Saturday, September 28, 2019

Writing About Music: Then and Now

This is a followup to an item in my miscellanea yesterday. I mentioned that nowadays there is never anything in the mainstream media that requires the slightest acquaintance with music to understand--and that applies specifically to articles supposedly about music! --I know!

I'm finally getting around to reading volume 2 of Richard Taruskin's magisterial book on Stravinsky: Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra. He could only have written this if he were intimately familiar not only with every piece that Stravinsky composed, but also every letter he ever wrote and every letter that was ever written to him (if it were preserved in some archive somewhere) as well as every article every written about Stravinsky in any language whatsoever. And he is not shy about offering voluminous quotes and musical examples. This two volume monograph should be the model for any future publications of this type. Sadly, I suspect that there will be virtually no future publications of this type! Who has the intellectual capacity to do it? Right now I am wishing that there were a similar book(s) on Arnold Schoenberg, because surely he deserves it. But never mind, let's just have a brief sample of the Taruskin to get my argument started.

Stravinsky was feted by the French avant-garde, especially by one Jacques Rivière in the pages of the Nouvelle revue française. This kind of magazine really doesn't exist any more. It was an aggressively nationalistic (as Taruskin describes it) literary forum and ironically it looked to the aesthetic revolution heralded by Stravinsky and the ballets russe as a model. As Taruskin describes it:
Henri Ghéon, one of the founding editors, would announce: "Our dream has been realized--and not by us." The Russians great gift to the French had been an object lesson in "two principles common to all the arts, unity of conception and respect for materials [respect de la matière]." The exemplar of exemplars had been The Firebird, which "confronts us with the most exquisite miracle of equilibrium--of sound, movement, form--that we have ever dreamed of seeing... [Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, p. 990]
Rivière was particularly eloquent about the Rite:
The great novelty of Le sacre du printemps is its renunciation of "sauce." Here is a work that is absolutely pure. Bitter and harsh, if you will; but a work in which no gravy deadens the taste, no art of cooking smooths or smears the edges. It is not a "work of art," with all the usual attendant fuss. Nothing is blurred, nothing is mitigated by shadows; no veils and no poetic sweeteners; not a trace of atmosphere. The work is whole and tough, its parts remain quite raw; they are served up without digestive aids; everything is crisp, intact, clear and crude. [Rivière, Nouvelles études, 73, italics added by Taruskin, quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 992]
There are a couple of points I am trying to make. First, that the music of Stravinsky was important to the art scene in general. Paris was a major, perhaps the major center of artistic activity and Stravinsky was at the heart of it. As such he received real criticism, not just positive as in this case, but lots of negative as well. His work was a nexus of aesthetic debate. Second, notice who Stravinsky is being contrasted with. Who was active in Paris in the early part of the century whose music could be described as atmospheric and poetic? Debussy, of course. Despite that fact that they were friends, it was necessary in terms of the aesthetic battle to see Stravinsky as being the counterpoint to Debussy. Another thing to note here is that the coming neo-classical period of Stravinsky is being hinted at with phrases like "crisp, intact, clear."

Sadly, musical discussion in the mainstream media these days is really not about any kind of aesthetic questions. It consists of puff pieces that simply advertise upcoming concerts such as the piece I mentioned in the miscellanea yesterday. This probably covers 90% of the writing. The other kind of piece revolves entirely around identity politics: why are there not more women conductors, why are there not more black composers featured and so on.

The inevitable conclusion is that, apart from being a small source of income for a few people, classical contemporary music really has very little importance in society and there is virtually nothing at stake musically!

Let's listen to The Firebird for our envoi. This is Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2000:


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I'm starting into Robert Flanagan's book The Perilous Life of the Symphony Orchestras, a relatively recent publication Joseph Horowitz has mentioned at his blog. Advocacy for more diversity of representation in composers for symphonies doesn't seem groundless. I don't mind hearing William LEvi Dawson's symphony rather than Schubert, for instance, because I'm not that into Schubert symphonies. But ... Flanagan's book raises some tough questions about how to deal with the fact that U.S. symphonies have been running systemic deficits for generations. If that aspect, the business side of symphonies, doesn't get addressed then agitating for new music without considering the ways in which the American symphonic culture has always been on life support might render the identity politics aspect somewhat moot.

When the African American composer George Walker was asked what he thought younger composers should do his advice was that they study Stravinsky and Hindemith. Walker said that he had some issues with them but that, on the whole, composition students could only benefit from studying the craft of both composers and that he'd rather they did that then go down the Elliot Carter road, which he regarded as a complete waste of time.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

At the risk of adding another link, the NYT 1619 project had an article by Wesley Morris on African American popular music as the music of freedom that, as alleged by a headline that Morris most likely didn't write, "everyone is stealing it".

But ... my concern with such a sentiment is that it seems to merely flip the script of the Romantic era artist-genius-hero so that instead of the German symphonist it's the jazz musician or R&B star in the Chicago area, it's still the same basic script. Defining "authenticity" in terms of African American popular music can ignore British African composers like Samuel Taylor-Coleridge or be dismissive of one of Charles Stanford's brightest students for not writing music that sounds "black" enough for the sake of American music journalists. Afro-European composers like Coleridge Taylor or Joseph Bologne can get ignored if American music journalists define "authenticity" in terms of Afro-American popular music as if all classical music is "white". It's not, it hasn't been for some time now. Scott Joplin wrote an opera (Treemonisha) and had a piano concerto he was hoping to perform (long since lost). Whether Florence Price or William Grant Still or William Levi Dawson or George Walker, black composers who didn't write music that sounds "black" on the basis of American popular musical styles will get consigned to "classical" and ignored if classical music is thought of as intrinsically European or white.

I don't have any real objections to advocating that African American and women composers get some more attention. I like the idea of hearing William Grant Still or Florence Price over Schubert reruns, frankly. Annette Kruisbrink has written works I regard as the best chamber works for double bass and guitar anyone has ever written. What I'm concerned about is that music journalists and musicologists in the U.S. seem to trade on a flipped script Romantic era mythology of authenticity that we need to dismantle and we won't dismantle it by merely flipping the script so the blues brother in Chicago is "real" in contrast to a Schubert string quartet (even if I'm not a Schubert fan). Identity politics about who gets played in the symphony may be moot if the American symphony is as on life support as Robert Flanagan has been saying it is and, in that case, I'd sooner we guitarists play Brouwer and Kruisbrink and Ourkouzounov and Ponce and promote the music of composers we admire regardless of what happens to the American symphony.

Which, of course, we do. :)

Bryan Townsend said...

"Advocacy for more diversity of representation in composers for symphonies doesn't seem groundless." Well, no, but if works are chosen just based on the racial or gender identity of the composer, then I don't see them making much of an impact. We're not looking for diversity of quality here, are we?

I think that symphonies and operas have never in history been able to make their budget just with ticket sales. If there is a portion of the public that is strongly supportive, as there is in Europe, then governments will support the musical organizations. In the US and Canada that is more iffy, so orchestras are always struggling. The solution is private donors. Oh, if only the US and Canada had some rich people. Oh, wait, they do, but they are not big fans of classical music. Que lastima.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I'm early into the Flanagan book and he mentions that there's more than just major donors, there's also substantial (by comparison to "us") government subsidy at national, regional and local levels, too. Cost disease is cost disease across the world and I'm going to be blunt enough to suggest that the problem with the identity politicking agenda is that it's being brought up by people who would rather ignore the sinking ship in favor of talking about who should get more prominent seating. At one point, about a thousand years ago the polyphonic mass was the premiere musical work, a couple of centuries ago it was the symphony but its time in the spotlight may be passing. Questions of quality are important, of course, but progressives have managed to define questions regarding quality as questions inextricable from discourse regarding hegemonic influence. The trouble with that is that hegemony depends on what you want to teach vs what you have to teach, which is something I've riffed on in the past.

Within the context of U.S. history there's also the matter of shifts in arts funding. There were arts projects bankrolled by the WPA during the Roosevelt terms, for instance. Later in the Cold War art was supported as part of international Cold War anti-communist policy and the NEA was developed but when the Cold War ended it wasn't long after that that the purpose of the NEA was openly questioned. Philip Jeffery has an interesting article that explores and suggests that part of the trouble with American arts policy--it was SO Cold War focused that the NEA had a crisis of purpose once the Cold War ended.

Popular music served a clearer role in being set up against Soviet style socialist realism both in terms of being popular music vs prescribed top-down Soviet art and in terms of being set against a stereotyped conception of "classical" at two levels 1) the canon of 19th century works and 2) the high modernist Carter/Babbitt/Sessions stuff. Taruskin has written extensively about how the chasm between academic and vernacular canons began to emerge in the 20th century and American musicology is not a bad place to see where and how that shift began to happen. Race to the patent office modernism ensured that classical music in academic contexts got further and further away from what people might call "tunes". As he put it in The Danger of Music, I think, part of the reason popular music is more popular is because the academic canon foisted upon music students is in the Wuorinen/Carter idiom and people would rather listen to Prokofiev or Copland for some tunes. Or rock and roll

Bryan Townsend said...

That's all pretty much true, but I don't think it is the whole story. There are other nexuses of composers that have a different connection to audiences: Reich/Glass, Adams/Adams, and a bunch of individuals like Jennifer Higdon, Salonen, Rautavaara, Gubaidulina and so on. These are all either outside of the academic canon or a reaction to it.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I, of course, have Hilary Hahn's recording of the Higdon violin concert, which I thought was fun.

Glass did those Bowie symphonies, though, which kind of proves a point that I think Taruskin has indirectly made, that composers like Glass or Adams in American contexts managed to show they had some idea what was going on in other styles.

Charles Rosen argued that those reacting to the canon and even rejecting it can often paradoxically be the ones who carry it forward a la Wagner and his peer group chafing at the past but not wanting to completely get rid of it either.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, absolutely!