Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Alex Ross and Politics

As many of my readers know, I have taken a solemn vow to keep this blog as free of politics as possible. What I mean by that is that I will only write about a political issue if the classical music world is being subjected to an attack from that quarter. This does happen and I see no reason to ignore it.

But let's have a look at some other blogs and see what their policy is. Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker and music blogger, seems to have no compunctions whatsoever. Let's have a look at some of his recent posts:
One mark of the dishonor that has fallen on this country in the wake of Donald Trump's morally repugnant, profoundly un-American actions as President is that the brilliant Syrian-born clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh does not know whether he will be able to return to his Brooklyn home. I wrote about him in 2013, when he appeared in conjunction with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
That seems fair enough in that it talks about the potential consequences of a political decision on a musician. The only thing I would have done differently is give some reasons for thinking that President Trump is "morally repugnant" instead of just asserting it. I don't think it is enough to simply utter a thought that is the received wisdom in your social group--that is mere virtue signaling. To be taken seriously as a thinker, I think you need to think! That means that you should especially evaluate everything that seems to be received or accepted wisdom or truth. Otherwise you are not a thinker, but only a groupthinker.

On the plus side, in an issue of the New Yorker that seems to be almost entirely devoted to articles on the theme "Donald Trump: Threat or Menace?" Ross has an interesting piece on Julius Eastman, a somewhat forgotten minimalist composer and performer.
The major revelation, though, has been the brazen and brilliant music of Julius Eastman, who was all but forgotten at century’s end. Eastman found a degree of fame in the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, mainly as a singer: he performed the uproarious role of George III in Peter Maxwell Davies’s “Eight Songs for a Mad King,” in the company of Pierre Boulez, and toured with Meredith Monk. He achieved more limited notoriety for works that defiantly affirmed his identity as an African-American and as a gay man. (One was called “Nigger Faggot.”) As the eighties went on, he slipped from view, his behavior increasingly erratic. When he died, in 1990, at the age of forty-nine, months passed before Gann broke the news, in the Village Voice.

This is a performance of Eastman's "Gay Guerilla" at Boston University in 2013:

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Burn Without Hearing

Ann Althouse presents us with a fascinating problem: how seriously should we take the apparent intentions of an artist?
Does a principle of the "artist's intention" require us to look away from artwork he didn't choose to preserve for display? If so, why are we looking at the black-and-white photograph of it? How do we know he preferred "The Human Condition" (just because he hadn't cut it up or painted over it yet)? If we found a stash of Magritte's preparatory sketches in a portfolio labeled "Do not display. These sketches are to be burned" would we follow his instructions?
I'm not sure how much Althouse knows about the issue of intentionalism in aesthetics, but here is my take on the issue:
This week's current events lead one to muse a bit on the question of text and meaning. In a reply to a comment on this post I wrote the following:
Beardsley is famous for being the co-author of the enormously influential paper, "The Intentional Fallacy". He points out that we must make a crucial distinction between the author's intent and the aesthetic object. When the author says he is going to write a poem about trees and we look at the poem and indeed, it is about trees, there is no real problem. But if the artist says he is making a sculpture that will symbolize inhumanity and oppression and we go and look and all we see is a granite sphere two feet in diameter, then we have a problem and the proper solution to the problem is to discount the artist's intention and whatever he or anyone else says about it. All we really have to work with is the aesthetic object itself.
However, the issue is not quite so easily resolved. Here is another take on intentionalism with regards to legal reasoning from this blog:
...the very notion that a text can speak apart from the signification of that text by some agency — some human with some intent that he attaches to a set of arbitrary marks or sounds — is an absurdity: A text is no more alive and capable of speech than a lump of coal, and documents are no more alive than the paper or pixels they’re written on.
Is the only difference here between the ontological status of something as an aesthetic object, hence something apart from and different than a "moral agent", and something else that is a record of a speech act of a moral agent?
I suggest reading the whole post, which goes into some detail.

But back to Althouse: she puts up a poll listing different actions we might take such as following an artist's instructions to burn a folder of sketches, photograph then burn, limit access to scholars or simply display them without regard to the artist's wishes. What strikes me most of all is that this is all from the perspective of consumers of art. They always feel that these sorts of decisions, to view or not to view, should be entirely in their hands. The artist's intentions or wishes are irrelevant. We will do what we want. Of course, to avoid this, an artist should not put sketches he does not want anyone to see in a folder with that instruction on it; he should simply destroy the sketches himself.

Let's make a distinction here to avoid confusion. The issue of the artist's intentions is a problem in aesthetics that I think Beardsley dealt with quite well. Whatever the intention lurking in the mind of the artist, all we have to work with and interpret is the aesthetic object itself, therefore the intention of the artist is irrelevant. But that is the presumably hidden aesthetic intention. The intention plainly stated by an artist that he does not wish such and such a painting or sketch to be made publicly available or to be destroyed is not an aesthetic intention, but a request for courtesy much like saying, "please don't step on my toe". Saying "please don't view these sketches" or "please burn these incomplete works" is a request that normal human courtesy suggests we honor.

A famous example is that of Sibelius who struggled for years to finish an eighth symphony. His wife reported that she saw him take a great basket of sketches--who knows, perhaps a complete score--to the fireplace once and burn them all. Perhaps this was because of the aesthetic context of the time in which he began to feel useless, perhaps it was depression, perhaps it was alcoholism, who knows? But this is what he did. Despite the desire of many scholars to have access to those scores, do we have the right to say that Sibelius was not within his rights to burn them? I don't think so. Similarly, if he had left the basket of scores sitting by his desk with a note saying "please burn these scores after my death" that would also seem to be a legitimate request.

It is only in a social context where most people are only consumers of art that we would find a poll mostly giving the rights of access to the consumer alone. The consumer's veto we might call it. But I think any artist would think quite differently. Every day that we work we create, momentarily, things that we destroy a moment later in favor of a better realization. That some of these sketches survive is a mere temporal accident, not an ontological difference. Therefore, a word of warning to artists: the art-consuming public is going to ignore all your requests to destroy sketches and incomplete works, so you had best do it yourself!

For our envoi, the last completed symphony by Sibelius, the Symphony No. 7 in C major, op. 105:


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Musing on a Trend

I attended a concert last night in our local chamber music series--the first one I got to this season. It was the first one that looked interesting enough to be worth catching and I wanted to muse on that a bit. I'm not a typical concert-goer, of course. I usually intensely dislike the little spoken introductions that the artists are encouraged to give because they seem off-the-cuff, irrelevant and often mistaken. I really prefer it when people who are highly trained at playing their instrument, just sit down and do it. I also tend to read the program notes largely so I can complain about them. But enough about my problems!

The program last night was quite good: it began with the four Impromptus D. 899 of Franz Schubert and the second half began with the Piano Sonata No. 2 by Prokofiev. There was a prelude and fugue by Mendelssohn as well, which prompted me to ask why would anyone program that when they could play a prelude and fugue by Bach instead? The concert ended with three preludes by Rachmaninoff. The encore was the first movement of the Italian Concerto by Bach. Quite decent concert and I enjoyed hearing the Schubert and Prokofiev in a live performance.

I don't want to do a review of the concert, by a Japanese pianist born in England, but a few things are worth mentioning. First of all, she played every piece, including the encore, from the music! It occurred to me that if she were doing a graduating recital at McGill, she would likely be penalized for this and perhaps even failed. Mind you, my usual practice was to play very contemporary music and pre-Bach repertoire from the music because that kind of repertoire is so very hard to memorize. But mainstream repertoire like this I would always play from memory. I remember one voice recital I attended where the singer did not actually have to resort to reading the music until he was into the seventh or eighth encore!

The playing was certainly good enough, though I'm afraid Sokolov has spoiled me for the Schubert. The playing in this recital was largely accurate, though heavy-handed at times and lacking in, well, poetry.

The reason for this post is a long-term trend I think I am seeing: one where there is a steady, incremental decline in both the quality of the repertoire and of the performances. For example, just staying with the piano, a few years ago we had Kevin Kenner, an American pianist based in London, and, once he got used to the piano, he played an absolutely superb Chopin Ballade. Matthew Bengtson came two years in a row and played a very fine Goldberg Variations and Diabelli Variations by Bach and Beethoven respectively. His name slips my mind, but an American pianist from California came and played a fascinating program interspersing Bach preludes and fugues with classical, romantic, modern, world music and jazz.

But in recent seasons we have had nothing but hackneyed repertoire, the Moonlight Sonata over and over and over again, played with much less musicality. Going back to last night, if this performance were a graduating recital for a masters degree in piano at McGill, I doubt I would give it more than a B. And I have heard other piano recitals in the series that were frankly musically very poor.

This same phenomenon is also present to some degree in the other instrumental programs. So why is this? If you would allow me to speculate, I wonder if it does not partly stem from the fact that none of the people making the decisions about artists and repertoire have any musical training. They are aficionados and very hard-working, but I honestly don't think they really hear the difference between an outstanding performance and a merely mediocre one. And they don't seem to appreciate creative programming over generic programming. So it likely comes down to this pianist being cheaper and easier to book than the other one. So, year after hear, the quality gets lower and lower.

What would someone with solid musical training and knowledge do to improve this situation? One thing is to recognize that audiences need to be occasionally challenged and always educated, though in moderation. Good performing and programming sensitizes audiences to aesthetic quality so that they recognize the difference between sensitive playing and someone who pounds on the keyboard. It is a bit like wine-tasting: if you never have a chance to compare run-of-the-mill wines with really outstanding ones, you will not develop a taste for them.

I'm sure that there are arguments on the other side, the people making the choices might say, we review carefully the attendance at each concert and bring back the popular artists if we can afford them and so on. But classical music is not just a popularity contest. The reason we study repertoire, music history and performance practice is so that we can evaluate repertoire and performance on the basis of things more substantial than just the attendance on a given night or our first impressions.

I'm sure my readers want to weigh in on this, so let me know your thoughts in the comments.

For our envoi, let's listen to those Schubert Impromptus. This is Alfred Brendel:


Friday, January 27, 2017

The Social Class of Musicians

I read an odd post on a blog the other day that asserted that performing artists like musicians and actors were inherently in a low social class--that the 18th century was correct in putting them in the same social class as servants. The poster went on to say that acting, in general performing in public, was essentially demeaning. I often find arguments that are fundamentally discordant with what I believe to be stimulating, or interesting at least.

Just to recapitulate the history a bit, artists of all kinds up to the late 18th/early 19th century were a service industry. They provided splendour and gilding to the nobility and the church. There were exceptions, of course, such as Carlo Gesualdo who was himself a member of the nobility, but this is generally true. When we get to the late 18th century composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven chart a fundamental shift. Haydn was a servant, though a highly-prized one who, by the end of his life was the most famous musician in Europe. Mozart was perhaps the first composer to make a living without taking a position in a noble household. And Beethoven transcended the "servant" category entirely and created a new identity for musicians: as revealers of transcendent truth. This shaped the whole social role of musicians in the 19th century when music became revered as the highest artform.

In the 20th century music fractured into a number of competing categories: "classical" music, now more or less a museum of great works of the past, "contemporary" music, an ideological category asserting music as a higher truth and not to be crafted to suit popular taste, "popular" music which grew and grew in importance until now it is nearly the only category of music of any social importance, "folk" music, which is now whatever is left over after pop musicians have looted it for ideas (bluegrass, traditional blues, "old-time" music) and finally, "world" music, which is whatever artists in the rest of the world manage to catch the attention of audiences in the developed world.

It seems that what has happened is that the most popular popular musicians have come to be members of a new noble class: celebrities (Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, etc.). A very few contemporary composers and musical scholars have managed to hammer out a small niche in academia. The rest of musicians seem to be reverting to the servant category as they play more and more weddings, funerals and bar mitzvas and fewer and fewer serious recitals.

My encounter with music was always rather at odds with the overall trends. First of all, I came from a very low and beaten-down social class: Canadian prairie farmers. Think of them as being like Appalachian hillbillies without the glamour! Even the discovery of pop music was something of a step up and when I stumbled across classical music in my late teens, it seemed a portal to the great world of history and aesthetics. That was a life-changer. All the usual kinds of careers, like banking, medicine, the law, teaching, seemed like so much cold porridge compared to the sheer, stunning aesthetic power of Beethoven, Bach and Stravinsky. Right?

Of course, to have these kinds of reactions you pretty much have to be oblivious to the lure of money and prosperity. But so I was. I spent most of my career actively avoiding monetary success because it seemed, frankly, beside the point. Would anyone with a brain sit down and rank classical composers by how much money they made? Rossini would be number one and Schubert dead last. Does that seem right?

So from that angle, the reason I retired from being a performer was that I could not get my career to the point where I did not have to accept demeaning engagements. So I preferred to not perform. Nowadays I think of myself as a composer and the only recent performances have been of my own music. But as a composer, I have no real professional standing. This is as much a plus as anything. If I were a university composer I would be part of the academic scene that I have a lot of problems with. If I were an established composer of some kind then I suppose I would have to be chasing after insulting commissions like the one the Canadian government is offering to compose a two-minute fanfare in celebration of Canada's 150th anniversary. Thanks, but no thanks. So instead of low social status as a composer I can enjoy no social status, neither high now low. Somehow I prefer that.

I'm sure that some of my readers will have some comments to offer, so go to it!

Here is something to listen to while you are commenting: this is the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, op. 13 by Beethoven, nicknamed the "Pathétique" played by Krystian Zimerman:


Friday Miscellanea

Philip Glass turns 80 this month (Steve Reich's 80th was in October) so I guess we can't call him the new kid on the block any more. And according to him, we shouldn't even call him a "minimalist". For an entertaining interview with Mr. Glass, who just wrote his Symphony No. 11, see this Guardian article:
It seems that no one – not you, or Steve Reich, or John Adams – likes being called a minimalist. What do we call you if not that?
Let’s talk about this. The problem is no one is doing minimalism now. It’s music we wrote in the 1970s. It’s over 30 years out of date. It’s a crazy idea to use a description made up by journalists and editors to cover all kinds of music. It’s more confusing than descriptive. What do I really do? Listen to me. I’ve written 26 operas, 20 ballets, I don’t know how many film scores. I write theatre music. I write concert and symphonies too. I’m working on a new film score right now. Then I’ll start a new stage piece. My problem is people don’t believe I write symphonies. But I’m premiering Symphony No 11 in a couple of weeks. These are all different forms of music. Maybe I do too many things.
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Allan Kozinn has a review up of a new album of the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg directed by Gidon Kremer. Kremer has long been perhaps the most interesting violinist when it comes to repertoire and this album underlines that. Weinberg, as readers of the Music Salon know (the link goes to a post devoted to Weinberg from 2013), was a friend and protege of Dmitri Shostakovich who wrote a great deal of excellent music that has still to make a place in the public consciousness. This album will help.


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Somebody get this man a rhythm section!!


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Here's something you don't see every day: an orchestra comprised entirely of double basses:


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The Wall Street Journal has a review of Daniel Barenboim's ongoing Bruckner cycle by Barbara Jepson:
Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin are in the midst of a historic undertaking at Carnegie Hall: a complete cycle of the nine numbered symphonies by Bruckner that continues through Jan. 29. It is reputedly the first performed in the U.S. during a single season.
One reason for the relative rarity of Bruckner cycles is the challenges these lengthy works present to musicians and listeners alike. Along with richly colored brass chorales, haunting melodies for strings, and orchestral unison blasts, there is a fair amount of overblown or mundane music. The longueurs of the Fifth Symphony’s opening movement, or the scherzo of the First, where the composer takes decent but not particularly inventive themes and repeats them interminably, are just two examples. Brahms’s catty categorization of Bruckner’s orchestral works as “symphonic boa constrictors” contains a grain of truth.
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An envoi of Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica playing Weinberg would make a nice end to today's miscellanea. This is the Adagio from the Sinfonietta No. 2, op. 74:


Monday, January 23, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 9 in C major, op. 103

The Piano Sonata No. 9 is the last one that Prokofiev completed--a draft for a tenth sonata is only 44 measures long. Prokofiev's life ended in tragedy due largely to politics.  It is likely that he wrote no more sonatas because of ill health and more importantly because he, along with Shostakovich, Khachaturian and others was a victim of the Zhdanov Doctrine that condemned their work as being "formalism" and too influenced by the music of the imperialist West. The ninth sonata was completed in late 1947 and the Zhdanov decree came out in early 1948. The sonata was not premiered until 1951, by Sviatoslav Richter, and not published until after Stalin's death. Quoting from Wikipedia:
...on 20 February 1948, Prokofiev's wife Lina was arrested for 'espionage', as she had tried to send money to her mother in Spain. After nine months of interrogation, she was sentenced by a three-member Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR to 20 years of hard labour. She was eventually released after Stalin's death in 1953...
 The Sonata No. 9 begins in an atmosphere of simplicity and naïveté and though it plumbs greater depths, it keeps returning to this place of calm, peace and health. Here is the opening:

Click to enlarge
I have been describing a lot of what Prokofiev does as "chromatic alteration" meaning just that he does things like flatten the G in the first measure, flatten the A in measure three and so on. But it is entirely likely that a more specific way of looking at his practice might be via Russian theories of modality. There is an excellent paper on this in the Shostakovich Studies volume from Cambridge University: "Russian theorists on modality in Shostakovich's music" by Ellon D. Carpenter. These modes have origins going back three centuries so their application to Prokofiev is likely just as justified as to Shostakovich. To give you an idea of what they look like, here is a chart from the paper:

Click to enlarge
I might review the paper and have a more detailed look at how the modes might function in Prokofiev in a future post.

Berman discusses the theme of childhood in this music in his book on the sonatas previously mentioned:
Givi Ordzhonikidze observed another trait of the Ninth Sonata: the important role played by the imagery of childhood. Throughout his life, Prokofiev turned to childhood-inspired, or childhood-related, themes: from the set of piano pieces Music for Children, op. 65; to the symphonic fairy tale Peter and the Wolf, op. 67; to the suite for speakers, boys' choir, and orchestra, Winter Bonfire, op. 122; to the oratorio On Guard for Peace, op. 124. In these works he highlights the emotional qualities associated with childhood-innocent simplicity, naivete, pure lyricism, and carefree playfulness. These characteristics also figure prominently in later works that are not explicitly related to childhood by a program or a title, such as the Seventh Symphony or many pages in Cinderella. In the Ninth Sonata, these images are particularly prominent in the fourth movement.
(Boris Berman. Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas: A Guide for the Listener and the Performer (Kindle Locations 1976-1980). Kindle Edition.)
Let's listen to the sonata. It is in four movements:
  1. Allegretto
  2. Allegro strepitoso
  3. Andante tranquillo
  4. Allegro con brio, ma non troppo presto
This performance is by Sviatoslav Richter from a concert in Japan in the 1980s. It includes the score:


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat major, op. 84

The eighth is the last of the"War" sonatas, begun in 1939 with the others, and completed in 1944, at which point who was going to win the war was becoming evident. Emil Gilels gave the premier in December 1944. Like a number of others of his instrumental pieces, some of the material is recycled from earlier pieces for the stage. Prokofiev, a very fine composer of both ballet and opera, was unlucky when it came to getting the projects produced. Some of the material in this sonata was originally intended for a couple of Alexander Pushkin projects which did not reach completion. The first theme in the first movement, for example, comes from a film project on the Queen of Spades.

The Piano Sonata No. 8 is the longest of the sonatas with a playing time of around twenty-eight minutes. There are three movements:
  1. Andante dolce (in B-flat major)
  2. Andante sognando (in D-flat major)
  3. Vivace (in B-flat major)
From Boris Berman's book on the sonatas, here is the theme from the music for the Queen of Spades film:

Click to enlarge
And here is the theme as it appears in the first movement of the sonata:

Click to enlarge
The theme has an oddly surreal character due to its wide tessitura and frequent large leaps and the way that the tonality seems to wander away from the accompaniment (which itself tends to wander, tonally). The first nine-measure phrase begins and ends in B flat, but by the time we arrive at the cadence it sounds very different from where we began. Prokofiev loves to go to or come from a place, tonally, that is a semitone away from what you might expect. In the third measure, for example, he arrives at a G sharp minor harmony where one might expect G minor, the relative minor of B flat. Similarly, instead of a V-I cadence in mm 9, which would be F major to B flat, we get an F sharp minor harmony followed by B flat. The voice-leading helps us to hear it as the tonic despite this.

One of my favorite things with Prokofiev, is to see how he has constructed his final cadence, always very original. In the case of the end of the last movement he makes reference to an augmented sixth harmony by insistent alternation between F and G flat underneath a tonic minor chord:


An augmented sixth chord leads to the dominant from the semitone above and below, here the dominant is the F and the G flat is the semitone above. Then he has a D flat major chord superimposed on a D minor chord (the F being a common note):


The final harmony before the tonic is a C flat major chord over an F major chord:


The F major is the normal dominant for B flat, the C flat harmony is how he "Prokofievizes" it. Recall that we have seen Prokofiev combine a Phrygian cadence with a normal one before. C flat to B flat is a Phrygian relationship.

But enough of this technical stuff! Let's do some listening. Here is a performance by Vladimir Ashkenazy with the score:


And here is a live performance by Emil Gilels:


Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

I have a general policy of avoiding political issues unless they are directly relevant to our real focus here: music. But since today is the Presidential Inauguration let's start with this item: the Piano Guys are going to perform at the inauguration and offer a statement:
To our friends who have felt disturbed by our involvement, we want you to know that this doesn’t lessen our gratitude for what you have done for us. Not one bit. We still feel indebted to you. We love you. You give our music wings! We sincerely hope and pray for your understanding. We don’t feel right limiting our positive message only to people that believe or act the same way we do. We haven’t changed our message. We haven’t changed who we are, what we stand for, or what our music means and why we write it. We’re still doing what we’ve always done – playing for anyone who will hear our musical message with the hope that it persuades its listeners to love others.
– The Piano Guys
You should read the whole thing, which is very well expressed--and the comments as well, which include some spectacularly mean-spirited ones.

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I ran across this clip from the movie I, Robot that is amusing in an interesting way:


Well, I've written only four symphonies so far...

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Stuart Isakoff has a nice piece in the Wall Street Journal celebrating Tchaikovsky on the occasion of a festival of his music to be presented in New York later this month:
Why Tchaikovsky? It may well be that this composer’s attempt to reconcile influences from East and West—fusing classical elegance, Italian lyricism and German counterpoint with Russian folk elements—produced a many-faceted art in which disparate audiences can all find reason to celebrate.
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Bob Dylan's grandson, Levi Dylan, isn't going into the family business:
Levi Dylan, 22-year-old grandson of Bob Dylan and the son of Jakob Dylan, has decided not to pursue the family trade. “I gave up on music,” he told the Cut at the Cinema Society’s post-screening party for Southside With You on Wednesday, standing in a courtyard outside Harold’s Meat + Three. “I still love to play, but it’s too hard to make a living. And I think that was a mature decision to make.”
Yep. Levi's father, Jakob Dylan, has had a modest career in music, but he is going in a different direction. It is indeed very hard to make a living in music, but that isn't why we do music, after all. We do it basically because we have to.

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Talk about mixed emotions. That's my reaction to this item: Canada Mosaic puts Canadian music on the map.
“Innovators. Renegades. Pioneers. Canadian musicians have long punched above their weight both at home and internationally.”
Or so claims a news release announcing Canada Mosaic, an ambitious cross-country celebration of Canadian music and musicians spearheaded by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and funded (to the tune of $7.5 million) by the government of Canada.
“What a wonderful way to celebrate our 150th,” enthuses Mélanie Joly, minister of Canadian Heritage.
And it surely is a welcome way to fund some major commissions to our composers in addition to 40 or so two-minute fanfares to be performed by the TSO and partner orchestras from British Columbia to Newfoundland.
As a Canadian myself, a few thoughts come to mind. First of all, let me put the question to my readers, apart from Glenn Gould, Leonard Cohen and Justin Bieber, can you name one Canadian composer who is not a popular musician? Take your time... Nothing? I'm not surprised because the one really obvious truth is that Canadian composers have virtually no international profile. While talked up in the Canadian media from time to time as a kind of community boosterism, Canadian music, again, talking about the classical or concert music, has been notable in its utter insignificance. Believe it or not, Canadian composers have even less importance than Swiss composers and I'll bet you would be very hard-pressed to name a single Swiss composer. So, we need to revise that opening paragraph to read "Canadian composers have long punched far below their weight both at home and internationally." The real question is why? Maybe part of the answer is found by reading on. The nation of Canada, in grateful homage to its native composers is commissioning forty of them to write two minute fanfares? Oh good grief, honestly, why bother? A two minute fanfare is not a "major commission". In fact, that is about as tiny and insignificant as a commission can be.

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Our envoi today is the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor of Tchaikovsky played by a very young Martha Argerich in 1975. The conductor is Charles Dutoit:


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Defying Genres and Blurring Borders

I know that my readers come here for incisive reflection on music, sometimes analysis, explorations of the repertoire, examination of aesthetic problems and the occasional foray into humor. And sometimes I even post things like that!!

Today's post is inspired by a record review in the Wall Street Journal of a new disc by Bohemian Trio titled Okónkolo. You will want to read the whole thing, I am sure, but here is a sample:
With “Okónkolo” (Innova), Bohemian Trio offers welcome liberation from the baggage of expectation. This ensemble’s instrumentation—saxophone, piano and cello—offers few, if any, reference points. Substituting saxophone for violin makes for a quite different ensemble than Ravel envisioned when composing the Passacaille from his Piano Trio in A minor, which arrives near this recording’s end. The trio’s chamber music adheres to no conventions.
The really cool thing about the 21st century, apart from our imminent apocalyptic destruction due to zombies or global warming or fake news, is that now when we read a review of a recording we can go right to YouTube and listen to what they are talking about. Here is the title track from the album, Okónkolo:


And here is the Ravel Passacaille in their arrangement:


Nothing terribly wrong with any of that. What I find interesting is the way the review frames and describes what they are doing. The main cues come from the headline and sub-head:

‘Okónkolo’ by Bohemian Trio Review: Chamber Music Without Borders

Classical, jazz and Afro-Cuban sounds meld together on an album that defies genre.

"Without borders", "defies genre" and from the body of the review: "adheres to no conventions," "these musicians honor heritages that blur more than reinforce borders."

Do you detect the same obsessions that I do? "Borders", "conventions", "genres" all these must be blurred, defied and ignored. This is a long-standing meme, of course, but it has grown steadily in recent decades. There is a political resonance, as well. The underlying ideology is that of globalization. There must be no more local and regional, everything must be global, international. Instead of the unique flavor of specific traditions and heritages there is a blending and blurring of them all together. This trio are not a jazz trio or a chamber music trio, though they play both jazz and chamber music. They are without borders while they defy genres.

I see a congeries of aesthetic problems here. The most salient is simply that when music and musicians ignore conventions, defy genres and blur boundaries they do so in order to create something genuinely new. But there are always odd contradictions and ironies. In tossing aside one set of boundaries and conventions, what often happens is that older ones are revived in new garb. The atonal serialism of Schoenberg and Webern revived a number of very old contrapuntal procedures that had largely fallen into disuse. Stravinsky made extensive use of Russian folksong in evoking the atmosphere of primeval Russia. Bartók made a quite different use of Eastern European rhythmic and melodic elements in creating his new musical language and so on.

What creative artists are always seeking is character, individuality, not a grey soup of blurred influences.

Another important issue involves understanding the function of borders, boundaries, conventions and genres: these all offer frames and contexts to aesthetic objects. They are extremely important in focusing both the flow of creative ideas of the artist and in giving a context to the listener. Artists don't so much ignore all conventions and genres as choose and shape them to their needs.

Just as the veil seems to be falling from the agenda of the global elite in erasing national boundaries, so too all this talk of music that defies genre and is without borders seems more and more to be meaningless blather. What could it possibly mean to "defy genre" anyway? To hell with you minuet!?

Yes, of course artists are always in search of something that is both new and individual, but frankly, when I read the kind of description given to this trio, I already have a sense that what they are doing will be anything but new and individual. Instead, odds are that it will be the same bland stew of jazzy harmonies and world music rhythms that I have heard a thousand times before. Is there anything new and individual in the musical approach? Not that I hear. Instead of a liberation from the baggage of expectation, we get a rehashing of old baggage heard many times before.

At least that's what I hear! Feel free to disagree in the comments.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, op. 83

A friend of mine was over the other day, a professional musician for decades. Only some of his repertoire is classical and he doesn't know Prokofiev very well so I played him this movement:


That's the last movement of the seventh piano sonata, the "Precipitato".  My friend listened very intently and when it ended he sat bolt-upright and said "What else have you got like that?" That's a very impressive movement! A couple of months ago I did a whole post comparing different performances of this movement and that was one of the things that got me interested in doing posts on all the Prokofiev piano sonatas.

All three of the "War" sonatas were sketched out in 1939; this one was completed in 1942 and premiered by Sviatoslav Richter in 1943. There are three movements:
  1. Allegro inquieto (in B-flat major)
  2. Andante caloroso (in E major)
  3. Precipitato (in B-flat major)
This is some of the most dissonant of Prokofiev's music and it is often hard, especially in the first movement, to locate a tonic. The middle movement is set a tritone away from the outer movements. Here is how the first movement begins:

Click to enlarge
This kind of rhythmic texture comes from the Baroque gigue and the tarantella of southern Italy. They are both rapid, swirling folk dances, but Prokofiev transforms them into an uneasy, nervous, driving, intense movement, one of his most focused. There is no sense of B flat in the opening, the movement evolves towards that key, as we see foreshadowed in the first phrase which begins in C, shifts to B flat minor, back to C, to D flat and then to B flat. The middle of the movement is an Andantino that is equally uncertain about its key:

Click to enlarge
We see suggestions of A flat, D flat, A major and minor and, yes, B flat. The end of the movement gives us an unambiguous cadence in B flat, though preceded with some of Prokofiev's characteristic misdirections (the C flat in particular):


The second movement is deeply meditative, at least at the beginning, with a haunting melody in the tenor range:

Click to enlarge
And then the last movement, a furiously driving movement in 7/8 (divided 2+3+2) that seems to avoid accenting the downbeat so that you always feel on the wrong foot! While it is solidly in B flat, he contradicts that tonic with a hugely accented C sharp, the augmented 2nd!

Click to enlarge
The harmonies at the end, one of Prokofiev's most interesting coda/cadences are these:

Click to enlarge
An anonymous pianist has added the note "coda" on the second to last line, but I see it as starting a bit earlier, in the middle of the middle measure in the first line of my example. Suddenly there is a large harmonic shift to a D7 sonority: A C D F sharp A D, which is a second inversion D 7 chord. There is a B natural lower neighbor. This harmony, which might be tonicizing G major, instead moves to an A flat minor harmony in first inversion, C flat in the bass. If you recall, we have seen Prokofiev doing this previously, setting up one harmonic destination and then going to one a semitone away. After two measures of that there is a chromatic passage that echoes the augmented second of the opening, but on C flat to D natural instead of B flat to C sharp--a semitone above, in other words. This is a Neapolitan or Phrygian relationship, something else we have seen Prokofiev use. The last line has a scale passage in B flat and a strong tonic harmony extended over three measures. We don't actually get a dominant, that A flat minor in first inversion, strongly suggesting a Phrygian cadence, stands in its place, which we have seen before.

However successful or unsuccessful our attempts to explain what is going on--Prokofiev works more by instinct than formula--I think that this is a very powerful and worthwhile sonata.

Let's listen to all of Grigory Sokolov's performance with the score:


Monday, January 16, 2017

A Report from the Music Department at Mosul University

An old friend of mine, the head of the Music Department at Mosul University, has agreed to send me the occasional report as his school has been in the news a bit recently.

My dear friend,

Yes, things have been a bit fraught lately, I must admit. Here is a photo I took the other day, from my office looking out on the quadrangle. Standing just outside is a member of the Iraqi Special Forces counterterrorism unit:

Click to enlarge
We hope that things will settle down pretty soon, after all, the Battle of Mosul, which began on Oct. 16, 2016, has already lasted longer than the whole invasion of Iraq in 2003. Let me tell you, it will be a relief to finally be able to get music supplies again! Our stocks of reeds, strings, rosin and valve lubricants have been running dangerously low, though the students, a resourceful bunch, have been coping amazingly well.

Of course the main problem all along has been that the Islamic State folks just don't get what we are doing. That's a bit of an understatement: their actual policy is NO MUSIC and, yes, Death to the West, but that is a side-issue. You people who live in the West have no idea how difficult it is to run a music school based on the Western Classical Tradition when you have to put up with a constant stream of death threats and the occasional suicide bomber. Honestly, sometimes I think that the only appropriate repertoire for our orchestra is the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky because at least it features explosions. Cannon fire, C4, what's the diff? We could pair it on the program with Beethoven's Wellington's Victory.

But it is our ear-training classes that have been suffering the most. For one thing, a lot of our students (and faculty) have significant hearing loss from the shelling and automatic weapons fire. Minor sixth, major sixth? Who can tell the difference? Our professor of counterpoint, on loan from Tel-Aviv University, hasn't been seen in several years. He is either hiding in his office or the victim of an assassination. I don't think it was because of his no plagiarism policy, but you never know.

My personal beef this week is that we haven't had decent bagels in the faculty lounge for breakfast in months. What happened to all the Jewish bakers? And why does all the meat in the Faculty Club have to be halal? Really!

Rest assured, though, we will soldier on (just a metaphor!) and await our final liberation, much like Paris did in August 1944. Though in their case, they merely had to put up with the occasional festival of German music played by the visiting Berlin Philharmonic, while we have to sneak around surreptitiously just to organize a rehearsal of a Haydn string quartet! Let me tell you, those imams have sharp ears--they can hear a V-I cadence even through a brick wall.

I have to close now as I am organizing a welcoming concert for the Peshmerga fighters. Do you happen to know of any good cantatas in Kurdish? And can you email me the score and parts right away?

Yours gratefully,

Ignatz Moskowitz
Dean of Music
University of Mosul

[Yes, this is a satire. I don't actually have a friend at Mosul University and they probably don't even have a Music Department. I was just reading about the capture of Mosul University from ISIS and this popped into my head.]

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, op. 82

Between 1918 and 1936 Prokofiev pursued his career internationally with some success. But he grew more and more homesick for Russia and during the 30s became something of an ambassador linking the Soviet and Western musical worlds. His tours in the Soviet Union were greeted with considerable success, so in 1936 he and his family settled permanently in Moscow where he lived until his death in 1953--on the same day that Stalin died!

Perhaps the most well-known of the Prokofiev piano sonatas are the three written during WWII and collectively known as the "War" sonatas. The sixth sonata was written in 1939/40 and premiered by the composer in April 1940 and by Sviatoslav Richter in November 1940. This was during the time of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, so technically speaking it was not yet wartime, at least as far as the Soviet Union was concerned (though they did invade Poland in September 1939). Russian musicologists do not use the term "War" sonatas when talking about these pieces.

Like Schubert did with his last three piano sonatas, Prokofiev conceived and sketched all three of the "War" sonatas at the same time before setting to work on the sixth in earnest. The high levels of energy and tension undoubtedly reflect the unsettled times even before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

After hearing Prokofiev's performance of the piece Sviatoslav Richter had this to say:
"The remarkable stylistic clarity and the structural perfection of the music amazed me. I had never heard anything like it. With wild audacity the composer broke with the ideals of Romanticism and introduced into his music the terrifying pulse of twentieth-century music. Classically well-balanced in spite of all its asperities, the Sixth Sonata is an utterly magnificent work." Quoted from Berman, op. cit.
It was also a favorite of Shostakovich. The sonata is in four movements:
  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Allegretto
  3. Tempo di valzer lentissimo
  4. Vivace
 The opening movement has a most distinctive motif, presented in a variety of syncopations:

Click to enlarge
Apart from the rhythmic tension, another powerful element is the offbeat tritone D sharp juxtaposed against the tonic harmony. The sixteenth-note motif also returns in various forms in the last movement.

The two middle movements, a fairly cheerful scherzo and a lyrical waltz, are a relaxation of the tension, which returns full-force in the last movement, a tour-de-force tarantella:

Click to enlarge
Sviatoslav Richter played the sonata in a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1960:


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 5 in C major, op. 38

Prokofiev's life divides into three parts and the four sonatas we have discussed so far were all written during his years in Russia. In 1918 he left and spent time first in the United States and later in France and Switzerland. The fifth piano sonata was written in Paris in 1923 and was the only one in this genre (excluding some sonatinas) until the "War" sonatas, written after he returned to what was then the Soviet Union.

Every composer seems to have particular moods or modes that recur in different pieces and one of the most characteristic of Prokofiev is his "Evil Music-box" mode. I haven't mentioned it as such, but we have heard some examples of it in the second and third sonatas especially. Berman relates this to the Russian obsession with fairy-tales, especially in their spooky grotesquerie. The Sonata No. 5 is replete with eerie music that sounds sometimes like a Classical era piano sonata heard in a dream or, at other times, like one heard in a nightmare! Just as he showed in his Classical Symphony, Prokofiev had a real gift for re-thinking the Classical style. The opening of the first movement is an excellent example. Let's listen to the whole sonata. The pianist is Anatoly Vedernikov:


The sonata alternates very consonant passages in neo-classical style with some very strong dissonances (especially in the last movement). I am always interested in just how Prokofiev adapts tonal harmony to his uses, especially in cadences, where tonality is most strongly defined. The cadence ending the last movement is a fascinating example:

The piece is in C major and the final chord is a simple tonic in root position (with a little grace note leading tone in the bass). Pretty simple for Prokofiev. But it is the chord before that is interesting. So far every final cadence we have looked at has had some kind of altered dominant in penultimate position. But not here. The dominant in C major is spelled GBD often with the seventh F. The only note from that collection here is a solitary D buried in the middle! This chord is A flat, D, F sharp, B, another F sharp and C! What the heck is that? What it most closely resembles is an augmented sixth chord (A flat to F sharp is an augmented sixth), especially the French augmented sixth which in C major is spelled A flat, C, D, F sharp. Pretty much exactly this chord, particularly if you see that B as an appoggiatura. But an augmented sixth chord's function is to be a strong preparation for the dominant. That A flat is supposed to go to G, as is the F sharp. Instead, Prokofiev just omits the dominant entirely and goes right to the tonic. And somehow it works. Rather nice, actually.

There are two versions of this sonata. The second, done in 1952, shortly before Prokofiev's death, has a lot of small changes, especially in the last movement. That cadence I quoted above is from the second version. Prokofiev thought the changes were significant enough that he gave the second version a new opus number: op. 135.

Let's hear another performance of the piece. The pianist is Boris Berman:


Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Last month was the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and yes, there is a musical connection. Usually military bands don't have to actually fight, but on this occasion they did. We learn from Strategypage that:
These American soldiers from the 28th Division Band and Quartermaster Company, stayed and fought Germans in Wiltz, Belgium, until their ammunition was exhausted. Shown at Bastogne, Belgium. 12/20/44.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the Band was placed on the line to defend the Division Headquarters at Wiltz, Luxembourg. In this action, for which the Band was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation, all but thirteen of sixty members were killed or captured. Of the thirteen, eleven were wounded. Sergeant Raab avoided capture and helped re-form a new band after the Ardennes campaign.
Here's the photo, before the battle:


But they got that unit commendation, so there's that...

* * *

I honestly don't know what to think about this experiment in synesthesia. I wonder what Debussy would have thought:
On a Friday night in December, I sat in a small room with 33 other audience members, each of us accompanied by a dancer in black. The dancers pulled out blindfolds and covered our eyes, and for a brief moment, all was dark and quiet and freighted with anticipation. Then, as a chamber ensemble began to play Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, the dancers began to “play” the music on our bodies.
When the music soared, the dancers lifted our feet to mimic the sense of weightlessness. When the music was playful, they tickled our forearms. And when it pressed in intensely, the dancers squeezed our shoulders and rocked our heads.
At times, they held scents near our noses, and wafted a wind across us, and even pressed evocative morsels of food into our mouths—truffle cheese with pop rocks, fizzing as the music rose—as if our entire bodies could be recruited into feeling the mad sensuality of Debussy’s work. As if the idea was to bring us inside the music itself.
 Truffle cheese?

* * *

The Guardian has pretty much the best classical music coverage in the mass media. They have an article on an interesting exhibit in Paris about the Beethoven myths: Beethoven in dreadlocks … the show that celebrates great myths about the composer:
The French are good at this sort of show, exploring the life and afterlife of a dead genius. Like the Pompidou Centre’s show devoted to Roland Barthes (which opened with by a pristine black 1957 Citroën 19 in all the semiotic pomp conferred on it in Barthes’ essay), this is a vast multi-media celebration. But while that was hagiographic, this is more critical: the Barthes show made critic into icon; le Mythe Beethoven deconstructs the myth and then puts it back together again. In the Salle Pierre Boulez upstairs, there has been a swaggering series of allied concerts, including a fabulous concert performance of Fidelio.
Read the whole thing.

* * *

 You know how I love to snark at the New Yorker, but they have had some of the funniest cartoons ever. And this piece, the stream-of-consciousness of a reluctant symphony attendee, is really funny. But it's not really about the orchestra, it's really about him.
Don’t clap too soon, wait till they’re done, don’t clap too soon, wait till they’re done, don’t clap—

So this is the Symph-Tacular Winter Series.

Four concerts times two seats plus parking equals . . .

Jesus. I could’ve gotten something I wanted.

Like one of those three-wheeled motorcycles.
* * *

If you have ever wondered what the New York Philharmonic does when it needs an accordionist, wonder no more, the Wall Street Journal has the answer:
Among its ranks, the New York Philharmonic counts 28 violinists, 11 cellists, four flutists, three trombonists and even one bass trombonist.
But when the call came for an accordionist this past week, the orchestra had to go outside its circle.
The ensemble turned to Bill Schimmel, a New York-based master of the instrument who has made something of a specialty performing with orchestras.
* * *

If this article on the tv show Mozart in the Jungle is even halfway correct, I'm going to have to watch it:
If a show can be in love with its subject matter, Mozart in the Jungle has fallen for the strange, motley power of music. Consider this season’s eighth episode, which is structured as a fake documentary about, of all improbable comic devices, a jailhouse Messiaen gig. In order to shoot the segment, a real orchestra and its actor-filled double traveled to Rikers Island and performed for actual detainees, who were genuinely overwhelmed (and said so on camera). What they heard was not a concert of easily digestible pops, but a program of music by the 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, who wrote one his best-known works, Quartet for the End of Time, in a World War II prison camp. Inmate to inmate, composer and audience connected across continents and decades. In the episode, Messiaen’s ecstatic percussion, the bell-like chords, and the eerie electronic cry of the ondes Martenot go gliding over the concertina perimeter toward the East River and the Manhattan skyline. I hope the next time an orchestra administrator claims that the surest way to win new audiences is by spoon-feeding them pabulum, someone will cue up the moist eyes of inmates listening to Turangalila-symphonie.
* * *

Also in The Guardian is this article on Ligeti's single, but very odd, opera Le Grand Macabre:
Set in a absurdist land of despots, debauchery and drunkenness, Le Grand Macabre premiered in 1978. Its score is a riot of quotations and pastiche and a huge percussion section that includes “a duck-quacker”, a wind machine, a saucepan and a “large alarm clock”. Ligeti wasn’t sure his work could even be classed as an opera, and despising the then-trendy term anti-opera, Le Grand Macabre thus became the first – and possibly the last – anti-anti-opera.
What gives this essay its undeniable authenticity is that it was written by Elizabeth Watts who is singing the role of Amanda in the upcoming production.

* * *

Canada beclowns itself: next year will be the 150th anniversary of Canada's birth as a nation in 1867. In honor of this occasion $500 million dollars have been budgeted for the celebrations. As part of this lavish series of events, there will be a competition for composers to write a new piece for the carillon on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Commissions for Canadian composers, as suggested by the Canadian League of Composers, are already hilariously low: a five minute work for one or two performers is a mere $2125 CAN. But the miserly prize to the winner of this competition will be, wait for it, $800. For the winner in the Youth category it will be $400. One Canadian composer has already started a protest petition. This isn't a prize, it is an insult.

* * *

The Herald of Scotland has a fascinating piece on a revival of an opera by Philip Glass on Kafka's The Trial:
AMERICAN composer Philip Glass has the characteristic dry humour of the city of New York, from where he is speaking to me.
"If you live a long time, you can make a living out of opera," he says, having composed something over thirty works that might be described as such, or as music theatre. Glass's 80th birthday falls in the middle of the run of Scottish performances of a revival of his 2014 chamber opera The Trial, based on the seminal book by Franz Kafka, written 100 years earlier.
* * *

For our envoi today, here is an excerpt from Act I of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre:


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 4 in C minor, op. 29

For links to the Wikipedia article on Prokofiev, which I recommend reading for an outline of his life and work, see the first post in this series. Like the third piano sonata the Sonata No. 4 is subtitled: "From the Old Notebooks" meaning that Prokofiev took a piece from his student years and rewrote it. Nothing wrong with that, and it is rather characteristic of Prokofiev. Several times in his life he took an older work and did a new version so dramatically different that it is really a different piece. One example is his Symphony No. 4 in C major, originally composed in 1930 which he rewrote in 1947. The revised one is so different from the original that recordings of the complete symphonies include both versions.

Also like the Sonata No. 3, the C minor sonata was composed in 1917 and premiered in 1918, but unlike the A minor sonata, it is in three movements:
  1. Allegro molto sostenuto
  2. Andante assai
  3. Allegro con brio, ma non leggiero
Now let's listen to a Sviatoslav Richter performance:

Unlike all the previous Prokofiev sonatas, this one begins in an introverted, reflective mood. The motif of a rising and falling semitone permeates the texture in both the accompaniment (in sixteenths) and the melody (in eighths). This extends even to the final cadence, a V-i in C minor, but with added notes a semitone below in different voices:

Click to enlarge
 Notice how, in the first pair of chords, there is an F natural, the 7th, that resolves down normally to the E flat. But there is also an F sharp that resolves up to G. Then, for the final pair (each repeated), Prokofiev clusters the F sharp and F natural together in the right hand and a C sharp and D in the left hand. This pattern is then reproduced in the tonic, which is combined with an added F sharp. This is all consistent with the characteristic motif of the whole movement.

Boris Berman (whose book on the sonatas I linked in the first post) hears the semitone accompaniment motifs as references to Baroque trills. He also mentions the use of hemiola as another Baroque element. There seems to be an influence from Nikolai Medtner as well.

The Andante assai second movement is full of contrast with a bleak and somber chromatic first theme and a very tranquil and beautiful diatonic second theme (with more Baroque-style trills). The movement is in A minor with an important variation in G sharp minor.

Berman mentions that this sonata was written around the same time as the Classical Symphony (which was premiered just four days after that of the piano sonata) and he hears the third movement as a sardonic parody of the Classical piano style. The accompaniment is often a woozy version of the typical Alberti bass. There is also a return of some of the sixteenth-note semitone figures from the first movement. There is also a return of the kind of cadence we saw in the first movement:

As you can see, in addition to the four notes of a dominant seventh chord, there is also a C sharp (lower chromatic neighbor to the D) and an A flat (upper chromatic neighbor to the G) and the tonic has a D sharp lower neighbor to the E natural of the tonic. Oddly, this is rather a close cousin to the famous chord that Jimi Hendrix used in Purple Haze: an E chord with an added seventh and both a G natural and a G sharp.

Let's listen to a different performance to end. This is the young French pianist Rémi Geniet playing in the 2013 Reine Elisabeth competition:


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 3 in A minor, op. 28

Prokofiev's third piano sonata is even briefer than the first and is another re-working of a student piece dating from 1907. It was composed in 1917 and premiered by the composer in 1918 in Petrograd. If you are looking for Petrograd on a map, you won't find it. The city is St. Petersburg, but the name was changed to Petrograd in 1914 and then to Leningrad in 1924. In 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was changed back to Saint Petersburg. Berman again provides us with a synopsis of the important motifs and makes that point that this is the most carefully integrated of his early sonatas, with fewer disjunct contrasts. Might we not think of this as a companion piece to his Classical Symphony, written in the same year?

Here is Boris Berman's performance with the score:



And here are the important motifs:

Stravinsky is usually credited with the origination of neoclassicism in music with his Octet of 1923 or perhaps Mavra from the year before. But I think it might be interesting to argue that Prokofiev, with the Classical Symphony and this sonata, beat him to it by a few years. Certainly the classical aesthetic was in the air.

There were two major departures from both the aesthetic and the methods of late 19th century Romanticism: in both of them the gargantuan lengths of compositions by Bruckner, Mahler and others were scaled down. Both the atonal modernists like Schoenberg and his school and the neoclassical composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev wrote in forms and on a scale very different from the generations before.

I believe it was R. G. Collingwood in his The Idea of History that made the point that in examining history you can emphasize either the contrasts or the continuity. In other words, you can, with any historical change, such as the transition from the Baroque to the Classical Era or the 19th century to the 20th century, focus on what constituted a radical change. For example, the tremendous simplification of textures that heralded the Classical Era, or the radical change in scale and mood that typified the way 20th century composers opposed themselves to the late Romantics. Or you could look at features that were common to both eras such as the frequent use of fugue and counterpoint in so many pieces by Haydn and Mozart, or the retention of many tonal structures in the music of Prokofiev and others.

Music historians for the last several decades have been wedded to a kind of chronicling of music history that only looks at the contrasts and technical innovations, which is why Prokofiev has gotten rather short shrift from them. But that is only one way of looking at history. Of course, the newer generations of music historians have been captivated by identity politics so they won't be giving him more credit any time soon!

Let's end with another performance, this is a very brisk one by a young Martha Argerich:


Monday, January 9, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata #2 in D minor, op. 14

The second piano sonata comes just three years after the first, when Prokofiev was in his twenty-first year. Boris Berman has a good discussion of the piece in his book on the sonatas. As with the first sonata, the Wikipedia article is a mere stub. Berman outlines the formal structure, based on the classical sonata structures of exposition, development, recapitulation, but "Prokofievized" by altering the harmonic content and relationships. An example would be the modulation to E minor at the end of the first movement exposition where one would expect the relative major, F major. Prokofiev uses chromatically descending sequences instead of the traditional ones based on interlocking seventh chords or movement by fourth or fifth.

Let's listen to Berman's performance with the score:



Berman also discusses Prokofiev's use of characteristically Russian elements such as the folktale atmosphere of the third movement and the obsession with mechanical toys and puppets, which he also relates to Stravinsky's Petruschka, composed the year before. He even finds an occurrence of the famous "Petruschka" chord (C major combined with F# major) in the fourth movement. Berman mentions the multiplicity of moods and personalities in the piece with its hints of waltz, polka, music hall and tarantella. One obvious connection that Berman doesn't mention is Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of narrative polyphony which he discerns in the work of Dostoevsky:
each character represents a voice that speaks for an individual self, distinct from others. This idea of polyphony is related to the concepts of unfinalizability and self-and-others, since it is the unfinalizability of individuals that creates true polyphony
Incidentally, this offers an explanation of what Berman refers to as a weakness in Prokofiev's style: his difficulty in realizing true development of themes, which instead repeat with clashing harmonies or superimposed polyrhythms (three against two, for example).

Let's listen to Sviatoslav Richter's interpretation:


He seems to have been short of time that day: he rushes out and starts playing almost before he sits down and dashes off as soon as the last note is over.

Listening to this sonata a couple of things come to mind: first, how poorly my many years in university prepares me to examine this writing. Every theory and history professor I had seemed to want to avoid Prokofiev like the plague! You might compare him to Bartók, who was a perennial feature of any discussion of 20th century music. Theorists loved Bartók because there was so much they could point to in his music that was analytically "progressive". Yes, he also did a couple of movements in fugal style, but they could be ignored. But Prokofiev was perceived as being merely "derivative" of older, obsolete styles. He was insufficiently atonal! His music had identifiable content instead of being abstract. The fact that he was particularly successful with ballet and opera was also a strike against him. That Stravinsky, while not terribly successful with his operas, was an excellent ballet composer was not counted against him, however.

The other thing that comes to mind is how Prokofiev relates to his contemporaries in the visual arts, especially figures like Picasso. The years 1909 to 1912, precisely those of the first two piano sonatas of Prokofiev, were the years of "analytic cubism". Here is an example, Picasso's Bouteille, clarinet, violon, journal, verre from 1913:


But an even better comparison might be made to his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907:


What interests me in both of these is that they contain representations of real objects, but with distorted relationships and perspectives. Isn't this rather what Prokofiev was doing with traditional harmony and phrasing? Don't his chromatic alterations and juxtapositions cut up and distort harmony the way Picasso did images? The Demoiselles d'Avignon is a particularly good example because of the colors, which map against Prokofiev's colorist harmony rather better than the dull browns of most of the cubist pieces from this period by Braque and Picasso.

Prokofiev's characteristic rhythmic distortions are another parameter that suggests cubism to me. When he layers three against two, or inserts an awkward group of sixteenths or suddenly jumps to 7/8 or hammers out an incongruous syncopation, these seem to me to be musical analogues of cubist painting.

What do you think?