Monday, September 8, 2014

Big Music Projects

This is another one of those wacky posts that I can only label with the tag "aesthetics" because I frankly don't know how to categorize it. Big Music Projects. Let me define that. I notice that what I am more and more interested in is not those one-off eccentric pieces of music that appear pretty often, but the big projects that composers engage in. Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique is a fascinating piece, but exactly the kind of thing I am not thinking of. So what am I thinking of? What do I mean by Big Music or Big Projects?

Yesterday I finished listening to disc 29 of the Scott Ross complete Domenico Scarlatti sonatas box. This is a Big Project, for both Scott Ross and Scarlatti. It took 92 recording sessions to record all five hundred and fifty-five sonatas. He must have done five or six in each session. At around 4 minutes per sonata this is about 37 hours of music. There is a great deal we don't know about the details of Scarlatti's project, but I think it is safe to say that this is the biggest contribution to the keyboard repertoire by any composer. At least, of high quality, as, who knows, there might be an even larger set of pieces by some obscure, but not terribly gifted composer. So this is the very model of Big Music Project.

What fascinates me? I think that, as in the case of Berlioz, a single piece like the Symphony fantastique is going to be based on something very individual in the composer. In his case, it was an obsessive romance. Interesting, but not the kind of thing that you can do 555 times. The basis for a Big Project is going to be something different. I think that in order to do something like what Scarlatti did, you have to step far outside yourself and engage with the materials themselves. You are not adapting some musical techniques to tell your personal story, but investigating the aesthetic possibilities from all sorts of angles. It is a bit like writing an extensive set of variations on a theme, but on a much broader scale.

Another project of a similar scale is the symphonies of Joseph Haydn. There are one hundred and six of these and, with four movements each, amount to an even larger contribution than Scarlatti. I have a wonderful box of them by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and Dennis Russell Davies. They are written for an orchestra of sixteen instruments and up to perhaps sixty players in the case of his Paris Symphonies written for the larger orchestra of Le Concert de la Loge Olympique. They occupy some thirty-seven discs, so around forty hours of music.

In both of these cases, we have the whole corpus, unlike in the case of the Mozart symphonies, of which some are lost. Another project on a similar scale was Bach's cycle of cantatas for the churches in Leipzig. He wrote several cycles of cantatas, one for each Sunday of the year. Of these 209 have survived and perhaps an equal number have been lost. These are pieces in several movements (six is typical) for small orchestra, chorus and soloists. There are a few complete recordings of the extant pieces.

Bach engaged in a number of Big Projects. One was the Well-Tempered Clavier which contains preludes and fugues in all the keys. He completed two complete cycles of this for a total of 48 preludes and fugues. Shostakovich followed in Bach's footsteps with his own complete cycle, though he only did it once. Another Big Project of Bach's was the Art of Fugue which chooses one simple theme and exhausts all the contrapuntal possibilities. Put that way, it seems terribly dull, doesn't it? And perhaps all these projects do as well?

But I disagree. More and more, this is where I look for the really consummate works of genius, works that take us far outside ourselves.

I suppose, for the sake of completeness I should mention one other Big Project, the 500 concertos, most for violin, of Antonio Vivaldi. Huge project for sure, and with some wonderful music. But I don't think that the achieved the same level of variety that the others I have mentioned did. One thing I know is that no-one so far has even contemplating taking on the job of recording them all! Until then, we won't know for sure.

Let's listen to just some brief samples of the Big Music Projects I have mentioned. Here is the last disc of the Scott Ross Scarlatti project:

There is no performance of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra doing Haydn on YouTube, but here are the six Paris Symphonies by other artists:

Here are four Bach cantatas conducted by Philippe Herreweghe:

And finally, here is a recording of 12 Violin Concertos, op 9, by Vivaldi, played by the Holland Baroque Society:

Ok, maybe someone should do the complete Vivaldi...

What is really interesting to me is listening to the amazing creativity shown by these composers in these Big Music Projects. Over and over again, they have to come up with new ideas, new textures, new solutions to basic problems. You have to listen to the whole thing to really get the sense of this. But what else are you going to do? Watch television?


Craig said...

Fascinating. A couple of others that come to mind: William Byrd wrote polyphonic settings of all of the Mass Propers for the principal feasts of the church year (his Gradualia). For that matter, Anonymous wrote chant settings for pretty much all of the texts used in the Catholic Church through the entire liturgical year. That's a lot of music.

There are more early music examples. Palestrina wrote over 100 choral settings of the Mass. A group of Renaissance composers collectively wrote something like 40 settings of the Mass where the music was all based on a single folk tune: L'homme arme.

Would Wagner's Ring qualify, in your mind? It's a big project, no question, but much more a single piece than most of your examples, and arguably closer in spirit to something like the Symphonie fantastique. Or how about the operas of someone like Verdi? There must be several dozen of them, amounting to a huge body of work.

Bryan Townsend said...

Like everything on this blog, my choices are a bit personal, of course. As someone who is not very involved with the opera repertoire, I tend to neglect it. Yes, the Ring would be an excellent example as it is a unified work. Different from everything else I mentioned. There are countless early music examples, as you say! I really was just considering music from Bach to now. As for operas, what about Rossini or Rameau? Or Handel for that matter?