Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Symphony Guide Does Mozart

Tom Service puts up an excellent piece today on Mozart's "Paris" Symphony, No. 31 in D major. For those of you keeping score at home, this is the second symphony by Mozart he has covered so far, the other being No. 38, the "Prague". I'm just waiting to see who gets more coverage, Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. So far just one by Beethoven, but two each by Haydn and Mozart. Tom's essay is pretty good; he covers the bases with the historical context and is not bad on the musical content either. Just once he slips into the currently fashionable "new" musicology babble when he says, "In fact, the whole symphony is a kind of negotiation and collaboration with ways of listening." And what could that possibly mean? Nothing much, or nothing explicable in less than a thousand words, at least!

Let's have a listen to this very dynamic and stirring piece:


I don't think anyone does glorious and expansive better than the Viennese trio: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Sure, they were just glorifying the aristocracy and undoubtedly it contributed to the oppression of the peasants. But still...

(The audience at one of Mozart's subscription concerts in 1784 in Vienna was calculated to consist of 50% of the high nobility, 42% from the lower nobility or from wealthy commoners with purchased titles and a mere 8% from the bourgeoisie!)

11 comments:

Bridge said...

Hey, they had asses to kiss just like everybody else.

Rickard Dahl said...

A lot of people complain about the elite of these days but the same people praise today's equivalent (Hollywood, pop stars etc., sometimes part of the boogie-man "one percent"). Irony works in mysterious ways.

Bryan Townsend said...

Who pays the piper calls the tune!

Bridge said...

Are you really trying to say that all these noblemen purchasing composers somehow had any bearing on the music itself? I doubt very much most of them understood or even cared about the music.

Bryan Townsend said...

I was just kidding around. But take for example, a typical commission for a painting from a nobleman in the 16th century: sometimes, in addition to the specifications as to the subject matter and the size of the painting, they would actually state exactly how much gold leaf by weight would be used in the painting. I don't think that anything like that was going on with the music in late-18th century Vienna. But the brilliance and expansive glory of the music surely is linked in some way to the splendor and position of the aristocracy in society (and perhaps especially because of the possible danger of revolution). You could go on and on discussing this and contrasting it with, for example, the much more inward looking music of the 19th century and as long as you didn't go over the top and lose touch with the actual music, it might even be interesting.

The main reason Haydn wrote his music, for Prince Nikolaus of Esterhazy, was the very fine musical taste of his patron.

Bridge said...

It is a very interesting discussion and the musical atmosphere of the times certainly contributed, but I don't really see any real distinction between the different works of say Beethoven who had plenty of patrons which suggests to me they had a more indirect effect (then there's pieces like the Eroica which was not written with whoever the patron was in mind) Surely they had to be more careful when writing music but the upside to that is the music is often wonderfully witty and has a subtler sense of humor which I very appreciate a lot personally. I dunno, I don't think anybody can say how the music would have turned out if the composers were more autonomous but it is what it is.

Man, can you imagine having a subscription to Mozart's concerts in the 18th cent.? Makes you wonder about the yet unknown Mozarts of the 21st century you might be missing out on.

Bryan Townsend said...

The relationship between politics and music, or culture in general, is so complex and varied that it is best to discuss it in terms of a very specific context--otherwise you just get lost in the weeds. For example, Shostakovich and politics in the Soviet Union is a fascinating question that has inspired quite a few books so far. The relationship between Beethoven and his patrons needs more exploring, perhaps. But for sure, nobody told him what to write! Prince Nikolaus certainly told Haydn what to write ("I want three baryton trios by the end of the month!") but left the musical aspects up to the expert, Haydn. It is like saying to an engineer, "build me a bridge", but you let him figure out all the design questions. You just need to get across the river. Prince Nikolaus just wanted some music to enjoy.

Composers are nearly always autonomous aesthetically, but if they don't write music that is pleasing to somebody, then who pays the bills? A really interesting project would be to investigate where the patronage for avant-garde modernism came from?

Rickard Dahl said...

Nowadays we have the commission system. I guess commissioners nowadays have more saying in what composers should write, I might be wrong though. That might be the case in certain video game music and most certainly is in film music (where the music typically needs to be adjusted in length to suit the scene, this can be a severe limitation). In general video game music is probably much freer because of the nature of video games where you often have a certain piece of music used for an area in the game. Since there typically is no limit to how long a player can stay in a certain area in the game, the music is much less time limited.

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, you bring up two different issues: one technical and one perhaps political or ideological. Yes, composing for film is technically quite complex because every music event has to be precisely coordinated to frame of the film. I think there is a two-stage process: first the composer reviews the script and get the music requirements from the director. Then he may compose or sketch the music for those requirements. Then they shoot the film and when they are editing it together, the precise duration of each section becomes clear. They are probably listening to the music while they editing the sections. Then when all the timings are set, the composer redoes the music to fit exactly. Then it is recorded, often with the conductor watching the film as he conducts. I haven't gone through this myself, but this is how I understand it works.

Now when you talk about commissions, the questions to ask are who pays the commission, who makes the decision, what criteria were used and so on. I suspect that a lot of the time, in the case of commissions from government funds or cultural organizations, a kind of "old-boys club" slowly takes over the process over time and makes sure the commissions go to the people they approve of.

Bridge said...

Sergei Diaghilev is a big name. He backed a lot of major 20th century works. Commissions don't necessarily need to be official though. I'm reminded of the rich war veteran who lost his hand in WWI (his name escapes me) who happened to be a piano virtuoso, who upon returning home commissioned left hand concertos from a bunch of major composers. The most famous of these undoubtedly is Ravel's brilliant Concerto for the Left Hand. As I understand it it is not uncommon for professional soloists of means to commission concertos - I can only assume they foot the bill.

Regarding film music, it's very much dependent on who the director and producer are and how they operate. I've heard of projects that called in their composers literally at the eleventh hour and the scores had to be done only weeks before release (unfortunately I don't think that's very uncommon, I have heard of many such occurrences.) On the other end of the extreme, there are movies like The Conversation whose score was finished during pre-production (admittedly it is sparse) and the actors listened to it before takes to get into the mood.

Also, Ben-Hur. Need I say more?

Bryan Townsend said...

The pianist you are thinking of is Paul Wittgenstein, brother of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the famous philosopher. Of the many pieces he commissioned, the concertos for the left hand by Prokofiev and Ravel are the most famous. Yes, sometimes famous soloists commission works, but the fee is often paid by a foundation or cultural organization.