Sunday, March 9, 2014

And He Scores!

Neil Atkinson is a sports writer who can be found at a site known as The Anfield Wrap which is, I believe, a site devoted to soccer/football in Liverpool. The reason I'm mentioning this is that Neil just did something very cool: instead of writing yet another column about his professional interest he decided to do something entirely new and attend a symphony concert and write about that. Here is the result. A few quotes:
 Classical Music, as I understand it, always seems to be about something I don’t know or have motifs I’m not well enough informed to follow. Someone else does it. It happens elsewhere. It doesn’t happen in front of me.
Last night I went – paying my own money, I hasten to add; this review is entirely impromptu – to the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Why? Mostly because they are there. And because I hadn’t before.
Let’s talk about the Elgar. Crashing Elgar. What did I hear? Well I definitely heard. I heard a great many aspects at the most spectacular volume, crashing in and out of each other. By Christ it is loud when it wants to be. I heard drama; I saw drama, great swaying, soaring playing full of determination and vigour, its pace never letting up. (I’m stunned how still the rest of the audience appeared to manage to sit. My head had gone a bit I think).
In the first movement I heard an initially joyous loss of innocence which became restless and regretful as it wore on. There was tenderness to the second movement, mourning the thing that had been regretted, not entirely able to let it go. In third movement there was crushing process and in the fourth we are churned along before we return to the first initial flush though are probably a bit wiser, a bit smarter. Across the four movements, it was vigorously wistful if such a thing is possible. It confronted its reality but still wants to strive for more. Still believes more is possible.
What is so cool about this is that he just wrote about what he heard, honestly and objectively. How I wish all journalists would do this! As he says, he really has no knowledge about classical music. But he is certainly capable of sitting there and using his ears, which is all you really need.

There are many ways of approaching music criticism. Typically in journalism we get all the prejudices and biases of the journalist filtered through the occasion of a particular concert or recording. Often we get a puff piece which is written solely to amp up sales and the suspicion is that the review was paid for. Oh yes, a lot of those very favorable reviews you read are bought and paid for in advance. Sometimes, from more intellectual writers you get a whole ideology of musicological agendas using the concert or recording as an example of gender hegemony or the dominance of Germanic influence or something. Very, very occasionally you get an objective listener just using his ears and telling you what he hears.

So I am going to take Neil's review as an inspiration and continue my look at the Schoenberg Violin Concerto by just telling you what I hear. You might think of this as a phenomenological review: what does the listener perceive? I will listen with the score, of course, but I'm not going to try to do any analysis. I'm just going to listen. And try to do it objectively.

It is very hard to do something akin to Neil's review of Elgar and that is mainly because, with a symphonic piece by Elgar, there are all sorts of musical gestures that are comprehensible even to one with no particular background in classical music. Here is the first movement of the Symphony No. 2 by Elgar:

The grand and noble gestures of the music are clear and evident. Now let me put up the first movement of the Violin Concerto by Schoenberg. I'm so sorry, this, while the performance by Hilary Hahn, is cut off about four minutes from the end. It will give you an idea, though.

Let me try and describe what I am hearing in non-technical terms. A subdued, almost lyric, opening soon becomes very tense as the dynamics swell and the intervals become very wide. This is generally true throughout: the music is always pausing and then rushing ahead with wildly expanded intervals and dynamic swells. What might have tied everything together, i.e. the rhythmic aspect, is fragmented and disjunct. No rhythmic pattern is allowed to last for more than a couple of measures and the tempo is in constant flux. Much of the time the music is skittering around (a non-technical term!) with jittery arpeggios in the solo violin. The instruments almost never share a rhythmic motif, as there are usually three or even four different kinds of rhythmic events happening simultaneously. Here is an example, taken fairly randomly from page 28 of the score:

Click to enlarge
As you can see, the violin solo has a passage in long notes, very high, that is followed by a syncopated low passage in thirds. At the same time the brass have an entirely different kind of texture and rhythm, as do the strings and woodwinds. There is some imitation between the clarinet and the flute/oboe, with a little motif spanning an octave and a third or fourth. The last leap is a major seventh. These kinds of extreme leaps, easy enough for instruments, give the music the constant feeling of crisis. I think this is because these wide leaps would be very unnatural for the voice and we tend to hear melodies as if they were sung.

The mood: on first listening, it is one of hysteria because this kind of constant switching between quiet and calm and loudness and extreme intervals is the kind of thing we hear from hysterical or insane people. It seems so hysterical, I think, because you don't sense the cause of these wild events. The music just swells and skitters and you don't know why. It is like meeting someone on the street who seems calm, but suddenly starts shouting at unseen people. Rather unsettling! As you listen more times, more of the music starts to make sense: you hear some of the same motifs returning, a bit of imitation, you notice that the violin has a few different kinds of things that keep coming back: long, close intervals, skittering arpeggios, high harmonics, occasional little pizzicato comments. But even on further listenings, the music is very fragmented. You hear little moments of a waltz, a song, a melody--but they are all broken up and the harmony is always dissonant.

I am tempted to say, that, yes, Schoenberg emancipated the dissonance, but then it proceeded to eat the music so we have nothing left but dissonance. What I tend to hear in Schoenberg is the whole world of European civilization crashing down in ruins. Recall, this music was written in 1936, when that was exactly what was happening.

I have deep respect for Schoenberg who was a great composer and great artist and great teacher. He captured and reflected the times in his music only too accurately. But I cannot listen to him too often.


Bridge said...

" … but then it proceeded to eat the music so we have nothing left but dissonance."

This is not exactly true. The treatment of dissonance in the classical sense has been completely abolished but there are many more factors at play here beside just melodic/harmonic tension and release. The serialist techniques for, yes, handling dissonance in the broadest sense of the word are quite numerous and it is a great myth that there is nothing more to 12-tone music than feeding a tone row into a system and accepting whatever may come out (not that I am accusing you of believing so.) I understand somewhat what you mean by the music sounding hysterical although it doesn't to me as I am so used to 12-tone by now. It doesn't surprise me anymore and in fact sounds perfectly natural in a sense. Not that I don't perceive it as tense, but I have long since stopped waiting for that V-I. It's constantly evolving, passing through all keys and none - though the music is much more connected than you claim. The concerto requires many listens to fully appreciate in my opinion, and it certainly rewards these listens.

Bryan Townsend said...

I knew I would get some pushback from you Bridge! My little phrase that you quote is a metaphor so it can be neither true nor false. But it is either appropriate or inappropriate and you are perfectly free and perhaps even justified in saying it is inappropriate.

Oh yes, there are many techniques being used here to handle tension and release, of course, but they are very subtle and complex. What the ordinary listener--which is what I was trying to be for the purposes of this exercise--hears is more the surface, which is what I was describing. Oh yes, I'm sure the music is very connected. I was noticing these connections more the third and fourth time I listened.

But I still find it a big grueling to listen to, even though it would, probably, deliver rewards in the long run.

Bridge said...

Oh I know, I did understand your perspective (that you wanted to describe the music objectively) which is why I tried to aim my comments at nobody in particular. I know that you know better, but there are many people that don't which is a bit distressing to me. I suppose it's just an easy target because it is so initially repulsive. However, it of course makes little sense to force yourself to enjoy it if that is your reaction. It's not really important to me that you become "converted", but there are (hopefully) others reading this blog that may take your words a bit out of context, I'm hoping to guard against blind prejudice. It's my experience that people genuinely don't give it any chance at all. They should definitely follow Mr. Atkinson's example of experiencing something new and unfamiliar, though clearly Elgar is more approachable.

Bryan Townsend said...

My view, probably following in the footsteps of Socrates and Plato, is that truth is an activity and a process that takes place when problems and issues are discussed freely. So I welcome your comments and those of others as they usually offer additional perspectives and angles that gets to a fuller picture than I offered in my original post.

Bridge said...

Well said.