Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Cathedral and a Motet

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent article about the construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, often called more simply the "Duomo", which is one of the most remarkable and beautiful pieces of architecture ever created.

Click to enlarge
The WSJ comments:
The cathedral’s 140-foot span was so wide that traditional methods of covering it were inapplicable. 
...Brunelleschi set out with his friend Donatello to Rome to study its ancient structures, especially the Pantheon, with its own huge dome. He found that the Pantheon’s designers had employed some clever techniques, counteracting the natural forces of push and pull (downward and outward) on its vault by making the walls thicker where the stress was greatest, at the base. Higher up, they used lightweight materials, including concrete, to create a double-layered dome that got thinner as it rose, allowing it to bend and curve. He collected these ideas, added some of his own, and returned to Florence. 
...once the project was under way, Brunelleschi’s inventiveness seemed unbounded. He created a floating platform on beams cantilevered from the dome’s base that rose nearly 197 feet above the ground. He designed a double-layered dome with hidden circular chains of stone, iron and wood for support. He instructed the workmen to lay bricks in a unique herringbone pattern, with larger bricks interrupting smaller ones at right angles, to create a more solid bond, and invented machines to facilitate the project, like a magna rota or “great wheel” to lift materials, and a new kind of tower crane called a castello to move them at great heights.
Most remarkably, and the reason I am posting about this today, is that the inventiveness of the architecture was matched by a musical composition commissioned to be performed at the 25 of March 1436 consecration of the cathedral, Pope Eugene IV officiating.

To understand something about how the piece of music, titled Nuper rosarum flores by Guillaume DuFay, is in its way as remarkable as the cathedral itself, I have to introduce a couple of musical terms. One is talea which refers to a rhythmic pattern; and the other is color, which refers to a melodic sequence. A talea is repeated a number of times and so is a color, but what is interesting is that they are normally not the same length. In a typical example, the talea might consist of four durations and the color of 28 pitches so before the melody has finished, the talea will have been heard seven times. A piece, such as a motet for voices and instruments, using this kind of structure is called an isorhythmic motet (isorhythmic means "same rhythm") because of the repeating rhythmic pattern.

But what DuFay did in Nuper rosarum flores was no mere isorhythmic motet. Oh no. The piece is actually a mensuration canon, meaning that when the talea repeats, each time it is in a different meter! The four different meters used are 6/2, 4/2, 4/4 and 6/4. This technique is used in the lower voices, the tenors I and II. The upper voices are a freely written duet that make use of certain thematic material over and over and are therefore described as isomelic, meaning "using the same melody". The quite good Wikipedia article on the piece has this illustration that may help:

Structural plan of the motet and its tenor. Top: Pre-existing Gregorian cantus firmus; middle: Tenor in original notation, with four mensuration signs defining the diminution scheme; bottom: Total structural scheme: Through fourfold repetition of the tenor at different speeds, the motet has a structure of 4x2 parts, with length proportions of 6:4:2:3.

Or it may not! This is an extraordinarily complex piece and a unique one. Analyzing it in enough detail to fully understand how it is put together is a very large project indeed. So instead, let's just listen to it:

The upper voices are sung and the lower ones played by brass instruments. The score is rather complex as well. At first you will hear just the two upper voices, though you will see a score with four staves. This is because the tenors have a lot of rests at the beginning. Later on little red boxes will identify which staves are actually sounding. Enjoy!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Ex-drummer for The Police Stewart Copland talks about what he is into nowadays with the Globe and Mail. Groovin' with classical musicians and composing film scores is what.

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A glimpse into a typical blogger therapy session:

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A rather confusing article in the Guardian by Tom Service sort-of praises Sistema Scotland (based on the Venezuelan music education system) for early successes. But it is larded with so many caveats I'm not sure what it is saying. Here's what I think: if you get a bunch of kids interested in music involved in rehearsing and playing orchestral music and if you give them some decent instruction, you can transform their lives--especially if they come from economically depressed and cultural vacuous environments. This is pretty much a no-brainer, isn't it?

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What is it about a piece of music that either engages us or causes us to lose interest? No, I'm not going to scribble down the answer to that right here! But I am going to put up a clip from YouTube. This is s piece for 14 musicians by Harrison Birtwhistle called Cortege. It is well-played and the video quality is excellent:

So why is it that it never sparked any interest in hearing it to the end and I paused the clip at the 3:19 mark? Comments welcome. But don't say, "because you sir, are an idiot!"

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I heard an interesting concert last night with a young orchestra. The program was devoted to film music with suites from The Lion King, James Bond, Spiderman, Gladiator, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and, of course, Star Wars. The hall, a big one seating about 2000 people, was absolutely full and 95% of the audience were under 40 years old. They were also very enthusiastic. So what is all this moaning about the ageing symphonic audience? Perhaps the audience would be different for a different program, but I recently saw a small orchestra concert of two guitar concertos, one new, and two pieces by Gustav Holst and Arvo Pärt and, while not packed, it was pretty full, 80%, and again, the audience was nearly all under 40. But both these concerts were here in Mexico, so perhaps that is the difference...

So I won't suffer alone, here is the Indiana Jones theme so that you also will have it in your head for the next week:

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Years ago on this blog I did a post called "One Hit Wonders" in which I talked about a few composers who are known mostly for a single, solitary piece. In that post I just talked about the earlier composers, but musing over Gustav Holst reminds me that there have been quite a few more recent ones. Gustav Holst is overwhelming known for one single piece, his suite for orchestra titled "The Planets", which really is a spectacular piece of music. Here is  James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the movement "Mars, the Bringer of War":

He never wrote another piece that achieved similar recognition. Another composer with a single hit is the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo who wrote one spectacular guitar concerto and a bunch of other music that is much less often heard. Here is the middle movement with its extraordinary theme. The performers are John Williams (guitar) and Paul Daniel (conductor) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Williams has to tune between movements because the first movement requires a scordatura:

And how about Modest Mussorgsky who is known almost exclusively for his amazing suite for piano (orchestrated by Ravel), "Pictures at an Exhibition". This is Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony:

Lastly, there is the Polish composer who wrote one exceptional symphony that was so popular it even made the British pop album charts. This is the Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Górecki, but I am not sure of the artists:

That is a pretty unlikely pop crossover hit, but it touches some very deep chords in a lot of listeners. Again, I pose my question from above: "What is it about a piece of music that either engages us or causes us to lose interest?" Why does this piece, despite its so modest beginnings way down in the subterranean register of the contrabasses, so transfix us while the Birtwhistle leaves us (or me at least) completely uninterested and uninvolved?

And that's it for this Friday's miscellanea.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Classical Controversies

The BBC, who seem to alternate between doing really wonderful things and really silly things, have an article up titled "Five classical music controversies." They rehearse some fairly well-known events in music history such as some anti-Semitic language in the text of Bach's St. John Passion and the public reactions to the premieres of pieces by Satie, Stravinsky, Cage and Reich. They also stumble rather badly in discussing the Symphony No. 3 by a composer they call "Ludvig van Beethoven". Beethoven's Swedish cousin, perhaps? The Symphony was never "formerly known as"  the Bonaparte symphony. There was a dedication, which was withdrawn, but they enlist the over-excitable Tom Service to try and gin up a controversy:
“Imagine if events hadn’t intervened, and Beethoven had stuck to his original plan, and his third symphony had been called the ‘Bonaparte’. Imagine the reams of interpretation and analysis that would have gone into aligning the piece with the Napoleonic project, its humanist ideals and its all-too-human historical realisation.”
I won't even bother critiquing what is wrong with that--just about everything! But what I would like to do is mention a few actual controversies that seem to be roiling the world of classical music lately.

First off, here is a controversy that I expect to take off any day now: well-off parents will be criticized for spending the time and money to get their children quality musical instruction. Like reading to their children at bedtime this will be smeared as elitist and an example of inequality that we should feel guilty about. My advice: ignore all that crap.

Second, the ongoing, relentless propaganda drive that classical music has built in structural misogyny because there are not enough woman conductors and not enough woman composers. People keep writing that this has to be discussed more, brought out into the open. Of course there are innumerable articles hectoring us about it, week after week. We just don't get it! And we don't get it because the arguments are always statistical, but the reality is that classical music is still based on aesthetic quality, not statistics. If there were a woman composer equal to Bach, we would be listening to her. There are some outstanding women conductors like Marin Alsop, who has no lack of work--this year, again, she will be conducting the last night of the Proms. There are also women composers who are doing fine work, like Jennifer Higdon, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music. But forget the quotas!

Third, classical music, like the Republican Party, is always dying, but never quite dies. One's musical tastes often change as one gets older, just like one's political views. So I have hope that classical music will survive for a while yet. But we have to be careful that in a confused attempt to resuscitate it, we don't destroy it in the process. And yes, I am looking at all those advisors who go around lecturing young musicians on how to "brand" and market themselves. If we can just reconcile ourselves to the fact that classical music is a bit more complex than the average pop song and just a tad elitist as a result, then we can stop contorting ourselves into being pseudo-pop stars.

Fourth, classical music is often accused of being too dependent on historical repertoire. Oddly, I don't recall the Louvre being accused of being too historical because of their collection, which prominently includes ancient Greek sculptures and the Mona Lisa, dating from the early 16th century. Nor the Prado for its extensive collection of Hieronymous Bosch (late 15th, early 16th century) and Francisco de Goya (18th century). Nor do we chide the Royal Shakespeare Company for focusing on the works of their 16th century namesake. Classical music has the enormous benefit of wondrous repertoire from the Middle Ages right up to last week. This is a plus, not a minus. Sure, like all composers, I would like to see more recent music on the programs, but I certainly don't think we should sacrifice Bach for Pierre Boulez. No quotas!

And fifth, there is the huge, ongoing, and possibly worsening situation of music education and the public perception of music generally. It is unpleasant to read very popular writers on music who lack the most basic historical or theoretical knowledge of music while at the same time our universities churn out hosts of highly trained musicologists and theorists who can't find work. I hope that the disappearance of discussion of classical music from the mainstream media is just a symptom of their general obsolescence and it is simply a case that we are all moving to the Internet.

So there are some real controversies, or issues at least. Please feel free to weigh in with your own opinions.

Let's end with some music. How about that non-Bonaparte Symphony No. 3 of Ludwig van Beethoven. Here is Christian Thielemann conducting the Vienna Philharmonic:

(I was going to put up the excellent Daniel Barenboim performance from the 2012 Proms, but I simply can't stand the BBC announcer's introduction.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

New Posts Coming!

I promise to have something nice up for you tomorrow. I have been spending a lot of time on composition and score editing and proofing which has taken my attention away from blogging for a couple of days.

But in the meantime, here are a couple of items I noticed. The BBC has an educational project called Ten Pieces that will be trying to promote classical music in the schools. This is a good thing, of course, as you have to start somewhere! The only interesting musical experience I recall from my schooldays was when the teacher in Grade 9, I think, played us what I dimly recall must have been the Rite of Spring. That would have been, hmm harumph, around 1964?

Here is a funny post from Slipped Disc about song lyrics you misheard. The one I recall getting wrong was from a Christmas carol. I thought they were singing "and a part of a juniper tree" but it turned out that the line actually was "a partridge in a pear tree" which doesn't make much more sense! Then there were those long nights spent huddled over a hot 45 trying to figure out the lines to Stones songs. Jumping Jack Flash? Turns out the first line actually IS "I was born in a cross-fire hurricane."

I know you have been laying awake nights wondering what the top conductors in Russia are earning and Norman Lebrecht has the scoop here. Number one is Valery Gergiev, of course, at $6.9 million dollars.

That will have to do you as I need to save something for my Friday Miscellanea. Let's have a little Gergiev. Here he is conducting the Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky:

Wow, what a great opening!

Monday, May 18, 2015

More About Love Songs

A few months ago I put up a post titled "Love Songs" that was about a particularly absurd piece of pseudo-musicology that attempted to rewrite music history so that it was more politically correct. I just ran across a much more interesting article by Terry Teachout reviewing a new book by Ted Gioia about love songs. The piece is called "Love Songs, RIP." Ted Gioia describes the love song in this way:
Over the centuries, the love song has repeatedly challenged authoritarian rule and patriarchal institutions. It has demanded not only freedom of artistic expression, but other freedoms in matters both intimate and public. Moreover, these songs usually came from the young and disenfranchised, arriving on the scene with a vigor and insistence that unsettled the old and entrenched.
Which might be true, though I would love to examine some specific examples. I'm not sure how much Schubert's Winterreise challenged authoritarian rule and patriarchal institutions, though I suppose the Stones' "Brown Sugar" might have. But Terry makes a very interesting point regarding the recent history of the love song:
Gioia rightly points out that the traditional romantic love song has lately ceased to be as central to American pop music as it still was well into the ’70s. For now, while the pop charts are laden with songs about love, that love is often rendered in an anti-romantic manner that is sharply at variance with how love was customarily portrayed during the golden age of American popular song. But Love Songs says little about the underlying reasons for this shift and fails altogether to consider the possibility that the changed tone of the “love” song might be directly reflective of the splintered culture from which it springs.
Terry ends his review with a reflection about the sociology of the love song that Ted Gioia does not reach:
 One cannot make art about that which one cannot imagine, and now that nearly 70 percent of all children born to high school–only graduates grow up in single-parent families, it is improbable that the children of those families would feel inspired to sing songs that take an idealistic view of love. In much of America, love and marriage are a dream, not a reality, and our popular music will surely reflect that fateful transformation for a long time to come.
Hmm, lots to wonder about there. My first thought is that all love songs are a vector into the ideal, using imagination to create a virtual world of romance. And yes, even the sad and depressing ones, about failed love. Why do we listen to those? Because they offer catharsis. The imagined pains help us to endure our real ones. Terry's take seems to be completely empty of any sense of what art actually does: create imagined worlds that are interestingly different from our real ones. Most of the people who listen to rap and hip-hop are not millionaires dripping with bling, surrounded by willing women wearing very tight clothing. But that's the whole point, isn't it? And most of the people listening to the idealized love songs of the 20s to the 50s were probably not in ideal romantic relationships either. Terry misses the contrafactual nature of art. Art is about things that we can only imagine.

Here are a couple of love songs that are a bit out of the ordinary. The first, from the mid-1960s:

The second, from just a few years ago:

At least, I think the second one is a love song. Maybe we need to check the definition!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Arts in Education

Slipped Disc has a little piece about training conductors in the US:
Ambitious young conductors come from all around the world to study conducting in the United States. For decades our schools have sported internationally renowned Maestros, who have passed along their experiences and wisdom, lab orchestras and a plethora of performance opportunities. But is this golden age of conducting pedagogy coming to an end? From my standpoint the future looks uncertain.
The piece itself is rather innocuous, asking questions without delving into them. That is left to the first commentator who makes some good points:
I don’t think that one can see this particular academic shortfall as an isolated incident. One must accept and acknowledge that the USA is no longer a desirable place for study in many disciplines, but particularly in the arts. How can a society that has relegated the role of the arts to mass market entertainment, where arts education programmes have been tremendously cut in primary and secondary schools, still remain a leader in higher level arts/music education? It simply wouldn’t make sense. The average US teenager, or adult for that matter, has hardly any understanding nor appreciation of the arts in general. It’s true that the same could be said for other countries nowadays, but it has reached particularly low levels in the US. So low, that in recent surveys US high school students were, in the vast majority, unable to name two famous composers, or two famous painters. The majority also weren’t able to identify the location of the European continent on a world map. This mass ignorance at a national level has to have an impact on higher education in the USA and explains why the country is becoming a backwater for arts/music education and it will sadly only get worse in the future as the country continues its decline.
Now that's an opinion! A clearly-worded strongly-expressed opinion like this is worth engaging, unlike the innocuous blather you often encounter. How true is this view, though? I always have trouble with the idea that it is "society" that does anything. In this case "society ... has relegated the role of the arts to mass market entertainment." Society has no existence apart from the individuals that comprise it, therefore, "society" has no agency. Education in the arts has been cut because of a number of forces and trends. One of these, I am sorry to say, we can lay at the door of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This was an initiative of the Bush administration, but it received widespread bipartisan support. As a result, teachers are forced to "teach to the test" and the arts generally are considered frills in the focus on writing and math skills.

Modern society is enormously complex and what often drives public policy is private interests. The teachers and administrators have interests wildly different than those of the students and theirs tend to prevail. The truth is that it is largely intelligent and talented individuals who are attracted to the arts. Sadly, the current systems of education are actually hostile to intelligent and talented students so they are repressed and discouraged rather than encouraged and educated.

The fine arts have always been the special preserve of either an actual aristocracy or one of self-selection. They have never had the mass appeal that popular entertainment has (well, except for opera and some Romantic music). The arts when taught and practiced properly usually are not ideal vehicles for political indoctrination so they are not favored by politicians in general. As for big business, there is little money in the arts (except for some absurdly priced paintings and sculptures--$170 million for a Picasso? Give me a break!) so big business doesn't have a lot of interest either.

The arts do have enormous value to the individual who is able to understand and appreciate them. But these individuals are a minority. The trend in modern societies is for the state and its organs to control more and more of the lives of individuals so parents, for example, have less influence on their child's education and the state has more and more. While the parent may have an interest in cultivating the artistic education of the child, the organs of the state really don't. Again, there are exceptions. For some odd reason, Finland seems to be turning out an astonishing number of fine musicians, especially considering its small population.

As the ancient Romans observed, it is always illuminating to ask cui bono? Who benefits? None of the powerful institutions in society really benefit from education in the arts, so none of them support it. It is really up to us as individuals.

Let's listen to some Finnish music. Here is the Symphony No. 8 by Einojuhani Rautavaara, composed in 1999. Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Mikko Franck:

Shostakovich and Stalin

I'm surprised to see a quite good article in the Guardian about Shostakovich and politics. The title is "Putting the Stalin in Shostakovich" which is fairly awkward, but the article itself is a fair discussion of the release of Paavo Järvi’s recording of two pro-Soviet cantatas from a performance in Estonia in 2011. There was lots of controversy because while it is common knowledge that Shostakovich wrote a great deal of music praising the Stalinist regime as he was required to do, in contemporary performances the texts are usually altered to suppress this. Järvi gives the reason for using the original texts:
“I have grouped these three of Shostakovich’s cantatas together on one disk which has never been done before – two of them are very pro-Soviet and one is very critical of the Soviet system. Through these pieces, Shostakovich’s music tells the terrifying story of that time and I think that story is only truly effective if it is honest and not modified according to the fashions and political waves of the time. People should confront this uncomfortable part of history.”
This is, of course, admirable. Removing the texts praising Stalinist Russia is to blot out history. Yes, this is uncomfortable history, especially for those who still have a liking for socialist economics, but trying to turn Shostakovich into a dissident, as has been attempted, or simply trying to suppress certain works is as stupid and historically inept as altering texts of Bach cantatas because they are Christian!

I think this is the first part of one of the cantatas, The Song of the Forests, and from some of the comments, I think it may be using the original text. But my Japanese is even worse than my Russian, so I'm not sure. I also don't know the conductor and performers, but the concert is pretty clearly in Japan: