Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Carter, Henze, Barzun

Elliot Carter

I learn this morning that Elliot Carter just passed away. Here is the obituary in the Guardian. Carter, along with composers like Pierre Boulez and Brian Ferneyhough, was a pinnacle in the long trend in music towards maximalization of complexity. A major breakthrough for Carter was the premiere of his Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras in 1961. Here is the first part:

At the time fierce battles were being waged for and against music like this. Benjamin Britten, who wrote more traditionally, had talked about the role of the composer:
I do not write for posterity--in any case, the outlook for that is somewhat uncertain. I write music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it. But my music now has its roots in where I live and work.
On the other side, attacking Britten and praising Carter, was Stravinsky (or his ghost-writer, Robert Craft) who sneered at Britten, saying "nothing fails like success". Carter's music, on the other hand, was guaranteed to be historically important because it was revolutionary. Almost impossible to play, with a new metronome mark every measure, harmonically inscrutable and so complex that only a small circle of the enlightened could even hope to understand it, it was music whose role was the very opposite of Britten's: nothing succeeds like failure (to communicate)!

UPPERDATE: Stravinsky and a young Elliot Carter in conversation:

Hans Werner Henze

Just over a week ago, on October 27, Hans Werner Henze passed away. His sense of the role of the composer was quite similar to Britten's and he was, like Britten, an important opera composer. Early on he was part of the post-WWII avant-garde in Germany, sitting alongside Boulez and Bruno Maderna teaching the composition class at Darmstadt in 1955. But Henze became an apostate of the church of the avant-garde, later writing that:
Thanks to the initiative of Boulez and Stockhausen [Webern's aesthetic] had become institutionalized as official musical thinking whose maxims the body of lesser mortals now had to put into practice with religious devotion, esprit de corps and slavish obedience...
 Henze lived most of his life in Italy, where he found the climate, especially politically, more to his taste. He was a radical egalitarian in some ways, both appreciating the music of the Rolling Stones and writing in an unashamedly tonal style. He was also sympathetic to leftist causes and had attitudes towards the composer's role that foreshadow post-modernism.

Henze wrote quite a bit for guitar, some early Tientos and a later, larger set of pieces based on Shakespeare characters. He also wrote a kind of chamber opera called El Cimmaron for baritone, flute, guitar and percussion based on the autobiography of a Cuban slave. I got to know this piece quite well as I participated in the MontrĂ©al premiere and the West Coast premiere in both Vancouver and Victoria. Here is a photo of one of those rehearsals:

Alas, I no longer have recordings of my performances, but here is the beginning of the second half in a performance in Florence in 1990:

As you can see and hear, all the musicians play percussion instruments. The flute also plays mouth organ and the guitarist mbira or thumb piano.

UPDATE: Henze's Symphony No. 8, might be more representative of his style (or styles):

Jacques Barzun

On October 25, just two days before Henze, Jacques Barzun passed away. Here is his obituary. He was an astonishingly learnĂ©d man, writing nearly forty books on history and culture. He had a particular attraction to music and wrote an excellent book on Berlioz, Berlioz and the Romantic Century. Unlike most writers on music who are not themselves professional musicians or musicologists, Barzun had a specialist's understanding of music, but could write for the lay reader. If you wanted to get a better understanding of the civilization of the West and where it is at present, you could do no better than to read his remarkable book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. Heck, if you are only going to read one book this year, make it that one! It was published in 2000 when Barzun was ninety-four years old. In honor of him, let's listen to some of his favorite composer, Hector Berlioz. Here is Berlioz' eccentric 'concerto' for viola and orchestra, Harold en Italie:

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