Friday, January 30, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Here is the future, the complete commercialization of music:
It has been announced that New York’s Juilliard School has received a $5 Million grant from trustee Michael and Carol Marks to develop a new student business-skills and entrepreneurship program.
To be called the ‘Alan D Marks Center for Career Services and Entrepreneurship’, the program will include the development of a compulsory entrepreneurship course for all first-year students and a number of seminars and training programmes on financial planning, public speaking, networking and concert programming.
The Centre will also award a number of annual grants of up to US $10,000 to support innovative student projects.
The announcement, from the traditionally performance-based institution, comes just months after both Mannes College and the Manhattan School of Music announced revamped curriculums – to include courses in entrepreneurship, technology and improvisation.
I can remember a time, not long ago, when cultural grants were mostly given to projects of special aesthetic value so they would NOT have to be subject to commercial pressures!

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And now for something completely different. If you haven't heard it you really should have a listen to the Philosopher's Song delivered (along with free Foster's beer) by Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl.

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Does anyone else find this article talking up toy musical instruments a bit, uh, disturbing?

Wilco guitarist Nels Cline proudly plays miniature pianos and plastic “Cowboy” guitars—and bristles at the term “toy instrument,” which he finds “denigrating and dismissive.” He prefers “little instruments.”
“To me there’s no differentiation between a so-called ‘toy instrument’ and a traditional one,” he said. “You could go to IKEA right now and buy a tiny keyboard that kids play in kindergarten and it may totally make a track on a record.”

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Make of these statistics what you will. For me it is rather a golden age of recorded music as you can buy all sorts of big integral recordings really cheap.

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I'm a big fan of the movies of Luc Besson. In his The Fifth Element a very tall blue-skinned alien diva sings an aria with a stunning vocal range of, what, three or four octaves? Five, maybe? Here is the sequence:

The actress is Luc Besson's then girlfriend Maïwenn Le Besco, but the actual singing is done by a real opera singer, soprano Inva Mula. It is the beginning of an aria scena, "Il dolce suono", from the opera "Lucia di Lammermoor" by Donizetti. The techno bit that follows is an addition for the film and involves what I always assumed was some technological wizardry to punch up the voice, not to mention adding an octave or so on either end of the range. But now there is an Armenian contestant in a talent show that seems to be doing it au naturel (though I don't think she gets down into the lowest part):

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Sometimes just after reading one of those essays about how we need to make classical music more "accessible" by dumbing it down, I think that those people are correct who claim that IQ levels have fallen by one standard deviation since Victorian times. And then I read something like this (link):
There’s a delightful and true saying, often attributed to Joseph Sobran, that in a hundred years, we’ve gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching remedial English in college.
And I think, yep, that's probably true. And it explains how we got from Sousa and Joplin and Puccini (to name three very popular composers from around 1900) to Jay-Z and Beyoncé...

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Here is an account of a very special concert in Berlin in remembrance of the Holocaust and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. One of the pieces played was the Adagietto from the Symphony No. 5 of Gustav Mahler, which gives us our musical envoi:

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Concerto Guide: Beethoven, Concerto for Piano No. 3 in C minor, op. 37

Apart from some incomplete and fragmentary pieces, Beethoven wrote only seven concertos in his career: five for piano, for his own use, one for violin and the triple concerto for violin, cello and piano. Just for comparison, Mozart wrote all five of his violin concertos in a single year, 1775 and wrote around thirty piano concertos! Of course, Beethoven's piano concertos were written for his own use and when he became deaf and unable to perform in public, he wrote no more. His Fifth Piano Concerto had to be premiered by others. But we should not conclude from this that Beethoven was an indifferent or lackluster composer of concertos. Those few that he wrote are all masterpieces and a couple, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, are superb works with no real equals.

Before getting to those, I want to take up the slightly earlier Piano Concerto No. 3, written in 1800 and first performed in 1803 with Beethoven as soloist. One of the things that the Romantic view of Beethoven as the struggling, suffering, but ultimately triumphing solitary soul tends to conceal is the close connections between his music and that of Mozart in particular. This concerto is a good example as it resembles the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491 of Mozart with which it shares not only the key of C minor, but the mood and, indeed, a very similar opening theme. Here is the first part of the Mozart:

And the beginning theme, 13 measures ending on the first note of the next measure after this except:

Click to enlarge

Here is the first part of the first movement of the Beethoven:

And here is the score. That opening is a brief, four measure phrase answered by the winds with the same theme in the dominant:

Mozart, that great imitator of others (his first few piano concertos were transcriptions of piano sonatas by J. C. Bach) would have found nothing amiss with this. The remarkable thing is that Beethoven was undoubtedly the only composer alive who could have done such a close facsimile of a Mozart piano concerto. Mind you, the Beethoven is a different kind of piece, with shorter, more articulated themes, but the resemblance is still striking.

One major difference is that Beethoven has a more static exposition than Mozart would have done: there is a completely self-sufficient orchestral exposition, ending with a pause, then the piano essentially repeats the orchestral exposition with some variations. Mozart, as we have seen in this post, had more creative ways of handling the dual exposition problem: it tends to be dull if the soloist just repeats what the orchestra has just done. Mozart might have the soloist interrupt the orchestra, as he did in the "Jeunehomme" concerto, or give the soloist a modulating exposition or give the soloist entirely new themes as Mozart did in the C minor concerto that resembles this one of Beethoven. What he did not do is what Beethoven did here and in his first two piano concertos and as Hummel and even Chopin did: have the orchestra do an exposition ending with a firm cadence, after which the soloist basically does it all again. For Mozart that was too dull and after this concerto, Beethoven rediscovers some Mozartean solutions. It is an odd thing about Beethoven's career that he became more "classical" in terms of his handling of form, later in life and less "romantic". There is a structural looseness about this concerto that he does not repeat in his later ones.

One very nice touch in this concerto is the coda where, after a very wide-ranging cadenza, the orchestra enters with a pianissimo harmony with just an echo of the opening theme in the tympani alone:

That is a very Beethoven touch and one that I don't think Mozart ever used!

While this is a very fine concerto, Beethoven has not quite gotten the measure of Mozart yet, his only real teacher when it comes to concertos. As we will see next week, Beethoven makes great strides with his next concerto, which we will look at then.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

This is the Music Salon's 1515th post!

I don't know how I missed it, but a couple of weeks ago I put up the 1500th post here at the Music Salon. I was planning on doing something, but obviously I got distracted--probably by something musical. I just checked and the 1500th post was this one, complaining about 2Cellos, a duo that gives crossover a bad name.

Let's see, what would be appropriate? I could tell you what is upcoming. I am working on the first of three posts on Beethoven concertos. This one is on the Third Piano Concerto and the others will be on the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. Past that I haven't planned as yet. But I intend to trace important concertos right up to Esa-Pekka Salonen's 2009 Violin Concerto, which is a heck of a piece of music.

In the meantime, let's look back at the year 1500 in music (well, 1501, actually) and the first volume of Ottaviano Petrucci'Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, the first printed collection of polyphonic music. Here is a clip about a new recording of the Odhecaton:

As the book contained a number of groovy dance numbers, if it had come out recently, it might have been titled "Non-Stop Dancing 1500!" Here is one of those tunes, the anonymous La Spagna:

Now those are some serious recorders!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Two Beethovens--at least!

Reception history is an interesting field within the larger field of music history. What reception history does is look at how a composer was regarded at different times. One of the most interesting composers from this point of view is Beethoven because while he has been very famous and very popular ever since the latter part of his lifetime, say 1800 at least, why he has been popular and which works in particular were most appreciated has changed enormously over time.

At the present moment we are in perhaps the aftermath (hangover?) of the romantic myth of Beethoven. This is the Promethean myth of suffering and triumph and it is fed by a small selection of his works: the 3rd, 5th and 9th symphonies, Fidelio, and the Pathétique and Appassionata piano sonatas. During his own lifetime it was quite a different Beethoven that was admired; the works that were particularly appreciated were the Septet, Wellington's Victory and the second movement of the Symphony No. 8. This music is still around, but it is barely known and other of Beethoven's music, the whole divertimento repertoire, has been banished. From about the middle of the 19th century there was no longer a place for music with a divertimento character on the concert stage, not even in chamber music concerts.

As we are very familiar with the Promethean Beethoven--if you are not, then go have a listen to the first group of pieces mentioned above--let's listen to a bit of the other Beethoven. Here is the Septet in E flat major, op. 20 for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn:

The only reason I have any familiarity with this music is that in my first orgy of LP-purchasing around 1970 I picked up a box containing all of Beethoven's chamber music for winds, part of DGG's integral recording project for the Beethoven bicentenary. I know what you are thinking: "where is all the drama and suffering?" This sounds more like Haydn and Mozart than the Beethoven we are familiar with. Yes, exactly! But it was music like this that was the foundation of Beethoven's fame and he continued to write music like this throughout his life. Here is the second movement of the Symphony No. 8 for example:

That sounds more like Mendelssohn doesn't it?

My own history with Beethoven was heavily influenced by 20th century views. I came first to revere the late quartets. Why? Very largely because of the testimony of Stravinsky and others that this was perennially great music. The 19th century was a bit leery of the late quartets and they only achieved their full appreciation in the 20th century when they became the pinnacle of the repertoire in tandem with the 20th century rediscovery of the genre.

As for the symphony, Carl Dahlhaus makes the point that:
The history of the symphony [in the 19th century] looks almost like a history of the conclusions that composers were able to draw from Beethoven's various models of the symphonic principle: from the Third and Seventh Symphonies in the case of Berlioz, the Sixth in the case of Mendelssohn, and the Ninth in the case of Bruckner.
I have remarked before about how Bruckner seems to be always exploring the possibilities of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

I hesitate to deliver a tidy summing-up as Dahlhaus (in his Nineteenth-Century Music) also makes the point that the basic research into the details of the whole reception history of Beethoven has yet to be done, so I will just end with another of those works for which he was most famed during his lifetime, but which have been neglected ever since. Here is Wellington's Victory, op 91, celebrating the battle of Vitoria in Spain in June 1813, when forces commanded by Wellington defeated French forces commanded by Napoleon's older brother:

That is completely different from the aesthetic image we have of Beethoven but it was written in the fall of 1813, so certainly a product of his mature years, and a huge hit at the time.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Young Mozart

I doubt we will ever get over our fascination with the very young Mozart. A recent concert in London began with Mozart's first concert aria, composed in London at age eight while on a nearly three-year tour of Europe with his father, and ended with another aria composed just after he left London, at age nine. I've been listening to all the Mozart symphonies lately and I'm up to number 30--and he still isn't out of his teens! The Symphony no. 30 in D major was composed in 1774, when he was just eighteen. But never mind that, let's listen to that first concert aria composed by Mozart, aged eight. Here is "Va, dal furor portata," K21:

And no, his father didn't "help" him with it. Even at eight, Wolfgang was a more accomplished musician than his father. A witness to some of Mozart's feats in London:
Daines Barrington who, fascinated by Mozart’s presence in London, compiled a report for the scientific Royal Society after setting the eight-year-old an apparently impossible musical task. The child “showed the most extraordinary readiness of invention”, read Barrington’s report; in singing an unknown Italian duet and simultaneously sight-reading the orchestral parts at the harpsichord alongside his father, Mozart not only “did full justice to the duet” but also pointed out and corrected his father’s mistakes.
Now sight-singing an unknown melody while simultaneously sight-reading the accompaniment on keyboard is not an impossible task: in fact it is an element of musical training found in a number of methods including Paul Hindemith's Elementary Training for Musicians. But if the accompaniment is orchestral parts that you have to reduce at sight AND if you are just eight years old, yes, that's pretty impressive! Mind you, he did even more astonishing things on a trip to Italy a few years later. He transcribed, from memory, a whole complex piece for eight voices by Allegri, after hearing it once. The piece is about ten minutes long. Now that is the most extraordinary feat of musicianship I have ever heard of. I'm sure they left it out of the movie Amadeus because it would just not be believable!

Now let's hear that other concert aria, composed when he was nine years old. This is "Conservati fedele" for soprano and orchestra:

No, I don't think there has ever been a musical genius to equal Mozart. It is a very good thing he started so young, because he only lived for thirty-five years...

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Harold Shapero, American Composer

A couple of weeks ago I read an intriguing article in the Wall Street Journal about a neglected American composer, Harold Shapero. He passed away in May 2013 (born in 1920), never having achieved the recognition that quite a few people thought he should have. These people included composer Aaron Copland, conductor Leonard Bernstein (who conducted the premiere of Shapero's Symphony for Classical Orchestra, written in 1947), conductor André Previn who recorded the same symphony in 1988 (not in 1986 as stated in the article) and now Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. Let's let him set the scene:
The American composer Harold Shapero, who died two years ago at the age of 93, is a prime example of the perpetually rediscovered artist. He was extravagantly admired by his contemporaries, foremost among them Aaron Copland, who praised his “phenomenal ear” and “wonderfully spontaneous musical gift.” Bernstein gave the premiere of his Symphony for Classical Orchestra in 1948, then recorded it to thrilling effect five years later. Alas, the winds of favor blew elsewhere, and soon Shapero was devoting most of his energies to teaching instead of writing music of his own.
In 1986, André Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic made a second recording of the Symphony for Classical Orchestra. That put Shapero back in the news—but only for a brief time. Thirteen years later, Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic of the New York Times, published a profile of Shapero in which he wrote about the symphony with the utmost enthusiasm. “How can a major work, introduced so auspiciously, get lost for more than three decades, then come back and get lost again?” he asked. But that didn’t work, either, and Shapero retreated once more into an obscurity so profound that I didn’t learn of his death in 2013 until weeks after the fact.
The Wikipedia article provides more information, critical comments and a list of works. All this got me interested enough to acquire the CD of the Previn recording of Shapero's magnum opus the Symphony for Classical Orchestra. I am surprised to find myself disagreeing with this long list of famous musicians, but this is not very good music! Which does explain how a composer like Shapero, who really had every advantage you could possibly imagine, still managed to sink into complete obscurity. He studied with everyone you can think of: Nicholas Slonimsky, Ernest Krenek, Walter Piston (he entered Harvard at age 18 to study with him), Paul Hindemith and Nadia Boulanger. He became friends with Leonard Bernstein and associated with Igor Stravinsky. He was awarded all sorts of fellowships (Naumberg, Paine) and prizes (the Prix de Rome and George Gershwin Memorial Contest). Indeed, it is hard to think of any way in which he was disadvantaged. Despite all this and the admiration of composers like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, he never became celebrated by the musical public. The reason is simple: he is not a very good composer.

It is very interesting to listen to his music, though. Not because it is good, as it is not, but because of the ways in which it is not good. What I hear is a rather characterless music that bangs about in a robust way, but also in a dreary and undistinguished way. There are very, very few striking or memorable moments. There is an ongoing harmonic dullness. For an example, listen to the end of the last movement of the symphony where Shapero can find no other means to end the piece except by bashing away at the tonic in dreary quarter notes until we get very tired! You may think of this as being modeled after Beethoven if you like, but it is like Beethoven with 100% of the magic removed. There are hints of Stravinsky, especially in the Scherzo that occasionally sounds a bit like the Octet. But a very uninspired echo of the Octet. Rhythmically there is just nothing interesting going on. Most of most of the movements tend to sound alike. The slow movement is not very slow and, except for the beginning and end, sounds very much like the first and last movements.

It always seems as if something interesting is about to happen--but it never does. To me there is no mystery in why Shapero remained an obscurity despite periodic efforts by influential people to promote his music. He was a composer that just lacked charm and originality. Probably most aspiring composers in most places at most times are just this dull and uninspired. Great musical genius is extremely rare. The mystery to me is, why did so many better musicians have so many nice things to say about Shapero? Why did Aaron Copland praise his “phenomenal ear” and “wonderfully spontaneous musical gift”?

I would like to put up a clip of the Symphony for Classical Orchestra so you can judge for yourself, but, alas, it is not available on YouTube. Instead, have a listen to his Piano Sonata No. 3 written a couple of years before the symphony:

To me that sounds like an awkward blend of Haydn and Stravinsky. But it is also a lot more charming than the symphony. If you can find a copy of that and listen to it, I would welcome some comments!

For the sake of comparison, let's listen to another symphony, also in neo-classical style, written around roughly the same time. Here is the Symphony No. 9 of Dmitri Shostakovich, composed in 1945, conducted by Bernstein:

As an example of a very distinctive moment, I direct your attention to the hilarious dialogue between the trombone and piccolo around the one minute mark.

Taste and Creativity

In yesterday's Friday Miscellanea post I put up a quote from Picasso:
“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.” Pablo Picasso (quoted in Quote, Mar. 24, 1957)
Most quotes of this nature are designed to make you nod or shake your head for a moment before you go back to thinking about your ongoing hair loss, or overdue bills or sex. In other words, they intrigue us for a brief moment. But this one got me thinking. The face value of this quote is a simple statement of the modernist aesthetic: innovation is the most important thing in the arts. This assumption is camouflaged by the "creativeness" meme. "Creativity", like "diversity" and "equality" is one of those words that are often used to smuggle hidden assumptions into an argument. Wikipedia defines "creativity" as
Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and in some way valuable is created
There are two components: newness and value. But what the Picasso quote and a lot of other talk about creativity submerges is the "value" aspect by highlighting the "newness" aspect. Picasso did a lot of new and striking things, some of which were valuable, while others were, perhaps, not so much:

What was particularly appealing about this to modernists was the simplicity and immediacy of the innovation. It gives a fresh glimpse at something in the world. Ok. But is this an artwork with great value? Not to me, particularly.

Picasso was disparaging taste because taste, one of those things that enables us to discern high-value over low-value, was for him an obsolete, superseded criterion. "Taste" was an extremely important aspect of 18th century aesthetics, so it underlies a great deal of the music we value the most: music by Haydn, Mozart and much of Beethoven. I talked a great deal about taste in my posts on the aesthetics of David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher. Taste is defined as:
the sense of what is fitting, harmonious, or beautiful; the perception and enjoyment of what constitutes excellence in the fine arts, literature, fashion, etc.
 You can see why Picasso hated the idea! The basic assumptions of his aesthetic are that what is new overrides what is fitting, harmonious and so on. Putting together the rusty handlebars and seat of an old bicycle so as to resemble a bull is much better art than something that is beautiful.

We can see three stages in aesthetics over the last couple of centuries. As I said, "taste" was the governing aesthetic of the 18th century and this includes most of the music of the century. Some of Bach's music falls a bit outside the boundaries as it elevates the intensity of religious feeling over the strictly tasteful. But in general, the criteria of taste are the criteria of the 18th century. Mozart never wrote anything that was less than poised, graceful, touching and beautiful. This starts to change with Beethoven who delved deep into his own individual feeling to create more demanding, intense music. By 18th century standards some of his later works, such as the last movement of the Symphony No. 9 and the Grosse Fuge, are not tasteful. This leads to the 19th century where the main criterion of aesthetics is feeling, not taste. Everything must appeal primarily to the feelings and emotions.

Then we come to the 20th century where the main criterion becomes novelty. Whatever you do, make it new!

So, in the 18th century we have Taste (Mozart, Symphony No. 30 in D major):

In the 19th century we have Feeling (Wagner, Prelude to Tristan und Isolde):

And in the 20th century we have Novelty (Stockhausen, Gruppen):

So let me re-word that Picasso quote a bit:
"Ah, novelty! What a dreadful thing! Novelty is the enemy of creativeness!"

If you are only trying to do something new, how are you ever going to do something good?