Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Concerto Guide: Edvard Grieg, Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16

If this is Tuesday, this must be Belgium, goes the old joke about package tours of Europe. Actually, Belgium was last Tuesday when I talked about the Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto No. 5. This week we are in Norway, well, Denmark to be more precise, where the 24-year-old composer wrote this very popular concerto when on holiday from his native Norway. The year was 1868, nine years after the Vieuxtemps. This is the only concerto Grieg wrote and it is one of the most popular piano concertos. Arthur Rubinstein relates in his autobiography that at a fairly young age he memorized the whole concerto in eight hours!

If you will recall, I mentioned in my discussion of the Schumann Piano Concerto that one of its innovations, the big, forte chords hammered out by the solo piano at the very beginning, was very influential on later composers. It is rare to find a popular 19th century piano concerto that does not begin with a similar gesture--and it is almost never found in pre-19th century concertos. Here is how the Grieg begins:

Compare to the Schumann opening:

They are even in the same key. Of course the details are different. Schumann tonicizes several different keys: A minor, C major (with a secondary dominant to viiº7!), B flat, A minor, and D minor to mention a few. The Grieg is actually much simpler, harmonically, with that stirring gesture only involving two harmonies: V and i. Grieg does add one interesting touch: the piece actually begins with a tympani roll that crescendos into that opening orchestral chord. Here is the main theme of the first movement, as it appears in the piano quite early in the movement:

This is more akin to a motif than a theme: two measures repeated at a different pitch and that's it. Mind you, as Beethoven and Haydn have shown over and over, a brief, succinct motif is great material for a movement. Some of the strongest elements in the theme are the dotted rhythm and the syncopation in the second half of the first and third measures.

Grieg heard the Schumann concerto in either 1858 or 59 played by Clara Schumann and was obviously influenced by it. Other influences seem to be Norwegian folk music, especially in the last movement. Here is the theme of that movement, often compared to the Halling, a Norwegian folk dance accompanied by fiddle:

There is a fine video of Rubinstein playing the concerto, the orchestra conducted by a young André Previn:

And for contrast, here is a recent performance by Khatia Buniatishvili:

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Thoughts on Boulez' list

There are a few interesting things about Pierre Boulez' list of 10 great compositions of the 20th century. Perhaps the most striking thing about it is not so much what it includes, a lot of justifiably famous 20th century pieces, but more what it excludes. First of all, let's have a look at when the pieces he selects were composed:

  1. Varèse, Ameriques: 1918-1921, revised 1927
  2. Berg, Three Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6, 1913-1915
  3. Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, 1913
  4. Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 1936
  5. Webern, Six Pieces for Orchestra, 1909-10, revised 1928
  6. Berio, Sinfonia, 1968-69
  7. Stockhausen, Gruppen, 1955-57
  8. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, 1903-04, revised 1906
  9. Schönberg, Erwartung, 1909
  10. Boulez, Répons, 1984
There are two enormous omissions, at least they seem enormous to me. The first is a surprising one: a composer who is not only one of the most influential of the century, but one who shares his nationality with Boulez: yes, of course, Claude Debussy. We might argue as to which piece to mention, perhapPrélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (even though it was composed in 1894), perhaps his late ballet Jeux. But I think few would disagree with how Wikipedia describes Debussy's influence:
Claude Debussy is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His innovative harmonies were influential to almost every major composer of the 20th century, particularly Maurice RavelIgor StravinskyOlivier MessiaenBéla BartókPierre BoulezHenri DutilleuxNed RoremGeorge Gershwin, and the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass as well as the influential Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. He also influenced many important figures in jazz, most notably Miles DavisDuke EllingtonBix BeiderbeckeGeorge ShearingThelonious MonkBill EvansJimmy GiuffreAntônio Carlos Jobim, and Herbie Hancock. He also had a profound impact on contemporary soundtrack composers such as John Williams, because Debussy's colourful and evocative style translated easily into an emotional language for use in motion picture scores.
So why would Boulez omit him? Perhaps because Debussy contradicts one of Boulez fundamental assumptions: that great music cannot at the same time be popular. This is a core assumption of 20th century modernism in music, at least up until the mid-century. But just looking at the list above shows that Debussy's influence was very, very broad. Why ever would Boulez include a piece by Mahler and not one by Debussy?

The other omission is more subtle: notice how, with just a couple of exceptions, the list avoids any mention of music written after the mid-century. Note the inclusion of Boulez' own Répons, which is the newest piece on the list! Setting aside that, there are only two pieces written after 1950, Gruppen by Stockhausen which is just barely after 1950, and the Sinfonia by Berio. Boulez includes his Pantheon of great pieces, meaning the ones that were very important to him, but at the same time omitting perhaps the most important, Debussy, while avoiding any hint that the course of 20th century music has changed since the maximal complexity of the mid-century.

So we pose the question, what might we suggest are some great works from the second half of the century, as Boulez has not troubled himself with that? Some names that seem to be important are John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, Thomas Adès and Esa-Pekka Salonen. These figures are likely anathema to Boulez because they repudiate some of his fundamental beliefs about music: that you cannot write great music and be popular, that music, in order to be taken seriously has to always strive for the maximum complexity and that tonality is dead.

I think my list of 10 great pieces of 20th century music would look something like this:

  1. Debussy, La Mer, 1903-05
  2. Sibelius, Symphony No. 4, 1910-11
  3. Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire, 1912
  4. Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, 1913
  5. Berg, Wozzeck, 1914-22
  6. Bartók,  Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 1936
  7. Cage, 4'33, 1952
  8. Pettersson, Symphony No. 7, 1966-68
  9. Reich, Drumming, 1970-71
  10. John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer, 1991
A lot of this list needs no special justification. You could argue for a different piece by Debussy and the only reason I did not cite the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is that it was composed in 1894. There was another odd omission in Boulez' list, no opera or vocal works, and I have tried to correct that by including the obviously most important piece by Berg, Wozzeck, and Pierrot by Schoenberg. A couple of pieces might be surprising to readers of this blog: the silent piece by Cage and the very controversial opera by Adams which Taruskin accused of "moral blankness and opportunism", both of which might be true. But both these pieces, for different reasons, have had an important and wide influence so I thought they needed inclusion. As for the Pettersson, I honestly can't think of a more powerful work from the 1960s, a decade really dominated by the Beatles. And I continue to believe that the most radical work of the century has to be Drumming by Steve Reich, whether you like it or not. It pared music down to its absolute essence and rebuilt it--you don't get more radical than that.

I would very much have liked to include something by Shostakovich, either the Symphony No. 5 from 1937--perhaps it could share billing with the Bartók--or the String Quartet No. 8 from 1960. Certainly, if I were to follow my own taste I would drop the Cage in favor of the quartet. But I think that my list leans as far as possible in the direction of historical importance while also considering aesthetic importance.

Hmm, what to pick as a musical envoi? I suppose the most unfamiliar piece on the list is the symphony by Allan Pettersson, so let's hear that. Here is Sergiu Comissiona conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Boulez on the 10 greatest works of the 20th century

This week was the 90th birthday of one of the central figures in 20th century music after World War II. Born in 1925, Pierre Boulez has been one of the great conductors of the last several decades and a composer of great influence. For Soundcheck he recently provided a list of the ten works that he thinks are the most significant in 20th century music. This, along with his comments, is well worth taking a look at. Here is the article. If you accept the basic assumption, that the most important criteria is technical novelty, doing something as differently as possible from what has been done before, then there is not much to argue with in this list.

The thing is, that while I am in complete agreement with a lot of the pieces, I don't think that every piece, in order to be great, has to be so difficult, both for the performers and listeners, all the time. I think that aesthetic greatness has more criteria: expressive intensity, humanity, breadth of expression and so on. Nearly all of Boulez' choices, including his music, are harmonically dissonant, dynamically extreme, rhythmically jagged and with pointillist texture. I don't think all great music must be like that, even in the 20th century. But that being said, yes, these ten works are classics of 20th century music.

I think I will make up my own list so we can argue about it. Some pieces I would consider including would be something by Steve Reich, something by Sibelius (if Boulez can include Mahler, I think I can include Sibelius), and something by Shostakovich.

But there is no arguing about this piece, which would easily make my list as it did Boulez'. Here is Boulez conducting the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of Bela Bartók played by the Vienna Philharmonic in a live concert in 2007:

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

This piece at the Wall Street Journal by David Gelernter reads like a cry in the wilderness. He identifies a few problems, but I wonder if they are not just symptoms:
Most children learn nothing about serious music in school and don’t expect to learn anything. Outside school, the music world is being upended and shaken vigorously. The ways we choose music and listen to it are being transformed by iTunes and Spotify and other such sites.
For most young people, music is a minor consumable, like toothpaste. Musicians and music majors aside, my students at Yale—and there are no smarter, more eager, more open students anywhere—just barely know who Beethoven is. Beethoven. “He composed music”—that is the general consensus.
To know nothing about Beethoven? That is cultural bankruptcy. That is collapse. It goes far beyond incompetence, deep into betrayal and farce.

* * *

You rarely see it stated quite this baldly as we read in the Guardian how "Philosophy has to be about more than white men." This is a representative paragraph:
Critics of the campaign argue that it undermines academic freedom; that all knowledge is of equal worth; that students ought to transcend cultural background in the interest of expanding knowledge; and that there are very good reasons why a philosophy, economics or history curriculum might be full of the works of dead white males. Very good reasons indeed: some of these include the systemic killing of female philosophers, massacres of some of our earliest thinkers such as the Aztec; and the destruction of ancient African cities that illuminate the thinking of old civilisations.
Representative in that it gets tangled up in its own logic, then blurts out some astonishing falsehoods. I doubt very much that critics of the campaign to remove white dominance in philosophy are making the claim that "all knowledge is of equal worth". But I would love to hear the defence of that claim! I am also deeply amused to read what great thinkers the Aztecs were. These same Aztecs who sacrificed a thousand prisoners a day to "consecrate" the Templo Major in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). We read in the Wikipedia article that:
Each day blood ran like a river onto the pavement of the Great Plaza, and the stairs of the great pyramid were literally bathed in blood.
This is the kind of thinking that we are going to replace Plato with? Count me out. I mention this here because very similar campaigns have been undertaken to dethrone the canonic composers as well: white males such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

* * *

There is a pretty interesting discussion about the challenges to musicians in today's online environment in the MIT Technology Review: "Survival in the Age of Spotify." Here is a sample of the discussion:
I’ve been frustrated that artists are not allowed to have a nuanced position. We seem to get shoehorned into the extreme camps of “completely pro–free culture” or “completely anti-technology.” When the record labels or publishing houses get together to hammer out deals with intermediaries (be they ISPs, streaming services, or digital storefronts), we are rarely, if ever, invited to the table and have no choice but to react to what’s already been decided. As someone who loves the Internet but hopes for more creative solutions to “free vs. paid” than the binary extremes we seem to be forced to choose between, I am pretty tired of that language. It’s off-putting to have a book that purports to have your best interests at heart open with so much of that language of conflict.
* * *

Does anyone want to take a stab at explaining what is going on here, aesthetically?

