whom she turns aside, she breaks his heart in two.)
  12. Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen (Heine no 45). (On a sunny summer morning I went out into the garden: the flowers were talking and whispering, but I was silent. They looked at me with pity, and said, 'Don't be cruel to our sister, you sad, death-pale man.')
  13. Ich hab' im Traum geweinet (Heine no 55). (I wept in my dream, for I dreamt you were in your grave: I woke, and tears ran down my cheeks. I wept in my dreams, thinking you had abandoned me: I woke, and cried long and bitterly. I wept in my dream, dreaming you were still good to me: I woke, and even then my floods of tears poured forth.)
  14. Allnächtlich im Traume (Heine no 56). (I see you every night in dreams, and see you greet me friendly, and crying out loudly I throw myself at your sweet feet. You look at me sorrowfully and shake your fair head: from your eyes trickle the pearly tear-drops. You say a gentle word to me and give me a sprig of cypress: I awake, and there is no sprig, and I have forgotten what the word was.)
  15. Aus alten Märchen winkt es (Heine no 43). (The old fairy tales tell of a magic land where great flowers shine in the golden evening light, where trees speak and sing like a choir, and springs make music to dance to, and songs of love are sung such as you have never heard, till wondrous sweet longing infatuates you! Oh, could I only go there, and free my heart, and let go of all pain, and be blessed! Ah! I often see that land of joys in dreams: then comes the morning sun, and it vanishes like smoke.)
  16. Die alten, bösen Lieder (Heine no 65). (The old bad songs, and the angry, bitter dreams, let us now bury them, bring a large coffin. I shall put very much therein, I shall not yet say what: the coffin must be bigger than the 'Tun' at Heidelberg. And bring a bier of stout, thick planks, they must be longer than the Bridge at Mainz. And bring me too twelve giants, who must be mightier than the Saint Christopher in the cathedral at Cologne. They must carry the coffin and throw it in the sea, because a coffin that large needs a large grave to put it in. Do you know why the coffin must be so big and heavy? I will also put my love and my suffering into it.)

And here is a performance of the cycle by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1956:

As a young music student I learned and performed the fourth and seventh songs from this cycle and it is a delight to refresh my memory of them. Next time we will get into some of the details. In the meantime, enjoy!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Robert Schumann, Part 2

Yesterday I put up a post introducing the Davidsbündlertänze, a set of piano pieces that Charles Rosen calls "the subtlest, most mysterious, and most complex of all Schumann's large works." Let's take a close look at the music. I said that they were "not really dances", but I should qualify that by saying instead that they are based on dances, but with the rhythms considerably distorted or shifted. The basic material for the whole cycle of pieces is the first two bars of a mazurka by Clara Wieck, whom Schumann would marry three years later.
I said the movements were based on dances, but modified considerably. The first one uses the mazurka rhythm, but the second, based on the Ländler, a folk dance in 3/4, has a melody that suggests duple time. The third movement is a waltz, but the two hands move out of phase with the left hand coming ahead of the right. In the fourth piece, the hands are a half beat apart. The sixth piece is recognizable as a tarantella, a high-velocity dance from Italy usually in 6/8. Schumann outdoes himself with this one by displacing the accents, usually on 1 and 4 (123 456) to 3 and 6 in the right hand simultaneously with 2 and 5 in the left hand!

But it is the harmony that is even more striking. Instead of introducing the tonic key, he slowly reveals it. The basic tonality is B minor, but the first dance is in G major. The work as a whole is divided into two books of nine pieces each. Both books end in C major! So why do I say that B minor is the basic tonality? Schumann is working with ambiguity here; distance and instability are both important devices in his harmonic conception. The note B is often used as an important pivot, such as between the first and second pieces. More significant is the return of the second piece, in B minor, nearly a half hour later--the only music to be reprised. The fourth piece is very solidly in B minor as well. In the second book, the second and fourth pieces are also in B minor. The seventeenth piece is like a distant echo of the slow ländler of the second piece. It all could end here, unless you are Robert Schumann. Instead, written over the score to the eighteenth and last piece is this:
"Superfluously, Eusebius added the following, and his eyes filled with tears of happiness."
I have talked before in various places about how two important harmonies were a constant resource in the early 19th century--they were a Romantic staple. These two harmonies are the flat submediant (A flat in C major), much used by Schubert, and the Neapolitan, the major chord built on the flat supertonic (D flat in C major). But this is the first piece I know of to end on the Neapolitan! C major is the Neapolitan of B minor. Here is Charles Rosen, who is also a wonderful pianist, playing the last three movements, XVI to XVIII:

You can find the complete score here and Rosen has a detailed discussion of the piece in his The Romantic Generation on pp. 223 to 236.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856) is one of the most important figures of the first half of the 19th century in music. Apart from his activities as pianist (cut short by an injury to his hand) and composer, he was largely responsible for the creation of an entirely new vocation: the music critic who writes for the non-professional audience. A musical expert who shaped public opinion through the press was rather a new concept on the continent (though it had a longer history in England). In 1833 Schumann founded the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik as a challenge to the more conventional music criticism found elsewhere. The "Davidsbund" were an imaginary league of the musical elite who fought against the Philistines of the popular press and the authoritarianism of the conservatories. Romanticism contained internal tensions, between the desire to appeal to the public, who were, after all, the supporters of the great growth in music consumption of the time, and the contrary desire to support the musical progressives such as Schumann himself and other new figures such as Chopin and later, Brahms. The Davidsbund included imaginary characters - elements in Schumann's personality - such as Florestan (rash and reckless), Eusebius (mild and sociable) and Meister Raro (the reproving master). It has been noted that these characters correspond rather well to the Freudian trinity of id, ego and superego. Not surprising as Freud himself acknowledged that his theory was prefigured in romantic literature.

In 1837 Schumann wrote a set of eighteen pieces for solo piano entitled Davidsbündlertänze which are not really dances, but like a conversation between Florestan and Eusebius, either or both of whom are credited with the individual pieces. Here, from Wikipedia, are the movements with tempi and ascriptions:

  1. Lebhaft (Vivace), G major, Florestan and Eusebius;
  2. Innig (Con intimo sentimento), B minor, Eusebius;
  3. Etwas hahnbüchen (Un poco impetuoso) (1st edition), Mit Humor (Con umore) (2nd edition), G major, Florestan (Hahnbüchen, now usually hahnebüchen (also hanebüchen or hagebüchen), is an untranslatable colloquialism roughly meaning "coarse" or "clumsy." Apparently, it originally meant "made of hornbeam wood." (See the article "Hanebüchen" in the German version of Wikipedia.) Ernest Hutcheson translated it as "cockeyed" in his book The Literature of the Piano.);
  4. Ungeduldig (Con impazienza), B minor, Florestan;
  5. Einfach (Semplice), D major, Eusebius;
  6. Sehr rasch und in sich hinein (Molto vivo, con intimo fervore) (1st edition), Sehr rasch (Molto vivo) (2nd edition), D minor, Florestan;
  7. Nicht schnell mit äußerst starker Empfindung (Non presto profondamente espressivo) (1st edition), Nicht schnell (Non presto) (2nd edition), G minor, Eusebius;
  8. Frisch (Con freschezza), C minor, Florestan;
  9. No tempo indication (metronome mark of 1 crotchet = 126) (1st edition), Lebhaft (Vivace) (2nd edition), C major, Florestan;
  10. Balladenmäßig sehr rasch (Alla ballata molto vivo) (1st edition), ("Sehr" and "Molto" capitalized in 2nd edition), D minor (ends major), Florestan;
  11. Einfach (Semplice), B minor-D major, Eusebius;
  12. Mit Humor (Con umore), B minor-E minor and major, Florestan;
  13. Wild und lustig (Selvaggio e gaio), B minor and major, Florestan and Eusebius;
  14. Zart und singend (Dolce e cantando), E major, Eusebius;
  15. Frisch (Con freschezza), B major - Etwas bewegter (poco piu mosso), E major (return to opening section is optional), Florestan and Eusebius;
  16. Mit gutem Humor (Con buon umore) (in 2nd edition, "Con umore"), G major - Etwas langsamer (Un poco più lento), B minor; leading without a break into
  17. Wie aus der Ferne (Come da lontano), B major and minor (including a full reprise of No. 2), Florestan and Eusebius; and
  18. Nicht schnell (Non presto), C major, Eusebius.

And here is a performance of the complete work:

A measure of just how revolutionary this music is would be a comparison with a late Beethoven piano sonata from a mere decade before. Instead of a unified structure comprising a few, three or four, movements with a very clear tonal structure, there is instead a myriad of short 'characteristic' pieces, each with its own mood and structure.

Music Exists in Another World

I was teaching an adult student yesterday and he was explaining his frustration with his progress and talking about what he thought was wrong. We discussed it a bit, but then I suggested that he was "over-thinking" the issue. You don't need to figure out exactly why you might have played the third string by mistake instead of the second string, or develop a theory of musical memory, or, or...

You just need to play the second string when needed.

I find that with certain students, especially older ones, that they are thinking too much. As that contradicts another thing I say, which is you have to think what you are doing and focus, I should try and sort this out!

This posting on Norman Lebrecht's site is very helpful. A German cellist lost most of his memory to a brain infection. He could no longer remember his own biographical details, his family, names of German rivers and so on. Severe memory loss. But, the fascinating thing is that he retained memory of how to play music. He could still play and sight read music on cello as well as he did before! To demonstrate this, ten amateur and professional cellists were used for comparison. The study concludes that:
These findings suggest that learning and retention of musical information depends on brain networks distinct from those involved in other types of episodic and semantic memory.
I've been saying this in my teaching for years. Students who come to me unused to using the "brain networks" specific to music, need to learn to access them, to go inside the music part of the brain, or, as I more usually say, "You have to feel the flow and ride along with it..."

Back when I used to practice six hours a day, I noticed that after being deeply immersed for hours in music, when you left your practice room and returned to the real world, it seemed rather odd. Like landing on an alien planet! Music exists in another world. The most miraculous thing is that it is one we can all share.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Brave New World

Between my first and second years as an undergraduate music major I took a summer Early Music course in which I studied and played the lute. To do this I had to cut off my right hand fingernails temporarily, because the lute is not traditionally played with nails as the classical guitar is. It was a fascinating course and the things I learned about sonority on the lute shape my playing of lute music on guitar to this day. One afternoon, as it was a lovely sunny day, I took my borrowed lute out into the quadrangle to do a bit of practice. One older fellow--possibly a professor of English--paused to chat and commented that the remarkably fragile lute must have only a precarious existence in the brutal modern world. Or something to that effect! I don't recall his exact words. Lutes are quite fragile, in truth. Here is a picture of an instrument somewhat like the one I was playing:

As you can see it has an awful lot of strings, which would originally have been made of gut, and a complicated pegbox that sticks out. One lutenist I know had a terrible accident when an elevator door closed on the neck and pegbox of his instrument.

I am reminded of this summer of lute-playing by all the recent stories about instruments being confiscated for non-payment of truly prodigious taxes, instruments being put into the baggage compartment even when a seat was purchased for them and, my favorite, all the instruments of a symphony orchestra being locked up because the customs agents were on strike! I put up a post on this here. Possibly because of an awful lot of publicity, the instruments of the Sao Paulo Symphony have now been released. But the Guarnerius violin is still being held for ransom.

All this gets me thinking about historical trends. This does seem to be a brutal time for classical musicians. It is a strange sort of irony that our modern, compassionate, tolerant, democratic society treats classical musicians far, far, far worse than they were treated in the most autocratic societies of the ancien régime. There may be a lesson here if one recalls the fate of the harpsichords during the French Revolution, which purported to bring enlightenment to society: many ended up as firewood. Mind you, one couldn't expect much else from the sort of people who would say "Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest." (Attributed to Denis Diderot and others.)

The process of rationalizing society, which certainly took its first significant steps during the French Revolution, has continued to this day. In the 1880s Bismarck instituted a whole series of social welfare programs that were a model for all modern societies. As the state grows and takes responsibility for more and more of the lives of the citizens, it also intrudes more and more into those lives. However we may feel about this, there are some disquieting consequences. One tiny consequence is having an impact on classical musicians. In a looser world, where agents of the state can make exceptions and use their own common sense, classical musicians can slip through the cracks. Twenty and thirty years ago I commonly smuggled my guitar on the plane with me (even though the airline check-in staff fervently denied it, it fit quite well in the overhead bin in most planes). But now, when things have gotten very efficient indeed and when the ever-finer net of regulation contains everyone, they cannot. The modern state cannot abide any exceptions, not even for things that are termed 'good' like classical music. The customs and immigration officers are autocrats with quasi-military powers and will make no exceptions for mere artists. The hunger of the state for more and more tax revenue knows no bounds and therefore no exceptions. 

Imagine what is going through a touring artist's mind these days. What airlines is it safe to take? Which customs agents can be trusted not to confiscate my violin? Do I have all the proper documentation? Is it really worth it to go on this tour? In my mind is the image of giant grinding machine that grinds everything to the same, fine powder. Perhaps this powder is then used to manufacture all those wonderful things we need in our brave new world. But we seem to be grinding up rather a lot of things that we will miss. I'm not sure that classical music has much of a place in the modern, rationalized state.

Here is that lute piece I was practicing back when I was a student:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Chopin, Part 3

Yesterday we started looking at the first ballade, in G minor, written when Chopin was in his early 20s and newly resident in Paris. There are a lot of different ways of looking at a piece like this. It has a lot of the structure of a sonata, with an introduction, contrasting themes presented in different keys, development of these themes and recapitulation of them. There is also a coda, but unlike a sonata movement coda, which tends to relax harmonic tension with subdominant harmony, this one continues the ever-increasing arc of intensity by using more chromatic scale passages, much greater virtuosity and fortissimo dynamics. Some have mentioned the strophic character of the piece, where the same motifs return as a kind of refrain. This goes with the title reference to the literary ballad.

In the last post (if you haven't seen it, go have a look as this is a continuation), I quoted the basic motif of the ballade, which comes in various forms and extensions, but whose basic shape is always recognizable. Here is that motif again:

Click to enlarge

Contrasting with this is the second motif, which instead of a curling, sinuous shape has a more serene, falling contour. Here it is:

Click to enlarge

(Sorry for the sloppy notation--I'm trying out a new program and it has a few quirks. But it saves me a couple of steps as it allows me to save an example directly as a graphic I can insert into Blogger.) The tempo changes at this point to Meno mosso which simply means a bit slower. Notice that while the key signature is still two flats, the key is no longer G minor, but Eb major (there is an Ab in the accompaniment, which completes the three flats needed for Eb major). Here is Horowitz in a recording of a concert performance. The second motif I show above comes just after the 2:40 mark.

The key layout for the whole piece is G minor, Eb major, A major, Eb major and G minor, forming a "tonal palindrome". Beethoven would probably have indicated the key changes by changing the key signature, but Chopin keeps the two flat signature throughout even when, as in the A major section, nearly every note has to have an accidental.

Taruskin, in the Oxford History of Western Music, makes a splendid argument for the 'literary' nature of this piece. By that I mean that he presents a good argument for an historical and literary context for the piece. From documentary evidence he shows that one of the inspirations for this piece was the literary ballads of Adam Mickiewicz (1798 - 1855), the Polish nationalist poet. He argues that the strophic aspects of the form reflect the literary form of the ballad and even that the heroic arc of the piece is a prophetic call for a revolution and the liberation of Poland. He suggests that Chopin is "telling a national story" using the abstract means of sonata form and a "complex interaction between creative intentions and critical perceptions."

Now far be it from me to rule this out and Taruskin does indeed assemble a fascinating amount of evidence for these creative intentions and critical perceptions in volume 3 of the Oxford History (pp 367 - 376) but the truth of the matter is that if this were the whole, or even the most important aspect of the piece, then all of us listening to the piece who are NOT aware of Chopin's creative intentions nor the historical context and critical perceptions would scarcely find much of interest in the music. But we do. Most listeners in most places are simply unaware of these things. But are able to respond with real pleasure to the powerful expression of the piece because, while you can listen through that whole historical context, you don't actually need to. It is because music is not semantically delimited the way language is that the piece makes an immediate impact. You do need to be accustomed to this general kind of music, be able to hear the harmonies and so on--in that sense the music is culturally specific--but that's all. Let's listen to it one more time in a different performance:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Chopin, Part 2

Chopin at age 25
Continuing on with Chopin, I would like to look at (listen to) a longer piece. The four ballades are recognized, not only as challenging and virtuosic, but also as musically profound. Let's immerse ourselves in the first one, in G minor. The Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, was composed in 1835–36 during Chopin's early years in Paris. Like the other ballades, it is a one-movement piece, lasting about nine minutes. How do you structure a piece that long that isn't divided up into sections like a set of variations? The obvious model is the sonata form, which allows a sophisticated use of harmony to structure the overall form. Despite a lot of criticism of Chopin's handling of sonata form, the reality is that he made use of it in very sophisticated ways. First, let's just listen to the music:

Like so much of Chopin, it is both spectacular and expressive! Even more impressive, it is also a unified whole. The opening phrases are mysterious, the first outlining a very remote harmony from G minor: it is an Ab major chord in first inversion, that is to say, C Eb Ab. This harmony, which sounds innocuous on its own, is in a very intense relationship with the tonic. If we write it according to the symbols of harmonic analysis, this becomes clear it is bII6 or a first inversion chord built on the flattened supertonic. This chord is colloquially known as the Neapolitan sixth. It prepares the dominant, as it does here. The second phrase circles around the dominant, D. Finally, there is an odd pair of chords that sound like they should be a cadence, but aren't. The harmonies, analysed in G minor are iv6 to VI4/2. They just sound cadential because of the characteristic rhythm and because at this point we are expecting one. Perhaps it is a kind of substitute half-cadence from the iv chord to a substitute V? In any case, after this introduction, the piece proper begins with the most important motif:

Click to enlarge
In one way or another, this motif tends to permeate the whole piece, right to the very end. There is a lot more to say about the piece, but I'll stop here for today and leave you to listen to the piece a couple more times.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Instruments of Music Held Ransom

Most performers have a close relationship with their instruments. At the highest concert level, a musical instrument can cost as much as a house--or more! My concert guitar is not nearly that valuable, but it is a very fine and unique instrument that I have played for twenty-nine years. It has outlasted one marriage and several girlfriends. Many performers do a great deal of traveling with their instruments and it just seems to get harder every year. It's not the airlines (though they can cause problems as well) so much as the ever-growing complexity and sheer nastiness of the customs, tax and immigration rules. Here is the latest case reported at this link:
Yuzuko Horigome was flying home from Tokyo to Brussels with a stopover at Frankfurt, when German customs seized her Guarnerius violin, worth in the region of one million Euro. They demanded that she pay a fine of 190,000 Euros for the instrument’s release, saying that it had not been taxed properly in the EU. Yuzuko had to fly on without her instrument.
The comments are also worth reading as they offer a wide spectrum of views, several from other traveling soloists. Quite a few people commented that if you don't travel with the "proper documentation" for your instrument then you are just asking for this kind of trouble--especially in the Netherlands for some reason, but also Germany and even the UK. Now I have no idea what the "proper documentation" for my guitar might be, all I know is that I have no papers and never had. Probably nothing would happen if I traveled to Europe with it, but it is hard to know. I have nothing proving I bought it anywhere and it is anyone's guess what it is worth. But I am pretty sure that it is mine and cannot, no matter what kind of tax regime Europe has these days, see how any official has the right to confiscate it.

I'm afraid that stories like this make me even more of a libertarian than I am already. I'm sure that the intricate bureaucracies of Europe and the US have all sorts of reasons for the regulations, taxes and laws that they endlessly promulgate. I'm also pretty sure that the primary beneficiaries of these rules are the bureaucrats themselves. I don't think they have any right to my guitar or a piece of it or Yuzuko Horigome's violin or a piece of it. Though perhaps it is different for her as she is resident in Brussels. But I'm not and under no circumstances would I take the risk of letting state officials get hold of my guitar. Is not their sheer arrogance almost unbelievable?

Here are Yuzuko Horigome and Martha Argerich playing the first movement of the Schumann A minor violin sonata:

UPDATE: Things are even worse for Yuzuko Horigome as a new report indicates that, with fines, the total cost of re-claiming her violin could amount to 380,000 euros or $475,000 USD. There might be some light at the end of the tunnel as this news story reports that
A spokesman for the German authorities has suggested that the violin might be returned if it is regarded as necessary for her job, the Yomiuri said.
 I'm afraid that this does not make me inclined to travel anywhere near Germany as I don't want to rely on the arbitrary caprice of customs officers who "might" allow me to keep my guitar.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Now this story is exactly the kind of experience I had on more than one occasion, even though my guitar is not from the 17th century. It is however, just as valuable to me, my companion for twenty-nine years, built by a wonderful luthier from Vancouver who has long since passed away, making it truly an irreplaceable instrument.

Music and Language

One of the very first posts I put up on this blog over a year ago was on music and language and in January I put up one on music and meaning. But this is such an interesting and complex question that I will take it up again. Thanks to a friend of mine who is a philosopher, I have a bit more to say about it. He mentioned that "significance relies on some meta-subjective but non-natural correlation of signifier to signified ("smoke" signifies smoke)." Putting that in more ordinary language, we understand the meaning or significance of something if there is some agreed-upon connection that is not simply a natural phenomenon. If we just see some smoke, that isn't necessarily a communication unless it comes in measured puffs! But the word 'smoke', which uses standard letters to form a word we can look up in the dictionary is significant and refers to the phenomenon of smoke. All this is painfully boring to you semioticians out there, but bear with me!

Now, musical notation is language-like in that it signifies things, just like words formed from the Roman alphabet. If you know how to read it, the significance of this is perfectly obvious:

To a guitarist this says "play a C major chord (probably in first position with your third LH finger on the low C, your 2nd finger on E and your first finger on the high C--the G is an open string) and hold it for four beats." Now that is certainly a musical instruction, but it is not at this point, music. Assume the guitarist plays the chord and holds it for four beats, what does a listener hear, musically? A major chord. But there is really not much of a musical effect unless it is followed by a whole bunch of other stuff. This other stuff will consist of various notes forming chords and melodies and they will be articulated in time with rhythms and a meter consisting of groups of measured pulses or beats. Perhaps we will end up with something like this:

That piece starts with the simple C major chord of my example and goes on to be a complete, simple, piece of music. Each measure of the notation signifies to the guitarist instructions such as I described above. The composer, guitarist and listener are all perceiving this as a piece of music, that is to say, a structure of sound in time. The musical work exists in different ways in different places: the composer's mind when he was writing it, the music notation, the guitarist's mind as he learns how to play it, the performance itself and finally in the mind or ear of the listener. Given that, perhaps we can take a stab at  the kind of meaning there is at each stage. In this particular case, the composer was wanting to create something that would teach a guitar student something about different 'voices' and about harmony. The guitarist has to solve a number of technical problems, especially for the left hand, in order to realize the music. If he is successful, the listener hears a serene piece in C major with independent voices and nice suspensions.

Sorry for the lengthy example! We can derive from this the reasons why music has some language-like aspects, but is not a language. When a musician looks at the score to this piece he sees a precise notation of the sound structure. With it, he can perform the piece. But neither the instructions, nor the resulting performance can easily be put into words. You could describe what you do: "first I put my fingers on a C major chord and pluck with the right hand..." but it would be terribly lengthy and pointless. And what can a listener do to describe the performance? "There were a lot of chords and they seemed to fit together well and the guitarist was wearing a white shirt..." Also terribly lengthy and pointless!

So how is the music itself language-like? Not in any specific way, certainly. But it is hard to deny that communication is going on and and very clear communication at that if you are acquainted with this kind of music or with guitar-playing. Which brings me once again to a famous quote by Mendelssohn:
A piece of music that I love expresses thoughts to me that are not too imprecise to be framed in words, but too precise.
 I think that where music fails to be a language is in the correlation of signifier to signified. We have all those notes, but they don't point to something outside themselves like the word 'smoke' points to a plume of smoke. This gives them the freedom to have expressive power without being caught in a web of language. Now songs, of course, are a whole different story because they operate on both levels: musical expression and the significance of language. Here is the first song from Dichterliebe, a masterpiece where a great composer of song, Robert Schumann, sets sixteen poems by Heinrich Heine, a master poet.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Chopin

The first generation of 19th century composers to break new ground, including Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Mendelssohn, were all born around 1810. Berlioz was slightly older. I'm going to put up posts about each of these composers. My "masterpieces of music" series has been in hiatus for a couple of months now, so it is time to get back to it. These posts take a bit more time to prepare, but I have also been taking the time to re-read Taruskin's volume on the 19th century in the Oxford History. The 19th century is a formidably complex era. It includes not only romanticism, complex enough in itself, but also realism, nationalism and folklore, all of which play important roles. It was also when many of the most important musical institutions of our day were founded such as subscription concert series, the music publishing business, impresarios and agents, touring virtuosos and so on.

Chopin in a characteristic setting: Prince Radziwill's salon

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849), born in what is now Poland (but then part of the Russian empire) to a French father and a Polish mother, is not only a Romantic composer, but also often regarded as a nationalist one. Despite writing almost exclusively for piano, his influence on subsequent composers has been immense. His gifts were recognized very early, by Robert Schumann among others. I don't want to talk much about Chopin's life, but go straight to the music. I have posted on Chopin quite a few times. The most detailed post is this one. A guide to Chopin's aesthetic views comes from his companion, George Sand, who wrote in her Impressions et Souvenirs (1873) that:
The beauty of musical language consists in taking hold of the heart or imagination, without being condemned to pedestrian reasoning. It maintains itself in an ideal sphere where the listener who is not musically educated still delights in the vagueness, while the musician savors this great logic that presides over the masters' magnificent issue of thought.
I think that captures the essence of it rather better than shouting out "Dopamine!" "Dopamine!" as some have done recently. The Baroque genre of the prelude, of which Bach was the particular master, was given new life by Chopin in his op 28, preludes in all the major and minor keys. Bach's first prelude, (from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk 1) is an obvious influence:

And here is Chopin's C major prelude:

I think the more closely you look at that music, the more impressed you will be by the harmonic ingenuity of it. And all in about thirty seconds. But that is more than matched by the even more cryptic second prelude, in A minor. Well, sort of in A minor. The theorists are still arguing about this one...

That is one eerie prelude. It is as if the piece is simply too over-wrought to know what key it is in! The grotesque cross-relations between G and G#, between C# and C double-sharp and the constant chromatic neighbors make for a very uneasy harmonic background. That little chorale at the end that finally lands us in A minor seems, as many have noted, arbitrarily tacked on. This prelude, expansive though it feels, is still only two minutes long.

Some of Chopin's most remarkable pieces and the foundation for viewing him as a 'nationalist' composer, are his mazurkas based on a variety of peasant dances from the area around Warsaw. Here is General Dombrowski's mazurka, a traditional melody from around 1800. Note the heavy accent on the second beat:

Here are two mazurkas by Chopin, composed soon after he became an exile in Paris.

I think I will stop here for today and next time do a more detailed exploration of one of Chopin's longer pieces. Enjoy!

Music and "Fifty Shades of Grey"

I frequently criticize the quality of writing on music in the mainstream media. Why? Because it usually deserves it. But very rarely I run across something worth reading. Oddly enough, today it was in the Globe and Mail, a newspaper usually notable only for its predictable and shallow opinions and coverage. Here is the link to an essay about eroticism in music and the recent best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey.

The author, hiding behind the initials J. D., obviously knows something about music, which sets him or her apart from most of those writing in the mainstream media. If you want to write about eroticism in music, you obviously have to know your suggestive Monteverdi madrigals! This reminds me of an analysis I did years ago of the text to a lute song by Thomas Morley. Elizabethan slang and sexual reference was both remarkably bawdy (nearly everything the Nurse says in Romeo and Juliet is a dirty pun) and difficult for us to sort out as some of it depends on things like the symbolism of plants and flowers. In any case, the more I looked into the text of the song, the more I realized the whole subtext was sexual! Oh yes, and the lute song by John Dowland titled "Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite" means exactly what you suspect. Here is the text to the song by Morley:

 Thirsis and Milla, arme in arme together,
       In meri may to the greene garden walked,
       Where all the way they wanton ridle talked,
       The youthfull boye, kissing her cheekes all rosie,
       Beseecht her there to gather him a posye.
Shee straight her light greene silken cotes vp tucked
       And May for Mill and Time for Thersis plucked,
       Which when she broght hee clasp't her by the middle,
       And kist her sweete but could not read her riddle,
       Ah, foole with that the Nimph set vp a laughter,
       And blusht, and ran away and hee ran after.
Wanton riddles indeed--and quite subtle. Alas and ohime, YouTube fails us as there does not
seem to be a performance of "Thirsis and Milla" anywhere. However, there are a couple of
performances of a rather less subtle song from Morley's First Booke of Ayres (1600) called
"Will ye buy a fine Dogge?" which is all about the dildo. This was a new term at the time.
Wikipedia says:
According to the OED, the word's first appearance in English was in Thomas Nashe's Choise of Valentines or the Merie Ballad of Nash his Dildo (c. 1593). The word also appears in Ben Jonson's 1610 play, The AlchemistWilliam Shakespeare used the term once in The Winter's Tale, believed to be from 1610 or 1611, but not printed until the First Folio of 1623.
Now, let's hear that song!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

News of the Day

There seems to be so much music news out there, that I thought I would collect some stories and comment on them. First of all, computers are getting into the composition business. Again.

No, computers can't be 'creative', though those folks who write the algorithms might be. All I can tell, reading this story, is that computers might be helpful in screening out some of the crap.

The Russian punk group Pussy Riot have been convicted to two years in prison for "premeditated hooliganism". They were also cited for "inappropriate clothing".

Thank goodness these same rules don't apply outside Russia or the vast majority of pop musicians would be going to jail.

I talk about criticism from time to time. It's important, and it's important that it be done right. Here is a post from a literary blog that puts it beautifully in perspective:

Speaking of criticism, one of the important things it should do is distinguish the phony from the real. Of course, sometimes this isn't necessary as the artists do it themselves:

Here are Il Divo slaughtering a perfectly good song by Leonard Cohen:

Oh, by "slaughtering" I mean taking a good song and homogenizing, pasteurizing and melodramaing it so that it becomes Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Brace yourselves, the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Cage will soon be upon us. Already there are a host of articles like this one:

Cage's ideas can indeed be fascinating because it is interesting to do as the writer does and completely surrender, passively, to the sounds all around us. Perhaps it can even be healthy from time to time. I have long wanted to do a performance of one of Cage's talks on music, the one where a whole bunch of stories and brief observations are all read out so that they take up exactly one minute each. This means that some have to be read very, very, very fast and others incredibly slowly. But fascinating as all this is, it still has little to do with music. Cage had enormous talent for the quirky perspective and for being a professional member of the avant-garde. But almost no talent for music.

Now this seems to be swimming against the tide. Beck, the singer-songwriter, is releasing a new album in December that will not be a CD, nor MP3, nor vinyl, nor even 8-track. It will be a song album in the form of sheet music. Actual notation (I assume, though I haven't seen it yet). Here is the promo page:

Let's end with another example of pseudo-science unleashed on music. Here is an article on how listening to music while you work adds to your productivity.

And this passage will give you an idea of the argument:
Dr. Lesiuk’s research focuses on how music affects workplace performance. In one study involving information technology specialists, she found that those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music improved their mood.
“When you’re stressed, you might make a decision more hastily; you have a very narrow focus of attention,” she said. “When you’re in a positive mood, you’re able to take in more options.”
Dr. Lesiuk found that personal choice in music was very important. She allowed participants in her study to select whatever music they liked and to listen as long as they wanted. Those who were moderately skilled at their jobs benefited the most, while experts saw little or no effect. And some novices regarded the music as distracting.
I cannot do any work if there is music playing, unless it is the most mundane and repetitive kind. I spent many  years undergoing training to learn how to listen and as a consequence, it takes a real effort of will NOT to listen. When I am listening to music, that is where all my focus and attention is. How could you possibly work if you are actually listening? Therefore, the people examined in the study were very likely not listening, but merely passively hearing vague thumps and tunes in the background. "Some novices" found the music distracting? Would I ever like to hear some detail on that claim. My perpetual beef with all this sort of thing is that we are given a journalistic, distorted, greatly simplified summary of some research. It is rarely credible and it is difficult to even know what is really being examined and how. Professionals can just go to the professional journals and find out what's what, but the people this kind of article is directed at, laypersons, don't have that option. So for decade after decade they are fed this awful crap masquerading as knowledge.

Now let's clear the palate with a tune. Some really spectacular Granados played by John Williams: