Monday, April 7, 2014

More Over-rated Composers

One commentator has been encouraging me to talk some more about over-rated composers. I want to back into it by first quoting from a recent book on Plato, Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein.
Plato seemed to have little sympathy for the merely personal. We become more worthy the more we bend our minds to the impersonal. We become better as we take in the universe, thinking more about the largeness that it is and less about the smallness that is us. Plato often betrays a horror of human nature, seeing it as more beastly than godlike. Human nature is  an ethical and political problem to be solved, and only the universe is adequate to the enormous task. [Prologue, p. 11]
I strongly recommend reading the whole book as it has a lot of fascinating insights into Plato. It is a new book and was just reviewed very positively in the Wall Street Journal. The reasons for the views Plato held are fairly complex. One of the reasons he mistrusted human nature was because of the trial of Socrates, condemned to death by a jury of Athenian citizens. He believed in the reality and importance of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Indeed, he thought they were a kind of transcendent braid. But in order to perceive and understand them you have to get past the merely personal. One of the funniest bits in the book is when Plato visits the Googleplex and is astonished to learn that Google, perhaps the greatest accumulator of knowledge in the history of humanity, is motivated solely by greed. For Plato all knowledge, true knowledge, is not only True, but Good. And, as is often remarked, in the case of mathematics, the True and the Good are also the Beautiful. I'll leave you to explore the book and Plato. I just want to use it as a take-off point.

Getting out of your narcissistic pettiness so you can appreciate the Good, the True and most importantly, the Beautiful is pretty much the first step towards really appreciating good, true and beautiful music.

So the aesthetic problem for me with some music is that instead of taking you out of yourself, aesthetic exstasis or ecstasy, it leads you to wallow in yourself. These two things are actually diametrical opposites. The maudlin melodrama of some music, while it seems nice and full of expression, is the kind of thing that leads you to sit there wallowing in poor you and how magnificent, but tragic, your life is. It is like those self-help books that encourage you to empower yourself by thinking of yourself as being like the archetype of some god or goddess. Sorry, but that's just pathetic.

The aesthetic that is about the Good, the True and the Beautiful is one that takes you out of yourself. Instead of wallowing in yourself, you forget yourself, lose yourself in the music. This is one of the extraordinary things about instrumental music: different pieces can use the same notes, rhythms and harmonies, but achieve completely opposite results.

To give some very clear examples, this is maudlin melodrama:

And this is transcendent musical beauty:

Now for some less obvious examples. This is, in my opinion, of course, maudlin:

And this is not maudlin, but expressive musical beauty:

You know, you can almost deduce what the music will be like just by looking at those photos of the composers. Mahler is too noble for words, while Shostakovich looks almost tortured by his own inadequacy. I suspect that any composer, like Mahler or Wagner, who starts thinking of himself as a Great Man, is pretty much a lost cause.

But I need to say something more about the nature of aesthetic judgement. In order that it be judgement with some basis in reality and not just my or your personal whim, it needs to be both based on elements in the artwork itself and be falsifiable. In other words what I, or anyone, cannot get away with saying is "this music is just sublimely great and you have to accept that!". Yes, but what do you mean by "sublimely great" and what in the music supports this? By "falsifiable" I mean that any judgement I or anyone makes has to be capable of being proven wrong. This is a criterion for scientific theories put forward by Karl Popper. In other words, if there is no possible route to disproving the theory, it is not even a theory. As another scientist said, "it's not even wrong." Suppose that I say something about Prokofiev and someone presents me with a number of reasons why I may be mistaken. If I am actually dealing in genuine aesthetic judgement and not just personal taste, then I have to be prepared to modify my view. In fact, exactly this happened on this blog last year between myself and composer Nathan Shirley. If you search for "Prokofiev" you will undoubtedly find the posts.

Music, some music at least, is complex and so are composers. Two composers I often criticize are Mahler and Brahms--for different reasons! But yesterday I was listening to Hilary Hahn's recording of the Brahms violin concerto and she had me really enjoying it. We have to always talk about the details. There are some pieces by Brahms that are really lovely. Others I find constipated and ponderous. But the way the music is performed is also a factor. Just to note a little detail: I tend to enjoy the orchestral music of Sibelius more than Brahms for many reasons, but one in particular is the handling of the low register. Brahms tends to always have a lot of weight in the low end of the orchestra. But Sibelius is much more varied in this. For example, in the ending of the Symphony No. 6 that I posted on yesterday, Sibelius completely drops the low instruments for the ending. Brahms would not have seen that as an option, I suspect.

...and now, finally, a composer that just sends me to sleep. Yes, it is true, I have never listened to a performance of The Messiah by G. F. Handel without falling asleep. Never. Well, except once when I was singing in a choir doing the Hallelujah chorus. I managed to stay awake right to the end of the three minute chorus.

Of course, most Handel is not nearly as exciting as the Hallelujah chorus:

Even the rest of The Messiah:

I'm sure you have all heard the old joke: one hoary old orchestral musician says to the other "you know, last night I dreamt I was playing Handel's Messiah and I woke up and, by God, I was!"


Craig said...

Some years ago I went to a production of Handel's Giulio Cesare (I think it was). A gentleman in the row behind me snored loudly, and I thought he had the right idea. It's little wonder that people used to dine and chat during performances of Baroque operas!

On the other hand, English-speaking lovers of choral music are not so richly blessed with high quality material in their native tongue that they can afford to ignore Handel's often marvellous oratorios -- especially Messiah! If you have really never listened to the entire thing, you really ought to give it a chance. Warhorse or not, there's some splendid music in it.

Bryan Townsend said...

When I was an undergraduate music student I sang in the chorus for a performance of Judas Maccabeus by Handel. Sure, there are some good bits. But it just goes on and on and on... But yes, despite that great English choral tradition, it seems as if most of the repertoire is the Handel oratorios. Personally, I prefer the two late ones by Haydn: The Creation and The Seasons.

Bridge said...

Be careful about projecting your opinions on things like photographs and the personalities of composers. More often than not one is tempted to flat out invent things just because we expect to see them there. For example, you expect Mahler to be a pompous sociopath with a god complex because you dislike his music and chances are that's what you will see. What I see in the Shostakovich photo is the same as you, a man tortured by his inadequacies - but that's because a) I know that he felt that way himself and b) I agree with that diagnosis, but I'm not going to trumpet that around as a fact and use that as evidence of his inadequacy. If I liked his music, then I would probably greatly respect his modesty - needless to say things can take on different meanings depending on how we view them, but that doesn't mean the things themselves change. As a fun little experiment, go look at photographs of Hitler or any other generally despised person and invent some story about him being a decorated Ally war hero. What you might find is that that is consistent with his general demeanor in photographs. No matter what you project on the photograph, your mind will find some way to make it consistent. It's a vicious trap that one should avoid because there is nothing objective about our subjective views.

As for your comments on Brahms' use of bass I quite disagree, I find the bass to have great lightness and agility, just like in the music of Beethoven whom Brahms was extremely inspired by. It often gets the melody and other interesting parts. Truth be told, I cannot see how you can possibly criticize Brahms for his bass writing and simultaneously praise Beethoven.

Bridge said...

Plus, you're probably well aware of how artificial professional photographs and portraits can be. I mean, who doesn't look pretentious when having their photo or portrait taken, especially in the 20th century before cameras became commonplace? Even in the Shostakovich I suspect that his expression there was deliberate.

Bryan Townsend said...

Actually, Bridge, by disagreeing with my observations and pointing out ways in which they may be incorrect, you are participating in exactly the way I envisioned!

You see, as in other areas of philosophy, it is quite likely that we will arrive at no definitive answer, just as many of Plato's dialogues do not. But the process of arguing about it is a truth-producing process. It is just not a simple one...

As for your argument, you are speculating about how my opinion came to be. That's not nearly as good as pointing out where it is wrong. You see, if I came to my judgement by a different path, then your argument simply collapses, right?

As for the artificiality of posed photos, of course you are correct. But that does not actually weaken my argument. Mahler liked photos of himself where he looked like the Great Man. Shostakovich did not. Why might that be?

And as for Brahms' bass writing, then you have to show me, not just make a contrary claim: "no it's not! yes it is!"

Bridge said...

Sure, no problem. Bear in mind I will have to show you the splashy bits because it is hard to point towards nuances and specific tendencies without simply saying: "Go listen to the symphonies," which would hardly solve anything.

I'll just show you my favorite bass moment (perhaps ever):
(listen to the end)

I prefer it a shade faster but this reading by Bernstein is very good, although the quality might be better. Anyway, as for the music itself - I love the short "jumpy" figure the double bass plays, it always puts a smile on my face. But what's particularly striking about this section is the part that comes shortly after, where the double bass and cello imitate (to my mind) the sound of organ pedals. The entire soundscape at that moment actually reminds somewhat of a Bach organ toccata. But as I said, this is only the most conspicuous moment, if you go through the the rest of this movement (or any Brahms movement) you will find great subtle writing, with lots of color and playfulness - I consider him one of the best bass writers. I might be able to let you have Wagner although I'm not too familiar with his music, but Brahms I simply must insist you ease up on. Give him a second chance at least, I feel your words to be so incongruous with his music which honestly seems to be right up your alley if I judge your preferences correctly.

"As for your argument, you are speculating about how my opinion came to be. That's not nearly as good as pointing out where it is wrong. You see, if I came to my judgement by a different path, then your argument simply collapses, right?"

Well, the emphasis was not really on how your opinions came to be formed, just that your opinions were formed and their nature is unambiguous, which is that you don't like Mahler. Confirmation bias is a well documented phenomenon - it might be possible to say that everybody is susceptible to it. I might be speculating, perhaps Mahler is an arrogant jerk and I just don't see it, but the fact that I don't see it should be evidence for the fact that subjectivity plays at least a minor role, eh?

"As for the artificiality of posed photos, of course you are correct. But that does not actually weaken my argument. Mahler liked photos of himself where he looked like the Great Man. Shostakovich did not. Why might that be?"

And so did Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin and many many others - what's your point? Those are the good guys right? Having these types of images taken back then was a much bigger deal than it is now. Why wouldn't you try to get the best possible picture of yourself, which for many people means adopting an air of respectability and a serious expression? It is such a common motif that it is hardly fair to single out one person and criticize him for it. Ignoring the fact that taking photographs was probably less expensive and difficult when Shostakovich was a grown man than when Mahler was, it's not like Shostakovich doesn't have "Great Man" photos of himself either. Take for example this one:,,15905460_303,00.jpg

One can construe this as just as condescending and pompous as anything Mahler had taken. And conversely these two photos of Mahler:

One can easily get the impression that he is modest from these. In the latter one he actually looks rather tortured himself.

Bryan Townsend said...

Good riposte, Bridge. I will take it up in detail, but not today, alas! I am preparing a lecture/recital for Friday and that is occupying my time.

But let me just leave one little thing for you (which should not be construed as a serious reply to your post). Regarding the similarity or equivalence of Brahms and Beethoven, Brahms himself once expressed an opinion on that. At a dinner given by a host who was a great fan of Brahms and a wine collector, the host brought out a special bottle and poured it for Brahms to taste, declaring that it was the "Brahms of my wine cellar." Brahms tasted the wine, contemplated for a moment and replied, "Better bring up the Beethoven."

Bridge said...

Good luck with your lecture/recital! Humorous anecdote.

Bryan Townsend said...

It is fun putting the program together. We are doing music from Dufay right up to one of my pieces for violin and guitar with stops along the way for Bach, Paganini and Shostakovich.

You bring up so many different ideas in your critique that it is hard to respond to all of them today. But let me take up one. I, perhaps foolishly, threw out a little remark about how the appearance of Mahler and Shostakovich in the two photos associated with the clips was indicative. You took this up and concluded that I was operating with "confirmation bias" which basically means that I was hearing what I expected to hear--operating under a prejudice, a pre-judgement. I challenged that by saying that you were assuming this without evidence and in fact, the causality went the other way. I actually was a big Mahler fan for a long time. As a music student I spent a lot of time listening to the symphonies with great enjoyment. My favorite piece was probably Das Lied von der Erde, however. I still am quite fond of that one. But in recent years, when I hear a Mahler symphony I don't find it very enjoyable and I was wondering why. My theory involves the aesthetic judgement that Mahler's music tends to be maudlin, that is, emotionally manipulative and sentimental. An equivalent in film might be something by Stephen Spielberg. You manipulate the listener by pushing their emotional buttons. Now, as I said, this is just a theory and I certainly would have to do a great deal of work to offer some real evidence. That is probably a post I should do sometime. Might be an interesting challenge.

A lot of time on the blog I just make a claim and put up a couple of clips hoping the reader/listener will get my point just from listening. But, of course, you can always just disagree, as you have.

The real point of all this is very like that of a Platonic dialogue: we are not necessarily going to get to a clear answer. But the process of having the argument means that we will all have a much more active understanding of what is going on. In defending Brahms, you are becoming more engaged with his music. This is the real reward. In aesthetics, there are quite often no simple answers.

Bridge said...

Oh I quite agree, something I have noticed in my many years of internet discussions. I don't resent the fact that you hate Brahms, it only seems like a waste to me and only urge you to consider carefully. I myself have often fallen into the trap of disregarding certain things based purely on preconceived notions, or even worse forming strong opinions after only one bad experience.

"You took this up and concluded that I was operating with "confirmation bias" which basically means that I was hearing what I expected to hear--operating under a prejudice, a pre-judgement."

First of all I'm sorry if I offended, that was not the intention, nor was I necessarily trying to accuse you of anything, but it's hard for me to disregard my own eyesight. As for this snippet in particular lest you misunderstood me let me clarify. I was not saying here that you dislike Mahler's music because you expect to dislike it, far be it from me to impugn your opinion on music, but rather that you dislike Mahler because you dislike his music. It is really a non-sequitur because it is perfectly possible for someone to be a horrible person and write great music. Like it or not, confirmation bias is a thing and it causes people to interpret evidence in their favor all of the time. I only wanted to suggest that in this case you might look at Mahler and say: "Aha! As I have suspected all along Mahler is the incarnation of evil. This smirk here proves it! Look how highly he thinks of himself and his music, it's practically written there on his face." Except it's not written and people do commit these types of heinous fallacies constantly. But I would also like to add, even if Mahler is an egomaniac narcissist that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with his music. For example, Bobby Fischer, the chess grandmaster, is well noted for having grand ideas about himself and his chess career. Do I respect him for his lack of modesty? No, but I do respect his unbelievable skill on the chessboard. He was as close as one can possibly be to an artist in chess and his games invariably leave me in awe. That to me is more important than his conceit.

But I do know that your comment was only meant to be half-serious and truth be told I didn't want to make this big a deal out of it. Only it was a bit of a cheap shot that I don't particularly care for and I'm not even a Mahler fan.

Haha, I like your comparison to Spielberg though it's perhaps not completely accurate. I mean, Schindler's List might be a good analog to Mahler's 9th in some weird way. I don't particularly appreciate how obvious Schindler's List is in tone much of the time and it is pretty clearly oscar bait but it is still a film with a lot of subtlety regardless (even if you hate that movie he is responsible for a lot of seminal works and is clearly a skilled director.) It's not entirely "maudlin melodrama" just like Mahler's symphonies are not that either (in my opinion.) Perhaps I'm not enlightened yet.