Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Struggling with the Narrative

The only thing that leaves me cold about Tom Service's otherwise excellent series on the symphony is his energetic efforts to make sure to conform to the latest theories and methods of the "new" musicology in which every piece of music is a crossroads of the negotiation of gender roles or something. As he put it last week:
the performance of gender in the symphony in the 19th century is much more complicated and contingent than those labels might make you think. The symphony as transgender interzone of gender representation.
To which I reply, "huh?" In order to be even wrong that would have to be stated in some comprehensible variety of the English language.

In this week's installment, presenting the Faust Symphony of Franz Liszt, he goes so far overboard that there is scarcely any room to talk about the actual music. The sub-head reveals all:
Liszt's Faust Symphony blows the bogus symphonic vs programme music debate out of the water
Now there is nothing "bogus" about the fundamental ideological division in 19th century music between the New German School of Wagner and Liszt and those who sought to preserve and extend the great Classical traditions as exemplified by the music of Beethoven. This was often called the War of the Romantics and the composers on the other side were Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. So, nothing "bogus" about this aesthetic debate, at least, not according to those who were actually on the scene at the time.

Tom begins by muddying the waters considerably:
A notional “symphonic principle” has implicitly underscored much of the discussion of the pieces in this series thus far. The idea of symphonic “integrity” (another word that needs to be in quotation marks!) is often contrasted in music-historical writing with its orchestral antipode in the 19th century, “programme music” - music that sets out to tell an “extra-musical” narrative, such as attempting to describe a work from literature, or a natural phenomenon, or a painterly image in sound; as if the former were the one true faith of music history, and the latter were a somehow less “pure” (quotation marks again, sorry) form of music.
"Notional" means "existing in the mind only", but surely he can't mean that? Surely if the idea has "underscored much of the discussion" then it must refer to something in the music. Mind you, the term "symphonic principle" doesn't bring much to my mind as it is not a phrase used by musicians or music historians. If you Google it nothing much comes up. So again it seems as if Tom is engaged in a war with straw men that don't actually exist. "Symphonic integrity" has no more established meaning than "symphonic principle". When he talks about "music-historical writing" he is probably referring to Eduard Hanslick, the author of the very famous work on musical aesthetics published in 1854, On the Beautiful in Music. In this book he presents the position of the more conservative view of musical aesthetics that the "meaning" of the musical work lies in the actual form itself, not in extra-musical associations. Wikipedia summarizes as follows:
Hanslick's tastes were conservative; in his memoirs he said that for him musical history really began with Mozart and culminated in Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. He is best remembered today for his critical advocacy of Brahms as against the school of Wagner, an episode in 19th century music history sometimes called the War of the Romantics. The critic Richard Pohl, of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, represented the progressive composers of the "Music of the Future".
Being a close friend of Brahms from 1862, Hanslick possibly had some influence on Brahms's composing, often getting to hear new music before it was published.[4] Hanslick saw Wagner's reliance on dramatics and word painting as inimical to the nature of music, which he thought to be expressive solely by virtue of its form, and not through any extra-musical associations. The theoretical framework of Hanslick's criticism is expounded in his book of 1854, Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (On the Beautiful in Music), which started as an attack on the Wagnerian aesthetic and established itself as an influential text, subsequently going through many editions and translations in several languages. Other targets for Hanslick's heavy criticism were Anton Bruckner and Hugo Wolf. OfTchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, he accused composer and soloist Adolph Brodsky of putting the audience "through hell" with music "which stinks to the ear"; he was also lukewarm towards the same composer's Sixth Symphony.[5]
Hanslick is noted as one of the first widely influential music critics. While his aesthetics and his criticism are typically considered separately, they are importantly connected. Hanslick was an outspoken opponent of the music of Liszt and Wagner, which broke down traditional musical forms as a means of communicating something extra-musical. His opposition to "the music of the future" is congruent with his aesthetics of music: the meaning of music is the form of music. It is along these lines that Hanslick became one of Brahms’s champions and often pitted him against Wagner. For this reason, Brahms is often mistakenly positioned as being anti-Wagnerian himself, a historical interpretation that disregards Brahms's and Wagner's mutual admiration for each other.
Tom's remarks, and especially the sneering way he presents them, as I say, muddies the waters and confuses rather than informs the reader. He goes on to say:
Now, I hope I’ve demonstrate that those boundaries are much more fluid than that simple-minded distinction suggests, and that symphonies that are supposed bulwarks of “purity” or “integrity” are as porous to meanings, interpretations, and story-telling – often more so! – than orchestral pieces that really do set out to tell a story, whether a pre-existing one, such as Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, or a new narrative, say Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica. And more than that, I hope this series, above anything else it might do, has demonstrated how the “symphonic principle” is always about telling stories and doing cultural work; and that any symphony – even the most apparently abstract – is never, ever, about just pushing notes around a piece of paper in a hermetically sealed cultural vacuum, but is an active engagement with the world of the composer who wrote it, the time and place it was written in, the way it’s been received, and the range of its interpretations.
Tom, as he prefers to battle straw men and confuse the reader, actually doesn't demonstrate much in his essays. The truth is, as I hope I have shown in several dozen posts on this blog, that the composer has a lot of options. Sometimes he says that the symphony he writes is about his own suffering or triumph or whatever. Sometimes he says it depicts the sea or characters from Goethe or whatever. These depictions may or may not be successful, but what I want to insist on is, whatever the composer says, the music has to actually function as music in order for the listener to enjoy it. Sometimes I wonder if the programs tacked on aren't meant to serve as a smokescreen for the weaknesses of the music as music.

But let me be clear: I am not so familiar with Liszt's tone poems and this one in particular I don't think I have ever listened to straight through. Thanks to Tom's reminding me of it, I will now put it on my list and try to get to it fairly soon. But I am not going to approach the music with any of Tom's suggestions as he tells us almost nothing about the music, spending nearly all his time talking about the program. Music with a text, of course, has an integral program, but let us not forget that all texts have a built in ambiguity. When a composer sets a text, he can give the text many kinds of interpretation: sincere, sarcastic, ironic, tragic and so on.

So, I suggest always listening to a piece of music, at first at least, as just a piece of music, trying to hear what is actually going on instead of listening to it through the filter of an appended program, whether from the composer or anyone else.

Now let's have a listen to the music. Here is Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony:

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