Saturday, October 31, 2015

Classical Music for Beginners

I see over at the Guardian they are having various people put up their lists of classical-for-beginners. This is a really laudable project! Go over and have a look at their lists. I rather like Jeremy Denk's attitude: "Let’s not start with the mistaken notion that classical music is polite, safe or pretty." And he starts off with Pierrot Lunaire! Good for him. Then he continues with Stravinsky and ends up with Beethoven by way of Bach. This list will either turn you on to classical music or scar you for life! The only piece that seems to appear on more than one list is Fratres by Arvo Pärt:

Now for my list. This is an activity I engage in with friends sometimes and those friends range from people who have hardly heard a note of classical music in their lives to people who have been professional musicians their whole lives. But I still find myself digging out pieces to play for them that they may not have heard. One friend, who has played violin and viola in professional orchestras for more than forty years, I was able to turn on to the Turangalîla Symphony by Messiaen because she had never heard it! Another professional musician, a guitarist, I was able to turn on to C. P. E. Bach with one of his Orchestral Symphonies. But I did recently make the attempt with someone who has only listened to pop music. I played the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven, then the beginning movement of the Schubert Unfinished, then part of the Rite of Spring and some Messiaen. Interestingly, she liked the Stravinsky most of all. This underlines my view (which seems to be shared by Jeremy Denk) that using the Top Pop Classics approach is wrong and will just confirm newcomers in their unconscious bias that classical music is boring music cranked out by Dead White Guys. If you want to reach people, you have to challenge them a bit.

The problem with doing it in a public forum is that you can't shape it to the individual, which is what works best. But I'll give it a try anyway. Here are five pieces that, if you are a beginner to classical music, you might find open a door for you.

Let's start with some sparkle. This is disc 11 from Scott Ross' complete Scarlatti sonatas, but I just want you to listen to the first one, K173 in B minor. This was very popular in a transcription for guitar duet with Presti and Lagoya and for good reason. It rocks:

Jumping to the 20th century, this is the opening movement of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2, written in 1913 for himself. It starts very peacefully, but that doesn't last long:

Now something completely different. This is an unaccompanied vocal piece from the Renaissance by Cipriano de Rore titled "Calami sonum ferentes" and it is nearly expressionist in its chromatic intensity.

We need something by one of those Viennese classicists that tend to top the great composer lists, and it is hard to avoid Mozart. This is one of his greatest accomplishments, the finale to his last symphony, that blends together several different themes in a truly celestial way. They say that when the angels in heavens want to praise God they play Bach; but when they want to please themselves, they play Mozart:

And finally, something by Beethoven, one name that nearly everyone has heard. Here is the first movement of his Piano Sonata in D major, op 28, nicknamed the "Pastoral":

If none of these pieces win you over, then we need to talk!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Relative Competence

I was sitting down with my recording engineer the other day fixing a pizzicato note in one of my songs that didn't quite come out and the thought occurred to me that what constitutes "competence" in music is rather different than in some other fields. This note was one of hundreds and hundreds that the guitar plays in the piece. All of those hundreds of notes, except this one and another, was played in the right place with the right emphasis, was well-phrased and had good tone. So the error rate was around 1% maybe. This, or better, is what is expected of every classical performer. Sure, every performance has little flaws, but 99% or better is the standard for classical musicians.

Now compare this with the standard for, oh, say, stockbrokers--you know the folks you give all your savings to, hoping they will invest it for you and fund your retirement? In order to become a stockbroker you have to pass an exam. On that exam you have to get 60% right to pass. So your stockbroker, the guy whose competence you trust, might have gotten 40% of the questions wrong on the exam. Think about that for a minute.

And don't get me started on journalists and people in the media. As far as I can tell, apart from smug, self-righteous bias, they have no competence.

Now let's hear a couple of nicely competent musicians:

Schubert: Some Longer Songs

You get some interesting perspectives when you listen your way through these big boxes of CDs devoted to single composers that the record companies are issuing these days. One of the reasons I've been writing a lot about Schubert lately is the availability of this collection at a very reasonable price:

As you can see, it contains sixty-nine CDs of the music of Schubert. This is far from complete, however! But it does have all the symphonies. Here is the breakdown:
  • 4 CDs of all eight symphonies
  • 14 CDs of chamber music
  • 7 CDs of piano sonatas
  • 14 CDs of other piano music
  • 6 CDs of sacred music: masses, offertories, etc.
  • 6 CDs of opera and other theater music
  • 18 CDs of songs including polyphonic songs, song cycles and individual songs
I'm not quite finished the songs, but I'm near the end--and I haven't even started on the operas!

As I was saying, you get some interesting perspectives, not only an overall sense of a composer's style based not just on a few popular pieces, but a sense as to where he invested most of his compositional energy. For example, I was surprised to learn from the excellent DG box The Debussy Edition, that most of the discs therein are of songs and other vocal music (7 CDs) followed by piano music (6 CDs) with just 3 CDs of orchestral music and only one of chamber music! But we are barely aware of all those songs (called "mélodies") by Debussy. We are not surprised to see all those discs of Schubert songs, though, as so much of his renown is based on them.

Here is something that will surprise you, though. Nearly all of Schubert's songs, and certainly all those in the song cycles and all the well-known ones are, as most songs even today are, between two minutes and seven minutes in length. That is also true of the Beatles. Some of their earlier songs are only two minutes long and the longest, "Hey Jude" is about seven minutes long. So let me introduce to you three songs by Schubert that are a bit longer. The first is in a genre that Schubert was particularly known for during his life, but that we are barely aware exists today: songs for male choir. This one is on a poem by Goethe titled "Gesang der Geister über den Wassern," D714. The performers are Nikolaus Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Vienna / Arnold Schönberg Choir:

Here is the beginning of the choral part:

Click to enlarge

What a magnificent, rich sonority. It is scored for string orchestra, four tenors and four basses. I'm sorry, I can't easily find a translation of the text. This song is a little under eleven minutes long. But that is nothing. My next two examples are both on texts by Friedrich Schiller, who also wrote the poem that Beethoven used in the last movement of his Symphony No. 9. The first song is "Die Bürgschaft", D246, dating from 1815. The title means "The Pledge":

And here is the opening:

That score goes on for eighteen pages, where most songs are two or three! The duration is about seventeen minutes. Apparently Schubert also attempted an opera on the same theme, but it remains a mere fragment.

My last example is the longest of all: "Der Taucher," D111 ("The Diver"), also a ballad by Schiller, comes in at nearly twenty-five minutes long! Wikipedia has a synopsis of the text:
A king throws a golden beaker in an abyss and promises that the one who can recover it can also keep it. But none of his knights and knaves wants to do it. So the king has to ask three times before a Edelknecht (squire) finds his courage. He deposits his sword and his coat and commends his life to god and jumps in a suitable moment into the intimidating sea. Everyone at the shore frightens that the boy will not return. After a while he emerges with the beaker in his hand. His terrifying report intrigues the king and he wants him to dive again and promises him a precious ring. The king's daughter tries to convince her father to stop with his cruel demands. Yet the king throws the beaker in the sea again and promises now, that the Edelknecht become a knight and will marry his daughter, if he recovers the beaker again. The boy has a look at the girl and wants her to become his bride, so he jumps into the deep and does not return.
This song, which Schubert wrote in two versions for bass and piano, dates from 1815 as well. Here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by Karl Engel:

Here is the beginning of the score (you can find the complete scores at IMSLP):

So that's my little survey of longer Schubert songs.

Bad Songs by Otherwise Fairly Acceptable Musicians

It was just the one-year anniversary of the death of Jack Bruce, one of rock's great bassists and here is a song he wrote, released by Cream:

And here is what Ginger Baker, Cream's drummer, thinks of the song:

Here is an example from Pink Floyd: Bike

I love Bob Dylan, but I always thought this song was, well, pretty crappy:

You say you want an example by the Rolling Stones? Of course you do. And it is obviously going to be from their worst album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Cosmic Christmas:

Well, I'm tapped out, temporarily at least. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

Friday Miscellanea

Here's a little video that might make you think:

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She just had the urge to help out--or she had way too much to drink: "Woman thrown out of theatre for singing along 'loudly and badly' to musical The Bodyguard." You see, there are objective aesthetic standards in music.

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Over at the New Yorker, Alex Ross has a piece about a recent performance of the late Schubert Piano Sonata in B flat, D960. The slightly overwrought title is "The Trill of Doom."
The other day, I sat with Sir András Schiff, the Hungarian-born, British-based pianist, in a practice room at Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles, contemplating a great musical mystery: the trill in the eighth measure of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat, D. 960. “It’s the most extraordinary trill in the history of music,” Schiff said, peering at my copy of the score. Sixty-one years old and an undisputed master of the Germanic repertory, Schiff has earned the right to make this sort of pronouncement, although he delivered the remark softly and haltingly, with a sense of wonder.
I dunno, whenever I read one of these columns by Alex Ross I start fidgeting in my seat because he always goes just a bit over the line. He is a big time music critic and hob-nobs with prominent artists, but honestly, why does he always come off like the nerdy kid who is just too earnest about everything? Oh, right.

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I have a special fondness for the acerbic, the biting and the sardonic commentaries because they help to cut the nauseating sweetness of the sycophantic ones. I offer for your consideration this review of poetry posted on the London Underground:
Like the lingering fart of a fat dog, it is impossible to ignore the poetry on the London Underground. There is something mind-numbingly awful about the posters that sit insultingly in trains and on the walls of Tube platforms. This city deserves better poetry because it would be impossible for its current batch to be any worse.
Now there's a metaphor that will stick with you.

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Here is a note from the extremely odd world of the arts in Canada: ‘Godfather of Canadian Arts’ to receive Peter Herrndorf Arts Leadership Award. The first odd thing is that the recipient of the Peter Herrndorf Arts Leadershop Award is, wait for it, Peter Herrndorf. And no, not junior, the very same Peter Herrndorf. That ought to give you a bit of a hint about how inbred the arts are in Canada. Who is Peter Herrndorf you ask? Here is his official biography. An excerpt:
After graduating in 1962 from the University of Manitoba in Political Science and English, Peter Herrndorf received a law degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax in 1965, and earned his Master’s Degree in Administration at the Harvard Business School in 1970.  He received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from York University in 1989, from the University of Winnipeg in 1993, from Dalhousie University in 2000, from Carleton University in 2004, and from the University of Manitoba and Brock University in 2006.
Peter Herrndorf stepped down as Chairman and CEO of TVOntario in February of 1999, and was appointed as a Senior Visiting Fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto later that month. He began his new role as President and CEO of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on September 1, 1999.
What does his career have to do with the arts? I mean, apart from the fact that he was a CEO of a tv network and now of the National Arts Centre. That must be it, the National Arts Centre. But isn't this like giving an arts leadership award to, I dunno, Sumner Redstone of Viacom and CBS? Don't you get the distinct impression that Canada really hasn't the foggiest idea of what leadership in the arts might be? The "leader" in the arts is the guy who sits in the back office managing the budget? Don't you have the feeling that if Canada had been running Vienna back in the early 19th century that they would have ignored Beethoven and given the arts leadership award to Anton Diabelli? In my book the people that lead the arts are not the administrators and bureaucrats but, you know, the actual artists?

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I'm sure you've been wondering, as I have, what kind of car Janis Joplin actually drove. In the song she asks the Lord to give her a Mercedes Benz as all her friends have Porsches. But in real life she drove a hand-painted Porsche that she bought for $3500:

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This piece in Spectator magazine is actually pretty good: "How to defend the arts using liberal values." Quite a concept...

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Though not a big fan I've never had anything against Adele. Until now, that is. Friday she released a new video and a new, slimmer figure. The song is titled "Hello":

Takes forever to get going as there is almost a minute and a half of what looks like sepia home video of Adele talking on the phone and taking covers off furniture. Then the song starts and it seems to be as much about showing off her new cheekbones as anything else. Oh yeah, and there is this black guy who keeps muttering in the background, I guess he's the lost love. I lost interest around the 3:30 mark as it sounds pretty much like every other diva-ballad. Once you have heard Schubert on lost love this stuff just...

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Here is an interesting musician: Lucas Debargue, who just won fourth prize in the Tchaikovsky competition, plus a special award from the Moscow music critics. He is the kind of musician that used to be very common: utterly possessed by the music and rather uninterested in worldly success. As he says, "If I had wanted great success, I would have gone to business school."

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I suppose our musical envoi today has to be this, back when pop singers were a tad less pretentious:

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Schubert: Winterreise, Part 4

Before leaving Winterreise, I want to look at one more song: the last one, "Der Leiermann" which means "hurdy-gurdy man", someone who plays the hurdy-gurdy, a European folk instrument.

The hurdy-gurdy, like the bagpipe, is a drone instrument. A rosined wheel, acting like a violin bow, constantly plays the strings giving a one or more note drone. The keys press tangents onto the strings allowing the player to sound out melodies over the drone. Schubert's song evokes this very closely:

Click to enlarge
I keep saying that one of the most remarkable things about great composers like Schubert (and Beethoven) is how they can achieve such powerful results from the simplest of means--and this is the perfect example. The few measures I have posted above, the very beginning of the song, contain all the materials used in the song. Only the slightest alterations are made in its course, such as this in the piano:

And this in the voice:

A composition student might reject this as being too simple, too "obvious" (whatever that means), but in Schubert's hands it is the most devastating end to this large cycle of twenty-four songs, most of them quite grim. The A/E drone continues in every measure and there are only two harmonies: E major (the dominant, sometimes with its seventh) and A minor, the tonic.

At the end of this long winter's journey of despair, to quote the Wikipedia summary:
24. Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) Behind the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man, cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. His begging bowl is always empty; no one listens to his music, and the dogs growl at him. But his playing never stops. “Strange old man. Shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?”
It may be the poet in the persona of the forlorn lover who is speaking, but it is pretty clear who the Leiermann is: Schubert himself. At the end of his life (he was to die within the year), he is sick, impoverished and virtually unknown in his own city (he was the only one of the great Viennese masters to be actually born there). And his music? Does anyone listen to it? Or is it nothing but the feeble scrapings of a hurdy-gurdy, trapped within its drones, played by a lonely figure on the edge of town. This is a familiar psychological state; the emotional claustrophobia that comes when it seems there is no escape from an unendurable fate.

It is time to listen. This is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Alfred Brendel (with English translation):

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Schubert: Winterreise, Part 3

I want to look at a couple of individual songs in the cycle. The title, though I'm sure you know, means "Winter Journey". The poems make frequent use of winter metaphors to express the mood of the lover--bleak as a rule. In "Letzte Hoffnung" ("Last Hope"), the lover is watching the last few leaves clinging to a tree. He fixes on one and imagines that if it does not fall, then there is still hope. How true it is, when we are in the depths of love's despair, we imagine any kind of crazy scenario that might get us back with our beloved.

(Refer back to my first post on this cycle for complete performances. The complete score can be found here.)

The piano part brilliantly captures the fluttering of the last few leaves on a tree, shaken by a passing breeze.

Click to enlarge
The piano's constant syncopation (the entry always on the offbeat) provides a good part of the effect, the rest comes from the harmony. The key is E flat as we know from the three flat key signature and also from the final chord. But there is not much to clue us into that at the beginning. Remember that a fundamental principle of tonal music as it was practiced from around 1600 is that we get confirmation of the key pretty early in a piece--usually right away. And confirmation means that we get a perfect authentic cadence. This principle was followed very strongly in all Classical era music by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In order for us to know that we are in E flat we need that cadence: B flat, D, F (and usually A flat) followed by E flat, G, B flat. But what do we hear? C flat and A flat? Which is the enharmonic equivalent of B to G sharp! So what we are actually hearing in the first measure (plus upbeat) is a dominant chord with a minor 9th--and we hear it from the top down, meaning that we hear that minor 9th first. On the downbeat of the second measure we do get our V7 chord, which is enough to indicate the key--but we have not had a tonic yet, so things are still up in the air. When do we get that elusive tonic? Not until the end of the first phrase in the voice, the downbeat of the fourth measure of the second system, where we get a nice clear V-I cadence. Let's have a listen:

Schubert achieves this uniquely uneasy mood of mixed trembling hope and agitated despair largely through the unstable harmonies, always turning in slightly puzzling directions. For the line, taken at a slower tempo, when the leaf falls and his hope is gone, he turns to E flat minor. The voice and the piano cadence together, the simplest V - I in E flat, at the end, but then the piano has an unsettling little coda:

Click to enlarge
As soon as the tonic is reached the piano inflects to the Neapolitan with F flat - E flat and then hints at A flat major with its viiº: G, B flat, D flat, F flat. After tonicizing A flat with its V6/5, we get a plagal cadence A flat to E flat!

It is really Schubert who lays out a lot of the harmonic devices that the 19th century will use. But this song, with its almost pointillistic piano part, hints at the 20th century.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Schubert: Winterreise, Part 2

I was saying to a friend the other day how music students tend to come out of university with a degree and they still don't know much of the basic repertoire. Sure, there are "literature" courses that try to fill that need, but it is a peripheral requirement at best. I know that I did two degrees (Bachelor of Music in Performance and Concert Diploma, the equivalent of a Master's degree in performance) plus all the course requirements for a third (PhD in Musicology) at a very good university and still came out with huge gaps in my knowledge. By huge gaps I mean that there were great expanses of repertoire that I had not even listened to once! And despite several years of theory courses, it is remarkable how little of the repertoire I actually knew.

Some examples of repertoire that were never discussed in any detail: the Beethoven piano sonatas, his string quartets, none of the symphonies other than numbers 5 and 9, none of the Haydn symphonies, only one of his string quartets, and, more à propos to today's topic, only a couple of the songs (called in German, lieder) by Schubert. I haven't listened very extensively to Schubert lieder until quite recently.

As a student I had more exposure to Schubert lieder than most music students because of two courses, Vocal Techniques, in which I had to sing some, in public, and German Literature, in which the teacher introduced us to the songs of Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752 - 1814), a musical collaborator of Goethe, who wrote many poems that others set to music. The lieder is one of the few musical forms that actually originated in German-speaking lands, unlike most of the others, such as the symphony, concerto and opera, all of which originated in Italy.

In the Oxford History, Taruskin talks about two sides of the Romantic lied: it functions as the expression of the "volk", the people, or as he puts it, the "We". It was one ideal for song composers to write in a way that captures the wisdom of the folk in its simplicity. This is why the songs, not only of Reichert, but of his successors including Schubert and Schumann, are simply set with no elaborate vocal fireworks. One note to a syllable is the general rule, with no fancy ornaments.

I mentioned the "We", the way in which lieder expressed the collective through folk-tales and ballads. But there is also the "I", the expression of the feelings, especially the suffering, of the individual. A good song could try and unite the two by enlisting the sympathy of the listener in the tribulations of the singer/composer/poet. This began with Beethoven's cycle An die ferne Geliebte which expresses the profound loneliness of the composer.

Schubert took this a great deal further as for him, unlike in the case of Beethoven, the song cycle was no minor genre, but one of central importance. Schubert made use of extreme harmonic gestures to underline the subjectivity and irony of a text. A really good example is a song from Schwanengesang called "Am Meer" that begins, begins!, with an unprepared augmented sixth chord. Here is the opening in Schubert's manuscript:

Click to enlarge

So you don't go blind trying to read that, here is the same passage in an early edition:

In a piece in C major, no-one before Schubert, not even Beethoven, would be found beginning with this chord. It is called an augmented sixth chord because of the interval A flat to F sharp that spans an augmented sixth. The normal use for this chord is as a pre-dominant. It strengthens the dominant by approaching it by chromatic step from two directions. But its use here, as a chromatic decoration to the tonic, is very unusual. Here is a performance by Fischer-Dieskau with the score. He does it in A major, not C major as would be normal for a low voice.

While Schubert does tend to stick to the ideal of simplicity in the voice part, he does not hesitate to assert the subjectivity, the "I", that can be evoked by the use of extreme harmonies like this chord and the flat submediant I mentioned earlier--and, of course, the switching of modes from major to minor and vice versa.

For an example from Winterreise let's look at the first song, which has a beautiful and characteristic example of the major/minor shift. The cycle begins with this song, whose despair lurks just under the surface. It begins in D minor:

Towards the end of the song the poet says he will creep softly out without disturbing his beloved, and leave a note saying farewell. This whole last section is in D major.  Then the piano returns to minor for a coda to end the song. Somehow this turn to the major is even more heart-rending than the minor was!

Let's listen to the song. This is Thomas Quasthoff accompanied by Daniel Barenboim.

It seems that that is all I have time for this morning! We will talk more about Winterreise in a future post.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Beautiful Quote

Thanks to the folks at Uncouth Reflections, I ran across this beautiful quote:
Audiences will always want to be entertained, but classical music is more than that. Much more. It is in that more where the difference resides. It separates the artist from the professional, and the craftsman from the functionary.
There are many factors that will continue to make our roads bumpy. There are those who see “ugly meanings in beautiful things.” Classical music and its institutions come under relentless criticism. The barometers by which music is often measured are extrinsic to the art form itself. Classical music’s presence in our society is worth defending. It is not the music’s problem if it is not popular, not economically viable, deemed irrelevant or not to everyone’s taste. It is our problem.
Those of us who believe in its value must be the defenders, not because it is in our personal interests to do so, but because the survival of the art form is vitally important for society. The conviction of the convinced is essential; the vacillation of the lukewarm, the apologetic and the self-serving is dangerous.
Despite our small demographic, if we are devoted, passionate and deeply attached, we can make a difference. We, a minority of sorts, have to live for art with a depth of conviction and devotion that others, whose lives and tastes place them squarely in the vast majority, need not.

Artists and Repertoire

"A&R", according to Wikipedia is:
Artists and repertoire (A&R) is the division of a record label or music publishing company that is responsible for talent scouting and overseeing the artistic development of recording artists and songwriters. It also acts as a liaison between artists and the record label or publishing company; every activity involving artists to the point of album release is generally considered under the purview, and responsibility, of A&R.
 These guys used to have a bit of an unsavory reputation: it was them, according to the tales, that corrupted innocent young artists and turned them into commercial monsters. But of course, these days, it is the artists that set out from day one to be commercial monsters.

What I would like to do, as a little interlude between posts on Winterreise, is just take one instance of an artist and his repertoire, and use it to cast light on trends in music. The artist is Pepe Romero, whom I know pretty well. I studied with him on a couple of occasions and have heard him play quite a few concerts. I've also hoisted a few glasses with him after said concerts.

But before taking up his musical journey I need to fill you in on a bit of background. It was the great Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia (1893 - 1987) who worked his whole life to establish the classical guitar as a serious concert instrument. He said, on several occasions, that when he came to the guitar it was only played in cafés and salons and by flamenco players. It was he that took it and placed on the concert stages of the world, where it belonged. Now this is a bit of myth-making as there were other guitarists who were also important, but the basic facts are accurate. Segovia did tour the great concert halls of the world and he was the first classical guitarist to do so. The guitar was rather left out of the bourgeois expansion of music enjoyment in the 19th century, edged to one side by the enormous success of the piano.

One of the main avenues by which Segovia achieved the elevation in stature of the classical guitar was through invigorating its repertoire which he did in two ways. Along with playing the core guitar repertoire from the early 19th century by Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani (rather like watered down Haydn or Hummel) and from later on by Francisco Tárrego, he encouraged many composers to write new works for guitar, most successfully ones like Federico Moreno Torroba, Manuel Ponce and Joaquin Rodrigo. But this was not enough. In order to fill in gaps in the repertoire and, most importantly, to find more familiar names to attract audiences, Segovia embarked on a project of transcription. This was extremely successful because it showed that the guitar could encroach on the turf of the piano and do so in a convincing way. The ideal pieces for this purpose were ones written for piano, but inspired by the guitar such as pieces by Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. This turned out so well that a piece like Asturias (Leyenda) by the former, is probably better known on guitar these days than it is on piano. But these composers were still not quite famous enough for Segovia's needs.

At this point he had a truly inspired idea. I'm not exactly sure of the chronology, but Segovia had probably already been doing some arrangements of pieces by Bach when he got the idea to play the enormous and spectacular piece for violin solo, the Chaconne from the Violin Partita #2 in D minor, on guitar. After all, why not? In one respect at least, the demanding arpeggio sections, the guitar was going to have the advantage over the violin. As it turned out, Segovia's performances of this piece lent enormous prestige to the guitar. It is, to this day, probably the most prestigious piece in the repertoire for guitar.

That brings us back to Pepe Romero. He was taught by his father who was taught by a student of Franciso Tárrega himself, so his pedigree is impeccable. Apart from a very youthful album of flamenco, he has devoted his entire life to the classical guitar with an unexcelled technique. There are pieces that he plays, such as the Gran Jota by Tárrega or the Concierto para una Fiesta by Rodrigo (written for him) that no-one else plays with anything like his panache.

But Pepe, like every other classical artist, has experienced the inexorable pressures of commercialism. For most of his career he recorded for Philips (the first company to issue CDs). For them he recorded an enormous amount of repertoire of which one of the highlights was the complete Guitar Concertos of Mauro Giuliani, some of them recorded for the first time. In 1998 Philips was acquired by Universal Music Group and in 1999 was absorbed into Decca and all its recording and mastering operations in the Netherlands were shut down. Today it is nothing more than a back catalog. A recent 11-CD box from Decca has reissued a lot of Pepe's best recordings for which we are grateful, of course.

I want to point out a trend however. In 1981 Philips was releasing outstanding discs like this one of Pepe playing the Partita in D minor (which contains the Chaconne) and the Suite BWV 1009 (originally for cello), both by J. S. Bach.

This is serious repertoire, played seriously well. But as time went on, I suspect that issues like these sold less and less well. How else to explain that a performer known for projects like the complete Giuliani concertos and the complete quintets for guitar and string quartet by Boccherini was now putting out sentimental collections of miniatures like this one:

That came out in 1999, a dog's breakfast of little pieces by Bach, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms (!!) that were the kind of thing guitarists were playing before Segovia put it on the concert stages of the world. Salon or café music.

So we have seen a whole arc of repertoire starting from the inconsequential, rising to the peaks of what you can do on a solo guitar (represented by the Bach Chaconne and pieces like the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo) and now returning to the inconsequential. Of course, if Pepe were a young guitarist, he would probably be doing crossover instead of Brahms.

Milos Karadaglic is a new classical guitarist appearing on Deutsche Grammophon, but the repertoire on this disc includes The Girl from Ipanema, Besame mucho, Libertango and a collection of very short melodic pieces from Latin America. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but didn't Deutsche Grammophon used to do something a bit less, well, trivial?

But I don't want to blame Deutsche Grammophon, or Philips, or Decca, or even Universal. This is a general trend. Pepe used to play programs with a wide variety of pieces, some longer, some shorter. But every program I have heard recently has had the same Spanish potboilers by Tárrega and others that he has been playing his whole life. And, if he were younger, he would probably be doing crossover.


Very simple: this is what the audiences, or most of them anyway, want. Musicians have just been responding to the audiences who apparently want classical music that doesn't actually sound like classical music, but more like pop music, or bossa nova at least, and maybe with a nice light show or closeups on a big screen and some nice easy listening strings in the background.

You think we want to play that every night? For a classical musician, it is like having to have a dinner of nothing but crême brulé and soufflée every night.

I am sooooo sick of Piazzolla these days...

And Segovia is rolling in his grave.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

A major essay on trends in the American conservatory was recently published, written by Andrew Balio, principal trumpet for the Baltimore Symphony. It is in three parts: here, here and here. The remarkable thing about this extended essay is how very thoughtful it is. The writer thinks through the current situation of classical music, examines its history and considers the many proposals for "fixing" it. And he does so with a clear vision. This makes this exercise pretty much unique! Some quotes:
Classical music is identified with elitism, and with some justification. It is no small endeavor to bring together 100 or more highly skilled musicians; it must be financially supported by wealthy patrons, powerful institutions, or a well-heeled middle class. Only a tiny percentage of the population is musically gifted and driven enough to achieve the high artistic competence necessary to be a professional orchestra member, and they must be intensely trained by equally gifted teachers. Even appreciation of classical music does not come as easily as it does with other, more accessible forms. That it requires more from both artist and audience is a great part of its appeal; it “excludes” naturally because it draws only those who strive to go higher and deeper artistically.
But there is a troubling tendency to conflate the “privileged class” with our traditional, musical institutions, such as orchestras—or even with the small group of elite students who will eventually find positions in them. This tendency implies an injustice. Our resentment and our egalitarian ideals convince us that those in the small, privileged group wielding all the influence and power somehow don’t deserve their position, as if they came by it dishonestly or by lucky accident.
But we do a great disservice to high culture when we treat it this way. One isn’t born into an orchestra or a canon. None of the world’s great musicians or history’s great composers were destined to be so by birth. Membership in either is a long-term project and must be earned at every step of the way. In fact, music has remained one of those few pursuits in which success has been possible for the talented in any class throughout the course of European history’s most rigidly hierarchical societies.
 And so, misguided but often well-meaning castigates are left to search for the things which classical music can be and do in order to ameliorate the elitism that they are now convinced has caused all the problems of the world. Classical music—and the schools which perpetuate it—must now be about setting aright the injustices of our troubled age. Our music schools now promise, as one of the nation’s most prominent conservatories does, that their “gifted students will not only be trained as musicians but also as catalysts who will inspire creativity and spark positive change in their communities.”
Please follow the links and read the whole thing as it is difficult to excerpt and it is certainly worth your time. Andrew gives a salutary critique of all those who, under the guise of making needed reforms in the classical music world, are very likely hacking away at its very foundations.

* * *

I've been saying this for years. In "What’s wrong with the classical concert experience in the 21st century?" Philip Clark says,
classical music’s alleged image problem has become the mainstream media narrative – a misinformed opinion continually reported as fact. Classical music is elitist, stuffy, obscure and lacks relevance. But if classical music does indeed have an image problem, what image ought it adopt? What must classical music now pretend to be?
For a moment, I want you to suspend your disbelief as I flip the argument on its head. Try it this way round: there is absolutely nothing wrong with classical music. It cannot pretend to be anything other than it is. And perhaps it’s the wider cultural environment which surrounds classical music that has a problem.
I think I have said exactly this here a dozen times at least. But this is the first time that I have read it anywhere else. Shouldn't every classical musician be saying something like this instead of "we need to turn concerts of classical music into pseudo 'happenings' with light shows." Read the whole thing!

* * *

Bob Dylan is still on that never-ending tour and just played Royal Albert Hall in London where he revived a number of old Frank Sinatra standards. Reuters has the story:
A year ago, fans had greeted the news that Dylan was planning an album of songs made famous by Sinatra with some trepidation. Dylan himself explained when it was released in May that he was not recording a Sinatra tribute.
"I don't see myself as covering these songs in any way. They've been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day," he said at the time.
This is an excellent example of what I call a racinative strategy. There are two basic ways to approach composition: you can strike out into entirely new territory (if you can find some) or you can uncover connections to the deep roots of music. The first is the avant-garde method of modernism and over the last hundred years it has been claimed to the the only true ideology. The second is actually quite common, but has been propagandized as something bad--only in terms of modernism, however. It is just as Bob says, as a musician it is an entirely valid act to uncover something that has been lost. When the composers associated with the Florentine Camerata invented opera around 1600, what they were trying to do was uncover the traditions of music drama of the ancient Greeks that had been lost. Beethoven, in his late works, was not striking out into the musical future, instead he was tapping into the most fundamental roots of the classical tradition. There are other examples as well. I posted about this here. The term "racinative" as in an artistic strategy in which you return to or uncover a tradition or fundamental that has been lost or neglected is one that I have invented.

* * *

Thanks to Norman Lebrecht, we discover this article about new research into the production of violin virtuosos:
For Izabela Wagner’s study Producing Excellence: The Making of Virtuosos she interviewed nearly 100 prodigies, and what she found is best put by one former soloist, “For every ten students, one will attempt suicide, one will become mentally ill, two will become alcoholics, two will slam doors and jettison the violin out the window, three will work as violinists, and perhaps one will become a soloist.” For aspiring violinists and their parents—including Wagner herself—those are not good chances. Why would anyone choose that kind of life?
I immediately think of Jean Sibelius who wanted more than anything to be a great violinist, but started a bit too late so had to be content with being a great composer instead:
My tragedy was that I wanted to be a celebrated violinist at any price. Since the age of 15 I played my violin practically from morning to night. I hated pen and ink—unfortunately I preferred an elegant violin bow. My love for the violin lasted quite long and it was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late.
* * *

 Have you noticed how there are hoards of people out there ready at the drop of hat to tell us all about what's wrong with classical music? How it is sexist, elitist, stuffy, obsolete, dry, boring and privileges the cis-normative patriarchal hegemony? And often these people make the claim that they are friends of classical music and just want it to become better? Here is one analysis of what's wrong with classical music:
Classical music is dryly cerebral, lacking visceral or emotional appeal. The pieces are often far too long. Rhythmically, the music is weak, with almost no beat, and the tempos can be funereal. The melodies are insipid – and often there’s no real melody at all, just stretches of complicated sounding stuff. The sound of a symphony orchestra is bland and over-refined, and even a big orchestra can’t pack the punch of a four-piece rock group in a stadium. A lot of classical music is purely instrumental, so there’s no text to give the music meaning. And when there are singers, in concerts and opera, their vocal style is contrived and unnatural: so much shrieking and bellowing. The words are unintelligible, even if they’re not in a foreign language.
Culturally speaking, classical music is insignificant, with record sales that would be considered a joke in the pop music industry. Indeed, classical music is so un-popular that it can’t survive in the free market, and requires government subsidy just to exist. Yet even with public support, tickets to classical concerts are prohibitively expensive. The concerts themselves are stuffy and convention-bound – and the small, aging audience that attends them is an uncool mixture of snobs, eggheads and poseurs pretending to appreciate something they don’t. In a word, classical music is “elitist”: originally intended for rich Europeans who thought they were better than everyone else, and composed by a bunch of dead white males. It has nothing to do with the contemporary world – and its oldness appeals only to people who cling to obsolete values. You say there are living composers who still write classical music? Never heard of them.
This is from Colin Eatock at 3 Quarks Daily. This is a summary of the thoughts and attitudes of a group of students in his music appreciation class in Toronto. Now Colin is no dummy and he tries to offer some subtle ideas as to how to reform the image of classical music. But at the end of the day, I'm afraid that he is just giving in to those mistaken attitudes. Look at what the criticisms are: they are all based on placing pop music as the norm. Any deviation from how pop music operates is counted as a wrong thing. This is an Overton window problem, which you have when you allow one side to define all the terms of debate. I like to take a cue from a popular political leader who counsels that, when you run into resistance or criticism, you should "punch back twice as hard." That would be President Barack Obama, of course. The Music Salon tends to follow that advice. We think that it is pop music that is all messed up with its formulaic, industrial thumping, accompanying the most appalling of lyrics and videos. If pop music is your aesthetic standard, then of course you are going to condemn classical music as cerebral, complicated and unnatural. But, dude, that's your problem!

* * *

For our musical envoi today we are going to listen to the very fine, non-pop, Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius. This is Sarah Chang, solo violin with Jaap van Zweden conducting the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest:

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Schubert: Winterreise, Part 1

And now we come to one of the most remarkable pieces of music by Franz Schubert, his great song cycle "Winterreise" (which perhaps should be "Die Winterreise" but that's not how it appears on the title page of the score). Before we get into the cycle itself, I want to back up a bit and trace my own, perhaps odd, reception of this music.

I was born in the 50s and my musical development was influenced by a lot of the music of the 60s. The reason for this was, while my mother was a musician, a violinist, she was not a classical one, but rather played what is called in Canada "old-time music", that is, jigs and reels and other traditional music. She called herself a fiddler. So, while I was surrounded by music my whole life, it didn't really capture my interest until the middle 60s when I was a teenager. I started listening to the rock and pop music of that time: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Burden and the Animals, the Incredible String Band, Cream and a host of others.

Within a year or so of having taken up the electric guitar (first bass and then six-string), I started writing songs and wrote forty or so by the time I was twenty. In this phase of my life the most formidable and substantial musical works that I was familiar with were the albums of the Beatles. This was a time in which Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album were released. There were even minor efforts made with Sgt. Pepper's to make it into something like a "song cycle". And then, in my twentieth year, I discovered classical music (Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Schubert Unfinished Symphony, Bach Mass in B minor) and that pretty much changed my life.

Soon after I attended university as a classical music major and one of the most important courses I took was something called "Vocal Techniques". Now as curriculum went, this was pretty much a nothing course. In my first year I was in music education and this was a course designed to equip prospective music teachers with some basics in case they had to teach choir. As courses went, it was very minor compared to the big, important courses like Music Theory and Music History. But what made the difference was the teacher. She was a very fine classical singer and I have no idea of how she got stuck teaching this course. But what she did was have us actually learn something about singing and how she did that was require us to learn, from memory, some lieder. I learned "Heidenröslein" by Schubert and "Wenn ich in deine Augen seh" from Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann and performed them in a student concert. This involved some private instruction from the teacher which was probably my first individual encounter with a real classical musician.

So this is the context for my encounter with the song cycles of Schubert. To me they are like miraculous albums of songs that the Beatles might have written if they lived two hundred years ago and had a lot more musical genius. Don't get me wrong, in my book, the Beatles were musical geniuses. But Schubert is pretty much unexcelled as a song writer. The other thing is that I have a tiny bit of insight into what it is to sing Schubert. And I too am a songwriter. (We are editing the recording of my set of songs this week, so next week I might be able to post a song or two.)

We just looked at "Die schöne Mullerin" but "Winterreise" is on a whole other level. DsM is all about falling in love, about sunshine, flowers, babbling brooks, turning millwheels and summer. True, things get a bit dark towards the end with a rival lover, being rejected and either contemplating suicide or actually doing it. But compared to W, DsM is a walk in the park. The later cycle begins with the aftermath of lost love. The whole unfolds in a winter landscape with the poet wandering, shedding frozen tears. It begins where DsM ends. The last song in DsM is the brook singing a lullaby and W begins with the poet singing "Gute Nacht" ("Goodnight") and leaving in the dead of night. Here are all the twenty-four songs with a synopsis from Wikipedia:

1. Gute Nacht (Good Night) “A stranger I arrived; a stranger I depart.” In May he won the love of a girl and hoped to marry her. But now the world is dreary, and he must leave, in winter, in the dead of night, finding his own way in the trackless snow. “Love loves to wander—from one person to the next.” He writes “Good Night” on her gate as he passes to show he thought of her.
2. Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane) The weathervane on her house creaks in the shifting winds, mocking him and showing the inconstant hearts inside. “What do they care about my suffering? Their child is a wealthy bride!”
3. Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears) He notices he has been crying and chides his tears for being only lukewarm so that they freeze. They come out of his heart hot enough to melt all the winter’s ice!
4. Erstarrung (Frozen Stiff) He looks in vain for her footprints beneath the snow where they once walked through the green meadow and wants to melt away the snow and ice with his tears. He has nothing to remember her by except his pain,. She is frozen in his heart; if it thaws, her image will flow away.
5. Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree) The tree, a reminder of happier days, seems to call him, promising rest. But he turns away, into the cold wind. And now, miles away, he still hears it calling him: “Here you would find peace.”
6. Wasserflut (Flood) The cold snow thirstily sucks up his tears; when the warm winds blow, the snow and ice will melt, and the brook will carry them through the town to where his sweetheart lives.
7. Auf dem Flusse (On the Stream) The gaily rushing stream lies silent under a hard crust. In the ice he carves a memorial to their love. The river is an image of his heart swelling up powerfully beneath the frozen surface.
8. Rückblick (Backwards Glance) He recounts his headlong flight from the town and recalls his springtime arrival in the “city of inconstancy,” and two girlish eyes which captivated him. When he thinks of that time, he would like to go back and stand silently in front of her house.
9. Irrlicht (Will o’ the Wisp) The false light of the will-o’-the-wisp has led him astray, but he’s used to that. Every path leads to the same goal. Our joys and sorrows are but a trick of the light. Every stream reaches the sea, every sorrow its grave,
10. Rast (Rest) Only now that he has stopped to rest does he realize how tired & sore he is. And in the quiet he feels for the first time the “worm” which stings him inwardly.
11. Frühlingstraum (Dreams of Spring) He dreams of springtime and love, but wakes to cold and darkness and the shrieking of ravens. He sees frost leaves painted on the window. When will they turn green? when will he again embrace his beloved?
12. Einsamkeit (Loneliness) He wanders, like a sad and lonely cloud, through the bright and happy Life around him. “Even when the storms were raging. I was not so miserable,”
13. Die Post (The Post) He hears a post horn. “Why does my heart leap up so?. There’s no letter for you! But maybe there’s some news of her?”
14. Der greise Kopf (The Grey Head/ The Old Man's Head) Frost has turned his hair gray and he rejoices at being an old man. But when it thaws, he is horrified to be a youth again: “how far it is still to the grave.”
15. Die Krähe (The Crow) A crow has been following him. It has never left him, expecting to take his body as its prey. “It won’t be much longer now. Crow, show me constancy unto death!”
16. Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope) He gambles on a leaf quivering in the wind. If it falls from the tree, all his hopes are dashed. He falls to the ground himself and weeps over the “grave” of his hopes.
17. Im Dorfe (In the Village) Dogs bark, and all the people are asleep, dreaming of success and failure, finding on their pillows what eluded them in life. ”I am done with all dreaming. Why should I linger among the sleepers?”
18. Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning) The storm is an image of his heart, wild and cold like the winter.
19. Täuschung (Deception/ Delusion) A dancing light wants to lead him astray, and he is glad to go along. “Behind ice and night and horror” it shows him a warm, bright house and a loving wife within. Illusion is all he has..
20. Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) “Why do I take secret ways and avoid the other travelers? I’ve committed no crime. What foolish desire drives me to seek the wastelands?” He journeys endlessly, seeking peace and finding none. A signpost points the way: “I must travel a road where no one has ever yet returned.”
21. Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) He comes to a graveyard and wants to enter. But all the rooms in this “inn” are taken; he resolves to go on his way with his faithful walking-stick.
22. Mut! (Courage) He shakes the snow from his face and sings cheerfully to silence his heart’s stirrings, striding into the world, against wind and weather: “If there’s no God on earth, then we ourselves are gods!”
23. Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns) He sees three suns staring at him in the sky. “You are not my suns! Once I too had three, but the best two have now set. If only the third would follow, I’ll be happier in the darkness.”
24. Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) Behind the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man, cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. His begging bowl is always empty; no one listens to his music, and the dogs growl at him. But his playing never stops. “Strange old man. Shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?”
Even Schubert referred to this cycle as "terrifying" and so it is. But it is a special kind of terror, one that exhilarates and enriches. There is a possibly apocryphal anecdote about Schubert that after he performed at one of those special Viennese salons he was approached by a woman who chided him that his music was always sad. He replied, "Madame, all music is sad." Well, not Haydn! But you get the point.

I will need a whole other post to talk about this song cycle, so for now, I leave you with a couple of clips of performances so you can give it a listen. First, a recording from 1962 with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore:

Next Ian Bostridge, tenor and Julius Drake, piano:

Finally, bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff and pianist: Maria Joao Pires:

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Schubert and the Invention of the Song Cycle

A very long time ago I wrote a post in which I attempted to characterize different levels of creativity. Search as I may, I cannot seem to find it to link to, so let me see if I can remember the gist of it. I posited that you can see pieces of music in terms of just how much real creativity was involved in their composition. For example, a simple exercise in composition might be to take a minuet by Mozart as a model and write a piece based on reproducing exactly its harmonic and rhythmic structure, but in a different key and with new melodies. There is creativity, certainly, but it is limited to certain aspects only.

I don't recall the categories I came up with, but there were levels. For example:

  1. Take a familiar song and perform it in a new arrangement. The creativity would be in the areas of tempo, harmonies and so on.
  2. Write a new song, but in a familiar style or genre. The words and melody may be new, but the style of the arrangement (the rhythms, harmonies, instrumentation and so on) will be just like many other songs. Incidentally, this is about as much creativity as is typically found in pop music these days. They write to a set of formulas.
  3. Create a new way of handling an established form or genre. This category could cover a wide swath of things from a Keith Jarrett arrangement of "Summertime" to Sibelius' rethinking of sonata form. The point is that there is a profound reimagining of something, but within some boundaries.
  4. Creation of an entirely new form or genre. This is big-time creativity and doesn't happen too often. Some examples would include Haydn's invention of the string quartet in the 1760s and Monteverdi's invention of the opera around 1600.
I think in my earlier post I came up with a lot more levels or categories, but I think you get the point.

Now, the creation of an entirely new form or genre is a rare event and usually quite complex, historically. For example, I credited Monteverdi with the invention of opera, but his "L'Orfeo" of 1607 was not the first opera as Jacopo Peri wrote a couple of similar pieces ("Dafne" and "Euridice") just a few years before. You might consider those as experiments in opera. Monteverdi wrote the first successful opera.

This should give a little context to the creativity involved in the creation of the new musical form or genre of the song-cycle. I say "form or genre" because it has aspects of both. A song-cycle or set or series of songs is, well, a group of songs that form a whole. They might form a "ring" of song as the very first example by Beethoven shows. His "An die ferne Geliebte" ("To the Distant Beloved") creates a circle in which the last song links back to the first through the reappearance of a theme, forming a circle or ring as in a finger-ring ("Liederkreis" in German). This set of six songs by Beethoven is the first, you might say, experiment in the genre. It is a unique composition that he never repeated and likely had a biographical inspiration, i.e. there was actually a "distant beloved". No-one had done anything like this before. But while we could, and do, credit Beethoven with the invention of the song-cycle, this contribution was so overshadowed a few years later by Franz Schubert that he is either given co-credit or the slightly more ambiguous honor of being the composer who "established" the form or genre as Monteverdi did with opera. (Carl Maria von Weber also wrote a song cycle, but it does not seem to have had much influence.) Beethoven's songs were written in 1816 and if Schubert had not followed up with his two major cycles in 1823 and 1827 the whole idea might have simply faded away.

While you might be able to find a really early example, such as a set of songs by the 13th century Galician jongleur Martin Codax, the song-cycle is really a creation of the 19th century and after the two sets by Schubert there followed many others by Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler and even ones outside German-speaking countries with cycles by Hector Berlioz, Gabriel Fauré, Francis Poulenc, Manuel de Falla, Benjamin Britten, Olivier Messiaen and others. Indeed, the song cycle is a firmly established genre not only for voice and piano (or guitar), but with chamber ensemble (such as "Pierrot Lunaire" by Schoenberg) or orchestra (examples not only by Mahler but also by Shostakovich and many others).

But it was Schubert that really launched this whole idea in a formidable way and he did it with two sets of songs: "Die schöne Müllerin", a set of twenty songs composed in the summer of 1823, and "Winterreise", a set of twenty-four songs composed in two parts in 1827. A third set, "Schwanengesang", consisting of fourteen songs, was a collection of some of the last songs Schubert wrote, published after his death, so not a cycle in the same sense as the first two. The two cycles that Schubert intended as such are still considered to be the foremost works in the genre, though "Dichterliebe", a set of fourteen songs by Schumann, is a very close second.

Schubert is very likely the greatest song-writer in history, not only for these two remarkable works, but also for the other six hundred songs he wrote, some of them of extraordinary power.

Today let's just take a brief look at Die schöne Müllerin which we could translate as "The Miller's Beautiful Daughter" or, in a more 19th century manner, "The Lovely Maid of the Mill". Incidentally, there was a rather interesting album released in the 1960s by the Incredible String Band titled "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter" that has to be a reference.

Here is the first page of the score:

Though it was published originally for high voice (tenor or soprano), it can be transposed and performed by other voice types. Here is a list of all the songs:

  1. "Das Wandern" ("Wandering Miller"; B-flat major)
  2. "Wohin?" ("Where to?"; G major)
  3. "Halt!" ("Stop!"; C major)
  4. "Danksagung an den Bach" ("A Song of Thanks to the Brook"; G major)
  5. "Am Feierabend" ("Rest at the End of the Day"; A minor)
  6. "Der Neugierige" ("The Inquisitive One"; B major)
  7. "Ungeduld" ("Impatience"; A major)
  8. "Morgengruß" ("Good morning"; C major)
  9. "Des Müllers Blumen" ("The miller's flowers"; A major)
  10. "Tränenregen" ("Shower of tears"; A major)
  11. "Mein!" ("Mine!"; D major)
  12. "Pause" ("Interlude"; B-flat major)
  13. "Mit dem grünen Lautenbande" ("With the green lute-ribbon"; B-flat major)
  14. "Der Jäger" ("The hunter"; C minor)
  15. "Eifersucht und Stolz" ("Jealousy and pride"; G minor)
  16. "Die liebe Farbe" ("The Beloved colour"; B minor)
  17. "Die böse Farbe" ("The Evil colour"; B major)
  18. "Trockne Blumen" ("Withered flowers"; E minor)
  19. "Der Müller und der Bach" ("The miller and the brook"; G minor)
  20. "Des Baches Wiegenlied" ("The brook's lullaby"; E major)
The narrative runs roughly as follows: a young man, a journeyman miller (someone who has completed basic training, but is at the beginning of their working life) is wandering happily along and comes to a brook which leads him to a mill. He falls in love with the miller's daughter but she hardly seems interested--she may be above his station, socially. He tries to impress her, but is overshadowed by a hunter, dressed in green. The color green becomes an obsession as the young man had given the miller's daughter a green ribbon. Things end badly as the young man, in despair, seems to drown himself in the brook. The last song, ironically, is a lullaby sung by the brook.

Here is a link to the complete score and here is one to an English translation of the text. The poems are all by Wilhelm Müller, who, like Schubert, died very young at only thirty-two.

That should give us enough introduction. Now let's listen to the whole cycle, which takes about an hour to perform. I'm going to put up three clips. The first one is a live performance, with English subtitles, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Andras Schiff:

The second is with Ian Bostridge accompanied by Mitsuko Uchida:

There are many other versions available, of course. Here, for example, is part of the cycle accompanied by guitar with Juan Antonio Sanabria, tenor and José Manuel Dapena, guitar:

It is not well-known that Schubert himself played the guitar and composed some of his songs on the guitar. During his lifetime a number of songs by him were published in Vienna with guitar accompaniment.

Monday, October 19, 2015

David Garrett and Social Inversion

Back in European history there are local traditions of social inversion where the great are brought down and the lowly raised--if only for a day! It shakes up the hierarchy and blows off steam. One remnant of this tradition is the carnival which is still celebrated, especially in Catholic countries. I am reminded of this by a clip a commentator sent recently. This is the crossover violinist, David Garrett, playing the last movement of the Violin Concerto No. 3 by Mozart with the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester:

This is a more recent clip of David Garrett in his crossover mode:

What is interesting, I think, are a couple of musical clues and some visual ones. Let's take note: in the Mozart, this is an entirely respectable and conventional performance of a piece that is well-established in the classical canon (one of five concertos for violin that Mozart wrote for himself to play when he was nineteen). Apart from the young, well-scrubbed and nattily attired virtuoso, the orchestra and conductor, dressed in formal white-tie garb, are visually part of the classical music establishment.

Now let's look at the Bach performance. This arrangement is a piece that lies in the border zone of the classical canon, not quite fully respectable. It is an arrangement by the 19th century violinist August Wilhelmj of the second movement of Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D dating from 1730 and this arrangement is known as the "Air on the G String". Wilhelmj took a movement with a distinctive and charming melody and turned it into a concert bon-bon. Here is the original performed in adherence to the original performing practices:

What David Garrett has done musically is at two removes from the original. First we have the layer of heavy vibrato and portamenti (those little slides connecting melody notes) that were features of 19th century performance practice. Then he adds an additional layer of modern pop music: the backbeat percussion and general laid-back groove (plus some jazzy countermelodies). But even more important are the visual cues. David is projecting his image as a kind of indie-pop musician with things like the hat, the pony-tail, the stubble, the multiple rings and chains, the t-shirt and, of course, the fact that this is all projected on a huge screen.

We are seeing here, in graphic and aesthetic terms, a social inversion. The young, tidy and respectable aspiring virtuoso becomes a minor pop star with all the associated bling and grooming. The music is trimmed to fit pop sensibilities with its rigid beat and droopy sentimentality. David undoubtedly discovered as his career developed, that he was not an extraordinary virtuoso, but more of an ordinary one (hey, I know what that's like). So he decided to widen his appeal to those people who might not attend a conventional concert. What is interesting is the implied social inversion: he had to move far down-market. Everything that smacked of elite snobbism had to be eliminated and replaced with cues of a relatively low social class.

You would not be taken aback if the current David Garrett approached you on the street asking for spare change, but you would if the young version did. Social inversion: the turning upside down of the hierarchy.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mysteries of Music

I talk a lot about aesthetics here, possibly to extent that I risk terminally boring some readers. But so much comes back to aesthetics, specifically to differences in aesthetic opinions. I am in a constant struggle with the nihilism of aesthetic relativism, with the idea that there are no degrees or differences in aesthetic quality that have any objective foundation, with the assertion that Justin Bieber and J. S. Bach are, since everything is relative, aesthetically equal.

But this is just some abstract, bloodless debate with no real consequences in the real world, right? Well, no. I think that the real world consequences are significant and widespread. Let's take as an example my post from yesterday which was very critical of the playing of guitarist Eliot Fisk. I quickly got a couple of comments, one asking, since she really couldn't hear what I was pointing to, whether it was something significant or something that only someone with "ears like a wolf" could hear. The other one agreed with my post.

The problem is that the pursuit of quality in aesthetics, which is equally the avoidance of the bad, is necessary. When it fails, when, that is, a sufficiently large number of people really believe in aesthetic relativism, then we get artists like Eliot Fisk, who are really not artists, chosen to fulfill important roles such as teaching at the New England Conservatory and the Salzburg Mozarteum. Whoever chose to offer these positions to him was either persuaded by non-musical factors or failed to exercise aesthetic judgement.

Why does this matter? It is important because a teacher, especially a teacher in a high prestige institution like the New England Conservatory or the Salzburg Mozarteum, exercises an enormous influence. If they are a good teacher, that is one who knows and observes high aesthetic ideals, then they will be a positive influence on generations of students. If they are egoistical hacks who have no aesthetic ideals apart from the advancement of their own careers, then they will destroy generations of students. Young students rarely have the critical skills to distinguish between the real thing and the false. They imbue their teacher with guru-like status because of the authority lent them by their position in an important musical institution.

Why, you can legitimately ask, do I take such a dislike to Eliot Fisk's playing? I think it is important to clearly point out the reasons. It is not anything to do with his personality, which I don't know (I avoided listening to his TED talk and only met him too briefly to form a personal impression), but with his approach to playing music. The thing about music is that it is a very expressive artform. You do indeed reveal yourself when you play, and not always the things that you think you are revealing! Let's take a close look at Eliot playing a piece by J. S. Bach, one that is a touchstone for any performer--a kind of acid test of you as a musician and a technician (though these two things overlap). Here is the clip:

In order to conduct this exercise I am going to have to be extremely specific and the typical response to that from fans of the artist in question is to challenge that very proceeding as being "nit-picking" or prompted by sour grapes. Here is an example of this kind of response taken from the comments to the above clip:
When Fisk plays at the Wigmore many other great guitarists like J Williams go to watch and listen to him. I wonder how many here who are so critical of Fisk could play at the Wigmore and if anyone would go listen to them. What many fail to see is that Fisk is an artist who dedicated his whole life to the guitar, what he communicates is beyond technique. Sure he can be very sloppy at times but that's not what art is about. At least he has something unique and is able to communicate it. So the real question is do you have something original to express and also are you able to communicate it to others through some medium?  if you can then you too are an artist, in my opinion. If not ... at least don't criticize those who are doing it. At the end of the day all art is subjective . You either like a piece of art or you don't.
Let me answer this, point by point. Yes, perhaps Eliot has played at Wigmore Hall in London and perhaps John Williams did attend the concert, but this is fairly irrelevant. I have also played at Wigmore Hall and some pretty well-known figures in the guitar world attended that concert. What was important was what they said afterwards! Yes, Eliot has devoted his life to the guitar, but again, so have millions of others. The point is, how well? "What he communicates is beyond technique" is an interesting comment. Technique is the instrument by which we communicate. If it is flawed or faulty then our communication is thereby hindered. The idea that "art" is about original inspiration that transcends any mere technical means is a very romantic one, which doesn't mean it is wrong, of course, but it can still be challenged. The real nub of the comment comes at the end: "At the end of the day all art is subjective." And this is the essence of the problem, of course. If all art is merely subjective, then Eliot Fisk can be given the job of teaching impressionable students at the New England Conservatory of Music and the Salzburg Mozarteum. AND SO CAN ANYONE ELSE!! Do you get that? If there are no objective aesthetic standards, then there is no way of distinguishing one artist from another in terms of quality. The writer does actually express a belief in an objective aesthetic quality: the ability to communicate. What does this mean in terms of Eliot's performance we will look at. In order to be clear, here is the first part of the piece in score:

Click to enlarge

Now to the evaluation. I don't need to go very far into the performance as Eliot's way of playing reveals itself immediately. If you listen to the very first chord, one of the notes, the D fretted on the fifth string, I believe, buzzes because of poor fretting. The second harmony, with the C sharp in the bass, he chooses to separate. This is a quirk of the violin, the instrument for which the piece was originally written, but not necessary on the guitar. It is therefore a mannerism, not a musical interpretation. The G minor chord that begins the next measure also has a note that buzzes. The next chord is rushed, coming slightly before it should have. The B flat chord in the second full measure is given a wide vibrato and a redundant low D is hammered out on the third beat. At the end of the next measure, the four sixteenth-notes are thrown out in a completely different tempo (rushed) than the next four sixteenths. The G minor chord at the beginning of the seventh complete measure is played staccato, for no particular reason. As the piece progresses there are more buzzes and frequent wide vibrato on seemingly randomly chosen notes. The tempo is constantly wandering with certain notes and chords lingered on, again, with no particular musical reason, and others chosen to rush ahead on.

The whole effect is of a kind of Bizarro world version of Segovia whose many mannerisms have been copied by a couple of generations of guitarists. But again, mannerisms are not an interpretation. An interpretation is when you notice what is going on in the music and try and reveal it to the listener. You emphasize a harmony because it contains musical tension, not because you have an open string you can hammer. You try and play without buzzes and rushing because that distracts from the music. You try and let the music speak instead of stomping all over it because that shows naive listeners that you are a good stomper.

What is revealed in every measure of this performance is that Eliot has very little regard for the music of J. S. Bach, not enough to actually make an attempt to play it well. But he has enormous regard for himself and his ability to rush tempos and hammer out redundant basses and chords. It is as if you gave a classical guitar to a member of Metallica and asked him to play some Bach. It is a travesty of technique and interpretation.

Hopefully all this will become clear if you compare a different performance. Here are three outstanding performances of the piece, each strong in different ways, but each played with far more attention to precision and detail and to the musical content. This is John Williams:

I could have chosen a live performance that is just as clean, but the sound was poor. This is Hilary Hahn, who takes 50% longer to play the piece than Eliot does:

And finally, a live performance by Manuel Barrueco:

All three of these performances, if you are used to Eliot's, might seem rather dry. The kind of playing that Eliot indulges in is like a drug: every note is squeezed for whatever you can make of it: accent, vibrato, just pushing it forward. But the musical arc of the whole is sacrificed. There are no phrases or paragraphs, just moments of pounding on the beat and whipping the note into a frenzied vibrato. Sure, it's communicating something all right. Just nothing good!