Monday, October 20, 2014

The Heritage of Music

I ran across an article in Inside Higher Ed about a recent conference on the future of the liberal arts. It attracted a lot of comments from different perspectives. Here is the kernel of it:
SANTA FE – Part celebration, part intervention, a conference on the future of the liberal arts at St. John’s College last week offered high praise and harsh advice for an embattled tradition. Speakers on Friday said that while the future of the democracy depends on a broadly educated public, advocates need to return to a less politicized, more siloed vision of the liberal arts for them to survive.
By "siloed" (never ran into that as a verb before) I assume is meant "isolated in an ivory tower". Just as the standard journalistic narrative has become entirely about breaking down these academic enclaves and "accessibility" (as least as far as music is concerned), some people are starting to see that this is the problem. It is not stated nearly clearly enough in the article, but I think it boils down to this. For a couple of reasons having to do with the advance of critical theory and with the demands of doctoral specialization, higher education in the liberal arts has become unattractive.

As a doctoral student you have to somehow find a new take on a topic or a new special niche to write your dissertation on. As the basic assumptions these days come from critical theory, you need to shape your topic to something that will fit with that world view. Anything where you can do a gender, race, class analysis is welcomed. Anything else is problematic. Therefore, you do your dissertation on something like "Queering the Harmony: Secondary Dominants in Tchaikovsky". Ok, I just made that up. In any case, finding something where you can boldly knock some dead white male off his pedestal is a surefire formula for success.

Then you get a job in a university and have to start teaching. So you just continue along your path and put together seminars where you continue to boldly knock dead white males off their pedestals. This is sort-of ok for graduate seminars, but the same approach is less appropriate if you need to teach a class to engineering students in music appreciation. Of course, you aren't allowed to call it "music appreciation", but that's really what it is.

What you should be doing, not only in the class for engineering students, but also for your music students, is introducing your students to the heritage of Western Music. I am talking about someone teaching in a school in Western Europe or North America, elsewhere other curricula might be appropriate. So you should be introducing your students, at an appropriate level of complexity, to a whole bunch of dead, white males like Bach, Beethoven and all those other guys. And you should do so with an attitude of respect, not a kind of sneering pleasure in uncovering their feet of clay, if they have any. You have one job: transmission of the stream of culture of Western Civilization.

Unfortunately, no-one ever says this, but perhaps conferences like this one are starting to.

I think that the core of the problem is getting over the idea of aesthetic relativity. If the music of Bach and Beethoven is not objectively better than the music of Justin Bieber and Beyonce, then why bother with it, except as grist for your mill, showing the mechanisms of oppression and power relationships?

Now let's listen to some Tchaikovsky!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Applaud, friends

Towards the end of his life one of Beethoven's favorite sayings was "Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est" ("Applaud, friends, the comedy is over") a paraphrase of the last words of Augustus Caesar. A fitting response to the work of perhaps the greatest composer (along with Bach, of course) is simple applause. But, alas, we all, including your blogger, always seem to want to do more: to explain, to characterize, to memorialize and, even more likely, to exploit and misrepresent. All of these strategies are present in Alex Ross' recent large essay reviewing Beethoven's place in history as viewed through a great stack of recent and not-so-recent books about him. The catalyst for this project is the recent weighty book by composer Jan Swafford, which sounds like a pretty good book. Praising with faint damns, Ross says:
Swafford, in his introduction, declares his fondness for Thayer’s Victorian storytelling and belittles modern musicological revisionism. He writes, “Now and then in the course of an artist’s biographical history, it comes time to strip away the decades of accumulated theories and postures and look at the subject as clearly and plainly as possible.” He also distances himself from the psychological approach of Maynard Solomon, who, in his 1977 biography, attempted to place Beethoven on a Freudian couch. Though Swafford does not look away from the composer’s less attractive traits—his brusqueness, his crudeness, his alcoholism, his paranoia—the portrait is ultimately admiring.
As readers of the blog know, I recoiled in horror from the psycho-babble of Maynard Solomon's awful book on Mozart, so anyone who decides to avoid that nonsense gets a thumbs-up from me.

Ross begins with a lengthy introduction that tells us how we ought to think about Beethoven and his influence. This heavy-handed attitude is underscored by little editorial clues like the sub-heading asking the journalistic question:

Beethoven transformed music—but has veneration of him stifled his successors?

Not to mention the caption to the ugly little graphic:

Which says:
Recent scholarship shows that Beethoven was perpetually buffeted by political forces.
Like crap it does!! You have to be on guard. As I was saying the other day, virtually everything you read in the mass media is crafted not so much as to tell you things as to tell you how to think about things. A couple of hilarious satires coming from the right of American politics purport to demonstrate this tendency in the New York Times. For example, if the world were to end tomorrow, this is how the NYT would headline it: "World to End Tomorrow: Women and Minorities Hardest Hit" not to mention the ever-popular "Republicans: Threat or Menace?" Don't worry, I'm not getting political, those are just examples and I'm sure there are lots from the opposite point of view. I just find those ones particularly entertaining.

Back to Alex Ross' framing of how we should regard Beethoven. Bear in mind as you read the following quotes that Alex wants us to look at things as he does: there are no absolute aesthetic values so if we think some music is really good there have to be subtle, underlying reasons for doing so, possibly political. Also, classical music is basically uptight, so we always have to either apologize for that or point it out. And so on. In other words, what makes Alex Ross such a successful writer is that he always confirms the prejudices of those folks who live on the Upper West Side. Here let me bold some key words and phrases:

After Beethoven, the concert hall came to be seen not as a venue for diverse, meandering entertainments but as an austere memorial to artistic majesty. 
Beethoven shaped the identity of what came to be known as classical music. In the course of the nineteenth century, dead composers began to crowd out the living on concert programs, and a canon of masterpieces materialized, with Beethoven front and center. As the scholar William Weber has established, this fetishizing of the past can be tracked with mathematical precision, as a rising line on a graph
More than anything, it was the mesmerizing intricacy of Beethoven’s constructions—his way of building large structures from the obsessive development of curt motifs—that made the repertory culture of classical music possible.
“We ourselves appear to become mythologized in the process of identifying with this music,” the scholar Scott Burnham has written. Yet the idolatry has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory. As a teen-ager, I contemplated becoming a composer; attending a concert at Symphony Hall, in Boston, I remember seeing, with wonder and dismay, the single name “BEETHOVEN” emblazoned on the proscenium arch. “Don’t bother,” it seemed to say.
Wow, it is even Beethoven's fault that Alex didn't become a composer! And no, music history was not "designed" to prolong Beethoven's glory.

From then on the essay unfolds as a fairly typical omnibus review. So now that I have shown how Alex' essay tries to tell you how to think, let me have a turn at bat.

I'm not going to run out and buy any of these books, not even the new one by Swafford (whose writing I have enjoyed in the past). Why not? I don't need them and you probably don't either. Writing about music is always less valuable than the music itself. A journalist always has to find an angle which, in the case of music particularly, always turns out to be a misrepresentation. Sometimes this misrepresentation is close to being a felony, as in the horrid book by Solomon on Mozart. Other times it is just a misdemeanor in that it, while not actually lying to us, distracts us from the music itself. A few books, like those by Charles Rosen and Joseph Kramer, actually stay focused on the music and are worth your time. In most cases, though, you would be far, far better off just listening to the music.

Let me be blunt(er): you are not going to garner any clever insights into the music of Beethoven by reading the essay by Alex Ross or any of the books he reviews. You are going to spend a lot of time being misled and, worst of all, reading about rather than listening to, Beethoven.

Beethoven was a truly great composer. The reason he is so famous is not because of politics, or celebrity or psychology or any of that crap. It is because he wrote very, very good music. Some of it great music. You have to accept the concept of objective aesthetic value to wrap your head around that. But Alex Ross and all the rest would rather be put in stocks and pelted with turnips than admit there is such a thing as objective aesthetic value. So they write a lot of breezy prose. This is why it is sometimes pointed out that a lot of so-called supporters of classical music are actually its worst enemies.

Now let me shut up, so I can put up something for you to listen to. This is the Piano Sonata op. 101 in A major played by Mauricio Pollini:

UPDATE: I just thought of a good way of summing it up: in the 19th century Beethoven was admired for being a great composer. In the 21st century we resent him for the same reason!

Friday, October 17, 2014

"Culture of Celebrity"

I might have mentioned recently a kerfuffle over the financial difficulties being experienced by the Conservatoire du Quebec. Rumors that it might be forced to close were met with a huge public reaction. Here is the meat of the Globe and Mail's account:
the fracas du conservatoire brought a swift denouement for those seen to have provoked it. Nicolas Desjardins and Jean-Pierre Bastien, the Conservatoire’s director-general and president, respectively, both submitted their resignations this week over the affair.
Bastien had been on the job for less than four months, and was appointed by the same minister – David – who happily bid him adieu. His faux pas was to sign a board report – still not made public – that recommended school closings.
The savior, reacting to the public protest, is likely to be Quebec's culture minister Hélène David. The Conservatoire, with schools in a number of cities across the province, is such an integral part of the cultural life of Quebec, that this doesn't surprise me. But the reason I even mention the story is one interesting phrase, repeated in the article. This phrase is "culture of celebrity" and I think that the reason it is there is to frame the narrative according to the cultural prejudices of the Globe and Mail editors, all based in Toronto. To a Torontonian, the whole idea of the Quebec Conservatoire is vaguely absurd: why make such a fuss about a trivial little music school? The reason?
while Quebeckers have a fatalistic attitude toward corruption, they are passionately devoted to the culture of celebrity
For many Canadians, conservatories have a mild, apple-pie allure as places where children can spend their Saturday mornings learning to play Clair de lune. In Quebec, however, a crop of star musicians has forged a powerful link in the public mind between piano lessons in Rimouski and Quebec’s cultural prowess in the world.
Outside of Quebec, Canada very much resembles a "land without music" where culture is, while tolerated, certainly not encouraged! So the narrative is cleverly framed as Quebec's (unhealthy) attraction to celebrity. That's what a famous and accomplished classical musician is to the folks in Toronto: just another celebrity. Conservatories are worthy places where ten year olds learn how to play Clair de lune. Wow, could they be more dismissive?

Keep this in mind as you read the newspaper: virtually every story, certainly every one connected with politics or culture, contains a narrative frame that serves to tell the reader how to think about the story. The frame and, indeed, the facts presented within that frame, are all designed to further the desired narrative. Desired by whom? By the ruling caste of intellectuals. The thing is, in Quebec, that ruling caste tends to be supportive of the arts while in the rest of Canada they are regarded as being largely superfluous having merely a "mild, apple-pie allure".

The musical envoi to this post is pretty obvious:

Friday Miscellanea

Every Friday I put up a post of shorter items that I have run across during the week, but did not seem sufficient to be the basis for a full-blown post.

* * *

I've often been skeptical of claims like the "Mozart Effect", but the Wall Street Journal has an article that summarizes a number of recent studies that show some real, positive results from providing music lessons to children. Here is an excerpt from "A Musical Fix for American Schools":
Another Canadian study, this one of 48 preschoolers and published in 2011, found that verbal IQ increased after only 20 days of music training. In fact, the increase was five times that of a control group of preschoolers, who were given visual art lessons, says lead researcher Sylvain Moreno, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He found that music training enhanced the children’s “executive function”—that is, their brains’ ability to plan, organize, strategize and solve problems. And he found the effect in 90% of the children, an unusually high rate.
Let me emphasize that this exposure was to classical music. I'm pretty sure that hip-hop would lower your IQ considerably.

* * *

Smoking is dangerous. Even the depiction of smoking in a 19th century opera can be dangerous. What is that, 42nd-hand smoke? Here's the article: "West Australian Opera Scraps Carmen Over Fears it Promotes Smoking". The title character works in a cigarette factory. In keeping with current trends in opera production, couldn't they have just moved the setting to a bordello or CIA interrogation center? Somewhere not connected directly with smoking?

* * *

I wish I could have seen this production of a Rameau opera-ballet.
Dancing is as important as singing in French opera-ballets, and for “Les Fêtes,” Opera Lafayette not only embraced that challenge but made dance the central thematic element. Originally mounted at Versailles as part of the wedding festivities of the Dauphin (son of Louis XV) and Maria-Josepha of Saxony, the work is a celebratory piece about reconciliation, so the company enlisted three dance companies of different genres, whose leaders each directed one act and created the choreography for their own ensembles throughout. When the companies appeared together within the acts, the contrast and complementarity of their styles underscored the theme while making for an enchanting evening.
Sounds absolutely fascinating! Hey, the whole opera is on YouTube, though, sadly, in a concert version with no dancing. The music is lovely, though:

* * *

Iggy Pop has been around a long time and has a lot of advice for young musicians:
Stay away from drugs and talent judges.
 When I was a boy, I used to sit for hours suffering through the entire US radio top 40 waiting for that one song by The Beatles and the other one by The Kinks. 
To tell you the truth, when it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge one unimportant detail. But, a good LP is a being, it's not a product. It has a life-force, a personality, and a history, just like you and me. It can be your friend. Try explaining that to a weasel.

* * *

The St. Lawrence String Quartet do a terrific lecture recital on Joseph Haydn--and I do mean terrific in both the playing and the talking. Watch the whole thing. I think that this guy is as big a Haydn nut as I am! YouTube won't embed, so follow the link for the clip:

* * *

Scott Bradlee is the leader of the group Postmodern Jukebox who specialize in doing covers of popular songs in vintage styles. Here's an example of a Beyoncé tune in vintage big band style:

This is an old parlor trick of course, where a pianist sits down and does variations in the style of different composers on a familiar tune like "Happy Birthday" or "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star". Dudley Moore used to do a terrific skit where he played something that sounded like a Beethoven piano sonata using the theme "Colonel Bogey's March":

But in these postmodern times, apparently what Scott Bradlee is doing is not supposed to be funny it is supposed to be... what? Touching?

* * *

And that's it for this week's light-hearted edition of the Friday Miscellanea. Let's end with the habanera from Carmen:

UPDATE: After I put this up I ran across a very interesting essay by David Byrne (late of Talking Heads) about the contemporary art scene titled "I Don't Care About Contemporary Art Anymore?" The question mark is really rhetorical because he doesn't care anymore. Here's why:
That’s the part that worries me—the economics now affect how I see the art. I realize that I have begun to view the work itself as being either intentionally or unconsciously produced expressly to cater to the 1%. I go into a gallery now and—rightly or wrongly—immediately think, “inoffensive tchotchkes for billionaires and the museums they fund.” I can’t see the work or any ideas behind most of it anymore—if there even are any. The ideas might be there. The artists might be holding on to their integrity and be maintaining their distance from the dirty business of buying and selling, but I can no longer see it. The money and our distance from it is so much in the forefront now. I have to admit, abstract art suffers the most in this view, as it is so easy for it to be viewed as giant decorative objects—objects that carry high status and bear brand names as well. I know: some of these artists were making the work before all this happened; some struggled for years in relative obscurity, but all of that gets swept away in the tsunami of cash.
It’s sad—I used to be able to convince myself that contemporary art was some kind of forum for ideas and feelings about the world we live in. But hang on! It is! Those ideas and feelings are now about money and sucking up to those that have it and will part with a little bit of it. That is the world we live in! The work is indeed a commentary on our world, but the work is part of that swirl of luxury as well. The intention of the artist might be ironic, but when their creations mimic the things and the world being criticized so perfectly, then the irony gets lost. A skull made of diamonds might be a comment on the over-the-top luxury mode of the art world, but it is more definitely of that world as well. The irony is sort of lost, if it was ever there. Now abstract art can safely be said to be about nothing but how big it is, where it can be placed and how much it costs.
Of course this is not a problem contemporary composers have to face! 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

I'm a Bilieber!

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644 - 1704)

A fan of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, that is, not of that other guy. As a commentator noted on one of the YouTube clips of Biber, "Who is this other Bieber that people and Youtube keeps referring to?Youtube suggestions keeps handing me videos of some androgynous looking young fellow who appears Shallow and Vain and mostly sounds like burning kittens in a broken elevator shaft to me?"

As I said in an update to my post on requiems, thanks to commentator Nathaniel Garbutt for pointing me towards the requiem(s) of Heinrich Biber (1644 - 1704) which got me thinking--and listening. I had a friend in graduate school who did her dissertation on the Mystery Sonatas of Biber and I had certainly run across him from time to time. Before going any further, I suggest you read the Wikipedia article on him, so I won't have to fill in all those details.

Heinrich Biber is certainly an important composer but I was astonished to discover that Richard Taruskin doesn't seem to think so. Going immediately to the Oxford History of Western Music for some further information I found not a single mention of Biber! Very odd. Of course, Taruskin is sometimes accused of partiality and of leaving out composers he doesn't like, but I couldn't think of a reason to leave out Biber. Coming from two generations before J. S. Bach and just a bit before the generation of Arcangelo Corelli, Biber is hugely important in at least one way and fairly important in a couple of others. In the history of violin-playing and composition he is very important for three things: he is the composer who was likely the most important influence on Bach's solo violin music because he, Biber, was one of the very, very few to write for unaccompanied violin before Bach. He was also very important in developing true contrapuntal writing for solo violin and for the use of scordatura, the re-tuning of the instrument in order to achieve special effects.

Other ways Biber is important is that he provides in his Mystery Sonatas (read this talk on them here) one of the most striking examples of musical symbolism and cyphers (which I have posted about here) in history. This may also have influenced Bach as he was also very prone to number symbolism in his music. There are other aspects of Biber that I am surprised have not led to him being given a great deal more space in music history books.

The last piece in the Mystery Sonatas is a solo passacaglia of monumental proportions that simply has to be the model for the monumental Chaconne by Bach:

In a piece dating from 1673 titled Batallia he uses both polyrhythms and polytonality. There was a tradition, dating from the 16th century, of depicting battles in music, but this is the most extensive example I know of. There is even a battle-piece for two lutes by Telemann.

Biber was not a one-trick pony, writing only for his own instrument like Paganini. He also wrote some very significant large works for chorus, soloists and orchestra including not just the two requiems, but a lot of other masses and vesperae. He also wrote a sonata for six trumpets, organ and tympani.

And finally, Biber was likely the most virtuoso violinist in history before Paganini! In fact, the theme to one of Paganini's most popular pieces bears a striking resemblance to the theme from the Sonata 15 of Biber's Mystery Sonatas.

Let's end with one of his major works, the Missa Salisburgensis for sixteen voices and thirty-seven instruments:

Heinrich Biber is certainly a composer worth knowing, wouldn't you say? Perhaps even more than his modern namesake Justin Bieber.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Origins of the Instrumental Concerto

I refer to the "instrumental" concerto because at the very beginning there were concertos for voices and instruments by composers such as Andrea Gabrieli (1510-1586) and his nepheGiovanni Gabrieli (1553-1612):

These works, called by some composers "sacred" concertos, were built around contrasts between vocal and instrumental groups. The composers were often associated with the cathedral of San Marco in Venice which was suited to music for contrasting groups because of its layout with choir stalls in different corners of the church.

The instrumental concerto preserves a bit of this idea as the basic structure is the contrast between one or more solo instruments and a group of instruments, between soloist and orchestra. The two earliest proponents were both Italian: Giuseppe Torelli (1658 - 1709) and the much more important Arcangelo Corelli (1653 - 1713).

Giuseppe Torelli
Arcangelo Corelli
It is the latter who is largely responsible for the standardization and clarification of what we now call "tonal harmony". The birthplace of the fully developed system of functional harmony, used universally by composers from then until late in the 19th century, was Italian string music of the 1680s and particularly that of Corelli. This was when the practical use of the "circle of fifths" became systematized and it was this functionality that powered the harmonic intensity of Baroque and later music. Here is how that works (example taken from the Oxford History of Music, vol. 2, p. 185)

Click to enlarge

Here is the Sonata da Chiesa op 3 no 11 that illustrates this kind of harmonic technique:

And here is an excerpt showing how the bass line uses the circle of fifths progression (example taken from the Oxford History of Music, vol. 2, p. 189):

Click to enlarge

So what has this to do with the concerto? The techniques that were developed to organize instrumental music were soon put to good use in the concerto, of which Corelli was the foremost early proponent. Here is the first part of a Corelli concerto grosso (which simply refers to the fact that instead of a single solo violin, there are two solo violins; a solo group that is contrasted with the orchestral group):

Notice the two theorboes, lutes with enormous necks to carry the deep bass strings.

So that is how the concerto, one of the very first important purely instrumental genres, began. Tune in next time for what happened next!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Concerto Guide

I was impressed with the Guardian's just-completed symphony guide which I followed faithfully every week for a year. I often disagreed with the detailed comments and choices, but then, I'm like that! The whole idea of the project I thought was fantastic. Ever since the project ended a few weeks ago I have been checking in to see if they are going to follow it with another one. Nothing yet from Tom Service. So in the breach, I have been thinking that a very good equivalent project would be to do fifty posts on the fifty greatest concertos. What do you readers think? Interesting idea? Would you enjoy it?

Instead of the rather chaotic sequence Tom followed, I think I would do something chronological. With so many great concertos out there, I hardly think it would be boring! I have talked a lot about the symphony lately, due to my listening project, but much less about the concerto. One nice thing about doing a concerto project is that you see individual composers from a different perspective. For example, C. P. E. Bach was not a very important symphony composer--his examples in that genre rarely run over ten minutes in length--but he was much more important as a concerto composer. His flute concertos written for his employer Frederick the Great are large, serious pieces. Also, Mozart, who wrote a few sublime symphonies later in life, was much more prolific with his piano concertos. And composers, like John Cage, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, who never wrote a single symphony nevertheless wrote concertos. (Yes, I know Schoenberg wrote a Kammersymphonie, but that aside...)

So give me your comments on this project, I would like to hear from you!

And in the meantime, an early concerto by Archangelo Corelli:

I think this is going to be fun!