The Guardian has a review up of a new CD by a French wind quintet, Les Vents Français, that provokes some thoughts. Les Vents Français don't seem to be on YouTube, but here is some of the music from the album, three pieces by Jacques Ibert played by a different quintet:
So what is my observation? Well, wind instruments have been around a long time. The oboe's predecessor the shawm was brought back from the Middle East during the Crusades a thousand years ago. So why is it that all the great composers wrote loads and loads of string quartets, but very few wind quintets? I am only referring to the period since the late 18th century and the development of chamber music post-Haydn. Actually, there is quite a lot of chamber music for and including winds such as the music for eight or nine wind instruments by Haydn and others and the serenades with strings and winds by Mozart and others. There was also a lot more music for winds that was written than ever gets played today.
But the fact remains that the typical wind chamber ensemble, the wind quintet as we hear in the clip above, is far less popular with both composers and audiences than the string quartet. Care to venture a guess as to why?
I think the answer is that the winds are both more sharply distinctive in their timbre and more limited in their technique and expression. This is not to deny that, for example, the clarinet is capable of amazing things with dynamics or that the flute is very mellifluous, but the winds' role in the orchestra, to give contrast, add power and highlight the sound of the strings, means they are less successful as chamber music instruments. The very distinctiveness of the sound becomes tiring to the ear after a while. And the bowed strings are just so remarkable in the subtlety of their expression and range of techniques that they are ideal for chamber music. Strings can play with the bow, normally or on the bridge, pizzicato, with harmonics, double-stops, glissandi and on and on. This is the pizzicato movement from the String Quartet No. 4 by Bartók and it is a particularly virtuoso demonstration of what you can do with pizzicato!
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Is this the Year of the Mandolin? Oh god, I hope not, but Norman Lebrecht seems to think so:
Is it just me or is the really distinctive thing about that video how really, really annoying is the fellow who keeps going "woo-hoo" every few seconds?
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Also on the Slipped Disc site is an interesting interview with a winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine about the value his training as a bassoonist had for his later career. This quote is particularly interesting:
in the US at the present time, classical music is fundamentally a dying art.I think there is a lot of truth in those few words. The thing about classical music, and its great strength as far as I am concerned, is that it is fundamentally a transcendent, non-material art-form. It is not something that is easily commodified (though the vinyl record was a pretty good attempt) and now, with the pervasiveness of digital copies, it is less material than it was a couple of decades ago. Music is the expression in organized sound of human creativity and disappears once the performance is over. It can be preserved in digital forms and as a musical score, but that still makes it, along with perhaps dance, the most abstract and least material art form. Rich people cannot (or do not, at least) buy musical performances so they can hang them on their walls. They cannot own a musical performance the way they can a Mark Rothko or a Damien Hirst or a Lamborghini (or a set of custom-made knives or antique furniture or...).
There are few people who are willing to pay for it and its importance is miniscule compared
to that of popular sports. Musicians earn a fraction of what even a mediocre athlete earns.
There is no vibrant musical culture at present—everything is geared towards being commercially successful, not towards content.
So it is the very values of our culture, which have more and more become material values, that mitigate against classical music. The power of classical music is that it is equally accessible to everyone. All it needs is a bit of sensitivity and patience, something the poor can have as well as the rich. Learning to appreciate a Beethoven quartet or a Mozart piano concerto is something that is available to everyone in society. This is the strength of music!! Here is that wonderful eccentric, Friedrich Gulda, conducting and playing the first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor by Mozart:
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And just to show how very immaterial classical music is, yet another item from Norman Lebrecht's blog shows us how dismal classical music sales are. The biggest-selling classical record last week according to Nielsen Soundscan was this one, Hilary Hahn's collection of new encores with 341 sales. Yes, that's correct. 341. Second was the Barenboim New Year's concert from Vienna with 260 sales. Actually two things surprise me: that the first and second spots aren't Bach on mandolin and the latest 13 year old diva AND that the sales are so incredibly low. What does that add up to a year? Fifteen to eighteen thousand sales? And the artist gets perhaps a dollar a sale? And these are the biggest-selling classical musicians? No need for us to take a vow of poverty! Plus, there is vanishing little chance that we classical musicians are likely to be arrested for drag-racing in our Lamborghini while drunk and on drugs. We can't afford the booze, let alone the Lamborghini!
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Well that's my Friday miscellanea, delayed one day. Maybe I will have something else later on.