Monday, March 31, 2014

Sibelius: Symphonic Endings, part 2

There is a major division in Sibelius' symphonies between the first three and the last four. In between he met, both in person and through their music, the most important composers in the European avant-garde: Schoenberg and Stravinsky. But his reaction was not so much to jump on the bandwagon as to resist doing so. His subsequent symphonies take a new path that follows neither Schoenberg nor Stravinsky, but a unique one of his own.

Today I am going to just take a brief look at how he handles the ending of the Symphony No. 4 and talk about the others in other posts to come.

The Symphony No. 4, written in 1911, is stated to be in A minor on the title page. A long time ago I wrote a post on the beginning of this symphony because of its unusual nature, both harmonic and rhythmic. It begins with a collection of whole tones from C to F#, spanning a tritone. These notes could be from the Dorian mode on A, as well. Sibelius is always doing subtle things with tonal ambiguity. I have mentioned before that sometimes he seems to be turning traditional methods upside down. The last movement of this symphony is a case in point. He begins in A major:

Click to enlarge
Again, there is the ambiguity of the D#, which is a tritone with the tonic A. It also gives a suggestion of the Lydian mode. Is it just me, or is there a bit of the sardonic feel of a Shostakovich theme on this first page? Jorge Luis Borges famously said that every artist creates his own predecessors, by which he meant that after an artist has created a supposedly "new" kind of expression, we start to hear it in earlier artists. Another little theme that seems to share this sardonic mood is this one in the clarinet:

Notice the "family resemblance" it has with the opening I just quoted. It also might remind you of the beginning of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue opening.

Of course the really interesting thing about beginning the last movement in A major, if it is going to end in A minor, as it does, is that it inverts the tradition, found in Beethoven and even in Sibelius' own Symphony No. 2, of achieving a triumphant finale by beginning in minor and transforming to major.

Sibelius knits together this symphony in subtle ways: one of them is by recalling the whole tone opening of the first movement with this theme in the finale:

Click to enlarge

Where in the first movement it was like waves or layers of clouds, here the motoric rhythmic setting makes it suitable for the dynamism of a finale movement. Notice also that the whole tones are here turned into a collection of different intervals. But the whole tones are still prominent and we see them in little solos like this one for the violin:

The movement modulates to C major where we find this swirling accompaniment to the winds:

Click to enlarge

Then it returns to A major and this throbbing accompaniment in the strings that, again, features a prominent D#:

I am focusing on the accompaniments because they give us a better sense of where we are harmonically--plus the themes are usually quite fragmentary.

There is a turn to E flat major:

Click to enlarge

Which is, of course, a tritone from A major and the enharmonic equivalent of the D# we keep hearing. And then a chromatic shift back to A major:

Which is then reversed, but this time it takes us to A minor, and it is the tympani that confirms it:

And really, that's it. From here there are just a couple of pages that confirm A minor and end quietly:

Click to enlarge

The movement and the whole symphony is brilliantly knitted together by many subtle connections. Notice, for example, that little violin solo that was my fourth example above. It has a little whole-tone turn starting on E flat and then the same, starting on A. This fuses together two elements that are ubiquitous in the movement.

Now let's hear a wonderful performance of the movement conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Aesthetics and Analysis

Last week I did some posts in the form of lists. The internet loves lists and they tend to provoke lots of commentary. One comment on the post about over-rated composers talked about analysis and it makes me realize that it would be good to clarify some distinctions.

Analysis in music is the practice, skill or process of examining how the music is put together. The needed skills are usually the ability to read musical notation and an understanding of harmony. The typical kind of analysis one does as a music undergraduate is to do harmonic analysis of things like Bach chorales and Mozart sonata movements. What you do is label each harmony with a Roman numeral that indicates its function. You also use superscript Arabic numerals to indicate the inversion of the chord. Let me do a phrase from a Bach chorale for you to show how it works.

Click to enlarge

UPDATE: Just noticed a mistake. The chord on the second beat of measure 3 is not a I6, of course, but a I 4/2. But it is probably better to see the bass note as a passing note. It gets a bit complicated when you have simultaneous different passing notes. The E is on its way to the F#, the G is held over and the B is passing. So the "real" chord on that beat, shorn of decoration, is ACF#, a viiº6.

First, a couple of apologies. Finale, the music software I use, is perfectly capable of doing all the funny little symbols you use for harmonic analysis. But, alas, I have a Spanish language keyboard and that particular font does not quite work with it. So, for example, all the little Arabic numerals, which are supposed to be superscripts, come out subscripts. And I can't do either the symbol for diminished chords (all the vii chords in the example should actually be viiº chords) nor the figures for seventh chords. For example, the second beat of measure six should actually be a ii6/5 chord, but I can't get it to show. So bear with these minor omissions!

How harmonic analysis works is you first determine the key. In music from around 1600 until nearly the end of the 19th century, this is pretty easy. The piece above is in G major. With one sharp in the key signature your choices are only that or E minor. But it is not E minor because in that case there would be some D#s here and there. So, G major. This means that the triad on G, spelled GBD, is labeled "I". If the B is in the bass, then it becomes I6 to indicate first inversion. If we see the notes ACE, as in the second beat of measure six, then this is a chord built on the second degree of the scale. As it will always be a minor chord, we use lower case: ii. Again, if the C of the chord is in the bass, we indicate first inversion with a superscript "6". A chord with an added seventh in first inversion is indicated with two figures stacked 6/5 (which I wasn't able to do, sorry!). Why these numbers? If you look carefully, you will see that they simply record the intervals above the bass note. For this reason they are called "figured bass" numerals.

As you can see, harmonic analysis is a fairly mechanical process involving identifying the chords and their inversions. There can be a lot of subtleties to it, such as passing notes, suspensions and so forth. There are three basic harmonic functions: the tonic, the pre-dominant and the dominant. Harmonic analysis helps to identify these functions. You will find in all the music of  the Classical era, and much of the Baroque and 19th century as well, that harmonic function is pretty clear. Every piece will end (and usually begin) with a tonic chord. Every phrase will have some sort of cadence, either full (as in the end of the above example) or half (as in measure 4 in the example) or deceptive (meaning that the cadence goes V to vi).

Phrase structure is another thing you can analyze and that is more complex than just harmonic analysis. You need harmonic analysis to analyze phrase structure. If you look at the above example, it is a phrase in two parts. The first is four measures ending in a half cadence. Then there are three measures ending with a full cadence. This makes the phrase irregular, because the standard would be eight measures. The second half is compressed. Composers often vary their phrases by both compression and expansion which is why we can find thirteen measure phrases sometimes.

On the next level we come to the overall form of the piece. Reading Wikipedia articles on things like Sibelius symphonies you might think that formal analysis is pretty much hit or miss, because they always say stuff like this theorist thinks it is a sonata, the other theorist thinks it is a rondo and the other guy just throws up his hands and says, "Dude, Sibelius was really jammin' on this one!" Kidding about the last one. But you do get the impression that formal analysis is pretty subjective, little more than a shot in the dark. I think this is mistaken. Formal analysis works pretty well in repertoire like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It works less well with Sibelius or Shostakovich because I think that we haven't quite figured out what they were doing. It took a long time to figure out what Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were doing and it is early days yet with 20th century composers.

Aesthetics in music is an entirely different kind of procedure and to understand the difference it helps to be familiar with what has been known for a couple of centuries as the "Is-Ought Problem" in philosophy. The basic idea, as laid out by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, is that there are two different kinds of statements: those dealing with relations between ideas (1+1=2) and those of matters of fact (today is the 29th of March). Unfortunately, this leaves a whole other category of statements, called "prescriptive" or "normative" statements, floating around without foundation, at least according to Hume. The reason being that you can't get from an "is" to an "ought" logically. Thus comes one of the fundamental problems in ethics. Aesthetics has very much the same problem, which is why some people see ethics and aesthetics as related. Incidentally, I wrote several posts about aesthetics and used David Hume as my starting point. Here is the first one.

Hume writes about aesthetics as an empiricist. One develops a sense of taste through experience and learns to distinguish high quality from low quality. Yes, there are differences in aesthetic quality that, while they are experienced subjectively, certainly have objective status. Bertrand Russell answered regarding the same problem of relativism in aesthetics by saying "I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it." In the aesthetics of music you could say that "I cannot see how to prove the existence of objective aesthetic value, but I am incapable of believing that the only difference in quality between Bach and Justin Bieber is that I like one and don't like the other."

Analysis and Aesthetics

So analysis is basically an objective process though there can be disagreements over details. In the case of modern composers, the basic fundamentals are still being fought over among theorists, which is why we see so much disagreement. But there is general agreement over, for example, the analysis of a Haydn string quartet because, in the last two hundred years, theoretical understanding of Classical style has become worked out to the point of being, more or less, objective truth. The objective truth of, say, the formal structure of a Sibelius symphony, is still being figured out. We can all look at the first measure and see, yes, that's an A quarter note, but the significance or function of it in the overall form is not so clear yet.

Aesthetics, on the other hand, has to do with good and bad. It, like ethics, is prescriptive or normative, that is, it involves a judgement as to quality. But there is no clear and easy route, as Hume says, from analysis to aesthetics. Analysis is about matters of fact and the relations between ideas. It deals with the matter of fact of things like G major and cadences. Analysis uses certain definitions as to what a key is or what meter is. These are true by definition. But the problem of trying to get from analysis to aesthetics is just like the problem of getting from "is" to "ought". Just because you can do something is no guarantee that you should do something. I can do something to harm a completely innocent person, like punch them in the nose. But I should not do so! Similarly, a composer could, perhaps, write a piece using every single possibility of invertible counterpoint. But this does not mean he should. It is the easiest thing in the world to write a piece of dry, boring, but correct counterpoint that no-one would want to listen to.

An aesthetically good piece of music is one that is charming, delightful, profound, moving, expressive, dynamic, energetic, languid, doleful, effervescent or a thousand other adjectives. Sometimes it can be several of these at once. Just exactly how a piece of music can do this, while another piece is dreary, boring, irritating, annoying, bullying and tiresome is the magic of music (and every composer's challenge). But I think that it is pretty easy to show, by demonstration, that some pieces have a high aesthetic quality and others have a low aesthetic quality. How we come to aesthetic judgements on music is a subtle process involving knowledge and experience and listening skills.

Well, that was long and I hope, not too tiresome! Now let's listen to some music. Here is Mitsuko Uchida playing the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major by Mozart:

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

A long time ago someone sent me a link to a list of supposedly "essential" books on music. If by "essential" you mean half-baked reductionist scientific attempts to explain music, then perhaps this is just the thing. But looking over them again, I wonder if I haven't been hasty. Let me make a bet with myself: I'm going to get hold of a couple of these books, the ones that look least bad, and have a look. If any of them prove to have anything much to say, then I will give myself a swift kick. Otherwise, I get to have fun critiquing them. OK?

* * *

Theodore Dalrymple, the nom de plume (or perhaps nom de guerre) for a retired physician who often has interesting observations about the world, writes: is the glory of the world that its interest is without end. As for my patients who were bored and who created convoluted difficulties for themselves to disguise that fact, I came to the conclusion that the world seemed dull and slow moving to them by comparison with videos, films, shows, and television. The greatest cause of boredom in the modern world is entertainment.
This is from an article titled "Entertainment Surfeit Disorder" which successfully diagnoses a quite common modern disease. I think you can also get it from watching pop music videos. I watched a couple of new ones last night from Katy Perry and Shakira with Rihanna and there was so much posing and fashion changes that I think I got whiplash.

* * *

Here is a very promising development: Stanford University is setting up a center to study bad science. They are going to focus on biomedical studies where:
80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials
Maybe after they get done with that, they can take a look at some of those studies researching music that I'll bet are at least as wrong...

* * *

The reputedly finest viola ever is about to go up for sale at Sotheby's for a price north of $45 million. It is one of only ten extant violas built by Stradivarius (as opposed to around 600 violins). I didn't think violists were paid that well...

* * *

In case you missed it, here is Tom Service's weekly symphony guide excursion which is on Brahms' Symphony No. 1.

* * *

And for the masochistics among you, there is a reissue of a recording of Stockhausen's Momente, the piece he wrote that invents moment-form. I have used it myself and played quite a number of pieces in moment form, but I suspect that, while it seemed a cool idea at the time (mid-1960s), it is really fundamentally antithetical to musical values. Music is a time art and probably the most important thing you can do in music is lead to a conclusion in the most convincing way possible. Moment form says, "hey, why bother, just put the ideas in any order at all".

The clapping is part of the performance (by the choir).

* * *

Our topical flash-mob-of-the-week is the Odessa Philharmonic and Opera Chorus performing the usual Beethoven excerpt in the Odessa fish market:

UPDATE: Of course the piece they should have done is, wait for it, Schubert's "Trout" Quintet.

* * *

As we have shown this week here at the Music Salon, people are always interested in top ten lists. A Late Night with David Letterman staple, it has grown into an internet phenomenon. At least until you start doing lists of the Top 10 Organ Works, at which point everyone loses interest... Too harsh? Go have a look yourself. Once you get past #1, which is, of course, Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the rest are a bit uninspired.

* * *

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting review of a new biography of the English musical eccentric, Constant Lambert. He wrote a critical study titled Music, Ho! of what he termed "music in decline" back in 1934 and you can read it online here. I haven't yet myself, but I plan to. Lambert is rumored to have written the finest dirty limericks ever, but I haven't run across any yet. He did have an interesting fashion sense:

* * *

Let's end with some of his music. Here is the first part of his 1924 piano concerto (which sounds a bit Stravinskyesque):

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sibelius: Symphonic Endings

Sibelius in 1907, at the time the Symphony No. 3 was written

The endings to Sibelius' symphonies are often as interesting as the beginnings, but they are rather harder to illustrate. Sometimes when I am listening, I notice when we are a minute or so from the end and start asking myself how he is going to get from whatever is happening to a conclusive ending. Often I am quite surprised at how he can sneak up on an ending that works well as soon as you hear it.

The ending of the Symphony No. 1 is no surprise at all as it is loud and very firmly lays out a reiterated cadence in E minor. The only thing perhaps unusual is the very last two chords, E minor in two different voicings, first mf then p:

And here is a recording of the last movement:

You have to listen carefully to hear the last chord after all the ffz!

The Symphony No. 2 is a stronger symphony with a stronger ending. The movement is about fourteen minutes long, but the ending is starting to be set up around the nine and a half minute mark with the recapitulation of this passage with the ostinato in the strings:

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We first heard this two or three minutes into the movement, but in the key of F# minor. Now it is in D minor. The key of the symphony and this movement is D major, so Sibelius is setting us up for a big ending where minor is turned into major as Beethoven did in the finale of his Symphony No. 5. This ostinato is repeated over and over for three minutes as the dynamic slowly builds, Sibelius adding layer and layer of instruments until finally the piccolo is belting out the ostinato very high while the first violins have the theme. Then the music transitions to D major in the last two measures of this page:

There is a little transition and then, in a very lovely move, Sibelius has a transcendent rather than bombastic ending with a new theme (based on the first theme in the movement) that we see here, on the last page, in the oboes and trombones:

Here is a recording of the last movement. It seems to start in the middle because the last movement is joined to the third without a break.

The Symphony No. 3, composed in 1907, is a bit of a transition from the early more romantic symphonies to his later, more austere style. There are three movements and the last is a kind of a fusion between a scherzo-like first theme and a chorale. The key is C major and there is a middle section in A flat major. But the C major is strongly inflected with an F# which turns it into the Lydian mode. (The Lydian mode is the white notes from F to F--instead of a perfect fourth above the F, there is an augmented fourth to the B natural. Transposed to C, this gives us the F#.) How Sibelius ends the movement is by fusing together the three-note groups of the opening scherzo-like section (in 6/8) with the chorale section (in 2/2). This is a rhythmic fusion, let me say, where the strings are given eighth-note triplets (corresponding to the 6/8 of the scherzo) underneath the halves, quarters and eighths of the winds and brass, playing the chorale theme. Here is a passage where he starts to set up the ending. Notice the F#s:

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How Sibelius creates a feeling of arrival and conclusion towards the end of the movement is through a number of means. There are traditional ones, such as a root movement from G to C in the winds and brass on the last page. But this is concealed by the fact that all the strings are already pounding away on octave Cs. He also suppresses the F# that has been ubiquitous--this takes attention away from the G and lets it revert to the C. There is also a kind of cadential trill in the woodwinds on B, but this is layered over those octave Cs so it doesn't have the usual effect. Buried within the string figuration is also an alternation between B and C. The traditional elements of a cadence are dispersed rather than coordinated. Just as important is the ongoing fusion of the two rhythmic ideas, the scherzo and the chorale. It is pretty hard to put this into words without doing a nit-picky kind of analysis. Here is the last page of the score so you can see what I am talking about:

And here is a recording of the movement:

Incidentally, there is a very famous movement in music history where a composer writes a chorale in the Lydian mode. That is the third movement of Beethoven's A minor late quartet, Op. 132. Of course the two don't sound anything alike.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Seven Most Over-rated Composers

I am preparing a post on the endings of Sibelius symphonies, but in the meantime, here is something else to get your blood boiling. I don't mean to offend with this list, but I think that with all the puff pieces out there, there is room, now and then, for some negative comments.

I could also have called this the list of the most unfortunately influential composers: composers who cast a malevolent shadow over music history, composers like:

  1. Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)
  2. Charles Ives (1874 - 1954)
  3. Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
  4. Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911)
  5. Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
  6. Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 - 2007)
  7. John Cage (1912 - 1992)
What these composers share is a narcissistic disregard for their audience and an egoistic arrogance. Their music is often bullying and annoying, barking at the listener rather than charming him. They wrote long pieces often because they simply wanted to spend more time bullying the listener. Some of them were more superficially charming than others (like John Cage), but even with him, you are going to be trapped in a room far longer than you want to be, listening to music that assaults the listener with extreme unpleasantness.

If I have included someone that is a personal favorite, then I'm sorry, but it was going to happen sooner or later.

If I have left out someone that you feel should have been included, I apologize even more! Please let me know in the comments.

I will, out of mercy, just put up a couple of samples for you: Wagner, the Prelude to Act one of Die Meistersinger.

That's just nasty, from beginning to end, isn't it?

So what was it that got me to see that not all famous composers are good composers? What was it that caused the scales to fall from my eyes? Oddly enough, it was a book by Kingsley Amis about a music critic. You can read my post on Kingsley Amis here. I particularly loved this passage:
At first against my will, I listened to Mahler's enormous talentlessness being rendered by Roy and the N.L.S.O. As they went on, flecks of seeming talent began to insinuate themselves. Factitious fuss turned itself into a sort of gaiety; doodles in the horns and woodwind were almost transformed into rustic charm; blaring and banging acquired a note of near-menace; even that terrible little cuckoo-motif reflected something more than the great man's decision to let the world know how jolly preoccupied he had been in those days with the interval of the perfect fourth.
I don't know that anyone has better captured the inanity of the first movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1. Here, have a listen for yourself:

The composer in the above list that I expect to get the most pushback on is Brahms. He did write some pretty good stuff. I've always liked the ballades and the Haydn Variations. But for me he is an instance of TTH: trying too hard! Tom Service does his level best this week to convince us that Brahms' Symphony No. 1 is a great piece of music. But I think he is trying too hard as well. There is just a kind of interminable dreariness to Brahms...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Seven Greatest Neglected Composers

  1. Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)
  2. Josquin des Prez (1450 - 1521)
  3. Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957)
  4. Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919 - 1996)
  5. François Couperin le Grand (1668 - 1733)
  6. Guillaume DuFay (1397 - 1474)
  7. Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)
These are composers who wrote wonderful, brilliant, expressive music, but who, for various reasons, tend to be neglected. For several of them, it is simply because they lived at a time remote from our own and their music is unfamiliar for that reason (Josquin des Prez). For others, they have been neglected for ideological reasons (Sibelius) or historic ones (Weinberg) or just because they were surrounded by even more famous composers (Haydn).

Here are some samples:

Sibelius: Symphonic Beginnings, part 2

Young Sibelius

Now to look at the beginnings of the last three symphonies. The Symphony No. 5 was the first one in which Sibelius started to have doubts about his status as a modernist after the premiere of pieces like the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky and works by Schoenberg and Debussy. The opening is fresh and springlike. It uses a tympani pedal, like the First Symphony, but over that horns, oboes and flutes add upward leaping layers of sound. The key of E flat major is clear, but with just as much subtle divergence to be interesting. For example, the flutes and oboes outline the dominant of the dominant (F7), but that is over a tonic pedal and then the passage repeats with tonic harmony. Here is the opening page of the score:

And here is how that sounds:

Sibelius said about his Symphony No. 6 that it always reminded him of the scent of fresh snow. It was completed in 1923 and, for the first time, there is no key indicated. Think of it as being in the Dorian mode (on D). The opening is, of course, different from all the other symphonies. It starts with something very like a fugue for high strings:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

I say "very like" because, as always with Sibelius, if you look a little closer you see that he has modified the "language" considerably. There is a "subject" in the second violins that then appears a fourth higher in the first violins, but in both cases, it is harmonized with another voice, something that would not happen in a fugue. There is a "countersubject" that is vaguely like the subject, but upside down and this appears in the violas and divisi first violins. It is all really too amorphous to have much of the feeling of a fugue. Pace the composer, what this reminds me of more than fresh snow is perhaps something by Gorecki or Arvo Pärt. It has an almost liturgical feel. Let's have a listen.

The Symphony No. 7 is generally considered to be in C major and that final cadence (yes, we will talk about endings soon as well) is a hard-won cadence to C. Here is the opening page and continuation:

There are certainly elements there we have seen before: the tympani, low strings, layers--but the effect is utterly different. This is a bit like a Satanic version of Bach's Dona nobis pacem. After that initial G in the tympani, the opening phrase outlines a tritone: A to E flat. These notes bracket C a minor third on either side. Then the harmony moves to F, the subdominant. But this opening is harmonically very ambiguous, something you see a lot in symphonies by other composers, but not by Sibelius. Now let's listen to a performance. Again, you just need to listen to the first couple of minutes to compare it to the other openings:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Top Ten Greatest Composers Re-Thought

A few times I have mentioned Anthony Tommasini's list of the top ten greatest composers that appeared in the New York Times. Here is what he came up with:

In case you don't recognize all of them, they are:

Left, 1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). From top left, 2. Ludwig van Beethoven
(1770-1827), 3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 91). 4. Franz Peter Schubert
(1797-1828). From middle left, 5. Claude Achille Debussy (1862 - 1918),
6. Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971), 7. Johannes Brahms (1833 - 97).
From bottom left, 8. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901),
9. Richard Wagner (1813 - 83), 10. Bela Bartok (1881 - 1945).

Now, who would I want to change? First of all, just a little personal quirk, but I am not so terribly interested in composers who wrote only opera, so I freely confess that up front. Taking out Verdi and Wagner, that leaves two empty spaces. Which two composers need to be added? Alas, I come up with three names: Haydn, Shostakovich and Sibelius. The latter is a recent addition as I have fallen back in love with his music after surveying the symphonies. Haydn is a truly great composer who is always left off these lists, but should not be. I doubt there is any more important composer in music history, with the exception of Bach.

Now, there are a couple of Bs that I would also not miss too terribly: Brahms and Bartók. Hmm, that gives me one more spot than I need. So let's include one early composer. Couperin? Rameau? Josquin? All possible, but my vote is going to Guillaume DuFay. So my list would read:

  1. J. S. Bach
  2. Joseph Haydn
  3. Ludwig van Beethoven
  4. W. A. Mozart
  5. Franz Schubert
  6. Claude Debussy
  7. Igor Stravinsky
  8. Dmitri Shostakovich
  9. Jean Sibelius
  10. Guillaume DuFay
How's that for eccentric?

Sibelius: Symphonic Beginnings

Sibelius having a weird hair day

The normal thing would be to just put up posts on each of the seven symphonies by Sibelius, but how dull is that? Listening through all the symphonies prior to starting these posts, I am struck by how remarkably differently he starts each symphony. For Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven a symphony essentially had to start in one of two ways: either with the first or main theme of the movement, in the tonic, or with a slow introduction that was harmonically ambiguous or unstable and amounted to a dominant upbeat. Exceptions to this, like Haydn's "Drumroll" Symphony that starts with a drumroll (of course), are so rare that they get special nicknames. But Sibelius is a genius at finding an entirely new way of beginning (and ending, but that's a different post) every symphony. Let's do a survey.

Here is the beginning of the Symphony No. 1. I didn't select the whole page because, apart from the first clarinet and the tympani, everyone has rests. Sure, start your First Symphony with a clarinet solo accompanied by tympani, I dare ya!

Click to enlarge
And here is how that sounds (you just need to listen to the first minute or two):

And here is the opening of the Symphony No. 2. This is all about meter and you aren't sure where the downbeat is for a while. The mood of this opening, cheerful and almost dance-like, is what really contrasts with the First Symphony. Here is what the score looks like:

And sounds like. Again, you only have to listen to the first minute or two to get the idea:

How about a funky, four-square lick in C major in the low strings? That's how the Symphony No. 3 begins:

And it sounds like this:

If you didn't know, would you even think this was the same composer?

A long while ago I wrote a post on the beginning to the Symphony No. 4 which has the most dramatic and eerie beginning of any of the Sibelius symphonies. It opens with a crashing, resonating segment from the whole tone scale for low strings. Go read the post for the details. And here is what that opening sounds like:

Next time, a look at the openings of the last three symphonies.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sibelius: Violin Concerto

Today I am finally getting to taking a closer look at the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius. Sibelius is rather, in the terminology of theorists, "refractory to analysis"! Hmm, well, after checking around I see that this phrase, "refractory to analysis" certainly doesn't seem common, at least not in music. So I will explain. A piece or repertoire of pieces that are refractory to analysis resist analysis. They do not take apart easily. Sibelius wrote very atmospheric, evocative, charming and powerful music, but just how he did this is not at all obvious. Looking around on the web, I notice an interesting attempt to talk about Sibelius in an odd place: the Huffington Post. A couple of years ago they actually did a whole post on the Violin Concerto and Sibelius. Here is what the writer noted about Sibelius:
I've wanted to cover something by Sibelius before, but I've put it off because he's so difficult to analyze and break down.  Sibelius doesn't adhere very well to traditional classical forms.  He does things his own way.  It's even more of a problem because he doesn't just blow off tradition and do things his own way; he sort of does it traditionally but then mucks around with things so much that describing it usually makes it impossible for me to whip out my "handy dandy blue graphic" boilerplate.  We're forced into the position of trying to describe his music this way:  "It's kind of like a Ford Prius, except it's a submarine..."
Go read the whole thing. The writer finds a great clip of Maxim Vengerov talking about the first movement with a student.

The tonal system in music is a complex web of relationships. We take as the "norm" in this system, the way the relationships were used by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but as soon as you start, as it were, adjusting the values of the relationships, the whole quality of the web changes. Take, for example, the way Wagner delayed and delayed resolution via cadence in the Prelude to Tristan. This changes the quality, the "feel", of the system so much that it becomes quite a different kind of thing to the system used by Mozart, for whom resolution via cadence is a frequent occurrence. Similarly, if you alter some of the fundamentals of voice-leading, say, by taking what would, in the HMB ("Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven") version of tonality have been a 4-3 suspension and instead invert it into a 4-5, what? We don't have a word for this, expansion, maybe? In any case, you get something that is still tonal, but with a whole different quality from the HMB kind of tonality. And that's how Sibelius starts his violin concerto:

Click to enlarge
This has a magical quality, achieved with the simplest of means. Here is a version showing the accompaniment:

This is so simple, yet fresh and original. The whole evocative effect comes from starting with that unexpected G that opens out to the A. The chord is simply D minor in the accompaniment. This opening gesture is developed into a considerable solo for the violin with occasional little echoes in the orchestra (solo clarinet, for example). We soon hear, low in the violin, the kind of basic or "ur-motif" for the whole piece (it appears in every movement):

Now the interesting thing about this, which is still accompanied with D minor harmony (though with some chromatic decoration) is the presence of that G again. There is also a prominent G# in this opening section. The significance of this is that G is subdominant harmony. In HMB tonality, the subdominant area is always used to relax tension. Movement to the dominant heightens tension, to the subdominant relaxes it, which is why the subdominant is always the harmony of choice for codas. What Sibelius is doing here is using the subdominant G as the expressive marker. This is where the magical atmosphere comes from, turning HMB tonality upside down, in a way.

Here is the big, expressive, second theme, prefigured in the orchestra, but as it appears in the violin (down an octave):

This is the one the Huffington Post writer describes as "switching back and forth from B flat major to B flat minor in midstream." But, it is nothing of the kind. I put in the orchestral accompaniment (just the low strings) to show that this is actually just V to I in the relative major of B flat minor, i.e. D flat major. Again, this is kind of HMB tonality turned upside down. As we have seen in countless pieces by Beethoven in particular, he loves to go to the major key of the Neapolitan, a semitone above the tonic. Here, Sibelius is going to the major key of the leading tone: D flat (well, ok, or the tonic lowered a semitone, it makes no difference).

Just from looking at the first few minutes of the piece we can see a few things about how Sibelius works: he writes very tonal music, but he tends to turn some of the usual procedures upside down, suspensions becoming expansions and suchlike. He does not over-compose. He sees nothing wrong with beginning with a simple tonic tremolando in the strings, pp and floating the entrance of the soloist above it. Notice how other composers might have complexified this considerably. Something I haven't talked about much yet is the subtlety and simplicity of his orchestration. The solo violin echoed by the solo clarinet is an example, but very characteristic of Sibelius, as we will see in other pieces, is the way he uses the tympani as a color rather than a percussive rhythm. They are often found, as here, with a quiet supporting tremolando. In fact, he usually uses them for the color.

Something else Sibelius does in the Violin Concerto is, after this opening exposition, which gives us the basic themes in constantly evolving forms, there is a big cadenza for the violin which acts as a development section, formally! I think this is a unique function for a cadenza. Rather a great thing to do as it gives the cadenza an important formal function instead of just being a little jaunt into the virtuosic for the soloist.

I think that gives you enough to get a real sense of the concerto, so let's listen to the whole piece. Here is Hilary Hahn in younger days:

Now go buy her CD with the Sibelius and Schoenberg concertos!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sibelius: Source Materials

Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957)

The other day I mentioned a book on Sibelius that is really not useful as it is stuffed full of unsupported blather that has almost nothing to do with the actual music. Today I'll mention a couple of places that do have useful information. As usual, a good place to start is the Wikipedia article which is, as most of them are, a concise and accurate outline of his life and works with lots of references and a good selection of other places to look. One of these is a website devoted to the composer that has a lot of good material. Here is the portal. Here is the access to articles on each of the symphonies. Here is the article on the Violin Concerto. If you follow any of these links on individual pieces, you will see that the articles are quite well put together with some of the context of the composition and even a few pages from the score illustrating a reasonable analysis of the music. Pretty good effort! Still, I think there is a bit left for me to do.

As for recordings, the reissue of Paavo Berglund's recordings from the mid-70s with the Bournemouth Symphony is quite good and reasonably priced at Amazon. As a sample of his work, here is the last movement of the Violin Concerto with Ida Haendel as the soloist:

And, of course, what got me started on all this was the brilliant recent recording by Hilary Hahn of the Sibelius Concerto paired with the one by Schoenberg.

Both doing some basic research and some listening (I was listening to the Berglund recording of the Symphony No. 2 yesterday and realized that I hadn't actually listened to it for about twenty years!) as well as a lot of other responsibilities have delayed me working on my posts on Sibelius. But I hope to have the first one up tomorrow with, hopefully, some new insights into his music.

Let's end with the first movement of the Symphony No. 2:

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Let's start with a list of the worst, and I mean worst, songs of the 1960s. Be warned, some of these songs may make you pass out from sheer aesthetic horror. But if you just listen to a little bit of each one, there may be no permanent damage! Here is a sample from the ever-popular Polish school of surfing music:

* * *

This piece from the composer's site NewMusicBox on the purpose of art looked promising at first but just seemed to go nowhere at all, fairly economically...
After reflecting on these thinkers and their personal answers, I see a collective call for humanness, play, and social delight. In determining the answer for yourself, it might point you to different tools, notations, instruments, or actions that lead you outside the traditional bounds of music making, but in attempting to answer such a large question we become more considered in our approach to making it.
If only I could figure out what that could possibly mean.

* * *

 Also from NewMusicBox is a piece on the Dutch electric guitar quartet Zwerm. Here is a sample of their work:

Ok, that sounds a bit like Erik Satie, if he were really stoned and a jazz musician...

* * *

Now here is something really unusual: a mainstream (well, sort-of mainstream) article that precisely agrees with me on an important issue. In fact, that captures perhaps the main reason I started this blog: music journalism sucks! Here is the link. And here is the basic point:
One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.
Of course, it is even worse than that. There are whole books, like the one on Sibelius I was talking about yesterday, that also have virtually nothing about the music, replacing technical discussion with "critical theory". The article I am linking to is well worth reading in full because it outlines how talk about music has degenerated into talk about the consumer's lifestyle:
Even statements that appear, at first glance, to address musical issues are often lifestyle statements in disguise. I’ve learned this the hard way, by getting into detailed discussions over musical tastes, and discovering that if you force pop culture insiders to be as precise as possible in articulating the reasons why they favor a band or a singer, it almost always boils down to: “I like [fill in the name] because they make me feel good about my lifestyle.” Most disputes about music in the current day are actually disagreements about lifestyle masquerading as critical judgments.
* * *

That's all I have for you this morning, so let's find a piece of music to end with. How about something that makes us feel good about our lifestyle? How about some Erik Satie? Here is his first Gnossienne:

UPDATE: I just ran across something that gives us another perspective on "music as lifestyle". Here is an article in the Wall Street Journal about people who curate playlists for music streaming services:
Music "curators" make mixes that serve not just as primers on broad genres or eras, but as soundtracks for increasingly narrow slices of the human experience, from romantic heartbreak to a bad day at the office. Professional playlist makers are suddenly in demand as the post-CD music economy reshapes itself. With access to just about any song ever recorded, music fans drowning in digital tracks on Spotify and elsewhere are looking for warm-blooded guides to find the best of them.
Sigh... I need a soundtrack for my increasing Weltschmertz over how people seem to approach music in a shallower and shallower fashion. Hmmmm, I guess I'll have to curate my own playlist for that one.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Joseph Kerman has died

When I started this blog in 2011, I mentioned a few times that there were three very important writers on music that it was always worth your time to read. These were Charles Rosen, who passed away in 2012, Richard Taruskin, who is still with us and going strong, and Joseph Kerman who just died on March 17, 2014. Of course, all Norman Lebrecht can find to say about him is that he described Puccini's Tosca as a "shabby little shocker" in his book Opera and Drama. Makes me think I really should give that a read! But of course, Joseph Kerman is known for his many decades teaching musicology at UC Berkeley and for an exceptional book on The Beethoven Quartets that I have purchased a couple of times and refer to regularly. He also wrote an extremely fine book on Bach's keyboard fugues called The Art of Fugue that I also refer to regularly. This book really represents what a book on music can be. It is comprehensive and detailed and brilliantly revealing. It also comes with a CD containing not only performances of many of the works discussed but also COMPLETE SCORES in pdf format so that you can see exactly what he is talking about. Here is a sample page in which he is discussing a few measures in the C major fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk 1:

This is the kind of writing on music that has no fear of talking about the details and in which no comment or opinion goes unsupported!

In complete contrast to the work of Joseph Kerman is the writing in a book on Sibelius I was reading yesterday as research for my upcoming posts on him. The book is called Jean Sibelius and His World and, save for one paper on his sketches, contains nothing but unsupported and often, in my view, unsupportable, baseless speculation in what I would call "new musicology lite style". In other words, just what you would get from not-terribly aware third-year undergraduates who have read some "new" musicology and not much else but have a lot of half-baked ideas to share with you. Shockingly, this book is published by Princeton University and the contributors are, many of them, actual professors of music at actual universities, though not very well-known ones.

In one paper, the author manages to avoid any discussion of the actual music in favor of long-winded musing over the significance of a comment Sibelius once made about how compositions are like butterflies, if you touch them the dust comes off and they are no longer so beautiful. Of course, Shostakovich made a similar observation once, with a different metaphor. Eating with a friend he commented that musicologists were like the cook in the kitchen. The chicken lays the eggs and we get to eat them when cooked, but the poor cook just cracks the eggs and scrambles them. In both cases, the observation is to the effect that musicology tends to be cold and distant analysis, which is not the ideal way to appreciate the beauty of music. But this writer takes off on a wild flight as follows:
Sibelius' butterfly metaphor fits the expressionist aesthetics of the fragility of individual utterance better than it does academic logic. This was combined with a readiness to deal with unlimited depths of sorrow and pain, and a naturalistic directness, alongside a gothic textural complexity.
Yes, hundreds of pages of this kind of writing! What's wrong with it is, it uses terms like "expressionist aesthetics" that are crying out for both explanation and examples. What do you mean by "expressionist aesthetics"? Do you even understand those words? Can you find me examples, musical examples in Sibelius' music that would illustrate this? What do you mean by the "fragility of individual utterance"? Is there some way in which Sibelius' individual utterance is more fragile than mine? Or yours? And how would you show this? And how will you illustrate or demonstrate his "readiness to deal with unlimited depths of sorrow and pain"? Apart from mentioning his alcoholism, of course. And where, in the music, did you get this idea? I won't even ask what you could mean by "gothic textural complexity" but, if you can't show it to me in the music, I ain't interested!

Don't people who write like this have editors any more? Or, better still, teachers who are willing to ask these kinds of questions? This book on Sibelius, I am afraid, is the opposite of useful. Instead of giving you actual information about Sibelius and his music, everything it says makes you less-informed, because your head is swimming with all this "gothic textural complexity" nonsense. You are literally stupider after reading.

Let's listen to the Symphony No. 2 of Sibelius to clear our heads. See if you can hear any "gothic textural complexity":