Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Guardian's Symphony Guide

The Guardian's Tom Service has embarked on another of his marathon projects: this time to cover fifty symphonies. Last year Tom did fifty weekly posts on contemporary composers and I thought it was pretty successful at sparking interest in a lot of composers that most people may not have heard of.

Now Tom is in the third week of the new project: first was an introduction, then Beethoven's Fifth and now Shostakovich's Fifteen Symphony. How is he doing so far?

The intoductory essay does little more than bow in the politically correct directions:

  • It's always about US! "Over the year, I hope what will come over is the sense that the development of a supposedly abstract musical structure isn't simply about compositional invention or experimentation, but about how we hear ourselves and our place in the world"
  • It's all sociology! "It's about who paid the composer and the musicians, about what the symphony was heard to represent, and about what role composers were supposed to fulfil in society."
  • It's about the reception history! "Beethoven's 5th Symphony, for example, isn't a fixed work so much as a palimpsest of musical histories that only gets richer and richer each time it's played, heard, and thought about."
  • It's more than just a musical structure! "A symphony isn't just a structure, a musical formula, or a set of containers - three or four movements of contrasting speeds and characters - that composers merely had to fill in to qualify as "symphonic" writers. The symphony is really a way of thinking about what music actually is, what it's really for."
There is some truth in all this, of course, but I find it comic that nearly everyone writing about music in the mass media feels they have to quickly and frequently protest that music is more than just the structure or the notes. It is really just another occasion for us to practice critical theory and cultural analysis and turn it all into sociology somehow. Narcissistic sociology!

My idea is that before we rush off into the wastelands of socio-political analysis, why don't we just have a listen and maybe even look at those notes? I would hope that a "symphony guide" would do a bit of that, wouldn't you? It looks quite promising at first as Mr. Service actually commits the horrendous sin (for the mass media) of actually putting a bit of the score right there at the beginning of the article on Beethoven's Fifth. Right out there in public where just anyone can see it! Good for him. And then he even goes on to talk about the notes a bit. He walks us through the symphony quite well and ends by sending us to five different performances of the work.

But I am less happy with the next article, on the Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony. For one thing, this is a very complex work to be taking up so early on in the project. If he is planning on looking at any other of Shostakovich's symphonies, No. 5 for example, then perhaps he should have started with that. But never mind. How does he go at the Fifteenth? It seems that while Tom loves the music, he doesn't quite know how to deal with it. He starts with a reference to the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour: "Roll up, roll up for a circus of musical meaning, a surreal carnival where nothing is quite as it seems, where strange musical machines and even a glittering musical toyshop become an existential journey into the beyond."

That's a nice colorful opening, but it suggests that we are going to veer far away from the actual music and spend our time wandering on the shores of metaphor. And so it is. Here is Tom's speculation about the odd textures of the coda:
Why does the whole thing end with a coda that on the surface could be a memory of childish things, but is far more likely a musical transliteration of the hum and clatter of hospital machines, the faceless whirring and bleeping that are the grim accompaniments of disease, decline, and death in medical institutions - sounds that Shostakovich was already familiar with at this stage in his life?
Could be? Could be a lot of things in the shifty, careless world of unsupported metaphor. Why don't you tell us a little about what it actually IS? This is straight out of the 'barking dog' school of Shostakovich musical criticism. You don't have the foggiest clue about what is going on, or don't want to talk about it for fear of using technical terms or, shudder, actual musical examples, so you just wax lyrical, seizing on whatever metaphor you can trim to fit. Odd percussion? Could be the sound of hospital machines, after all, Shostakovich was plagued by ill health.

Really Mr. Service (and Mr. Hurwitz and all their ilk), when you feed us these metaphors all we know for sure is what is going on in your mind when you listen and write. What we would really like to know is what is going on in THE MUSIC!

I will be checking in with this series from time to time as it is a highly laudable project. I just hope that Mr. Service doesn't forget that one important task for a series like this is to inform us about the music.

Now let's have a listen to the Fifteenth Symphony of Shostakovich:

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