Sunday, March 31, 2013

Debussy vs Ravel, Part 2

There are two main streams of modernism in Western European music: the German and the French. Debussy and Ravel, while not the originators, are certainly the first really important generation of modern French composers. It may help to understand what they were up to, to consider the thoughts of one of the theorists of the avant-garde, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883 - 1955). He attempted to describe a "new artistic sensibility" in these seven points:
  1. to dehumanize art
  2. to avoid living forms
  3. to see to it that the work of art is nothing but a work of art
  4. to consider art as play and nothing else
  5. to be essentially ironical
  6. to beware of sham and hence to aspire to scrupulous realization
  7. to regard art as a thing of no transcending consequence
This is modernism opposed to the Teutonic transcendence of Wagner, Mahler and their successors. Ortega y Gasset was writing these points in the 1920s, but, as always, "the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk", Hegel's phrase describing the nature of philosophy: it only describes those things that have already come to pass. Modernism was born long before it was described. By phrases like "avoid living forms" and "dehumanize art" Ortega y Gasset meant that art should be artificial, not sweatily realistic.

The important predecessor to Debussy and Ravel was their compatriot, Erik Satie (1866 - 1925), who, as early as the 1880s was writing eccentric, cryptic pieces for piano that perfectly fulfilled the "new artistic sensibility" as Ortega y Gasset was going to describe it. Here is one example, the Gymnopédie No. 1:

Notice the attenuation of tonality: the two chords that seem to function as 'tonic' and 'dominant' both contain major sevenths. The mood is detached, scarcely human. The melody is remote, far from expressing any romantic ferment. These little piano pieces were scarcely known outside the immediate circle of the composer's friends until one of those friends, in 1896, published orchestrations of them. That friend was Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918). Here is his orchestration of that first Gymnopédie:

One piece by Debussy that shows the influence of Satie (and probably some Russians as well who had been exploring the outer fringes of harmony for quite some time) was the Sarabande from the suite Pour le piano of 1894:

If you wanted to demonstrate the anti-Wagnerian new aesthetic, this would do very well. Somewhat dissonant harmonies, like the half-diminished chord that begins the piece, are not resolved as they should be, but simply moved around. The erotic torment of Wagnerian harmony is that there must be the leading tone, whose inevitable resolution to the tonic is delayed as much as possible. Debussy throws all this aside and simply writes charming sounding chords with no need of resolution--or leading tones, either! The work of art is nothing but a work of art and it is play and nothing else. For a more advanced example of where Debussy's harmonic explorations would take him, see my previous post on the 1909 prelude "Voiles" here.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

How to Love an Orange

One of the most interesting and historically important operas of the early 20th century is an opera about a play within a play. The genesis is quite interesting. In 1634 in Naples a pair of fairy tales were published about how a king cured the melancholy of his son by playing a practical joke on a passerby. Unfortunately the passerby turned out to be a dangerous sorceress who revenges herself by making the prince fall in love with three oranges, each containing a princess. The first two die from not being given water and the prince marries the third. This fable was turned into a commedia dell'arte scenario by Carlo Gozzi (1720 - 1806). This in turn was turned into a draft libretto by the Soviet director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874 - 1940). Gozzi's version was a polemic against the vulgarized theater of his day and contains a scene in which critics debate their preferences in drama. Meyerhold turned this scene into the frame for the whole play in which competing teams of "esthetes" are constantly advocating competing versions of how the play should go. They form an onstage audience that distances the actual audience from the play. Whenever the play threatens to become romantic or tragic or comic or lyric, one group or another interferes and bursts the mood.

Prokofiev's opera Love for Three Oranges is one of the easiest to enjoy 20th century operas because it is about having fun with conventions. It is against everything large, pompous and grandiose--against German romanticism especially! I didn't find it easy to run down a good complete version on YouTube that would play without glitches, but here is your best bet. This is part 1 of 13:

This is a complete version but lacks both the staging and subtitles:

Love for Three Oranges was written in 1919 and first performed in 1921. A completely different kind of music by Prokofiev is his Piano Sonata No. 7, the second of his three "War Sonatas" (so-called because they were written during the Second World War). Though forced to write music celebrating Stalin, Prokofiev was in torment because his good friend, the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold that I mentioned above in connection with the opera, was a victim of one of Stalin's purges. In June 1939, just as he was about to start rehearsing a new opera by Prokofiev, Meyerhold was arrested by the secret police. He was shot in February 1940. Soon after, Prokofiev started composing the three "War Sonatas". The second was written in 1942 and premiered in 1943. Here is the first movement with the score:

Even though the title claims this to be in B flat major, the only place you actually feel that might be the case is the last couple of measures where suddenly something like a cadence appears.

I say "something like" because this is not a conventional cadence. Partly set up by the placement on two successive downbeats, which lends it to being heard as a cadence, what we actually have is a vii (not a diminished vii because the E is natural, not flat) in B flat, followed by a tonic. What skews it a bit is the fact that the final chord on the downbeat is in first inversion, with the D in the bass. Up to this point, that is to say, in the previous eight minutes of the movement, it is more atonal than tonal! Here is the opening theme of the first movement:

You can see a bi-tonality here, both successive and simultaneous. The C major feel of the first half of the first measure is contradicted in the second half of the measure as the B flat and D flat cancel out the B and D. This pattern continues in the second measure. In the third and fourth measures the B flat wins out, but when this is tied over into the next two measures, the accompaniment again contradicts it with B natural. Measure seven returns to B flat and measure eight to B natural and the phrase ends on the B flat. So what we have is alternation and superimposition of C major and B flat major/minor (because of the D flat). I wonder if we could speculate to the extent of mapping the tension between these two tonalities (the tempo marking for this movement is allegro inquieto) against the tension between what Prokofiev was forced to do in his public life as a composer--write praises of Stalin--and what he felt in his private life: sorrow at the death of his friend Meyerhold. I normally dislike mixing the biography of a composer with the music, but perhaps in this instance there is a case to be made.

I think I will end this trio of posts on Prokofiev here. There is certainly a lot to Prokofiev. He is undoubtedly a skilled and significant composer. His contributions to the opera and ballet are important and lasting. About his instrumental music I am less won over as, with the exception of the piano concertos, I don't hear the kind of depth in his symphonies and sonatas that I do in a composer like Shostakovich. I hear an often brilliant surface, but don't sense the depths there seem to be in some other composers. I could be missing something, of course, just not hearing some things, but at the moment I don't feel that.

Anyone have any thoughts?

Friday, March 29, 2013

"Bach with Smallpox"

My title today is a quotation from Sergei Prokofiev which, I hope, emulates or demonstrates the kind of irony that became an important element of his music. Prokofiev's quote was a comment on Stravinsky's 'neoclassical' music such as his Octet for Winds (1923) and the irony is that he was going to take much the same approach and not only that, but had already done so in his "Classical Symphony" of 1917. Now you could argue that what Stravinsky was doing was more 'modernist' and what Prokofiev was doing was more nostalgia, but the truth is, if Stravinsky sounded like "Bach with smallpox" then Prokofiev sounded a bit like Haydn with smallpox. Quite ironic, really. Here is the third movement from the "Classical Symphony", a gavotte:

I chose this movement because it is so short, meaning that looking at the details won't take a lot of time or pixels. Here is the first part of the score in piano reduction:

What sort of music is this, aesthetically? From a theoretic standpoint it copies the gestures of 18th century music, but the voice-leading is all wrong. For example, while the upbeat is fine, and the first two beats of the first measure are ok as they are a simple D major tonic chord, the next two beats are seriously warped. We have a C major chord in first inversion, then in second inversion, which might be ok if it went to, say, an F chord. But instead it goes to a B major chord in second inversion. It is as if Prokofiev were asking himself in each measure, "what rule of counterpoint can I break now?" The awkward tension is maintained because all this is happening within a perfectly conventional context. This section ends, for example, with a perfectly correct V7 - I cadence in D major.

So I don't think 'nostalgia' is quite the right way to describe this kind of writing. It is ironic, perhaps cynical, which was very much the context of the time. The feeling of most artists by the end of the First World War was that all illusions had been shattered. All they had left was their cynicism and a kind of bitter nostalgia. I think we can hear this even more in the later Octet by Stravinsky that I mentioned above:

The premiere of this music stirred up quite a fuss because of what Stravinsky had done previously, especially the weighty primitivism of the Rite of Spring. How could he possibly be writing this light, diverting music? Yet another irony.

I want to put up some more of the "Classical Symphony" of Prokofiev. Here is the first movement:

And as a comparison, here is the first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's First Symphony, which dates from a few years later:

This series of posts on Prokofiev will continue and next I will take up some later works.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Prokofiev and the Problem of Aesthetics

I was having a discussion about international economics with someone maybe ten years ago when I stumbled across a principle that has proved useful to me ever since. Of course, I'm not claiming to have discovered this--I think it was probably Socrates who did originally--but it was an important realization for me. I found myself saying something like the following: "You know, I don't actually care which of us is right and which of us is wrong on this question. In fact, I don't even care too much what the right answer is. But what I am interested in is how we get to the right answer."

How do you get to the right answer is the most important thing. The assumption here is that there is a "right answer" of course and the trend for many years now has been to erase problems by denying that there could be a "right answer" to many questions. But of course, there are just as many right answers as there ever were! How much money do you have in your bank account? There is only one right answer to that question. You have to understand that where the distinction between the right answer and the wrong answer has been made foggy is often an area where it is very beneficial to someone that this be the case. I recall a little dialogue on Angel where Cordelia, possessed by an evil entity, is explaining to Connor that 'good' and 'bad' are just words and don't apply to them because they are "special". Ah, how lovely our rationalizations are!

But there are many levels of right and wrong answers, of good and bad, and of aesthetic quality. Some of these levels are very complex and don't admit of simple answers. Does anyone remember the famous answer to the Ultimate Question about the "meaning of life the universe and everything"? It is found in Douglas Adams science fiction comedy The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The answer is "42". The joke is that the answer is absolutely meaningless because it is an excessively simple answer to an excessively complex question.

If we want to have any useful answer to the question of the aesthetic quality of the music of Prokofiev, then we need to craft an answerable question or questions. I don't think the question can be as simple as "is Prokofiev's music good or bad?" I think we have to ask more detailed questions about melody, harmony and rhythm and by that I mean, having a close look at some pieces. So we may come up with answers that are tentative: "in some pieces Prokofiev tends to do X, Y and Z." We might ask a question that is more musicological than theoretical: something like "what kind of contribution did Prokofiev make to the symphonic or sonata genres?" Or to the opera or ballet. What sort of aesthetic strengths and weaknesses does he have and how do we know?

So this is a kind of philosophical outline of how to approach an aesthetic question. Now let's take a run at it. I want to start by picking a piece that is widely enjoyed in hopes this will assure that it is, to some degree, representative. The "Dance of the Knights" from the ballet Romeo and Juliet seems to be suitable:

Here is how that opening theme looks:

 An opening theme is pretty crucial as it is what most listeners will remember and respond to and this is a good one. It is conventionally laid out. After two measures of introduction of the tonic chord, E minor, the theme simply outlines the tonic in a dotted rhythm. Absolutely simple. But many very successful pieces have done much the same thing. Outlining harmonies is the basic melodic technique of the Classical Era and Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did it over and over. The second harmony is also conventional as it is a dominant. What makes it different is that it is a modal, not a tonal, dominant as it uses a D natural instead of a D#--no leading tone. This is a typical trait of 20th century harmony in order to sound a bit different while still using basic tonal structures. Ravel was doing the same thing in Jeux d'eau. It is in the continuation that a composer shows his ingenuity. This continuation comes in the last measure of the second line in my example. The harmony becomes more dissonant with the suggestion of a modulation. The chord F# D A C# acts as a dominant to G, which is the relative major of E minor. The C# is unusual as it is a major seventh while a dominant seventh chord calls for a minor seventh. The resolution, G D G B flat is unusual in that it is minor instead of major. So Prokofiev alters both chords. The melody intensifies by compressing: instead of the intervals being thirds, they become all minor seconds (with an octave displacement). The new motif is then repeated down one and then two octaves. The phrase ends with an accented and syncopated F# before repeating while the harmony descends chromatically to the dominant. The whole adds up to an effective eight-measure theme.

This theme reminds me of another very popular one, the Humoresque by Dvořák:

Here is how that theme looks:


Also eight measures (I had to cut off the last one) but without the two measures introduction. The dotted rhythm is notated differently with rests instead of dots, but the effect is quite similar. Prokofiev creates a much more dark, Russian mood instead of the coy one of Dvořák. But, still, some similarities.

So here is my conclusion: Prokofiev can come up with an excellent, memorable theme based on traditional harmony but with enough twists to make it sound novel.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Debussy vs Ravel

I notice that my post on Bach vs Beethoven keeps attracting readers so that now it is one of the top ten posts. I should do my own list of my top ten posts--hey, that sounds like a good idea for a post...

But since I'm wondering why people are seeking out that post on Bach and Beethoven, I'm going to pick another pair of composers. These two, Debussy and Ravel, are always paired, like Laurel and Hardy or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Now why is that? Just because they are French and lived at roughly the same time? Because they were the leading French composers of their day? Because they both wrote brilliant music for piano? Because they are both known, for better or worse as "impressionists"? Here is one writer pointing out the differences between them:
Ravel has been described as a Swiss watchmaker, such is the precision of his notation, the clear intent of every dot, every line, every slur. Debussy could never be mistaken as a time-keeper. Many of his pieces could lose their barlines or time-signatures without losing their way. You always see the individual drops of rain in Ravel's mists, whereas Debussy invites us to look at the garden beyond, blurred by the moisture.
 This is one of those examples of clever journalism that seems to tell us so much, but actually tells us almost nothing. The problem is metaphor. And by the way, there is no difference between the 'precision' of Ravel's notation and that of Debussy. They are both precise in exactly the way required for the music. The sentence "Debussy could never be mistaken as a time-keeper" makes little sense. All music is about time.

Several years ago an old and dear friend of mine pointed out that a piece of writing I had sent him was littered with metaphors, which he thought greatly detracted. I was very surprised because I had the vague idea that metaphors were a Good Thing. Why, just look at the metaphors in Homer! But in Homer, and much poetry, metaphors are used rather differently than in tossed-off prose such as above. "Swiss watchmaker"? "Individual drops of rain"? "The garden beyond"? The great appeal of metaphor in journalism is that it allows the writer to suggest meaning without actually using any technical terms which might not be understood by everyone. In other words, it makes one seem literary without actually telling us anything.

I want to do a few posts on Debussy and Ravel because as soon as I started researching them I realized that it was going to take a bit more space than I first thought. Debussy and Ravel lie at the beginnings of 20th century modernism, but, unlike many of the other figures in that movement, they are French, not German and so have a different approach to musical aesthetics and construction. Not for them is the Germanic urge to systematization that we see in Schoenberg and Webern. Instead, there is more of a transformation of traditional harmonic practice through the use of whole tone and octatonic scales, through the blurring of harmony and the clarity of orchestration. Let me start off with a couple of examples. First, an early piano piece by Ravel entitled Jeux d'eau which I think I would translate as "play of the water" rather than "water games". It is a brilliant piece of piano writing and next time I am going to dig into how it is put together. Surprisingly it is laid out in standard sonata form with exposition of first and second themes, development and recapitulation. Why it sounds so different from a classical sonata movement is due to the kinds of harmony used. There are virtually no cadences and the leading tone, D#, is used mostly as a decoration of the tonic! I suggest listening a few times to the music with the score to get the flavor of the sound in your ear.

Lovely, isn't it? The crystalline clarity of the arpeggios combines intriguingly with the piquancy of the harmonies. More tomorrow...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Apologies for the Hiatus

I try to do at least one new post every day, but sometimes is just isn't possible. A couple of nights ago I came down with a case of food poisoning and I'm still not feeling back to normal!

So while I'm recovering let's listen to some Bach on guitar. Here is a lovely performance of the gigue to the Violin Partita No 2 in D minor by J. S. Bach played by Sanel Redzic:

Friday, March 22, 2013

Is Beyoncé Now Beyond Parody?

Beyoncé and Jay-Z are the leading musical power couple in the world, I would guess. Jay-Z alone has been estimated by Forbes to be worth $500 million dollars. Between the two of them they have sold close to two hundred million albums worldwide. So why do I say that Beyoncé is beyond parody? She released a new song a few days ago--at least I think it was "released" whatever that means nowadays. There is a video, though without the actual song:

That is bizarre in a lot of ways. First of all, it purports to be the "official video" of the song, "Bow down", but the song isn't there. The soundtrack is just some synthesized burbling with female chorus oohing over top. The video is Beyoncé being dressed as a 21st century version of Marie Antoinette. But what is really weird is that the "song" or "video" rather, at the end turns into a commercial for 02 concert tickets. OK, now let's see if we can find the actual song. This seems to be "snippets", i.e. parts of two songs from the upcoming album. The first is "Bow Down":

And here are some of the lyrics:

I’m out that H-town

Coming, coming down
I’m coming down dripping candy on the ground
H, H-town, town, I’m coming down
Coming down dripping candy on the ground

[Verse 1]

I know when you were little girls
You dreamt of being in my world
Don’t forget it , don’t forget it
Respect that, bow down bitches
I took some time to live my life
But don’t think I’m just his little wife
Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down bitches


Bow down bitches, bow bow down bitches
Bow down bitches, bow bow down bitches
H-town vicious, h-h-town vicious

I’m so crown, bow bow down bitches

Supposedly this is all about Houston car culture and rivals in the music world. But, combined with the first video I posted, all I can think is "let them eat cake!" Well, brioche, actually, but no-one knows what brioche is, so never mind.

Looking and listening to this I think that Beyoncé has moved beyond parody. What could you possibly do? But maybe we should wait for a parody professional like Weird Al Yankovic to do his thing. Here he is deconstructing Lady Gaga:

Speaking of Al, here is one of his classic parodies, Michael Jackson's "Beat It":

Ever since the 60s when popular music suddenly became a huge economic force, dwarfing the classical world, there has been hubris and excess. Even wonderfully gifted musicians like the Beatles had their moments as when John Lennon mentioned they were more famous than Jesus. But viewed from the present day scene, the excesses of the Beatles and other 60s acts seem quaint. John bought a Rolls Royce and had it painted in psychedelia? Big deal. Beyoncé lives--and apparently thinks--like Marie Antoinette. Just weird.

And let's not talk about the music. That would be just embarrassing... 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Arts (and Music) Criticism

Is this topic like the one once voted "most boring" headline ever: "Worthy Canadian Initiative"? It would seem so based on articles like this one. Doing music criticism is one of the core goals of this blog, but I try to take it from a different angle. Since I don't live in a big center like London or New York, I do almost no concert reviews. I don't really do reviews of recordings either. What I do is something we could call "theme-oriented" maybe. I have an idea, often one that is musicologically inspired, and then I do a post on it. Sometimes it is a very simple idea like "solo instruments" or "musical textures" or a piece on a particular piece of music like a Shostakovich string quartet.

Now here is a piece of music criticism that is like something I would do. Trust the Aussies to do a blind "tasting test" of six different orchestras.

My readership has been growing, if not by leaps and bounds, then at least steadily. However, I do have the feeling that I am mostly attracting the cognoscenti. Cambridge University has put a link to The Music Salon on their music resources page and readers include music writers and composers. Occasionally someone stumbles across this blog, reads something like my very critical post on David Garrett and reacts with outrage--just look at the comments. Though in that case I suspect that "anonymous" might actually be David Garrett or his manager!

Sometimes I have tried to be provocative as with the post on David Garrett or the one on Nigel Kennedy or my ongoing series of catty micro-reviews.

What genuinely puzzles me is that more people are not curious about music. This is what drives me: what's happening in that music? How does the performer do that? What was that harmony? Why is that melody so affecting? And on and on. My whole love affair with music is really based on curiosity. Though, of course, a lot of it is just being knocked over by a piece of music. My belief in doing this blog is that sharing this curiosity and love is a good thing. So far, I think it is going pretty well. But I do wonder about how to reach out to more people. If you have some thoughts, please leave a comment.

Again, I don't have a lot of time today, so let me just end by putting up three pieces of music that did knock me over the first time I heard them. This first one I heard driving to work at the University of Victoria back in the 1980s. I was listening to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and this was the last thing I expected to hear:

John Lennon's last hit single. John Williams' first recording of the Bach Chaconne was another one that knocked me over:

And finally, the third movement of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms:

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

De gustibus non est disputandum

One of my most important commentors, composer and pianist Nathan Shirley, took me to task the other day for failing to sufficiently appreciate Sergei Prokofiev. I said that a lot of his music "left me cold" and that he was a "pretty good composer" but not a very great one. Nathan said, among other things, that
Prokofiev was not only one of the greatest composers ever, but also THE greatest of the 20th century. Stravinsky is a close 2nd, but his output was much less consistent (especially after moving to the United States). Shostakovich and Bartok I would jointly award 3rd place.
None of the 20th century composers could touch Prokofiev's melodies. He is truly the Tchaikovsky of the 20th century.
I was originally just thinking of doing a fresh evaluation of Prokofiev based on Nathan's points, but since this is The Music Salon, I think we can do better. Let's look, not only at Prokofiev, but also at the whole problem of aesthetic disagreement. The old Latin phrase goes "de gustibus non est disputandum" and there is some truth there, but I think that both Nathan and I think that there is also some objective truth in aesthetics as well. So let's try to find some!

Unfortunately, this will take some time to work out, so I'm afraid I won't be able to get to it today! Most sorry. But tune in next time. In the meantime, some Prokofiev that Nathan was kind enough to send:

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

It's Your Career!

I see that the folks at The Practicing Musician linked to my post on talking to the audience. Thanks, that's much appreciated. So let me do another one on those practical issues that come up with regard to career development.

I pursued a career as a classical soloist for nearly thirty years and, while I can't say I was as successful as I had hoped, I did learn a few things. One important lesson is to be objective about yourself. This is incredibly hard to do! For one thing, one's identity as a musician is bound up with one's identity as a person and it is so hard to see oneself from another perspective. My problem, for example, was that I tended to worry excessively about my technical competence as a "guitar virtuoso". What I needed to do was accept my limitations, realize my strengths and choose repertoire that enabled me to take advantage of my strengths and please audiences. That "pleasing audiences" thing is really important! Instead, I did too much virtuoso repertoire that tended to reveal my limitations and not my strengths. I got into this because I kept thinking I was in my developing stage too long. Long after what sort of guitarist I was became clear, I still kept doing pieces to develop my virtuosity.

Let me explain a bit. Since I started late, I had to work hard to become competent at technique. But I did the work and mastered what you need to to be a concert guitarist. Evidence of this was that I had several engagements to play the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo and the Guitar Concerto by Villa-Lobos with orchestra. You can't do those pieces unless you have the chops. But loud fast scales are not really my strength. What is, is tone color, dynamics, phrasing and counterpoint. This is stuff I am particularly good at. Musical stuff, not technical stuff. So what I should have done is chosen, from the repertoire that audiences really want to hear, those pieces where I can really shine. Perhaps this might be a good example:


Or this, a more standard piece of repertoire:


Now of course, each musician has to figure this out for themselves and it will be different from every other musician. You are unique! Don't try to copy someone else's technique, or musicianship or career. You have to present yourself as yourself. That's what audiences want: they want to connect with you as an individual human being on the personal level. They want your personal performance of the music, your individual perspective. I know that career consultants talk about this as "branding", but that seems to strike the wrong note for me. You are not a corporation, you are a human being! If you want to be authentically yourself, then thinking in terms of branding might not be the way to go.

Record yourself. Listen to yourself. And figure out what sort of musician you are. Then look at what audiences seem to like and put it all together. You might end up with something like this:


Music and Tax Policy

One of the reasons I posted about the difficulties violinists and cellists have been having lately with the airlines is that these things have an effect on the music world. If you make touring very difficult for musicians, they will do less of it.

I just ran across a fascinating article that shows the impact a tax policy can have on music. It was originally in the Wall Street Journal, but behind the paywall. I saw it here. The article explains how the big band era was brought to a premature close by a new cabaret tax. Anywhere people were dancing and singing suddenly got hit with a 30% tax on receipts. This 30% made it impossible for cabaret owners to hire big bands. Here is how it went:
Dramatic shifts in popular culture are usually assumed to result from naturally occurring forces such as changing tastes (did people get sick of hearing "In the Mood"?) or demographics (were all those new parents of the postwar baby boom at home with junior instead of out on a dance floor?). But the big bands didn't just stumble and fall behind the times. They were pushed.
In 1944, a new wartime cabaret tax went into effect, imposing a ruinous 30% (later merely a destructive 20%) excise on all receipts at any venue that served food or drink and allowed dancing. ... [I]n the next few years, struggling nightclub owners were trying every which way to avoid having to foist the tax on customers.
The tax-law regulation's ... exception had the biggest impact. Clubs that provided strictly instrumental music to which no one danced were exempt from the cabaret tax. It is no coincidence that in the back half of the 1940s a new and undanceable jazz performed primarily by small instrumental groups—bebop—emerged as the music of the moment.
 We musicians, especially classical musicians, tend to think that all musical trends come from us. If composers decide to write atonal string quartets, then that's what will get played. But there is only a grain of truth in that. The fact is that we respond, just like everyone else, to economic incentives. If we can't make a living writing atonal string quartets, then maybe we will start writing film scores or maudlin musicals. Or, in this case, start playing non-dance music in small ensembles.

It makes you wonder what the long-term impact of the Internet will be on music...

Here is a little bebop from 1946 with Stan Getz and Max Roach:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Case of Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953) is an important 20th century Russian composer that I have said almost nothing about on this blog. In my mind he ranks after Stravinsky and Shostakovich but I haven't listened to a lot of his music in recent years. Time to have another listen, I think!

Yesterday Norman Lebrecht published a review of two new books on Prokofiev: one about him and his wife Carolina Codina, a Spanish soprano and the other of his diaries from 1924 to 1933. We learn a few interesting things: both Prokofiev and his wife were Christian Scientists, he was rather a nasty fellow, both to his wife and everyone else, and he was a savage critic of other composers.

Prokofiev was a child prodigy, taking up both piano and composition when very young, inspired by his mother, a music-lover and pianist. At five he wrote his first piano piece and at nine, attempted an opera. Like Shostakovich, though of an older generation, he studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Let's listen to an early piano piece, the Sarcasms, op 17, written when he was twenty-one:

Certainly virtuoso, certainly powerful, but, cubist harmony notwithstanding, not terribly enjoyable to my ears. Let's listen to another early work, his first piano concerto from 1914. Here is a very capable young pianist (and young orchestra) with the first movement:

And I have to say that leaves me a bit cold as well. A great number of notes, but not doing very much. Let's listen to the first movement of the second piano concerto. This is Yuja Wang with Charles Dutoit conducting:

Now that is a completely different kettle of fish! Far more interesting: themes with real character, great build-up, expression and drama. Well-worth your time. Let's look for something that is not for piano. How about a ballet? Diaghilev commissioned several from Prokofiev. The first successful one was Chout (The Buffoon), premiered in 1921, in which we can hear the acerbic and absurd humor that seems characteristic of Russia--we find it in the writer Nicolai Gogol and Shostakovich as well. Here is the symphonic suite from the ballet:

Speaking of the symphony, Prokofiev composed seven, of which the Fifth is the most popular. Let's have a listen. Here is David Oistrakh conducting the Moscow Philharmonic. The symphony was written in one month in 1944:

I think we should hear one more piece, the Piano Sonata no 7. Here is the third movement Precipitato by Glenn Gould:

Norman Lebrecht ends his review by saying of Prokofiev that "He was not a very nice man, at all. Just a very great composer." I can't quite agree with that. There are very, very few great composers and I don't quite think Prokofiev is one of them. He is a pretty good composer, though.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Talking to the Audience

When I was a young musician, still studying in university, it was fairly uncommon for a classical musician to introduce a performance by talking to the audience. I went to many concerts where not a word was spoken. As time went on I noticed more and more performers talking to the audience. At first it was mostly performers of 'light' classics or crossover, but now it is almost the standard in all kinds of concerts.

As a writer of program notes, sometimes I think to myself "I went to the trouble of writing this stuff down so you wouldn't have to hem and haw your way through it!" Because, let's be frank, a lot of performers are not gifted public speakers and they don't always plan out what they are going to say and they sometimes go on too long. A lot of the time, in fact, I dread that seemingly obligatory speech that precedes the actual concert.

That being said, sometimes a verbal introduction can be very well done. From Greg Sandow's blog, here is how one artist introduced Schubert's song cycle Die Winterreise. What distinguishes this introduction from many I have heard is that it is very personal: it does not focus on rolling out dry facts about the composer and music, something better done in program notes, but rather it reveals the personal perspective of the performers and offers suggestions about how the audience might receive the music. Excellent things, both. If an audience, especially an unsophisticated one as this one was, needs a doorway into the music, then it should be provided.

I recall a concert I attended a few years ago of cantatas by Schütz, Vivaldi and Bach in which exactly the wrong approach was taken. First of all, as the cantata genre is largely unknown to audiences and these pieces were sung in Latin and German, languages unknown to the audience, there should have been program notes with the basic information about the composers and the music. Most of all, there should have been the texts and translations. None of this was provided. Instead, the director of the concert series gave an introduction. But, alas, his introduction said not one word about the music. Instead he mentioned a personnel change (different conductor) and followed that with a lengthy and difficult to hear plea for donations.

I have been to so many concerts where several functionaries spoke beforehand: the director, the mayor, the city manager--and it was always a frustrating experience because it had nothing to do with the music. I realize that sometimes this has to be done as it is a kind of payback to these people for their support. But I think that, in order to spare the audience, it should be kept to a minimum.

Here is another post that the artist I mentioned above, Erica Sipes, put up on Greg Sandow's blog about speaking to the audience. There is some excellent advice there, especially when she says, "keep it short, keep it simple, keep it sincere."

I think that it might also help to recognize that most of our musical training does not equip us to talk very easily about music. This is where a little musicology can come in handy. Musicologists do learn how to talk about music. Their problem is that they have to learn to adapt what they say to the listeners. It must not be too technical! But a little musicological understanding can help the performer to avoid telling the audience things that are misleading or simply wrong. Something I have heard many times!

Finally, if you are truly inarticulate about music, as some great performers are, then you should recognize that it may be better to preserve the magic by simply going out on stage, bowing, and then playing. Don't force yourself to give an awkward speech that no-one will get much benefit from!

I just performed an  interesting experiment: if you go to YouTube and type "concert introductions" into the search box you will find displayed a large number of short introductions to pop music concerts and band concerts. Usually, when people post clips to YouTube they leave off the introductory remarks and just start with the music. Ask yourself why this is. I think it is because that, while often helpful (and often not helpful), introductory remarks are inherently ephemeral and fundamentally less interesting and important than the actual performance. To show you what I mean, here is one of the very few clips of introductory remarks I could find that is neither a pop concert, nor a school band concert:

Friday, March 15, 2013

More Solo Instruments

Yesterday I only managed to get up to the harpsichord so let me continue on a bit. The harpsichord, while a marvelous instrument has a few limitations. Some people find its sound a bit harsh and it has no ability to play notes louder or softer. The reason for this is that the harpsichord takes the movement of a lutenist or guitarist and mechanizes it. Here is how it works:

This is just how the guitar is played, but the difference is that since it is the finger and fingernail that is plucking the string, the guitarist can play louder or softer depending either on how deeply the string is pressed before releasing it, or how quickly it is attacked. Either way imparts more or less energy to the string, making the note louder or softer. On the harpsichord however, the mechanism prevents this. I do seem to hear that some harpsichordists seem able to accent chords and I wonder if it is through some subtle throwing of the key? In any case, this is a very limited effect.

The piano was invented specifically to overcome this limitation. The full name, pianoforte, literally means "soft-loud". Instead of plucking the string, a padded hammer hits the string. This was the invention of an Italian, Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700. The mechanism needed to allow for a small movement of the key to result in a large movement of the hammer and to check the rebound and allow for quick repeated notes was quite complex. While Cristofori's action had most of the principles, others over the next hundred and more years refined the mechanism considerably. Here is what it looks like:

So while the piano is literally a percussion instrument, the strings being hit with a hammer, it is capable of a remarkable range of sounds from very soft to very loud and from delicate shimmers of sounds to ferocious pounding. And, with the added range of over seven octaves, the piano has for a long time been the most versatile musical instrument. Let's listen to some historic pianos. Here is Susan Alexander-Max playing the oldest Cristofori piano surviving, dating from 1720. The music is by Domenico Zipoli.

Incidentally, since the beginning of the "early music" movement, a need has arisen to find a term to describe these historic early pianos that distinguishes them from modern pianos. So we use the term "fortepiano", just reversing the word "pianoforte". Any time you see the word "fortepiano" you know that it is the early piano that is being talked about. Let's listen to some Mozart on one of the instruments from his time. Here is Malcolm Bilson playing a movement from the Sonata, K 333. Notice how much lighter and crisper the sound is from a modern piano:

One important innovation was by Gottfried Silbermann, who invented the damper pedal, which lifts all the dampers allowing all the strings to resonate sympathetically. One of the earliest pieces to take advantage of this was Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata. Let's listen to the first movement on fortepiano played by Trevor Stephenson:

The piano underwent considerable development in the 19th century, becoming a louder and considerably heavier instrument. One consequence is that it can be very interesting to hear even a composer like Chopin on the instrument he preferred, one built by Sébastien Érard:

I have to bring this to a close now, so let me end with a modern piano and the kind of ferocious music it is capable of playing. Here is Grigory Sokolov with the last movement of Prokofiev's Sonata no. 7:

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Solo Instruments

This is a follow-up on yesterday's post about classic ensembles. The other kind of music-making is with single instruments. It is interesting that there are two contrasting modes with solo instruments: one is solitary, meditative and introvert, while the other consists of virtuosic display. But before I get into that, let's look at solo instruments in different cultures.

China has the pipa, a four-stringed lute played for millenia in China and particularly popular during the Tang Dynasty. Here is pipa virtuoso, Liu Fang:

In the 7th century the pipa was taken to Japan and became various types of instruments called the biwa with either four or five strings. Here is Junko Ueda singing a traditional piece while accompanying herself on biwa:

Japan also has the shakuhachi flute as a solo instrument. It is particularly associated with Buddhist meditation.

In West Africa there is the kora, a 21-string harp. Here is Lankandia Cissoko from Senegal with traditional music for kora:

In Eastern and Southern Africa there is the very unusual instrument the mbira or thumb piano that consists of metal strips fixed to a wooden resonating box and played with the thumbs. Here is a collection of mbira music from Zimbabwe:

In Western European music there are a number of important solo instruments. Probably the oldest of these is the organ whose oldest examples go back to ancient Greece and Rome. The Roman water organ or hydraulis has been reconstructed from surviving remains and depiction in mosaics. Here is a modern reconstruction:

But we have no idea of the music that was played on it! For a long time, most music, at least that has been preserved, was for voice. One of the earliest solo instruments was the lute, developed from the Arabic oud. Here is the Syrian master of the oud, Farid El-Atrash:

Before the invention of keyboard instruments like the harpsichord, the lute was the main domestic solo instrument in Europe. Here is an early piece of Scottish lute music:

Here is a much more complex piece, imitating vocal polyphony, by the Hungarian lutenist Balint Bakfark:

The lute, with added strings in the bass, lasted to the end of the Baroque era as witnessed by this Sarabande by Sylvius Leopold Weiss:

The lute was toppled from its throne by the harpsichord, a keyboard instrument with a mechanism that plucks the strings with either leather or quill plectra. The invention of the keyboard was earth-shaking as it simplified and mechanized the production of a note. This meant that while there was some loss of control over the quality of the individual sound, many more notes could be produced far more easily than they could on other instruments. This opened the door to new heights of instrumental virtuosity. There were many schools of harpsichord playing, but probably the most important were the French clavecinistes (from clavecin, the French word for harpsichord) and the German school, especially J. S. Bach. Let's hear an example of each. I am delighted to put up a clip of my old friend from McGill, Hank Knox, playing La Poule by Rameau:

As you can see, the fact that each note is now easy to produce means that the hands can act very independently, enabling much more complex counterpoint. This was exploited by J. S. Bach. Here is the Contrapunctus I from the Art of Fugue showing how a single harpsichordist can play four independent voices.

I was planning on doing the piano, violin, cello and maybe guitar as well, but I see I have gone on very long already! So I will leave that for another day.