Sunday, September 24, 2017

Veridical and Illusory Aesthetic Characteristics

Getting back to Monroe C. Beardsley's book Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, I want to do a few more posts on aesthetics.

The title sounds rather fancy, I know. It is just pointing out that some characteristics belong to the aesthetic object, while others do not. For example, knowing that Sibelius had great financial difficulties or that Charles Ives worked in the insurance industry are not facts or characteristics belonging to the music they wrote. So much of what we read in program or liner notes actually points us away from the music, rather than toward it. Things that depend on knowledge of the causal conditions of the production of an artwork, whether a building contains steel beams or not, or whether a composer used software rather than manuscript paper, are not part of the aesthetic object as perceived by the viewer or listener. Beardsley writes: hear properly certain kinds of music, it may be necessary for a listener whose phenomenal field is easily affected by his beliefs about the lives and loves of composers to push those beliefs out of his focus of attention: if Schubert's music sounds pathetic to one who sympathizes with his poverty, that is a mistake. [op. cit. p. 52]
This is not to say that we come to all aesthetic objects cold: an experienced listener brings to the table a lot of knowledge of the style, genre, and general construction of the work even if hearing it for the first time.

There are some interesting problems associated with the performing arts that do not trouble us in the case of, say, paintings or sculptures. The main ones have to do with the fact that a musical composition has various productions, each of which may reveal some, if not all, of the characteristics of the aesthetic object. Beardsley writes:
Let us, then, distinguish, in the case of music, three things: (1) There is the composer's artifact--in this case, the score. (2) There is the performance; any rendition of the sonata that is recognizably guided by the composer's instructions in the artifact will be called a performance of that sonata, but there will, of course, be many different performances of the same work. (3) There is the presentation-- a single experience of the music--and for each performance there may be a number of presentations. [He means that there is a presentation for each listener, including the performer. Op. cit. p. 55]
There is an interesting problem that arises: how do you answer the question, "how long is the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor?" If we look at this clip of the movement conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste we see that it is 15:34 long:

But when we listen to this clip of the same piece conducted by Vaclav Naumann it is 17:19 in length:

So how long is the movement? Fifteen minutes or seventeen minutes? This just demonstrates that the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, first movement, is not the name of a single aesthetic object. These are both productions of the same work, but they are not producing the same aesthetic object. Music critics, when they are reviewing a performance of a musical work are reviewing a particular production of that work as it was presented to them. A music theorist or musicologist, however, might be talking, not about any particular production or presentation, but about the composer's artifact, i.e. the score. So I might be tempted to answer the question, "how long is the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 by saying, "It is 547 measures long" which is how many measures there are in the score.

There are some interesting differences in popular music where there is often one unique production of a work. For example, The Beatles' recording of "Strawberry Fields Forever" is the one and only original production of the song (though there are some varying and fragmentary recorded versions created during the writing of the song--we could consider them "sketches"). It is 4:07 in duration. So for this composition, there is an answer to the question, "how long is Strawberry Fields Forever?" Mind you, each "cover" of the song by other artists will have a different length.

So there you go, just some little observations about aesthetics to muse over.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Ten Best Compositions of the 20th Century

Way back in the mid-1970s I was enrolled in an undergraduate course in music titled "20th Century Music" that was a survey course. Twenty years later I found myself in a similar course, "20th Century Theory and Analysis" (a doctoral seminar) taught by the same professor! At one point he remarked that every year he taught either course it got more difficult because the century got longer. When he started, he only had seventy or so years to teach, but now it was almost a hundred. Actually, I think it would be much easier now because the winds of time have started winnowing down the repertoire you have to cover. Back then you had to discuss Momente by Stockhausen and Le Marteau sans Maître by Boulez and something by Ligeti and Xenakis and Nono and Kagel. But now I think we can ignore that stuff as it seems to have sunk below the surface due to widespread audience rejection. The uncomfortable truth is that the audience does in fact have the final word. If no-one wants to hear your music, then musicians will sooner or later give up playing it.

One of the best ways to attract traffic on the internet seems to be by doing lists. Of course if you are doing lists of classical music you do limit your audience! Much better to do lists of the best cat videos or the stupidest things politicians said this week or best recipes for pasta sauces. Still, my list of the top ten pieces for classical guitar remains a perennial favorite, the most-viewed post on the blog. So here goes, my pick of the ten best compositions of the 20th century. I suspect you know what number one will be. In traditional internet style, we begin with number 10. The links will undoubtedly decay over time, but for now I will put in clips of each piece.

10. Charles Ives, Three Places in New England

9. Alban Berg, Wozzeck

8. Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2

7. Olivier Messiaen, Turangalîla-Symphonie

6. Igor Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms

5. Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 5

4. Bela Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

3. Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5

2. Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians

1. Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring

(I don't know why, but this clip insists on starting a few seconds in. Just put it back to the beginning!)

Enjoy! And explain to me how I'm all wrong in the comments. I wasn't too analytical with this. I just went with my gut for most of it. These are pieces that continue to fascinate me and that I always enjoy listening to. For some of them I could have swapped in others: instead of Wozzeck I could have listed the Schoenberg Violin Concerto. Instead of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto I could have listed the Sibelius Violin Concerto and so on. The only ones on the list that are really indispensable are The Rite, Steve Reich's Music, and the Turangalîla-Symphonie because they really don't have any equivalents! But I could have replaced the Shostakovich symphony with a couple of other pieces by him and the same with the Bartók. Anyway, these are my choices! If I had one more space I would have included the Symphony No. 3 by Gorecki or something by Arvo Pärt.

Just a final note: I do in fact think that The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky is the finest composition of the 20th century and there is a lot of evidence to back that up. But for the rest of the list, the order is somewhat arbitrary. If you want to say that the Sibelius symphony should come before the Bartók, then I won't argue. These pieces are in such different styles that they are rather incommensurable. Which is better, Wozzeck or the Symphony of Psalms? Or the Music for 18 Musicians? Tell me about it in the comments.

Models of Artistic Lives

Artists of all kinds are outliers in the social fabric. The reasons for this are probably complex, but they likely include things like the difficulty of earning money through artistic creation, a disinterest in the usual criteria of success in life and an ambiguous relationship with the social hierarchy. All this does tend to free one to focus on the creative act, but it also complicates ordinary life.

In the era of patronage, when most artists were funded by the church or the nobility, often in competition with one another, what you had to do was fairly clear, I would imagine: appeal to the tastes or vanity or ambition of your patron. Italy seems to have been particularly blessed with wealthy, visionary patrons which partly explains the great art of the Renaissance and Baroque. As the eighteenth century came to an end the patronage began to shift from the aristocracy, more and more eliminated by revolution and social change, to a widespread support by the middle class, who began to adopt some of the artistic tastes of the nobility. Haydn was supported for most of his life by a single aristocratic family, the Esterházys, Beethoven by a circle of wealthy patrons, but Schumann wrote music criticism and edited a journal. Chopin taught private students, Mendelssohn was a conductor, as was Mahler, and director of an important music school. Some composers, like Wagner, still had aristocratic patronage, but that was rare in the later 19th century. By the time we get to someone like Sibelius (1865 - 1957) the struggle to support a family was dire indeed. Here is a lament he wrote in 1911:
My domestic harmony and peace are at an end because I cannot earn sufficient income to supply all that is needed. A constant battle with tears and misery at home. A hell! I feel completely unworthy in my own home ... Poor Aino! [his wife] It can hardly be easy to manage the house on so little. It makes me more than aware of the truth in the old saying: do not marry if you cannot provide for your wife in the style to which she was accustomed before. The same food, clothes, servants -- in a word the same income.
Sibelius, like many Finns, was a family man. He and Aino had six daughters. Most artists, while they are, as I said, outliers, they are outliers from a certain level in society--the upper middle class. Yes, there are working class artists and aristocratic artists, but I suspect that they are the minority. Most come from some level of the middle class, especially considering that this is the largest part of modern societies. All his life Sibelius struggled with the two problems of providing for his family and his overindulgence in cigars and alcohol. He received support from the state and an income from publishing, but this was never quite enough.

Charles Ives' life (1874 - 1954) illustrates the difficulties of an artist in the New World. Though he studied music at Yale, he never seriously attempted to earn a living as a composer. Soon after graduation he entered the insurance business and later on founded his own company. It was Charles Ives who invented the field of estate planning for the wealthy! He composed a great deal of largely experimental music, but stopped around 1927. His manuscripts moldered in a garage and his music was largely ignored until Leonard Bernstein did some important premieres in the 1950s.

In the later 20th century things got even worse because few governments outside of northern Europe provide any pension for their artists, just a few paltry and sporadic grants. Nearly every composer has to follow the path of academia, teaching theory and composition in a conservatory or university. This does not seem to lead to much brilliant, creative work! The outstanding composers all seem to be outside that model. Philip Glass worked at lower class jobs like driving a taxi, being a plumber and a furniture mover and he did this well into his forties when he started getting enough commissions to scrape by. He lived a largely bohemian life. Steve Reich seems to have found enough patrons to subsist until he formed his ensemble and began doing a lot of performances and recordings.

Stravinsky seems to have been the last composer to have achieved enough fame in society to generate a good income. Early on he got significant commissions from Diaghilev and continued to write well-received ballets for decades after. He got a lot of important commissions and also derived income from performances, recordings and a long series of books written with Robert Craft.  Alas, with the exception of Philip Glass, who has followed a similar path in his prolific writing for theatre and film, this seems out of reach for anyone else.

One siren call these days seems to be to figure out a way to emulate or share in the bounty of popular music where it is possible to earn fantastic sums of money. But while the occasional popular artist might dabble in art music and the occasional classical composer might dabble in popular music, the two seem largely unreconcilable.

It ain't easy!

Let's listen to a fairly early piece by Charles Ives. This is Central Park in the Dark, composed in 1906. This the Northern Sinfonia conducted by James Sinclair:

Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Kicking off the miscellanea with the 50 best-selling music artists of all time from the Independent. It starts with The Beatles, of course:
England's greatest rock band holds the top spot on the all-time ranking of best-selling artists by album sales, and it looks untouchable on a bizarre list filled with a number of surprising appearances.
It's somewhat shocking to find out, for instance, that smooth-jazz saxophonist Kenny G has sold more albums than Eminem, and that Garth Brooks has sold more than Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. 
We compiled this list by ranking the most successful acts in music history according to their total certified album units sold in the US, as provided by the RIAA. 
I have GOT to release a "smooth classical" album! Here are the top 4:
4. Led Zeppelin -- 111.5 million units
3. Elvis Presley -- 136 million units
2. Garth Brooks -- 148 million units
1. The Beatles -- 178 million units
The thing is that this is only for the US. Other lists have the Beatles and Elvis Presley tied for first place with about a billion units each on worldwide sales.

* * *

The Washington Post has an article on the legacy of Leonard Bernstein:
But Bernstein also spotlights some of the fault lines running through the American musical establishment, and the centennial makes it clear that, in spite of his example, they haven’t changed all that much. Ironically, the classical music world will be feting Bernstein in part for his role in merging the American vernacular with high-art music, in works such as “Candide” and “West Side Story.” But throughout his life, critics castigated him for not being serious enough. And even today, the classical music world tends to look down on Broadway, or film scores, as not being fully serious, or somehow tainted. Some of the artists who most energetically took up Bernstein’s mantle as a champion of both musicals and operas — such as DeMain and John Mauceri, who worked closely with Bernstein for 18 years — haven’t always gotten the respect accorded to conductors who focused on the standard European canon.
That last bit is just the usual shibboleths isn't it? If you write light music or Broadway or film scores it is not that the classical world thinks you are unserious or "tainted" (good grief, tainted?), it is just that these genres have a different function and audience. Even Beethoven wrote light music such as Scottish folksong arrangements and Wellington's Victory and no-one says he is "tainted."

* * *

Yes, I know I am often complaining about Alex Ross, but he had quite an interesting item on his blog about John Wooldridge who was both a Royal Air Force bomber pilot and a composer. The two streams met when he wrote the music for a film, starring Dirk Bogarde, about his, Wooldridge's, life!
The best account of Wooldridge's life available is a Music Web International essay by his son, Hugh Wooldridge. During the war, he flew ninety-seven missions, an extraordinarily high number. He continued to compose while serving in the RAF. Hugh Wooldridge writes: "During the first three years of the war, and in between flying, he wrote his first and most notable musical work — a symphonic poem The Constellations (1944) working alternately on borrowed pianos and the local padre’s organ. Much of this was sketched during the long bombing missions over occupied mainland Europe."
* * *

The New York Times weighs in on the Oregon Bach Festival controversy. You should read the whole thing, but this bit really caught my eye:
After the Eugene Weekly broke the news of Mr. Halls’s firing last month, the festival released an upbeat statement claiming that it was “moving forward in an exciting direction.” Janelle McCoy, who became its executive director in 2016, said in the statement that she wanted future festivals to be planned by “guest curators” — “a choreographer, stage director or jazz musician, for example” — not by a single artistic director.
So we go from Helmut Rilling's "old-school, big-symphony approach to Bach" to Matthew Halls' more historic approach to this new, exciting direction? I think that I would describe a Bach festival with a music director who was a choreographer or jazz musician as rather a horrifying prospect! But I actually like Bach, unlike, it seems, the current administration of the Oregon Bach Festival.

* * *

Just as my Rite of Spring series comes to a close, the Wall Street Journal reviews a revival of a Pina Bausch production.
At 35 minutes in length, “The Rite of Spring,” the older of these works, closes the program with generically fraught and repetitious moves. Two 16-strong contingents of female and male dancers moving, sometimes at frantic paces, all over designer Rolf Borzik’s plush-rug-thick layer of russet-colored peat provide moments of visceral impact. But, mostly, Bausch reduces Stravinsky’s primal and often thundering sonorities evoking the arrival of a dramatically changed season into an animated depiction of matched sets of fearful women and overweening men. Climactically, to the score’s “Sacrificial Dance,” a woman, who’s been singled out from the group by an anonymous man, dances, at an exhausting pace, many of the sharp and flailing moves that have come before.
 * * *

The Paris Review has a review of a performance, on violin, of John Cage's 4'33. It is the kind of stream-of-consciousness that Virginia Woolf might have written.
And even bad music, and especially bad music, has what they call hooks, bits you can remember and by remembering enjoy, but the music Cage “composed,” the music the “red-haired” man was “playing,” and everything ought to be in quotes because everything is partly something else. And because the “silence” I was hearing wasn’t something else, had no hooks to distract me from the purity of what it was, although that sounds pleasant, in the actual act of sitting there, I noticed anger arising. That’s how D. T. Suzuki, the Buddhist writer and the teacher of Cage, would have described it, and it was arising in me because, beneath the anger there was a desolation I didn’t want to feel, an aversion that caused the anger, and yes, I was judging myself, my inability to confront that desolation, and the judgments, were evolving like the music...
* * *

My feeling is that the perfect review of 4'33 would be more like this:

If you see what I mean.

* * * 

Also in The Paris Review is a piece on my favorite musical, The Band Wagon, with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse (who has possibly the greatest legs ever):
I’ve always thought of The Band Wagon as a poor man’s Singin’ in the Rain. In film classes, one is encouraged to compare the two, presumably because they are contemporaneous and both regarded among the top five of the genre. If The Band Wagon holds together at any point, it’s because of a certain continuity of mood and feeling. It’s the consummate “putting on a show” musical. And it’s a movie about the theater that seems to suggest, even more than Singin’ in the Rain does, that if your problems can’t be fixed by love, they can still be fixed by art. And that art, in turn, can be fixed by self-knowledge, including the knowledge of one’s own limitations. “I’m just an entertainer,” says Astaire, trying to nip the “Faust” business in the bud. Entertainers have no business making art. But of course, art is the result of The Band Wagon’s messy weirdness, in both narrative and meta-narrative—and it lends the film a sense of completeness in spite of itself. The Band Wagon is a movie that tries to break up with the Hollywood system while using all its tricks.
* * *

 Let's have a double-barreled envoi today. I would like to put up The Constellations by John Wooldridge, but there are just a few brief clips of his film music on YouTube. This is an excerpt from his music for the movie Angels One Five:

And for our second item, the famous scene from The Band Wagon where Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse learn how to dance together in Central Park:

Oh, and notice that the dance number is shot in just a couple of long takes instead of the frenetic jump cuts of today's videos. Fred and Cyd had to memorize the whole sequence and perform it flawlessly because, no editing!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ad hominem plus guilt by association!

I wonder if my critique of the Musicology Now website a while back has not galvanized them into more activity. If that is so, I certainly apologize, because the heightened level of activity has not led to an improvement in quality. But given their core assumptions, I suppose that was to be expected. If Musicology Now is an accurate index of current musicology (which I don't believe), then they seem to have surrendered entirely to cultural Marxism. For an extended discussion, follow the link. But this quote gives some idea:
Cultural Marxists argue that all of life is a struggle against the forces of oppression and repression. Originally, classical Marxism focused rather narrowly on economic oppression and class conflict, but by the 1930s Neo-Marxists began to widen the scope of their cultural critique to include a broader range of social issues and even psychological factors – in particular, issues related to sexual repression. In their condemnation of Western culture, they emphasized social injustice and the plight of marginalized minorities – those victims of the bourgeois social order that included the working classes, racial minorities, radical feminists, homosexuals, and non-Christians in general. Therefore, it was within the context of their Neo-Marxist Critical Theory that they encouraged the politicization of the arts as part of a full-scale assault on Western culture.
The claim that all music, indeed every aspect of life, is political is a blatant ploy to end the discussion before it starts. If you disagree, then you are just another evil oppressor! My philosophical background leads me to reject all these sorts of arguments. One of my commentators alerts me to a recent post that really sums up what is wrong with this approach. The post is titled Does "Music Trump Politics"? Dennis Prager and the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra. The first part is a re-hashing of the recent controversy over a conservative pundit conducting a benefit performance by the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra. The discussion is little more than an ad hominem smear as if you follow the links you will find that Mr. Praeger has been seriously misrepresented. The author, Ted Gordon, complains that the performance, instead of bringing people together, was divisive. Ironically, it is precisely the identity politics of cultural Marxism that result in deep social divisions. We are not allowed to enjoy a concert without dissecting it for political aspects. All of life is a struggle against the forces of oppression and repression! Of course, as it is the cultural Marxists that define what oppression is and who are the oppressors, they turn out to be the major force of repression.

The second part of the post is all about guilt by association. Apparently, as poor Joseph Haydn wrote a slow quartet movement that was later used as the anthem of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he has a "long history with politics." Another sin was to be admired by the music theorist Heinrich Schenker. Haydn himself appears to have done nothing wrong except to write very fine music. But still
"As scholars, we must think seriously and carefully about what we mean when we talk about "classical music"--and how to remain vigilant against the promotion of "Western Art Music" in the name of "Western supremacy" built on hatred, fear, and bigotry."
These are not arguments: they are nothing more than vicious ideological assertions with no basis in reality. But wow, a lot of people fall for them.

Let's listen to that hateful, fearsome and bigoted piece of music by Joseph Haydn, the "Kaiserlied," originally the slow movement to the Op. 76 "Emperor" Quartet. The performers are the Veridis Quartet:

UPDATE: Misspelling of "ad hominem" corrected.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Stravinsky and The Rite, part 6

We're getting very near the end, as some pop lyricist said, and not many pages remain to cover in this series. Taruskin delves into the ways that Stravinsky evokes and contrasts three different modalities or "polytonalities": the octatonic collection, the whole tone collection and the diatonic collection. Out of these three he can construct simple C major chords, or strong dissonances. As Taruskin summarizes:
we now have whole-tone, octatonic, and diatonic constructs from the source melodies all running concurrently, and all intersecting on C, which pitch is thus promoted to the status of a specious tonic. [op. cit. p. 930]
I have worked with this kind of structure myself, to a limited extent, and it is both effective and curious. It seems as it you are writing, sort-of, tonal music, but always with strange twists. This is so different from the completely atonal approach of Schoenberg and his followers, where you are always wandering in a trackless (though at times very, very symmetrical!) landscape.

The "Dance of the Earth" is the section that the above discussion is about and Taruskin describes it as:
at once one of the most radical sections of The Rite--surely the most radical by far in Part I--and the dance most rigorously based on folk-derived source melodies.
He goes on to say that The Rite is Stravinsky's "Eroica," referring to the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven which represented a similar kind of fundamental breakthrough. Nothing before (except, perhaps parts of Petrushka?) prepares you for the bewildering originality of The Rite. Taruskin's book, brilliant as it is, is not a detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the work. For that he directs us to two books: The Harmonic Organization of "The Rite of Spring" by Allen Forte and Stravinsky and "The Rite" by Pieter Van den Toorn.

The Rite resonates, not only with folklore, but with earlier Russian music for the stage such as Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada and Snegurochka. Incidentally, the Opéra Comique production of the latter opera and Stravinsky's ballet shared not only the same designer of sets and costumes, Nikolai Roerich, but nearly the same designs! The characteristic timbres of Russian folk wind instruments is another shared quality. What Stravinsky did that was truly new and original was to take two elements present in Russian music, the folkloristic and modernistic, and synthesize them in an original way.

One unifying factor in The Rite is its use of two octatonic tetrachords, a tritone apart:

A characteristic "triad" is created by taking the outer notes of the upper tetrachord, D and G, and the lowest note of the lower one, G#, or the outer notes of the lower and the top note of the upper: G#, C# and G. This kind of sonority is common enough for Taruskin to dub it The Rite chord by analogy with the Petrushka chord.

Taruksin points to an exact contemporary of Stravinsky's, Mikhail Laryonov (1881 - 1964) and his partner Natalia Goncharova (1881 - 1962), as pursuing the same synthesis between folklore and modernism in his work:

Click to enlarge
Both have transcended their sources and contexts to achieve a "pan-human" result in the phrase of Roerich. Both are about a radical formal simplification, the sacrifice of kul'tura on the altar of stikhiya. The culture rejected by The Rite was that of the German symphonic tradition. Instead, formal procedures are stripped down to what is most basic: extension through repetition, alternation and sheer accumulation. This is what gives The Rite its elemental power. Instead of harmonic progression, thematic development and smooth transitions there would be stasis and abrupt discontinuities.

Taruskin sees two different kinds of rhythmic innovations: the immobile, hypnotic ostinato and the irregularly spaced downbeats, both features of Russian folk music. Here is an example of the latter, which Rimsky-Korsakov took down from the singing of Borodin's maid!

The barring, both in this song transcription and in The Rite, is rather arbitrary. When you combine the two different rhythmic techniques, as Stravinsky characteristically did, you obtain one of his most original textures.

And that brings us to the end of our long journey. I might offer a drive-by analysis of one or two movements in the near future, but this, I think, completes our survey of the context for The Rite of Spring. This has been just a collection of notes from Richard Taruskin's monumental work of music scholarship, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra.

So for our final envoi, here is, yet again, a performance of the work. This is the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez, which is, I think, the version I first purchased around 1970:

Monday, September 18, 2017

From Prestige to Notoriety

I don't have quite the right tag for this--my subtitle might have been "what has happened to our institutions of higher learning?" What got me thinking is the latest kerfuffle over the firing of Matthew Halls as director of the Oregon Bach Festival by the University of Oregon. If you want a quick, nasty take on it, read this over at Slipped Disc. For a longer and more nuanced treatment, there is an article in The Spectator:
Mr Halls insists he has not been told why he has been fired. Sponsors and supporters of the festival are also in the dark. Oregon University, which runs the bash, has said only that it intends to pursue a ‘different direction’ to the one pursued by Mr Halls, and hence he has to go. I would have thought there were a limited number of directions one could pursue with a Bach festival, most of them in the general direction of playing some Bach, but there we are. However, a very close friend of Mr Halls’s thinks he knows why he was fired. Reginald Mobley, a hugely talented counter-tenor, and an African-American, believes it is because a stupid white woman overheard a conversation between himself and Halls and construed one of Halls’s comments as being — yes, yes, we’re there again — racist. And complained to the authorities.
Another theory has it that the festival was experiencing a drop in attendance and this is why Halls was let go, but just a few weeks before his contract had been renewed to 2020, so that seems unlikely.

What I want to talk about is not the merits of this individual case, or related cases such as the debacle at Evergreen State College where out-of-control student protests allegedly created a hostile work environment for a biology professor and his wife or the fraught circumstances suffered by Madison Faupel at the University of Minnesota where she is president of the College Republican chapter. Instead, I want to examine what seems to link these and other cases: a collapse of integrity at institutions of higher learning.

If we go back a few decades, universities and colleges were very prestigious places where distinguished scholars pursued their researches free of political bias and did so with a certain amount of courage on modest salaries. This seems to have changed, though, I am sure, some still remains. But if you look into the instances I cite above and other similar ones, it seems that the best characterization of current institutions is that they are now vehicles for political indoctrination and the administrators seem to be unable to resist pressure from extremists. Indeed, these extremists now seem to be the mainstream.

Instead of courage, what we see is rank cowardice. If you hunt around you can find videos of college administrators being berated by groups of student protestors and all they seem able to do is appease them. This seems to me to be the tail wagging the dog. Undergraduate students have always been susceptible to wacky idealisms, but what we are experiencing now is a level of viciousness that seems so out of proportion that one wonders, is it simply political correctness gone viral or is this a very clever strategy?

What does seem to be revealed is an emptiness at the heart of Western culture that makes it susceptible to a ravaging virus. The idea of preserving, presenting and teaching the quality of Western culture as exemplified in, for example, the music of Bach, used to be its own justification. But now it seems that the whole hierarchy of value is overturned and the mere (false) suspicion of racism overrules anything else. What we need are some serious antibodies to fight off the infection! Oh, yes, and to recognize that this is a cultural war and one that needs to be won.

Well, I hope that wasn't too political! There are not a lot of clips of Matthew Halls on YouTube, but here is the Sinfonia from the Bach Easter Oratorio with him conducting the Retrospect Ensemble:

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Stravinsky and The Rite, part 5

When I talk about the "use" of folk melodies in The Rite, do not think for a moment that this is not a wholeheartedly creative act! As you can see from the last post, the rhythmic transformations were so thorough that you might not even see the connection. Other kinds of transformation were from major to Dorian mode, inserting a profusion of leaping grace notes reminiscent of dudki, the expansion of intervals (replacing half steps with thirds) and so on. There are some instances where the relationship between a folk melody source and The Rite is only traceable through the mediating authority of Stravinsky's sketchbook, where we can witness the transformation.

Taruskin explores four different instances of these transformations which he describes as Stravinsky's use of Russian folk music as a self-emancipation from the cul-de-sac that Russian music was trapped in. Let's look at one of his examples. Here is a facsimile page from the sketchbook. At the top of the page, tidily written out, is the Semik song "Nu-ka, kumushka, mï pokumimsya" which comes from Rimsky-Korsakov's anthology. The rest of the page shows developments of the tune for the "Spring Rounds" or "Khorovodï."

From p. 907 of Taruskin, op. cit.

We are so lucky to have access to Stravinsky's sketchbook! Taruskin offers a comparative analysis showing how the tune was transformed and incorporated in The Rite:

Taruskin, p. 909
What is really remarkable here is not that he found inspiration in folk melodies, that was quite common in composers of many countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What is remarkable is that he absorbed some stylistic elements, such as the leaping grace notes, and wholly transformed the original material with great freedom.

Another example, that I won't quote (see Taruskin pp. 911 et seq.), involves the deconstruction of a wedding song by using motifs from it as tesserae in a melodic mosaic, subjected to varied juxtapositions, internal repetition, transposition and so on. There is even a folk source for the kind of dissonant counterpoint we often find in The Rite. I mentioned many posts back that Russian folk music is actually performed by groups, not soloists, and it is typically full of heterophonic polyphony, meaning a melody accompanied by variants of itself. Taruskin quotes examples from the sketchbook. 

In a burst of enthusiasm, on page 36 of the sketchbook, Stravinsky scrawled a phrase that might serve as a motto for The Rite of Spring: "There is music wherever there is rhythm, as there is life wherever there beats a pulse."

And with that, let's pause for today and listen to another performance of The Rite. This is the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest of the Netherlands conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Just follow the link:

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Composers and Biographies

I've got a "biographies" tag that I use for general talk about the biographies of musicians and for the specific discussion of the relationship between biographical events and compositions. One of the things I like about Taruskin's book on Stravinsky, which he subtitles: "A Biography of the Works Through Mavra" is that he focuses the discussion on the works and what events and ideas influenced them and does not talk about Stravinsky's private life except as it is relevant.

I have said before that, despite a lot of loose talk, a musical composition is really not so much autobiography. I just ran across an interesting example in the life of Sibelius. I have been reading the monograph by Guy Rickards from Phaidon and ran across this passage:
Sibelius returned home at the end of May [1909] to a financial crisis ... He had totalled up a large number of his debts while still in London and these came to well over 50,000 Finnish marks, approximately five years' average income ... but by December, matters had come to a head and he put out a desperate appeal to Carpelan who came to Ainola to work out Sibelius' exact position. To the horror of all concerned, the final total debt was closer to 100,000 marks, and Sibelius' expenses exceeded his income annually by 6,000 marks which was twice the amount of his state pension. By the time Christmas arrived, help was at hand after Carpelan had successfully petitioned the wealthy Dahlström family in Turku for funds to alleviate (but by no means clear) his debts. Such was the measure of security this afforded the composer that Sibelius immediately declared to Carpelan that he would devote himself to the composition of a fourth symphony...
Ok, good news, so one would expect something rather celebratory in the symphony, wouldn't one? Here is a performance of the Symphony No. 4, op 63, with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:

That's a bit of a surprise. But not in my book. The aesthetic form and mood of a piece of music has nothing really to do with the psychological mood of the composer. Why not? I think they just live in different parts of the mind or brain.

The moral of the story? Never allow a composer to run a tab.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

This is, I guess, really good news. Canadian violinist Marc Djokic is awarded the $125,000 Prix Goyer, which is named after art patron Jean-Pierre Goyer of Montréal. What is really great about this is that it is a significant amount! Remember the last time I wrote about music prizes in Canada it was in reference to the insultingly tiny amounts for a competition in Vancouver? $800? Canadian? Now this one is worth winning. I know some of his collaborators as well, Jérôme Ducharme and Jaime Parker, both brilliant Canadian virtuosos. Djokic seems to be well-adapted for a career in today's media world. He won this, it seems, for the multitude of unusual collaborations which include marimba, piano, two guitars, dance and visual arts. Here is a short clip showing the diversity of his efforts:

* * *

Make a joke with a friend and if it is overheard by a "useful idiot" then you can be fired from your prestigious job directing the Oregon Bach Festival. Read the Daily Mail for the details:
A British conductor has been fired from his job directing a prestigious American music festival after being branded racist over a joke, his friend says.
Matthew Halls, who was educated and taught at Oxford, was hired in 2014 as artistic director at the Oregon Bach Festival which is run by the University of Oregon.
But he has now been fired after a joke he made with African American friend and singer Reginald Mobley was overheard by a white woman and reported as racist.
Mr Mobley, who is from Florida, has since spoken out to defend his friend, saying Mr Halls was 'victimised' and the jibe had nothing to do with race.
He told The Sunday Telegraph: 'It was an innocent joke that has been entirely taken out of context.'
* * *

This might be just a tad cruel, but I found this interview with pianist Yuja Wang and conductor Jaap van Zweden on the occasion of a concert in New York when, I believe, she was playing one of the Prokofiev concertos.

Ok, so what does she say when she does actually say something? Here, let's listen to her discuss the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3:

Well, actually, I think I prefer the first interview...

* * *

Offered without comment is this remarkably articulate essay by a student in the UK about the sidelining of classical music:
Growing within our schools today is a disturbing trend; increasingly, music is viewed as an optional subject – something equivalent to a passion that merely runs parallel to ‘academic’ subjects – that leads to contempt for classical music borne out of an ignorance of all it contains. Maxwell Davies, speaking of his students at Cirencester Grammar School, said that 'It was extraordinary how the musical activities of those youngsters I taught influenced their whole attitude towards life inside the school, and outside. It was as if music were a catalyst or a trigger, which in so many instances sparked off a creative understanding in subjects which, on the surface, may not seem to be closely related - foreign languages, mathematics, religious studies.'
Read the whole thing.

* * *

I'm always whining about how, in the absence of any really strong arguments from aesthetic value, the classical repertory will be swept away as if it never existed, replaced with ephemera. I say this because the process in literature is far advanced, English departments having long since been gutted by post-modernism. Witness this denouement in the Ontario school curriculum:
"There's probably a small minority who still believe that there is a literary canon that we need to hold onto. I think it's because it is the way we've always been taught," said Poleen Grewal, associate director of instructional and equity support services at the Peel board. "[But] if we are focusing on equity and inclusion as a school board, the work around inclusion must be visible at the student desk."
Ms. Grewal sent a memo to English department heads in June, asking them to explore culturally relevant texts after the school board heard from its students that their experiences were not being reflected in classroom literature. She attached a list of books, which includes A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse. Students in Ontario are required to take an English course every year of high school.
The Globe and Mail allowed comments on this article and when I read it there were forty-three comments of which forty-two were strongly against this policy and one (1) was weakly for it.

The 60s idea of "relevancy" is now buttressed with "equity" and "diversity." Any arguments to the contrary are depicted in the news story as "backlash." Instead of any kind of aesthetic criteria, the idea is that literature, to find its place in the curriculum, has to reflect the "experience" of the students. What experience? The experience of being indoctrinated in the assumptions of post-modern identity politics? It would appear so. Music has been resisting this fairly well, but recent indications seem to show that it is being overwhelmed as well.

* * *

This concert was a bit of a tour-de-force, but one that he has done before, Yo-Yo Ma does the impossible at the Hollywood Bowl: all six of the Bach cello suites in one concert with a tiny intermission in the middle.

Safety tip: don't drink a lot of coffee before the concert.

* * *

Here is a follow-up to the Oregon Bach Festival story, UNIVERSITY PAYS SACKED MAESTRO $90,000 FOR HIS SILENCE. As always with items at Slipped Disc, the comments are fun reading.

* * *

This item has a bit of a "pushing on a string" feel to it, Can City Hall Make a Music Scene?
If a city wants to cultivate its musical biome to boost quality of life, education, tourism, and the local music biz itself, then it has to get serious about it. “That means it needs a policy,” he says. “It needs assessment mechanisms. It needs to be discussed in public. It needs to be less reactive and more proactive.”
Truth be told, local governments can hinder local music more than help. Hot scenes often arise from illicit spaces in struggling neighborhoods—musicians gravitate to lightly regulated and low-rent environs. Witness the punk and hip-hop movements that emerged from Lower East Side and South Bronx, respectively, during the 1970s: That didn’t happen because nigh-bankrupt New York City was promoting them. Today, several cities wary of disasters like Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire last year have shuttered the kinds of underground ad-hoc live-work-performance spaces that can incubate local scenes.
I don't know how it plays out in the US, but what often seems to happen in Canada is that as soon as some government arts policy, meaning funding of some sort, is announced, a host of opportunists spring up to siphon away the money.

* * *

The inevitable envoi for today will be Yo-Yo Ma playing the Cello Suite No. 1 from his 2015 performance at the Proms when he also played all six suites in one go. YouTube won't embed, so just follow the link:

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Stravinsky and the Rite, part 4

Taruskin goes into great detail about the peasant rites and the sources that document them, much of which we can skip, though I encourage you to read the account in his book. One of the primary sources for Roerich and therefore Stravinsky seems to have been the Russian Primary Chronicle which describes the rites of the Kupala festival in exactly the same order that they appear in Stravinsky's sketchbook (see Taruskin, p. 884 et. seq.) Things like the notorious bar of 11/4 might have been inspired by a passage describing an old woman beating on a linden bark drum and the opening bassoon solo by the folk instrument dudki, mentioned in Roerich's scenario.

The ethnological accuracy of the scenario and costumes (based on peasant originals) is also reflected in the music, though Stravinsky was keen to disavow this in later years. He confided in one biographer that the opening bassoon solo was taken from an anthology of Lithuanian folk songs, and did so largely to give the impression, later clearly stated, that this was the only instance in The Rite! As we shall see, the use of folk melodies was extensive. With few exceptions, the ones that have been discovered so far belong to the type known to ethnographers as obryadnïye pesni or ceremonial songs, specifically to the category of kalendarnïye pesni, seasonal or calendar songs. That is, ones associated with the very festivals on which Roerich based the scenario. These songs are some of the oldest and come down, largely intact, from pagan times.

Roerich recounts that when he and Stravinsky were meeting at Talashkino in the summer of 1911, another guest was the singer and gusli player Sergey Kolosov (1855 - after 1915) who was then collecting folk material. He sang for the collaborators and Stravinsky took down a number of melodies. It is unlikely, therefore, that it will ever be possible to identify all of the folk melodies in The Rite. There are about a dozen, however, that are easily identified. It is astonishing that no-one even bothered to look up any sources for folk melodies in The Rite until Lawrence Morton, in 1979, began examining the mammoth anthology of Lithuanian melodies (over 1700) that Stravinsky had used. Morton found not only the source of the opening bassoon solo, but three additional melodies he also used. Why the long delay? Prior to this, all the approaches had been strictly abstract and analytical, typified by Pierre Boulez' in the early 1950s, in which not a single mention is made of the scenic or choreographic design.

Here are all the melodies taken from the Lithuanian anthology (collected by Anton Juszkiewicz) used in The Rite:

And here is how they appear in the work (in the same order):

As you can see, the transformations are largely rhythmic.

That should give you enough to chew on for today. Let's listen to a concert performance, with score, by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yoel Levi:

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Stravinsky and the Rite, part 3

"The Great Sacrifice" as the original project was called, was set, not in Spring, but in midsummer to correspond to the ancient Slavic rite of Kupala which was the one with the sacrificial aspect. After Russia was Christianized in the tenth century the festivals of the folk calendar were accommodated to those of Christianity and Kupala became associated with the feast of John the Baptist. In Russia there grew up a set of ritual folksongs known as Ivanovskiye pesni, "Songs of St. John's Eve." One of these was published in a collection in 1899 and part of the tune found its way into the middle section of Stravinsky's Danse russe from Petrushka:

This Ivanovskaya could be described as a khorovod, often translated as "round dance." But khorovodï are more than that, they are often enactments of folk rituals that contain elements of long-forgotten folk customs. One Vladimir Propp has given a description:
Unlike ... songs [that] are performed only vocally [khorovods] are accompanied by various body movements. ... The khorovod may be performed by various movements in a circle (usually to the left posodon', that is, as the sun moves), with or without stopping; there can be two circles, one inside and one outside, moving in opposite directions. While those moving in the circle sing, those standing inside the circle (a young man, or a girl, or a pair) perform and portray what is being sung. ... the chorus may form not only a circle, but also a chain, it can perform different movements in a straight line or in various line formations... [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 868]
And so on. We see all of this reflected in the scenario and choreography. The opening tune used in the Danse russe was also a khorovod and the text was associated with matchmaking. Both this and the tune quoted above refer to the ancient "ritual of abduction" a somewhat rough form of matchmaking where the youth abducts the girl. This was part of the ritual of Kupala. Recall that Stravinsky had actually started sketching "The Great Sacrifice" before he began composing Petrushka. Obviously the Danse russe was originally intended for it.

The scenario was finalized towards the end of July 1911 in a visit Stravinsky paid to Roerich in Talashkino where the latter was designing and supervising the creation of murals and mosaics for Princess Tenisheva's private church, one of the landmarks of the neonationalist movement. At this time the scenario was divided into two parts instead of one and the name was changed to Prazdnik vesni or "The Festival of Spring." Later the Russian name would become "Vesna svyashchennaya" or "The Consecrated Spring." Stravinsky's sketchbook, which has survived, contains the titles for the individual dances, worked out in this meeting. Here they are, together with the equivalents in the published score:


The most significant change from this to the final arrangement is the movement of the "Jeu de rapt" from its penultimate position in Part I to much earlier, just after "Les augures printanières." The earliest surviving synopsis of the action is in a letter of Stravinsky dated December 1912:
The first part, which bears the name "The Kiss of the Earth," is made up of ancient Slavonic rituals--the joy of spring. The orchestral introduction is a swarm of spring pipes [dudki]; later, after the curtain goes up, there are auguries, khorovod rituals, a game of abduction, a khorovod game of cities, and all of this is interrupted by the procession of the "Oldest-and-Wisest." the elder who bestows a kiss upon the earth. A wild stomping dance upon the earth, the people drunk with spring, brings the first part to its conclusion.
In the second part the maidens at night perform their secret rituals upon a sacred hillock. One of the the maidens is doomed by fate to be sacrificed. She wanders into a stone labyrinth from which there is no exit, whereupon all the remaining maidens glorify the Chosen One in a boisterous martial dance. Then the elders enter. The doomed one, left alone face to face with the elders, dances her last "Holy Dance"--the Great Sacrifice. These last words are in fact the name of the second part. The elders are witness to her last dance, which ends in the death of the doomed one.
Throughout the whole composition I give the listener a sense of the closeness of the people to the earth of the commonality of their lives with the earth, by means of lapidary rhythms. [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 874]
A number of other synopses are extant, some were published around the time of the premiere. Stravinsky went to great lengths to disavow some of these later in life.

The ultimate source for the folk rituals was likely the three volume compendium by Alexander Afanasyev published 1866-69 titled, in English, The Slavs's Poetic Attitudes Toward Nature. Rimsky-Korsakov had drawn heavily on Afanasyev for a number of his operas. The book was a kind of bible for the Russian Symbolists and World of Art circle.

The original choreographer was going to be Fokine, but he left the Ballets russes and the job was given to Nijinsky who began work in November 1912.

Let's stop here for today and listen to a performance of the Danse russe from Petrushka. The conductor is Valeria Martinelli at the INTERNATIONAL BARTÓK SEMINAR AND FESTIVAL 2014:

Monday, September 11, 2017

Popularizing Experiments

I missed this article when it first came out: BBC Proms end experiment with Strictly and Sherlock after audiences fail to stick around. I think it supports my  view that the strategy of trying to sell classical music by turning it into something else doesn't work:
The BBC is turning its back on TV-themed Proms after finding no evidence that audiences for Doctor Who or Strictly concerts develop a lasting love of classical music.
Sherlock and CBeebies have also been given the Proms treatment in recent years, along with Sir David Attenborough's natural history shows.
But the BBC has decided to “try other things” after conceding that concerts based around its television brands have not succeeded in building new audiences.
This is a slightly different approach than the usual. The BBC hoped that they could leverage interest in, say, Doctor Who into interest in classical music. But the Doctor Who audience are, of course, interested in Doctor Who so I think that counts as another case of trying to turn classical music into something else. Other examples include the use of videos, light shows, venues more suited to other kinds of music like pubs and parking garages, costumes, and so on. Every single one of these strategies involves trying to turn the music into something else, or inserting an element that does nothing but distract from the music. How does that make sense?

I'm afraid that the only method likely to work is the slow and incremental one of actually taking the time and effort to inform your audiences and spark their interest, not in Doctor Who or some odd distraction, but in the music itself. I'm a big Doctor Who fan, and what drew me to the show was that I became interested in it for what it was in itself. Mind you, I can understand why the promotors wanted to try these different linkages as a way of attracting new listeners. But it didn't seem to have the desired effect.

I think you have to go deeper in the audience supply chain! How do people get interested in classical music? What are the "gateway drugs" as it were? What age does this happen at? Under what circumstances are people open to this kind of new experience? How much of an effect do music lessons at an early age have? What about the experience of ensemble playing? What about classes in music appreciation? All this frightfully dull stuff is probably more to the point than just putting on a concert with a Doctor Who angle.

Hey, here is an idea. Now I have not by any means seen most of the Doctor Who episodes, so perhaps they have done this, but wouldn't it be extremely helpful if there was a Doctor Who show that referenced music? In the Fifth Series there is a show where the Doctor and his companion go back in time and visit Vincent van Gogh in his later years and it was a wonderful introduction to his work as an artist in a very Whovian manner. A show where they visit Mozart or Bach or Stravinsky would be equally inspirational, I think.

But what do I know?

Since we are talking about the Proms, let's have a piece from the Last Night of the Proms for our envoi. This is Finlandia, one of Sibelius' early successes. The artists are Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra:

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Stravinsky and the Rite, part 2

The 1912 Ballets Russes season did not have a Stravinsky premiere--he was hard at work on The Rite already. He also took time to write Three Japanese Lyrics and make the acquaintance of Schoenberg, with whom he was quite impressed at the time (later on their rivalry came to the fore). Stravinsky heard Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire at a concert in Berlin's Choralion Saal on 8 December 1912. Just a few days before, Schoenberg had been Stravinsky's guest at a performance of Petrushka.

Taruskin discerns some influence by Schoenberg on Stravinsky around this time in a tendency towards a spare linearity. Stravinsky was also impressed with Schoenberg's virtuoso writing for instruments.

The Three Japanese Lyrics were received positively in France, but performances in Russia were greeted with the most vicious invective (see Taruskin, pp. 844-5). It is not surprising that more and more Stravinsky turned away from Russia and to the West. Ironically, The Rite itself, while usually viewed as being a powerful break with tradition is in reality profoundly linked to tradition, which gave Stravinsky a unique approach, different from most composers of the day. Taruskin writes:
The usual accounts of the work place almost exclusive emphasis on the putative rupture with tradition; and despite all his subsequent disclaimers, that is the view the composer chose to abet, increasingly alienated as he was from the cultural milieu in which the ballet was conceived. It was, however, precisely because The Rite was so profoundly traditional, both as to cultural outlook and as to musical technique, that Stravinsky was able to find through it a voice that would serve him through the next difficult phase of his career.
Precisely because The Rite was neither rupture nor upheaval but a magnificent extension, it revealed to Stravinsky a path that would sustain him through a decade of unimaginable ruptures and upheavals brought on by events far beyond his control. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 847 ]
 The cultural context in Russia in the early part of the 20th century was characterized by a "relentless sense of catastrophe" in the words of the poet Alexander Blok. The tragedy of modern man lay in his estrangement from the earth and the business of humanity was to heal this rift, to recover the stikhiya or elemental spontaneity of the people. Artists must renounce kul'tura (culture of the intelligentsia) and become elemental people, indivisible from the earth. The model for all this was the life of the peasant, who still practices the ancient religion of the earth. One of the artists who followed this project was Nikolai Roerich (1874 - 1947), then (early 1909) head of the revived World of Art organization. Benois recalled him as:
utterly absorbed in dreams of prehistoric, patriarchal and religious life--of the days when the vast, limitless plains of Russia and the shores of her lakes and rivers were peopled with the forefathers of the present inhabitants. Roerich's mystic, spiritual experiences make him strangely susceptible to the charm of the ancient world
Apart from being a masterly essayist,  Roerich was the creator of a series of archaistic paintings that depict this kind of ancient life, one of which, Idols, Taruskin reproduces in his book. Unfortunately, all the photos in the book are black and white and extremely muddy! Shame on you, University of California Press. Luckily, the Internet can provide us with much better.

Nikolai Roerich, Idols. Click to enlarge
Roerich was catapulted to fame when Diaghilev chose him to provide the curtain, decor and costumes for the second act of Borodin's Prince Igor, presented in the opening program of the first saison russe in Paris, May 18, 1909. The Parisian audiences felt as if transported to the ends of the earth. 

A while back we mentioned the trend called "Scythianism" which was just one manifestation of a longing for a primitive wholeness that influenced writers, poets, painters and composers. The only source of information about the ancient Scyths is found in Herodotus, The Persian Wars, Bk. IV where they sound a lot like the Reavers from Firefly, using the skulls of their enemies as drinking bowls. The most Scythian composer was the young Prokofiev even before he wrote his Scythian Suite in 1915. The one thing we know for sure is that the conception of The Rite of Spring arose out of a whole complex of ideas and trends that were very much "in the air." After Stravinsky had a dream of pagan sacrifice, he wrote to Roerich in early December 1912, who had a similar dream of his own. Stravinsky described his dream in his autobiography in these words:
One day, when I was finishing the last pages of L'Oiseau de feu in St. Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring. [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 862]
In other accounts, Stravinsky describes it as an actual dream and later on he demoted Roerich's role to being one of mere designer. Other accounts from the time actually credit Roerich with the original idea (Taruskin cites a number of sources on p. 863). The truth is likely that they were both equally responsible for the idea and its fleshing out into a ballet scenario. "The Great Sacrifice," to use the original working title, would be all stikhiya, all primitive immediacy, with choreographic action devoid of a conventional plot. The ballet would not "tell the story" of a primitive ritual, it would be that ritual. The balletic equivalent of recitative, the mime that was so prevalent in The Firebird, would be eliminated entirely in favor of dance.

That sets the scene for the composition of the ballet, which we will get to in subsequent posts. For now, let's look and listen to a revival of the original production with Roerich's costumes and sets and Fokine's choreography. UPDATE: Correction, the choreographer was Nijinsky, not Fokine, who had already left the Ballets russes.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Bachtrack Top Ten Contemporary Pieces: a Review

Here is the list from Bachtrack of the Top 10 contemporary works. Since some of these I have never heard, I thought it might be interesting to give them a listen.
Top 10 contemporary works
1=Nunc dimittis (Arvo Pärt)
1=Film music from Star Wars (John Williams)
3.The Deer’s Cry (Arvo Pärt)
4.Danzón no.2 (Arturo Márquez)
5.Scheherazade.2, (John Adams)
6=Fratres, (Arvo Pärt)
6=Short Ride in a Fast Machine, (John Adams)
8=Con brio (Jörg Widmann) 
8=Orawa (Wojciech Kilar)
10.Other film music (John Williams)

Arvo Pärt I know fairly well, of course, but Nunc dimittis is not on the CD collection I have of his music, though I may have heard it on YouTube. Here is performance by the Elora Festival singers.

This is an a cappella work and as such does not have the interesting timbres we find in Pärt's instrumental music. It is a very nice piece, of course, as one would expect. Very meditative and peaceful, which is probably why it is popular. The most liked classical music these days seems often to be the stuff that is the most relaxing. We lead tense lives, it seems.

I don't think we need to say much about the music for Star Wars. Very appropriate and excellent film music.

Then another piece by Arvo Pärt that I don't know, The Deer's Cry. This is another a cappella work somewhat similar to Nunc dimittis, but with a different kind of texture, less sustained, more pointillist. The performers are the Erebus Ensemble:

I do know the Danzón no. 2 by Arturo Márquez, a Mexican composer. This is the kind of infectious Latin American music that we guitarists have a lot of. There are lovely syncopated dance pieces from Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, all over. This is not what I usually think of when I think of contemporary music, but hey. The performers are Gustavo Dudamel, and, I think, the Bolivar Youth Orchestra:

Next we have Scheherazade.2 by John Adams, as Wikipedia says, a "dramatic symphony" for violin and orchestra. This is a lengthy work and is in four clips on YouTube. The performers are Leila Josefowitz (for whom Salonen's Violin Concerto was also written) and the St. Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson. Blogger will not embed, so here are the links:

Now that is quite interesting. I am wondering how BachTrack comes up with these statistics as there doesn't seem to be any information on the site. Anyone have an idea? Is this piece really this popular? How is it measured? Are the numbers just for the US? Anyway, let's stop here for now, halfway through the list.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The Boston Globe has a nice article on composers and birdsong prompted by a four-day festival at Tanglewood that celebrates birds and music.
This week, Tanglewood and Mass Audubon will be joining forces to follow Messiaen’s advice. An imaginative four-day minifestival called “Tanglewood Takes Flight” is being billed as a celebration of birds and music. It starts up on Thursday at 5:30 a.m. with a guided bird walk in Lenox’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, followed by a 7 a.m. concert in the Pleasant Valley barn by the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a peerless interpreter of Messiaen’s music, who will be performing selections from the epic “Catalogue d’oiseaux.” The minifestival runs through the weekend, concluding in Ozawa Hall on Sunday morning with a chamber program that features Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques.”
* * *

 These seem to be the top five best-selling classical albums--at least for some values of the word "classical."

I know what the number one album is, so let's have a listen to the second one, the first song of which is Russell Watson singing Nella Fantasia which is a song created from music written for The Mission by Ennio Moricone, so I guess "crossover" is the genre.

Honestly, nothing against Russell Watson, who seems a nice fellow with good vocal technique, but there is nothing here of what I look for in music. It is lulling, soporific, emotionally shallow and predictably clichéd. Which is, I suppose, its appeal!

* * *

We live in very strange times--so strange that someone has actually decided to play violin. While skydiving. Naked. I kid you not. Glenn Donnelly did this on his 30th birthday. For a longer clip go here.

And, not unsurprisingly, he is Australian. Now it all makes sense...

* * *

The Guardian alerts us to a new study that claims that listening to happy music makes you more creative! Writers unblocked? Happy music boosts imaginative thinking, say researchers:
Simone Ritter from Radboud University in Nijmegen and Sam Ferguson at the University of Technology in Sydney decided to test the power of music by setting 155 people in their late teens and twenties a series of puzzles to tackle in silence or while listening to classical scores ranked as either calm, happy, anxious or sad.
Music turned out to have no effect on convergent thinking. But when compared to sitting in silence, listening to happy music boosted people’s scores on divergent thinking from an average of 76 to 94. In the study, that meant more and better ideas came from people who listened to Vivaldi’s uplifting Four Seasons, than from those who heard Samuel Barber’s sad Adagio for Strings; Holst’s anxious Mars movement from The Planets; or the calm Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns.
Ok, so if a composer wants to boost his creativity, he should listen to Vivaldi? But will this help him write a really gloomy piece of music? That seems, ah, counterintuitive.

* * *

Perhaps my favorite conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen just directed an ensemble of the combined orchestras of the Julliard School and the Sibelius Academy in a concert of music by the late Steven Stucky, himself, and Jean Sibelius, the early “Lemminkainen Suite,” which includes "The Swan of Tuonela." The New York Times favorably reviews the concert:
Through much of the 20th century, it bears recalling, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius remained a puzzling figure, an outlier from the frozen north largely preoccupied with exotic local color. His music, urgent and pulsating, was either very hot or very cold — no one could quite be sure. His reputation rode a pendulum: in one generation, out the next.
Strangest of all, Sibelius fell almost completely silent during the three decades before his death in 1957
* * *

The Guardian has another piece on the commercial radio station Classic FM that offers some interesting data on listening habits:
 some classical music purists have always been a bit sniffy about Classic FM. They don’t like the way the station seldom plays a work in full. They don’t like the “don’t frighten the horses” emphasis of its output. They don’t like crossover artists such as Katherine Jenkins and Ludovico Einaudi. They don’t like the way film and video game music is treated on a par with Mozart and Chopin. 
Classic FM’s success has been built on a creative tension between innovation and an instinctive desire to play safe. Nowhere is this more evident than in its playlist. If you want to listen to opera, then tune in elsewhere. The most you are going to hear is the very occasional bit of Puccini or Mozart. Nor will there be much in the way of mainstream composers such as Mahler, Bruckner or Britten. And certainly nothing from the likes of Bartók and Schoenberg.
Lots of obscure second-rank composers like Henry Litolff and William Boyce, though. I have the impression that the tendency is to create a kind of "smooth classics" genre.

* * *

 Huib Schippers is the director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways, the iconic non-profit record label of the Smithsonian that I spent a fair amount of time listening to years ago when they were all on vinyl. He recently penned an essay titled How We Can Support the World's Rich Musical Diversity:
a great number of “small musics” are being marginalized. Just as we can access music from inner Mongolia and the Amazonian rain forest, people in those regions are listening to Christian hymns, military band tunes and Western pop music, often pushed with considerable force by missionaries, colonial powers, and the—now effectively collapsed—international music industry that has for more than a century largely determined what we listen to.
While musics have always emerged and disappeared through changing tastes or circumstances, some “small musics” are —in the words of former Smithsonian Folkways director Tony Seeger—“being disappeared” by non-musical influences and powers. That is causing a substantial reduction in the diversity of music we can access and enjoy now, and even more so in the future.
While any effort to preserve and support this rich diversity seems to be laudable, there are some assumptions here worth notice. The underlying ideas are structuralist and post-modern which means that everything is seen in terms of power structures, not aesthetic or even social value. For example, these "small musics," meaning very specific genres confined to small numbers of performers and geographic regions, have always been small--by definition. So they have always come and gone as enthusiasms wax and wane. The big intervention here is the project to sustain and support them, possibly at the cost of hindering the development of a different "small music." Also, I doubt very much that "colonial powers" are pushing much music these days as the days of colonialism are long gone. Also the idea that a shadowy "international music industry" has largely determined what we listen to just sounds paranoid. Finally, to talk about how the diversity of music is being "disappeared" seems even more odd in a context where much more music is available to many more people now than ever before in history! Still, lots to admire in the kinds of projects they are involved in. Read the whole thing for an overview.

* * *

History Today has a fascinating account of the loggionisti of La Scala in Milan and their long-standing practice of booing productions and performances they don't like. This provides an opportunity to review the history of noise-making audiences for music:
When the first public opera houses were founded in the mid-17th century, they were designed more as venues for social interaction than as sites of aesthetic experience. Fanning out from the stage in glittering tiers were the boxes. Owned or leased by aristocrats or wealthy bourgeois, these intimate little spaces were perfect for entertaining guests, exchanging gossip or simply being seen. Down below was the parterre. Usually left open and generally without seating, this was the preserve of lower-income groups, including soldiers, students and servants, who used the space to meet friends, share a drink and gamble. Accordingly, the music was treated with noisy indifference, at best, or vocal contempt, at worst. Audiences were more interested in their own conversations than with what was happening on stage. They might perhaps listen to an aria, or watch the ballet (if there was one), but no more; and, if they did not like what they heard, they would make their displeasure known. 
Not until the late 19th century did silence come to be expected of audiences. Even then, it took longer to reach some countries than others. An amusing illustration of the difference between Britain and Italy can be found in E.M. Forster’s novel Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). Hoping to talk their widowed sister-in-law out of marrying an Italian, the interfering siblings, Philip and Harriet Kingcroft, rush off to the Tuscan town of Monteriano. Soon after arriving, Philip spots a poster announcing a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and tries to persuade the sceptical Harriet to go with him. ‘However bad the performance is to-night’, he warns, ‘it will be alive. Italians don’t love music silently, like the beastly Germans. The audience takes its share – sometimes more.’
The evolution of the idea of silent appreciation of music was quite complex and tightly interwoven with the nature of the music itself, but this article provides some clues.

* * *

Finally the LA Times has an article on the Salzburg Festival with some numbers to put in in perspective:
the grandest classical music gathering of opera, orchestral concerts, recitals, young artist projects, opera camps for children and new music series remains in Austria. It has been around for 97 years, and glamorous, big-name performers continue to flock to Mozart’s birthplace at the scenic foot of the Austrian Alps. Music bigwigs wheel and deal at restaurants facing a festival theater built into the side of a mountain. They pay whatever it takes to see and be seen, parading in finery that ranges from black tie to the occasional formal lederhosen. 
The final report of this summer’s six-week festival, which ended Wednesday, said 97% of all tickets were sold. Attendance was 261,500, more than double the capacity of the Coachella music festival.
The article has some history of the festival, which is interesting, but some of which is flatly wrong. Discussing a new director, appointed in 1992, they say:
With a gift for studied outrage, Mortier immediately pushed aside the refined Vienna Philharmonic and superstar conductors for the brash Los Angeles Philharmonic and its newly appointed 34-year-old modernist music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Mortier replaced fusty opera directors with the likes of another 34-year-old, Peter Sellars. To program new music concerts at the festival for the first time, Mortier brought in a third 34-year-old — an Italian-born, Viennese-trained pianist who specialized in playing American avant-garde composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman. They were underwritten by the Beverly Hills patron Betty Freeman.
The only problem here is that the festival had programmed lots of new music previously. In 1988, when I was there attending a master class with Pepe Romero, they had Karlheinz Stockhausen with his ensemble perform seven concerts of his chamber music. Also that year Witold Lutosławski conducted the premiere of his violin concerto. Isn't it awkward when the facts don't quite fit your narrative?

* * *

For our envoi today, let's listen to that early Sibelius Lemminkainen Suite which dates from the early 1890s. The performers are the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen: