Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Pleasures of Music

The plural is intentional. Music is all about pleasure, really. Yes, despite what many apologists for classical music say, even me in one of my deluded moments, the reason we listen to music, any music, is for the pleasure of it.

But there are many kinds of pleasure.

You could lay out different kinds of music in an array or spectrum ranging from one extreme to another. You could have the most cerebral music at one end and the most somatic or corporeal at the other. You could instead organize music along a spectrum between simple and complex or between intimate and public, between quiet and loud, between brief and lengthy.

We usually think in terms of "genre", when we think at all about different kinds of music. By genre is usually meant one of various forms or styles of music such as polka, symphony, EDM, glam rock, blues and so on. But this is rather a grab-bag of different criteria: polka is a national dance with a particular musical structure; symphony is a large orchestral work in several movements, each with its own structure; EDM, standing for electronic dance music, is as much a social event as a musical form; glam rock is a sub-variety of the genre of rock music typified perhaps as much by the costume as the music and blues is a traditional form of folk music associated with black people in certain areas of the US. So there is no real consistency in the definition of "genre". But this is how most people classify and identify music. If you like blues and they advertise an evening of the blues, then you might go.

But it all comes back to pleasure. Music can fulfill many roles from the facilitating of sexual congress to profound meditations on mortality, but it does so by giving us some form of pleasure.

This simple statement is wildly at odds with a great deal of what composers, especially composers in the 20th century, had to say about it. Here are some quotes to ponder:
“The aim of music is not to express feelings but to express music. It is not a vessel into which the composer distills his soul drop by drop, but a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal.” --Pierre Boulez
Now there is a clever false dichotomy: he assumes that we think the aim of music is to express something and then denies it. No, the aim of music is not to express anything, but to give pleasure.
“Whether one calls oneself conservative or revolutionary, whether one composers in a conventional or progressive manner, whether one tries to imitate old styles or is destined to express new ideas - one must be convinced of the infallibility of one's own fantasy and one must believe in one's own inspiration.”  --Arnold Schoenberg
Again with that assumption that music is supposed to express something, but with the addition of the infallible mystery of the composer's fantasy.
"One can not too often insist that in music it is the composer's inner world of tone and rhythm which matters, and that whatever technical means he chooses in order to give it structure and coherence are subject to no a priori judgment whatever." --Roger Sessions
And the listener matters not at all.
"If it is art it is not for everybody; if it is for everybody it is not art." --Arnold Schoenberg
This is one of the most famous statements of the doctrine that there are values in art higher than those of pleasure and beauty. This is a very seductive doctrine indeed, with a long history, and one that often leads people to accuse classical musicians of elitism. Now I don't think there is anything wrong with elitism, as long as it is earned, but the real problem here is that it leads to what Richard Taruskin calls a "divergence of interests" between the composer and the listener. This is caused by discounting the pleasure of the listener in favor of the fantasy or methods of the composer, what he terms the poietic fallacy.

My view is that the fantasy and methods of the composer have as their proper end the pleasure of the listener, but again, with the understanding that there are different kinds of pleasure. In other words, I am claiming that the fantasy and methods of the composer are merely instrumental to the true and final good of the listener's pleasure.

Some music is hard to appreciate if it is severed from its social or artistic context. I'm often critical of hip hop and rap, partly because of what seem to be impoverished musical means, partly because of the crudity of the accompanying videos, but seen in context there are certainly pleasurable examples. Here is one used to accompany the opening credits of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift:


That's "Six Days" by DJ Shadow and, listened to in context, it works just fine. We have lost the context of a lot of historical music, but if you are a bit accustomed to the style, that doesn't seem to matter. The social context of the Viennese divertimento is long gone, but we can still enjoy the delight and freshness of the music. Here is Mozart's Divertimento in E flat, K. 563, for string trio:


Let's go back to what I was saying about different kinds of music and how you can categorize them other than by the usual genres. Let's take the spectrum simple to complex for example. Some music is very simple:


That is a little minuet in G major that is from the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, J. S. Bach's wife. It is not actually by Bach himself, but by the minor composer Christian Petzold. But is very popular nonetheless, despite its simplicity. Here is a very complex piece:


That was the Klavierstück V by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Both these pieces are for keyboard, one very simple, the other very complex. From the point of view of the composer's fantasy and methods, the Stockhausen is obviously the more important, significant, whatever adjectives you prefer. But from the point of view of the listener's pleasure, i.e. from the aesthetic point of view, the complexity or simplicity is simply not the issue. But I'm not going to make the error of simply assuming that you will enjoy the Petzold minuet more than the Stockhausen. Perhaps you hear it as trite and hackneyed and prefer to delight in the unexpected gestures of the Stockhausen. But in either case, it is not the composer's methods, nor the complexity or lack of it that is the source of aesthetic value--it is rather the pleasure you derive.

Let's pick two examples on a different spectrum, but by the same composer. Here is the Cavatina from the String Quartet in B flat, op. 130 by Beethoven:


That is a very intimate piece in many ways: it is for string quartet, meant to be played in a modest-sized room for a small audience, and it is also extremely intimate on the emotional level. Here, on the other hand, is Beethoven in a very public mode: the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op 67 for full orchestra, meant to be played in a large hall for a large audience:


Here there is likely no question of widely different aesthetic worth--both these pieces are recognized as being pinnacles of Western music--but the pleasures they evoke are certainly very different. The Cavatina stirs depths of sorrow while the Symphony inspires feelings of strength and power.

I want to leave you with a bit of a puzzle: if it is certainly not the case that classical music has a necessarily humanizing effect (how could the jailers at Auschwitz listen to Schubert in the evening and return to the torture and slaughter in the morning?), is it possible for some music to have a dehumanizing effect?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Concerto Guide: Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35

Three years after completing his First Piano Concerto, Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto in a single month while taking a rest cure in a Swiss resort on Lake Geneva. Here is the Wikipedia article which gives some interesting details about the initial reaction to the piece.

It was this piece that was my introduction to classical music. Before hearing this, at age 17 or 18, my exposure had been very limited. Where I grew up there were no concert halls, no orchestras, just the occasional traditional musician like my mother, who was an "old-time fiddler". There were no radio stations broadcasting classical music, either. So when a friend of mine put on an LP of this piece one day, it was a complete revelation.

Listening to it now I am struck by a number of things: first of all, it is a tremendous advance over the First Piano Concerto that I discussed last week. This piece is much more coherent in its structure. The whole first movement is based on one theme and some variants of it. It is very protean, however and the variations on the theme are extensive. Oddly enough, I am reminded of a Mozart piano concerto. Like Mozart, this whole movement seems spontaneous, flowing freely. The violin dominates throughout. Indeed, we don't get much of a tutti until measure 127! There really are only three major tuttis in the movement: that one, another that sets up the violin cadenza and the coda, shared with the violin. A tutti, by the way, is when the whole orchestra is let loose. Usually, in this concerto, it is only parts of the orchestra, accompanying the violin.

The movement starts with a brief orchestral introduction before the violin enters with a lyric mini-cadenza, followed by its statement of the theme:

Click to enlarge
The second theme, which is really a variation of the first theme, is presented on the violin as follows:


Here is that first big orchestral tutti:


Here is a variation in G major for the solo violin:

And here is a variant using dotted rhythms:



One fascinating thing about this concerto as compared to the piano concerto, is how very lyrical it is, another way in which it reminds me of Mozart. Tchaikovsky is not the only one to display much more lyricism in the composition of a violin concerto as opposed to a piano concerto. We see something similar with Prokofiev, whose piano concertos are often very percussive, but whose violin concertos are very lyrical.

Let's listen to this superb performance with Itzak Perlman and Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra:


Monday, April 27, 2015

Facing the Music

I've referred to an ongoing interview series at the Guardian before, but I haven't mentioned the title of the series which is "Facing the Music". The latest installment is an interview with Carolyn Sampson. Now it is entirely likely that she is a wonderful singer and excellent musician (her debut recording, Fleurs, is just out--no reviews on Amazon yet), but it is hard to tell from the interview. Here are some excerpts (read the whole thing, at the link above):
What’s your musical guilty pleasure? 
Wham! (yes, the 80s English pop duo)
Is applauding between movements acceptable?Yes. Spontaneous applause is always acceptable. I think it’s great to group songs, or movements, but I also think it’s wonderful when there is an immediate reaction from the audience – be it a laugh, an intake of breath, or applause. It means that they’re with us, and relaxed enough to respond. 
What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert?
A lack of fear. As performers, we should be relaxed on stage and be aiming not at perfection but at being our best on that day, and communicating with the audience. The audience should also feel comfortable and free to respond (see above).
What was the first ever record or CD you bought?A Boney M album. On record 
Do you enjoy musicals? Do you have a favourite?Yes, I do. I enjoy most things. I’m a very good audience!Starlight Express made a big impression on me as a child. It was such a spectacle. I had a tape of the songs, to which I sang along with passion. 
How many recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies do you own? Do you have a favourite?
Hmmm … I think I once had some of the Beethoven Symphonies recorded by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. But I’m not really sure!
Which non-classical musician would you love to work with?Those who know me won’t be surprised that my answer is George Michael! He has a beautiful voice and is a great musician. 
Imagine you’re a festival director here in London with unlimited resources. What would you programme – or commission – for your opening event 
An event in which I get to duet with George Michael. 
What do you sing in the shower?
Whatever I’m currently learning. Or Hey Mickey, by Toni Basil. 
I think I have included all the relevant responses. So my question is, is there anything there that would lead you to think that she has had an adequate musical education? Is she familiar with the classical repertoire? Does she have the depth of aesthetic and cultural understanding to interpret great works of music? She might well have. But the impression you get from the interview is that she has all the cultural depth and musical understanding of the mythical 14 year old girl from Cleveland. Would I rush out to hear her sing Schubert? Not bloody likely! George Michael, indeed!

So this is the problem with the watering down of classical music and bowing down to the gods of pop music: it drives away those people who really do appreciate classical music. Now there's a winning strategy for ya!

Let's give Carolyn Sampson a chance to show what sort of singer she is. On YouTube, most of the selections are early music: Purcell, Bach and Handel. Here she is singing a wonderful song by Caccini: Amarilli mia bella:


Great job. So I guess the point of the interview and the new album with its repertoire of Britten, Debussy, Poulenc and others, is to move her career from the early music ghetto to wider acceptability. But again, trying to sell yourself as some kind of pop artist who happens to sing classical music seems, well, counterproductive.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bach: Mass in B minor

This is not part of any series of posts--I just suddenly realised that while I have mentioned it from time to time and put up clips of parts of it, I have never devoted an entire post to one of the greatest pieces of music in history, the Mass in B minor by J. S. Bach.

This piece would have to be part of any list of the ten (or five, or two!) greatest pieces ever written, yet it is strangely anomalous. The composition formed no part of Bach's normal musical duties. It is a setting of the Catholic mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. These are the unvarying parts of the Eucharistic liturgy. The odd thing is that Bach was not Catholic, but a devout Lutheran and spent much of his life writing music for the Lutheran church. But this piece, finished at the end of his life, is a kind of apotheosis of the long tradition of the Catholic mass. Parts of the work come from previous religious music, but the completion of it, setting those parts of the Catholic liturgy that Lutherans did not use, was one of the last compositions of his life.

The work was not performed during his lifetime--in fact, the first documented complete performance was not until 1859, more than a hundred years later. For more historical details and for a discussion of the difficulties of determining Bach's original text (his son, C. P. E. Bach, who inherited the manuscript, made a number of changes and additions), read the Wikipedia article I linked above.

This is a very large piece of music, though considerably shorter than either of the extant passions that Bach composed. It is in twenty-seven movements (compare to the typical symphony in three to five movements) with a total duration of about two hours. The only symphonies that compare in sheer length are some by Bruckner and Mahler. Now the St. Matthew Passion is longer with 68 movements and a duration of about three hours. But bear in mind that most of those movements are recitative and therefore comparatively lightweight, musically. The Mass in B minor is nothing but choruses and arias. It begins with a ten or twelve minute fugue for chorus and orchestra on Kyrie eleison ("Lord have mercy", the only part of the mass in Greek, not Latin):


The next movement, Christe eleison, is a duet for two sopranos with obbligato violins:


And this first section ends with another Kyrie, a briefer four-part chorus:


One part of the mass, and to my mind the most sublime, is repeated. The "Gratias animus tibiachorus in the Gloria returns at the very end setting the "Dona nobis pacem":


Woody Allen once said that the finale of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 was the proof of the existence of God. For me, this is even more so. If it is possible for mere music to transport you to heaven, then this is the piece.

Another remarkable setting is the Crucifixus, which is a four-part chorus in passacaglia form, which means that the bass line repeats. In fact, it appears exactly 13 times. You might interpret this as a symbolic reference to Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus who was the 13th member at the Last Supper. Here is that bass line:

Click to enlarge

Some have speculated that there is a great deal more number symbolism in the mass, but we can simply listen to it as great, very great, music. Here is the complete Mass in B minor by J. S. Bach, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe:


How Music Can Improve Schools

There are a lot of disquieting trends in education these days--at least if you read the stories in the American press. The amount of spending keeps increasing inexorably while the educational results seem either frozen or in decline. Here is a graph of the numbers for Wisconsin that illustrates this:

Click to enlarge

A lot of solutions have been proposed, most of them, extremely ironically, arguing for increased spending! Of course increased spending benefits all the stakeholders in the system, teachers, administrators, textbook publishers, creators of educational software, food service companies and anyone else supplying goods and services. The only people left out, it seems, are the students. They are obviously not seeing any benefits here. For them, school remains, as Dawn so memorably averred in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a "big square building full of boredom and despair."

Therefore, it was with extreme interest that I read this story from Germany about how an underperforming school in a poor neighborhood was transformed due to the mere presence of classical musicians. Here is the story in a nutshell:
Eight years ago, one of Europe's best-known orchestras moved their rehearsal rooms to a secondary school on this housing estate and pupils from Tenever found themselves sharing their corridors and lunch tables with professional musicians.
Since then the school's results have improved, its drop-out rates have fallen to less than 1% and the atmosphere in the wider neighbourhood has been "transformed", according to Joachim Barloschky, a local official
No, the orchestral members are not engaged in teaching the students, but they interact on a daily basis:
what makes the partnership unique is the sheer volume of interactions between musicians and pupils. Whenever they are not playing, the musicians are based in the school.
They sit with pupils over lunch and talk to them about their lives. Pupils are allowed to watch the orchestra rehearse, sitting between the musicians rather than in front of them as an audience.
Stephan Schrader, a cellist, says:
"We do not try to be music teachers, but we let them see that we are normal people," says Mr Schrader. "I ask students about their families and tell them about mine.
"When they have a problem, I know about it. I am not the one who will find the solution, but I am one more adult person they have contact with." 
I imagine this story might be puzzling to many people, especially those involved with education. What exactly is going on here? Obviously the orchestral musicians have had a powerful positive influence on the school even though they are not professionally involved as teachers. So how does this work? I suspect that the best way to understand this is through the ancient concept of virtue. Virtue ethics, ultimately deriving from Aristotle, has seen a great revival in recent decades, but it is still far from being widely understood. The basic idea is that humans should lead a virtuous life which means to flourish according to their nature. Excelling at something, if it is a human good, is virtuous. Classical musicians then, with their combination of strict discipline and aesthetic sensitivity (all of which insulates them from shallow narcissism) are particularly good models of virtue. We learn virtue from people who exhibit it.

So it is entirely unsurprising to me that just being around orchestral musicians would exert a surprisingly large positive influence on schoolchildren. If they are constantly observing people working together in disciplined ways to achieve aesthetic goals, how can this not be positive? On the other hand, watching television, with its modeling of irrational, Dionysian excess will have the opposite effect, will it not? The classroom environment can also be positive or negative from a virtue ethics point of view.

Here is the orchestra in question, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, conducted by Paavo Jarvi:


Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Philip Glass has won the $100,000 (Canadian) Glenn Gould prize. I think that reviewing the list of the jury will reveal why he was picked instead of someone else:
Actress-filmmaker Sarah Polley, singer Petula Clark and author Michael Ondaatje were among the jury members for this year's award. Music producer Bob Ezrin chaired the panel, which also included former governor general Adrienne Clarkson and soprano Deborah Voigt. The jury was rounded out by tenor Jay Hunter Morris, Princess Julie of Luxembourg, pipa virtuoso Wu Man, and film and TV producer Martin Katz.
I count two (2) classical musicians, both singers, on the panel and a whole lot of "cultural figures". And not one composer. I rather like some of the music of Philip Glass, but the idea of him receiving the Glenn Gould prize rather boggles the mind, doesn't it?

* * *

Slipped Disc has a collection of photos of composers smoking, which reminds me of this photo, one of only two existing, of Robert Johnson:


One publisher of transcriptions of his songs thought that the photo would have a bad influence in these times so they airbrushed out the cigarette! Which prompted one reviewer to remark, "hey, Robert Johnson quit smoking!"

* * *

As a follow-up to my post on musician interviews, here is a new one with Lang Lang using the same questions. Interestingly, he is so well-known that he doesn't seem to feel the pressure to conform exactly to expectations. The question about working with non-classical musicians is a trap for many artists, but not for Lang Lang. He's already there!
Which non-classical musician would you love to work with?
I like interesting experiments, such as my recent ones with Metallica and Pharrell Williams. These type of collaborations mostly happen relatively spontaneously, so I am curious myself as to with whom from the nonclassical world I will work with next!
* * *

Today's example of shoddy research into music comes from the University of Southern Denmark and examines rivalries between 19th century composers. I say "shoddy" because of examples like these:
The researchers say their results are supported by the biographies of composers. 
Wagner, for example, complains that his opera rival, Berlioz, neither encouraged nor discouraged him. The researchers say that Berlioz, for most of his life, withheld from Wagner the recognition that he craved. 
Maurice Ravel was diagnosed with neurasthenia after the failure of his ballet ‘Daphnis et Chloe’, because, say the researchers, the performance had been overshadowed by a concert 10 days earlier of Debussy's ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’.
One problem here is that Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" was premiered in December 1894, nearly eighteen years before Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe" which was premiered in June, 1912. As for the Wagner example, this seems to reveal more about Wagner's arrogance than anything else. Also, a lot of these composers died of things like syphilis, for which there was no cure at the time. I suspect that the research was driven by deep-seated ideological biases, rather than objective research. For example, you could equally argue that concentrations of composers leads to more educated and appreciative audiences, which surely must lead to greater mental health for the composers? You could argue this from many angles, but the one taken here seems particularly suspect.

* * *

I've long been of the opinion that music has no place in the workplace: unless your workplace is a symphony orchestra, music school or opera house, that is. You, or at least I, can't think if there is music playing, let alone do productive work. Ann Althouse is of the same opinion in this post. Having to listen to music seems like one of the worst aspects of the "open office". But no, I don't think even the seamless ennui of Brian Eno is acceptable as a musical background.


* * *

Here is an interesting link: "Inspiring Workspaces of the Famously Creative." Alas, none of them, except for John Lennon and Yoko Ono, are musicians. Here is John in their workspace:


I wish we had a collection of images of composer's workspaces. I do know that Mahler worked in a tiny little shack about 10' by 10' on the shore of a lake in Austria. Stravinsky wrote the Rite of Spring in a little room 8' by 8' in Switzerland and Elliot Carter wrote his String Quartet No. 1 in a little hut in the Sonoran desert. We do have a photo of the exterior of Mahler's "composing hut", but not the interior and nothing of the others. Here is Mahler's:


So the ideal for composers seems to be, just room enough for a piano, maybe a little desk, and a chair. Anything else is superfluous. Of course, these days, this is more likely what a composer's workstation looks like:


We seem to have evolved...

* * *

As a followup to Alan Gilbert's London talk on the new role of the symphony orchestra, here is a link to a review in the Guardian of a concert by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Gilbert, in London. Uh, doesn't it seem to you that what they have really succeeded in doing is turning a masterpiece of 20th century music into an episode of a children's show? The Muppets do Stravinsky?
The players become a rather naughty group of participants at the ballet’s Shrovetide fair, as Fitch’s cameras glide round the orchestra, homing in on percussionists surreptitiously swigging vodka, or the double bass section peering at a peep show. We’re encouraged to clap along and scream in terror at a dancing bear. Music director Alan Gilbert, sporting a spangled blue coat, plays the Magician himself, his extravagant gestures bringing both puppets and music to life.
Sheesh!

* * *

And that gives us our envoi: Petrushka by Stravinsky. Here is Andris Nelsons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:


Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Footnote on Music Criticism

Music criticism is an interesting nexus of debate these days, and I have been contributing the occasional piece here. There are lots of reasons why music criticism is in decline and I have taken up some of them before: diminishing levels of education in audiences and readers is probably the main one. But another that I have talked about less often is how music criticism is often attacked by people "in the business" who are supposedly on the right side. Sometimes I want to say, heaven protect us from our defenders!

Here is an example: there was a recent review in The Strad of a performance of Sibelius' Symphony No. 4 by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle. Here is one critical statement from the review:
Rattle’s interpretation of the Fourth Symphony was closer to Karajan’s than to contemporary ideas of the piece as a bleak pencil sketch occasionally shot through with mirages of colour and optimism. Does that mean Rattle has to cast Sibelius’s Fourth as a vast Mahlerian wallow upholstered by luscious strings, its Largo bestowed with a huge unmarked rallentando? Does he have to transform it into something wholly removed from the sparseness and abruptness of Sibelius’s pencil-sketch original?
This seems to me to be acceptable as music criticism if it is indeed what the reviewer thought about what he heard. But Norman Lebrecht holds this review up for particular scorn over at Slipped Disc:

A RIGHT WAY TO PLAY SIBELIUS? OH, FFFFF’S SAKE.

A London critic didn’t like the Berlin Philharmonic performances of the Sibelius symphonies because they’re not what he’s used to. So he concludes they cannot be right.
Then the critic equivocates a bit before deciding that the performances paid ‘little heed to the spirit of a score.’
As if that can spirit be defined, bottled and marketed as authentic.
Music in print is an approximation of an imagined sound. Interpreters exist to make sense of it, according to their own lights – northern or otherwise.
Some of the commentators pushed back effectively:
He explains why. He has his opinion, you have yours. What’s the problem for heaven’s sake?
 The problem is that, for Norman Lebrecht and many others in the business, aesthetics and the ability to debate aesthetic issues is a closed book. Discussion of "better" or "worse" is simply verboten. For "fffff's sake." You see, you benighted commoners, it has been decreed that aesthetics, like ethics is completely and utterly relative. There is no right and wrong, there is only your personal opinion and my personal opinion. But, if your personal opinion is different from mine, then you are an idiot! Wow, hard to miss that little logical contradiction. I suspect that what set Mr. Lebrecht off in this instance was the claim that Mahler wallows, which he does, and that Sibelius is better off NOT played as if he were Mahler or Bruckner, which is true.

Since this is the Music Salon, the home of aesthetic objectivity, let's do our own comparison. Here is the trailer for a complete performance of the Sibelius 4th with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Not sure if this is enough to give us an idea, but it is all that is available on YouTube:


Now let's compare that with a performance conducted by a Finn. Here is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Orchestra:


What I hear with the Rattle/Berlin performance is that they seem to think it is a delightful romp with occasional spicy notes. The Salonen/Swedish performance is much darker and starker. I think that I very much see the point of the review, though I would certainly want to hear a complete performance by Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic before coming to any conclusion.

It is dispiriting to realize that many orchestras, for economic reasons and out of sheer aesthetic dunderheadedness may be turning profound and weighty pieces of music into "delightful romps" for their ever more ill-informed and ill-prepared audiences.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Concerto Guide: Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor

The Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky was completed in 1875, though it underwent some revisions later on. A recent recording of it returns to the original version, but we usually hear the revised one. If you recall, the 18th century concerto always began with the orchestra stating the main theme with the entry of the soloist delayed until this was complete. Mozart broke with this on occasion, having the solo piano interrupt the orchestra, and Beethoven began a couple of concertos with the piano soloist. But it was Robert Schumann who laid out a new model for the Romantic concerto, giving the orchestra a single chord and having the solo piano present the opening theme. A number of composers we have looked at, including Grieg and Liszt, used this kind of opening while Brahms returned to the earlier format of delaying the entry of the soloist.

Tchaikovsky, in his first piano concerto, does something different. As the piano is now so powerful an instrument, both physically and culturally, it no longer has to assert itself so starkly. In an interesting turnabout, the orchestra is given the opening theme, but the piano accompanies them, all of them, with a huge chordal figure before taking over the theme itself. Here is how that looks:


After a brief four-measure introduction in the brass, the melody is given to the first violins and cellos--one of Tchaikovsky's great tunes. But this unusual effect, a single instrument accompanying a whole, large orchestra with huge arpeggiated chords (arpeggiated in large clumps, mind you) is a unique effect and makes for a powerful beginning. Then, as I said, the piano takes over the theme:


The Wikipedia article on the concerto says that "One of the most prominent differences between the original and final versions is that in the opening section, the octave chords played by the pianist, over which the orchestra plays the famous theme, were originally written as arpeggios." But didn't I just say that this version, the revised one, has huge arpeggiated chords at the beginning? Of course, there are lots of different kinds of arpeggios. The term is derived from the Italian word for harp, who typically has these kinds of textures:


This example is for piano, but harp arpeggios look just the same. However, to a theorist, prolonging a harmony by spreading it out in different octaves is also an arpeggiation and I was using the word in that sense. Playing the notes of a B-flat minor chord individually, as on a harp or guitar, or in solid groups of six or seven notes, and extending this harmony over one or more octaves for several measures is an arpeggiation to a theorist. Performers think of it differently, though and contrast what they call arpeggios with "solid chords", which is what the piano is playing here. This is because, to a performer, they present different problems of execution. Theorists aren't interested in execution, but they are interested in what the listener hears.

Even from the very first performance, in Boston in 1875 with Hans von Bülow as soloist, the work was a big success. At the premiere, the audience response was so enthusiastic that they had to repeat the finale! I witnessed a response like this myself on one occasion. In Toronto in the late 1970s, John Williams premiered a guitar concerto by Leo Brouwer with the composer conducting and the audience, composed largely of guitarists attending a festival, were ecstatic and delivered a five minute standing ovation. Finally, after having returned to the stage often enough to have shaken the hand of every single member of the orchestra, Williams and Brouwer decided to play the slow movement again. So yes, these things happen. Just not very often!

Without going into further analysis of the piece (for a non-technical one you might look here), let's listen to it. Here is a classic performance with a young Martha Argerich and Charles Dutoit conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1975:


Monday, April 20, 2015

Neglecting Boulez

Pierre Boulez is one of the few remaining iconic figures of 20th century modernism. My most recent post on him is here, where I talk about his list of ten important pieces of 20th century music. Boulez' stance is that of high modernism, which I have also talked about a lot. While recognizing that some great music, like the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by Bartók, has been written in this style, my sense is that things went rather astray after the Second World War when "progressive" music took rather a radical turn with composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Possibly the most influential composer of this generation was and is Pierre Boulez, who celebrates his 90th birthday this year.

One of the acts that gave him considerable notoriety in his early career was an essay he wrote titled "Schoenberg est mort" ("Schoenberg is dead") published in 1952, just a year after his death. You can find a summary of its main points here. For Boulez, Schoenberg was just not radical enough, and retained too many features of pre-serial music. Anton Webern instead was to be the model for post-war composers. It is very tempting, of course, to wait for the suitable moment and then write an essay titled "Boulez est mort", but two wrongs don't make a right! Notice that it was as much for his polemics as for his compositions that Boulez became known. Later on he was better-known to the general public in his role as conductor than as composer. Indeed, he expiated his sins regarding Schoenberg (and Bartók, about whom he also was rather unkind, and for the same reasons) by making definitive recordings of much of their music. If you want really outstanding and accurate recordings of Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Debussy and others, those of Pierre Boulez are the ones to look for. Many of these have been reissued in inexpensive boxes (that devoted to Schoenberg has eleven CDs) quite recently.

However, in this even-numbered birthday year, Alex Ross notes that, in America at least, the music of Boulez is oddly neglected:
Mark Swed, in the LA Timesrecently noted a shortage of American orchestral tributes to Pierre Boulez in his ninetieth-birthday year. The New York Philharmonic, Boulez's former base, programmed nothing by him this season; likewise the LA Phil. Instead, as Swed observed, on Boulez's birthday both orchestras were playing works by John Adams.
Ouch! Mind you, the neglect is not total:
this Sunday in New York, David Robertson and the Juilliard Orchestra will perform Boulez's Rituel and the Originel from “…explosante-fixe…," alongside Debussy’s Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun" and Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Winds.
That looks like an interesting program; one I would like to attend. Let's try and recreate it here with the aid of YouTube. First, Rituel, a hommage to Bruno Maderna:


Next, Originel from explosante-fixe:


A good piece to pair with that might be the DebussyPrélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Here is Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra:


And finally, that very unusual piece by Stravinsky, the Symphonies of Winds. Here is Boulez conducting a 1985 live performance:


I have to admit that I am of two minds here. Obviously the long-term influence of Boulez and evaluation of his music is still very much up in the air. Perhaps a hundred years from now the 20th century can be weighed more judiciously, just as the 19th century is in the process of being weighed today. But it seems clear that, in the short term, the lighter-weight minimalism of John Adams, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass and Steve Reich has a much higher profile in the classical music world--even though the last two of these had to put together their own ensembles to play their music in the early days.

Boulez has accused more traditional composers, like Shostakovich, of "playing with clichés" because of their use of tonality and rhythmic and melodic gestures that resemble those of tonal music. But he does not seem to realize that the rhythmic and melodic gestures that we often find in his music, take for example the flute solo at the beginning of Originel, also can start to sound like clichés--clichés of high modernism. The rapid flurries of arpeggiations ending with a mid-range trill, the jerky rhythms, the leaping from one end of the range to another, all these things are heard over and over again in the music of Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Ferneyhough and others of that generation. Are they not now, along with the continuing dissonance, a cliché? Certainly to my ears, which is one reason why I find it hard to love that music. But maybe we just need another hundred years...


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Aesthetic vs Economic Value

I just read a blog post in which the writer is discussing the difficulties in trying to reprogram a young person who has been miseducated into believing all sorts of nonsense about economics. The author writes:
Anything: good, labor, service, all it's worth is what someone else will pay for it. If you want your good, labor or service to be worth more, then it's up to you to make it worth more. That's a fact of human existence as immutable as gravity is in the physical world. Any philosophy, political or sociological, that denies that simple truth is destined to fail, utterly and catastrophically.
Which is a nicely uncompromising statement of fundamental economic truth. The only problem is, he bills this theory as a theory of "value" tout simple. All value. OK, if the value of something is what someone will pay for it, nothing more, then what is the value of the Bach B minor Mass? The Herreweghe recording is available on Amazon for $24.43. Is that the value of the work? Well, no, because, for one thing, the ontological status of a piece of music means that it includes the totality of all presentations of the piece including the original score and all subsequent performances and arrangements of it. That's pretty hard to calculate. But it still doesn't actually deal with what I consider the most important aspect of the value of the piece: its aesthetic value. What is aesthetic, as opposed to economic value? There is also another kind of value that is left out of the above argument: moral value. I don't think that anyone, even those who would question the very existence of aesthetic value, would deny that moral value exists. Well, some might, which tempts me to go over to their place and steal their car. Hey, there is no such thing as right and wrong!

Economic value can be measured in units of currency, but how can we measure aesthetic or moral value? I suppose that the justice system, when it is functioning properly, is a mechanism for weighing moral value, at least as defined by laws. If you are bit bad, you get fined, if you are very bad, you go to jail for a certain amount of time. But this mechanism is about measuring degrees of badness. The civil justice system weighs both goodness and badness, I suppose, as it tries to determine between two or more disputing sides which one has more right on their side.

But aesthetic value is very, very tricky. If we return to my original question, what is the aesthetic value of the Bach B Minor Mass, we would be puzzled to offer an answer. For one thing, we don't seen to have any units available. There is a whole panoply of awards for composers today, such as the Pulitzer Prize in music, awarded to John Luther Adams in 2014 for his Become Ocean, or the Glenn Gould Prize, just awarded to Philip Glass, or the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition given to Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2011 for his Violin Concerto. If these awards are a proxy for aesthetic quality, then we could add up how many awards a composer has received and take that as a measure of aesthetic quality. That is certainly how the current musical world seems to operate. There are prizes for performers as well.

I hope that makes you as uncomfortable as it makes me! One artist, opposed to these kinds of prizes, said that a musician is not a race-horse. There are lots of reasons why we should be suspicious of these awards. Sometimes they seem to be given for superficial reasons. One suspects that Adams got the Pulitzer for writing a politically-correct work. You would certainly be denied awards if your music was conspicuously politically incorrect. The award is really only as good as the quality of the jurors who made the decision. If they are composers, then ideological rivalries will play a role. If they are "cultural figures" as in the jury for the Glenn Gould prize, then they will tend to pick someone who has a name and is considered cool, like Philip Glass. The Grawemeyer Award goes through three stages: (quoting from Wikipedia)
The first is a panel of faculty from the University of Louisville, who hosts and maintains the perpetuity of the award. The second is a panel of music professionals, often involving conductors, performers, and composers (most frequently the previous winner). The final decision is made by a lay committee of new music enthusiasts who are highly knowledgeable about the state of new music. This final committee of amateurs makes the final prize determination because Grawemeyer insisted that great ideas are not exclusively the domain of academic experts.
Which seems to me to be the best system of the ones I know. You will not win the prize unless you can appeal to all three: academics, professional musicians and enthusiastic listeners.

I am reminded of the dilemma Plato presents in the Euthyphro: is murder wrong because God (or the gods) condemn it, or do the gods condemn it because it is wrong? Applied to the aesthetic question, is the music of prize-winning composers good because they won prizes or did they win prizes because their music is good? The answer I think is correct is that aesthetic value transcends whatever prizes the composer may have won. In fact, if you win a lot of prizes it may just mean that you are writing exactly what the jurors are looking for, i.e. something fashionable.

I lean to the view that while we can, at any given moment, have better or worse aesthetic judgements, depending on how well they are founded, our knowledge is always imperfect and it can take quite some time for the more balanced judgment of posterity to become clear.

A very important process crucial to the formation of well-founded aesthetic valuations is the role of music critics. They are the ones who should be digging up important information, passing over unimportant information, weighing the reception of the music and coming up with evaluations that may well evolve over time. Alas, this whole field of activity seems denatured these days with the disappearance of many music critics and the lowering in quality of many of those who are left. Too many writers on music have little or no understanding of music and merely pass on their biases to their readers.

We might, just a tad frivolously, measure aesthetic value according to a scale derived from Bach. A new piece for voices and orchestra, such as Thomas Adès' Totentanz, might, after suitable examination and reflection be awarded a value such as 0.01 B Minor Masses. Not enough? OK, how about .02 B minor Masses? In other words, it would take 50 Totentanzes to equal one B minor Mass. Seems about right...

Let's have a listen to Herreweghe's B minor Mass:


Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Canadian Music Critic

It must be a Montreal thing, but in my very informal survey of current music criticism I had a look at some pieces by Arthur Kaptainis, the occasional music critic for the Montreal Gazette and found some excellent writing--which of course means that his opinions and mine concur (I was long a resident of Montreal). Here is the link to a piece in two parts. The first is about the recent Valentina Lisitsa controversy and the second is about John Luther Adams' award-winning piece Become Ocean, which Mr. Kaptainis doesn't like very much:
It is my sad duty to report that this monumental exercise in nothingness for full orchestra goes on for 42 minutes in this fashion. You might upbraid me for my uncoolness and explain earnestly that for nothing to happen on a vast scale is the aesthetic point of this score and others like it. My response is that the point, if this is indeed the point, is pointless. I could make the same point in less time with fewer forces, or more time with more.
The acclaim that has greeted this silly exercise (as performed by the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot, not that this really matters) is a sad comment on the state of both American music and American music criticism.
Not that we are expected to approach the piece solely as music. Adams (a former environmental officer from Alaska who is not to be confused with his compatriot John Adams of The Death of Klinghoffer fame) has supplied a pretentious “environmental” program having to do with rising sea levels, which both adds spurious relevance to his music while buttressing it against the assaults of the linear-minded fuddy-duddies who expect music of any style or genre to do something. Hey, man, glaciers don’t melt fast.  Nor is it particularly edifying to watch them melt.
Heh! I wish I had said that. I hope that he has given Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer equally stiff treatment as he has an environmental schtick as well. I guess we really need to put up a performance of Become Ocean, don't we? But we can't because it isn't on YouTube. We can however listen to the rather similar exercise, Dark Waves:


Music Critics and Criticism

Yesterday in the Friday Miscellanea I included this bit on writing about music:
I've been reading Monroe Beardsley's Aesthetics recently with great interest. One point he makes is that there are two basic categories of comments one can make about an artwork. He labels them "external" and "internal" according to whether they are about things external to or internal to the piece. For example, mentioning that Beethoven died in a thunderstorm, or sued his sister in law for custody of his nephew, or complained about Haydn's way of teaching counterpoint is to discuss externals as none of these things are internal to the artworks themselves. Mentioning that Beethoven liked the music of Handel, or worked on themes for months or years in his sketchbooks, or struggled with coming up with definitive metronome markings are, however, internal to the music itself (or could be argued so). All external comments are irrelevant, even if they shed light on the composer's intentions because the composer's intentions are also irrelevant. Now, ask yourself, how much of the liner notes, program notes and reviews you have read recently are actually relevant? 50%? Or maybe more like 5%?
The unfortunate truth is that a great deal, probably most, of what we read written about music is misleading and misdirecting. It does not help us understand the music, but rather leads us to misunderstand the music. In this category we would most definitely include all those biographical details beloved of program note writers who want to "humanize" the composer.

This, and some other posts and comments this week about some less-than-stellar music criticism leads me to want to evaluate some of the most active music critics writing in English. Let's start with the chief music critic for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini. Here is an excerpt from a recent review of a recording:
Fans of Tchaikovsky’s beloved First Piano Concerto will notice something different at the start of this exciting new recording, featuring the formidable pianist Kirill Gerstein. When the soaring main theme breaks out in the orchestra, the accompanying piano chords are rolled, not played in solid blocks of steely sound; and the rising three-chord pattern spans just four octaves, not five. Mr. Gerstein and the conductor James Gaffigan use the 1879 version of the piece, the one Tchaikovsky settled on after making some alternations to the score after the work’s 1875 premiere. But the concerto is known today from an 1894 version, published after Tchaikovsky’s death, which includes tweaks and cuts the composer had never sanctioned, as Mr. Gerstein explains in his information liner notes. The changes, though not extensive, tend to tame and make more conventional some of Tchaikovsky bolder flights.
I haven't heard this recording, but that doesn't matter, because I just want to look at what Tommasini wrote to see if it qualifies as music criticism. The answer is yes. He discusses only those things inherent to the aesthetic object in question, namely the new Tchaikovsky recording, and he does so in clear, unambiguous language that is neither too technical, nor too avoiding of appropriate technical terms. I don't know if his comments are correct and exact, but they are appropriate. Let's look at another example. Here is a review of a concert of music by Purcell:
The concert began with excerpts from “The Fairy Queen,” adapted from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The players of Les Violons du Roy, based in Quebec City, brought Baroque-style focused sound and appealing swing to an orchestral Air and Rondeau, which led into a scene for a drunken poet. The bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus was delightful as the poet, slurping his delivery, sometimes bellowing his lines. A chorus of spirits mocked him for his “dogrel rhymes” and prodded two fairies to “pinch him for his crimes” in music that walked a blissful line between gentle joking and intense needling.
Again, the focus is on the music and the performance. Nowhere else in the review does he wander into irrelevancies. Let's look at one more example. Here is a paragraph from a recent review of a concert by the New York Philharmonic:
I could devote a whole report to the wrenching, blazing and vehement account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor that Mr. Gilbert conducted after intermission. The composer completed this hourlong symphony months after the death of Stalin. How explicitly it was intended as bitter commentary on Stalinist repression is a topic of debate. Whatever one’s take, Mr. Gilbert led a commanding performance, especially the spacious gravity he summoned during the expansive opening movement and the intensity bordering on sheer terror of the short Allegro.
Again, nothing out of place here. Tommasini mentions the controversy over the "meaning" of some of the symphonies of Shostakovich, but doesn't force an opinion on us, commenting rather on how the music was delivered.

Now let's take a look at another very prominent critic, Alex Ross who is the chief music critic for the New Yorker. I've kicked Mr. Ross around quite a bit recently, largely because of a piece he wrote titled "Listen to the Future". Here is one bit I haven't previously quoted:
Can tradition-minded classical listeners ever be made to grasp the crippling contradictions inherent in their hostility toward contemporary music?
I think this encapsulates rather well the central problem of Mr. Ross' criticism: he really does want to tell us what to think and he really does think that we must be made to think certain things. In the case of this quote, we must be "made to grasp" that we are just wrong, wrong, wrong to dismiss some contemporary music, because our hostility is based on "crippling contradictions". That kind of totalitarian pomposity is exactly why I intensely dislike Alex Ross' criticism. Let us seek further representative examples, however. Here is description of a recent piece by Thomas Adès:
Adès’s latest creations are anything but circumspect: they are wilder, stranger, and bolder than the intricate, insolent scores with which he first made his name, in the nineteen-nineties. The opening bars of “Totentanz” give us winds shrieking in their upper registers, hectoring brass, whistles and whipcracks from the percussion section, and a splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance. It is a sound at once grand and gaudy, majestic and mordant.
 This is reasonably apt writing, though I am a bit uncomfortable with the "intricate, insolent" characterization which is thinly-disguised propaganda for two of the essential elements in high modernism: that it be maximally complex and that it "épater les bourgeoisie" (insult the middle-class). The "splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance" seems oddly uninformative. Mr. Ross always seems to have agendas other than the music itself, though he is quite skilled at making us think otherwise. Here is an excerpt from a piece about singer-composers:
Significantly, this is the first classical genre to be dominated by women. The musicologist Susan McClary notes that “women have rarely been permitted agency in art, but, instead, have been restricted to enacting—upon and through their bodies—the theatrical, musical, cinematic, and dance scenarios concocted by male artists.” When women employ their own voices as vessels for musical thought, they are amending history: the expressivity of the female voice speaks, at last, for female ideas, rather than for male ideas about female ideas. And, whatever the gender of the composer, there is an uncanny charge in seeing someone sing a score that he or she has constructed. The sensual immediacy of the voice merges with abstractions of the mind, until, as in the Wallace Stevens poem, the composer becomes the “single artificer of the world in which she sang.”
The feminist dogma quoted from Susan McClary is pretty blatant, of course. The questions that spring immediately to mind are "how can you define 'agency' so that it omits the agency of female performers?" Also, it is an illegitimate smear to refer to artworks by men as being "concocted". The mere fact of women singing does not, of course, "amend history". However would you manage to define "female" ideas as opposed to "male" ideas? There are only ideas--and idiocies, of which this is an example. Mr. Ross' biases come to the fore in many ways. Here is another example:
“Kinder! macht Neues!” Richard Wagner once scowled—“Children! Make something new!” He was berating fellow composers for reworking old pieces instead of delivering fresh creations. One can only imagine how Wagner would have been exasperated by the contemporary classical world, with its sclerotic fear of the new.
I'm sure that he in no way sees his view of the classical music world as being anything like a bias. For him it is simply true that disagreement with modernism, of which Wagner was one of the founders, is simply an error. For Ross, "the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream." The only march is the march into the future. Tradition, indeed, aesthetics itself, is really just a sclerosis of the culture. This is the pure propaganda of high modernism and Mr. Ross wants us to accept it as a given.

It's not, of course. This is Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt, which came about as a result of his long meditation on history and tradition:

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

And I know just how she feels: "Woman Stabs Roommate for Refusing to Stop Listening to The Eagles." Hey, we've all been there.
It's unclear which of the band's songs drove Bader over the edge, but police have narrowed down the possible suspects to "Witchy Woman," "Take It Easy," "Peaceful Easy Feeling," "Take It to the Limit," "One of These Nights," "Tequila Sunrise," and "Hotel California" on repeat.
Oh, for sure:


* * *

Alan Gilbert, just stepping down as music director of the New York Philharmonic, recently gave a lecture on the future of the orchestra. You know what I think: the only problem with orchestras and classical music generally is that we need better audiences! But of course you cannot say that sort of thing in public. What must instead be said is some version of the Received Wisdom: classical music must change and fit into the Brave New World of the 21st Century, by performing in Unconventional Spaces and attracting New, Younger Audiences. Blah, blah, blah. Let's see how Gilbert finesses that:
What orchestras can be for their audiences is changing, and that actually presents a wonderful opportunity for us to grow. The new generation of emerging orchestra musicians and conductors can approach things with an optimism that is unburdened by any sense of historical limitation. Music has an eternal power to move us, and increasingly, schools and professional music groups are embracing the new role that musicians can fill in touching people’s lives both in and out of the concert hall.
What is asked and expected of musicians is constantly evolving. Outstanding musicians in today’s orchestras are only doing their jobs fully when they understand and invest in their expanded portfolio that is demanded by the wider definition of what an orchestra is. I want to see orchestra musicians held up as heroes in their communities – both for their brilliance as musicians, but also for how they use that talent to touch the lives of those around them through music. People must get used to seeing musicians as the crucial agents of change in communities, as teachers, leaders and role-models.
Oh dear... One wonders, what with all this touching of people's lives outside the concert hall and being heroes in the community, when will musicians ever have time to actually give a concert, not to mention practice and rehearse? But he says a lot of things in the lecture and it is worth having a look.

 * * *

I rarely run across music criticism that is as, well, "full-blooded" as that on offer here at the Music Salon, but occasionally... One such example is a rather unbuttoned take on the contemporary music scene by Simon Heffer from last November titled, "A Raspberry for Emetic Music".
I wonder whether it is a coincidence that when when composers relied on private patronage they wrote music that was, and remains, wonderful, but now all sorts of orchestras and public bodies channel money to them from the pockets of taxpayers, they write music that is, and will remain, crap? I think not. If it hardly matters to a composer whether people come to hear his work, or buy downloads of it in the event it is recorded, because the state-funded cheque turns up whatever, he can indulge himself to the point of exhaustion in writing what Kathleen Ferrier once memorably termed "three farts and a raspberry, orchestrated". These nonentities pose as being of the people, yet write music that only the smallest handful, and those having been in receipt of one of the most elitist educations imaginable, can even pretend to understand. And even many of them would never go as far as saying they "like" it, because much of it is profoundly unlikeable.
I think I have said something very like this at times. But if you are going to criticise something so severely, then you ought to at least name names.

* * *

 From time to time, one wonders what 20th century music is the most popular. One indicator is this list of the top eight parts rentals from Boosey and Hawkes. These are all works still under copyright (the Mussorgsky because it is the Ravel arrangement), but none of them dates from after 1960:
1. Bernstein: Symphonic Dances From "West Side Story"
2. Bernstein: Overture to "Candide"
3. Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition
4. Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
5. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2
6. Britten: Four Sea Interludes
7. Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite
8. Copland: Clarinet Concerto
Looking at that list, it is almost certain that it is just within the US. How would European rentals look, one wonders?

 * * *

I've been reading Monroe Beardsley's Aesthetics recently with great interest. One point he makes is that there are two basic categories of comments one can make about an artwork. He labels them "external" and "internal" according to whether they are about things external to or internal to the piece. For example, mentioning that Beethoven died in a thunderstorm, or sued his sister in law for custody of his nephew, or complained about Haydn's way of teaching counterpoint is to discuss externals as none of these things are internal to the artworks themselves. Mentioning that Beethoven liked the music of Handel, or worked on themes for months or years in his sketchbooks, or struggled with coming up with definitive metronome markings are, however, internal to the music itself (or could be argued so). All external comments are irrelevant, even if they shed light on the composer's intentions because the composer's intentions are also irrelevant. Now, ask yourself, how much of the liner notes, program notes and reviews you have read recently are actually relevant? 50%? Or maybe more like 5%?

* * *

Not a terribly lengthy miscellanea today. I assemble the various bits over the course of the week, and for part of the week, I didn't have Internet access. Let's end with the popular Appalachian Spring Suite by Copland.