Friday, January 31, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

The Guardian is still chatting up the symphony, which is a good thing. Every Tuesday a new episode in Tom Service's series comes up. This past week it was the Symphony No. 1 by Tchaikovsky, nicknamed "Winter Dreams". I wonder if he is going to do something on one of the usually considered more significant ones, such as the 4th or 6th? But Tom was working overtime this week as he also has a new article up about a new symphony by Peter Maxwell Davies, his tenth, to be premiered on Sunday. One is a bit apprehensive as the composer is claiming that it is "the wildest music I've written." This from the composer of Eight Songs for a Mad King and Vesalii Icones. I was hoping that becoming a symphonist might have had a bit of a calming effect... Obviously we can't have a clip from the tenth, but here is Maxwell Davies' Symphony No. 5 from 1995 with the composer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra:

* * *

Now here is some genuine music criticism! The pianist Eduard Laurel has a blog, CrackCritic, in which he seems unafraid to offer unrestrained commentary. Here is his dissection/demolition of the new release of Prokofiev and Bartók concertos by Lang Lang and Rattle. Sometimes the syntax gets a little confused, but I think we know what he means when he says:
This pianist mostly distracts from the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the living Wonders of the Western World, except when his poor percussive playing in the opening movements of both works makes the castanets and snare drums sound fantastic - how often can one thank the auxiliary percussionist?
I think he is saying that Lang Lang is so clunky that he makes the percussion sound good.

* * *

One composer that I see as being likely to be re-discovered in the near future iMieczyslaw Weinberg, whom I have previously written about here. Norman Lebrecht has a post up in which he talks briefly about the Symphony No. 12.

* * *

Still more reaction to that Slate article on the death of classical music, this time from the thoughtful Anne Midgette at the Washington Post. A sample:
What I haven’t seen in refutations of the Slate article so far (though I admit I haven’t read any of it very carefully because, frankly, the whole thing makes me itch) is a question about the piece’s basic premise. What does it mean to say that classical music is dying (“circling the drain,” to be precise) — or to say that, on the contrary, it has a steady heartbeat? Both of these are emotional statements. Both, indeed, could be equally true. Of course classical music is not dying – it’s being performed and recorded everywhere. Of course classical music is dying – even the Met can’t sell tickets.
* * *

And to end with something completely different, here is the Kronos Quartet. Back in 2002 they put out a disc titled Nuevo of Mexican music arranged for them by Osvaldo Golijov, the Russian-Jewish-Argentinian composer who studied in Israel and in the US with George Crumb! This tune is called "Mini Skirt":

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pop Music is Conservative?

I just ran across something really rare in music journalism: intelligent criticism of the mind-numbing sameness of current pop music. And in the Globe and Mail of all places! Here's the link. The author, Russell Smith, makes the claim that "Pop music is by far the most conservative art form there is." And then he goes on to make an argument for that claim, saying:
A song is a short composition for voice and instruments. It is a piece of sung poetry set to music. It is usually only a few minutes long. In popular music, a song follows a very strict pattern: There are verses, then a refrain, repeated several times. Sometimes there is a short passage of variation called a bridge. In hip hop, the verses can be chanted rather than sung, but the principle is the same. Generally the words are meant to represent the personal emotional state of the singer. The vast majority of them are about romantic relationships, although this is not a necessary condition. All songs – all of them, every single one, that is to say 100 per cent – must have a four-four time signature.
I've written about the metric rigidity of pop music before in my post The Tyranny of the Backbeat. To go a bit further, not only is all current pop music in 4/4, but it is rigidly so: the computers run the tempos these days. Interestingly, in the comments to the article several people mentioned some exceptions to the 100% 4/4 and a lot of them were Beatles songs. Well, sure! But if you look at current pop music, not music from forty or fifty years ago, then there are very few exceptions. I am constantly amused at the descriptions of pop music you see, usually by promoters, that wax lyrical about the unique specialness of the artist's emotional commitment or something and then as soon as you hear the song, it is the same old 4/4 backbeat and all too often at exactly 120 on the metronome. Oh yes, terribly unique!

Let's do my YouTube survey of pop music thing, which consists in typing random letters into the YouTube search and seeing what comes up. Here is what comes up with 'a':

Sorry for the juvenile intro, but just listen to the song. Yep, it's three for three: 4/4, backbeat and exactly at 120 bpm (beats per minute, the metronome marking that indicates the tempo).

No messing around there: straight to the drum machine. 4/4... But wait, I detect some innovation here: there is no backbeat as all beats are exactly the same, plus, I think the tempo is the radically different 122 bpm! Go Britney!

The letter 'c' brings us "C'mon" by Ke$ha:

and again, it's three for three: 4/4, backbeat and 120.

Doesn't anyone ever notice the aesthetic dissonance between all these wild and crazy, free-spirited artistic souls who just happen to always follow exactly the same metric formula in their songs?

And speaking of the Beatles and metric variety, the song from the White Album, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" by John Lennon begins in 4/4, but later on is in 5/4, 9/8, 12/8, (and goes back and forth between the last two a few times) then 10/8 in case you were getting bored, 2/4 and finally back to 4/4. Don't ever tell me Ringo didn't earn his money!

Viva la Musica!

It is so nice to read something that pushes back at all the doom-mongering. Here is an article in the New Yorker that puts it all in perspective with a spectacular graphic by music blogger Andy Doe at Proper Dischord. I would love to steal the graphic and put it up here, but frankly, I've heard about those notorious New Yorker hit squads that track you down and assassinate you for violating their copyright. So you should go to the New Yorker article and click on the graphic to see that people have been bemoaning the death of classical music since the 14th century for a variety of predictable reasons: money, technological innovation such as figured bass, the piano and more recently compact discs and YouTube. The other most common factor to blame was compositional innovation by those very outrageous radicals Monteverdi and Debussy.

The only thing I might take issue with in the article is its parochial focus on classical music in America:
What supports these jeremiads is the implicit idea that classical music is an aberration in the United States, something to be regarded with suspicion. (Vanhoenacker writes of “classical trappings … that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture,” as if popular culture were an exclusively American affair.) But, like plenty of other great things in the U.S., classical music has endured because it has been made American. For more than a century, agitators for Beethoven and Brahms helped secure it an increasing stake on American soil. These were educators and musicians who carried what the historian Joseph Horowitz calls “moral fire,” who genuinely believed that great music made people better. The moral angle is bust—it’s unjust and untrue to claim that classical music is inherently better than any other kind of music—but a fire still burns. Talk to anyone who performs, composes, promotes, or organizes anything in this field and the blaze is palpable. It is not a profession for the apathetic.
There is an interesting confusion there: the writer William Robin acknowledges the "fire" of advocates of classical music past and present, but wants to empty it of any moral content--and presumably of any aesthetic advantage as well. Later on he seems to be claiming that the prominence of classical music in the media and common culture of past decades was merely a ploy in "realpolitik":
Until the U.S. again feels the need to use high art to prove itself to the world, it’s unlikely that a New York Philharmonic broadcast will interrupt the ten o’clock news.
Throughout the article I get only a vague sense of why classical music in particular has any significance or quality that might distinguish it from other very minor musical niches such as bluegrass or zydeco. The closest he comes to an actual argument for classical music comes toward the end:
The classical-music declinists rarely consider the value in having a few of the greatest orchestras in the world located in America, the so-called homeland of pop culture. Or the civic pride that the citizens of Chicago and Minnesota take in their symphonies. Or the lifelong bonds forged between musicians and their audience. Or the uncanny thrill of hearing Mahler live, an experience like no other.
So, civic pride and hearing Mahler live, that's it? I'm sure I'm being a little unfair, but while this is an excellent retort to the silly article in Slate that I linked to a few posts back, it is not quite a full-blooded argument for classical music.

The approximately one million words of postings on this blog is probably more what an argument for classical music would look like. But the best argument is just to point to the music.

One of the things that does actually distinguish classical from quite a lot of other music is the way that it exploits contrasts. I say "quite a lot" rather than "all" because wide contrasts are used very effectively by a lot of musicians who are certainly not classical: Frank Zappa and the Beatles come immediately to mind, but there are lots of others. But most musicians in most genres tend not to use overmuch the possibilities of contrast. Laziness? Possibly, but it could equally be that they might consider it to be violating the basic fundamentals of the style.

But while a lot of classical music does not exploit contrast too much (a lot of the duller Baroque music, for example), a lot of the best does. Joseph Haydn is certainly one who uses it effectively. In a certain sense, most of his symphonies are "Surprise" symphonies because of the way they surprise the listener in one way or another. The other night I was listening to some of the London symphonies and suddenly realized my attention had wandered. A finale with a very innocuous, almost trite, beginning had suddenly metamorphosed into something quite stormy! How did that happen? How did he get from the beginning to this furious music? So I had to go back and listen again. The way Haydn subtly jacks up the energy and then stops on a dime, only to swoop off in an unexpected harmonic direction is something that hardly anyone else seems to be able to do with such finesse. Here as an example is the last movement of the Symphony No. 93 in D major:

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

1, 2, 1-2-3-4!

Let me start by recycling one of my own jokes--but it's ok, because you haven't heard it before. Chatting with a music critic friend of mine, I made the remark that the difference between chamber and orchestral music is that in chamber music the ensemble is tighter: the players are usually within a sixteenth note of one another. He thought that quite funny.

I haven't done a post on scientific research into music in a while and I notice that Norman Lebrecht has something up about some new research into chamber music ensemble playing. The first link he has is to the abstract of the research. It is worth quoting, just for the flavor:
Control of relative timing is critical in ensemble music performance. We hypothesize that players respond to and correct asynchronies in tone onsets that arise from fluctuations in their individual tempos. We propose a first-order linear phase correction model and demonstrate that optimal performance that minimizes asynchrony variance predicts a specific value for the correction gain. In two separate case studies, two internationally recognized string quartets repeatedly performed a short excerpt from the fourth movement of Haydn's quartet Op. 74 no. 1, with intentional, but unrehearsed, expressive variations in timing. Time series analysis of successive tone onset asynchronies was used to estimate correction gains for all pairs of players. On average, both quartets exhibited near-optimal gain. However, individual gains revealed contrasting patterns of adjustment between some pairs of players. In one quartet, the first violinist exhibited less adjustment to the others compared with their adjustment to her. In the second quartet, the levels of correction by the first violinist matched those exhibited by the others. These correction patterns may be seen as reflecting contrasting strategies of first-violin-led autocracy versus democracy. The time series approach we propose affords a sensitive method for investigating subtle contrasts in music ensemble synchronization.
I love the devil-may-care synthesis of the latest in pseudo-Marxist cultural theory with scientific jargon. On the one hand, "asynchrony variance", (which I think might refer to when the guys aren't quite together) and on the other, "first-violin-led autocracy"! À bas le roi! Down with the hegemony of the first violin!

Ok, let's let the BBC explain all this to us.
A team from the Royal Academy of Music and the University of Birmingham found that analysing how individual musicians vary their timing to follow the rest of the group can indicate a hierarchy.
They say it shows some quartets have a clear leader to ensure perfect harmony.
However, in other "democratic" quartets the musicians all follow each other, playing an equal role.
I can see it all now: the Dean's office calls over to the folks in the science building. "Hey, you've got that big machine that goes 'beep' just sitting idle for most of next week? Why don't you do something cool with it? I understand string quartets are kind of cool right now, why don't you do something with them? And if you can blend in just a touch of class-warfare, so much the better!"

The article gives a bit more detail here:
In one of the quartets, they found that three of the musicians were constantly having to speed up or slow down to stay in sync. However, the fourth player did not budge, letting the others adjust to her.
"The first violin was quite clearly providing a leadership," explained Prof Wing.
"She wasn't correcting to the timing of the other players - the other players were correcting much more to her."
However, in the other quartet, all of the members altered their timing equally, suggesting a more democratic arrangement.
Prof Wing said: "There was no distinction between the first violin and the other players - they were all making equal corrections to each other."
OK, so it is also possible that the first violin in the first group was just having an off day and that is why the others had to keep adjusting to her. As for "all of the members altered their timing equally" in the other group, sorry, I would have to see the evidence before I believed that.

Let me explain how chamber music works. There are a host of musical and historic factors involved that create a context within which each performing quartet works. For example, the first violin part was often, especially in the 18th century, the most virtuosic which meant that the other three instruments had to play an accompanying role. Not all the time, but often enough.  But there are lots of passages where the second violin or the viola or the cello might have the most important musical line and therefore be the controlling voice. It is give and take according to musical context. I recall rehearsing with the marvellous violinist Paul Kling on one occasion when he said "I wait for you, why can't you wait for me?" Right!! Chamber music is always give and take between all the instruments based on the musical context.

This is obvious to musicians and probably quite evident to audiences as well, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. I particularly enjoyed this summing-up comment from the BBC article:
Adrian Bradbury, a co-author from the Royal Academy of Music in London, said: 'Live interaction between musicians on stage is often the most electrifying element of a performance, but remains one of the least well understood.
Uh-huh. "Least well understood" by whom? Just scientists, I suspect. What I notice as a common factor in all these scientific investigations is that they remain quite oblivious to the basic musical context. And let's not miss the delightfully clumsy ideology revealed in the headline:

Hidden hierarchy in string quartets revealed

You see, until we can dissect it with the big machine that goes 'beep', there is no truth. Isn't it interesting how science is just like Gnosticism, believing that until their lab-coat-clad priests reveal the Truth to us, all is hidden. Science: draining the magic from music with big machines that go 'beep'.

Let's end appropriately with the movement from the Haydn quartet that they used for the study: Op. 74, no. 1, fourth movement. I can't find just that movement on YouTube, so this is the complete quartet. The last movement, vivace, starts at the 17:15 mark:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Johnson on Mozart

Recoiling from Maynard Solomon's book on Mozart, published in 2005, I downloaded a book with precisely the same title (Mozart: A Life) by Paul Johnson, which I see only now was just published in November. It is a much shorter book, under two hundred pages, as opposed to the Solomon, over six hundred pages. But so far--I am about half-way through--it is far superior. Instead of gnashing my teeth every page over the absurd psychoanalytic excesses of Solomon's book (which I posted about here), I find myself nodding appreciatively as I learn things about Mozart that have to do with his relationship with musical instruments and their players, the Catholic Church, the Masons, and much, much less about his supposed tortured relationship with his mother, father, sister and cousin.

Paul Johnson reminds me very much of another prolific historian, Jacques Barzun, who recently passed away in 2012 at the age of 104. Barzun published an astonishingly wide range of very learnéd books over a more than seventy year period from the late 1920s right into the 21st century. Unlike nearly all specialist historians of today, Barzun was perfectly comfortable writing about music and not dismayed by a lack of technical knowledge. His book on Berlioz is still an important resource. Perhaps Barzun's crowning achievement is his large tome From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present published in 2000. It would be hard to find any area of historic or cultural knowledge in which he was not some sort of expert.

The very young, in comparison, Paul Johnson, who is a mere eighty-five years old, has also published a remarkable number of books on an even more remarkable range of topics. Just in my own library I have his books on the history of art, Art: A New History (2003), modern history, Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s (1984), plus histories of the Jews and Christianity. But I was a bit surprised to see him writing about Mozart as he had given no previous indication, at least in the books I have read, of having a particular interest in music. Other people might look askance at a book on Mozart by Johnson as he is regarded in some circles as being "politically incorrect", i.e. holding conservative views on certain subjects. But even if true, I don't find that to be a fault as I hold conservative views on certain subjects, like aesthetics, myself. I greatly enjoyed his large and beautifully illustrated history of art partly because he discusses architecture as being equally important as other media and because he gives a nicely skeptical account of 20th century modernism.

But it must be admitted that Johnson probably does not have the technical command of music that he does of other subject areas, as is revealed in some turns of phrase that a musician would likely not use. But on the other hand, Johnson's view of Mozart and his music seems both sound and wholesome. He does not accept the view so common in writing about Mozart and reflected in the film Amadeus that his life was overwhelmingly tragic. Rather, Johnson writes, Mozart was an “easygoing person, whose brief spasms of hot temper and outbursts of grievances were mere cloudlets racing across a sunny view of life.”  “He enjoyed existence and wanted everyone to be as happy as he.”

Frankly, if you pick any piece by Mozart at random and just listen to it, you should come to the same conclusion almost immediately:

But, and this is important, notice that if you go to YouTube, you will see the few genuinely dark pieces by Mozart, such as the Requiem and the Symphony no. 40 in G minor, given prominence. But this is because we are so often told that Mozart was a tragic figure writing tragic music! It is quite circular. The Requiem is a uniquely dark piece for Mozart and the rarity of the Symphony no. 40 in his output is signaled by the fact that it is one of only two symphonies in minor that he ever wrote: out of over forty! Here, see for yourself. These are the outliers. It is probably safe to say that 80 to 90% of Mozart's music is as sunny as that of Haydn.

While Johnson is not in any sense a musicologist, he is an excellent historian and writer and has the good sense to pay attention to someone who is a great musicologist, Donald Francis Tovey, whom he cites in several places. The general impression one gets from Johnson's book on Mozart is of someone opening the windows and letting in light and fresh air to correct the over-heated romantic excesses that have over many recent decades, clouded our impressions of Mozart. Johnson presents him as a practical musician of enormous abilities who loved working with the musicians who played his music and could churn out great compositions with the seeming ease (though he worked very hard at it) that MacDonald's churns out hamburgers--no aesthetic comparison is intended!!

Johnson cites a comment by Liszt to the effect that Mozart composed more bars of music than a trained copyist could write in a lifetime! Later on he remarks that if you take the last decade of Mozart's life, from 1781 to 1791, Haydn and Mozart between them created a masterwork every fortnight! Further he notes that from age twenty, Mozart never went a month without producing something immortal. Now of course, no respectable musicologist today would write this sort of thing. After all, one's job as a critical-thinking contemporary musicologist today is to "unpack" and "nuance" silly claims like a piece of music can be "immortal". Johnson doesn't bother trying to counter thinking like that, but simply listing a few pieces would be a good answer:

Symphonies 39, 40 and 41
a whole bunch of piano concertos
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Don Giovanni
The Marriage of Figaro
Così fan tutte
The Magic Flute

This is like Samuel Johnson's counter to Bishop Berkeley's argument that the physical world does not exist: walking along outdoors he chose a large stone and gave it a fierce kick saying, "thus I refute Bishop Berkeley!" I have no doubt whatsoever that all the pieces I just mentioned, and many others by Mozart, will be played and listened to with great pleasure centuries after our current musicology has been forgotten.

This is more of an appreciation of Johnson's book than a review. If you want a critical review, there is one here from the Washington Post. The reviewer starts out by mentioning how "Johnson seeks to counter the most egregious misconceptions" about Mozart's life. But the review ends with some pointless criticisms that Johnson does not cite specific sources, offers too many of his own opinions and does not do any real analysis. Yes, exactly, because this is not a scholarly work, but what used to be called a popularization. As a musician and trained musicologist myself, I find nothing exceptionable about Johnson's opinions. Quite the contrary.

Let's end with some more Mozart. Here is a little trio, "Soave il vento" from Così fan tutte:

If that isn't immortal, it will just have to do...

Monday, January 27, 2014

Haydn, Music and the Light and the Dark

I usually end with a music clip, but today I would like to start with one. I am in the process of listening to all 106 Haydn symphonies right now and I'm up to the Symphony No. 92 in G major, nicknamed the "Oxford" Symphony because it was the one he chose to conduct at a ceremony in which he was given an honorary doctorate by Oxford University. It was not written for the occasion, but was one of a group of three symphonies he had just written for the Count d'Ogny. The whole symphony is lovely and charming as Haydn's symphonies usually are. But what really captured my attention was the last movement:

I'll bet that shook some dust off the rafters. This is probably as frivolous as serious music gets. And of course, it isn't frivolous at all, it is just high-spirited fun. But if most of us sit down to write five minutes of high-spirited fun, we don't come up with anything this good. This kind of moto perpetuo is tried by many composers, but the results are almost never this good. Listen to the completely unexpected harmonic swoop around the 2:40 mark when the music just seem to take on a whole other dimension. The problem with dashing moto perpetuos is that they are often too perpetuo, too much all the same. Listen for example to the last movement of Beethoven's String Quartet, op. 59, no. 3, the allegro molto:

This is a real tour-de-force, but instead of the sheer gaiety of the Haydn, in comparison it is just a bit too relentless and dogged.

Sometimes, while listening through all the Haydn symphonies, I have wondered to myself why Beethoven and Mozart are rated so much higher than Haydn. They obviously learned so much from him. Was it just that he wrote so many symphonies? Would he be more popular if he had just written nine or ten? Or fifteen or twenty? Instead of one hundred and six (or eight, depending on what you count).

But perhaps it is that Mozart and Beethoven have a better "story". Mozart, the child prodigy, dying tragically young and buried in a pauper's grave. Beethoven with an alcoholic father and going deaf from his early thirties and with a mysterious love interest. Haydn? Well, apart from making a very poor marriage, there really isn't a lot to tell. He was entirely in the world of music from seven years old and by the time he died he was the most famous musician in Europe. No scandals. He was a very good man, in later years often dedicating funds from performances of his big oratorios to charities for musician's families. Just a good guy. But we somehow we seem to require that great musicians have a tragic dimension.

In the case of Mozart and Beethoven, it was just happenstance, but through the nineteenth century, one almost starts to suspect that the "story" was something crafted to appeal to the public. In the case of performers like Paganini and Liszt, one is certain of it!

But good old Haydn didn't have a dramatic life, he just wrote great music. Truly great music. Because why would we rate music that captures sheer joy and effervescence lower than music that captures melancholy and despair? But we do seem to, don't we? But can you go back and listen to that presto from the Symphony No. 92 and still think that should rate lower than melancholy? Here, let me put up another Beethoven example for you. This is the last movement of the String Quartet, op. 18, no. 6, the long introduction to which Beethoven himself labeled, La Malinconia:

After the very long, four minute opening (long enough to be a separate movement), the music continues with a more conventional finale. Lots of remarkable harmonic things going on in La Malinconia, but is this better in any way, aesthetically, than Haydn's vivacious delight?

I think that the twist towards the dark, the sad, the melancholic, that was the specialty of the 19th century, has distorted our perceptions. The neoclassicists of the 1920s and 30s tried to undo some of that, but only partially successfully. But it is odd, is it not, that we should feel that dark music is better or more powerful than light music? To drop the metaphor, in the physical world light has all the power. The light of the sun, even 93 million miles away, is overwhelming and we see a thousand shades and hues of light, but darkness is just, well, dark.

Is it just a romantic conceit that sorrow is more aesthetically weighty than joy? When you listen to movements like the Haydn presto above, it does make you wonder, doesn't it? Perhaps we have been deceived by shallow music that only offers a kind of vulgar gaiety. But Haydn and Offenbach are really on different planes, aren't they?

Let me leave you with one last Haydn finale: this is to his last symphony, no. 104 in D major:

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Decline of Everything?

I've lost count of the articles lamenting (or perhaps sometimes secretly delighting in) the decline of classical music. But there are even articles lamenting the decline of pop music. I was at a dinner party last night and for some reason I started riffing on this whole "classical music has been in decline since..." meme.

I had a friend who, perhaps even seriously, once asserted that music has been in decline since 1733. That would be the year that François Couperin "le grand" passed away.

Well, ok. But wait, what about J. S. Bach who died in 1750?

That was certainly a peak, but weren't there one or two other peaks even after 1750? What about Mozart who died in 1791?

Or, of course, Beethoven, who died in 1827:

Someone might even chip in by mentioning Chopin, who died in 1849:

But I think that's going a bit far. On the other hand, skipping over a lot of pointless romantic melancholy, we still have Debussy, who died in 1918:

But then I slap myself in the forehead: we are completely forgetting about Shostakovich, who died in 1975:

So maybe music is not in decline after all? But then I see something on the Internet, described in this way:
Desirae Garcia ... has one of the most stunning voices in music. The amount of soul contained in each syllable she articulates has a shocking impact on the first-time listener. The passion that she feels for the art she creates is evident in the lyrics she composes. She has a knack for writing material that contains a vulnerability directly contrasted by the strength of her vocal power. Her singing has a command over the songs that she writes and one can tell that she has experienced each theme she displays to her audience. She highlights each scar as if it were a mark of admiration, rather than something to be ashamed of. This is her most appealing characteristic: she has the skill to transform any subject into beautiful pieces of artwork. And in that lies redemption.
Sounds pretty good, huh? But here is the artist in question:

Stunning? I don't think I have heard anything quite that lame since Ethan Hawke's rendition of "Aura Lee".

Ok, so I think we see some sort of decline here, and we have narrowed it down to sometime between 1733 and 1975, right?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Musical Miscellanea

Just too busy the last few days to post so here is my Friday Miscellanea one day late!

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!

* * *

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?

* * *

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.
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.
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...).

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:

* * *

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!

* * *

Well that's my Friday miscellanea, delayed one day. Maybe I will have something else later on.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Back to the Symphony

Time to check in again with the best on-going project in music journalism, Tom Service's Symphony guide over at The Guardian. The last three installments have been the Symphony No. 8 oDvořák, a quite nice piece, full of his charming melodies, the truly great "Unfinished" Symphony in B minor of Schubert and one of the two pieces that fully justify Stravinsky's seat at the Pantheon of Great Composers, his Symphony of Psalms. Tom does a pretty good job of getting people to listen to these pieces, which is the whole point of the exercise. I don't think he does as good a job digging into them or talking about how they work, but that would probably be inadvisable in this context. At least, with these last three installments, he presents three pieces that are really worth listening to. So far the only composer to have appeared more than once is Joseph Haydn. That's only fair, as he is probably the only great composer to have written more than one hundred symphonies, most of them excellent.

So one wonders, will we have more symphonies by Beethoven? The 9th, most probably. And more by Mozart and Mahler without a doubt. There really have to be more of Shostakovich's--most likely the 5th, the 7th or the 10th. I would do all three, of course. If only to forestall more Mahler and Bruckner! Wait, did I actually say that?

Well, let's listen to the Symphony of Psalms. It really is a remarkable piece of music. Written in 1930, it incorporates many elements from past music (including a fugue in the second movement) as was common for so-called "neo-classical" music. Riccardo Muti conducting, I'm not sure of the orchestra:


I used to read a fair bit of psychology: Freud, Jung and Karen Horney among others. As I thought I might have been a bit neurotic, I read more in that area, specifically books by Horney, for whom it was a specialty. But one day I noticed that reading about neurosis seemed to make me more, not less neurotic. So I decided to take a radical step. As I had been growing tired of the whole approach that has been taken over the last one hundred years in psychology, I would just stop believing in it. It was likely an unsatisfactory theory that just didn't pan out. As part of my new policy I stopped using any technical terms derived from modern psychology like ego, id, unconscious, and so on.

Today, I am happy to say, I show no ill effects from this policy. Indeed, I believe I am entirely free of "neurosis" as I don't even believe such a thing exists. And I'm happy to be rid of that pesky subconscious as well. One happy side-effect is that there is a lot of prose heavily-laden with psychology that I no longer have to read!

Which brings me to my topic for today: psychologically-oriented books on music such as the one on Mozart by Maynard Solomon. Like one of the reviewers on Amazon, I simply stopped reading it part-way through. Under my new policy (which isn't so new, I've been practicing it for twenty or so years now), much of the book is simply meaningless blather. Let me offer an extended quote:
The felicitous states that frame Mozart's excursions into anxiety may represent a variety of Utopian modalities, and the impinging, disturbing materials may be taken to represent a variety of fearful things--the hidden layers of the unconscious, the terrors of the external world, a principle of evil, the pain of loss, or the irrevocability of death. An argument can be made, however, that in the last analysis we bring to the entire continuum of such states derivatives of feelings having their origin in early stages of our lives, and in particular the preverbal state of symbiotic fusion of infant and mother, a matrix that constitutes an infancy-Eden of unsurpassable beauty but also a state completely vulnerable to terrors of separation, loss, and even fears of potential annihilation, a state that inevitably terminates in parting, which even under the most favorable circumstances leaves a residue of grief and melancholy, engendering a desire--wrapped in the likelihood of further disillusionment--to rediscover anew the sensations of undifferentiated fusion with a nurturing caretaker. Not without reason, the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott described a baby as "an immature being who is all the time on the brink of unthinkable anxiety." an anxiety that is kept at bay only through a mother's ongoing, mirroring validation of the infant's existence. It may be such a precarious moment where inexpressible ecstasy collides with unthinkable anxiety that we sense in the Andante of Mozart's A-minor Sonata, which reduced to its simplest essence, tells a story about trouble in paradise.

Or not! Whew! Yes, it is quite a shock at the end to find that this passage is about Mozart and, in particular, the Andante of the Sonata, K. 310 that I was talking about yesterday in this post. Actually, it is not the whole Andante he is talking about, just the development section which slips into the somewhat remote key of C minor for dramatic contrast. Yes, Mr. Solomon certainly seems to have gotten his money's worth out of that development section. But somewhere, from some niche of heaven, I seem to hear peals of raucous laughter that I believe are coming from the shade of Mozart himself.

In my little book of rules of intellectual ethics, there is a section on excessive claims that says something about distrusting any account that is constantly throwing up superlatives like "unsurpassable", "unthinkable" and "inexpressible". Not only this passage, but whole chapters and indeed, the fundamental stance of this book, is simply absurd. This kind of thinking clouds your mind. Reading this is like trying to swim in peanut butter. The connection between the words and the reality is so remote that he could be talking about nearly anything. The relation between this and Mozart is so tenuous that it might as well be nonexistent.

I labeled this with the tag "new" musicology, but it isn't even that: this is more like shop-worn New Age dithering.

Now, to clear the palate, let's listen to some actual Mozart, not someone's neurotic (heh) maunderings.  Here is Mitsuko Uchida with the first movement of the Piano Sonata in A minor, K. 310 by Mozart.

If the real Mozart's music had anything at all to do with the expression of a being on the brink of unthinkable anxiety, then we would not find it at all worth while to listen to, now would we?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Mozart's Family Life

Suppose we went to a concert where a young pianist was going to play a piano concerto, perhaps by Mozart. And suppose that before beginning the piece, the artist stood up and decided to tell us all about his horrible family life, how his mother died and his father emotionally abused him and all the sordid details about their financial difficulties and then pointed out how all this influences his playing and how the performance we are about to hear was shaped by all the biographical currents in his life.

I don't know about you, but after a few minutes of this I would start looking for the nearest exit. But, I'm sorry to say, this is roughly the gist of the biography of Mozart I am reading right now. Here is the link (I'm reading it on Kindle) and here is the publisher's blurb:
Beethoven biographer Solomon here presents a revisionist biography of Mozart, which his publisher claims is the first full-scale biography in nearly 40 years. Certainly it is a major work in terms of heft and range. Solomon will have none of the "divine child" approach, limning instead a man growing up under the shadow of an impossibly demanding father who was at once overprotective and jealous of his son's vast gifts. There is a great deal of psychological probing into the agonies of their relationship, much of it sensible; and Solomon paints an indelible portrait of Mozart's last years, begging for money, guilty about his deprived wife Constanze, resentful of being virtually cut out of his father's will, yet still heroically forging a new musical aesthetic. He also clears up much of the mystery about the bizarre Requiem commission, and the burial in the "pauper's grave." He is convinced that Mozart and his cousin "the Basle," recipient of many of the infamous smutty letters, were lovers for a time; and the portrait of the composer that emerges is of an extraordinarily sensitive, liberal-minded (the Masonic material is superb), extravagant but responsible person who has been much belittled by biographers beginning almost immediately after his death. Solomon also writes acutely about what was daringly new, and wonderfully enduring, about Mozart's music. Only a certain lack of flow between the chapters suggests the origin of much of this material in lectures.
There certainly is a "great deal of psychological probing". I should have realized from that the problem. Frankly, I am not interested in psychological (probably Freudian, though I try to be unaware of who's who in modern psychology) probing of Mozart's life and character. I'm not! Somewhere around Chapter 12 I started skipping pages, hoping the agony would lessen.

Solomon sets up the slow movement of the Piano Sonata in A minor, K. 310 as a kind of soundtrack to the agonies of his life, in particular the death of his mother and the emotional and financial bullying from his father. Here is Christoph Eschenbach playing the Andante cantabile con expressione from the A-minor Sonata, K. 310:

Solomon describes the first section, the exposition, as "oceanic, comforting and rapturous". Well, ok, though honestly, you could have chosen any three of a thousand adjectives and hit the mark just about as close: "brook-like, serene and joyous" would have done as well, or why not "field-like, gentle, with a touch of herbal scent"? Then, in the second half, where Mozart has a development with contrasting drama in C minor, Solomon describes it as "disturbing and destabilizing" which is the basic harmonic strategy of developments as we see in innumerable pieces by Haydn. He goes on, upping the ante by saying this section is "threatening to annihilate what has gone before" and notes a "brooding intensity, the relentlessness of the rapid modulations". Again, yes, this is exactly what happens in a development which is meant to destabilize the harmony for dramatic contrast.

But the problem for me is that Mozart very likely wrote this music for three fundamental reasons: first, because it was what he did, it was his gift, second, because this is how he earned a living, and third (and this is probably in order of priority) to escape from the seamy intrigues and paranoia of his monstrous father and the pain of his mother's death and the insecurities of his turbulent life. And here is Maynard Solomon, dragging him back into the very thing he wanted to get away from.

Now let's modify that opening fable of mine. Instead of the pianist telling us about himself, Maynard Solomon rushes on stage to make sure that we know every detail of Mozart's mother's illness and the nasty letters from his father and their financial affairs down to the last florin and groat. At this point don't we rise up as a body and throw him offstage, begging the pianist to please, just get on with the music? Wouldn't Mozart himself do the same?

Let me now engage in the customary backing and filling: Solomon's book is very useful in some ways. For the first few chapters I was glad to learn about the context of Mozart's life. But at some point, the obsessive interest in the details of his relationships with his parents and love interests just got unpleasant. I wanted to say, "can't we talk a bit more about the music?" But when he started introducing pieces of music as if they were mere accompaniments to the emotional turmoil of his life, I started actively disliking the whole project.

Now I'm afraid to look at the new book by John Eliot Gardiner on Bach for fear it will be more of the same...

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Music World According to Google

This is something that might either enrage, confuse or depress you: a music timeline from Google that purports to show the relative popularity of various genres of music over time from the 1950s until now:

As you mouse over the image, you can pick out different genres. At the very tippy-top, in bands of color so skinny they are barely visible, you can pick out obscure, peripheral genres like holiday music, blues, vocal/easy listening, comedy/spoken word/other and children's music. Below these are the big, wide bands indicating much more popular genres like rock, pop, metal and alternative/indie. Here is a static image:

Click to enlarge

You can dig into each genre and see how it's popularity fared over the years as they explain here. For example, here is the sad story of jazz over the years:

Click to enlarge
I imagine you can see where I am going with this. There is even a timeline for the most obscure thing I could think of: novelty recordings dominated by Alvin and the Chipmunks and Weird Al Yankovic:

But no classical. Not a whisper of a shadow of a ghost of classical. Classical music is treated the way  "nonpersons" were in the Soviet Union: it simply does not exist and will be air-brushed out of all existing photos and databases.

Does anyone at Google want to explain what is going on here? According to some figures I have seen, the recorded music sales market is about 12 billion dollars annually of which classical music is about 3% or 36 million. Yes, that's pretty tiny but while it might be a fairly thin line in the Google graph, it still ought to be a line! N'est-ce pas?

Another Classical Supergroup

In this post I was talking about what must have been a spectacular evening in 1785 when Dittersdorf, Haydn, Mozart and Vanhal got together to read some quartets. In a comment I mentioned what was probably the greatest classical "supergroup" of performers: the trio of Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky who were sometimes called the "Million Dollar Trio". I just ran across a film of them that I didn't know existed (though there are lots of recordings and, I see now, a DVD). Here is a photo:

And here is the film, with performances of excerpts from a Schubert trio and a trio by Mendelssohn:

I love when they get into an argument about interpretation--in Russian! There are lots of things to notice here including the generally undemonstrative approach. They play so well they don't bother tossing their hair or gazing soulfully at one another or nodding and gesturing while playing. They just play. And listen really closely to one another. Too bad the sound isn't better. I gather this was filmed for television in 1953. We forget how, back a few decades, there was actually a lot of classical music on television. I saw a broadcast of a Segovia concert from the White House in the late 1970s. I wonder if that is on YouTube? Well, of course it is. The concert was in 1979. Alas, Segovia was eighty-six years old at the time, so just a bit past his prime!

And, of course, Glenn Gould did so much work with CBC television in Canada that he had his own office in the CBC building in Toronto. A friend of mine called the number for CBC Toronto once and Glenn Gould actually picked up the phone! I see that you can purchase the complete Glenn Gould broadcasts in DVD form which went on the air from 1954 to 1977. Here is a little sample:

How did I get on to Glenn Gould? Oh, right, television. Of course the whole media landscape has changed so much. Now "television" does not mean the few channels that I grew up with, but hundreds of channels. And the Internet is like a million more "channels". So we do live in a kind of Golden Age. Now, if we could only get the video directors to stop futzing around with weird camera angles and tight shots.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mozart, the Serenade and a Violin Concerto

When Mozart was young, his specialty was writing exactly the right music for any occasion and he developed the ability to imitate any kind of composition. His father Leopold once wrote to him, "I know your capabilities. You can imitate anything." And he was not exaggerating. Remember, this was the second half of the 18th century. At this point in music history the idea that a composer should find their own unique "voice" and create an entirely new musical style to express that voice was unheard of. Way back in the early days of this blog I put up a post on originality in music and in it, I believe I quoted the first instance of someone talking about "original genius" in music. That was around 1785, towards the end of Mozart's life and it was Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart talking about J. S. Bach. The notion didn't really get widespread until the 19th century and the first generation of true Romantics: Berlioz, Schumann and Chopin. Before then, a composer was supposed to produce excellent, finely-crafted examples of what was expected, not unexpected.

Of course, Mozart, like Bach, had a tendency to transform and improve on his models. On one occasion he even talked about writing an aria modeled on one by Bach's son J. C. Bach that was as different as possible from the original. He wrote "And indeed, mine does not resemble his in the very least."

Along with the Romantic tradition of extreme originality seems also to have come the "anxiety of influence" as in the theory of Harold Bloom. This holds that every artist (poet specifically) is terribly affected by their precursors to the extent that in order to escape this influence they will "misread" their precursors so as to achieve their original style. Mozart, if anything, may have had the opposite anxiety. Instead of worrying about being too influenced by others, he worried more about allowing himself to be too original. This probably had something to do with his family environment and the process of seeking a lucrative post for himself. But it also had something to do with Mozart's compositional personality. Music flowed from him like water in a river: he apparently effortlessly generated idea after idea, melody after melody. The main difference between his sonata forms and Joseph Haydn's is that where Haydn would, contra the theory books, tend to write a movement using just one theme, in a typical Mozart movement new themes keep appearing and he seems to be, in the words of Maynard Solomon, "seek[ing] to subordinate his melodic impulse to formal restraints."

But without any kind of conscious plan, Mozart did indeed develop his own style, though it was in no sense based on an invented "private language" as so many 20th century styles seem to be. Rather it was closely based on the genres and models of the music of his environment. One important genre as he developed his style was the serenade, a very popular celebratory and processional piece in Salzburg. Mozart's examples date from the 1770s when he was in his very early twenties. This is the Serenata notturna, K 239, dating from 1776:

It is charming and very pastoral in its evocation of the strumming of the lute and the rustic jocularity of the tympani. The serenade is one of a closely-related group of genres that included the divertimento and cassation. This was music that was intended to be heard once and then forgotten. Apart from the excellent examples by Mozart and a few others, nearly all of this music has disappeared. The traits he developed in these pieces, such as the ability to express nostalgia and longing for a pastoral idyll, went on to be used in more developed concert music such as the violin concerto. Actually, this gives us an interesting model of how concert music can evolve from more popular forms.

The connection between the pastoral style of the serenade and Mozart's violin concerto style is easily established as an aria by the shepherd-king Aminta from Act 1 of Mozart's 1775 opera Il re pastore is an early version of the first movement of his Violin Concerto in G major, K. 216 of the same year. The king sings:

Tranquil air and serene days
Fresh springs and green fields
These are the prayers to fortune
Of the shepherd and his flocks almost the same music as the solo violin plays in the concerto. Here is the opening of the score to the concerto:

Incidentally, Mozart is the only composer I can think of that wrote concerto vehicles for himself on more than one instrument. He was not only a virtuoso pianist, but a very fine soloist on violin as well! Now let's have a listen. Here is the very fine team of Gidon Kremer with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic: