Thursday, January 16, 2014

Music Journalism

I was very interested to read the article titled "Best Music Journalism 2013" until I actually followed the link. Go ahead and read it, then we'll talk.

Dum-de-dum-de-dum... Back? Ok, what do you notice? Well, apart from the fact that since they don't mention any of the posts from The Music Salon, it can't actually be a list of the best writing on music. But what else?

Except for two exceptions, every single one of the many, many pieces of music journalism listed is exclusively about popular, or perhaps I should say non-classical music. It is as if there was a decision made somewhere that the only thing deserving of being called music these days is popular music. Now, of those two exceptions, one is only very marginally about music, but the music that it is marginally about is classical. The piece is "Women, Gays, and Classical Music" by Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker. And yes, it is all about how woman and gays do not get enough exposure in the world of classical music. So it is really about that and not about music. The other example is one that I wrote about on this blog and it is the real thing: an actual article about classical music that talks about the music: "The Most Beautiful Melody in the World" a well-written piece by composer Jan Swafford about beautiful melodies.

Let me say it again: apart from these two pieces, every single article of the dozens and dozens listed is about pop music from various angles. No wonder fewer people listen to classical music (if that is actually true and I'm not sure it is): it is as if there is a conspiracy of silence to keep people as ignorant as possible. I know it sounds wacky to say that, but I sometimes have suspicions that the ruling class actually prefers the rest of us to be as ignorant as possible so that we will keep voting for the people they think we should be voting for!

What happened to the idea that it wasn't actually a huge flaw in classical music that you needed a bit of knowledge to get the most out of it? When did it become a fundamental truth that all music had to be instantly digestible on first listening?

Isn't it a basic human response to be actually interested in those things that are intriguing, that is, that need a bit of investigation? When you hear a piece of music that you don't instantly "get", doesn't that make it more appealing? It's not just me, is it?

Well, enough of these rhetorical questions. I'm just going to put up three pieces of music that I hope might intrigue you into investigating further.

The first is a ballade by Brahms played by Michelangeli:

Next is a tombeau on the death of a certain M. Blancrocher by Johann Jakob Froberger:

And last is the middle movement of the third of three divertimenti (K. 138) that a young Mozart, age sixteen, wrote while touring in Italy with his father.

I'm just reading Maynard Solomon's biography of Mozart and, while we have all certainly heard about his gifts, it is fascinating to read just how remarkable Mozart was from an early age. He started playing keyboard when he was four years old and before his fifth birthday he could learn, that is play from memory, a minuet and trio after half an hour's work! While on a long, long tour with his family that lasted from when he was seven to ten years old, he played for most of the royal families of Europe and was frequently tested, in public, by being given difficult pieces to read at sight. All of which he managed. He was also given texts for which he composed arias on the spot. Oh, and given a theme, he would improvise on it at great length. In other words, before he was ten years old he could do things that even the most talented musicians of today would be very reluctant to attempt in public. And he did them every day.

By the time he was into his teens, he was being commissioned to write operas. Oh, and as I learned last year while writing some program notes, he once wrote an entire sonata for violin and piano in an hour. Don't know how that is possible, but since it was Mozart...


Augustine said...

This is relevant:

Haha. (But perhaps, there's so little criticism of classical precisely because so few listen to the music? Chicken or egg?)

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh! That's a very funny article. Thanks, Augustine.

When you subtract the satirical articles (like the one you link), the dull listing of repertoire, the puff pieces about burnishing the image of the latest virtuoso and the ones trying too hard to be hip, it is amazing just how little actual criticism is left.

I think a lot of people listen to classical music, it is just that the mass media are fully engaged in the dissemination and promotion of pop music because that is where the big bucks are.

Last weekend I went to two concerts back to back by the Afiara Quartet of two different programs and both were sold out (ok, there might have been four or five empty seats for the second concert). The second half of the second program was the Beethoven C# minor quartet, one of the real pinnacles of the classical music repertoire. They played it really well and the audience gave them a standing ovation with lots of bravos.

Frankly, this is the kind of musical experience that no other kind of music can provide. In my humble opinion...