Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Music and Food

For some reason I often think of music as being like food, metaphorically of course. I may have got started on this in discussing with various musicians ideas of how to structure a program. On the guitar you have, potentially, about five centuries of repertoire to draw on. It helps to make up for not having anything from Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. So, five centuries. Hmm, how could you think of organizing a recital program?

Well, one way is to think of it in terms of a menu: appetizer, pasta course, main course and dessert. Like this:

Recital Program

Appetizer: Three Pieces by Luis de Narváez (mid-16th century)
(This is light, fresh and crisp sounding music, like a salad)

Pasta Course: Sonata op. 22 by Fernando Sor (1778 - 1839)
(Sor is like a lesser Haydn, nice solid music in Classical style)


Main Course: El Decameron negro by Leo Brouwer (b. 1939)
(Contemporary music, but lyrical and tonal)

Dessert: Something popular and Spanish like Asturias by Isaac Albéniz (1860 - 1909)
(The Spanish repertoire, either transcribed from piano as with this piece, or original to the guitar as with the music of Rodrigo and Torroba, is ideal to end a program. Passionate and satisfying.)

I'm still listening my way through all the symphonies of Haydn (up to disc 19!) and the general impression I get from his music is that it is overwhelmingly wholesome, like a really good loaf of whole wheat bread when it is nice and fresh. It just has that delicious smell. There is something similar about Haydn's music. If it were a person you might say that he was honest, straightforward, but charming and good-natured. Actually, that is a pretty good description of the personality of Haydn himself. I wonder if we don't tend to underrate him simply because he does not cast the long, tortured shadow of a more tormented personality like Beethoven's. Beethoven's music reminds me of a big, thick rare steak. Mozart, of some fantastic creation from one of those famous chefs that do cantaloup foam or something.

Of course, these are just silly metaphors. But if we don't restrict ourselves to those dry technical discussions that George Bernard Shaw used to disparage as being in the "Mesopotamian manner", then the only way we can talk about music is through metaphor. An example of the technical jargon: "and then the second theme of the movement appears in the minor submediant using an anapest rhythm underpinned by staccato syncopations in the horns. This theme dissolves into straight eighth notes and modulates into the dominant of the dominant, preparing for the recapitulation in the tonic."

Or you could use food metaphors...

Here is my performance of Asturias by Albéniz to end with. Think of it as a crème brûlée or a nice cheese plate:


Joel Lo said...

I used a food metaphor once, to explain differences between musical forms on my blog (in spanish) http://clasicoobservador.blogspot.mx/2013/05/por-que-no-existe-un-gusto-popular-por.html

Well, it's good to know I'm not the only one who thinks programs are like menus. However, to relate specific composers with specific food, is something I never thought. The Beethoven-steak made me hungry, haha.

For orchestral works, I prefer to think them as people, which have different fixed character features (themes), but they change with the circumstances, they change mood... Also, they show different sides of them in different movements... things like that. They're complex, rich, coherent and unique, like persons.

Metaphors are useful, but of course, the only problem is that sometimes you don't want to "impose" your subjective perception of the work.
Maybe for some people, Beethoven tastes like chicken.

Rickard said...

A question came up when I read this article (a bit offtopic at least):

Most of the pieces for classical guitar, at least before the modernism were written by Spanish or South/Middle American composers (it seems like that's the case to me). Why do you think that's the case? Why didn't for instance Beethoven, Haydn or Schubert write anything for guitar. Was guitar just seen as a Spanish folk instrument (and thus not worthy) by non-Spanish/non-latin composers? In fact it seems like a majority of the major composers didn't write for any other plucked string instrument either. Maybe you have already covered this topic but if you haven't maybe you could write a post about it.

Rickard said...

Forgot about the harp but I was mainly thinking of instruments such as guitar, lute and mandolin.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sorry to be so very tardy replying to the comments!! Just too many things to do. And I still haven't had a chance to check out your blog, Joel. But I will.

I agree with you about the personality of orchestral works, Joel. When we are using metaphors to talk about music, we always have to remember that they are only metaphors and there are a thousand other possibilities. And, of course, they are subjective because they are a kind of interpretation. But I don't have anything against interpretation.

That's a very interesting question, Rickard. In the 16th century Spain was one of the leading nations in the development of instrumental music. The music of Luis Milan and Luis de Narvaez was at the leading edge of the forms. In fact, some variations by Narvaez are among the very first written for a solo instrument. This tradition of writing for plucked string instruments, first the vihuela and later the guitar in various forms, kept on in Spain and Latin America to this very day. The real question is why did they not abandon the plucked instruments in favor of the keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord, clavichord, virginal and later the pianoforte?

One of the big repertoires of music for keyboard in the 18th century was the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, written in Spain. But that was at the Royal court. In Spanish society, the keyboard instruments seem not to have become popular as they did in France, Italy, Germany, Austria and England. Why was that? To my knowledge, no-one has really researched this question. But I can speculate a bit. Keyboard instruments, while extremely capable and useful are also, compared to plucked instruments, rather expensive. Perhaps they were more difficult to afford in Spain and Latin America. Or perhaps it relates to the middle class. In most of Europe during this time a prosperous middle class was developing who could afford to purchase keyboard instruments for the home. Perhaps in Spain the middle class did not develop to the same extent.

But this is all just speculation and the truth might be quite different!

As for why Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did not write for the guitar, it was likely that they grew up with the piano (or harpsichord) and it was both more familiar and more capable of rich and complex textures.

Schubert, by the way, did play the guitar and wrote quite a few of his songs on the guitar. During his life they were often published in versions for guitar as well as piano.