Sunday, June 9, 2013

Dutilleux and Martin: Evaluating Two Composers

A few days ago in this post I talked about some of the problems of music criticism especially as regards contemporary music. In other places I have presented the theory that some of the approaches to composition might have been chosen specifically not only for their notoriety, but also because they make the music impossible to evaluate. A lot of John Cage's music, not just his famous silent piece, 4'33", falls into this category.

At the end of the previous post I just linked to I presented the reader with a challenge: offer an evaluation of two pieces by modern composers. One composer was Henri Dutilleux, who just passed away on May 22, the other was the Swiss composer Frank Martin. Both composers are fairly well-known, but not huge figures. Both write in a modern style, but not excessively avant-garde. So while it would certainly be a challenge to attempt to evaluate them, it would still be feasible. One commentor, Logan, offered an excellent stab at it. Here was his comment:
OK, I'll do my best:
The Martin piece is listenable enough, I guess, but just so bland! Whatever doesn't seem to have been ripped from Rhapsody in Blue or from Ravel's Bolero is just generic (and rather wearing) brass-and-percussion stuff for a cheap impression of excitement.
The Dutilleux, for its part, doesn't really inspire me to explore more of the composer's work, but it's not at all dull. I don't have the requisite understanding of theory to discuss the piece in detail, but one thing I like about it is the simple austerity of the first minute or two. There's a spirituality there that's missing from Martin's hectic bombast. I also think that, while the Martin piece is pretty static, the Dutilleux evolves in an organic way towards its end; it takes us somewhere. And there's a certain unpredictability to its harmony that interests me.
I'm really just commenting to see what you have to say about the pieces, though.
Now to fulfill my end of the bargain and make my own comments. Before I do that, though, let's listen to the two pieces again. Here is the Dutilleux:

And here is the Frank Martin:

Note that the Dutilleux is not complete, it is just the first seven-minute segment of the longer piece. The Martin, three brief sections from a ballet, is also about seven minutes long. This is mainly to facilitate comparisons.

There are various ways to approach a comparison like this. You could simply listen to the music several times, preferably with the score. This was not possible in either case because I could not find the scores to either piece online. You could seek out information about the composers from Wikipedia, which I did, or not, on the theory that you want to approach the music completely neutrally. I usually prefer to find out what I can about the composer and the piece on the theory that knowledge usually is better than ignorance.

Here are the Wikipedia articles on Henri Dutilleux and Frank Martin.

Now let's talk about incommensurability for a moment. The more different (incommensurable) two things are, the more difficult it is to make reasonable comparisons. This is a pretty common problem in aesthetics as all the truly great works of art and music tend to be unique. "Starry Night" by Van Gogh is not too comparable to anything else and neither is the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. But we find ways! The first thing to note here is that the Martin piece is a ballet written in 1941 based on the Cinderella fairy tale. The Dutilleux is a concerto for cello titled "Tout un monde lointain" (A Whole Distant World--it does not translate well into English!) commissioned (and performed here) by the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Cello concertos and ballets are really very different genres, which we need to take into account. Also, the Dutilleux was premiered in 1970, a rather different time, historically, than 1941. The Dutilleux is a much more somber piece and the Martin lighter, perhaps whimsical. Dark times sometimes demand light music. We might compare the Martin to another work written in Switzerland during another war, the L'Histoire du Soldat of Stravinsky, dating to 1918. Here is the first part of that piece, for comparison:

The Dutilleux could perhaps be set beside the one by Shostakovich, dating from 1959 and also written for Rostropovich (but what 20th century cello concerto wasn't!). Here is Rostropovich playing the first movement of the Cello Concerto No. 1 (1959) by Shostakovich, also for comparison:

Now it would be a good idea to go back and listen to both the Dutilleux and Martin again. The more I hear the Dutilleux, the more I like it. It is a richly atmospheric and inventive piece. It uses timbres and techniques like pizzicato and glissando to excellent effect, but it is not "gimmicky". The orchestra seems like a frame and expansion of the solo cello. Dutilleux is a subtle and gifted composer and this is a fine piece of music.

Frank Martin seems on a different level. Is that just because of the choice of piece? Could be, but I don't really want to listen to all of his output to establish that. I do know another piece of his quite well, his Quatre pièces brèves from 1933 for solo guitar, which I have played. It is a lovely piece. And the Conte de Cendrillon (the French title) ballet isn't bad either. It is light, charming with some nicely raucous bits. Nothing wrong with it. But I can still assert that it is on a quite different--and lower--level than the Dutilleux. Logan states that the Martin is derivative and bland, owing too much to Gershwin and Ravel. The Gershwin I hear, the Ravel I am less sure of, but, sure, good point. He mentions a spirituality and austerity in the Dutilleux. I'm not one who knows much about spirituality, but there is certainly a haunting aesthetic quality there that few composers have. On a technical level, I think I agree as well that there is a sense with the Dutilleux that it has an organic and developing quality that is also characteristic of good composition.

So, I think I have made my point: that you not only can do aesthetic valuations of 20th century music, but that you should. It makes you a much more active and intelligent listener. Now, to end, let's listen to that guitar piece by Frank Martin, the Quatre pièces brèves:


Logan said...

Thank you! I don't think I could add a thing, except to clarify that I don't think the Martin is at all characteristic of Ravel (it isn't), but it does distinctly evoke the Bolero at least around 0:30-1:00. It seems to me that we are pretty thoroughly in agreement about the two pieces.
Very incidentally, I also wished that I could have looked at the scores while I was trying to get a handle on those pieces (and the Quatre Pièces Brèves). My experience with classical music changed enormously after I saw your suggestion to read along with the score whenever possible, even if you can't read music very well (I couldn't, though I've gotten pretty adept with practice). That definitely makes it worlds easier to understand a piece of music and analyze it critically. It's probably the most important thing I've learned from this blog, so I just wanted to take the opportunity to mention it.

Bryan Townsend said...

There is this popular myth that all aesthetic judgments are purely subjective and therefore vary enormously from one person to another. But I am constantly struck by how common it is for different people to come to very similar conclusions about a particular artist or work. I could cite as an example an experience I had judging a guitar festival once. There were two of us marking the performances, myself and another guitarist from a different part of Canada. We had nothing in common in terms of training or teachers. But I distinctly remember, after the first guitarist played we looked at one another and said, "what do you think? 83?" At least, I said 84 and he said 83 or something. We were that close.

Thanks so much for your feedback about following in the score! I find that immensely reassuring. As you say, it is very helpful in getting a sense of what is going on--whether you are very skilled at reading music or not! Notation is pretty graphic, after all.

Just think of all the music-lovers who have been short-changed by the policy in recent years of eliminating all music notation from books and articles on music.

Logan said...

What I find more dismaying is many music writers' general allergy (of which the lack of music notation is usually a symptom) to discussing anything regarding the actual construction of the music. I mean, I can probably figure out that a particular piece is "redolent of doom" or whatever without having to consult an analysis–it's not as though I'm incapable of listening to the music, after all–but I could really benefit from someone going through the whole piece and explaining just what is going on harmonically, or how the piece is structured. With the works of the real masters being so complex and dense, it would seem that the purpose of writing about them would be to teach people something and not just wax purple about their most obvious aspects. But outside of this blog, such a view appears disappointingly rare.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, Logan, you have just expressed very succinctly exactly one of the reasons I do this blog. "Redolent of doom" is a great expression! That metaphor-laden approach is actually a barrier to understanding and appreciating the music in most cases. One example from not too long ago is this post where I talk about the 11th quartet of Shostakovich:

Unfortunately, as you say, it is very hard to find good discussion of what is happening in the music even in the places like the notes accompanying the Emerson Quartet box of the complete Shostakovich quartets.