Monday, February 2, 2015

Forbidden Genres

We in the 21st century pride ourselves on our cultural diversity and omnivorous listening habits. We are equally at home listening to Javanese gamelan music or 1960s Detroit soul, to Beethoven string quartets or West Coast punk. We're open to everything! Right? Well, with the possible exception of Paul Hindemith or Ke$ha...

But the truth is that there are a whole bunch of genres that were very important and enjoyed by huge numbers of people not that many years ago. And no, I'm not talking about ballet, silly. That is still enjoyed by lots of people today. No, I am talking about genres like the 18th century serenade, cassation and divertimento. These genres were once very popular for diversion and just sheer listening pleasure and composers like Haydn, Mozart and yes, even Beethoven, wrote loads of them. Some examples? Here is the lovely Serenade in D, K. 204 by Mozart. Forty minutes long with two minuets, a couple of slow movements, a couple of fast movements. The finale is an interesting alternation between Andantino grazioso and Allegro. The first two movements are like a violin concerto. In fact, the second movement, at the 7:48 mark in this clip, is easily as fine as any slow movement from Mozart's violin concertos.

But we never, never hear this or similar pieces in concert any more. Why? Well, as I keep saying, I think that sometimes it is the supposed friends of classical music that are often our worse enemies. This music, because of the genre, is not considered serious enough for a place in a modern orchestral program. But, and this is the funny bit, orchestras are constantly being accused of being too stuffy! Well, sure, because they have dumped all the lighter genres from the canon. There are dozens and dozens of serenades, cassations and divertimenti like this one--none of which we ever hear.

Another huge genre that was also very big in the earlier part of the 19th century was vocal music for duos, trios and quartets that was largely performed in salons. Schubert wrote a great deal of this sort of music, but the only genre that has, sort-of, survived into our time is the solo lieder. The last gasp of this repertoire, a disc of duos, trios and quartets by Schubert recorded by Elly Ameling , soprano; Janet Baker, mezzo; Peter Schreier, tenor; Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, baritone and Gerald Moore, piano came out in the early 70s. Here is a sample:

Our orchestral concerts these days are impoverished by excluding entire genres of very fine music and our chamber music concerts are the same. The two most common chamber music concerts (apart from solo recitals) are the string quartet and violin (or cello) and piano recitals. Both of these exclude the enormous repertoire for winds with strings like the Beethoven Septet I put up a few days ago or even the superb Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581 by Mozart, one of his very finest pieces of chamber music, but one rarely heard:

Part of this is economics: string quartets cannot afford to go on tour with a clarinet player in their back pocket and it would be far too costly to tour with a septet! So we only hear these pieces occasionally at chamber music festivals where there are a lot of different musicians already there.

But I hope you appreciate the irony and historical ignorance that underlies all these complaints about the stuffiness and rigidity of classical music programs! I am getting weary of seeing every single string quartet program with the same short list of quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, with a few 20th century pieces by Bartók and Shostakovich sprinkled in. Don't get me wrong, I love all this music (well, except for the Schumann quartets), it is just that after you have heard twenty or thirty programs in a row with nothing else but and with the same pieces coming back again and again, you really long for a clarinet quintet or a serenade.

Of course it is even worse with the vocal music: all we ever get to hear is opera these days. Yes, very fine, but even the recital of solo Schubert lieder seems to be fading.

Cultural diversity and omnivorous listening habits?


No comments: