Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Concerto Guide: Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364

The sinfonia concertante genre is the turducken of the classical world. Whazzat? A "turducken" is a particularly extravagant holiday meal consisting of a boned turkey, stuffed with a boned duck, stuffed with a boned chicken. Supposedly quite tasty. But a definite mix of different things. So too is the sinfonia concertante genre, which is really a blend of the two genres of the symphony and the concerto. Think of it as a symphony stuffed with a concerto.

In any case, probably the only reason we pay much attention to the genre today is because of a superb composition by Mozart, the Sinfonia concertante, K. 364, in E flat for violin, viola and orchestra.

The Wikipedia article on the sinfonia concertante form is not very good. It seems obvious to me that the genre is a holdover from the Baroque concerto grosso, though reinterpreted in the Classical style. In any case, the only important piece in this genre is the one by Mozart, but it's a good one.

The Sinfonia concertante in E flat is a unique piece with a unique sound. Mozart loved the viola and may have written the viola part in this concerto for himself to play. In any case, the sound of the whole orchestra is imbued with the timbre of the viola. Take the first chord for example:

The violas, divisi, are playing quite high double stops, in the same range as the violins, in their lowest register, with the oboes in their low register, the horns doubling the oboes and cellos. The effect is to the give the piece a characteristic sound, shaped by the viola. Rosen remarks that this is a "milestone in Mozart's career: for the first time he had created a sonority at once completely individual and logically related to the the nature of the work." [The Classical Style, p. 215]

Though the slow movement and rondo finale are very fine, the real weight of the piece is in the somber first movement. The themes are closely linked:

The solo parts are written with both brilliance and pathos. They often echo one another so closely that listening to a recording without the score you might at times be puzzled as to who is playing what. While the timbres are different, the instruments are handled very similarly. Here is the brief but effective cadenza at the end of the first movement:

This concerto represents a considerable increase in maturity in Mozart's writing and also is his final example of a concerto with more than one soloist. From now on he will compose only concertos for solo piano and orchestra, mostly for his own use. And that we will take up next week. In the meantime, here is a performance of the Sinfonia concertante in E flat with Gidon Kremer, Kim Kashkashian and the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by a young Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Progress in Music?

In the past I have ranted that there is no progress in music, that what people are writing today is not better than what people wrote two hundred years ago. And there is certainly a sense in which that is true. But let's take another look at the question: is there progress in music? The idea that we are always moving towards a brighter future, a staple of politicians' speeches, is what is called "Whig history" from the British political party. Though the idea that humanity is ever marching to a more just and equitable future still seems a staple of some political factions, in general the idea has been debunked--especially in the arts.

But let's take another look at music. There are certainly aspects of music that show a definite progression from less complex to more complex or from simple and limited to more ample and extensive. For example, a great deal of what we know of the music of the early Middle Ages consists of simple, one voice melodies that we call "Gregorian Chant" used by the Catholic Church:

Scholars, when discussing this or any other musical form or genre, cannot avoid using the word "development" which implies progress over time. For example, the Wikipedia article on Gregorian Chant linked to above describes it like this:
Gregorian chant developed mainly in western and central Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries, with later additions and redactions. Although popular legend credits Pope St. Gregory the Great with inventing Gregorian chant, scholars believe that it arose from a later Carolingian synthesis of Roman chant and Gallican chant.
The origins are obscure, as they are with many musical genres, but it most certainly developed over time. You could argue that the changes were not a progression in an aesthetic sense, but you could also argue that they were. Simply melodies were refined and varied and honed over time. Most of all, added to the single voice of the earlier repertoire, were additional voices to create a polyphonic texture and ways were devised to write this down. We also see a similar  progression over a larger field if we look at the technical resources of music. Without confusing notation with practice (it is certain that polyphonic, chordal choral music was sung long before it was written down), we can, by examining the history of what was written down, see a definite accretion of more and more potential resources for composers. As long as we avoid making the crude claims of a linear progression over time, I think that we can certainly see development in the history of music.

