Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Symphony-Cantata

There is a symphonic mainstream, but there are also subsidiary currents that depart from it. One of the most interesting--and peculiar--is the "symphony-cantata", that is, a piece that combines the symphony genre with the cantata genre. The symphony is usually defined as a serious piece for orchestra in several movements and the cantata as a piece for voices and orchestra, also in several movements, usually with chorus. Both genres have a long history, as you can read in the Wikipedia articles I linked. But they have only been combined on a few occasions. What distinguishes a "symphony-cantata" from simply being a cantata is the orchestra being given more of an independent role.

The most famous example of a symphony-cantata is never, to my knowledge, actually called that, but it obviously fits the definition: this is the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, often nicknamed the "Choral" Symphony. It is the only one of his nine symphonies to make use of vocal soloists and a choir. You might think of it as a normal symphony with a cantata as the last movement. Indeed, it is a characteristic of all the examples I am going to look at, that there are purely instrumental movements as well as movements with soloists and choir (or just choir). One other example is the Symphony No. 13 of Shostakovich for orchestra, bass soloist and bass choir on poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The Symphony No. 14 of Shostakovich is for two vocal soloists and orchestra, no choir, so it does not quite fit the definition. On the other hand, some of Mahler's symphonies certainly do, but they are a whole subject in themselves so I won't look at them here.

Beethoven burst the bounds of the symphonic genre in a very significant way with the Symphony No. 9. A very long work, at well over an hour, even longer than his Symphony No. 3, it is scored for a large orchestra, a quartet of vocal soloists and four-part choir. The text is a poem by Friedrich Schiller that celebrates the unity and brotherhood of mankind--sentiments we might link to the ideals of the French Revolution. Beethoven's setting in the fourth movement of the 9th Symphony illuminates an important transition in music history: the change from the aristocratic patronage of the arts to broadening out to appeal to the middle-class, newly liberated, to some extent, and newly prosperous as well (due to the industrial revolution). Let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven which I have blogged about in detail here, here, here and here. This is Daniel Barenboim conducting in his complete survey of the symphonies during the 2012 Proms:

As I mentioned in my post on the last movement, linked above, this movement is a bit of a dog's breakfast, meaning rather a mess, with awkward vocal parts that are just barely singable. Verdi in particular noted that, while praising the first three movements. Despite this, there is that great tune that Beethoven struggled a long time to create. The piece has far more admirers than critics, of course. But what is interesting is to set it alongside some subsequent "symphony-cantatas" which is the subject of this post.

The second example is a rarely-performed piece by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1840 there were festivities in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing and Mendelssohn wrote a piece that he termed a symphony-cantata which was performed in Leipzig twice, once at the command of the King of Saxony and again at the Birmingham Festival in England. It was a very popular piece in the 19th century, but has been almost forgotten today. The Symphony No. 2 in B-flat majorOp. 52, is commonly known as Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) and uses texts from the Bible which you can find at the Wikipedia link.

What is particularly interesting is the historical context. Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family; he was the grandson of the famous philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. But he, like other musicians of the time, was baptised a Christian and rose to the very heights of power in the musical world of Germany. He was also famous internationally, being particularly successful in tours of England. For much of the 19th century it seemed as if the revolutionary ideals of the late 18th century were being realized. Prejudice was diminishing, peace, at least in Europe, was widespread, and the middle-class was becoming more and more prosperous. Science and industry were moving forward with great success. By the end of the century the time was being referred to as the "Banquet Years" (see the book by Roger Shattuck).

The symphony by Mendelssohn is a fine work, well worth listening to, and one that wholeheartedly celebrates the good fortune felt in 19th century Europe. Here is a fine performance from the 2009 Proms:

One suspects that the fact that the symphony is not popular now is that so much of the 20th century seemed to utterly repudiate the comfortable optimism of the 19th century, of which this is such a fine example.

The 20th century saw the near-extermination of Jews in Europe. Those composers who did not flee from Germany in the 1930s often ended up in concentration or death camps. Music recalling this dark time is deeply bitter and pessimistic. The Symphony No. 13 of Shostakovich is an excellent example of this type of symphony-cantata, with its denunciation of anti-Semitism. Here is a performance conducted by Valery Gergiev:

But in between the slightly bland, from our point of view, optimism of the Mendelssohn and the sardonic bitterness of the Shostakovich comes a very odd example of the symphony-cantata from, of all people, Charles Ives. Written between 1910 and 1924, bracketing the First World War, his Symphony No. 4 consists of four movements, two of which have choral parts and the other two being purely instrumental. It is a very complex work, but one rife with oddities and aesthetic inconsistencies. Ives' earlier symphonies tend to be derivative of works by Schubert anDvořák and with the Symphony No. 4, one senses that he is experimenting with the form. He finally seems to have worked out a successful approach to the multi-movement orchestral form in his two Orchestral Sets composed around the same time. The spirit of the symphony, one gathers from Ives' comments, is existential and questioning. Here is a performance conducted by David Robertson:

Apart from the choir, there is also a prominent part for piano. The first movement is a meditative hymn setting an Epiphany text by John Bowring. The second movement is one of Ive's complex tapestries weaving together all sorts of disparate elements and tunes. The third movement, most incongruously, is an updated setting of a student exercise in fugue! The last movement combines the choir of the first movement with the complexity of the second.

For me, this is an aesthetic hodge-podge that is simply unsuccessful. But it is much admired in some quarters. I suppose you could consider this a very early attempt at the multiplicity of post-modernism. Or an experiment that just doesn't work!

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Concerto Guide: Vieuxtemps, Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, op. 37

The next concerto chronologically is the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor by the Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps. Completed in 1859, it is the most popular of his six violin concertos. In his own performing career he leaned away from the superficial opera potpourris that were so popular at the time and towards a more classical repertoire, specifically of Beethoven. As a composer he was encouraged by both Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz.

I chose this piece for a couple of reasons: it is a good example of the mid-19th century violin concerto with its wealth of passion and expressivity. IMSLP does not have the full score, just a violin/piano arrangement. It begins like this with the minor dramatic mood so much in favor for 19th century concertos (which undoubtedly goes back to the Mozart D minor piano concerto):

The other reason is that this was on a Pinchas Zuckerman album I used to own many years ago. I would listen to it every morning to remind me that the universe had a transcendental dimension: music!

Let's listen to a performance. This is Shlomo Mintz, Violin with the Sinfonieorchester des Südwestfunks (Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra) conducted by Myung-Whun Chung:

Hilary Hahn is just releasing a new recording pairing the 4th Violin Concerto of Vieuxtemps with the 5th Violin Concerto of Mozart. This is the kind of thing an artist of her stature tends to do: rather than recording the same popular works by the same composers, she introduces us sometimes to new composers as in her encore album, or to less known works by familiar composers, such as the Vieuxtemps 4th Concerto here. Let's have a listen:

Interesting piece. I think you can see why the 5th is popular. But the 4th is perhaps structurally more interesting with its contrasting moods and unconventional layout.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What Tribe Are You?

Every now and then I wander just slightly off the reservation and talk about something that is not totally focussed on music. But I will get to music eventually!

I just ran into an interesting comment on a website:
Many socio-political forces today are about the return to tribal identity. Tribes are isolated from the Other and easily coerced through emotional appeals to identity rather than universal logic. This has picked up methinks because information and people are increasingly ignoring the borders and authority defined by the state. So the thugs among us look to draw new boundaries based on race, gender, language etc. The new tribes destined to wage continuous and pointless war.
"Methinks?" Obviously a British commentator. A hundred years ago we here in the West were part of something called "Western Civilization" and had a set of shared values. But, as the commentator says, that seems to be passing away and we now are a set of different tribes with different values and ways of living. One of the many reasons for this is that it is very convenient for politicians that this be the case, because they can exploit these differences. And yes, we do seem to be moving towards a condition of continuous strife and conflict.

So, if we are separating out into separate tribes, I guess we have to figure out what tribe we are in. For a long, long time I thought I was in the tribe of "classical guitarists" and I suppose I was. But not completely. The things that did not seem to jibe with that identity were that I would compose music from time to time and I like listening to and talking about music that was not written for the classical guitar. So I was actually more part of the larger tribe of "classical music performers". I also had membership in the tribe of "music teachers". But after a time, all of this weighed heavily on me and I decided I needed to try a different tribe. So I went back to school as a doctoral candidate in musicology. This had the unexpected benefit of reawakening a lot of intellectual energy. I hadn't realised it, but spending twenty years or so telling people over and over that there are two beats in a half note does tend to dull your mind a bit! The musicology tribe was not ultimately compelling enough so for a number of years I departed the music tribe altogether and was part of a tribe we might call "private investors".

But eventually deeper levels of my tribal identity reasserted themselves and I came to realise that what I am, and what I have always been is a member of that tribe called "composers of music". Not the easiest tribe to be a member of! For one thing, when someone asks you what kind of music you write, you never know what to say. I'm working on a set of humorous answers:

  1. Just like Bach, only better!
  2. Chopin with a backbeat.
  3. Think middle-period Tom Waits, but with more counterpoint.
  4. Imaginary music to a documentary film about Monty Python.
  5. Very, very long quartets for flugelhorn, triangle, cowbell and glass harmonica.
But I will probably have to explain them...

And while we are in a comic mood, let's look at some of the new frontiers in the marketing of classical music. These folks are obviously onto something:

Schoenberg and the Dissonance: Some Background

Sometimes I forget that most of my readers are not musicologists! My post yesterday about the "emancipation of the dissonance" was an example. So today, let me fill in some of the context.

Arnold Schoenberg is one of the most interesting and complex figures in music history. I suggest reading the whole Wikipedia article as it is quite good. Schoenberg was born into the late 19th century musically dominant city of Vienna in 1874. The style of music was harmonically rich, orchestrally powerful and lengthy. The leading composers were people like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Schoenberg's early music was in this style and well-received. The prelude to his Gurre-Lieder is an example:

But Schoenberg was not content to rest there. He sensed that a huge transition was coming in music and that it was his destiny to be part of it. The fundamental change was in the whole concept of harmony. Schoenberg felt that the old strictures of the resolution of dissonance and cadence had to be overthrown if music were to progress. What I mean is that previously you could use dissonances, but they had to be resolved in a certain way and ultimately, the music had to arrive at a cadence, even if, as in the music of Richard Wagner, this was delayed for a long time.

For a while Schoenberg simply threw the rules away and wrote free music according to his instincts. An example of this stage are his Six Little Pieces, op. 19 for piano:

They are so brief because, operating purely by instinct, it is hard to create larger structures. After Schoenberg had written music like this, he strove to understand intellectually what was going on and finally came up with a way of structuring music other than with tonality. This atonal music was to be given a structure according to all the 12 chromatic notes of the scale arranged in a certain order. This was not like a melody, but rather a kind of intervallic structure that could be worked with using some age-old contrapuntal methods to create longer pieces. His Violin Concerto is an example:

What my previous post was about was the ideology that has been connected with this whole movement. A phrase used by Schoenberg, the "emancipation of the dissonance" was connected with the process. I was pointing out how misleading it is. In the original post I referred to connecting harmonic usage with the harmonic series as a misunderstanding. Let me hasten to say that this was not Schoenberg's misunderstanding, but rather of those theorists quoted in the Wikipedia article on the emancipation of the dissonance. Schoenberg was a superlative theorist and teacher apart from being such an important composer.

Now go back and read yesterday's post if you like!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Emancipation of the Dissonance?

Schoenberg's famous "emancipation of the dissonance" is one of the fundamental concepts in the history of harmony in the 20th century. If you go look at the Wikipedia article you will see the standard narrative. The history of harmony is the progressive acceptance of more dissonant intervals. From the perfect fourths and fifths of organum we move to the acceptance of the third in the High Middle Ages, progressing to the acceptance of the 7th and 9th, eventually arriving at the pinnacle of total chromaticism as advocated by Schoenberg and his pupils. Their 12-tone method is a way of systematizing the thorough use of all the chromatic tones.

The Wikipedia article is remarkably short for such a weighty and historically important concept, though, isn't it? This might be because there are a few problems with the whole idea. The two most significant ones are, first, that it is based on a misunderstanding of musical structure. As every harmony text informs us, the development of every new harmony in music history came about as a result of voice-leading! The harmonic series, though beloved of some theorists, actually had little to do with it. The third came about through a descent from the fifth to the tonic. The seventh in diatonic harmony is NOT an accepted dissonance, but a voice moving to the third of the tonic. Voice-leading demands that it resolve. The augmented sixth chords came about by means of a chromatic progression within a Phrygian cadence. Here is the relevant section from Aldwell and Schachter's Harmony and Voice-Leading:

You cannot understand harmony without understanding voice-leading, hence the title of the text. Using the harmonic series as a justification for more and more harmonic richness is just bizarre. Harmonic richness comes from voice-leading, that is, the conduct of the separate voices is what both creates and resolves dissonances. Trying to connect this with the harmonic series is just theoretical mumbo-jumbo. What was really going on in the early decades of the 20th century can be seen from a lot of different perspectives. But the one perspective we need to be particularly wary of is the one sold to us by the composers arguing for it: chromatic harmony as "emancipation of the dissonance." As I have talked about here, much of the aesthetic ideology of modernism is really disguised marketing. Such is the case here.

This brings us to the second problem with this concept: it is only a metaphor and a flawed one at that! Chromatic harmonies are not "emancipated" from anything! Emancipation is the granting of rights to previously disenfranchised groups of people. It is a moral concept having nothing to do with music. But it was a useful metaphor as it made dissonance seem moral, healthy and, most of all, historically inevitable. Once all the intervals were emancipated, around the time of the First World War, then the pinnacle of music history had been reached--as far as harmony is concerned. So what has happened since?

Alas, history has not cooperated with the emancipators. If you view harmony from the point of view of emancipating all the intervals, like so many slaves of the lords of tonality, then there really is nowhere else to go. Sure, for a while composers tried serializing everything they could think of, but this didn't last long and audiences didn't care much for it. So now we are in a post-historical phase where, surprise, surprise, consonance has been rediscovered.

Let's end with a couple of pieces. First, Structures for two pianos by Pierre Boulez, an example of total serialization from 1952-61:

And second, the de-emancipated return to consonance of the music of Enojuhani Rautavaara. This is the Symphony No. 8 from 1999:

History moving backwards? Or just a bad metaphor?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Debate

One of the most pleasing things about doing this blog is the quality of commentary that it seems to encourage. I have had comments from music critics like Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, composers like Jennifer Higdon of the Curtis Institute and professors of music like Ethan Hein of New York University. And of course, music lovers from many countries. But what is almost universally true is that the debates are courteous and informed. It seems as if the goal is actually to understand music better, not stoke one's own ego. In the over three years of this blog, and thousands of comments, I have only had to remove one (1) comment! Usually I learn a great deal from them!

And this is the case with the last run. Sparked by an article on NewMusicBox by Ethan Hein, we got into a few interesting questions. Many of the comments were put on a very old post titled "The Tyranny of the Backbeat" which I link to so you can go read them. There have been several since I linked yesterday. Others are on the post that got this debate started, titled "Sampling". Go have a look there too. Leave a comment if you wish.

It seems as if there are almost no egocentrics in the world of music. Except for record executives and conductors, of course...

(that was a little joke, sort-of)

I am working on a post on the Emancipation of the Dissonance, but I don't know when I will get to it as right now I am working on a composition.

In the meantime, have a listen to this, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Symphony No. 1:

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Allan Kozinn has a substantial review of a collection of music criticism by Virgil Thomson in the Wall Street Journal. Worth reading for this sage observation:
Thomson wrote, moreover, at a time when no one doubted the point and importance of publishing reviews. Today, newspapers across the country have reduced their staffs of critics and the space they devote to performance coverage, sometimes drastically, and it is not uncommon to hear the culture editors at even prestigious papers wondering—with no apparent realization that perhaps they should be in a different business—why they are publishing reviews at all, particularly of performances that happen only once.
The answer, of course, is that reviews, though couched in opinion—which is what makes them either illuminating or maddening but also, one hopes, compelling and worth debating—are fundamentally reportage. They are the chronicles of the cultural world, accounts of who did what on a given night, in a given hall, before hundreds or thousands of people interested enough to pay for the experience. They describe the performer’s technical prowess and musical judgment, with interpretive turns described so that a reader who wasn’t present has an idea of how the performance unfolded. Perhaps most important, they discuss the merits of new compositions and the ideas that animate them.
* * *

More good news for classical music lovers: listening to a Mozart violin concerto can reduce your risk of brain degeneration. No, really:
Listening to music represents a complex cognitive function of the human brain, which is known to induce several neuronal and physiological changes. However, the molecular background underlying the effects of listening to music is largely unknown. A Finnish study group has investigated how listening to classical music affected the gene expression profiles of both musically experienced and inexperienced participants. All the participants listened to W.A. Mozart's violin concert Nr 3, G-major, K.216 that lasts 20 minutes.
Listening to music enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic function, learning and memory. One of the most up-regulated genes, synuclein-alpha (SNCA) is a known risk gene for Parkinson's disease that is located in the strongest linkage region of musical aptitude. SNCA is also known to contribute to song learning in songbirds.
Still no research on the precise effects of over-exposure to hip-hop, but I'm sure it can't be good.

* * * 

I'm going to do something a bit unusual for the Friday Miscellanea and refer you back to an old post: "The Tyranny of the Backbeat" which I put up way back in March, 2012. It didn't actually get a comment until November, 2013. But just a couple of days ago things really heated up when Ethan Hein, with whom we have been debating a couple of issues, weighed in with a comment. I answered it briefly as did another commentator, but then a very astute commentator on this blog weighed in with a long, two-part comment that is one of the most thorough and thoughtful ever posted on this blog. So please go and read it! And thanks again, Nathaniel.

* * *

How about a quote from Richard Wagner? “I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven!"

* * *

This article at the BBC on so-called "unplayable" works is not as bad as most BBC articles on music. In fact, there is even a sensible comment towards the end:
Is some ‘unplayably’ difficult music not ‘worth it’, then? “Yes,” Collon argues. “There are plenty of cases where pieces are unnecessarily challenging, in a way that doesn’t achieve much musically.
But of course the article does not answer the question posed by the headline: "How performers conquer 'unplayable' works." I'm sure there are genuinely unplayable works and we don't hear them because, of course, they are unplayable. It is quite easy to write something unplayable and lots of pieces have been written with passages that are either unplayable or unnecessarily awkward. So what do we performers do? Well, I guarantee you that most of us don't practice until our hands bleed while being yelled at by a sadistic teacher! What we actually do is change the music. Yep. In the early days of Segovia's career he got a lot of composers to write for guitar that were unfamiliar with the instrument. So they would often write a passage, or some chords that were impossible or just sounded bad. So Segovia just rewrote those passages. I'm not talking about something that changes the musical effect. Usually it is just a case of re-voicing a harmony or something. But, as the article indicates, in a lot of cases, over time, extremely difficult passages are handled through improved techniques--usually without bloodshed.

* * *

This is an interesting, if technical, article about how musicians practice: "8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently." In a nutshell:
The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage.
The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.

And one to rule them all

The top performers utilized a variety of error-correction methods, such as playing with one hand alone, or playing just part of the excerpt, but there was one strategy that seemed to be the most impactful.
Strategically slowing things down.
After making a mistake, the top performers would play the passage again, but slow down or hesitate – without stopping – right before the place where they made a mistake the previous time.
This seemed to allow them to play the challenging section more accurately, and presumably coordinate the correct motor movements at a tempo they could handle, rather than continuing to make mistakes and failing to identify the precise nature of the mistake, the underlying technical problem, and what they ought to do differently in the next trial.
In other words, they are practicing intelligently!

* * *

Time for our musical envoi. Let's listen to one of those piano pieces that is, if not unplayable, then certainly very difficult--especially the repeated notes in the last movement. Here is Ivo Pogorelich playing Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit: