Sunday, October 9, 2016

A Heartfelt One Hundred

All too often, I suppose, I have fun mocking the puffery, pomposity and ideological bias of writing about music. So, time to make amends and point you to some well-done and sincere music criticism. Fiona Maddocks is a classical music critic and she has written a book assembling a list of personally heartfelt pieces of music that is just what it purports to be. She offers a brief introduction at The Guardian: Fiona Maddocks: music to carry you through.
In compiling the list for this book, I had one rule: the music comes first. I resist the idea of expecting music to feed or prompt an emotional state, so I tried to turn the matter on its head. Why do I want to listen to a particular work at any given moment? What is the imperative? Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata was the name of the first piece I wrote down. Soon I had a couple of hundred absolute dead certainties and a mild sense of panic.
Yep, the music comes first. The selection of pieces in the article begins with Lonely Child by Claude Vivier, possibly the only Canadian composer to have real recognition outside Canada.

The next is a piece by Gustav Holst, not the well-known The Planets, but the single-movement Egdon Heath:

Which, in its dark atmospheric gloom reminds me of Shostakovich. Next is the motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225) by Bach:

Fiona Maddocks recounts the lovely anecdote that I have mentioned here about when Mozart heard this music:
Bach wrote the motet as part of the Lutheran liturgy for New Year’s Day 1724, his first at the Thomaskirche, Leipzig. Years later, in 1789, it left an indelible impression on Mozart. He heard it in Bach’s church and was overwhelmed. According to a witness: “Hardly had the choir sung a few bars when Mozart sat up startled; a few measures more and he called out: ‘What is this?’… As it finished he cried out, full of joy, ‘Now there is something one can learn from!’”
You bet! I'll put up another from this fascinating list, the Symphony in E minor by Florence Price. This is one of those pieces that Blogger won't embed so you will have to follow the link:

This reminds me of Dvorak and is both more charming and more well-written than a lot of American symphonic music from this era. Fiona Maddocks mentions that the composer was both black and female, but I'm not sure that matters in the least. Another woman composer on the list is Lili Boulanger, sister of Nadia, who died tragically young. This is the Vieille prière bouddhique (1917). Again, Blogger won't embed. What do they have against women composers?

This is also interesting, though perhaps a good deal less interesting than, say the music of Debussy from the same time. Fiona Maddocks' list continues with some well-known pieces like Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and Mozart's Requiem alongside much less-known ones like Dowland's Flow My Tears and Elliot Carter's Dialogues II (2012) from towards the end of his life. Let's have a listen to that one:

Hmm, well that sounds pretty much like everything else I have ever heard by Elliot Carter (and a host of other high modernists). These dissonances and rhythmic dislocations always seem, to me, to have exactly the same aesthetic effect. What do you think?

Anyway, I came to praise Fiona Maddocks, not blame Elliot Carter! So applause for a fascinating and entirely sincere presentation of a lot of interesting and varied music. You know, that is really what music critics should be doing: introducing us to music they think is good. Not, emphatically, trying to educate us regarding social justice. As she says, "the music comes first."

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