What I mean by "crude claims of a linear progression" is the obviously erroneous idea that music written in 1800 is always better than music written in 1700. Absurdities like this are why it is often said that there is no progress in music. But if we fine-tune it a bit, we might say something like in 1800 composers commonly used a wider harmonic palette than composers did in 1700. This is obviously true. While there are some interesting eccentricities like the chromatic harmony of Gesualdo, in general, while there are waves back and forth, there does seem to be a progression from a more limited, consonant harmonic space to one that accepts a higher level of dissonance and more remote modulation. Again, with the recognition that the development is not linear. The late Baroque was far more likely than the Classical to use minor keys, for example, and the wild harmonic ventures of C. P. E. Bach are more extreme than those of the later Joseph Haydn.

But while recognizing these truths, we must also see what are the unmistakable development of resources. Take meter, for example. There were certain metric devices that were common currency in the 17th and 18th centuries. An example would be hemiola that I wrote about here. This is the relatively simple, though very effective device of changing the subdivision within a measure so as to change the feeling of the beat. An example would be to write three half notes in a measure of 6/4 to change the feel to 3/2. Or you could turn two measures of 3/4 into one measure of 3/2. This was often used to set up a cadence. It is still used a lot in Spanish music. But a composer working now has an incredible range of possibilities: hemiola is still available, of course, but irregular meters like 5/4 are also in common use and then there are the complexities of meter that we find in Stravinsky, the "phasing" and other devices in the music of Steve Reich, developments of hemiola with subdivisions of 3+3+2 in Philip Glass and the much more complex metric modulation as is found in the music of Elliot Carter.

Now, of course, there is no guarantee that access to a wider variety of technical possibilities will result in a better piece of music--often the opposite is true! But we can certainly speak of a general tendency of development. As long as we are careful to compare apples to apples and not to oranges, we can look at, for example, the harmony of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms and see that there is a development of wider possibility.

But considering the history of music, or any art, purely from an aesthetic standpoint, we should be very hesitant to claim anything more than merely local progress. Over the greater span, any attempt to claim that Beethoven is on a higher level than Bach aesthetically, or Bach than Josquin, or Stravinsky than Mahler, is simply going to dissolve into fractious debate. What each of these composers set out to do was so different that straightforward comparisons cannot be made. Some things really are incommensurable.

Here is a chromatic madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo:

And here is a consonant work by Arvo Pärt:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Mozart's Divertimenti

All 18th century music, in the second half of the century at least, is usually meant to be diverting. This even extends to the church music of Haydn and Mozart, which is typically rather too bouncy and cheerful to be entirely suitable for religious meditation (Mozart's Requiem aside). But, interestingly, the pieces Mozart wrote titled "Divertimento" are often more substantial than the supposedly more serious chamber music titled "string quartet" or "sonata". Since we think of divertimenti as being rather trivial, they are often neglected. So let's have a look at some of Mozart's divertimenti. We will have lots of choose from as in the 170 CDs of his complete works, 41 discs are devoted to divertimenti.

Mozart's divertimenti often run up to forty minutes in length, i.e. longer than his symphonies or string quartets which run typically to 20 or 30 minutes. Many are of similar quality. So let's look at some. I have chosen three examples. The first is an early one for strings, the Divertimento in F major, K. 138 written in 1772 when Mozart was only fifteen or sixteen. He was in the employment of the Archbishop of Salzburg and had just returned from an extended journey to Italy with his father. Much of his musical training as a composer took place on this and other travels where he met composers like J. C. Bach in London and studied counterpoint with Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna. We can hear some of the Italian influence in the limpidity and charming melodies of this divertimento. This and its two companion pieces are often called Salzburg Symphonies. Usually I like to look at the beginning of the first movement for a clue as to the character, but this piece has such a lovely Andante middle movement that I want to quote it. Measures 9 to 12 in the second phrase are very touching with their "Corelli seconds":

Click to enlarge
Here is that movement. You hear those harmonic clashes first at the 36 second mark:

And here is the whole divertimento with Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Total duration is only 14 minutes:

Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein said of the much later Divertimento in F major, K. 247 that it, along with its companion pieces, "belong to the purest, the liveliest, the most cheering, the most perfect compositions that ever assumed a musical form." Dating from 1776, when Mozart had turned 20, this is more typical of the genre with its six movements, including two minuets (with trios) enclosing an adagio. There is also a second slow movement in the form of an Andante grazioso theme and variations. Together with quicker opening and closing movements this makes up the usual divertimento layout. The total duration is about 31 minutes and it is scored for string quartet plus two horns. Here is the first page:

And here is a complete performance:

Honestly, has there ever been more delightful and diverting music?

Late in life, immediately after composing his two great string quintets Mozart wrote one more, final, divertimento. This piece, the Divertimento K. 563, benefits from all his experience in writing chamber music and is a distillation of his talents into the concentrated form of the string trio. Charles Rosen says that "no other composer of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries ever understood the demands of writing for three voices as Mozart did, except for Bach..." Rosen describes this piece as being far above all other works in the string trio form. It is also the only string trio he composed. Mozart manages to perfectly synthesize the demands of three-part counterpoint with those of a popular genre. Here is the opening:

Click to enlarge
And here is a performance by the fairly stunning trio of Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman and Leonard Rose. The total duration is about 45 minutes:

UPDATE: I forgot to include the movements. As in K. 247, there are six movements laid out as follows (from Wikipedia):

  1. Allegro (E-flat majorsonata form, 4/4)
  2. Adagio (A-flat major, sonata form, 3/4)
  3. Minuet - Trio (E-flat major, ternary form, 3/4)
  4. Andante (B-flat major, theme and 4 variations, with the third variation in B-flat minor, 2/4)
  5. Minuet - Trio I - Trio II (E-flat major, rondo form, with the first trio in A-flat major and the second one in B-flat major, 3/4)
  6. Allegro (E-flat major, sonata rondo form, 6/8)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Death of a Pianist

I hesitate to write anything about this sad end to an outstanding musician's career, but perhaps something should be said. Music critic Scott Cantrell writes in the Dallas Morning News:
It’s hard to imagine that we won’t be seeing Jose Feghali around town anymore: that million-volt smile, that well-focused baritone always bursting with enthusiasm. As winner of the 1985 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the Brazilian-born, London-trained pianist had a major career early on, and, as artist-in-residence at Texas Christian University’s School of Music, he had become a go-to teacher. He was very much a presence on the Fort Worth musical scene, and those who knew him loved him.
What went wrong? On Tuesday, the day after he had been discussing future projects with his dean, Feghali’s body was found in his bed, a bullet hole in his head. The medical examiner ruled suicide.
I have very mixed feelings about competitions generally. They force young musicians to subject themselves to unbelievable pressures with, I'm sure, long-term psychological results. We don't know and the article offers only speculation about the reasons for Feghali's taking his own life. A lot of the comments at Slipped Disc condemn the tone of the article's reporting for its insensitivity and invasion of privacy. Let's not commit any of that here!

 Perhaps I can talk a bit about the pressures on a classical musician through my own life. The most harsh disciplines are those we impose on ourselves and developing the technical and musical resources to be a touring soloist has to be one of the toughest disciplines of all. For hours every day of your life you must perform a series of exercises that are as mentally tiring as they are physically demanding. In addition, you must learn new repertoire from memory and polish old repertoire. You must travel to play concerts and this gets more exhausting every year with the ever-growing security requirements and the capriciousness of airline employees regarding transport of your instrument.  For most of us the fees are tiny and the expenses high. There are an ever-ready host of those eager to exploit your naiveté, your time, your talent, for their own purposes. Yes, of course, there are profound rewards for all this, I'm just pointing out the pressures.

So, it is perhaps inevitable that some musicians simply crumple under the constant strain. Perhaps even contemplate suicide. One's identity is so wrapped up in being a musician, it might be difficult to even imagine other solutions. But they exist. I think there are always paths out of a difficult situation in your career or personal life. Sometimes you need some patience to wait for a solution to present itself. That's about all I have to contribute...

The Year's Most Depressing List

Yes, it's time again to look at the list of the highest-earning musicians of the year and shed a quiet, sour-grapes, tear. Here, courtesy of Forbes and via the Guardian, they are:

1. Dr Dre ($620m)
2. Beyoncé ($115m)
3. The Eagles ($100m)
4. Bon Jovi ($82m)
5. Bruce Springsteen ($81m)
6. Justin Bieber ($80m)
7. One Direction ($75m)
8. Paul McCartney ($71m)
9. Calvin Harris ($66m)
10. Toby Keith ($65m)
11. Taylor Swift ($64m)
12. Jay Z ($60m)(tie)
12. Diddy ($60m)(tie)
12. Bruno Mars ($60m)(tie)
15. Justin Timberlake ($57m)
16. Pink ($52m)
17. Michael Bublé ($51m)
18. Rihanna ($48m)
19. Rolling Stones ($47m)
20. Roger Waters ($46m)
21. Elton John ($45m)
22. Kenny Chesney ($44m)
23. Katy Perry ($40m)
24. Jason Aldean ($37m)(tie)
24. Jennifer Lopez ($37m)(tie)
26. Miley Cyrus ($36m)(tie)
26. Celine Dion ($36m)(tie)
28. Muse ($34m)(tie)
28. Luke Bryan ($34m)(tie)
30. Lady Gaga ($33m)(tie)
30. Drake ($33m)(tie)

Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones along with Elton John and Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) are probably amazed to be still on the list after five or so decades of success.
I would love to see if I could recreate the list of the biggest earning musicians of 1800, just for comparison. With his windfall of 24,000 florins from his London concerts (equal to 24 years of his pension from the Esterházy family), Joseph Haydn would probably come at the top. Still, even with inflation and trying to adjust for buying power, that probably wouldn't amount to more than a couple of million dollars. But just look at those numbers above! Are these still musicians? Or are they corporate entities fronted by a figurehead who sings and dances?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, Adagio

The really interesting thing about this movement, the slow inner movement between the two fast outer movements of a typical Baroque concerto form, is that it barely exists. Here is the entirety of what Bach wrote:

Yes, that's correct. All Bach wrote for the middle movement of this concerto in G major was a one-measure cadence iv6 to V in E minor (or a Phrygian cadence on B, if you like). Since the revival of Bach's music and the Brandenburg Concertos in particular, this movement has caused every orchestra and conductor massive headaches! What do you do? Just play the two-chord cadence as written? A few seconds of sustained chords in between two fast movements several minutes long each? That is obviously wrong, though it is what is written. What about a brief cadenza for the first violin? That is the option chosen by Tafelmusik and many others. Some have taken a slow movement from a different piece by Bach ending with the same cadence and simply inserted it here. The wildest interpretations have been those of Walter/Wendy Carlos in different realizations starting with the "Switched-On Bach" album performed on the Moog synthesizer and released in 1969 where the two chords were turned into a kind of fantasia with wild and wonderful sounds. Carlos did two other realizations of the Brandenburg No. 3 and each time created a new fantasia. Alas, I can't find any of these on YouTube, just the outer movements. To give you an idea, here is the first movement from the "Switched-On Bach" album:

I am mentioning this because, as odd as it might seem, I think that Carlos actually has the best idea of what to do with this movement. Given the kind of improvisatory skills that Bach and musicians he worked with had, isn't it really very obvious that what should be done here is take the opportunity to improvise something, which will be different in every concert? Isn't this what any gifted musician would have done well into the 19th century? These improvisational skills were, ironically, disappearing right around the time Bach's music was being rediscovered. The result is that musicians of our time look at these two chords and either literally just play what is there, or panic and stick in a movement from another piece! But it is perfectly obvious what is needed here. Some have, very conservatively, suggested that the harpsichord player or the first violin do a brief cadenza, which is rather too minimal. I suggest that the very obvious solution is for the violin, viola and cello to do a group improvisation for as long as it can be interestingly sustained. Two, three or more minutes. Have a listen to the cadenzas Mozart wrote for violin and viola together in his Sinfonia Concertante for a model. I'm sure that there are musicians that can do this. I once spent a whole afternoon improvising with a violist. If not, this is the perfect opportunity for musicians to practice their improvisatory skills. Sure, you can work out some general ideas beforehand, that's what rehearsals are for. But the idea of an improvised movement is so obviously what is called for here that I am shocked that no-one, apart from Carlos, has ever even tried to do it.


Here is what a lot of performances of that adagio sound like. A few seconds of a mini-cadenza for the first violin, going immediately into the last movement:

One final reason why I think that this is wildly insufficient is that the two outer movements are in G major, but these two chords of the adagio are on the dominant of the relative minor, E minor. There seems no point in setting up a new key if you aren't going to do anything in it, now is there?

Friday Miscellanea

Lindsey Stirling has a new video out linked to the Dragon Age video games:

You know, try as I might, I just can't think of a good video game link for my music. Civilization V?

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This looks like it might be a cool book. The Wall Street Journal review has a photo gallery of great rock album covers. My favourite:

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Speaking of pop music, Ann Althouse has a post up in which she refers to "a great musical artist". Go read the whole post and the link to the tribute post. The great artist in question is "Dimebag" Darrell, lead guitarist and songwriter for the heavy metal band Pantera. I put this up just because the idea of referring to Darrell as a great musical artist troubles me. Of course, this mere admission tags me as a mossback or classical snob. "Thou shalt not question the great artistry of pop musicians" is a commandment written down somewhere. But I have to be honest: aren't there hundreds of heavy metal bands? All with fervent followers? How many of them are great musical artists? All of them? None of them? A very few? I have heard Metallica called great musicians, but I'm not sure I understand why. I have a pretty clear idea that the Beatles really were great musicians and I have written dozens of posts here about why I think so. But I just have difficulty with elevating many other pop musicians to that level. Let me see if I can put my difficulty into perspective: I would have a similar difficulty labeling a great number of classical composers as great musicians. Frankly, most of them wrote rather predictable music for particular occasions and got paid for it. Someone like Georg Christoph Wagenseil wrote singularly uninspired keyboard concertos notable mainly for how dull they are compared with those of Mozart. Alongside every great classical composer like Haydn were a host of second-rate composers whose works sleep inside dusty covers in university libraries. And this is as it should be. So why is it so different for pop musicians? Is it just that every pop musician of some success has a devout following? In our adolescent years we get captured by a lot of passions. I admit to being really fond of Eric Burden and the Animals for a time in the mid-60s. But I'm over it now.

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Behind the paywall the Wall Street Journal has an article about Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. You can read it at this link. It's a pretty good essay on the piece, though lacking both musical examples and musical clips. But it does tell you the nicknames various pianists have given to the various movements, so there's that. Here is a superb performance by Grigory Sokolov with the score:

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Also in the Wall Street Journal is this persuasive essay arguing for contemporary piano music. One of the pieces mentioned is Ligeti's Automne à Varsovie:

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From the Guardian, here is a detailed account of a recent complete performance of all 20 Etudes for piano by Philip Glass.

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And yet another instance of rude airline employees bullying a musician traveling with his instrument. I ran into this a lot when I was touring. But, I also had good experiences. You never know...

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Here's an interesting article on the wood used for musical instruments. This story is about the high-altitude spruce trees growing in the Italian alps that Stradivarius used for his violins and that are still used for violins today. My guitar has a high-altitude spruce top as well, but from the mountains in British Columbia. The builder of my guitar, Robert Holroyd of Vancouver, selected the particular log he wanted and supervised the sawing into sections. Why you want a particularly straight-grain piece of wood grown at high altitude is not discussed in any detail in the article, but the reason is that at high altitudes trees grow much slower and therefore the annual growth rings, which are the grain of the wood, are very narrow instead of wide. This gives a better resonating plate for musical purposes. Or so I understand it! I have seen laser-generated photos of the way the top of a guitar vibrates at different frequencies--quite fascinating! I suspect that the tighter the grain, the more minutely flexible the wood is and therefore the more responsive to vibrating at different frequencies.

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Speaking of high altitudes, here is a piece by Villa-Lobos that I have always associated with mountains. His Prelude No. 4 for guitar, in my performance on the guitar by Robert Holroyd that I was just mentioning: