Friday, April 29, 2016

Mostly Late Efflorescences

I have a particular phenomenon in mind for which there is no term that I know of. I was thinking of cobbling up some Latin phrase using the word "floruit" but my Latin isn't that good. The phenomenon I am thinking of is a relatively brief spurt of creative activity, often late in life, in which certain great artists seem to burst out of all the restrictions and conventions of their time and create something both monumental and eternal. There are several examples.

I am certainly no expert on the visual arts, but one obvious example is the Black Paintings of Goya. These are a group of fourteen paintings he did between 1819 and 1823 when he was in his early 70s. They are some of the most dark and powerful paintings in history. He painted them directly on the walls of a house in the outskirts of Madrid. They were not commissioned and he gave them no titles and probably never intended them to be exhibited publicly. Perhaps the most famous is this one, "Saturn Devouring His Son"

But there are also a number of examples in music history. I said that this was mostly something that occurred late in life, but the exception to that is the "Sturm und Drang" symphonies of Joseph Haydn. Wikipedia lists eight symphonies, but Trevor Pinnock's excellent recording with The English Concert offers nineteen. The Symphony No. 52 in C minor can serve as an example. This is La Petite Bande, dir. Sigiswald Kuijken:

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that the "Sturm und Drang" symphonies of Haydn were written between 1768 and 1772 when Haydn was thirty-six to forty years old.

But usually, as I said, it was something more likely to come late in life as in the last three symphonies of Mozart, all written in the summer of 1788. Here is No. 40, in G minor, only the second symphony in a minor key by Mozart:

Another stunning example is the last three piano sonatas by Franz Schubert--the Wikipedia article is really excellent. These were all written in 1828 but not published for a decade. The last one of all is particularly powerful:

Yet another example is the late string quartets by Beethoven, composed in 1825 and 1826. These comprise five quartets, plus the Great Fugue. These quartets were Beethoven's last important composition and came after more than a decade when he wrote no quartets at all. This is Op. 127 in E flat:

I'm sure that there are more examples and I invite you to suggest some in the comments. But I think that we can discern certain common qualities among these I have cited. They were all, or nearly all, done with little intention of public performance or exhibition. They were done purely out of aesthetic need, because the artist/composer saw the possibilities and wanted to develop them. They were all, or nearly all, pushing or outside the boundaries of what was the norm for the time. For this reason, most of these examples were not understood or appreciated until many decades later. They were done, mostly, late in life and as a kind of final statement or contribution to the art and humanity. They are all particularly intense and make little effort to ingratiate themselves with an audience.

One final curiosity, all my examples fall between 1768 and 1828, a mere sixty year period. I wonder why that is?

Friday Miscellanea

Breaking news: aesthetic criteria just as relevant now as they were 90 years ago, or, as Slipped Disc has it: "Classical reviews have not changed in 90 years"
A research study by Swiss and British scholars has confirmed what many have long suspected: that classical music critics are clinging to criteria that have long since lost their relevance.
Follow the link, as the comments are also interesting. I may do a whole post on this.

* * *

I ran across an interesting clip about how Steely Dan puts together  a song. The title is misleading, though, because what he is talking about is not how the song was composed, but how it was arranged and produced. Oh, sure, he talks a bit about harmony too.

Some interesting stuff, but one problem with these kinds of discussions is that there isn't much theoretical rigor. For example, he talks about the "mu major" chord, where you replace an octave with the note a second above. In a C major chord, it would be spelled C E G D (instead of the octave C). For hundreds and hundreds of years this has been known as a chord with a 9th. No need to invent some weird terminology.

* * *

It might turn out that Prince's iron-fisted control over the distribution of his music will limit access now that he has passed away. There is a similar situation with the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The Wall Street Journal has some details: "Questions Mount Over Prince's Music Catalog." I noticed on Amazon the other day that every single one of his CDs was sold out, though, of course many were available through download.

* * *

This is a fairly lengthy review of a book of considerable interest: Artists Under Hitler by Jonathan Petropoulos.  An excerpt:
Some of the personalities he profiles are familiar to anyone with a casual knowledge of the subject—the architect Albert Speer, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the composer Richard Strauss, and the sculptor Arno Breker. Others, like the actor Gustaf Gründgens, have long served as examples in Germany of how an opportunist can easily slide from left-wing to right-wing careerism. The conductor Herbert von Karajan, the opera diva Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and the actor Emil Jannings provided eternally shameful examples of notable artists kowtowing to Nazi power. Far more interesting, in Petropoulos’s telling, are the men who actually sought to collaborate but failed to successfully integrate themselves into the system or who attempted to ignore politics altogether while continuing to produce their work—such as the composer Paul Hindemith and the architect Walter Gropius (who actually submitted plans for the new Reichsbank building in 1933 and 1934).
* * *

I can't honestly say that your life will be poorer if you don't rush over and listen to the clip accompanying this article on Rufus Wainwright's tribute to Shakespeare. Nope. It was awarded two out of five stars in the Guardian.

Actually, I would have given it one star and then taken away half a star for the presumption of setting Shakespeare. Dreary, mediocre, clichéd and leaden.

* * *

Here is another article on Prince, this time a quite interesting one in which ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons talks about the specifics of Prince's guitar playing. There is also a clip of Prince doing a cover of the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman" that he plays better than Keith did.

* * *

Finally, another classical item. This is a clip of Leia Zu playing the 2nd and 3rd movements of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. She is 9 years old:

* * *

I'm not the only curmudgeon around. Robert Tracinski has an interesting piece in The Federalist titled: "What Beyoncé Thinkpieces Tell Us About The Death of The Highbrow." Here's a sample:
The problem with the Beyoncé thinkpiece phenomenon is not just that they tend to be hackneyed and pretentious and are really just a gimmick to hijack a famous name and use it to direct Web traffic to the far less interesting ramblings of a second-rate writer. The real problem is that it’s just pop music.
The problem is the pretense, which suffuses all contemporary writing on popular culture, that we can write about the latest comic-book superhero blockbuster as if it’s Shakespeare and Kanye West’s latest album as if it’s Mozart. But it’s not Shakespeare, and it sure as heck isn’t Mozart.
I think the origin of this problem is in the ascendence of cultural Marxism. They have to deconstruct traditional high art and that leaves them with the only thing left to praise being popular art. It's like a twofer: your ideology means you get to pooh-pooh elitist art and elevate popular art.

* * *

I think this might be of interest to those who are not Canadian as it speaks to the very natural human desire to be a civic booster. The article in the Globe and Mail is headlined: "Welcome to a new nightmare in Cancon policy" What is "Cancon policy" you ask? It is the government policy of subsidizing Canadian cultural content in the mass media so that it doesn't disappear entirely. Or, in rather crueler terms: it seems to be the case that Canadians have so little regard for the culture produced by their own intelligentsia that they would rather consume American content instead. This is so humiliating to the Canadian intelligentsia that they have long supported considerable government subsidies to hide the fact that a lot of Canadian content is not commercially viable.
The wisest comment made so far about plans to review Canada’s cultural policies and bring them into line with our digital age came from former heritage minister James Moore: “The vast majority of the public pressure is toward maximizing consumer freedom and choice, while all of the stakeholder pressure is toward subsidizing the creation of content or regulating the distribution of that content to the consumer. These are two worlds that often collide.”
* * * 

In celebration of Shakespeare's birthday, let's listen to some music inspired by his play "A Midsummer Night's Dream". This is the Overture by Mendelssohn with the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur:

Thursday, April 28, 2016

My Vacation Plans

You might be looking at that heading and going, "who cares?" But since most of my life has been intertwined with music, so are my vacation plans.

When I was a young musician, after a few years of playing electric bass and six-string in several bands and some time as a solo folk artist, I encountered classical music and completely reinvented myself. I guess it was a bit like what someone like Bruce Jenner has done with his gender identity. I stopped being a blues and folk-oriented guitarist and became a classical guitarist. I don't think my comparison is much of an exaggeration as changing from one sort of musician to an entirely different sort of musician is a considerable transformation.

The first problem I ran into was that there were no real teachers available--in the sense of masters of the instrument. Where I was living, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, the only classical guitarists were at the amateur level. I went to three of them, but in each case, after six months, I had absorbed all they had to offer and moved on. This would not have been the case with the piano, of course, but at that time the only places in the world where the classical guitar was a truly established instrument was in Europe, especially Spain and England and perhaps a few places in Latin America. The last teacher that I went to lived in Vancouver and he was on a whole other level. He was Dutch and had spent a couple of years studying in Spain before moving to Canada. He actually knew the repertoire and was a very good player as well. After six months commuting for lessons with him, he said, "you should study with my teacher in Spain." I looked at him with astonishment: "I can do that?" "Sure, just go knock on his door." Apparently his teacher, the maestro José Tomás, did not have a phone and didn't answer letters. This was in 1973, long before email, of course.

So I started saving money and early in 1974 I flew to Spain, Madrid, where I bought a new guitar from the shop of José Ramirez and took the train to Alicante, on the Mediterranean coast, where José Tomás lived and taught. This is a close-up of what the label of that guitar looked like:

By sheer luck this was absolutely the best place for me to have gone. The situation in the early 70s was that the leading guitarists in the world were Andrés Segovia, who lived in Spain and the English guitarist Julian Bream. We could also list Narciso Yepes. Segovia was the only one who had taught enough and been around enough to have students of stature. His leading students were Alirio Diaz from Venezuela, Michael Lorimer from the US, John Williams from England, Oscar Ghiglia from Italy and José Tomás from Spain. Of these, he chose Tomás to be his assistant in his master classes in Santiago de Compostela, offered every fall--the most prestigious master classes in the world for classical guitarists.

As the Wikipedia article I linked to says, José Tomás was:
Considered a major influence on the evolution of classical guitar technique in the second half of the 20th century, he trained many guitarists from all over the world.
When I was there, there were quite a few guitarists from Japan and the US and a scattering of ones from Canada, France, Belgium, Ireland, England, Finland, the Philippines, Mexico, Peru and other countries. It was a remarkable community of some of the most talented young guitarists in the world. When I went to Spain I was pretty much a hack guitarist but after nearly a year studying with Tomás (and practicing six hours a day) I returned to Canada and enrolled at McGill University, the foremost music school in Canada, where I was the outstanding performance major in guitar.

Before going to Spain, I had never been out of Canada--indeed, I had never been east of Saskatchewan! Spain made a huge impact on me, not just musically, but culturally. There was the expected cultural shock in going there, but there was another cultural shock on returning to Canada. I discovered that I was not the same person who left. I was never quite able to fit back into my niche in Canada as my perspective had been fundamentally broadened.

I only did a few things other than practice guitar when I lived in Spain: one of them was to read Russian novels. I think I read all of them with the exception of the second volume of the Brothers Karamazov. I also went to lunch a lot with a fellow guitarist from Finland. The only other thing I did was to visit Madrid twice. When I was there, I spent a lot of time in the Prado and especially in the room with the late Goya paintings like this one:

Click to enlarge
The Prado also had the famous painting by Hieronymus Bosch that I had known previously as the cover to a Deep Purple album:

In the Prado I was able to see the original:

Click to enlarge
It is fair to say that my year in Spain (eight months, but who's counting?) was a year in which a number of things happened: I learned what a strict discipline was through practicing guitar six hours a day, I experienced the fabric of life in another culture, I encountered highly disciplined and creative musicians from all over the world, and I came face to face with some of the great examples of the art of Western civilisation.

The Prado, where I always returned, contains not only nearly all of Goya, but large numbers of paintings of Velázquez, El Greco, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens and even Albrecht Dürer:

And if that is not enough, near the Prado is the Reina Sofia museum devoted to 20th and 21st century art and whose centrepiece is possibly the most famous painting of the 20th century, Guernica by Picasso:

I have wanted to return to Spain for many, many years, but while I have been to England, France, Germany and Italy a few times, I have never set foot in Spain since 1974. So next month I am going to spend a couple of weeks in Madrid revisiting the Prado and seeing many of the other sights that I wasn't even aware of before like the other museums, the Royal Palace, the parks and gardens, churches, monasteries and so on. Tapas! I am also going to take a day trip to Toledo where El Greco lived. I will take in some concerts as well.

This time I am taking a camera and will have some photos to share when I get back. When I was studying in Spain I didn't even have a camera, though I do have a couple of photos as souvenirs of that time. I will put them up in another post.

Let's have some music. This is José Tomás playing Zambra grenadine by Albéniz:

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sounds and Sweet Airs

I take my title from a new book by cultural historian Anna Beer, the full title of which is: "Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music." Not so forgotten, it would seem, as I see a similar article hailing women composers (and conductors, of course) about once a month in the Guardian. In fact, I think I have devoted at least one previous post to the Terrible Neglect of Women Composers. So, in these ever-recurring demands for more recognition of women composers, are there any new arguments? Or are the old ones getting any better? Not according to this review in the Guardian. Let's just take a stroll through it.

A favorite technique of these sorts of haranguing articles is the Unsupported Assertion:
The institutions of classical music tend to be heavily invested in a carefully protected performance tradition that hands on the precious flame of white, male genius from generation to generation and has little interest, for all kinds of reasons, in disrupting the canon.
The one collective group that not only can be, but must be, assaulted constantly is that of white males. One literary critic as I recall, recently suggested that publishers publish only women writers for a year. Why don't we do the same in music? For one year, all performances worldwide must be only of music by women composers. That would be interesting. No Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, well, you get the idea. Actually, the process of updating, disrupting, adding to, blurring the lines of, etc, the "canon" is going on constantly.

We are informed that women composers:
...encountered obstacles, on the other hand, that their male composers didn’t, whether the vagaries of childbearing (Clara Schumann ploughed on as a composer, and especially a performer, through eight pregnancies) or straightforward full-on sexism (Maconchy was told in the 1930s by publisher Leonard Boosey that “he couldn’t take anything except little songs from a woman”). 
Oh yes, no male composer ever encountered obstacles like women composers did. Not child-bearing obstacles, of course, but every biography I have ever read has detailed the enormous obstacles that most composers encounter. Name one composer who didn't encounter disinterested publishers!

Regarding Fanny Mendelssohn, the reviewer writes:
After her death her work was subject to insidiously gendered critiques: it was said to lack “a commanding individual idea” and the “feeling which originates in the depth of the soul”.
One simply has to ask, would any critique in any terms of any woman composer NOT be regarded as "insidiously gendered"?

My favorite section is the ending which, after noting the very successful career of Elizabeth Maconchy (who, by the way, was honored by being appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) goes on as follows:
Sound and Music, which supports composers in Britain, has a strong commitment to gender equality. It is also keen to increase opportunities for black and minority ethnic composers, who are woefully invisible in the UK’s classical musical culture. Some balk at the notion that such “extra-musical” factors might be invoked when programming a concert – as if commercial concerns, personal relationships and a host of unremarked prejudices did not come into play in any act of curatorship. This book helps show why a narrative that insists that the good stuff will naturally and always rise to the surface is simplistic. It is important for us all, composers, musicians, audiences, men, women, society at large, that we seek out the best and most exciting creative voices, from wherever they may come.
The idea that gender equality must be assured by putting a bureaucratic thumb on the scale is no better than putting a thumb on the scale for commercial concerns, personal relationships or other unremarked prejudices. Two or three or several wrongs do not make a right. The characterizing of the idea that good stuff will out as a simplistic narrative is just another, and particularly stupid, unsupported assumption. All those people listed, composers, musicians, audiences, men and women, are people with aesthetic judgment. And their considered judgment as to what is worth composing, performing and listening to IS in fact the "canon". And it was never anything else. If a large number of people grow more and more interested in enjoying the music of Elizabeth Maconchy (and I certainly think they should), then she will enter more thoroughly into the canon. That's how it works. All this stuff about gender equality is just so much special pleading. I take particular delight in the last sentence as the writer seems to have not noticed how the statement of this worthy principle completely negates everything she has previously said! Yes, we should seek out the best and most exciting creative voices from wherever they may come--even if from white males!

Our envoi, obviously, should be something by Elizabeth Maconchy. This is her Nocturne for orchestra, composed in 1950/51:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Leading From Behind?

The idea of "leading from behind" has its origins in politics, but reading a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal brings it to mind. I read the WSJ primarily as a guide to business and economics related events, but it is also good for general news. I find myself often reading the arts coverage as well. USA Today is the largest circulation paper in the US, but the WSJ is a close second. The New York Times is a distant third along with the LA Times. I guess USA Today skews more to the middle class reader and the WSJ to the upmarket reader. Whatever that means. But what has long puzzled me is the WSJ's coverage of music as in, what they choose to cover and what they don't.

Today's article, "Deconstructing Beyoncé’s Most Intriguing Samples on ‘Lemonade’ " is an example. It seems to be a review of Beyoncé's new album just released titled "Lemonade". But, as so often these days, it is not a review in the sense of being a critical evaluation. The writer, Neil Shah, says:
Critics are praising the project, which initially was an exclusive for husband Jay-Z’s Tidal music-streaming service, but is now available for purchase as a download from Apple’s iTunes and digital retailers. (A physical version is coming too.)
The "critics" referred to are NPR with this piece: "Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' Is Defiant In The Midst Of Upheaval" which is a critical review in the same way that a Donald Trump rally is a critical review of his foreign policy. Here is a sample:
Beyoncé couldn't have produced a body of work this defiant, or blunt, two years ago. Lemonade has been made possible by the cultural, social and political upheaval we're in the midst of, triggered by the deaths of boys and fathers and women, who will never be forgotten.
We've all been changed by these events. Beyoncé may be a machine, but she's changed, too. And so have Serena Williams, actress Amandla Stenberg, literary giant in the making Warsan Shire, and the other figures featured front and center in the visual version of the album — from the women who look like my mom and my aunties and my cousins, to those carrying the grief of a nation: the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown.
So, pretty much a manifesto for Black Lives Matter. Without in any way commenting on that political movement, I think it is safe to say that this review has nothing whatsoever to say about the music on the album. The other review linked to is in the New York Times: "Review: Beyoncé Makes ‘Lemonade’ Out of Marital Strife." As you would expect, the NYT review is more in depth:
Her reactions swing from sorrow to rage to determined loyalty, and she reaches beyond the electronic-R&B of “Beyoncé” to embrace new influences and collaborators: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Father John Misty, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Animal Collective and Led Zeppelin. “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a collaboration with Jack White, is a funk-bottomed blues-rocker that has Beyoncé fighting back, declaring, “You ain’t trying hard enough/You ain’t loving hard enough,” working up to a scream. “Pray You Catch Me” is one of two collaborations with the British songwriter James Blake: slow-motion ballads of suspicion and longing. During “Forward,” the other Blake collaboration, the video has its most moving sequence: family members stoically holding photographs of men who were killed by police. It’s followed by a scene of a New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian in full feathered and beaded costume, shaking a tambourine in posh dining rooms as if to exorcise them.
This is as close as they get to a discussion of the actual music--most of the review talks about the costuming, the visuals, and associated poetry by Warsan Shire.  This bit is revealing:
On their own, the songs can be taken as one star’s personal, domestic dramas, waiting to be mined by the tabloids. But with the video, they testify to situations and emotions countless women endure.
Yes, situations and emotions of countless women who are perfect material for reality television. Frankly, we seem to have reached the point where pop stars like Beyoncé and reality tv stars like the Kardashians are barely distinguishable.

But enough of that, back to the WSJ piece. It is actually the most detailed, in the musical sense, of the three articles:
Executive producer Beyoncé Knowles Carter’s artistic choices are always a fascinating slice of the pop-culture zeitgeist.
Is followed by a listing of five samplings that are used on the album. These are all legal, by the way. Sampling of older recordings is so prevalent these days that artists pay a fee for the use of them. Here is the song "Hold Up" from the album (just the audio):

This is supposedly based on Andy Williams "Can't Get Used to Losing You" from 1963:

Just the staccato chords, I guess. Anyway, the point is the WSJ did track down the samples relating to five of the songs on the album. Is the WSJ readership appreciating their efforts? Not at all. As I write this there are just a few comments and this one is typical:
Only in America can a hair extensioned, silicon pumped up, no talent, photo shopped, spouse of an alleged thug drug dealer get press.  A non event - irrelevant.  Nothing like spot lighting law breakers.  This delusional 'sage' thinks she's some kind of 'river to her people'  yeah right.  A river that flows directly into the $ bank.  She's nothing more than a shill for Soetoro in other words - A Useful Idiot.
Let me hasten to say that this is not my view--just a comment on the WSJ review and they were all completely negative.

So why does the WSJ continue to review this sort of cultural artifact? Is it "leading from behind"? Do they want to go to any lengths to avoid being seen as a stuffy newspaper for the rich? Oops, it may be too late!

I think that what we are seeing here is one of the fundamental problems in our culture. In order for any concepts of aesthetic quality or moral content to be transmitted generally in the culture, they must be promoted by figures and institutions that have cultural, moral and aesthetic authority. This basic mechanism has been eroded to the point where it is not those with authority that have the microphone, it is those opposing, deconstructing and rebelling against authority. Even the WSJ, which should be a bastion of traditional aesthetic values, feels it has to deliver appreciative articles on artists like Beyoncé--and this in the teeth of the obvious tastes and interests of their own readers! A few weeks ago they published an article on a particularly painful recording of jazz fusion. I left the first comment which described it as being very painful to listen to. I expected some push back, but when I checked a week later, mine was still the only comment.

Perhaps the WSJ just thinks it is leading from behind as in keeping an eye on and reporting on cultural trends like Beyoncé's album and its unrelenting rage against everyone who isn't a black woman--from her husband on down. But what they should really be doing is exposing this as the rancid politics of personal destruction and glorification that it is.

Don't you think?

My review of the album: nasty, sneering and unlistenable.

UPDATE: Of course you won't want to miss the review in The Onion.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Classic Prince

One theme that this blog has done a few variations on is that of the failure of the humanities to preserve and pass on to new generations the history and content of Western Civilization. University music departments are less a failure in this regard than many other fields because they continue to educate classical musicians to a high level of competence. But there are a few places where the influence of cultural Marxism has begun to infiltrate, specifically the "new" musicology and the study of popular music. This week brings us a good example: Richard Elliot, Lecturer in Popular Music at the University of Sussex writes about "Prince: an icon of a new form of classical music."

After a long paean about Prince's performance of his song Purple Rain, Prof. Elliot sums up as follows:
This is only one of thousands of masterful performances that have already been shared amongst Prince’s fans and that will be returned to in the days and months to come, to offer solace, counter incredulity at this latest loss, and pay witness to a truly eclectic and classical artist.
For this is what Prince was: not in the narrow sense of his interest in Western classical music, but in a far more liberated and liberating understanding and extension of the varied streams of a black classical music tradition that incorporated gospel, jazz, R&B, rock and roll, soul, funk, hip hop and more.
Now I am not going to be so presumptuous as to criticize Prince--I have been a fan of his music since the 80s and the album 1999--but I am most certainly going to criticize this depiction of his music.

This kind of thing poses an acute typological problem for me, so I may as well admit it. The problem is with the definition of the word "classical". There are typically three meanings:

adjective: classical
of or relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture.
"classical mythology"
synonyms: ancient Greek, Hellenic, Attic; More
(of art or architecture) influenced by ancient Greek or Roman forms or principles.
synonyms: simple, pure, restrained, plain, austere; More
(typically of a form of art) regarded as representing an exemplary standard; traditional and long-established in form or style.
"a classical ballet"
synonyms: traditional, long-established; More
antonyms: modern
of or relating to the first significant period of an area of study.
"classical mechanics"
relating to or based upon concepts and theories that preceded the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics; Newtonian.
"classical physics"

In addition to this we could add the Wikipedia article on classical music which defines it as:
Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music, including both liturgical (religious) and secular music. While a similar term is also used to refer to the period from 1750 to 1820 (the Classical period), this article is about the broad span of time from roughly the 11th century to the present day, which includes the Classical period and various other periods.
So, for our purposes, there are three relevant meanings:

  1. The Wikipedia definition of "art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music" which is the one that is probably the most widely used
  2. Music of the Classical period 1750 to 1820
  3. Music achieving an exemplary standard
I have in a few places in this blog referred to the Beatles, for example, as having created some "classical" music. I say this because I am pretty sure that, unlike most popular music, theirs is likely to be still around a hundred years from now. It is of an "exemplary standard". Some commentators have pushed back on this and they likely have justification, because now I am in the uncomfortable position of wanting to critique Prof. Elliot for doing what I have done: elevate a popular artist that he really likes into the category of "classical". And, of course, I really like Prince as well, so he has my sympathy. But it doesn't quite work, does it? What is the problem?

I think the essence of the difficulty is that the music of Prince is not "rooted or produced in the traditions of Western music." While you might try and make the argument that the music of Beatles is, and the two weighty theoretical volumes by Walter Everett published by Oxford certainly go a long way towards making that argument, I think that trying to tie Prince to that same tradition is a bridge too far.

While I certainly do not know all of Prince's oeuvre, I don't recall having heard anything in it that makes much of a reference to any classical music. He pretty clearly comes out of and is an example of the gospel, jazz, R&B, rock and soul traditions. But I can't think of any places where he has engaged in any crossover to classical music. You can draw a line pretty directly from the intense expression of Robert Johnson to Prince, with a lot added along the way, and those are his roots. No Mozart, no Beethoven and certainly no Bach.

Prince might well be a "classic" artist in the sense of one who represents an exemplary standard, but there is really no trace of a classical tradition in his music. And so what? He hardly needed one!

So this helps me clarify my difficulty: the real element that makes me want to call the Beatles "classical" in some sense is the fact that you can discern elements of the Western music tradition in their music. There are, however distant, some roots underlying what they were doing. But this is less the case with Prince.

For an envoi let's listen to some Prince, though this clip will likely be taken down fairly soon. This is a live performance in 1985 of the song "1999" from the album of the same name.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dovetailed Themes

One of the most brilliant discussions of the Classical Style that I know of is in the book of the same name by Charles Rosen. He manages to discern and describe just how the Classical Style works. Another outstanding theorist whose specialty is the Classical Style, and specifically the formal structures and functions of the style is Bill Caplin, with whom I studied at McGill. Neither of them talks much about the stylistic element I want to look at, though Rosen's discussion of the rhythmic flexibility of the style comes closest.

The Classical Style took the relatively static instrumental music of the Baroque and through melodic, harmonic and rhythmic devices managed to transform it into a dynamic style capable of narrative-like movements in instrumental music. The melodic and harmonic methods are often talked about, the rhythmic ones, less so. What I want to look at today is a technique used in themes that gives them a real impetus. I can't find a direct reference to this in the literature so I will just call it "dovetailed" themes. What I mean by this is a theme in which the music is given forward motion through a little dialogue between two or more voices. This is counterpoint, of course, but it is a kind of counterpoint that was unused in this way before the late 18th century. It resembles the Baroque fugal device of stretto where the subject is layered with itself in a kind of stack. The Fugue in C major from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a masterpiece of stretto and I talked about it in this post.

But the dovetailing of themes in the Classical period is quite different and the function is not to make a piled-up structure to add intensity in that moment, but to give velocity to every appearance of the theme. Here is an early example from Haydn, who is as responsible as anyone for the discovery of this technique. This is the beginning of the finale to the Quartet op. 20 no. 3 in G minor:

There are three different voices that go together to make up this theme: the Violin II launches the movement with a simple upbeat leaping up a minor 6th, then falling to the leading tone. The cello takes the next segment, coming off the downbeat and delivering a staccato scale segment to the C, the bass of a V4/2 harmony. Then, coming off the third beat, the first violin plays an ascending 4th going into a trill-figure on the next downbeat. This same texture recurs every time this particular theme is stated. Here, for example, the Violin I begins, the cello continues and the Violin II finishes:

(The trill figure comes on the next line.) In this statement the cello begins the theme, the Violin II continues and again, the Violin I finishes:

Let's listen so you can hear what I am talking about. The finale begins at the 21:21 mark:

This is one way in which the Classical Style reimagines the relationship between melody and accompaniment. Here is an example of a simple texture from the finale to Haydn's Symphony 92:

Click to enlarge

This is not dovetailed in the same way as the previous example, but the effect is similar. The staccato octaves in the cello keep punching the music forward because of the contrast with the melody, especially when it has tied notes. One important element of the style is the integrating of melody and accompaniment to the point that accompaniment can become melody as in this example from the Adagio from the Symphony No. 68 by Haydn. Here the staccato accompaniment is transformed into main melody through dynamics.

Click to enlarge
Let's have a listen to that. The Adagio begins at the 10:15 mark:

Even more interesting is if you can dovetail the function of melody and accompaniment to the point that the listener is unsure which is which. A particularly striking example is the beginning of the Allegro section of the first movement of the Symphony No. 38 "Prague" by Mozart:

This might seem a simple texture, but it is one of the most complex thematic structures Mozart devised. This is the very beginning of the section and the first time we hear this theme. That opening syncopated repeated note idea in the first violins is obviously the accompaniment with the lower strings providing the melody. Or at least you think so until the end of the fifth and the sixth measure, when you realize that the first violins had the melody all along. But later on the balance shifts again and it is that theme in the whole, half and quarter notes that comes to prominence. What Mozart has managed here is to dove-tail two quite different ideas together so that either one can be heard as melody or accompaniment. A rather remarkable accomplishment! Let's listen to this movement. The whole Allegro is as fine a symphonic movement as has ever been written. The Allegro begins at the 2:54 mark:

My final example is again from the Prague Symphony of Mozart. The last movement Presto again has a theme that is dovetailed in order to give push to the movement. Here is how that begins:

Click to enlarge
This is a bit similar to the first example by Haydn. The Violin II and Viola begin with a downbeat which is answered by the Violin I filling in the eighth notes. Then they hold the half, tied to the downbeat of the next measure and then execute a descending scale, syncopated. In the meantime, the Violin II and Viola pick up that eighth note figure and fill in under the Violin I. Finally, the dialogue is compressed from measure 4 when the lower strings play eighths on the beat while the Violin I fills in.  This bouncing the eighths between the strings creates tension and velocity and gives the movement a real impetus. Let's listen. Here is just the Presto:

Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

The big story of the day is the death, yesterday, of Prince, whom the New Yorker honors with one of their iconic covers:

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There was a time when this was considered to be where music was going:

It went there and, like someone visiting Caracas, Chibougamau QC or Detroit, it decided that this was not where it wanted to be. So, it left and went to live in Copenhagen.

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Here is a plagiarism controversy about to go to trial: "Did Led Zep Rip Off Spirit in 'Heaven' ?". Spirit was an LA group in the 60s (I owned one of their vinyl LPs way back then) and of course you know who Led Zeppelin are. They were quite notorious for ripping off both musical and lyrical ideas from, among others, the great 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson. You should read the whole article. This clip explains the similarities:

The Led Zeppelin song progression is actually more complex and more original, though it seems to be heavily influenced by the Spirit tune. After last year's court case about Robin Thicke's song, one wonders how the court is going to rule... Maybe I should have gone into forensic musicology!

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Even scarier than a SWAT team at your door: "If You Don't Pay These Taxes, Expect a Troupe of Drummers at Your Door."
THANE, India—For five years, real-estate developer Prahul Sawant ignored government orders to pay his taxes. Then the drummers showed up, beating their instruments and demanding he cough up the cash. Neighbors leaned out windows and gawked.
Within hours, a red-faced Mr. Sawant had written a $945 check to settle his long-standing arrears.
Shame is the name of the game as India’s local governments try new tools to collect taxes from reluctant citizens. Faced with meager collections and mounting spending needs, Thane’s municipal commissioner, Sanjeev Jaiswal, is resorting to public embarrassment of tax scofflaws.
 Possible future strategies might include EDM djs with massive sound systems camped outside the houses of over-reaching unaccountable government bureaucrats now that tar and feathering seems to be out of fashion.

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Here is an interesting story: recently a Roman villa, apparently quite well preserved, was discovered in Wiltshire.
But in a move that will surprise many, the remains – some of the most important to be found in decades - have now been re-buried, as Historic England cannot afford to fully excavate and preserve such an extensive site ... “Unfortunately, it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to fully excavate and the preserve the site, which cannot be done with the current pressures."
One can only imagine what they are budgeting for instead...

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The Globe and Mail has an interview with Steve Reich that delves into his recovery of his Jewish heritage, but also talks a bit about his music:
Since the last part of Drumming in 1971, I’ve been incorporating more aspects of the traditional Western vocabulary – harmony, melody. So it’s always one step forward, two steps back for me – one step forward into the new, two steps back into the tradition.
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Alex Ross has a good piece on the Big Ears Festival held in Knoxville, Tennessee every spring:
Big Ears is the creation of Ashley Capps, a Knoxville-born concert promoter who co-founded the Bonnaroo Festival, one of the monster operations of pop. Capps’s father worked for a company that had an office in New York, and when Capps was a teen-ager, in the nineteen-seventies, he often visited the city and wandered downtown. He soaked up rock and jazz and also embraced contemporary classical music, especially the minimalism of Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. In 2009, he launched a festival that gathered outlying artists from various genres, in the hope that their audiences would find common ground. The festival has had its struggles—it went on hiatus from 2011 to 2013—but it has stabilized with support from local foundations. This year, more than eight thousand people showed up.
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 There was a time in the early 80s when I re-discovered pop music and did a lot of listening to people like Men at Work, The Police, The English Beat, XTC and, of course, Prince. Our envoi today cannot be by Prince because none of his music is available on YouTube. But we can listen to something by The Police. Here is "Every Breath You Take" from Synchronicity:

UPDATE: It turns out there are some Prince clips on YouTube, just live performances of variable quality, though. There are five embedded in this Wall Street Journal story.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Everything is Derivative?

I was reading an article about a case that is about to go to court regarding the possible plagiarism of the song "Stairway to Heaven" from an earlier song by the group Spirit. In the comments on one blog post about it, nearly every commentator expressed the thought that these kinds of cases are silly because, in music, "everything is derivative". Everything has already been done. All songwriters can do is try a different tempo or a different key with new dance moves and new costumes. Right?

This is a long-standing view, indeed. But the poverty of this particular piece of conventional wisdom is illustrated by a comment made by a theorist on counterpoint way back in the early 16th century who asserted that every possible combination had already been used in counterpoint--the hundreds of thousands of possibilities were exhausted. But the irony is that nearly all of those composers whose counterpoint we admire for its brilliance and originality came after this theorist!

At any given moment in time it always seems as if there were no more possibilities, that everything has already been done. But of course this conventional wisdom is conventional because it is the perception of those people who are fundamentally not creative! That is exactly why they think this, because they can't imagine anything new and original.

When Bach sat down to write his Well-Tempered Clavier, there were thousands of preludes and fugues already written. But his very first prelude, while extremely simple, is entirely fresh and original:

Those who are not really creative think that the only path to something original is to add complexity to what is already there. But that doesn't take us very far. The astounding truth is that there are always new ways of making music.

But of course, most music is highly derivative of other music and when the copying is particularly shameless we call it plagiarism. But the best music is always fresh and original and stays fresh and original. Take the beginning of the Rite of Spring:

Audiences in 1913 had never heard anything like that before--and it still sounds new to us even today.

The thing to watch out for is that certain words, like "derivative" have taken on a pejorative quality: in other words, they are always used as an insult. When my theory teacher in undergraduate music school described Sibelius as "derivative" what he meant was that we would not spend any time studying Sibelius because the prevailing ideology of modernism had determined that the only "innovative" composers were those who followed a certain path: Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, etc.

But have a listen to this music by Sibelius and try to show that it is less original--aesthetically--than anything coming from the Second Viennese School:

"Derivative" is negative marketing: it is a description designed to turn you off something, much like the phrase "authentic" when used in connection with performances of early music is designed to be positive marketing: our performance is "authentic" but those other guys are phony.

So when someone says all music is derivative all they are really saying is that they can't imagine anything new or different. But the real challenge is not only to do something fresh, but to do something good! And it doesn't have to be huge. Haydn achieved an interesting novelty in one symphony simply by starting it with a drumroll:

The cool thing about this is that he brings the drumroll back later on.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Grand Finales defines "grand finale" as:
the concluding portion of a performance or entertainment, as a musical show, rodeo, etc., usually spectacular and involving most or all of the prior participants.
In popular usage it refers to a particular stunt or device that serves to sum up or wrap up or provide a climactic end to something.

The term comes from music, of course, and specifically to the ending sections of an act in an opera buffa and to the last movement of a symphony. There is an interesting overlap in the two usages in the way Shostakovich tends to construct his last movements. In the finale to an opera buffa, all of the characters are onstage singing together which gives a very nice dramatic and musical climax. A stupendous example is the finale to Act II of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro that I posted about here. In a number of his string quartets Shostakovich does something similar in bringing back several of the themes from previous movements. An example is the String Quartet No. 11 that I blogged about here.

Sibelius found a number of interesting and original ways of handling his last movements and one of my favorites is the ending of his Symphony No. 2 that I blogged about here.

But today I want to take a slightly different perspective on the finale and ask what should it be doing and how that changed from the 18th century to the 20th century. Let's take a very famous example, the last movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, written in 1908-09 or at exactly the moment when, as we noted yesterday, Schoenberg was delivering the coup de grâce to tonality in his piano pieces, op. 11. Mahler's symphony begins in D major and the second and third movements are in C major and A minor but, very unusually, the last movement is in D flat major and it is a lengthy adagio! The tempo marking is Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend (very slowly and held back). Let's have a listen:

This is a pretty interesting place for the symphonic finale to end up, with a thirty-minute adagio that fades out into nothingness. There has been a great deal of speculation about the meaning or significance of this movement. Leonard Bernstein, the conductor in the above clip, thought it was about three kinds of death: Mahler's own, of tonality and of Faustian culture. It seems a farewell to something indeed, life or culture or, perhaps, civilization. It is both interesting and disturbing that so much art and music in these years just before the First World War is so deeply pessimistic and foreboding. Perhaps some artists do intuit the future.

What I want to do now is trace the symphonic finale back from this endpoint to where it began. In 1896 Anton Bruckner died leaving incomplete the last movement of his Symphony No. 9. It has a somewhat different character to Mahler's. There have been several attempts at completing the last movement. Here is Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic in the performing version by Samale/Phillips/Cohrs/Mazzuca:

Bruckner while just as grandiose as Mahler, was certainly more of an optimist. Incidentally, this completion, the work of many hands from 1992 right up to 2011, incorporates themes from all the previous movements.

Just a few years before the Bruckner, Antonin Dvořák composed his Symphony No. 9 and the finale is quite different again, being inspired to an extent by his sojourn in the US. The last movement is quite conventional in that it is quick, an allegro and uses the minor to major transformation that Beethoven originated in his Symphony No. 5, in this case from E minor to E major. This is Gustavo Dudamel conducting:

That provides a more conventional kind of finale with lots of energy and powerful themes.

The last symphony to be written by Robert Schumann was his Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish" composed in 1850, and the last movement, labeled "Lebhaft" (lively) corresponds roughly to the Italian allegro. It is the fifth rather than the fourth movement of the symphony and has been described as having the feel of a rustic dance. This is Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.

The chronology of the symphonies of Mendelssohn is a bit complex, but the Symphony No. 3 "Scottish" is arguably his last as it was the last to be performed, in 1842, and he revised it up until that time. Again, this follows the Beethoven model of not only being a quick movement but also using the movement from minor to major to add more excitement and finality. This is the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor: Stefan Sanderling:

The first "romantic" symphony is likely the Symphonie fantastique of Hector Berlioz, composed in 1830, and it too is in five rather than four movements. The last is titled: "Songe d'une nuit du sabbat" (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath) and Berlioz describes it as follows:
He sees himself at a witches' sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath ... Roar of delight at her arrival ... She joins the diabolical orgy ... The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.
This is Leonard Bernstein again, this time conducting the Orchestra National de France:

The normal function of a finale is here subverted, intentionally, by fidelity to the program.

Now we come to perhaps the most famous symphonic finale of all, that to the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven, composed in 1824, which is really not a symphonic finale at all, but rather a kind of cantata. This idea was taken up by Mahler, among others, in his inclusion of vocal soloists and choirs in several symphonies. One particularly influential component of this finale was the reappearance of themes from previous movements--in this case, only to be rejected. Let's listen. The performers are

Anna Samuil (soprano)
Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano)
Michael König (tenor)
René Pape (bass)
National Youth Choir of Great Britain
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

By the way, I have been focussing so much on the finales of the last symphonies of all these composers because that seems to be where they wanted to make the grandest of statements. This is certainly true of Mozart whose finale to his Symphony No. 41, with its spectacular fugue with five subjects is a tour de force that was unequalled. This is Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the last movement begins around the 31:15 mark:

Some of my readers are sensing where I am going with this. We have looked at a number of finales and it seems as if, the further back we go, the closer we get to a functionally successful one. By that I mean one that in a really thrilling and dynamic way offers a brilliant summation of a multi-movement symphonic work. So often, as we have seen, the composer is simply overwhelmed by the problem and, in an effort to really outdo himself, writes something that is wildly out of proportion to the work or reaching for an elusive transcendence. I think this is where Beethoven erred. He always had a problem with last movements and the one to the 9th is, while remarkably popular, in my opinion one of his crassest and least successful. But I know that I am in an extreme minority. The Mozart is an amazing finale, but again one that almost dwarfs its symphony.

Which brings us to Haydn who wrote not one or two successful finales, but about a hundred! And wow, are they good! He never had the tendency to throw in the kitchen sink or the occasional chorus, nor did he give in to despair or to overreaching. Nope, just brilliant, witty, moving finales that wrap up the symphony in a deeply satisfying way. Here are six examples.

Symphony No. 35, B flat major, Dec. 1, 1767 (the last movement begins at 20:10):

Symphony No. 49, F minor, "La Passione", 1768 (the last movment begins at 19:35):

Symphony No. 44 E minor, "Trauer", 1771:

Symphony No. 82, C major, "The Bear", 1786:

Symphony No. 88, G major, 1787, (which I chose mostly because of Bernstein's non-conducting!):

Symphony no. 92, G major, "Oxford", 1789:

I honestly don't think anyone has ever written a more giddy symphonic movement.

So there you have it, the recent history of Western Civilization, as shown in symphonic finales, and done in reverse order.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Case of Max Reger

Max Reger (1873 - 1916) in a portrait by Frank Nölken

Max Reger is a historically fascinating figure. He died of a heart attack at the early age of 43 and his productive career lies mostly in the period between 1889 and 1914 that saw enormous upheavals in music aesthetics. Carl Dahlhaus, the great German musicologist, terms the year 1889 the dawning of "musical modernism" characterized by pieces like the Symphony No. 1 of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss' tone poem Don Juan. 1889 was also the year of the Paris International Exhibition where both Erik Satie and Debussy heard the music of the Javanese gamelan. This and the beginnings of comparative musicology both signaled the end of an entirely Euro-centric view of music.

Incidentally, to those who question the use of the term "modernism" to describe this particular epoch, which is often termed simply "late Romanticism" it was coined at the time by the Austrian critic Hermann Bahr. Modernism, in this view, therefore precedes the dissolution of tonality which came around 1908. It was this significant watershed that caused composers like Richard Strauss and Max Reger to split away from the new modernism of the 20th century which was being shaped by Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces, op. 11 and his Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 were both written in 1909 and are probably the precise moment when 20th century modernism and atonality in music were born. Both Strauss and Reger recoiled from this advance and, according to Dahlhaus, went through a "presumably painful renunciation of a place at the 'forefront of evolution'."

Schoenberg's first String Quartet, op. 7 and Reger's String Quartet, op 74 live in the same aesthetic universe. Unfortunately, due to the decline in popularity of Reger's music, I can't even find that quartet on YouTube. This Symphonic Prologue to a Tragedy, op 108, written in 1908 will have to stand in:

And here is the Schoenberg quartet:

Bear in mind that Reger and Schoenberg were exact contemporaries, being born only a year apart. But we find Reger, upon encountering the Three Piano Pieces, op. 11 of Schoenberg writing to a friend:
[I] can't make heads or tails of them; I have no idea whether this sort of thing can still be called 'music'. My brain really is too old for this stuff!
This was written in 1910 when Reger was only 37 years old and Schoenberg just 36. That is how quickly and radically the aesthetic climate shifted. Here are those three piano pieces by Schoenberg:

One of the problems for Reger that precluded him from trying to follow Schoenberg in this direction was the idea of a "magnum opus" that is, large pieces in the grand style of the oratorio and symphony.  The atonal style could simply not support these kinds of large structures and one of the reasons that Schoenberg later on came up with the 12-tone method was to try and find structural devices that could.

Reger, on the other hand, while not leaping into the abyss, did confront some of the fundamental problems of the day. Prior to his consolidation after 1908 he wrote music in which tonality is undermined and traditional syntax dissolved. Here is his Piano Quintet, op 64 from 1903:

While the tonality is weakened, the structural ideas of motivic development, first and second theme, exposition and development, all originating in tonal music, are still used.

Perhaps the most popular of Reger's works are the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 132, composed in 1914:

The piece that this most strongly recalls is the Haydn Variations by Brahms composed in 1873, a generation earlier and the year of Reger's birth. Is this musical nostalgia given a somewhat musty aura by the surrealism and extreme modernism of the progressives like Schoenberg?

It is disquieting to consider what was in store for European civilization over the next half century: two world wars, the Holocaust, the destruction of what had been the most advanced nation, culturally, in Europe, Germany. Perhaps nostalgia was just as aesthetically viable as being at the forefront of evolution.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Let's start with a re-imagined 60s album cover:

And, as all Battlestar Galactica fans know, Bob Dylan is actually a cylon:

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The concept of what I have called "racinating" or re-connecting with the roots of art is not exclusive to me. The blog The Remodern Review takes a similar stance: "The Death of University Arts Programs, Part 1: Eric Fischl."
The current status quo of the art world is dysfunctional and unsustainable. Aspiring artists are indoctrinated into the belief that path for advancement lies through the minefield of dogma higher education has been reduced to.
The reality of the situation is that the assumptions and biases of the elitist academic approach probably did more to create and sustain the crisis of relevance the arts are undergoing than any other factor.
The end of the current system is inevitable. What will take its place will be determined by those who can see past the dreary conformity that inflicts the credentialed creative classes.
You can't actually "credential" creativity.

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 Here is a piece about appreciating classical music that manages to NOT be pretentious or condescending:
the trouble with being interested in classical music is that people look at you funny. You might be sitting with friends talking about pop music, or what you’ve read or seen on television, and everyone’s on the same page. And then you say “Yeah, it reminds me of that Shostakovich quartet, that chord at the end” and there’s a chill in the room, and the mood is killed. I thought if I seduced more people into the world of classical music I wouldn’t be as lonely and wretched.
That is tongue in cheek, by the way.

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This is how you attracted women in 1955: with Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2:

I have the sinking feeling that nowadays you would need something more like this:

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Over at Alex Ross' site he points us to a new album by Alarm Will Sound that has me intrigued. They are doing an arrangement of the Beatles' foray into musique concrete, Revolution No. 9? Sign me up!

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This essay is worth reading just for the quotations of particularly risable academic prose: "Glaciers and Sex." Here is a nice bit:
Back in 1946, George Orwell observed that “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.” Fast forward a few decades and you have the owlish gibberish of deconstruction, the inanities of postcolonial studies, and kindred exercises in polysyllabic grievance-mongering, not to mention the grimly risible productions from the repellent partisans of “gender studies.”

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The New Yorker has a complex article on "Race, Art, and Essentialism" that is certainly worth a look:
Moody’s point—there’s no other way to read it—is that race endows writers and critics with an extra dose of perceptual acumen. We hear James Brown with our ears, our heart, our imagination, our muscles, but also with the color of our skin, and there are essential qualities in James Brown’s music (Moody never says what they are) that a listener who is not black like Brown simply can’t pick up. 
Think of Moody’s proposition in reverse: Mozart can be fully appreciated only by people of European background. You can take the most sophisticated, gifted, industrious nonwhite critic—sorry, he or she is just going to miss some crucial things (“penetrating insights and varieties of context”) for not having been born into the racial lineage of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, with its cultural prerogatives, its particular refinements. No one would dare say such a thing; it’s unthinkable...
Read the whole thing as it is a considered examination of the argument that "race is destiny" and a well-founded critique of it.

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I have expressed a few times my view that the primary purpose of the study of the humanities is to acquaint each generation with the history of civilization, primarily Western, but not exclusively. Instead, since the 80s, this has been largely replaced by the deconstruction and critiquing of civilization, primarily Western, as being racist, oppressive, misogynist and so on. This week there was an attempt at Stanford University to reinstate the Western Civ. requirement. It failed 6 to 1. Well, yeah, they spent the last thirty years propagandizing how evil Western Civ. is, so no surprise. Here is the story.
The mere suggestion that Stanford require studying Western civilization had generated immense outrage among certain Stanford communities. A low-income advocacy group at the school suspended a member based on the suspicion that he wrote an anonymous piece supporting the proposal. A hostile column in The Stanford Daily warned that accepting the proposal would mean centering Stanford education on “upholding white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations.”
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Here at the Friday Miscellanea we look for those lighter items such as composer's hairstyles: "The Top Ten Worst Composer Hair of All Time [sic]" My favorite:

Johann Strauss II
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We need a heart-warming story, do we not? This week the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montréal donated a new violin to Montreal busker Mark Landry who had his stolen. There is a little clip at the link when they presented it to him. He asks, in French, "did they give me a bow too?"

Montreal is a  rather special place when it comes to culture. Where else would you find so many classical music buskers? I have heard everything from the Pachelbel Canon to a Britten cello suite performed on the streets.

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And for our envoi this week let's listen to the Symphony No. 39 in G minor by Joseph Haydn, the earliest minor-key symphony from his "Sturm und Drang" period, composed around 1765: