Saturday, November 30, 2013

Just Tell Us What You Hear

One recurring theme on this blog is music journalism and the record review. I guess that I continue to be sensitive to and critical of them because these are the media through which most people receive their musical information. The people that write music journalism and record reviews shape public opinion on music. Unfortunately, few of them seem to have much knowledge of music and there is always the suspicion that commercial interests lurk just behind the scenes. This is why, of course, even though there are quite a few lackluster and dull musical performances out there, we very rarely read a bad review. So let me continue my small effort to improve this situation.

The Guardian has a recent review up of a new album by Julie Sassoon that is unfortunately typical of the genre--of reviews, that is! It is a continuous stream of praise of the artist as a unique, special snowflake that manages to give us virtually no information about what the music actually sounds like. Nearly everything in the review is about the artist personally and her background. Reading the review you might be inclined to strongly disagree with me because it seems as if there is a lot about the music there:
Some episodes are dreamlike and barely mobile, like the opening Just So, with its repeating four-note figure only momentarily intensified by mild dissonance. What the Church Bells Saw has a repeating treble call as its dominant phrase, before its rhythms begin to push and tug each other other out of line. The trickling Forty Four fitfully waltzes with some of the most engaging melodies of the set, and gleams with Sassoon's ghostly vocal sounds, but there's a compelling Keith Jarrett-like jauntiness to its later stages. The closing New Life is a 20-minute kaleidoscope of fast, systems-like ostinatos, choral vocal sounds and explosively percussive low-register effects.
That tells us a lot about the music, doesn't it? There are certainly words that seem to be telling us something. "Just So" has a repeating four-note figure, for example. Alas, there does not seem to be a clip of that piece on YouTube. But just reflect for a minute: "repeating four-note figure" could describe a Bach fugue subject, the opening motif of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 or the four-note figure that I just pointed out yesterday is shared between Haydn's Symphony No. 13 and Mozart's Symphony No. 41, last movement. Really, there are thousands of pieces of music that feature a repeating four-note figure. The question is, what does this particular one by Julie Sassoon actually sound like? No idea.

Luckily, another piece from the album, "What the Churchbells Saw", is available on YouTube, so we can see what the writer is referring to:

That is described as "a repeating treble call as its dominant phrase, before its rhythms begin to push and tug each other out of line." OK. On the other hand, that language could describe any piece whatsoever that has a melody in the upper register and which gains in rhythmic complexity. To be rhythmically tugged out of line is not language that is sufficient to describe actual musical events. It might refer to syncopation or Reichian phasing or almost anything. As a matter of fact, it seems to refer to a slight quickening of the tempo and a bit of Reichian phasing.

"Forty Four" does not seem to be on YouTube either. The clip with that title seems to be something else mislabeled. But there is a clip of the first part of "New Life":

The reviewer describes this as "fast, systems-like ostinatos" which is true enough, I suppose, but again, the language is so vague and non-specific that it could be describing anything from Bach to early Philip Glass. And I have no idea what a "system-like" ostinato might be as opposed to the garden variety kind.

My view is that reviews like this are basically intended to trick you into buying the album based on deceptive language that disguises the music with smoke and mirrors while it tries to get you to like the artist based on their biography and "unique-special-snowflakiness". Part of the strategy is NOT to give you any excerpts so that you won't be distracted by reality. Wouldn't we all prefer it if reviewers just told us what they hear?

Nothing against Julie Sassoon, but this is how I would describe this music:
A lackluster, new-agey blend of Steve Reich and Philip Glass with Keith Jarrett. Instead of structure and direction we have vague noodling. It is not quite dull enough to qualify as New Age, nor interesting enough to be called contemporary music. Nor does it have enough edge to work as jazz. Just another self-indulgent fusion of whatever musical bits the artist likes. Lots of this kind of stuff in the world so I really don't think you need to waste your time on this album.
I'm sure you can see why I would never be hired as a record reviewer by any mainstream publication!! This is too snooty and too disparaging. Too negative and too elitist. The fact that it actually serves you, the reader, is probably irrelevant. The head of the record company would be on the line with the editor within the hour to get me fired, I suspect.

Just for contrast, let's have some of the real thing. Here is some Philip Glass:

And some Keith Jarrett:

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Amazing Mr. Haydn

Starting on Oct. 1st I did a whole series of thirteen posts on Haydn symphonies starting with No. 2, written before he obtained his employment with Prince Esterházy, and ending with No. 82, "The Bear", commissioned by an organization in Paris, which was the beginning of his international fame. This brief jaunt through thirteen symphonies really just whetted my appetite so I paused to get my breath before taking another run at it.

The first step was to get the whole series on CD and there is a remarkably cheap and recent version available:

Here is the Amazon link. It is for sale for a mere $22.56, which, for 37 discs, seems ridiculously cheap! I may have gotten the last copy as it now says "temporarily out of stock". I have listened to about a quarter of the symphonies and am more fascinated than ever with what Haydn has done. Regarding the recording, it is certainly adequate. Not on period instruments (though it sounds sometimes as if they might be using natural horns), but the performances are easily good enough for my purposes, which is to study the music. The only irritant is that they include clapping after the last movement of every symphony! Just skip ahead to the next track.

So why do I say the "amazing" Mr. Haydn? Well, we always keep calling him the "father of the symphony" (which would make Mozart the mother?) and saying that he created not only the basic structure of the symphony and string quartet, but was instrumental in creating sonata form, possibly the most productive musical form ever. But the more I listen to his symphonies the more I feel that we are drastically under-rating Haydn!

He seems to have been exactly the right sort of person to come along at exactly the right time and have exactly the right kind of patron. Haydn remarks about his employment in this quote:
My prince was content with all my works. I received approval for anything I did. As head of an orchestra, I could make experiments, observe what enhanced an effect, and what weakened it, thus improving, adding to it, taking away from it, and running risks. I was cut off from the world, there was nobody in my vicinity to make me unsure of myself or interfere with me in my course, and so I was forced to become original.
Imagine the situation: a young man of twenty-nine years, obtains a post as assistant (later full) kapellmeister in charge of the music of a very wealthy nobleman who loved music, played music and employed Haydn to write immense amounts of chamber music (quartets and trios), symphonies and operas. Haydn must have been one of the hardest-working musicians in history. I can't think of any musician today who has this kind of workload. He wrote sixty-eight string quartets, forty-five piano trios, fourteen operas, masses, oratorios and one hundred and eight symphonies. 108. One hundred and eight! This makes every other symphony composer look like a weekend amateur. Mozart? A mere forty-one, of which a couple were stolen from other composers. Beethoven? Nine. Brahms? Four. Mahler? Nine. Heck, Haydn had written fifteen symphonies before he even got his post with the Esterházy family. Think of it, before he was out of his twenties he had already written nearly twice as many symphonies as Beethoven.

Make no mistake, while Haydn's symphonies range between twelve and thirty some minutes long, shorter than later composers' works, they are extremely fine works. He was a great experimenter and in his symphonies we find many things that later composers used. I mentioned that Mozart stole a couple of symphonies? Took them, filed off the serial numbers, and in the case of Symphony No. 37, just wrote a new slow introduction and tinkered with the wind parts. The actual composer of that one was Michael Haydn, Joseph Haydn's younger brother.

We are all familiar, I hope, with one of the greatest of Mozart's symphonies, No. 41, often called the "Jupiter"? This has a stunning last movement that is a masterpiece of counterpoint. But I just discovered that the central idea of that movement, the four note theme, actually comes from a Haydn symphony last movement, the Symphony No. 13 in D major. Here is how it opens:

click to enlarge

And here is the opening of the Mozart movement:

Apart from the difference in note values and key, that is exactly the same theme. Now, to be fair, Haydn didn't invent this theme either. It is age-old and has been used by many composers. But Haydn was the first to use it in this way in the finale of a symphony. Haydn's movement is just three or four minutes long, and Mozart's is about ten minutes and he creates a much more intricate contrapuntal structure with five different themes! But Haydn provided the seed from which the Mozart symphony grew. At least, that is what I hear. Let's listen to those two movements and see what you think. First, the Haydn, Symphony No. 13, last movement. The only good performance I can find on YouTube is of the whole symphony, so you have to scroll ahead to the 15:17 mark:

Now here is the Mozart movement:

Yes, the Mozart movement is extraordinary: one of the greatest symphony movements ever written. But a lot of the mood and expression, not to mention that four-note theme, is already there in the Haydn. Don't you agree?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Musician

I just ran across a photo essay about a recent Milwaukee Symphony concert. Good enough as these things go, I suppose, but when I see photos like this I always think that pictures of musicians playing are just about as uninformative as an audio recording of a painter painting would be. "Swish, swish, scrape, scrape."

But what musicians do every day might be interesting to non-musicians. I can't tell you the details about the working day of an oboist, but I am reliably informed that it usually involves manufacturing reeds with some very arcane equipment. I have certainly heard enough singers, pianists, string and wind players practicing to know what they do. But what I know most about is what classical guitarists do as I have been one for over forty years. Nowadays my musical day usually begins with this blog, but for most of my life it began with nail care. What? Yes, you heard me. Classical guitarists take very special care of their nails because the right hand fingernails are basically what produce the sound. I just took a photo of the items involved that sit on a cabinet beside my practice area.

Click to enlarge

Starting from the left there is very special open coat sandpaper for polishing, next is 1000 wt sandpaper for shaping the nail surface. Next to that is a diamond dust nail file, for shortening and rough shaping. Then there is a nail polisher from the Body Shop. Then there are two mechanical pencils. Never write on your music in pen!! Never, never! Next is a tuning fork (A=440). The very odd looking black object next to the tuning fork is an official Robert Holroyd string-tyer. My guitar, built by Robert Holroyd in Vancouver, has a unique bridge design. Instead of the strings being tied in a loop, you make a knot in the end using the string-tyer, then thread them through the bridge. With the nylon treble strings you have to melt the end so it forms a little ball to prevent slippage. That is what the lighter next is for. Then there are some packages of new strings. The little black box that is open behind is an indulgence I just bought. It is a Calvin Klein nail care accessory set with clippers, scissors, toenail clippers, tweezers and a diamond dust file.

After I prepare my nails I do warm up and technique maintenance. I have previously posted on my technique routine here. Then it is on to learning new pieces and finally reviewing old pieces. When I was a full time performer I would spend about four hours a day on this. Then, because I had two teaching jobs, I would head out to the university where I would teach for a few hours and then to the conservatory for a few more hours. Over the course of a week I would practice about 25 to 30 hours and teach a bit less. On top of this were rehearsals, concerts and recording. As I didn't have an agent any work promoting my career came after all that!

Speaking of rehearsals I am reminded of the wry humor of my dear, departed friend, violinist Paul Kling. We were preparing to do a concert together and were talking on the phone, scheduling a rehearsal. He suggested five o'clock the next day. I said that I had students all afternoon and after four hours of listening to students I couldn't possibly rehearse with him. Silence from the other end. Then he said, "you listen?" I should mention that at the time Paul Kling was chairman of the School of Music at the university, which made the remark much funnier.

Here is my recording of Recuerdos de la Alhambra with a little photo essay of the Moorish palace, the Alhambra, that inspired Tárrega to write the piece:

UPDATE: Another guitarist who is owner of a Holroyd guitar asked me about my string-tyer. Every time I write that word "string-tyer" I wince because I don't know how to spell it. But "string-tier" can't be right either... In any case, Bob Holroyd, to remove the necessity of having to yard on your bridge every time you replaced strings, made a string-tyer out of a piece of ebony. It has two different-sized holes, just like the bridge. So you make your knot, tighten it up in the string-tyer and then thread the string through your bridge. No need to yard on the bridge itself. Incidentally, this bridge design was not Bob Holroyd's invention. I came about as a result of a lot of long-distance phone conversations between Bob and Neil Hiebert, a guitar builder in Montreal, that I also used to know. In fact, Bob used to call this kind of bridge a "Hiebert bridge". Anyway, here are closeup photos of the string-tyer and the bridge, showing how the strings are affixed:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Musical Postures

On my recent post about the Guardian's series on the symphony a commentator said:
None of the great masters were trying to make some kind of egoistic statement - they were just trying their best to produce good music - which sounded good then, which sounds good today.
Which got me thinking. I don't have time for a very long thought, but the word "posturing" that I used in that post and that my commentator quoted captures something that I think might be going on in the recent history of music.

The first generation of romantics, Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin, about whom Charles Rosen wrote in his very fine book The Romantic Generation were, along with a great deal of other things, very sincere. I think this sincerity, which is often called "authenticity", persisted for much of the century. But towards the end of the 19th century, I start to wonder. Some of the products of musical romanticism start to sound, to me at least, forced. Is the composer now faking it just a bit? Or more than a bit? As I was hinting at in the previous post, I detect this in Mahler whom I have great difficulty in listening to these days. As my commentator suggests, some composers might be making "some kind of egoistic statement".

Paul Johnson in his book Art: A New History suggests that modern art became more and more to resemble fashion in its constant hunt for the novel. In some late romantic and 20th century music I hear a tendency towards the narcissistic. As I have mentioned before, it is as if the composer is attempting to create a "private language".

What I also notice is that discussion of modernism in music tends to focus exclusively on the technical devices, the tone-rows and the electronic gear and avoids, at all costs, any discussion of aesthetics. Why? Consideration of a lot of modernist music from an aesthetic perspective would mean very harsh criticism, I suspect! Can't have that.

On the whole, I very much prefer composers in whom I detect no hint of narcissistic posturing.

Here is one of the earliest symphonies Haydn wrote for Prince Esterházy, the Symphony No. 7, nicknamed "Le Midi":

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened in the Coffee Shop...

I have talked about Ludwig Wittgenstein before on this blog. As I may have mentioned, I have some background in philosophy that goes way back to my undergraduate years when I took an introductory course in philosophy followed by ones on the philosophy of history and the philosophy of mind. So I have had a long acquaintance (if not actual understanding) with Wittgenstein. A few years ago I picked up a first edition of G. E. M. Anscombe's "Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus" in a library book sale which may be the hardest book I have ever tried to read! The reference is to the famous book by Wittgenstein, the "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" which is one of the most important books in 20th century philosophy. I lost my copy years ago.

Anyway, something I was reading on the Web yesterday reminded me of it and, since I just got a Kindle, I thought I would see if there were an inexpensive Kindle edition, which there was. So last night I downloaded it. I didn't get a chance to look it over until today.

This afternoon I dropped into my favorite coffee shop for a double expresso. They were really busy so I looked around and grabbed a chair on one side of a little table on the other side of which was a matching chair, occupied by an older gentleman. It might seem as if I were intruding in his space, but the way it was set up, I wasn't really. They were separate chairs that just shared a little side table.

Then I got my expresso and sat down. I opened up my Kindle and decided to have a look at the Wittgenstein. There is a long, long introduction by Bertrand Russell that I decided to breeze through. I think I prefer my Wittgenstein without a side of Russell! Anyway, I read my way into the first part of the Tractatus. It is in the form of a series of propositions, the first couple of which are:
1 The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
And so on. After a while I had finished my coffee and I closed up my Kindle, preparing to leave. The gentleman across the side-table said something about getting my work done--I guess he thought I had a tablet. So I said, "just reading in my Kindle". We chatted about Kindles for a couple of minutes and then came The Question: "what are you reading?"

I really didn't want to say. Oh sure, when I was in my 20s and 30s I loved for people to ask me what I was reading. But now? I said, "are you sure you want to know?" He said sure, so I had to tell him:

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

He paused a beat and replied, "oh, sure, I saw the movie."

I think that the next time I may just lie and say "Tom Clancy".

Checking in with the Guardian's Symphony Series

Tom Service over at the Guardian is engaged in another big project. After last year's survey of contemporary composers, he takes on the symphony and plans to investigate fifty examples. I wrote about this project previously here and here. The most recent article is about Sibelius' Symphony No. 6, a piece I confess I don't know. It seems to be a pretty good discussion of the piece, which I am listening to at the moment. Here is a link to the series as a whole. I haven't mentioned this series for a while because I found the last several weeks to be about symphonies that I really couldn't summon much interest in. I read the articles, but when I went to listen to the symphonies I just balked. For example, here is the Symphony No. 1 of Peter Maxwell Davies:

I used to find his music quite interesting back when he was writing Eight Songs for a Mad King, but I probably wouldn't want to listen to that music these days either. Somehow, after listening to the first few minutes of the symphony, the prospect of having that sort of thing snarl at me for the next fifty minutes or so leaves me cold. At some point I do intend to investigate the symphonies of Maxwell Davies, but right now, I am resisting. It's not just him, of course. In the last few years I find that I have less patience with music that tries to bully me, or annoy me, or just torture me in the name of some aesthetic that I reject anyway.

And it's not just music, either. I find that my tolerance for a lot of things that seem to me to be empty blather or just nasty has declined. For example, here are some movies that at one time I enjoyed but I now find unwatchable: all the Star Wars movies, the Lord of the Rings (yes, loved the books, but the movies are tedious, excessive and ponderous), Prometheus, Avatar, all the super-hero movies which seem like mere cartoons overloaded with computer-generated imagery. And so on... This applies to a huge amount of television as well. I enjoyed the first season of Mad Men but when I tried to watch the first episode of season two recently, I turned it off after five minutes. Same with The Walking Dead. On the other hand, I loved The Hunger Games and the sequel, which I just saw on the weekend. Good stuff.

So what is going on here? I'm not sure, but I suspect that I am making choices about stuff that I see as time-wasting. About the movies and tv shows, I'm not sure what is going on exactly, but I do have an inkling when it comes to music. I think that I am really working within a classical (small 'c') aesthetic, meaning that I am expecting music to create order, balance and elegance out of chaos. A lot of music follows a different aesthetic, the attempt to create tension and opposition and emotional turmoil. This is the progressive, avant-garde aesthetic. I'm just not interested in that any more! Those days are past, as far as I'm concerned.

So that is why I am particularly fascinated with the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven these days...

Anyway, back to the symphony guide. The next piece Tom Service took up was the Symphony No. 2 by Robert Schumann. My feeling about Schumann is that he was an extraordinary song writer and his early piano pieces are incredible evocations of romanticism in music, but that when he attempted, in string quartet and symphony, to take up the classical forms, he was very bad at it.

You may love that music, but I find it dull and tedious. Next in the survey was Luciano Berio's Sinfonia of 1968:

Just about everything from around that time seems unlistenable to me now because of the absurd posturing. Next was the Symphony No. 1 of Gustav Mahler:

I know that Mahler is beloved everywhere and thirty years ago I loved listening to his music. But honestly, it is hard to take seriously someone who nicknames their own first symphony the "Titan". The thought of immersing myself repeatedly in Mahler's neuroses for an hour I find unpleasant. I find myself agreeing with Kingsley Amis' offhand reference to Mahler's "enormous talentlessness".

Next up was the Symphony No. 3 of Rachmaninov:

This is actually more listenable than the rest. Ironically, Tom Service spends all his article trying to convince us that the symphony, instead of being the last breath of romanticism, is actually very transgressive, weird and up-to-date! He writes:
And it's in its constant sense of surprise that this symphony really does do something that only Rachmaninov at this stage of his life and career could pull off. The Third Symphony finds a melancholic modernity, or rather, it finds a way of making melancholy modern. Instead of wallowing in his magnificent melodism, Rachmaninov consistently undermines your expectations of wafty romantic fullness. You can hear that in the violas' nagging rhythm at the start of the middle section of the first movement, which takes the wind out of the apparently self-confident climax we've just heard. Or there's the astonishing, almost expressionist noises the orchestra makes at the height of this development section, and the way Rachmaninov delays the return to the main tune of the movement with a heart-rending yet austerely exposed melody in the flutes and violins. There's a spine-chilling shimmer in the lower strings, another disembodied chant in the horns, and the first melody appears again, with an emotion that is the absolute opposite of what this moment in a symphony is supposed to feel like. Instead of a familiar, comforting return to normality, this melody sounds even less sure of itself that it did when we first heard it. There are some weird rattles in the percussion section and the strings, playing with the wood of their bow instead of the hair, and then the second theme comes back. The movement briefly finds a moment of major-key happiness, but Rachmaninov again wipes the smile off the music's face and it ends with another version of the murmuring motto we heard at the start.
 It's not just that the symphony ends with another iteration of the symphony's motto theme, that emotionally ambiguous chant, this time screamed out by the whole orchestra, it's that the whole movement is shot through with strange stops and starts, glimpses of other worlds of dissonance and heightened colour that lie just under the surface and that are not resolved or forgotten by the end of the piece.
That's a modern, even modernist, idea, to be able to speak on multiple expressive levels simultaneously, to say one thing and mean another. Told you Rachmaninov had something important to contribute to the symphony!
 In Tom's world only music that is transgressive, modernist, expressionist and abnormal is important. Muse on that for a bit!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Record of the Week

I know I should be writing about Benjamin Britten as it is his 100th anniversary and all. But I always hate doing what I am supposed to do! So I will wait on that until the dust clears. Looking around, though, there sure is a lot of journalism about him this week, especially at the Guardian.

What else is going on in music journalism? Norman Lebrecht has his album of the week up at Sinfini "cutting through classical" Music (I just love quoting their slogan as it so captures their clumsy efforts to be cool). This week is on what looks to be a quite serious album by the Zehetmair Quartet. If you put Beethoven, Bruckner, Hartmann and Holliger all on the same CD you are certainly serious about something. A good review would try to tell us what exactly, along with impressions of the playing and, in the case of unfamiliar music, maybe something about the pieces.

Alas, we are dealing with journalism here, I'm sorry to say. I'm sure Mr. Lebrecht can do much better, but either the editorial policy or the sheer word-count limitation seems to have prevented that. Instead what we get is the usual strained attempt to be hip which seems to consist in writing in such a way as to try to appeal to people who don't know and don't like classical music and who spend most of their time listening to Kanye West. I'll leave you to doing your own Googling, but his latest features him pretending to ride a motorcycle in front of a screen showing landscapes of the Southwest while Kim Kardashian writhes seductively on his gas tank.

Back to the album. It certainly sounds interesting because of the repertoire. We all know the Beethoven, op. 135. Presumably because it was his last quartet, Lebrecht describes it as "unflickering in its glare at approaching death". I'm not sure I could think of a more ludicrously inappropriate description of a piece in which Beethoven goes out of his way to recapture the classical elegance and charm of his predecessors Haydn and Mozart. No glaring in this piece. The idiocy of always writing about a composer's last piece as if it were somehow a confrontation with Death is evident I hope? Composers probably no more know that their last piece is going to be their last piece than most of us know when we have eaten our last piece of toast.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who died in 1963, is not well-known outside of Europe where he is admired particularly for his eight symphonies. He did write two string quartets of which the one recorded here is the second, written just at the end of WWII. I did find a recording of the piece on YouTube; the performers are the Pellegrini Quartet. Blogger refuses to embed the clip, but here is the link:

Just listening to a bit of the beginning, I am fascinated. Lebrecht calls the music "intimate and intense" and he is quite right! I look forward to listening to more of Hartmann's music.

How about the Bruckner quartet? Now this is odd: YouTube must hate me today as they also refuse to embed the one and only clip of the Bruckner quartet. Here it is played by the Filarmonica Quartet from Novosibirsk:

Will we have any luck with the Holliger? No, because the Zehetmair Quartet just commissioned it. But here is part of his String Quartet No. 1:

Lebrecht sums up by saying that this is "a bold and intelligent album, played with passion: a signature project." I'm sure it is, though I wonder what a "signature project" is exactly? But let me add that, at $33.69 US at Amazon, this is also a very expensive album though it seems there are two discs.

Let's end with Beethoven's Quartet, op. 135, smiling at Haydn and Mozart and emphatically not glaring at death. Here is the Borodin Quartet:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in C major, K 467

The slow movement from this concerto was used in the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan which has given the concerto its nickname. Oddly, this seems to be the only Mozart concerto, apart from the "Coronation" Concerto, K 537, with a nickname. It was completed on March 9, 1785, less than a month after the D minor concerto and is as sunny as that one is stormy.

Someone mentioned to me the other day about how Mozart was depicted in the movie Amadeus, as an infantile goof. There is probably some evidence for that in his letters to his sister. But what they failed to depict in the movie, possibly because it may have seemed unbelievable, were his astonishing musical gifts. Mozart could well have been the most gifted musician to have ever lived. In the movie, there is really only one scene that hints at it: the one when he meets the Emperor and Salieri for the first time. Salieri has written a trivial little march to commemorate the occasion and plays it as Mozart enters. Mozart then sits down and recomposes it, on the spot, improving it in several ways. (Actually, he just decorates it a bit and changes a harmony--but I'm assuming that this is because it wasn't actually the historical Mozart doing the improving.)

The movie Mozart just scoffs at a little deceptive cadence--which is actually one of the better harmonic effects--and then turns it into a more dynamic piece with a little "Mannheim rocket". So much for the movie...

In reality, the historic Mozart did things that strain our credulity. When visiting Rome with his father in April 1770, age fourteen, Mozart attended a service at the Sistine Chapel at which a very famous Miserere by Gregorio Allegri was sung. This piece, dating from 1630, was kept for the sole use of the Sistine Chapel choir and no-one was allowed to take the score away or make copies on pain of excommunication! The piece is between twelve and fourteen minutes in length and begins with a five-part texture:

There are sections with a single voice, but also other sections in NINE parts! Now here is the thing, as described in letters, after hearing the piece sung on a Wednesday, Mozart simply wrote it out when he got home. The whole thing. On the Friday, when it was performed again, he went back and corrected a couple of passages. This is a simply astonishing feat of musical attention and memory. For comparison, the highest-level ear-training students at McGill are asked to take down short passages from an orchestral work of a page or two. They are allowed multiple hearings.

Here is a performance of the Miserere:

Other astonishing things that Mozart seems to have done is write a whole sonata for violin and piano in an hour. He didn't have time to actually write down the piano part, so he had to play it, well, not from memory exactly, but certainly from his head. On another occasion he didn't have time to write down the piano part to a concerto, so when he performed it for the first time with orchestra, he worked from just a few scribbled sketches. Has anyone else in music history ever done things like this? I very much doubt it!

But back to the Concerto, K. 467. It opens with an eight-measure sentence divided between strings and winds:

And the winds finish the phrase with a half cadence:

Then the last four measures are repeated, but this time altered to end with a full cadence that dovetails with the opening.

I won't put up all the themes of this first movement because, frankly, there are just too many! Unlike Haydn, who often found a single, simple theme to be all he needed for a whole movement, Mozart has a cornucopia of themes. He controls the form brilliantly by means of his harmonic structure, grandly and solidly in C major, but the themes just seem to grow like wildflowers. The piano enters with this little theme:

The orchestra comes back in with the opening theme under that trill. But there are lots of other themes. For example, as soon as the modulation to the dominant, G major, is firmly in place, the piano immediately has this new theme in the dominant minor:

And there are lots of other themes, some of which return in the recapitulation while others don't.

The second movement Andante in the traditional subdominant of F major, is unique with this hauntingly beautiful texture:

Malcom Bilson with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner have a particularly lovely performance:

The last movement, an Allegro vivace assai, begins with this energetic eight-measure period:

Now let's hear the whole piece. Here is Murray Perahia with the English Chamber Orchestra:

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Sting, performing "Mack the Knife" at a benefit for the experimental theater LaMaMa on Thursday night:

Notice that he has the excellent posture of a classical guitarist. That even looks like a 19th century guitar.

How to destroy an orchestra.

New music and its audiences.

Of course the thing to realize is that the problem with new music and its lack of an audience probably has more to do with ideology than the music itself. Mozart and Haydn strove to please and entertain their listeners above all and their music still has a lot of listeners. New music composers are seeking new, experimental sounds and don't have much of an audience.

Speaking of pleasing the listeners, the biggest-earning musician of 2013 was...

wait for it...


I can't quite figure out what is pleasing about Madonna's music or stage show--or anyone else on the list for that matter--but I guess that's just me. (Thanks to a commentator for sending me that link.)

How to destroy music education.

How to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! Just don't do it at home.

Hmm, well all that was a bit pessimistic, wasn't it? So let's end with something up. The second movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G major:

Don't miss my update to the busking post...

Yesterday's post updated with photos.

Friday, November 22, 2013

"Let My People Busk!"

Busking, extemporaneous performance of music in public spaces, is probably the most precarious, least prestigious form of musical performance. When you walk onto a concert stage, even if the hall is only partly full, at least you know the people paid to hear you play. If you just go down to some public space, you never know what to expect.

Courtesy of Norman Lebrecht we have the story of one busker, a violinist, who went to court to win the right to busk in Ocean City, Maryland. Here is a sample of his playing:

In North America what you mostly hear on the streets are pop music buskers, scratching out a meager existence. But in Europe, at least when I was there, the scene was much more various. In Freiburg I heard a man declaiming avant-garde theater. In Paris, a small string chamber orchestra was playing Mozart in the La Bastille subway station. In Milan a young fellow was miming conducting an orchestra with recorded accompaniment. I have also heard a cellist play Britten and a violinist play Bach on the street in Montreal. And everywhere there was the ubiquitous Peruvian folk group with very loud drum and panpipes.

I know all this because I spent one fascinating summer busking with a flute player in Montreal and all over Europe: Paris, Strasbourg, Freiburg, Lucerne, Milan, Lucca, Verona, Siena, San Gimignano, Ferrara and Florence. Our repertoire was the greatest hits of classical music: Mozart, Puccini, Fauré, Beethoven, and so on. But the two biggest tunes were the slow movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo and the anonymous Spanish Romance. I also played a few guitar solos like Asturias and Recuerdos de la Alhambra.

Florence was really the Mecca, at least for our kind of busking. We had the whole setup: our own generator, lights, amplifiers, stands, even a simple kind of formal costume: white shirts, black pants. And we had a show, or at least the flute-player did. But the tune that would really make people stop and listen was the Aranjuez. Here is the tune; just imagine it with flute and guitar:

Florence was ideal because every summer it is filled with the special kind of tourist that is attracted to culture. They were surrounded by great artworks and we provided the classical soundtrack. Every evening we ensconced ourselves in the Piazza Signoria next to the Uffizi gallery and played our music. Believe it or not, we could get up to five hundred people, all standing, transfixed by the music. How we made money was both by collecting change and by selling recordings: cassettes and CDs. Some nights we made over $1000 US. We were undoubtedly the most professional buskers in the area. We even had a permit from the Florence municipality which came in handy one night.

I was playing my solo, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, with a large, enraptured audience when a blue Carabinieri jeep nosed its way through the crowd and stopped right in front! Here is the music I was playing. UPDATE: I replaced Pepe Romero's performance with my own:

So, here comes the jeep, with revolving lights. I stop playing as a young woman Carabinieri gets out and tells us we can't be playing here. We tell her we have a permit and I get it out of my bag. She looks it over and says to the officer in charge, with some amazement, "they have a permit!" All being in order, they drive away to the boos of the crowd. So then we played some Verdi!

There was one thing I loved about busking: it was a very pure activity. You never had any doubt that every person standing there was doing so just because they wanted to hear you. And as soon as you played something boring, they would leave...

I don't have time right now, but later on I will put up some photos from this tour taken in Strasbourg.

UPDATE: As promised, some photos of the busking tour of Europe. Alas, no photos of the carabinieri (they probably would have shot the photographer!). All these were taken in Strasbourg, in front of the cathedral. First, from left to right, myself, a member of the audience who was helping us play the "Toy" Symphony and Robert O'Callaghan, the flute-player (and the fellow who had worked out, over many years, all the tricks of busking):

"Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in E flat?"

"Now what was that middle bit?"

Notice the clothespins clamping the music down in case of wind.

The mellow charms of music...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, K. 466

Richard Taruskin echoes many others in making the point that great works of music, such as the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven, have a reception history that colors the way we hear them. I suppose that is true, though I resist the idea that we are helpless victims of this history. I like to believe that every time we listen to a piece of music we have the opportunity at least to hear it afresh. Perhaps this comes from my experience as a performer. After all, life would be very dull if every time you played a particular piece it was the same as the last time you played it.

Sometimes the reputation of a piece of music almost appears to overshadow it. In the case of the Mozart D minor concerto, it seems to make Charles Rosen almost incoherent:
It is not a work, of course, that is much discussed (it excites no controversy) or much imitated; nor is it the favorite Mozart concerto of many musicians, just as no one's favorite Leonardo is the Mona Lisa. Like the G minor Symphony and Don Giovanni, the D minor Concerto may be said to transcend its own excellence. [The Classical Style, p. 228]
What does it even mean to say that a piece might "transcend its own excellence"? But Rosen also makes some useful observations. He notes the brilliant way the climax of the first movement is set up with a series of finely controlled rhythmic transitions. He also comments that:
No concerto before K. 466 exploits so well the latent pathetic nature of the form--the contrast and struggle of one individual voice against many.
This in particular had a large influence on the way Beethoven approached the piano concerto. This was the Mozart concerto that he chose to perform himself and he even composed a cadenza for it. It was certainly his favorite Mozart concerto.

This was one of the pieces that established Mozart's reputation in the 19th century and later as one of, if not the, great composer. Ironically, given how rarely Mozart used the minor mode, it is precisely those pieces that later generations idolized. The minor mode for Mozart was an extreme and one that, for the Romantics, established him as a Romantic composer. In the view of near-contemporaries like E. T. A. Hoffman, Mozart and Beethoven were the first Romantics.

The first movement opens with an intense and energetic theme with syncopated accompaniment:

The piano, when it enters, avoids all the rhythmic instability of that opening and presents an entirely new theme with octave leaps:

The slow movement, a Romance in B flat major (the flat submediant), opens with the piano solo:

But there is a dramatic middle section in G minor that reflects the tragic mood of the first movement:

A number of years ago Malcolm Bilson, accompanied by John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists, did a very fine recording of all the Mozart concertos and luckily, at least for now, this one is available on YouTube.

We should be grateful for that wonderful performance which is undoubtedly infinitely superior to that of the first performance on February 10, 1785. Mozart's father, Leopold, arrived in Vienna that very afternoon and tells us (in a letter to Wolfgang's sister Nannerl) that the orchestral parts were being copied as he arrived and that Mozart did not actually have the opportunity to "play through" (i.e. rehearse) the last movement! We tend to forget that most performances in the 18th century were given after only one rehearsal--and sometimes less! There is a letter by Haydn requesting that a new symphony of his be rehearsed at least once before the concert.

So, as Taruskin has pointed out in a number of places, the irony of very faithful (Werktreue, in German) performances such as the one above, with Malcolm Bilson playing on a reproduction of Mozart's own concert fortepiano and the whole orchestra playing on original instruments, is that the final result is almost certainly nothing like the original premiere!

Well, pace Charles Rosen, we seem to have found something to discuss about this concerto after all...

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Not Listening to the Performance

I was just reading an essay by Richard Taruskin about various "historically informed" or "authentic" performances of the symphonies of Beethoven. Those scare quotes have been specially applied by Taruskin to indicate not that these performances are not "historically informed" but rather that the whole notion is questionable. But that's not what I wanted to talk about.

No, what occurred to me is that Taruskin gets rather more worked up about spurious justifications for this or that performance practice than I would. And I was wondering why. And that reminded me of an occasion when I said to someone that I don't actually go to the concert for the performance so much as for the repertoire. Huh? I mean that, assuming the performance is reasonably accurate and not too odd interpretively, I am quite prepared to largely ignore it. What I am listening to is the piece of music, not to the performance. Huh again?

Frankly, much of the time, I'm not so terribly interested in the particular performance, but much more interested in the piece. This is why the most important factor for me in deciding what concerts to attend is the program even more than who is playing it. I am perfectly happy to listen to Murray Perahia play Mozart concertos--or Maurizio Pollini or Grigory Sokolov or Mitsuko Uchida or lots of others. I find they all do a pretty good job in different ways. What I am really interested in is the concerto itself and how it is received by the audience. What did the composer do and how well did it work?

I did not come to this idea right away, it took quite a few decades. When I was principally a performer I was deeply interested in my own performances and deeply worried about them, but as time went on I was less and less interested in other artists' interpretations. Now I'm really just interested in the piece and as long as the interpretation does not seriously obscure the piece, I'm ok with it.

This might relate to something I ran across in another Taruskin essay where he talks about the problem of just what is a piece of music anyway? Is the "Moonlight" Sonata the published score? If so, which score? The original manuscript? A printed edition? Which one? Is it the performance of that score? If so, which one? Beethoven's (which we don't have)? Horowitz? Wilhelm Kemp? Artur Schnabel? Pollini? Lang Lang? Is it just a silly question? Surely the "Moonlight" Sonata, or any piece is, as Taruskin points out, an "intentional object", something that does not exist on a particular piece of paper or in a particular set of sound waves, but as a kind of object in our imaginations. The score is how we create a performance, but any one performance is simply an instance of the ideal object. This is all rather Platonic, isn't it?

So when I go to a concert, I go with the goal of hearing a version of that ideal object. The performance can make that more or less easy, but the performance is not the main thing I am listening for. Let me give an example. Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C major audaciously opens with three cadences, all three of which are in the wrong key! Well, actually the second is in the correct key, but it is deceptive. I wrote about this here. What I am listening for is how Beethoven is fooling us with those cadences. As long as the orchestra delivers them reasonably intact, I'm happy. For me, it really isn't about how lovely the tone of the flute is, or the violin's vibrato or the crispness of the conductor's beat. It is about the harmony. So that's why I am listening to the piece more than the performance...

Here is that movement:

And here is a performance of the "Moonlight" Sonata:

Monday, November 18, 2013

What Makes a Masterpiece?

A commentator on my recent post on Elliot Carter wrote the following:
You mentioning how lesser-known composers being more popular after their deaths makes me wonder: what make a composition, or for that matter, any work of art, a masterpiece, something that will stand the test of time and still be admired centuries after its creation? Why is Bach's music remembered and admired today than that of his contemporaries (i.e. Telemann)? Why is Mozart considered a musical genius while Salieri, who was much more popular than Mozart, was later forgotten?

It make be a tall order to ask of you, but could you shed some light for me on this subject?
Yes, a tall order, indeed. But a question very much worth answering. I first started thinking about this back in the 1990s when I read an article in a Toronto arts magazine proclaiming that the age of the masterpiece was over. This so annoyed me that I wrote a letter to the editor. They liked it so much that they asked me to write a whole article in reply. Alas, I no longer have the text of that, but I think my pondering of aesthetics pretty much dates from that time.

Whether or not there are currently musical masterpieces being written or not is irrelevant to the fact that there certainly were musical masterpieces written in the past. Even an up-to-date "new" musicologist like Susan McClary spends quite a bit of time talking about pieces that have long been considered masterpieces, such as quartets and symphonies by Beethoven.

What my commentator asks is an aesthetic question and it is characteristic of our time to hate aesthetic questions! As an age that worships science, we like scientific methods and hate philosophical ones. But science, of course, avoids value judgments and prefers statistical results. For this reason, all the brain scanners and all the neurological studies in the world cannot answer the question posed above. If you put 100 people in a brain scanner and prove that 99 of them love the music of Miley Cyrus, that still does not make it a masterpiece.

What does make something a masterpiece? I don't think there is a simple answer to the question because it is not answerable by generalities like "pieces written in C major are generally better than ones written in E flat major." In fact, the truth likely is in the details. Before I take up some of these details, I would like to refer you to a post I wrote on the general question of aesthetics in which I enlist the aid of the philosopher David Hume.

Speaking of philosophers, another one with whom I have less affinity is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel whose life almost exactly overlaps with Beethoven's. He did say something very relevant to our question though: "The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk." I was almost going to make that the title of this post. What he means by this is that wisdom comes at the end, after the fact. We probably cannot easily sort out who is the most significant pop musician of this decade because there are so many and we have no "distance" on them. The noise of events and of competing artists and of marketing, promotion and sales tends to make musical qualities harder to discern. But as the music recedes in time, it is as if a fog lifts and we start to see which mountains have been hiding in the mist. Would anyone deny that Bob Dylan is a great artist? When he was becoming known in the 1960s, there were many other artists that you might have preferred such as Donovan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkle, the Byrds, Neil Young, Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie and a host of others. They were all fighting for our attention and made a lot of fine music. Here are a couple of examples:

Joni Mitchell had such a beautiful voice and that is a fine song. Here is another:

Also a fine song, very well sung. On the other hand, this guy isn't much of a singer:

But it is starting to become clear that the real genius of this musical genre, folk-inspired pop music, was Bob Dylan. Maybe a hundred years from now our descendants will decide that the real genius of the era was Arlo Guthrie, but I doubt it. After fifty years the fog starts to lift. Now notice that I have not picked the obvious second-rate artists from the sixties like the band called It's a Beautiful Day and their hit "White Bird":

It makes the aesthetic point better to compare Dylan with the strongest artists of the time. We can see that it is not so much the technical execution or the "prettiness" of the melody or the sentiment of the words that makes for greater musical significance: it is rather the uniqueness of the work. Heck, even after all this time I'm still not sure what Dylan is saying in the words to "All Along the Watchtower". It isn't even grammatical. But it still interests me, which is the point. Dylan's music lasts because it is so unusual. But just being unusual is also no guarantee. After all, one of the weirdest folk bands of the 60s were the Incredible String Band and they are certainly not in Dylan's league:

So what is it that makes for a masterpiece? As I said, there is no simple answer and the reason for that is that the answer is different for every piece because one of the essential things about a musical masterpiece is that it is unique. Unique. One of a kind. There is only one "All Along the Watchtower" just as there is only one "Moonlight" Sonata and only one Mozart "Jupiter" Symphony.

A piece is not a masterpiece because it is complicated: the music of the Incredible String Band is more complicated than most Dylan songs, just not better. A musical masterpiece is a piece of music that captures in some fundamental and essential way something about music and ourselves. It speaks to us. Often the music that has the richest form and content does not speak to us immediately but needs decades or a century or more to reach us. In the fifty years after the death of Beethoven his greatest works, the late string quartets, were hardly played. Listeners were not quite ready for them yet. Today they are usually acknowledged as being some of the greatest music ever written:

What makes this a masterpiece? Again, no simple answer. It is uniquely what it is, to the point that it almost seems to have its own personality. One quality of great music is that it seems alive. Second-rate music seems perfunctory, formulaic. Another quality is that great music also seems inevitable. Even on first listening it seems exactly right, even when it is surprising. Another quality is that it seems to touch something fundamental in us. Not melodrama--the oeuvre of Andrew Lloyd Weber is not great music--but something real. Great music does not try to punch our emotional buttons; it is not cheaply manipulative the way a Hollywood blockbuster is. But it does reach us with some sort of transcendent vision. Just exactly how it does that is unique to every piece of great music, which is why it is so hard to talk about!

Let's have a final example. The last piece of music that Mozart composed: