Friday, July 15, 2011

Musical Taste

If you ever want a vague response, just ask most people about their musical taste: "what kind of music do you like"? The usual answer: "Oh, I like all kinds of music!" Said in a surprised tone as if any other response were somehow disallowed. In our delightfully tolerant society we insist on tolerance. In fact, there are those who gear up for the attack at the mere suggestion that one might cultivate a certain taste in music because that means making distinctions. You will immediately be accused of being elitist or of telling people what to think. Moi? Elitist? Au contraire, mes amis!

As a classical guitarist, my tastes run more to the intimate and miniature musical forms, though there is lots of orchestral music that I enjoy tremendously. For the most satisfying listening I do not turn to the guitar repertoire however as it is pretty restricted:  some lovely Spanish music, some interesting modern British music and a great deal of music transcribed from other instruments like the lute. But compared to the repertoire for piano, violin or harpsichord, it falls short. A lot of my efforts in composition are an attempt to add something to the repertoire. A very good friend of mine is an outstanding violist. We discovered about thirty minutes after getting together to play some music, that there is no good repertoire for viola and guitar. So I did some transcriptions and wrote a few pieces. I can't say they are great, just better than what was available.

So for serious listening I often look to the piano. The great works are The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Art of Fugue by J. S. Bach (oh, and the Goldberg Variations too), the thirty-two sonatas by Beethoven, the piano music of Chopin and Debussy and, somewhat unusually, the 24 Preludes and Fugues, op 87 by Shostakovich. The harpsichord repertoire is also quite stunning, especially works by Louis Couperin, the uncle of Francois Couperin, le grand, the latter too, of course, and other clavecinistes like Rameau and Froberger. My other great love is the string quartet and that means Haydn, who invented the quartet, Mozart, Beethoven, who almost killed the quartet through over-achievement (scaring his successors for about a hundred years), Bartok and Shostakovich.

After all that blathering I really should put up some of this music, so here we go. First, some guitar music worth hearing. One of the most charming of the composers Segovia inspired was Federico Moreno-Torroba:

As for Bach, I have already put up some pieces from the WTC. Here is one from the Art of Fugue. Let me just set it up. In the AoF, Bach sets himself a more daunting task than any other taken up by a composer that I can recall: to write different fugues showing (and exhausting) all the possibilities of the form/texture and do it all with a single theme. I know that sounds dreary, but it is often by accepting restrictions like that, that creativity is challenged and channeled. Here is what the theme looks like:

 Here is Contrapunctus 1 with that simple theme:

In Contrapunctus 4 he turns the theme upside down and writes a completely different piece. Here is the inversion of the theme:

And the fugue:

That's probably enough fugue for today! Do I hear someone whimpering in the background? Fugue, like pickles and bungee-jumping, is an acquired taste. For something completely different, here is the Cavatina from Beethoven's string quartet op 130. If this doesn't move you, I don't know what would.

Beethoven once said that this movement had cost him more, emotionally, than any other he had written...

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