Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Great War and Music

This month is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, sometimes called the Great War, which was an horrific rupture in European civilization that shaped the modern world. The Times (of London) has an article about the effects on music that is quite good. There will be a concert at the Proms devoted to some of the composers who died. Sample paragraph:

Two other promising young composers, the New Zealander Willie Manson and the Englishman George Wilkinson, were both killed on July 1, 1916 — the ghastly first day of the Battle of the Somme. And then there are the two relatively unknown figures whose music is being featured in the forthcoming Prom: the German, Rudi Stephan, and the Australian, Frederick Septimus Kelly. Though the former was only 28 when he was killed in 1915, he was already regarded as the leading German composer of his generation. His powerfully elegiac Music for Orchestra shows why, but tragically we will never know the full extent of his powers because, in a stroke of supreme irony, most of the music he wrote was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid in the Second World War.
The article has no illustrations nor clips, so, just to underline the horror of this war, I give you this photo of a machine gun squad (maybe two squads?) of the Irish Guards. Every single person you see in the photo died in the war. Imagine the impact of this on a small Irish town.

There were two main effects that I can think of: first, the deaths of a whole generation of the best and brightest. These were the people that tended to end up in the officer corps and, according to the remarkable book on his experiences by Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That, the casualty rate among front-line officers (of whom he was one) was 90%. The other effect was on the survivors and explains the extreme pessimism and tortured aesthetic vocabulary of those who survived. The years before the Great War were prosperous and peaceful in Europe and the book that describes this is The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck.

One of the most horrific things about the Great War was that it was not the "war to end all wars", but merely the first part of a greater conflict that only ended in 1945 with the end of the Second World War. There has been a revival of optimism and a less-tortured approach to aesthetics since then, so perhaps we can hope that the Great Wars of the 20th century, which have been called a "suicide attempt by Western Civilization" were finally an unsuccessful suicide attempt! Perhaps civilization will survive after all, though there are certainly enough new barbarians to confront...

The logical piece to listen to would be the Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel, each movement of which is dedicated to a friend of his who lost his life in the war:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Symphony Guide: Finally, Berlioz!

And, speaking of symphonies, if this is Tuesday, we must be in Belgium? No, wait, wrong meme. If this is Tuesday, there must be a new installment of Tom Service's symphony guide in the Guardian, something that has been providing us with a lot of entertainment and some information for quite a while now. The series began in September last year, so we are near the end. Time to cram in the big, significant pieces that we have neglected so far: Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique!

This is a great piece and a greatly innovative one, as Tom says. I have always had a special fondness for Berlioz, not just because he was a guitarist, but because he really was such an original composer, shaking composition in France out of the doldrums that it frequently falls into. But let's have a look at what Tom has to say. The problem with Berlioz, at least as we encounter writing about him in the mainstream media, is that Berlioz himself was a brilliant writer and wrote a lot about this piece. Therefore, what any journalist would do, to avoid having to do any work himself, is simply loot the writings of Berlioz for his commentary. And yes, that is exactly what Tom does. And then he tells us a bit about the piece itself, right? Nope, all he does is quote opinions about the piece from contemporary observers. Perfectly all right as reception history, but if you want to learn something about the music, then you need to look elsewhere. I talked a bit about what Berlioz was doing in this post.

Here is the final paragraph of Tom's almost-article on the piece:
There could be no higher praise for Berlioz; the wild alchemical mixture of Faustian diabolism, his extension and expansion of Beethovenian sonic possibility, the unflinching, opiate extremity of his musical imagination, and the essential catalyst of his incomparably intense emotional life, made – and still make – the Symphonie Fantastique an experience that turns all of us into its exalted, executed and eviscerated hero.
Too many adjectives, Tom, just too many adjectives.

Let's listen to the music:

Thomas Adès on His Asyla

I recently listened to a YouTube clip of the premiere of Thomas Adès piece for orchestra entitled Asyla, which, one learns from the introductory talk, is the plural of "asylum". I found the composer's remarks rather more interesting than the piece itself, so I will put a partial transcript of them below:

"[symphony orchestra] no longer a mainstream medium"
"orchestra something that has been basically static since before the first world war; as a medium it hasn't evolved and composers have"
"I'm very much aware that if I was a different creature as a composer, I would certainly have called this piece "symphony"
"I feel very uneasy with using the word "symphony" to describe a four-movement orchestral piece ... it just seems that it's rather a debased sort of word ... I can't take it seriously any more"
I won't take the time to transcribe it all. Most of the rest is simple description of the four movements that boil down to

  1. Quick, melodic, flight
  2. Slow movement, taking refuge somewhere
  3. Contemporary dance, equivalent to a minuet in a Haydnesque symphony
  4. Slow, sort-of passacaglia
Go and listen to the introduction and the piece itself:

Now the piece itself isn't bad at all. It received the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2000. But the first commentator on the clip makes an interesting observation:
All the effort is put into the surface. What the music 'says' is merely the conventional clichée of alienation, chaos, disruption, nihilism etc. etc. that has become de rigeur in 'established modern music' for half a century by now. Music is not about interesting sounds but about something musically interesting to 'say'. The snippets of musical lines in the midst of 'nice, interesting sounds' betray a longing to write real music... which was still possible at the beginning of the last century. Ades is a convincing symbol of the conventionalized modern music scene.
But I want to talk more about Adès' remarks than the piece, at least in this post. He comes across as rather too pleased with himself and too ready to disparage both the orchestra itself as a medium, and the venerable composers who created the instrument and the genre of the symphony. The ironies are manifest. First of all, the interviewer, before Adès makes his appearance, carefully lists the mammoth percussion ensemble that has been added to the symphony for the piece by Adès. As he says, it includes six tympani, roto-toms, tuned cowbells, water gong, two pianos (one tuned a quarter-tone flat),  washboard and other even odder instruments. The irony comes with Adès' remark that the orchestra hasn't evolved since before the first world war. It certainly has. A lot of twentieth century symphonies don't call for more than a late 19th century worked with. But a lot, like this piece, certainly do. And still others call for a lot less, in a return to the Classical norm, as in Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony. So Adès remark is mere preening: we composers have evolved, but the poor old orchestra hasn't. What he means by saying that is it no longer a mainstream medium, I have no idea, unless he thinks that rock bands and sequencers are the mainstream medium. But it is more preening, in any case. As is the remark about if he were a different creature he might have named the piece a symphony. But then he goes out of his way to demean the symphony as such, saying it is a "debased" word. Only to you, Tom, only to you!

What he writes is, of course, the very model of a post-modern symphony, all tarted up with exotic percussion to give it a fashionably alluring surface, but underneath, it fulfills exactly the format of a classical symphony, the only departure being the choice of a passacaglia for the last movement, something that Brahms also did, of course.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Townsend: Symphony No. 1

As I promised some commentators a while back, here is a clip of my Symphony No. 1, which I finished a couple of months ago. It is not a proper recorded version, but rather an audio file exported from Finale in which the instruments are synthesized. Some instruments come out better than others. The oboe and double bass seem pretty good, but the violins never sound quite right and the flute is very feeble. The dynamics, especially crescendos and diminuendos are a bit hit and miss. But a program like this is an incredible boon to composers, even with its limitations. In my Symphony No. 2, which I am working on right now, I was having some real problems with the playback of percussion instruments and the customer support people at Finale were very helpful in solving the problem.

I have created a video clip of the symphony with titles so you know the movements apart, and with a single photo for each movement, just to have something on the screen. The first photo is of a sunset on Mars, the second a mountain landscape, also on Mars. The last two are just photos of light in natural landscapes. Don't read much into the choice of photos, as they are just ones I had lying around.

The symphony is in four movements and is very much in the classical tradition. There is an opening movement, Maestoso, then a Scherzo, a Passacaglia and a Vivace. The main influences are the Classical masters, especially Haydn, with a bit of influence of Sibelius here and there. But the symphony is mine above all. It makes no attempt to be fashionable, but just to be a decent piece of music, expressive and providing enjoyment to the listener. It is rather brief, under fifteen minutes for all four movements. It is also my first attempt in the genre.

I welcome criticism, so don't be shy!


UPDATE: On listening to the clip after uploading it, there is an unfortunate "rain-barrel" effect that seems to come about whenever there is the full orchestra. I had to compress the clip down to a pretty small size to make it uploadable to Blogger. In the original version it sounded much better. If anyone has any ideas how I can put up a better version, please share in the comments.

UPPERDATE: Yesterday I met with a conductor about premiering the symphony next season. It will receive its first performance in the 2014/15 season of the San Miguel International Symphony series. We haven't set the date yet, but I think it will be before Christmas.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Calder String Quartet

I finally managed to get to one of the concerts in our Chamber Music Festival last night and quite enjoyed it. I don't usually do concert reviews and this won't really be one either. I attended with a friend of mine, a very fine violinist and violist and she really liked the players, the Calder Quartet. They were excellent, both musically and technically. Sound interpretations and good repertoire. The program consisted of Arcadiana a piece in seven movements by Thomas Adès written in 1994, the String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters" bLeoš Janáček and, in the second half, the String Quartet No. 14 "Death and the Maiden" by Franz Schubert.

One of the things I thought the quartet did particularly well was the fine gradations of the quieter dynamics. Nice clarity even when they were playing pianissimo. This displays both good aesthetic sense and self-confidence. So, good concert. I hadn't heard the Adès before and it was very nice indeed. Very much imbued with the music of the past--indeed, virtually every movement makes reference, overt or covert, to culture of the past, from Mozart to Schubert to the famous painting by Watteau"L'Embarquement pour Cythère". I have written before about Janáček and that piece specifically. The Schubert quartet is a fairly late work and the nickname comes from the second movement which is a set of variations on his song of that name.

The main thing that occurred to me as the concert progressed is that we have a problem with structure. Here is how I see it, as exemplified in this concert. Ever since the first quarter of the 19th century, music has had more and more problem with structure. There may be good reasons for this: the first generation of Romantics (Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt) were overwhelmed by the upwelling of Romantic inspiration and the seeming rigidity and conventionality of 18th century forms was the first thing to go. The reward came in the form of rich, warm timbres and profoundly expressive melodies and harmonies. The cost was, yes, form or structure. Brahms made a noble attempt to resurrect the Classical idea of structure, but it was a bit of a struggle and while he may have temporarily have won the battle, the war was lost. In the 20th century a host of new ideas of structure were cobbled together and we experienced serialism, neo-classicism, spectralism, minimalism and a bunch of others with no handy moniker. But they are all attempts at creating new musical structures. Most of them not terribly successful.

Listening to the quartet concert last night, I was able to follow the history backwards, as it were, as the program was given in a reverse historical succession. The Adès, dating from 1994, may have all sorts of concealed structural links, but what you hear on the surface is a reversion to the Baroque dance suite. There is no sense of an over-arching formal principle, though there is certainly a unity of style with appropriate contrasts. The Janáček is cyclic in that certain thematic ideas keep recurring, but this, which was a common strategy in the 19th century beginning with Berlioz, is form achieved through brute force! I know because I use it myself from time to time.

And then the Schubert and one realizes that he was the last composer (with a few exceptions, I am sure) to have the capacity to use Classical form. This is an exceedingly subtle concept of form that has been mostly misunderstood ever since the first quarter of the 19th century. Beethoven and Schubert were the last to really be able to wield it. Everything, melody, rhythm, harmony, is in a subtle interrelationship and the character of the theme, its symmetry or asymmetry, dictates how, for example, the recapitulation will need to unfold and the possibilities of the development. The 19th century tried to deduce the "rules" of how to write a sonata movement, but, of course the actual sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert don't actually follow those rules! One rule was that there were two themes, a bold masculine one and a more lyrical feminine one, but most of the time Haydn used just one theme and it wasn't terribly gender-oriented! Mozart, on the other hand, tended to use a lot more than just two themes. But every movement was unique, because the large scale form and the form of the individual themes was intimately related. In all this I am merely repeating the wise discussion found in Charles Rosen's excellent book The Classical Style. Please look to it for the details.

All this was reinforced for me by the concert as the somewhat inchoate form of the Adès suite was followed by the hammered-together quartet of Janáček and finally, in the second half, we were treated to the real formal structures of Schubert. And he was really the last gasp of the Classical formal ability. Already with him there is a relaxation of the tendons so we get rather lengthy movements. But the generation after him just lost the touch entirely and tried everything including the kitchen sink as a substitute for real form and structure.

At least, that's how I see it. So you can decide for yourself, let me see if YouTube will allow me to reconstruct the concert. Alas, I can find only one movement of the Adès, "O Albion" the sixth movement:

But here is all the Janáček with the score:

And finally, the Schubert:

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Scientists explain how we musicians work in this article: "Great Musicians Go Into 'Trance-Like' State." Well, not really! As usual, there is much less in this article than appears from the headline. Actually we great musicians don't go into a trance-like state at all. Rachmaninoff used to count the house when he was playing to make sure the impresario wasn't cheating him. I like to figure out my taxes when I'm playing. No, just kidding! But muscle memory does help us out a lot. Right up to that awkward moment when it fails us. Then we need to actually know what we are doing.

* * *

Here is a rather negative review of a new piano disc by Kirill Gerstein. It may seem odd, but I like to see the occasional negative review because I think it lends credibility to the whole critical process. Just as I would like to see the occasional high-ranking politician locked up for the criminal behavior they occasionally engage in. Alas, that's not gonna happen! Here is an interesting passage from the review:
Gerstein seems to be trying far too hard to make an impression; hardly a phrase goes by without some arch, expressive effect, so much so that it's sometimes difficult to know what the basic tempo is supposed to be, and in a work that builds towards a monumental climax, any sense of cumulative intensity is almost entirely lost.
I have noticed this problem before in a string quartet performance of Beethoven: everything overdone on the micro level. I think it is what musicians do who may not have a good instinctual or aesthetic grasp of the music, so they just do a lot of performance trickery. With most audiences it works all too well.

* * *

From Norman Lebrecht comes this link to an ad for the St. Louis Symphony. I can't watch it at the moment, unfortunately, but just responding to Norman's extracts, I don't see anything wrong with saying these things. The best ad for an orchestra, I think, would be a bit minimal. Show them playing a very compelling brief passage and give contact info for tickets. That's it. The music sells itself if you pick the right passage. The Apple ad for the iPad with Esa-Pekka Salonen was excellent, I thought.

* * *

Here are some tips for opera singers going into the studio to make their first recording. This could probably be better done, with the basic principles and issues better expressed. In fact, I should probably do a post on it! It boils down to be really well-prepared and then try to forget you are in a recording studio. One famous session that we have on film is the Beatles' one and only performance of "All You Need Is Love" done live before a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions of people. I think it was the first worldwide satellite broadcast ever done. If you look carefully you can see Mick Jagger sitting on the floor as one of the groupies/background singers.

* * *

One of the few interesting music critics out there is Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times. He envisions a fantasy music festival of several 20th century American composers in this article. The group are labeled "The Commando Squad" (odd name) by their founder, Virgil Thompson. They were "loosely led by Aaron Copland and [the] other enlistees were Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Roy Harris." Sadly, I don't think Canada has even got this far yet, not in music at least. We did have the "Group of Seven" Canadian painters, though. The Russians had the "Mighty Five" and the French had "Les Six". In all these cases the idea was, through collective action, to draw attention to a national group of composers that had been previously ignored.

* * *

I have been told before about CD Baby and I have been thinking about releasing my own recordings under their auspices. Here is a New York Times article about the company and what they do.

* * *

And that's all I have for you today. Let's end with some music by Virgil Thompson. Here are his Five Portraits from 1940:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Greatest Composers Before Bach: Part 2

My post yesterday got cut short because I had some appointments to get to, so let me take up where I left off. With all due respect to David Letterman, there is nothing especially sacred about the number ten and, as I was mulling over possibilities, I realized that there were a lot more than ten composers worthy of mention. Heck, you could easily do ten Medieval, ten Renaissance and ten Baroque! So here we go with The Rest of the List:

8. Despite the suggestion of reader David, I'm not sure either Telemann or Buxtehude quite makes the list. Both are fine composers, and I have greatly enjoyed playing some lute duets by Telemann. However, if we take the opinion of J. S. Bach, we would pick something by Dieterich Buxtehude. As a young man, Bach walked two hundred miles to hear Buxtehude in Lübeck. Here is a Magnificat for choir and orchestra:

9. Another reader mentions Josquin des Prez and he certainly makes the list as possibly the most important composer of the late 15th and early 16th century. He was the first composer to become really famous through the widespread printing of his music. Possibly his most famous mass, the Missa Pange Lingua, paraphrases the hymn Pange Lingua by St. Thomas Aquinas in all voices. Here it is:

10. The first two names of important composers in the history of Western music are Léonin and Perotin, the two composers of organum at Notre Dame around 1200. They are the founders of polyphonic music and we know their names only by sheerest accident. I tell that tale in this post. Here is Gaude Maria Virgo by Léonin:

11. Another reader mentions Guillaume de Machaut and we certainly can't forget him. Equally famous as poet and composer, he is the greatest figure in the music of the 14th century. Here is the ballade "De Fortune Me Doi Plaindre Et Loer" illustrated with miniatures from the Codex Manesse:

12. Yet another reader urges that I not forget Claudio Monteverdi and I shall not. I have always had a great fondness for his music since purchasing the first performance of his Orfeo on original instruments, oh, it must have been thirty-five years ago. Here is just the beginning of a DVD version by those same performers:

13. That same reader mentions Henry Purcell, who was an excellent composer, but I think when it comes to English composers I will choose instead William Byrd. He was the great master of music during the Elizabethan renaissance and excelled in songs, masses and keyboard music. His students number most of the great composers of the next generation. Here is "My Ladye Nevells Grownde" played on a 1604 virginal:

14. I put up a clip from a mass by Ockeghem in the previous post, but as one of the greatest masters of polyphony, he probably deserves a post all to himself. His Missa prolationem consists entirely of mensuration canons which you can read about here in Wikipedia. Suffice it to say that this is one of the most difficult kinds of composition and the only ones who really did it well were Ockeghem and Josquin. J. S. Bach achieved a similar level of contrapuntal excellence in his Art of Fugue, though with different means. Here are the Kyrie and Sanctus from the Missa Prolationem:

15. Another composer mentioned was Palestrina, who is certainly very fine, but I am going to choose instead Orlande de Lassus who was, in my view, the equal of Palestrina, but with more intense musical expression. He is famous for having written a parody mass on the very obscene French chanson "Entre vous filles de quinze ans". He also wrote one of the most highly admired settings of Penitential Psalms. Here is the De Profundis from that collection:

And that brings this project to a close. I hope I have been able to introduce at least one or two composers to you.