Friday, January 30, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Here is the future, the complete commercialization of music:
It has been announced that New York’s Juilliard School has received a $5 Million grant from trustee Michael and Carol Marks to develop a new student business-skills and entrepreneurship program.
To be called the ‘Alan D Marks Center for Career Services and Entrepreneurship’, the program will include the development of a compulsory entrepreneurship course for all first-year students and a number of seminars and training programmes on financial planning, public speaking, networking and concert programming.
The Centre will also award a number of annual grants of up to US $10,000 to support innovative student projects.
The announcement, from the traditionally performance-based institution, comes just months after both Mannes College and the Manhattan School of Music announced revamped curriculums – to include courses in entrepreneurship, technology and improvisation.
I can remember a time, not long ago, when cultural grants were mostly given to projects of special aesthetic value so they would NOT have to be subject to commercial pressures!

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And now for something completely different. If you haven't heard it you really should have a listen to the Philosopher's Song delivered (along with free Foster's beer) by Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl.

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Does anyone else find this article talking up toy musical instruments a bit, uh, disturbing?

Wilco guitarist Nels Cline proudly plays miniature pianos and plastic “Cowboy” guitars—and bristles at the term “toy instrument,” which he finds “denigrating and dismissive.” He prefers “little instruments.”
“To me there’s no differentiation between a so-called ‘toy instrument’ and a traditional one,” he said. “You could go to IKEA right now and buy a tiny keyboard that kids play in kindergarten and it may totally make a track on a record.”

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Make of these statistics what you will. For me it is rather a golden age of recorded music as you can buy all sorts of big integral recordings really cheap.

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I'm a big fan of the movies of Luc Besson. In his The Fifth Element a very tall blue-skinned alien diva sings an aria with a stunning vocal range of, what, three or four octaves? Five, maybe? Here is the sequence:

The actress is Luc Besson's then girlfriend Maïwenn Le Besco, but the actual singing is done by a real opera singer, soprano Inva Mula. It is the beginning of an aria scena, "Il dolce suono", from the opera "Lucia di Lammermoor" by Donizetti. The techno bit that follows is an addition for the film and involves what I always assumed was some technological wizardry to punch up the voice, not to mention adding an octave or so on either end of the range. But now there is an Armenian contestant in a talent show that seems to be doing it au naturel (though I don't think she gets down into the lowest part):

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Sometimes just after reading one of those essays about how we need to make classical music more "accessible" by dumbing it down, I think that those people are correct who claim that IQ levels have fallen by one standard deviation since Victorian times. And then I read something like this (link):
There’s a delightful and true saying, often attributed to Joseph Sobran, that in a hundred years, we’ve gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching remedial English in college.
And I think, yep, that's probably true. And it explains how we got from Sousa and Joplin and Puccini (to name three very popular composers from around 1900) to Jay-Z and Beyoncé...

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Here is an account of a very special concert in Berlin in remembrance of the Holocaust and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. One of the pieces played was the Adagietto from the Symphony No. 5 of Gustav Mahler, which gives us our musical envoi:

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Concerto Guide: Beethoven, Concerto for Piano No. 3 in C minor, op. 37

Apart from some incomplete and fragmentary pieces, Beethoven wrote only seven concertos in his career: five for piano, for his own use, one for violin and the triple concerto for violin, cello and piano. Just for comparison, Mozart wrote all five of his violin concertos in a single year, 1775 and wrote around thirty piano concertos! Of course, Beethoven's piano concertos were written for his own use and when he became deaf and unable to perform in public, he wrote no more. His Fifth Piano Concerto had to be premiered by others. But we should not conclude from this that Beethoven was an indifferent or lackluster composer of concertos. Those few that he wrote are all masterpieces and a couple, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, are superb works with no real equals.

Before getting to those, I want to take up the slightly earlier Piano Concerto No. 3, written in 1800 and first performed in 1803 with Beethoven as soloist. One of the things that the Romantic view of Beethoven as the struggling, suffering, but ultimately triumphing solitary soul tends to conceal is the close connections between his music and that of Mozart in particular. This concerto is a good example as it resembles the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491 of Mozart with which it shares not only the key of C minor, but the mood and, indeed, a very similar opening theme. Here is the first part of the Mozart:

And the beginning theme, 13 measures ending on the first note of the next measure after this except:

Click to enlarge

Here is the first part of the first movement of the Beethoven:

And here is the score. That opening is a brief, four measure phrase answered by the winds with the same theme in the dominant:

Mozart, that great imitator of others (his first few piano concertos were transcriptions of piano sonatas by J. C. Bach) would have found nothing amiss with this. The remarkable thing is that Beethoven was undoubtedly the only composer alive who could have done such a close facsimile of a Mozart piano concerto. Mind you, the Beethoven is a different kind of piece, with shorter, more articulated themes, but the resemblance is still striking.

One major difference is that Beethoven has a more static exposition than Mozart would have done: there is a completely self-sufficient orchestral exposition, ending with a pause, then the piano essentially repeats the orchestral exposition with some variations. Mozart, as we have seen in this post, had more creative ways of handling the dual exposition problem: it tends to be dull if the soloist just repeats what the orchestra has just done. Mozart might have the soloist interrupt the orchestra, as he did in the "Jeunehomme" concerto, or give the soloist a modulating exposition or give the soloist entirely new themes as Mozart did in the C minor concerto that resembles this one of Beethoven. What he did not do is what Beethoven did here and in his first two piano concertos and as Hummel and even Chopin did: have the orchestra do an exposition ending with a firm cadence, after which the soloist basically does it all again. For Mozart that was too dull and after this concerto, Beethoven rediscovers some Mozartean solutions. It is an odd thing about Beethoven's career that he became more "classical" in terms of his handling of form, later in life and less "romantic". There is a structural looseness about this concerto that he does not repeat in his later ones.

One very nice touch in this concerto is the coda where, after a very wide-ranging cadenza, the orchestra enters with a pianissimo harmony with just an echo of the opening theme in the tympani alone:

That is a very Beethoven touch and one that I don't think Mozart ever used!

While this is a very fine concerto, Beethoven has not quite gotten the measure of Mozart yet, his only real teacher when it comes to concertos. As we will see next week, Beethoven makes great strides with his next concerto, which we will look at then.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

This is the Music Salon's 1515th post!

I don't know how I missed it, but a couple of weeks ago I put up the 1500th post here at the Music Salon. I was planning on doing something, but obviously I got distracted--probably by something musical. I just checked and the 1500th post was this one, complaining about 2Cellos, a duo that gives crossover a bad name.

Let's see, what would be appropriate? I could tell you what is upcoming. I am working on the first of three posts on Beethoven concertos. This one is on the Third Piano Concerto and the others will be on the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. Past that I haven't planned as yet. But I intend to trace important concertos right up to Esa-Pekka Salonen's 2009 Violin Concerto, which is a heck of a piece of music.

In the meantime, let's look back at the year 1500 in music (well, 1501, actually) and the first volume of Ottaviano Petrucci'Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, the first printed collection of polyphonic music. Here is a clip about a new recording of the Odhecaton:

As the book contained a number of groovy dance numbers, if it had come out recently, it might have been titled "Non-Stop Dancing 1500!" Here is one of those tunes, the anonymous La Spagna:

Now those are some serious recorders!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Two Beethovens--at least!

Reception history is an interesting field within the larger field of music history. What reception history does is look at how a composer was regarded at different times. One of the most interesting composers from this point of view is Beethoven because while he has been very famous and very popular ever since the latter part of his lifetime, say 1800 at least, why he has been popular and which works in particular were most appreciated has changed enormously over time.

At the present moment we are in perhaps the aftermath (hangover?) of the romantic myth of Beethoven. This is the Promethean myth of suffering and triumph and it is fed by a small selection of his works: the 3rd, 5th and 9th symphonies, Fidelio, and the Pathétique and Appassionata piano sonatas. During his own lifetime it was quite a different Beethoven that was admired; the works that were particularly appreciated were the Septet, Wellington's Victory and the second movement of the Symphony No. 8. This music is still around, but it is barely known and other of Beethoven's music, the whole divertimento repertoire, has been banished. From about the middle of the 19th century there was no longer a place for music with a divertimento character on the concert stage, not even in chamber music concerts.

As we are very familiar with the Promethean Beethoven--if you are not, then go have a listen to the first group of pieces mentioned above--let's listen to a bit of the other Beethoven. Here is the Septet in E flat major, op. 20 for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn:

The only reason I have any familiarity with this music is that in my first orgy of LP-purchasing around 1970 I picked up a box containing all of Beethoven's chamber music for winds, part of DGG's integral recording project for the Beethoven bicentenary. I know what you are thinking: "where is all the drama and suffering?" This sounds more like Haydn and Mozart than the Beethoven we are familiar with. Yes, exactly! But it was music like this that was the foundation of Beethoven's fame and he continued to write music like this throughout his life. Here is the second movement of the Symphony No. 8 for example:

That sounds more like Mendelssohn doesn't it?

My own history with Beethoven was heavily influenced by 20th century views. I came first to revere the late quartets. Why? Very largely because of the testimony of Stravinsky and others that this was perennially great music. The 19th century was a bit leery of the late quartets and they only achieved their full appreciation in the 20th century when they became the pinnacle of the repertoire in tandem with the 20th century rediscovery of the genre.

As for the symphony, Carl Dahlhaus makes the point that:
The history of the symphony [in the 19th century] looks almost like a history of the conclusions that composers were able to draw from Beethoven's various models of the symphonic principle: from the Third and Seventh Symphonies in the case of Berlioz, the Sixth in the case of Mendelssohn, and the Ninth in the case of Bruckner.
I have remarked before about how Bruckner seems to be always exploring the possibilities of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

I hesitate to deliver a tidy summing-up as Dahlhaus (in his Nineteenth-Century Music) also makes the point that the basic research into the details of the whole reception history of Beethoven has yet to be done, so I will just end with another of those works for which he was most famed during his lifetime, but which have been neglected ever since. Here is Wellington's Victory, op 91, celebrating the battle of Vitoria in Spain in June 1813, when forces commanded by Wellington defeated French forces commanded by Napoleon's older brother:

That is completely different from the aesthetic image we have of Beethoven but it was written in the fall of 1813, so certainly a product of his mature years, and a huge hit at the time.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Young Mozart

I doubt we will ever get over our fascination with the very young Mozart. A recent concert in London began with Mozart's first concert aria, composed in London at age eight while on a nearly three-year tour of Europe with his father, and ended with another aria composed just after he left London, at age nine. I've been listening to all the Mozart symphonies lately and I'm up to number 30--and he still isn't out of his teens! The Symphony no. 30 in D major was composed in 1774, when he was just eighteen. But never mind that, let's listen to that first concert aria composed by Mozart, aged eight. Here is "Va, dal furor portata," K21:

And no, his father didn't "help" him with it. Even at eight, Wolfgang was a more accomplished musician than his father. A witness to some of Mozart's feats in London:
Daines Barrington who, fascinated by Mozart’s presence in London, compiled a report for the scientific Royal Society after setting the eight-year-old an apparently impossible musical task. The child “showed the most extraordinary readiness of invention”, read Barrington’s report; in singing an unknown Italian duet and simultaneously sight-reading the orchestral parts at the harpsichord alongside his father, Mozart not only “did full justice to the duet” but also pointed out and corrected his father’s mistakes.
Now sight-singing an unknown melody while simultaneously sight-reading the accompaniment on keyboard is not an impossible task: in fact it is an element of musical training found in a number of methods including Paul Hindemith's Elementary Training for Musicians. But if the accompaniment is orchestral parts that you have to reduce at sight AND if you are just eight years old, yes, that's pretty impressive! Mind you, he did even more astonishing things on a trip to Italy a few years later. He transcribed, from memory, a whole complex piece for eight voices by Allegri, after hearing it once. The piece is about ten minutes long. Now that is the most extraordinary feat of musicianship I have ever heard of. I'm sure they left it out of the movie Amadeus because it would just not be believable!

Now let's hear that other concert aria, composed when he was nine years old. This is "Conservati fedele" for soprano and orchestra:

No, I don't think there has ever been a musical genius to equal Mozart. It is a very good thing he started so young, because he only lived for thirty-five years...

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Harold Shapero, American Composer

A couple of weeks ago I read an intriguing article in the Wall Street Journal about a neglected American composer, Harold Shapero. He passed away in May 2013 (born in 1920), never having achieved the recognition that quite a few people thought he should have. These people included composer Aaron Copland, conductor Leonard Bernstein (who conducted the premiere of Shapero's Symphony for Classical Orchestra, written in 1947), conductor André Previn who recorded the same symphony in 1988 (not in 1986 as stated in the article) and now Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. Let's let him set the scene:
The American composer Harold Shapero, who died two years ago at the age of 93, is a prime example of the perpetually rediscovered artist. He was extravagantly admired by his contemporaries, foremost among them Aaron Copland, who praised his “phenomenal ear” and “wonderfully spontaneous musical gift.” Bernstein gave the premiere of his Symphony for Classical Orchestra in 1948, then recorded it to thrilling effect five years later. Alas, the winds of favor blew elsewhere, and soon Shapero was devoting most of his energies to teaching instead of writing music of his own.
In 1986, André Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic made a second recording of the Symphony for Classical Orchestra. That put Shapero back in the news—but only for a brief time. Thirteen years later, Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic of the New York Times, published a profile of Shapero in which he wrote about the symphony with the utmost enthusiasm. “How can a major work, introduced so auspiciously, get lost for more than three decades, then come back and get lost again?” he asked. But that didn’t work, either, and Shapero retreated once more into an obscurity so profound that I didn’t learn of his death in 2013 until weeks after the fact.
The Wikipedia article provides more information, critical comments and a list of works. All this got me interested enough to acquire the CD of the Previn recording of Shapero's magnum opus the Symphony for Classical Orchestra. I am surprised to find myself disagreeing with this long list of famous musicians, but this is not very good music! Which does explain how a composer like Shapero, who really had every advantage you could possibly imagine, still managed to sink into complete obscurity. He studied with everyone you can think of: Nicholas Slonimsky, Ernest Krenek, Walter Piston (he entered Harvard at age 18 to study with him), Paul Hindemith and Nadia Boulanger. He became friends with Leonard Bernstein and associated with Igor Stravinsky. He was awarded all sorts of fellowships (Naumberg, Paine) and prizes (the Prix de Rome and George Gershwin Memorial Contest). Indeed, it is hard to think of any way in which he was disadvantaged. Despite all this and the admiration of composers like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, he never became celebrated by the musical public. The reason is simple: he is not a very good composer.

It is very interesting to listen to his music, though. Not because it is good, as it is not, but because of the ways in which it is not good. What I hear is a rather characterless music that bangs about in a robust way, but also in a dreary and undistinguished way. There are very, very few striking or memorable moments. There is an ongoing harmonic dullness. For an example, listen to the end of the last movement of the symphony where Shapero can find no other means to end the piece except by bashing away at the tonic in dreary quarter notes until we get very tired! You may think of this as being modeled after Beethoven if you like, but it is like Beethoven with 100% of the magic removed. There are hints of Stravinsky, especially in the Scherzo that occasionally sounds a bit like the Octet. But a very uninspired echo of the Octet. Rhythmically there is just nothing interesting going on. Most of most of the movements tend to sound alike. The slow movement is not very slow and, except for the beginning and end, sounds very much like the first and last movements.

It always seems as if something interesting is about to happen--but it never does. To me there is no mystery in why Shapero remained an obscurity despite periodic efforts by influential people to promote his music. He was a composer that just lacked charm and originality. Probably most aspiring composers in most places at most times are just this dull and uninspired. Great musical genius is extremely rare. The mystery to me is, why did so many better musicians have so many nice things to say about Shapero? Why did Aaron Copland praise his “phenomenal ear” and “wonderfully spontaneous musical gift”?

I would like to put up a clip of the Symphony for Classical Orchestra so you can judge for yourself, but, alas, it is not available on YouTube. Instead, have a listen to his Piano Sonata No. 3 written a couple of years before the symphony:

To me that sounds like an awkward blend of Haydn and Stravinsky. But it is also a lot more charming than the symphony. If you can find a copy of that and listen to it, I would welcome some comments!

For the sake of comparison, let's listen to another symphony, also in neo-classical style, written around roughly the same time. Here is the Symphony No. 9 of Dmitri Shostakovich, composed in 1945, conducted by Bernstein:

As an example of a very distinctive moment, I direct your attention to the hilarious dialogue between the trombone and piccolo around the one minute mark.

Taste and Creativity

In yesterday's Friday Miscellanea post I put up a quote from Picasso:
“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.” Pablo Picasso (quoted in Quote, Mar. 24, 1957)
Most quotes of this nature are designed to make you nod or shake your head for a moment before you go back to thinking about your ongoing hair loss, or overdue bills or sex. In other words, they intrigue us for a brief moment. But this one got me thinking. The face value of this quote is a simple statement of the modernist aesthetic: innovation is the most important thing in the arts. This assumption is camouflaged by the "creativeness" meme. "Creativity", like "diversity" and "equality" is one of those words that are often used to smuggle hidden assumptions into an argument. Wikipedia defines "creativity" as
Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and in some way valuable is created
There are two components: newness and value. But what the Picasso quote and a lot of other talk about creativity submerges is the "value" aspect by highlighting the "newness" aspect. Picasso did a lot of new and striking things, some of which were valuable, while others were, perhaps, not so much:

What was particularly appealing about this to modernists was the simplicity and immediacy of the innovation. It gives a fresh glimpse at something in the world. Ok. But is this an artwork with great value? Not to me, particularly.

Picasso was disparaging taste because taste, one of those things that enables us to discern high-value over low-value, was for him an obsolete, superseded criterion. "Taste" was an extremely important aspect of 18th century aesthetics, so it underlies a great deal of the music we value the most: music by Haydn, Mozart and much of Beethoven. I talked a great deal about taste in my posts on the aesthetics of David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher. Taste is defined as:
the sense of what is fitting, harmonious, or beautiful; the perception and enjoyment of what constitutes excellence in the fine arts, literature, fashion, etc.
 You can see why Picasso hated the idea! The basic assumptions of his aesthetic are that what is new overrides what is fitting, harmonious and so on. Putting together the rusty handlebars and seat of an old bicycle so as to resemble a bull is much better art than something that is beautiful.

We can see three stages in aesthetics over the last couple of centuries. As I said, "taste" was the governing aesthetic of the 18th century and this includes most of the music of the century. Some of Bach's music falls a bit outside the boundaries as it elevates the intensity of religious feeling over the strictly tasteful. But in general, the criteria of taste are the criteria of the 18th century. Mozart never wrote anything that was less than poised, graceful, touching and beautiful. This starts to change with Beethoven who delved deep into his own individual feeling to create more demanding, intense music. By 18th century standards some of his later works, such as the last movement of the Symphony No. 9 and the Grosse Fuge, are not tasteful. This leads to the 19th century where the main criterion of aesthetics is feeling, not taste. Everything must appeal primarily to the feelings and emotions.

Then we come to the 20th century where the main criterion becomes novelty. Whatever you do, make it new!

So, in the 18th century we have Taste (Mozart, Symphony No. 30 in D major):

In the 19th century we have Feeling (Wagner, Prelude to Tristan und Isolde):

And in the 20th century we have Novelty (Stockhausen, Gruppen):

So let me re-word that Picasso quote a bit:
"Ah, novelty! What a dreadful thing! Novelty is the enemy of creativeness!"

If you are only trying to do something new, how are you ever going to do something good?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Would it be elitist to point out how things like this (Back in Baroque String Tribute to AC/DC) just demonstrate the relative dullness of the original?

It just drags on and on, sounding less inspired with each monotonous phrase. Instead you could have been listening to this (Mozart, String Quintet in G minor):

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I'm not the only one to write what you might call a "post-minimalist" symphony. Kyle Gann has also done so. And really, hasn't Phil Glass written a bunch?

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Anne Midgette was very complimentary about this National Symphony Orchestra concert in a space usually reserved for hip-hop or electronic dance music. I wish I could have heard it. Sometimes these things come off really well and sometimes they don't.

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Here is a well-done scientific study of the opposing forces of variety and repetition in music. Here is the abstract:
Listening habits are strongly influenced by two opposing aspects, the desire for variety and the demand for uniformity in music. In this work we quantify these two notions in terms of instrumentation and production technologies that are typically involved in crafting popular music. We assign an ‘instrumentational complexity value’ to each music style. Styles of low instrumentational complexity tend to have generic instrumentations that can also be found in many other styles. Styles of high complexity, on the other hand, are characterized by a large variety of instruments that can only be found in a small number of other styles. To model these results we propose a simple stochastic model that explicitly takes the capabilities of artists into account. We find empirical evidence that individual styles show dramatic changes in their instrumentational complexity over the last fifty years. ‘New wave’ or ‘disco’ quickly climbed towards higher complexity in the 70s and fell back to low complexity levels shortly afterwards, whereas styles like ‘folk rock’ remained at constant high instrumentational complexity levels. We show that changes in the instrumentational complexity of a style are related to its number of sales and to the number of artists contributing to that style. As a style attracts a growing number of artists, its instrumentational variety usually increases. At the same time the instrumentational uniformity of a style decreases, i.e. a unique stylistic and increasingly complex expression pattern emerges. In contrast, album sales of a given style typically increase with decreasing instrumentational complexity. This can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation once commercial or mainstream success sets in.
I confess that I didn't read the whole thing as the math got quite complex! Bottom-line is that too much complexity kills sales. That's my problem!

Here is an article in the Atlantic discussing the study.

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Full marks for coolness to this new piano design from Hungary, the Bóganyi piano:

Looks kind of as if the Italian sports car people at Bugatti decided to design a piano.

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Every now and then it is fun to listen to one musician talk frankly about another musician. Mostly we try to preserve a minimum of professional courtesy, but sometimes you just wanna let fly! Here is Mickey Melchiondo, founding member and lead guitarist of Ween, talking about some music he really, really hates. Favorite quote:
Everything about the song is so awful that if I sat down and tried to write the worst song ever, I couldn’t even make it 10 percent of the reality of how awful that song is.
 Not all music criticism needs to be the sober, judicious kind that Alex Ross writes.

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It is a particular delight to read an excellent piece on a just-held new music festival by Allan Kozinn in the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Kozinn, a very fine classical music critic and author of an excellent book on the Beatles, was recently let go by the New York Times, part of an unfortunate trend it seems. Nice quote:
Music’s relevance, of course, is not a function of age or style, but of its ability to grab a listener, momentarily alter reality, and offer a glimpse of the transcendent.
Yes, exactly...

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One of my favorite living composers, Esa-Pekka Salonen, will be composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic next season. Here is the announcement. And an interview with Salonen:

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Thanks to Terry Teachout, we have this quote from Picasso on taste:
“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.” Pablo Picasso (quoted in Quote, Mar. 24, 1957)
Which is quite true of modernist creativeness and much less true of creativeness in other eras.

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Let's end this Friday Miscellanea with a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Here is Leila Josefowicz playing his Violin Concerto composed in 2009. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Salonen:

No, I don't think he needs to be afraid of Pierre Boulez!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Know-Nothing Criticism

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a recent essay by Noah Berlatsky that I found challenged some of my thinking on criticism--and that's a good thing! Mr. Berlatsky is saying that the expertise gambit, that you need to have a certain level of expertise before you are entitled to criticize, is possibly over-rated:
Whether you’re talking about Breaking Bad or William Shakespeare, Star Wars or superhero comics, the debate about the quality of your ideas devolves into a debate about whether or not you know what you’re talking about, or are part of the select group of fans who has the right to speak about these issues.
And he concludes:
Art isn’t just for fans, which means that it’s not just for the knowledgeable, but for passersby as well. Expertise, then, seems an excuse to make everyone talk about the same things in the same way. But there’s no one true way to view a piece of art; no one privileged perspective that will give you the right experience of Shakespeare, or Wonder Woman, or video games, or romance novels. A partial view may be as meaningful as a whole one, and being alienated by a work of art, or feeling you don’t want to finish it, or look at it for a second more, is as valid as obsessive interest and passionate fandom.
This is a good way of making the point that there is no such thing as criticism that is privileged by authority. It has been asserted that arguments from authority went out with the Enlightenment, but that is rather a blinkered perspective, historically. The alternative to arguments from authority has always, since the days of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, been various forms of valid argument. Oh yes, and there are lots of invalid arguments other than from authority! Medieval philosophers used to like to categorize the various kinds of spurious arguments and there is a nice list of them here.

The quality of argument in most public spaces these days is pretty low. Prominent politicians seem to specialize in non sequiteurs and just about everyone likes to attack straw men. Public intellectuals make accusations and then turn around and commit the same errors themselves. Sometimes you get the feeling that no-one is paying any attention.

I enjoyed the essay by Mr. Berlatsky because it seemed an honest attempt to make some useful comments about criticism. But he doesn't delve very far into the problem. He is so captured by the notion that there is "no one true way" to view a piece of art, that he ends up by having to say that everyone's opinion is equally true or equally meaningful, whether it is partial or whole or based on a tiny amount of experience or a lot of experience. This is rather a tired old argument that consists mostly of giving up! I think the truth is more that yes, interesting ideas, observations and criticisms can come from anywhere. Authority has no privilege. But half-baked, erroneous and superficial ideas, observations and criticisms can also come from anywhere!

There really is no substitute for knowing what you are talking about, but this knowledge has to come from experience, not authority. One telling example that Mr. Berlatsky cites of an interesting contribution from an unexpected source turns out to be useful because of experience, not despite it:
Sharon Marcus, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, knew just about nothing about the original Wonder Woman comics, but wrote a lovely essay about (among other things) Wonder Woman’s costume design ... She isn’t a comics expert, but she is an expert in something else, which allows her to approach the material in a different way than most comics scholars have.
 The use of so-called "expertise" to shut down debate instead of engage in it, really is just a misuse of expertise, turning it into a kind of authority. You may have a great deal of exposure and experience of something but still be deeply mistaken about it. Expertise needs to be examined to make sure it contains wisdom and not just undigested experience. Encountering real expertise is exhilarating because it enables you to enjoy the fruits of someone else's long experience and hard-won wisdom about something.

Let me give an example: I am reading Carl Dahlhaus' masterful book Nineteenth-Century Music and his expertise regarding the operas of Rossini is making me very eager to listen to a lot of Rossini, whom I have not previously had a lot of interest in. Dahlhaus' expertise is very convincing because of its internal logic, wealth of historical example and apt choice of musical examples. Expertise, when it is the good kind, is stimulating and convincing. The bad kind is numbing and dismaying because it seems to use knowledge in the service of some unshared and inappropriate agenda. When it comes to music I can usually tell the difference.

But this does not invalidate Mr. Berlatsky's point that good critical ideas can come from anywhere. They can.

Now let's listen to some Rossini! This is a performance of his first opera in FrenchLe siège de Corinthe from 1826:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Concerto Guide: Mozart Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, K. 466

As I mentioned last week, the two great concertos K. 466 and 467 are a bit akin to the two last symphonies of Mozart, no. 40 in G minor and no. 41 in C major. Unlike later composers, Haydn and Mozart both used minor keys fairly rarely and pieces in minor tend to have a special intensity. There are only two piano concertos in minor out of the over twenty that Mozart wrote: this one and K. 491 in C minor. Similarly, out of the over forty symphonies from Mozart there are only two in minor, the 40th and the 25th, both in G minor.

It was the D minor concerto along with a few other remarkable works like the 40th symphony and Don Giovanni that created the mythic persona of Mozart that the 19th century was so enamored of. As Charles Rosen says:
It is one of the fullest realizations of that aspect of Mozart which the nineteenth century quite rightly names 'daemonic', and which, for so long, made a balanced assessment of the rest of his work so difficult.
Because the daemonic is just one side of Mozart, a very complex figure.

This concerto is not necessarily a greater composition than many others from around this time, but it does have considerable power, some of which has to do with an impeccable control of rhythmic impetus. The very opening has considerable punch with its French overture like upbeats and syncopated accompaniment:

Click to enlarge

When this orchestral theme returns, this time joined by the solo piano, we see another rhythmic layer added in the sixteenth notes in the piano:

And soon the harmonic tempo quickens as well with the one harmony per bar changing to two:

There are a host of other details in this passage that include a stacking up of wind entrances, doubling of rhythmic values in the violins and violas, and movement of the sixteenth notes to the left hand of the piano. This is all done in a subtle, overlapping manner but the general effect is that of a building excitement. It might not be too far-fetched to see this kind of passage as being the model for the famous "Rossini crescendo".

Let's listen to this first movement performed and conducted by Mitsuko Uchida. The passage I was excerpting above appears around the 3:49 mark:

Another very revealing comment by Rosen, found in his The Classical Style p. 233 is:
No concerto before K. 466 exploits so well the latent pathetic nature of the form--the contrast and struggle of one individual voice against many. The most characteristic phrases of the solo and the orchestra are never interchanged without being rewritten and reshaped: the piano never plays the menacing opening in its syncopated form, but transforms it into something rhythmically more defined and more agitated; the orchestra never plays the recitative-like phrase with which the piano opens, and which it repeats throughout the development section.
He is referring to this passage, when the solo piano first enters:

This comes at the 3:16 mark in the above performance.

Instrumental solos prior to this, whether in concertos by Vivaldi or Bach, or even in symphonies by Haydn, were really about simple musical contrasts of dynamic, texture and timbre. They carried little or no existential weight. Often they were written as a compliment to a gifted soloist, enabling them to show off their virtuosity. But as we see in this concerto particularly, Mozart went far, far beyond these simple contrasts and goals. The introverted entrance of the piano is itself a contradiction of the normally virtuosic role of the piano soloist that we are used to even in previous concertos by Mozart. Instead, the significance of every musical detail becomes more than merely musical in a technical sense. It was this that the Romantics loved and responded to in Mozart. There is a dramatic intensity to this music that is rather a new thing in instrumental forms. This came naturally to Mozart who was, uniquely, also the master of opera.

After this concerto by Mozart and ones by Beethoven that were obviously inspired by this kind of heightened dramatic treatment, the concerto form was forever altered. This concerto was a favorite of Beethoven who not only played it himself, but composed a cadenza for it (as Mozart did not leave one). This concerto was premiered on the 10th of February, 1785 and, as we learn from a letter from Mozart's father, Leopold, may have been played with no rehearsal! Mozart only recorded the completion of the work in his journal on the same day.

Let's listen to another performance of the piece. Here is Malcolm Bilson on fortepiano:

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Dilemma of Teaching Music

Throughout my career as a musician I spent part of my time teaching. Sometimes it felt like most of my time! Teaching music is immensely rewarding and immensely draining. I just ran across an essay that highlights some of the dilemmas of music education. Part of the essay is about the composer Marie Incontrera's studies with Fred Ho and part is about a recent movie, Whiplash, about a similarly challenging teacher, described like this:
Whiplash chronicles the teaching career of Terrence Fletcher, a man whose desire to make his students great leads to what can only be described as abuse: name calling, slurs, physical force. Commentary focused on male dominance and gay jokes runs rampant throughout, but it’s an accurate portrayal of the jazz culture at large. Fletcher’s intent behind the whole thing is highlighted in his story about how Charlie Parker became “Bird” and one of the most important musicians of the 20th century: Joe Jones threw a cymbal at Parker’s head because his playing wasn’t up to par. So Parker went home, practiced, and came back one of the best saxophonists of all time—all because he got a cymbal thrown at him. Fletcher’s career can be summed up by this simple act: he goes around throwing cymbals at people’s heads, hoping to hit a Bird.
 I find it ironic that a very progressively minded (politically) artist like Marie Incontrera should have such a antediluvian attitude toward teaching. I know where she is coming from and there was a strain of it in my teaching over the years too. I was frequently tough with my students, telling them they were making a poor sound ("like a truck going uphill") or had soggy, lifeless rhythms, or poorly balanced chords and so on. "Where's the magic?" I would ask. But I never threw a cymbal at anyone's head (wouldn't that get you fired from any music school in the world?)--wasn't even tempted!

The idea that you can and should go to any lengths to "catalyze greatness" in your students is a tempting one to anyone who is deeply committed to music. As Incontrera writes:
Where is the fine line between motivating someone and abusing them? Will this movie make young jazz musicians think that all you need to do to become the next Bird is work really hard, get yelled at, and practice till you bleed? Is this portrayal of the teacher-student dynamic helpful or harmful?
I don’t agree with Fletcher’s extremism, but I see in him the same intent as Fred had with his students. There’s a scene in which Fletcher tells Nyman that there’s no phrase more harmful in the English language than “good job”; what if Joe Jones had just said good job to Charlie Parker? Fred had a similar rhetoric with me and his other students. “It’s my job to push you,” Fred would say. “I want to make you great.” In a rare and vulnerable moment toward the end of his working life, Fred once thanked me for seeing the larger picture of this and never complaining about his demeanor or intensity.
After many years of teaching music to students of enormously varying potential my conclusion is that the line is not so fine after all. A small amount of challenging treatment of your students is extremely valuable. A large amount is pointless. You can be a vicious son-of-a-bitch all you want, but that is never going to "catalyze greatness". The nastiest teachers I have known have produced very little in terms of talented students. I have been astounded at the kind of negativity some teachers exhibit and often suspect it is because of their own frustrated ambitions. Like stage mothers, some teachers try to live vicariously through their students. With little success.

The best teachers I have ever encountered were quite the opposite. Yes, they would sometimes make some tough points and deliver hard truths, but the vast majority of the time they were leading the student towards greater sureness and confidence, not beating them into submission. I once knew a student of Julian Bream's (who taught almost no students) and he told me that Bream's method was like Marine boot camp: first beat the student down until they were nothing, then build them back up. I doubt this works in music, though it seems to in the military. This player was a neurotic mess his entire career, never becoming a strong, confident player. The best teacher I have ever worked with was Pepe Romero, whom I never heard abuse a student, nor even utter a negative word. Everyone that worked with him came away a better, more confident player.

Here is why I think that music and the military are different. In the military the goal is to take people who have the potential to be tough and push them to their limits. The ones that fall by the wayside need to be eliminated from the mix. In music we are looking for something that is truly rare: musical greatness. Or perhaps, more realistically, musical talent. I can attest that while nearly everyone can learn to play an instrument at a modest level of ability, to become a master or even just a good player is far rarer. Out of a thousand music students perhaps one hundred might become good players and one a really fine player. Most will either lack talent or be mere mediocrities. You can yell at them all you want and even throw cymbals at their heads and it will not give them greater potential. Yes, you can motivate them to work hard, which is important, but despite all that crap about the "10,000 hours", just working hard will not increase your potential, though it will enable you to access the potential you have.

You can't "catalyze greatness" if there is no greatness there. And greatness is astonishingly rare. Let me give a small example. I had a student who was intelligent and hard-working and really loved music. I worked with her for a couple of years and she really had the potential and fingers to be a fine guitarist. But she just had no sensitivity to timbre. I would work with her for an hour on cultivating a warm, expressive tone. Then she would come back the next week with the same harsh, naily sound. She just didn't hear it! This kind of spotty, uneven talent is pretty common. What is really, really uncommon is the kind of student that has potential and ability in all the necessary areas.

I also suspect that most people who really have the talent also find the motivation pretty easily. Talent tends to motivate itself. Those people who really have to play or compose, tend to do it.

I don't want to diminish the role of a fine teacher: what they do is absolutely essential in guiding talented students away from blind alleys and towards productive ones. The other essential role they have is in introducing and cultivating the love of music in those students of ordinary talent, because they will form the core of the audiences of tomorrow. It is an appalling misunderstanding of reality to think that there might ever be an occasion to throw a cymbal at someone's head!

Incidentally, there is a story that Andrés Segovia once taught a young Narciso Yepes in a master class and was so infuriated that he threw a music stand at him! But I very much doubt that that had a positive effect on Yepes' musical development.

Let's listen to a little Narciso Yepes. Here he is playing his transcription of Asturias by Isaac Albéniz:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Music and Democratic Elitism

I was going to put this in an upcoming Friday miscellanea, but realized it is worth more extended treatment. In an article about the demise of The New Republic, Sean Wilentz writes:
there is such a thing as democratic elitism, which inheres in standards of criticism and commentary, but which repudiates the idea that only a hereditary elite or educated clerisy could or should get it; and it presents itself accordingly. If bidding interested readers to sophistication and excellence is elitism, make the most of it. The greatest danger to our culture and politics lies in a different kind of elitism, one that promotes a monied elite that ... threatens both the variety and the quality of everything it touches and distributes.
This sentiment is so close to my own that I wanted to share it. I'm sure that Mr. Wilentz and myself do not share the same political values, but I find myself in complete agreement with him on literary and cultural values. Everything I do here at the Music Salon is about attracting readers to sophistication and excellence in music. The main forces opposing I see, in agreement with Mr. Wilentz, as being a "monied elite" characterized by their Philistinism regarding the arts, music in particular.

You might make an argument that it is wealthy patrons that support all varieties of fine arts, but the bulk of their support seems to go to shiny things they can buy like this:

In music the situation is rather the opposite. Instead of it being about unique and expensive objects, it is about a kind of lowest-common-denominator generic sameness. Instead of highly-crafted unique objects, it deals in almost costless digital copies. In a predictable irony, the marketing is all about the unique, soulful individuality of this generic music, communicated largely through the intricate videos:

Also very shiny...

Music as an institution is deeply rooted in our culture, though seemingly threatened by powerful economic forces. But the benefits of both a musical education and of the simple enjoyment of great music are longstanding and not likely to disappear soon. We have many fine orchestras, many fine musicians and composers and there are venues for these artists. But the surface of the musical world is so dominated by pop music in all its manifestations, that it is probably right to worry. In the 19th century there was a great expansion of the number of people in society that had some sort of musical education and understanding. Since the Second World War, with the triumph of pop music, there seems to be a shrinking of this proportion. Fewer and fewer people study piano and violin and know how to read music and perhaps (though this is not a certainty) audiences for classical music are older and older.

The recording business seems to be particularly threatened as nearly every classical music label is losing money and more and more, as large companies buy out smaller ones, it seems as if the new CEOs of the music divisions are more and more Philistine in their outlook. These Philistines sometimes present themselves as pragmatic saviors of classical music, but only on their terms of course. One figure that might stand for many is Max Holechairman and CEO of UMGI (International division of Universal Music Group). I previously wrote about his influence here. I don't want to single him out, as I suspect his attitudes are widely shared amongst record company executives. They are facing a difficult environment. But, just as Mr. Wilentz observes regarding the demise of The New Republic, this kind of elite "threatens both the variety and the quality of everything it touches and distributes."

Is someone like Max Hole, whose career was largely spent working with pop artists like Simply Red, likely to really sense the difference between an artist like Khatia Buniatishvili, who does all those things he thinks are important, like present a strong and passionate visual experience to the audience:

and the rather less visually-appealing, but a thousand times more profound musicality of Grigory Sokolov:

But I'm sure I have made these points before! I want to return to my opening, where Mr. Wilentz is arguing for standards in criticism and commentary. I am quite convinced that there are a great many people who, if they just had a bit of an introduction, a guide, to classical music, would derive huge enjoyment from it. What they need is informed commentary and criticism, which is one of the things I try to do here at the Music Salon, of course. But what I, and Mr. Wilentz, find deeply troubling, is that this kind of commentary seems to be fast disappearing from its traditional home in higher-quality magazines and journalism. I often comment sardonically on the quality of writing on music that we find in the mass media. Instead of helping, it is most likely harming the possibility of introducing people to better quality music.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

How to Use the Music Salon

The idea of the Music Salon is to talk about and listen to interesting music. The talking about part is pretty easy and I am blessed with a number of commentators that make a real contribution to the blog. The listening part is also pretty easy. I can find nearly everything I want to post on YouTube. But there is a big negative, unfortunately. Except for those very few clips that I have created myself and that have never been posted on YouTube, everything that I link to on YouTube is in danger of disappearing sooner or later. If you go back and look at posts that are a few months old (or older), you may well find that all of the clips have disappeared!

Sometimes if I notice that an older post is getting a lot of attention, like the one on the Bach Chaconne, I will go back and put up new clips. But mostly I don't notice or don't have the time. In recent years I have tried to always indicate what I am posting in the immediate text, as in "here is a recording of the P. D. Q. Bach sonata for sewerflute as performed by Dennis Brain". If this information is provided, but the link is missing, then you can provide it for yourself by simply going to YouTube and searching for that piece and performance. Unfortunately, before I realized that this would be a problem, I often put up clips without any identifying text, assuming that the clip itself would be enough. But not if it disappears! So some of the older posts have rather enigmatic blanks. Sorry about that!!

In any case, with my recent posts I always say what clip I am putting up so you can find it on your own. This is useful because the Music Salon is intended to be a resource that can be used over the long term. Most of what I post is not linked to the events of the day so could be read years later. I hope!

Let's listen to something. How about a piano sonata by Prokofiev? This is the

Sonata no.7 Opus 83 played by Khatia Buniatishvili at the Verbier Festival:

Some commentators liked it and some did not.

UPDATE: A commentator just provided some useful information about a technical problem with YouTube links on his iPad. This would seem to be a good place to ask if anyone else is having any problems. Just leave me a comment below and thanks in advance.