Here is where I found the image: "Jeff Koons churns out new factory art." I see the industrial side of it, which is a bit similar to the industrial nature of a lot of current pop music. But in the visual arts world, I suspect that success depends on doing something as new and peculiar as possible, while in music it depends on doing something familiar, but slightly different.

* * *

String instruments made from carbon fibre are getting better and better quality-wise as shown by this one that shared a prize with an instrument made from conventional wood:

* * *

Two days ago was the 90th birthday of one of the great iconoclasts of 20th century music: Pierre Boulez. The Guardian has a collection of some of the more outrageous things he has said over the years:
His incendiary comments, whether directed at his contemporaries (he has described Duchamp as ‘a pompous bore’, Cage as ‘a performing monkey’, and Stockhausen, ‘a hippie’), or more general topics such as culture and history, however, suggest that he enjoys the controversy.
Boulez seems to have some strange obsessions:
“I believe a civilisation that conserves is one that will decay because it is afraid of going forward and attributes more importance to memory than the future. The strongest civilisations are those without memory - those capable of complete forgetfulness. They are strong enough to destroy because they know they can replace what is destroyed. Today our musical civilisation is not strong; it shows clear signs of withering… […] Conducting has forced me to absorb a great deal of history, so much so, in fact, that history seems more than ever to me a great burden. In my opinion we must get rid of it once and for all.”
To which I reply: name one! Name a civilization that is without memory. Better, name a strong civilization that is without memory. This is a strange obsessive fantasy of 20th century radical modernism. It is an echo of the zero hour of the Russian Revolution when the new man was to be created who owed nothing to the past. This is not only an absurd fantasy, it is a dangerous one, because it always seems to lead to Siberia and the death camps for those who don't want to go along.

* * *

I think this gives us our envoi for today. Let's hear something by Pierre Boulez. Dérive I was composed in 1984. It is a six-minute chamber work for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone, and piano which was spun out of sketches for a larger work from 1981, entitled Répons.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Symphony-Cantata

There is a symphonic mainstream, but there are also subsidiary currents that depart from it. One of the most interesting--and peculiar--is the "symphony-cantata", that is, a piece that combines the symphony genre with the cantata genre. The symphony is usually defined as a serious piece for orchestra in several movements and the cantata as a piece for voices and orchestra, also in several movements, usually with chorus. Both genres have a long history, as you can read in the Wikipedia articles I linked. But they have only been combined on a few occasions. What distinguishes a "symphony-cantata" from simply being a cantata is the orchestra being given more of an independent role.

The most famous example of a symphony-cantata is never, to my knowledge, actually called that, but it obviously fits the definition: this is the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, often nicknamed the "Choral" Symphony. It is the only one of his nine symphonies to make use of vocal soloists and a choir. You might think of it as a normal symphony with a cantata as the last movement. Indeed, it is a characteristic of all the examples I am going to look at, that there are purely instrumental movements as well as movements with soloists and choir (or just choir). One other example is the Symphony No. 13 of Shostakovich for orchestra, bass soloist and bass choir on poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The Symphony No. 14 of Shostakovich is for two vocal soloists and orchestra, no choir, so it does not quite fit the definition. On the other hand, some of Mahler's symphonies certainly do, but they are a whole subject in themselves so I won't look at them here.

Beethoven burst the bounds of the symphonic genre in a very significant way with the Symphony No. 9. A very long work, at well over an hour, even longer than his Symphony No. 3, it is scored for a large orchestra, a quartet of vocal soloists and four-part choir. The text is a poem by Friedrich Schiller that celebrates the unity and brotherhood of mankind--sentiments we might link to the ideals of the French Revolution. Beethoven's setting in the fourth movement of the 9th Symphony illuminates an important transition in music history: the change from the aristocratic patronage of the arts to broadening out to appeal to the middle-class, newly liberated, to some extent, and newly prosperous as well (due to the industrial revolution). Let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven which I have blogged about in detail here, here, here and here. This is Daniel Barenboim conducting in his complete survey of the symphonies during the 2012 Proms:

As I mentioned in my post on the last movement, linked above, this movement is a bit of a dog's breakfast, meaning rather a mess, with awkward vocal parts that are just barely singable. Verdi in particular noted that, while praising the first three movements. Despite this, there is that great tune that Beethoven struggled a long time to create. The piece has far more admirers than critics, of course. But what is interesting is to set it alongside some subsequent "symphony-cantatas" which is the subject of this post.

The second example is a rarely-performed piece by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1840 there were festivities in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing and Mendelssohn wrote a piece that he termed a symphony-cantata which was performed in Leipzig twice, once at the command of the King of Saxony and again at the Birmingham Festival in England. It was a very popular piece in the 19th century, but has been almost forgotten today. The Symphony No. 2 in B-flat majorOp. 52, is commonly known as Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) and uses texts from the Bible which you can find at the Wikipedia link.

What is particularly interesting is the historical context. Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family; he was the grandson of the famous philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. But he, like other musicians of the time, was baptised a Christian and rose to the very heights of power in the musical world of Germany. He was also famous internationally, being particularly successful in tours of England. For much of the 19th century it seemed as if the revolutionary ideals of the late 18th century were being realized. Prejudice was diminishing, peace, at least in Europe, was widespread, and the middle-class was becoming more and more prosperous. Science and industry were moving forward with great success. By the end of the century the time was being referred to as the "Banquet Years" (see the book by Roger Shattuck).

The symphony by Mendelssohn is a fine work, well worth listening to, and one that wholeheartedly celebrates the good fortune felt in 19th century Europe. Here is a fine performance from the 2009 Proms:

One suspects that the fact that the symphony is not popular now is that so much of the 20th century seemed to utterly repudiate the comfortable optimism of the 19th century, of which this is such a fine example.

The 20th century saw the near-extermination of Jews in Europe. Those composers who did not flee from Germany in the 1930s often ended up in concentration or death camps. Music recalling this dark time is deeply bitter and pessimistic. The Symphony No. 13 of Shostakovich is an excellent example of this type of symphony-cantata, with its denunciation of anti-Semitism. Here is a performance conducted by Valery Gergiev:

But in between the slightly bland, from our point of view, optimism of the Mendelssohn and the sardonic bitterness of the Shostakovich comes a very odd example of the symphony-cantata from, of all people, Charles Ives. Written between 1910 and 1924, bracketing the First World War, his Symphony No. 4 consists of four movements, two of which have choral parts and the other two being purely instrumental. It is a very complex work, but one rife with oddities and aesthetic inconsistencies. Ives' earlier symphonies tend to be derivative of works by Schubert anDvořák and with the Symphony No. 4, one senses that he is experimenting with the form. He finally seems to have worked out a successful approach to the multi-movement orchestral form in his two Orchestral Sets composed around the same time. The spirit of the symphony, one gathers from Ives' comments, is existential and questioning. Here is a performance conducted by David Robertson:

Apart from the choir, there is also a prominent part for piano. The first movement is a meditative hymn setting an Epiphany text by John Bowring. The second movement is one of Ive's complex tapestries weaving together all sorts of disparate elements and tunes. The third movement, most incongruously, is an updated setting of a student exercise in fugue! The last movement combines the choir of the first movement with the complexity of the second.

For me, this is an aesthetic hodge-podge that is simply unsuccessful. But it is much admired in some quarters. I suppose you could consider this a very early attempt at the multiplicity of post-modernism. Or an experiment that just doesn't work!

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Concerto Guide: Vieuxtemps, Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, op. 37

The next concerto chronologically is the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor by the Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps. Completed in 1859, it is the most popular of his six violin concertos. In his own performing career he leaned away from the superficial opera potpourris that were so popular at the time and towards a more classical repertoire, specifically of Beethoven. As a composer he was encouraged by both Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz.

I chose this piece for a couple of reasons: it is a good example of the mid-19th century violin concerto with its wealth of passion and expressivity. IMSLP does not have the full score, just a violin/piano arrangement. It begins like this with the minor dramatic mood so much in favor for 19th century concertos (which undoubtedly goes back to the Mozart D minor piano concerto):

The other reason is that this was on a Pinchas Zuckerman album I used to own many years ago. I would listen to it every morning to remind me that the universe had a transcendental dimension: music!

Let's listen to a performance. This is Shlomo Mintz, Violin with the Sinfonieorchester des Südwestfunks (Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra) conducted by Myung-Whun Chung:

Hilary Hahn is just releasing a new recording pairing the 4th Violin Concerto of Vieuxtemps with the 5th Violin Concerto of Mozart. This is the kind of thing an artist of her stature tends to do: rather than recording the same popular works by the same composers, she introduces us sometimes to new composers as in her encore album, or to less known works by familiar composers, such as the Vieuxtemps 4th Concerto here. UPDATE: Alas, that one was taken down. Here is a different performance, also with Hahn:

Interesting piece. I think you can see why the 5th is popular. But the 4th is perhaps structurally more interesting with its contrasting moods and unconventional layout.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What Tribe Are You?

Every now and then I wander just slightly off the reservation and talk about something that is not totally focussed on music. But I will get to music eventually!

I just ran into an interesting comment on a website:
Many socio-political forces today are about the return to tribal identity. Tribes are isolated from the Other and easily coerced through emotional appeals to identity rather than universal logic. This has picked up methinks because information and people are increasingly ignoring the borders and authority defined by the state. So the thugs among us look to draw new boundaries based on race, gender, language etc. The new tribes destined to wage continuous and pointless war.
"Methinks?" Obviously a British commentator. A hundred years ago we here in the West were part of something called "Western Civilization" and had a set of shared values. But, as the commentator says, that seems to be passing away and we now are a set of different tribes with different values and ways of living. One of the many reasons for this is that it is very convenient for politicians that this be the case, because they can exploit these differences. And yes, we do seem to be moving towards a condition of continuous strife and conflict.

So, if we are separating out into separate tribes, I guess we have to figure out what tribe we are in. For a long, long time I thought I was in the tribe of "classical guitarists" and I suppose I was. But not completely. The things that did not seem to jibe with that identity were that I would compose music from time to time and I like listening to and talking about music that was not written for the classical guitar. So I was actually more part of the larger tribe of "classical music performers". I also had membership in the tribe of "music teachers". But after a time, all of this weighed heavily on me and I decided I needed to try a different tribe. So I went back to school as a doctoral candidate in musicology. This had the unexpected benefit of reawakening a lot of intellectual energy. I hadn't realised it, but spending twenty years or so telling people over and over that there are two beats in a half note does tend to dull your mind a bit! The musicology tribe was not ultimately compelling enough so for a number of years I departed the music tribe altogether and was part of a tribe we might call "private investors".

But eventually deeper levels of my tribal identity reasserted themselves and I came to realise that what I am, and what I have always been is a member of that tribe called "composers of music". Not the easiest tribe to be a member of! For one thing, when someone asks you what kind of music you write, you never know what to say. I'm working on a set of humorous answers:

  1. Just like Bach, only better!
  2. Chopin with a backbeat.
  3. Think middle-period Tom Waits, but with more counterpoint.
  4. Imaginary music to a documentary film about Monty Python.
  5. Very, very long quartets for flugelhorn, triangle, cowbell and glass harmonica.
But I will probably have to explain them...

And while we are in a comic mood, let's look at some of the new frontiers in the marketing of classical music. These folks are obviously onto something:

Schoenberg and the Dissonance: Some Background

Sometimes I forget that most of my readers are not musicologists! My post yesterday about the "emancipation of the dissonance" was an example. So today, let me fill in some of the context.

Arnold Schoenberg is one of the most interesting and complex figures in music history. I suggest reading the whole Wikipedia article as it is quite good. Schoenberg was born into the late 19th century musically dominant city of Vienna in 1874. The style of music was harmonically rich, orchestrally powerful and lengthy. The leading composers were people like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Schoenberg's early music was in this style and well-received. The prelude to his Gurre-Lieder is an example:

But Schoenberg was not content to rest there. He sensed that a huge transition was coming in music and that it was his destiny to be part of it. The fundamental change was in the whole concept of harmony. Schoenberg felt that the old strictures of the resolution of dissonance and cadence had to be overthrown if music were to progress. What I mean is that previously you could use dissonances, but they had to be resolved in a certain way and ultimately, the music had to arrive at a cadence, even if, as in the music of Richard Wagner, this was delayed for a long time.

For a while Schoenberg simply threw the rules away and wrote free music according to his instincts. An example of this stage are his Six Little Pieces, op. 19 for piano:

They are so brief because, operating purely by instinct, it is hard to create larger structures. After Schoenberg had written music like this, he strove to understand intellectually what was going on and finally came up with a way of structuring music other than with tonality. This atonal music was to be given a structure according to all the 12 chromatic notes of the scale arranged in a certain order. This was not like a melody, but rather a kind of intervallic structure that could be worked with using some age-old contrapuntal methods to create longer pieces. His Violin Concerto is an example:

What my previous post was about was the ideology that has been connected with this whole movement. A phrase used by Schoenberg, the "emancipation of the dissonance" was connected with the process. I was pointing out how misleading it is. In the original post I referred to connecting harmonic usage with the harmonic series as a misunderstanding. Let me hasten to say that this was not Schoenberg's misunderstanding, but rather of those theorists quoted in the Wikipedia article on the emancipation of the dissonance. Schoenberg was a superlative theorist and teacher apart from being such an important composer.

Now go back and read yesterday's post if you like!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Emancipation of the Dissonance?

Schoenberg's famous "emancipation of the dissonance" is one of the fundamental concepts in the history of harmony in the 20th century. If you go look at the Wikipedia article you will see the standard narrative. The history of harmony is the progressive acceptance of more dissonant intervals. From the perfect fourths and fifths of organum we move to the acceptance of the third in the High Middle Ages, progressing to the acceptance of the 7th and 9th, eventually arriving at the pinnacle of total chromaticism as advocated by Schoenberg and his pupils. Their 12-tone method is a way of systematizing the thorough use of all the chromatic tones.

The Wikipedia article is remarkably short for such a weighty and historically important concept, though, isn't it? This might be because there are a few problems with the whole idea. The two most significant ones are, first, that it is based on a misunderstanding of musical structure. As every harmony text informs us, the development of every new harmony in music history came about as a result of voice-leading! The harmonic series, though beloved of some theorists, actually had little to do with it. The third came about through a descent from the fifth to the tonic. The seventh in diatonic harmony is NOT an accepted dissonance, but a voice moving to the third of the tonic. Voice-leading demands that it resolve. The augmented sixth chords came about by means of a chromatic progression within a Phrygian cadence. Here is the relevant section from Aldwell and Schachter's Harmony and Voice-Leading:

You cannot understand harmony without understanding voice-leading, hence the title of the text. Using the harmonic series as a justification for more and more harmonic richness is just bizarre. Harmonic richness comes from voice-leading, that is, the conduct of the separate voices is what both creates and resolves dissonances. Trying to connect this with the harmonic series is just theoretical mumbo-jumbo. What was really going on in the early decades of the 20th century can be seen from a lot of different perspectives. But the one perspective we need to be particularly wary of is the one sold to us by the composers arguing for it: chromatic harmony as "emancipation of the dissonance." As I have talked about here, much of the aesthetic ideology of modernism is really disguised marketing. Such is the case here.

This brings us to the second problem with this concept: it is only a metaphor and a flawed one at that! Chromatic harmonies are not "emancipated" from anything! Emancipation is the granting of rights to previously disenfranchised groups of people. It is a moral concept having nothing to do with music. But it was a useful metaphor as it made dissonance seem moral, healthy and, most of all, historically inevitable. Once all the intervals were emancipated, around the time of the First World War, then the pinnacle of music history had been reached--as far as harmony is concerned. So what has happened since?

Alas, history has not cooperated with the emancipators. If you view harmony from the point of view of emancipating all the intervals, like so many slaves of the lords of tonality, then there really is nowhere else to go. Sure, for a while composers tried serializing everything they could think of, but this didn't last long and audiences didn't care much for it. So now we are in a post-historical phase where, surprise, surprise, consonance has been rediscovered.

Let's end with a couple of pieces. First, Structures for two pianos by Pierre Boulez, an example of total serialization from 1952-61:

And second, the de-emancipated return to consonance of the music of Enojuhani Rautavaara. This is the Symphony No. 8 from 1999:

History moving backwards? Or just a bad metaphor?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Debate

One of the most pleasing things about doing this blog is the quality of commentary that it seems to encourage. I have had comments from music critics like Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, composers like Jennifer Higdon of the Curtis Institute and professors of music like Ethan Hein of New York University. And of course, music lovers from many countries. But what is almost universally true is that the debates are courteous and informed. It seems as if the goal is actually to understand music better, not stoke one's own ego. In the over three years of this blog, and thousands of comments, I have only had to remove one (1) comment! Usually I learn a great deal from them!

And this is the case with the last run. Sparked by an article on NewMusicBox by Ethan Hein, we got into a few interesting questions. Many of the comments were put on a very old post titled "The Tyranny of the Backbeat" which I link to so you can go read them. There have been several since I linked yesterday. Others are on the post that got this debate started, titled "Sampling". Go have a look there too. Leave a comment if you wish.

It seems as if there are almost no egocentrics in the world of music. Except for record executives and conductors, of course...

(that was a little joke, sort-of)

I am working on a post on the Emancipation of the Dissonance, but I don't know when I will get to it as right now I am working on a composition.

In the meantime, have a listen to this, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Symphony No. 1:

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Allan Kozinn has a substantial review of a collection of music criticism by Virgil Thomson in the Wall Street Journal. Worth reading for this sage observation:
Thomson wrote, moreover, at a time when no one doubted the point and importance of publishing reviews. Today, newspapers across the country have reduced their staffs of critics and the space they devote to performance coverage, sometimes drastically, and it is not uncommon to hear the culture editors at even prestigious papers wondering—with no apparent realization that perhaps they should be in a different business—why they are publishing reviews at all, particularly of performances that happen only once.
The answer, of course, is that reviews, though couched in opinion—which is what makes them either illuminating or maddening but also, one hopes, compelling and worth debating—are fundamentally reportage. They are the chronicles of the cultural world, accounts of who did what on a given night, in a given hall, before hundreds or thousands of people interested enough to pay for the experience. They describe the performer’s technical prowess and musical judgment, with interpretive turns described so that a reader who wasn’t present has an idea of how the performance unfolded. Perhaps most important, they discuss the merits of new compositions and the ideas that animate them.
* * *

More good news for classical music lovers: listening to a Mozart violin concerto can reduce your risk of brain degeneration. No, really:
Listening to music represents a complex cognitive function of the human brain, which is known to induce several neuronal and physiological changes. However, the molecular background underlying the effects of listening to music is largely unknown. A Finnish study group has investigated how listening to classical music affected the gene expression profiles of both musically experienced and inexperienced participants. All the participants listened to W.A. Mozart's violin concert Nr 3, G-major, K.216 that lasts 20 minutes.
Listening to music enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic function, learning and memory. One of the most up-regulated genes, synuclein-alpha (SNCA) is a known risk gene for Parkinson's disease that is located in the strongest linkage region of musical aptitude. SNCA is also known to contribute to song learning in songbirds.
Still no research on the precise effects of over-exposure to hip-hop, but I'm sure it can't be good.

* * * 

I'm going to do something a bit unusual for the Friday Miscellanea and refer you back to an old post: "The Tyranny of the Backbeat" which I put up way back in March, 2012. It didn't actually get a comment until November, 2013. But just a couple of days ago things really heated up when Ethan Hein, with whom we have been debating a couple of issues, weighed in with a comment. I answered it briefly as did another commentator, but then a very astute commentator on this blog weighed in with a long, two-part comment that is one of the most thorough and thoughtful ever posted on this blog. So please go and read it! And thanks again, Nathaniel.

* * *

How about a quote from Richard Wagner? “I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven!"

* * *

This article at the BBC on so-called "unplayable" works is not as bad as most BBC articles on music. In fact, there is even a sensible comment towards the end:
Is some ‘unplayably’ difficult music not ‘worth it’, then? “Yes,” Collon argues. “There are plenty of cases where pieces are unnecessarily challenging, in a way that doesn’t achieve much musically.
But of course the article does not answer the question posed by the headline: "How performers conquer 'unplayable' works." I'm sure there are genuinely unplayable works and we don't hear them because, of course, they are unplayable. It is quite easy to write something unplayable and lots of pieces have been written with passages that are either unplayable or unnecessarily awkward. So what do we performers do? Well, I guarantee you that most of us don't practice until our hands bleed while being yelled at by a sadistic teacher! What we actually do is change the music. Yep. In the early days of Segovia's career he got a lot of composers to write for guitar that were unfamiliar with the instrument. So they would often write a passage, or some chords that were impossible or just sounded bad. So Segovia just rewrote those passages. I'm not talking about something that changes the musical effect. Usually it is just a case of re-voicing a harmony or something. But, as the article indicates, in a lot of cases, over time, extremely difficult passages are handled through improved techniques--usually without bloodshed.

* * *

This is an interesting, if technical, article about how musicians practice: "8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently." In a nutshell:
The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage.
The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.

And one to rule them all

The top performers utilized a variety of error-correction methods, such as playing with one hand alone, or playing just part of the excerpt, but there was one strategy that seemed to be the most impactful.
Strategically slowing things down.
After making a mistake, the top performers would play the passage again, but slow down or hesitate – without stopping – right before the place where they made a mistake the previous time.
This seemed to allow them to play the challenging section more accurately, and presumably coordinate the correct motor movements at a tempo they could handle, rather than continuing to make mistakes and failing to identify the precise nature of the mistake, the underlying technical problem, and what they ought to do differently in the next trial.
In other words, they are practicing intelligently!

* * *

Time for our musical envoi. Let's listen to one of those piano pieces that is, if not unplayable, then certainly very difficult--especially the repeated notes in the last movement. Here is Ivo Pogorelich playing Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit:

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The 10 Best 19th Century Symphonies

This is a lot harder than my other two symphony lists, 20th century and 18th century. For one thing, the 19th century was really the apotheosis of the symphony, when it became everything. As Mahler said, "A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything." There were an awful lot of symphonies written in the 19th century when it was, alongside opera, the most popular and prestigious musical form. 19th century symphonies are also formidably long, often an hour or more in length, so they take a lot more time to absorb. As I have with other periods, I will list them in chronological order:

1. Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 57 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Yes, this was completed and first performed in 1808 so it is indeed a 19th century composition. Probably the best example of an organically-integrated composition and hugely influentialChamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

2. Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, the "Unfinished", by Franz Schubert. This symphony prefigures so much of the eerie, uncanny effects explored in the 19th century that it is surprising that it was written in 1822. Also Harnoncourt:

3. Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 125 by Beethoven. The link goes to the first of several posts I did on this symphony previously. This symphony shaped the whole 19th century approach to the genre. It was the reason that Mahler, among others, included vocal soloists and choirs in some of his symphonies and the first movement in particular was so great an influence on Bruckner that all of his nine symphonies are inspired by it. Completed in 1824Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Royal Albert Hall, 27 July 2012:

4. Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944, the "Great C major" by Schubert was completed in 1826. This is the last great classical symphony and an astonishingly brilliant work, driven throughout by dancelike rhythms. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor:

5. Symphonie fantastique, op. 14 by Hector Berlioz, composed in 1830, really kicks off the Romantic symphony in one amazing burst of creativity. No previous symphony had made such thorough-going use of a cyclical theme, nor so forthrightly presented itself as a kind of fictionalized autobiography. Stéphane Denève conducting the Chicago Symphony:

6. Symphony No. 2 in C major, op. 61 by Robert Schumann was inspired by the Schubert Great C major. Composed in 1846. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks), dir Leonard Bernstein:

7. Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68 by Johannes Brahms. Though sketches for this work date from 1854, it was not actually completed until 1876! As the century wore on, the influence of Beethoven in particular weighed more and more heavily on composers like Brahms, who sought to revive the pure instrumental tradition of the classical symphony. For much of the mid-century the "symphonic poem" of Franz Liszt and others was the preferred form. I'm not talking about them here as they really are a different genre. But just as it might have been thought that the instrumental symphony had faded into obsolescence, Brahms reinvigorated it with this work. Wiener Philharmoniker, Leonard Bernstein:

8. Symphony No. 7 in E major by Anton Bruckner was finished in 1885. Inspired by Beethoven, but also under the heavy influence of Wagner, this is one of the most popular of Bruckner's nine symphonies. Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado:

9. Symphony No. 6 in B minor "Pathétique" by Pyotr Tchaikovsky was premiered in October 1893. His last symphony ends with a "dying away" (morendo) which was both an aesthetic innovation and a provocation to some to read this work as a farewell to life--Tchaikovsky died only nine days after conducting the premiere. Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, Conductor - Vladimir Fedoseyev:

10. Symphony No. 9 in E minor, the "New World" by Antonín Dvořák was also composed in 1893, but premiered in December of that year, just after the Tchaikovsky. This is an enormously popular work, both at the premiere and to this day. Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan:

Now I know what you are going to say: "what about Mahler?" Yes, indeed, and I would have picked the Symphonies nos. 5 and 9, but the thing is that they were both composed in the first decade of the 20th century. I know that some historians would like to "adjust" the period a bit so that it extends from 1815, the Battle of Waterloo, to 1914, the beginning of World War I, but frankly, what has that to do with the symphony? Don't answer that! But in order to placate Mahler lovers, let's end with a bonus symphony:

11. Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler, completed in 1896. This is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, clocking in at over an hour and a half. There are six movementsMariss Jansons
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks:

As an extra bonus, let me put up one movement from the Symphony No. 5 by Mahler. The Adagietto, one of the loveliest pieces ever writtenVienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein:

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Freshly Mad

As a follow-up to Sunday's post on sampling, greatly enhanced by Ethan Hein's weighing in, in the comments, let's have a look at a new post by Ethan at NewMusicBox. The title is Mad Fresh. Go read the whole thing.

It is a fascinating read because it is like a "breath of air from another planet". I find a lot of this music rather tiresome and annoying to actually listen to, but it is quite interesting to read about it. Sorry, Ethan! The most interesting aspect of the post is the distinction between originality and freshness and Ethan makes some very good points. One is that originality is overrated. Quite right! I suspect that Ethan and I share a certain jaundiced view of 20th century modernism. He notes:
Producing original music in the information-theoretic sense of the word is trivially easy. Pull note names and durations out of a hat, or get a toddler to bang on a MIDI keyboard, or consult the I Ching. If you want to be really novel, you can generate audio files by randomly filling an array with ones and zeroes. The result is likely to be either tedious or annoying, or both. You’ve generated a lot of new information, but without a pattern or structure, it’s just noise. Now of course, some people like noise, and good for them. But even noise music is more structured than complete randomness. Most of us don’t want total originality in music; we want small variations and hybrids of known ideas, a delicate balance between novelty and familiarity. That balance will tilt one way or the other, depending on the listener.
Not a big John Cage fan, I'll bet. Yes, mere originality, perhaps better expressed as mere novelty, is an aesthetic loser. But it was a core value of modernism as it was seen as a proxy for progress in music. "New Music" was a continuing theme in discussions of modernism and avant-garde music. Ethan goes on:
Rather than evaluating music in terms of its originality, we need a criterion that gets at more meaningful aspects of musical quality: emotional truth-telling, recursive patterns of symmetries and asymmetries, intellectual depth, danceability, and so on. We should be judging music by its freshness. We can use exactly the same standards for music that we’d use for produce. A carrot doesn’t have to be unlike all other carrots that came before it; it just has to be crunchy, tasty, and nutritious. Unlike vegetables, music can retain its freshness over long time spans, and can even get fresher over time.
Again, I like the sentiment here. We do need a better criterion than mere originality and I can agree with a lot of the qualities he references. Emotional truth-telling? Isn't this well-represented in the symphonies of Allan Pettersson? Recursive patterns of symmetries and asymmetries? If I could guess what this means, I would suggest that the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass would be a pretty good example. Intellectual depth? Hmm, that's a tough one! Bach certainly, but perhaps a more recent example would be the Schoenberg Violin Concerto. Yes, there is modernist music that is aesthetically great.

But just as I was rocking along with Ethan he takes a wrong turn and the metaphor gets all crunchy. I don't think he really wanted to say that we can use exactly the same standards for music that we do for produce. I rarely squeeze a symphony to see if it is firm the way I would a tomato. But maybe that's just me...

What I really like about this essay is that he is searching for what we often search for at the Music Salon: aesthetic principles and standards. We do in fact have to judge and evaluate music, if only because we simply do not have time to listen to all of it.

Let's listen to a bit of that Schoenberg. Here is a wonderful performance by Hilary Hahn of the first part of the first movement:

Concerto Guide: Franz Liszt, Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major

It is hard to place this composition, chronologically. According to Wikipedia:
Franz Liszt composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat majorS.124 over a 26-year period; the main themes date from 1830, while the final version dates 1849. It premiered in Weimar on February 17, 1855, with Liszt at the piano and Hector Berlioz conducting.
Do we date it from when when the first themes were sketched, in which case it would be among the very first romantic concertos, even pre-dating Berlioz' Harold en Italie of 1834? Or do we date it from when the final version was completed in 1849, in which case it comes after the Schumann Piano Concerto and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto? Or from the premiere in 1855? Isn't it odd that the premiere occurred so late?

Liszt's was a complex and contradictory career. He was, at the same time, both the greatest virtuoso (on the piano, at least) of his time and an avant-garde composer (again, of his time). Interestingly enough, it was the radical nature of his themes and harmonies with their stress on the tritone and chromatic scale, that rescued his compositions from the mere shallow brilliance of the style brillant of Thalberg and Kalkbrenner. As far as the concerto goes, around the 1840s the form began to absorb that of the more-prestigious symphony, producing a "symphonic concerto". One of the symptoms of this process is the appearance of a scherzo between the slow movement and the finale. We see this in the Liszt First Piano Concerto:

  1. Allegro maestoso
  2. Quasi adagio
  3. Allegretto vivace - Allegro animato
  4. Allegro marziale animato
Going back to the genesis of this concerto, Liszt's early career was as a touring virtuoso, only the second in music history, following the example of Paganini. But by the late 1840s this was beginning to pall and in September 1847 he essentially quit his career as a piano virtuoso in favor of spending time on composition. So why didn't he complete this piano concerto when it would have been useful to him? The answer might be that Liszt actually had no need of an orchestra on stage with him! With his original compositions and a host of transcriptions and arrangements, he was entirely self-sufficient! By 1855, and the premiere of this concerto, he was appearing more as a composer than as a pianist.

The concerto, while containing a fiendishly difficult virtuoso piano part, has a lot of other interesting features. One particularly admired by Bartók is the use of the cyclic principle: themes return in varied form throughout the work. The finale in particular is a triumph of virtuoso variation technique with its use of the four themes of the Adagio and Scherzo (third movement), transformed in different rhythms and tempi. The main theme of the first movement also returns in the finale to frame the whole work. The textures are also remarkably varied, not only in the polyrhythms of the piano part, but also in the use of solo orchestral instruments in dialogue with the piano. My favorite part is the trio of piano, flute and triangle that forms part of the third movement.

Now let's listen to a particularly stunning version of the piece. This is Martha Argerich delivering a ferocious performance with Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the RSO in Berlin in 1981: