Thursday, July 20, 2017

Aesthetics: A Crash Course, part 1

A frequent commentator just left a wonderfully sardonic comment on my post How Now, Musicology Now. In so doing, he directed my attention to a new post at the Musicology Now site that offers detailed instructions in how to turn your music history survey course into a kind of Maoist re-education plan. You think I'm exaggerating? Go read Six Easy Ways to Immediately Address Racial and Gender Diversity in Your Music History Classroom:
The suggestions we propose are worth employing if they make our students play their part in making our world more beautiful, equitable, and just. Our classes can become places where we can effectively expose classism, racism, and sexism even when issues of identity are not the primary topic of conversation.
Making your students "play their part" in exposing classism, racism and sexism would seem to be a viciously ideological goal and one having nothing to do with music history. But no, this is crucial because of the horrific history of music, dominated by European males:
At the beginning of your class, state the obvious: the canon of western art music is dominated by European male composers. By acknowledging it, you also show your students that you plan to explore moments of the canon’s construction. One way to offer transparency is to point out to your students that you will be using the pronoun, “he,” frequently in class because systemic conditions favored men as composers and performers of western art music. Women were frequently denied access to musical training and elite cultural networks. Similarly, when teaching about the history of classical music in America, make sure to specify if the people in the audience or the people involved in the production of music were white or black Americans. In being explicit about this, you make students aware of the ways in which racism functioned in histories of classical music in America. By offering these explanations to students, we make transparent that assumed racial or gender norms were actually historical processes.
Moral condemnation is smuggled in through the use of undefined terms like "systemic conditions" and "elite cultural networks" which are markers for unsupported theories about history that are, frankly, nothing more than cultural Marxism. This is only a hair's breadth removed from simply stating that Beethoven was a racist, classist oppressor simply because he was a white European male and wrote good music. This is not a School of Music, this is a School of Resentment.

How we got to this sorry state of affairs is by short-circuiting the appropriate tool for the study of art forms, aesthetics, and replacing it with crude ideological ones like collective identity politics, equity and social justice, all of which stem from cultural Marxism. I think the way to push back is to reassert the role of aesthetics.

Is it not perfectly obvious that the reason we perform a great deal of music by Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and others is that their music is overwhelmingly powerful from an aesthetic point of view? The instant you lose sight of this you leave the door open for the Diversity Counselors to come in and put you in the stocks for failing to honor the contributions of women and people of color. If you have no aesthetic reason for preferring the music of Robert Schumann over that of his wife Clara Schumann, then you might as well play her music instead and rectify an historic imbalance. If you have no way of evaluating music in terms of aesthetic quality, then the only reason you have for programming music by, say, Camille Saint-Saëns over that of Cécile Chaminade is that audiences seem to prefer it. But maybe that is simply because they have not heard much of Chaminade. So again, programming her music instead would seem to right an historic imbalance. And so on for every sliced up identity group you can imagine: gay composers, transsexual composers, composers from the Caribbean, black composers, indigenous composers and on and on. Once you start slicing up the population into identity groups there is no logical stopping place short of the individual. And in fact, the only actual existing elements in a society ARE individuals--all the rest are mere abstractions.

So, given the fact that the best way to resist this project is to revive the practice of aesthetics, I think I will do a short, crash course on it, based on a very fine survey of the field by Monroe C. Beardsley titled Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. This is a substantial volume, over 600 pages, first published in 1958 with a revised second edition in 1981. In it he surveys the central issues, theories and problems in aesthetics and offers a usable theory of his own. One of the central issues is the question of the relativity or subjectivity of aesthetic judgement, so a good part of the book takes on that problem.

Aesthetics, almost banned from serious consideration for decades now, was not dismissed because of the weakness of its philosophical foundations, no, it was rather a case of being replaced by more fashionable topics such as the doleful trio of classism, racism and sexism such as we see over at Musicology Now.

I have actually put up lots of posts on aesthetics before and you can search for them using the widget on the right, but I want to do something a bit more organized and put up a few posts that condense and summarize the arguments in Beardsley's book.

As an envoi, let's hear something by Cécile Chaminade and then something by Camille Saint-Saëns. First, the Concertino for Flute and orchestra by Chaminade (the music begins at the 2:15 mark):

And the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra by Saint-Saëns:

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Stravinsky: Context and Development, part 3

On to Stravinsky's studies with Rimsky-Korsakov. Again, this is just a summary of my notes on Tarusksin's mammoth book on Stravinsky.

Rimsky-Korsakov was an indefatigable teacher over 35 years at three different institutions: St. Petersburg Conservatory, Free Music School and the  Court Chapel Choir (which also taught instrumental music and theory)—over which time he turned out some 250 students in theory and composition. Stravinsky was Rimsky-Korsakov’s sole private pupil in his declining years. Rimsky-Korsakov’s usual method was to give Stravinsky unpublished works to orchestrate as he had already had basic training with Kalafati. Perhaps the most important lesson Stravinsky got from Rimsky-Korsakov was his philosophy of work: you must always keep working whether inspiration comes or not, better to write by formula than not to write at all. I have heard similar advice from professional writers who get up every morning and write a certain amount whether they feel any inspiration or not. Rimsky-Korsakov’s lessons concentrated on technical means, rejected raw emotionalism and anything improvisational. [p. 171] For the last three years of Rimsky-Korsakov s life Stravinsky came for private lessons 4-6 pm every Wednesday.

The first fruits of his studies was his opus 1 (though sketches were begun before he commenced lessons): the Symphony in E flat, conceived in the spirit of Beethoven’s Eroica but with resemblances to Glazunov's Symphony no. 6 and Symphony no. 8, the latter Rimsky-Korsakov's favorite symphony as soon as it was written (fall of 1905). Stravinsky's use of superimposed themes in counterpoint was likely following the example of a symphony by Taneyev and ultimately deriving from Franck's Symphony in D minor. The first performance was a public read-through by the Court Orchestra in January of 1908. The performance was given a substantial review by Vyacheslav Karatïgin a young music critic:
“Especially pleasing in the young author is the cheerful, buoyant turn of his musical thinking … Stravinsky’s ideas are as clear and as natural as their development”
A recurring word in the Russian reviews was bodrost’ “high spirits” or “cheerfulness” not a typical quality in Russian music! The “national coloration” of Stravinsky’s early symphony is obvious, but its nationalism, a Belyayevets characteristic, was unrelated to folklore—it was Rimskian in its harmonies and modulations and for the rest Tchaikovsky and Glazunov. The interesting question is how did Stravinsky get out of this cul-de-sac when other members of his circle did not?

His next piece, composed entirely under Rimsky-Korsakov's direction, was the suite for mezzo and orchestra titled "The Faun and the Shepherdess," op. 2 (composed wholly in 1906). Using a text by a very young (17) Pushkin, this is an epithalamium that Stravinsky began when on his honeymoon—he chose bits and pieces of the original poem resulting in a bit of a "disjointed hash." Stravinsky’s musical setting, especially of the first tableau, has excellent and resourceful declamation with some subtle harmonic touches and the borrowings (Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky again) are more successfully blended into a general stylistic resonance—nothing to “irritate” Rimsky-Korsakov's conservatism despite Stravinsky's claims much later in life.

The performance and publication history of the Faun offers a sketch of the young and struggling composer lost in a herd of others—his first attempt at publication with Zimmerman was refused, but Rimsky-Korsakov intervened in order to schedule a performance—and a vocal score was published in 1908. The critical reception was mixed and the piece was described as pale and lacking in style.

Let's listen to both of these student pieces. First the Symphony in E flat. This is the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre Orchestra, conductor, Valeriy Platonov:

Even more obscure is "The Faun and the Shepherdess." The three parts are only available in separate clips.

The second and third will not embed:

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Stravinsky: Context and Development, part 2

Continuing with my summary of the background as uncovered in Taruskin's book on Stravinsky.

Being as Stravinsky was born into a very cultured musical family at the center of the Saint Petersburg musical establishment, he should have been a natural reactionary. His father, Fyodor Stravinsky, was a highly respected baritone at the Mariyinsky Theater, the dean of Russian opera singers. Fyodor had a large library, strong in history and folklore, which he used in preparation for the creation of realistic characters--his specialty. He was very close to Musorgsky, with whom he performed a number of times in public with Musorgsky himself accompanying.

Igor was born June 5, 1882 (Old Style, June 17 in the new Gregorian calendar) and grew up on the stage of the Mariyinsky, a favorite mascot of the troupe. He therefore possessed from childhood an intimate knowledge of the operatic repertoire. He was something of a young Wagnerite, well-read in aesthetics and not a fan of the absolute music theories of Eduard Hanslick. Stravinsky was descended on both sides of his family from landed aristocracy, identified in Tsarist-era documents as dvoryanin or "nobleman." The family passed their summers on country estates belonging to his mother's sisters.

Stravinsky's earliest composition is a Tarantella for piano. Taruskin describes it as follows: “The only thing remarkable about the Tarantella is how little talent it displays. It is the sort of piece every thirteen-year-old piano student writes, only Stravinsky wrote it at sixteen.” [p. 95] Bear in mind that at sixteen Glazunov was premiering his first symphony and Mozart, of course, had written dozens of symphonies and several operas already. The young piano student Stravinsky was a passionate improvisor but with little knowledge of musical rudiments. His first important teacher was Leocadia A. Kashperova, pianist and composer, who provided him entry into the New Russian School circles.

Fyodor S. Akimenko was his first harmony teacher, who taught from Rimsky-Korsakov's Practical Course in Harmony. He also studied counterpoint by himself and with Vasiliy Kalafati. The next composition is a "fearfully symmetrical" Scherzo for piano with a Trio using chromatic auxiliaries that still shows a somewhat "retarded musical developmen"—compare Glazunov at the same age or a much younger Prokofiev! Stylistically there are echoes of Tchaikovsky. The song setting of "The Storm Cloud" by Pushkin, composed at 19, is more mature, following a Rimsky-Korsakov model harmonically.

In 1902, Stravinsky met Rimsky-Korsakov, an important turning point, armed with a letter of introduction from his father. He also knew Rimsky-Korsakov's sons from university—Stravinsky was enrolled in legal studies, the usual option for people of his class. After completion of this course in 1905 he began lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky became estranged from his mother after his father’s death due to her insistence on his following a career in law and became very close to the Rimsky-Korsakov family. He was a regular attendee at the bi-weekly Wednesday musical evenings at Rimsky-Korsakov’s apartment at which Stravinsky became known for his short comic songs that were performed at these evenings (1903).

The piece written to be his official qualification for lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov was the Piano Sonata in F# minor completed in summer of 1904. For a while the music was thought to be lost and Stravinsky claimed, much later, that it was an inept imitation of Beethoven, but it was more an imitation of sonatas by Glazunov and Scriabin’s Third Sonata, also in F# minor, a kind of pledge of allegiance to the Rimsky-Korsakov circle and the Belyayev circle. The basic conception was harmonic rather than linear and followed the expanded diatonic vocabulary of the Belyayev circle: “no end of decorative, ‘trompe l’oreille.’ Any dominant seventh can be resolved as an augmented sixth and vice versa. Any first inversion can be treated as a Neapolitan. Any tone can be a ‘common tone’ for instant links between ‘unrelated’ chords” and so on. “But all the harmonic novelty is surface embellishment” [p. 116]. The basic form, for this and the Belyayev circle in general, is entirely conventional: form is objective, content subjective: form is reduced to a set of operating procedures.

Stravinsky’s sonata, modeled on Scriabin and Tchaikovsky’s Grande Sonate of 1878 uses devices typical of its models, but there is also the first appearance of the octatonic scale in a passage in the development mm 136-38. Both the strengths and weaknesses of the early sonata are representative of the school of composers he was joining, showing good command of the instrumental medium and harmonic technique. It is amazing that it comes only five or six years after the juvenile Tarantella!
Stravinsky in his early years was a docile and cosseted scion of the nobility, adopted into the Rimsky-Korsakov circle, another house of nobility—without a trace of rebellion! (Bear in mind that I am just summarizing both the facts and the evaluations from Taruskin!)

Now let's listen to that early F# minor Piano Sonata. The performer is Victor Sangiorgio:

Monday, July 17, 2017

How Now, Musicology Now?

The American Musicological Society is a venerable organization, the professional body gathering in professors and students of musicology in the US and Canada. When I was a musicology graduate student I was a member and attended several of their conferences. The AMS has an official blog called Musicology Now and it might be interesting to have a look. Thanks to commentator Will for reminding me of it.

A blog post, that neither is likely to advance one's career, nor offer payment, is a fairly low incentive activity, but still I am shocked at how few posts there are:

Just for comparison, here is my blog archive for the same years:

According to the website for the AMS, they have some 3.500 individual members, nearly all of whom seem to see no particular reason to contribute a post to the blog, it seems!

In February last year I put up a post discussing a debate that was raging on the Musicology Now site. Go have a look. What are they up to these days? The top post right now is a digest of a dissertation on Cuban dance culture. Seems quite topical and ties into the Obama initiative to foster ties with Cuba. Here is how the writer describes her project:
What does a musicologist gain by studying popular dance culture? One might ask conversely what the discipline of musicology has to offer to the study of popular dance cultures. Certainly my desire to treat both the aesthetic elements and the evolving socio-economic contexts of a popular music-dance culture with seriousness and depth has forced me to adopt an interdisciplinary approach. Yet as a musician and musicologist, the music – its sounds and structures, their logics and meanings – is the touchstone from which I began and to which I repeatedly return. Even the “simplest” folk music has layers of meaning to unpack, once we pay close attention to its basic sonic elements - rhythm, timbre, form, and pitch, for example - and consider the ways in which these produce meaning within their “home” context. In the case of popular dance cultures, scholars of African, Cuban, and even North American dance genres have shown that the intimate relationship between music and dance requires a detailed examination of the dance within the context of a rigorous musical analysis.
I would be curious to see a sample of this rigorous analysis, but I guess that would be too much to expect from a "digest." Here is the last paragraph, summing up the post:
In many ways, change and uncertainty are more palpable than ever at this writing, both on the island and off. Yet official postures and policies aside, musicians and dancers in Havana, New York, and elsewhere yearn to reenact the cultural connections that keep Cuban dance culture alive, and continue to do so through new projects and partnerships. Forms like timba and casino exist precisely because of those resistant acts. They are proof of and inspiration for further acts of mingling and sharing, reminding us of our humanity, resilience, and need for communal moments of pleasure and release. Understanding these deep-rooted connections – between musical sound, embodied listener, and socio-economic space – is the goal of my project and the work of today’s musicologist. 

The next post is titled "Earth Music" and consists of musings about the, I guess, ontological status of the golden record that was sent out to the universe on both the Voyager deep space probes. What do the authors have to share with us?
Whether this Earth Music constitutes a flattening of musical features or a liberation is a matter of perspective. Either way, thinking through the Golden Record challenges us to refashion what we, as musicologists, do. Ultimately, the chief point of this interstellar exploration is firmly focused on the question of communication, starting with our communication here on Planet Earth. This musical anniversary affords us a great opportunity to raise some important questions about the reach of musicology. It asks us to consider our work in its capacity to communicate across the barriers of languages, cultures—indeed across whole worlds and planets—and to examine the very basis and purpose of our work. If we set the most ambitious goals, communicating across species, across exoplanetary systems, and renegotiate the very foundational terms with which we operate, perhaps the rest of our work will seem less daunting as a consequence. Space, it turns out, really is the final frontier.
The next post praises film composer Rupert Gregson-Williams soundtrack to the recent Wonder Woman movie:
Gregson-Williams presents discernible musical themes without patterning his score on a Wagnerian model, and the soundtrack evenly balances music with sound effects during battle scenes, an unusual mixing decision since the development of Dolby surround sound in the 1980s. Critics and viewers have applauded the film’s representation of women both on- and off-screen. Gregson-Williams’s soundtrack also reflects Diana’s Amazonian warrior values and provides a model for future superhero scores. More memorable thematic cues that are balanced with sound effects in action-packed scenes should be applied to break the trope of forgettable superhero soundtracks. 
The next post is also on the film and discusses the nature of evil in Wonder Woman:
This “love,” or what Arendt would call an “understanding heart” differentiates Wonder Woman from Batman and Superman. Superman protects humanity from outside threats, and Batman roots out the bad apples. Only Wonder Woman grapples with the question of whether or not humanity is worth saving. Having faced that question, she insists on living in (and loving) the world as it is, enabling her to see the good in everyone, even Batman’s bad apples. Her “understanding heart” allows her to forge that new beginning that Arendt so prized. 
If we take this official blog of the AMS to be a valid index of what they are up to these days, then the news is dire. It seems that the Gramscian march through the institutions has triumphed! Why do I say this? Ironically, the new musicology is all about establishing the social context of music, but the first post, with its whitewashing of the real nature of the Cuban dictatorship, tries to conceal entirely the social context. The second post has as its fundamental assumption the erasing of all boundaries, national and other, and then proceeds to a really silly exercise in navel-gazing. The third and fourth posts are really exercises in feminism. My point is, whatever your position on these issues and questions, it is pretty much undeniable that they are all ones that embody the politics of the left. Also, only half of the posts actually deal with music as such.

But let me end on a much more cheerful note. JAMS, the Journal of the American Musicological Society offers quite a different picture of what musicologists are up to these days as a glance at the articles in the current issue (follow the link) will reveal. Lots of serious papers on actual music!

As one of the papers is about Boris Godunov, the opera by Musorgsky, let's have a little of that for our envoi.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Roger Kimball: The Fortunes of Permanence

I don't do too many book reviews here, but The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia to give its full title, just published on July 4, looks rather good. Roger Kimball has written a lot of books including Tenured Radicals from way back in 1991. The real reason I don't do book reviews is probably that I don't have the qualifications! Unless it is a book on music, of course. But I can direct your attention to a book that might be worth reading...

This is a cultural critique with an impressive depth of learning behind it. Sample quote:
The deepest foolishness of multiculturalism shows itself in the puerile attacks it mounts on the cogency of scientific rationality, epitomized poignantly by the Afrocentrist who flips on his word processor to write books decrying the parochial nature of Western science and extolling the virtues of the “African way.”
[Kimball, Roger. The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (Kindle Locations 129-131). St. Augustine's Press. Kindle Edition.]
In analyzing an HSBC ad campaign he points out the following:
The ostensible tenet of this catechism is that all cultures are equally valuable and, therefore, that preferring one culture, intellectual heritage, or moral and social order to another is to be guilty of ethnocentrism. It’s actually not quite as egalitarian as it looks, however, for you soon realize that the doctrine of cultural relativism is always a weighted relativism: Preferring Western culture or intellectual heritage is culpable in a way that preferring other traditions is not.
[ibid, Kindle Locations 138-141]
This passage has attracted a few comments and summarizes the argument of the book:
the fruits of egalitarianism are ignorance, the habit of intellectual conformity, and the systematic subjection of cultural achievement to political criteria. In the university, this means classes devoted to pop novels, rock videos, and third-rate works chosen simply because their authors are members of the requisite sex, ethnic group, or social minority. It involves an attack on permanent things for the sake of the trendy and ephemeral. It means students who are graduated not having read Milton or Dante or Shakespeare— or, what is in some ways even worse, who have been taught to regard the works of such authors chiefly as hunting grounds for examples of patriarchy, homophobia, imperialism, or some other politically correct vice. It means faculty and students who regard education as an exercise in disillusionment and who look to the past only to corroborate their sense of superiority and self-satisfaction. The Fortunes of Permanence aims to disturb that complacency and reaffirm the tradition that made both the experience of and the striving for greatness possible.
[ibid. Kindle Locations 235-242]
Kimball's analysis of relativism as being one of the prime culprits is quite good. Egalitarians attack all hierarchies as being immoral, but typically they then smuggle in their own utopian ideas as replacement. And the end of that road is always great human suffering. Of course the power of progressivism lies in its pretense to being shiny and new. I am reminded of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's reply to a critic who questioned his appointment of a cabinet that was precisely 50% men and 50% women (what, no transexuals?). When asked why he simply replied, "Because it's 2015." Well, there you go! Brave New World. While seeming both cool and logical, this is really an attack on the idea that anything can have inherent value. Progressivism in that way justifies itself: what we are doing is good because it is progressive and because it is progressive it is good. And then you wake up one day and find yourself agreeing that Bach is no better than Justin Bieber.

I am just reading the book myself, so I can't offer any global criticism, but it seems both well-written and well-founded, so probably worth a look.

UPDATE: Agh! Somehow I missed that this book was actually published in 2012. Sorry, I thought it was a new publication.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Music and Culture: a David Brooks Satire

I wrote a post inspired by a recent column by David Brooks, but I missed out on the most stimulating paragraph:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
Let's move this to a concert experience, shall we?
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to hear a concert. Insensitively, I led her into a symphony concert hall. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with compositions titled Symphonie fantastique and Variations on a Theme by Haydn with movements like allegro con brio, andante and, shudder, Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorzutragen. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we hustled over to a Radiohead concert.
I dunno, is that funny? Probably not as the classical music culture is no longer part of the cultural repertoire of the upper class even though knowledge of Italian cold cuts is.

Proms Get Political

The headline comes from The Guardian, not me:
The BBC has been known to go to some lengths to avoid political statements being made at the Proms, but this year, pianist Igor Levit sneaked one in before even an hour of the season had passed.
The Russian-German pianist’s encore – demanded in no uncertain terms by the audience after his performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 – was Liszt’s transcription of the Ode to Joy, the chorus to hopeful words by Friedrich Schiller that forms the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9.
It is also, of course, the anthem of the European Union, and a worldwide musical symbol of assertive unity. If there could have been any doubt that a performer of such political awareness and responsibility as Levit meant it to be taken as such, he was wearing a small EU pin. The BBC’s cameras couldn’t miss it.
I think this deserves a brief note. I am a big fan of Igor Levit; I think he is the most promising of the new generation of pianists and I have all of his CDs. I put up a recent post about this issue of Venezuela and music that also involved Igor Levit.

Here are some further thoughts: in the case of Venezuela, a horrific situation of an entire nation apparently committing suicide before our very eyes, it is frankly hard to see why we should ignore it. And in the case of a musician of Venezuelan nationality, we should not only allow them some leeway to express their opinions, but perhaps even listen to them. But Brexit is an entirely different situation and musicians should perhaps steer clear unless there is some compelling reason to make a statement and in this case, the Proms concert, I really don't see one.

On the other hand, perhaps all this is imaginary and dreamed up by The Guardian. After all, just because Levit played Liszt's transcription of this particular movement doesn't necessarily imply a "statement" at all, even if he was wearing an EU pin. I have a Canada pin I wear sometimes, but I don't mean to make a statement with it.

Envoi, Beethoven Piano Concerto #3: a little sample of a performance by Igor Levit and the Mannheim Philharmonic: