Thursday, August 31, 2017

Stravinsky and the Ballet, part 3

Prince Peter Lieven, writing in his book Birth of the Ballets-Russes, said of Petrushka that:
It is difficult to believe from seeing and hearing Petrushka that this ballet was the result of a collective creative impulse. Rather does it seem as if a single super-genius, equally gifted in music, art, painting and choreography, had conceived, devised, and staged this ballet. [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 661]
Quite a bit has been written about how a confluence of events led to the wonderful symbiosis between Stravinsky and Diaghilev and indeed, the whole team that Diaghilev assembled for the Ballets Russes. Other factors were the death of Rimsky-Korsakov, which freed Stravinsky from too much influence from that tradition, and also the death of Diaghilev's chief sponsor, the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, which led to the loss of a crown subsidy and therefore to the replacement of very expensive opera productions with much cheaper ballet productions. But it is hard to underrate the enormous benefit to Stravinsky's career that came from working with the Ballets Russes. And likewise hard to underrate how much less the impact of the Ballets Russes would have been without The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Renard, Pulcinella, Mavra, Apollon musagète and a few others.

The very success of the work leads one to overlook the messiness of its origins. For one thing, it was the first time that Stravinsky, in Lincoln Kirstein's words, "made music, not to serve dance, but to control it." [op. cit. p. 662]

Petrushka is the main character of the Russian folk puppet theater, a staple of 19th century popular culture. This character has very old origins as witnessed by the flourishing of puppet showbooths in the Russian Shrovetide Fair, which preserves a number of traditions from ancient Slavic festivals. The Russian Petrushka is roughly cognate with the Italian Pulcinella and the English Punch, all of whom share the same typical features: a humpback, a hooked nose, a squeaky voice, a cudgel, a bell, a pointy hat and baggy trousers. Stravinsky's original vision was of a piano Konzertstück with the pianist being a kind of Petrushka figure. In the final ballet this figure is transformed into the more tragic figure of Pierrot.

Stravinsky's first sketches date from September 1910 and were conceived originally as instrumental pieces, not intended for a ballet even though one was a dance. As soon as Diaghilev heard the music he wanted to turn it into a ballet with the aid of a scenario by Benois, a peerless connoisseur of the Shrovetide carnival. Even though Stravinsky minimized Benois' role in his later memoirs, his importance is reflected in the credit given in the score:


Benois' basic idea was to have the love triangle of Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor framed by an evocation of the Shrovetide fair in a "symphony of the street." In order for this to work, the traditional burlesque figure of Petrushka had to be transformed into Pierrot, the ever-hopeful, but always disappointed lover. Taruskin cites many literary forebears and references in, especially, French and Russian, two poems in particular by Alexander Blok, that describe the outer and inner worlds of Harlequin (Pierrot).

One of the biggest transformations of the traditional roles of the characters is that Petrushka is typically the one killing and maiming while in the ballet, he is killed by the Moor--this idea originated with Stravinsky. It was Benois, on the other hand, that suggested the use of percussion to connect the scenes; this was the traditional way for the puppeteers to attract an audience.

I think this is enough introduction for today. Let's watch and listen to a production of the ballet. This is a film of a recreation of the original production by Andris Liepa and the Bolshoi Ballet:


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Growing Ever More Provincial

Hanging in my studio is a poster from the XX Festival de Musica de Camera, which took place in 1998, the year I moved to where I live in Mexico. This modestly sized town (about 100,000) is something of a cultural center in Mexico, largely through the efforts of the expatriate American and Canadian community who have founded an excellent library, a bilingual weekly newspaper, a host of art galleries and several music festivals. The one I have the poster for is now called the "Festival Internacional de Música" and there have been some changes along the way.

The artists listed on the poster from 1998 are the Chilingrian String Quartet, the Tokyo String Quartet, the Ying String Quartet, the Penderecki String Quartet, the Lark String Quartet and the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. This year the artists were the Meccore String Quartet, the Scherzo String Quartet with guitarist Alfredo Muro, the Dover Quartet, the Ensamble Tamayo (sic), the Daedalus Quartet, Alejandro Barrañón, pianist and the Eroica Piano Trio.

Yes, there is a considerable lowering of quality these days. Of the previous roster, the Tokyo Quartet at least was a world-class ensemble and nearly as accomplished were the Chilingrian Quartet. The others were quite good as well. This year the Daedalus Quartet sounded to me not much better than a student ensemble and their performance was tentative and low energy.

But there are other changes as well that lie a bit under the surface. One of the most problematic of these is the programming. There was one substantial Beethoven quartet, op. 59 no. 3; the only other one performed was the weakest of the early op. 18, the C minor. Haydn did have one from op. 20 and another from op. 50, but the other quartet by Haydn was from op. 1, almost before the string quartet had even come to be. No Mozart, but two quartets by Robert Schumann who was, frankly, not a very important quartet composer. There were a number of pieces that should not have even been programmed unless all you wanted was to pander to an unsophisticated audience: the incomprehensibly popular Astor Piazzolla, a Vivaldi Trio Sonata, the ubiquitous Albinoni Adagio, and a bunch of piano transcriptions of 19th century orchestral chestnuts.

Another disquieting trend is in the presentation. Not one concert is allowed to begin without being prefaced by irrelevant amplified hectoring remarks by the administrators of the festival and all the performers are required, it seems, to deliver impromptu remarks before every piece. Sometimes this descends into the infantile as when the cellist for the trio insisted on telling us how much she loved the Albinoni as a child.

The audience used to respond to every performance with a standing ovation at the end, but more and more it seems that they just get up to get to the exit quicker. Encores almost never happen any more.

These same trends are also occurring in the other main classical music series, Pro Musica, at which every season seems to see poorer pianists than the year before. The programming is dull and repetitive and the hectoring from the administration and the condescending remarks from the performers seem more annoying each season.

What is happening here is the slow dumbing down of events previously devoted to a high art: classical chamber music. One of the reasons these events exist is that this community is too small to be able to afford orchestral concerts, so we make do with string quartets, piano trios, violin and piano ensembles and solo pianists. The people that manage these events do a good job from a budget standpoint: they have to as there is little or no government funding. But the committees that run things do not, since I resigned, include any professionally trained musicians. So the only factors that they take seriously are attendance and costs. Inevitably, challenging and original programming and the more expensive artists are simply not seen as worth it.

The long term results are that people like myself and like my violinist friend that I often attend concerts with find the concerts more and more annoying and less and less satisfying aesthetically. I used to go to perhaps half of the festival concerts and a third of the Pro Musica concerts, but now it averages about one each per season, which is the number of concerts with an interesting looking program.

I won't generalize from my experience to other places, but I would love to hear from my commentators.

In the 20th century it seemed that one important trend was the growing cosmopolitanism of many smaller centers as they grew in population and became more familiar with the intellectual and artistic trends of the day. In the 21st century it seems that the opposite is taking place with smaller centers becoming ever more provincial with each passing year.

For an envoi, what else but the Albinoni Adagio which was not written by the 18th century Tomaso Albinoni, but is actually a pastiche by the 20th century musicologist Remo Giazotto. This is the Copernicus Chamber Orchestra, Horst Sohm conductor:



Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Stravinsky and the Ballet, part 2

As odd as it might seem from our historical perspective, Stravinsky was not the first choice of composer for The Firebird! The team of Benois, Fokine and Cherepnin had created the first original and fairly successful ballet the season before, Le pavillon d'Armide, so they were the first choice for The Firebird. Indeed, Cherepnin had already written some music for this purpose. The reasons are unclear, perhaps it was due to a personality conflict with the choreographer Folkine, but Cherepnin ultimately withdrew from the project. The summons next went to Anatoliy Lyadov, a composer with a firmly established reputation in Russia, but not elsewhere. As he had become known as a composer with a gift for the folkloristic/fantastic, he was a logical choice. Consequently, Diaghilev wrote to Lyadov from Venice in September 1909. Alas, Lyadov seems to have "pocket-vetoed" the proposal by simply doing nothing. Russia's leading ballet composer at the time, Glazunov, might also have been approached.

Diaghilev already knew Stravinsky's work, in fact he had already commissioned orchestrations from him for the Les sylphides suite, so finally the attention turned his way. He began composition in October or November 1909, even before he received the official commission in December. Stravinsky's first sessions with Fokine consisted of the latter laying out his requirements for the various sections of the ballet--the choreographer was at the helm creatively. This was a bit of a throwback to the early days of ballet when the music was arranged to fit the dancing and not vice-versa. The one area in which Stravinsky prevailed was over Fokine's original idea for the apotheosis or finale in which banal "gay processional dances" were proposed.

The only technical description we have from Stravinsky of how he composed is regarding a core element of The Firebird, the element that is used to suggest all the fantastic elements relating to Kashchey:

[quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 589]

This idea actually comes from an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov: Kaschey the Deathless!

(If you are familiar with Stravinsky's recollections published much later in his conversation books, you will notice that he had quite a different perspective on these events and his debts to Rimsky-Korsakov and others--in this respect I am going to go with Taruskin's account, supported with a plethora of evidence.)

Here is another example from Taruskin showing two "ladders of thirds," the one from Rimsky-Korsakov and the other from Stravinsky:

[op. cit. p. 593]
Stravinsky does develop the idea in various ways such as presenting two ladders a tritone apart, or alternating French sixths and diminished sevenths (one interesting thing about composing using the octatonic scale is that the only chords available are diminished!). Another interesting technique occurs in the "Dialogue de Kastchei avec Ivan-Tsarévich" where a pair of horns and a pair of trumpets each present a pentatonic scale, one "white keys" and one "black keys"--an early example of Stravinskian "polytonalism."

The motif heard in the basses at the very beginning of the ballet is actually an arpeggiation of the Kashchey ladder:


Taruskin has a lot more about the use of whole-tone chords, the appearance of the "Petruschka" chord, how the human characters are associated with diatonic harmony and the supernatural ones with chromatic harmony, the use of genuine folk tunes in the khorovod of the Princesses,  the influence of Scriabin on the Firebird's Dance and the orientalisms of the Firebird's supplications. But I don't want to go over all that here as I want to finish with The Firebird so we can move on to Petrushka!

The Firebird achieved a smashing success at its première at the Paris Opera on 25 June, 1910. The French particularly admired the work's synthesism, its brilliant fusing of painting, dance and music. Stravinsky was particularly honored with the first article devoted to his music published in the international press. The author was Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi and it appeared in the Musical Times of 1 August 1911:
Russian born and Russian in spirit [Stravinsky] has no ambition but to assert his personality in the fullest and most independent way. He has eagerly drunk in the often misunderstood or forgotten message of Russia's greatest masters, and thereby learned to stand his own ground ... he stands apart among his colleagues for the abundance, boldness and vigour of his imagination as well as for his command of craftsmanship
Reading Taruskin, who works very hard to uncover all the historical context and forerunners of Stravinsky's music, one can lose sight of just how spectacular his development was. Yes, based on music of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, but displaying a new energy and ingenuity that we will see expanded on in the next two ballets: Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.

Let's end with one final version of The Firebird. This is the Royal Danish Ballet, choreography Glen Tetley, Royal Danish Orchestra, conductor Poul Jorgensen:


Monday, August 28, 2017

"Premium Mediocre" in Music

I sometimes think that, alongside the real marvels of the 21st century, such as the high-end computer/communicator/life-accessory that is the smartphone, there is the marketing triumph of passing off the truly mediocre to us as something "premium" with a price-tag to match. Let's let Venkatesh Rao (with a hat-tip to Instapundit) tell us about it:
A few months ago, while dining at Veggie Grill (one of the new breed of Chipotle-class fast-casual restaurants), a phrase popped unbidden into my head: premium mediocre. The food, I opined to my wife, was premium mediocre. She instantly got what I meant, though she didn’t quite agree that Veggie Grill qualified. In the weeks that followed, premium mediocre turned into a term of art for us, and we gleefully went around labeling various things with the term, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly agreeing. And it wasn’t just us. When I tried the term on my Facebook wall, and on Twitter, again everybody instantly got the idea, and into the spirit of the labeling game. 
Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of “truffle” oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio.
Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes.
Premium mediocre is Starbucks’ Italian names for drink sizes, and its original pumpkin spice lattes featuring a staggering absence of pumpkin in the preparation. Actually all the coffee at Starbucks is premium mediocre. I like it anyway.
And, of course, we have premium mediocre in music as well. As music is rather more abstract than a meal at Olive Garden, it manifests a bit differently. Premium mediocre is the glitzy and shallow presented as the authentic and heartfelt. We have music videos that are commercials for makeup, jewelry and lingerie but are presented as musical essays on infidelity:


On a higher level is Beyoncé's album Lemonade which has songs like "Don't Hurt Yourself" that "celebrates" black womanhood with a pretty nasty song that supposedly is about Jay-Z's infidelity. Lots of black and white verité along with Beyoncé's usual sexy moves all taking place in a graffitied parking garage. The song contains a quote by Malcolm X about black women. As the whole sweep of intellectual ferment these days is about race, class and gender, it is as if the aesthetic goal of the album is to check all the boxes, make exactly the points and references needed to fulfill every bias and predisposition of every popular music critic (and academic) in America. But isn't this the most conventional of wisdom? Is there the slightest shred of the unexpected here? And isn't the using of the most melodramatic soap opera episodes in your own life as fodder for your next album the essence of premium mediocre?



Stravinsky and the Ballet, part 1

Let me begin by quoting a paragraph from Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, p. 535:
The Diaghilev enterprise really came into its own when it renounced the verbal altogether. Ballet represented in its purest form the synthetic ideal to which the World of Art aspired. It was through ballet that the Diaghilev enterprise would have its shattering, transforming impact on European culture. And it was through his contribution to this transforming impact that Igor Stravinsky would unexpectedly emerge as a major force in twentieth-century music.
Oh yes, looking at Stravinsky in his pre-Firebird incarnation, it is hard to see how he might impact twentieth-century music in any significant way. The obviously important figures were people like Arnold Schoenberg who had already composed his revolutionary String Quartet no. 2 in 1908 and 1910 would bring his influential Harmonielehre and in 1912 Pierrot Lunaire. Plainly, this was the main path to the future.

Prior to the Ballets Russes' reinvention of the ballet, it had, like the royal courts that had been its natural environment, been in decline:
In sum, as of the turn of the century, the Russian Imperial Ballet was an antiquated French entertainment preserved in amber, or, in Benois's words, "in a state of mummification." [op. cit. pp. 537-8]
 Taruskin likens it to a sleeping maiden in the woods, shielded from outside disturbances until awakened by the World of Art. It was uncorrupted by realism and didactic and social concerns, so ripe for the kind of untrammeled creativity that was the specialty of the World of Art circle.

Benois was, of course, the creator of the scenario for the Ballets Russes' first venture into ballet, Le pavillon d'Armide with music by Cherepnin, that we have already mentioned. This was premiered in the late spring 1909 season. Also involved was the choreographer Mikhail Fokine, associated with the Imperial Theater School, and one of the dancers was a teen-aged Nijinsky. One costume element, the egret plume worn by Nijinsky in his role as Armida's slave, even made it into literary immortality as it was mentioned in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (vol. 2, p. 770). The one fly in the ointment was the music, whose quality, according to the French critics, did not live up to the splendor of the dance and sets. Time to bring to the table some fresh young Russian composer. Wonder who that might be?

According to Benois' account, written within a year of the conceiving of The Firebird, the aim was to create a definitive neonationalist Gesamtkunstwerk using characteristically Russian mythology:
As an embodiment of pure, heartless, unattainable beauty, the Firebird enjoyed a renewed celebrity among the Symbolists and Miriskusniki. She was one of a whole array of magic birds that inhabited Russian and European folklore and, with the nineteenth century, professional art as well ... She was traditionally aloof from, even hostile toward, men ... Gorgeous yet enigmatic, a thing of preternatural, elemental freedom, she personified the indifference of beauty to the desires and cares of mankind. In this she was the very symbol of art-for-art's-sake; for, as the saying goes, "Life is fettered; Art is free." [op. cit. p. 557]
Incidentally, what they fashioned out of the rag-bag of individual tales, resembles quite well the classic structure of Greek comedy as analyzed by Northrop Frye: a young couple consisting of the Russian "Prince Charming," Ivan-Tsarevich, and the captive Princess are opposed by a blocking older character or "senex," in this case, Kashchey the Deathless. The immediate inspiration, which included the Firebird itself as the "magical helper" who helps the hero in his quests, was these lines by Yakov Polonsky:

And in my dreams I see myself on a wolf's back
Riding along a forest path
To do battle with a sorcerer-tsar (Koschei)
In that land where a princess sits under lock and key,
Pining behind massive walls.
There gardens surround a palace all of glass;
There Firebirds sing by night
And peck at golden fruit.
The Firebird is the embodiment of the ancient sun-god of the Slavs, the Yariko to whom the sacrifice is made in the Rite. She is light and warmth, eternal youth and beauty.

Sooner or later we will get to the music itself, but it won't be today! Instead, let's listen and watch another production. This is a film of a re-creation of the original 1910 Ballets Russes production directed by Andris Liepa. The Bolshoi State Academic Theatre Orchestra with conductor Andréy Chistiakov:


Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Real Problem of Classical Music? It's Not About You!

I just ran across an article in The American Interest that offers this interesting statistic:
A selfie can be more than just a selfie. In the gallery setting, selfie-taking subverts a pact that has existed between museums and visitors since the Enlightenment Era. Museums offer a transformational experience and communion with creative genius in exchange for the focused attention of its visitors. But when we walk through a gallery today, we are accompanied by our invisible audience and the lure of self-presentation in the digital era. The average museum visitor spends seven seconds in front of an artwork—how you choose to spend each second counts.
Because it is not about the artwork, it is really about you. Everything in the universe is nothing but a background to your life. I think this is a partial explanation, not only of why the appreciation of classical music is less these days, but also why efforts to popularize it are not likely to succeed.

There are a couple of ways to listen to music: as a journey that takes you out of yourself to places you haven't been, or two, as a moody soundtrack to the wonderfulness that is your life. Guess which genre is which? It seems as if a lot of people listen to music in the latter sense, that is, they don't really listen to it. For some of us, listening to a great piece of music is one of those peak experiences that enriches your life and expands your awareness. But for a lot of us, music is a kind of acoustic carpet or wallpaper, nice enough, but just providing an unobtrusive context for your life. It's like the role of the painting in the museum: background to your selfie!

While I don't want to cramp anyone's style by saying they don't know how to listen to music, it is likely that a lot of people really don't--it is a learned skill. You have to learn to focus your attention and concentrate on something entirely invisible for extended periods of time. I remember when I was an undergraduate, I had a couple of friends over who were not musicians, just acquaintances from residence life. For some reason the question of the seriousness of music came up--I really don't recall the exact context--but my response was to play a recording of the Guarneri Quartet playing the Grosse Fuge by Beethoven, all the way through. They listened to the whole thing and, by the end, a bit shell-shocked, acknowledged that yes, that's a pretty serious piece of music.

These days, if you want to show the appeal of classical music you put on a show, have fancy lights, a pandering introduction, play short, easily digestible, glitzy little pieces and hope to win over a few listeners. But I suspect that one likely result of that strategy is to demonstrate pretty clearly that this music is lightweight flotsam and jetsam and for something serious they should go back to listening to the soap opera drama of Beyoncé.

Let's just listen to the Grosse Fuge so you see what I mean. Blogger won't embed the Guarneri Quartet clip, so just follow the link:


Here is the Alban Berg Quartet in performance:


And for an entirely different kind of journey, here is the Cavatina, a slow movement from the B flat quartet, op. 130, the quartet that the Grosse Fuge was the original finale for:


UPDATE: One fascinating thing about this piece is how Beethoven notates the subject of the fugue. You notice that the players lean on each note all the way through with particular intensity. Beethoven achieves this with very simple means: he writes the notes of the subject not as quarter-notes, but as tied eighth-notes:

Click to enlarge
This makes the players dig into the notes differently than if they were just quarters. The tendency then would be, since each note is followed by a rest, to leave the note just a bit early.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Stravinsky: Influences and Development, part 4

I'm not going to go into it with any detail, but Taruskin traces the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov (particularly the Coq d'or) and Debussy's Nuages on Stravinsky's opera The Nightingale that he began in March 1908 (though it was not completed until several years later). He describes Stravinsky's settings as including Cherepnin-like pointillism, Rimskyan "opulent octatonic whiligigs," and an impressionist orchestration influenced by Debussy.

As Taruskin puts it, with the World of Art ballet enterprise, Stravinsky met his destiny. The two creative ideas, mentioned previously, that went into shaping this project were "synthesism," a uniting of various artistic media in an all-embracing theatrical manifestation, and "neonationalism," stylistic renewal through the professional assimilation of motifs derived from folk and peasant arts and handicrafts. The Firebird is the result of a complex array of artistic influences including these and others.

The state monopoly on theaters was rescinded in 1882 which led to the presentation of private productions of opera among which the most important were those staged by the railroad tycoon Savva Ivanovich Mamontov (1841 - 1918). His Russian Private Opera productions always featured sets and designs by prominent painters instead of mere artisans. Most of Rimsky-Korsakov's late operas would be premiered by this group which included the participation of the young Chaliapin. These productions placed more importance on the visual presentation than any previous Gesamtkunstwerk.

"National character," particularly in those nations whose character could be seen as exotic, was an important late 19th century artistic value, especially in theater. But composers of Rimsky-Korsakov's generation scorned the undoctored and unidealized folk music of the ordinary people. Russian composers might have loved folk music but they did not trust it, preferring instead the forms and methods derived from conservatory courses in harmony and voice-leading. Pre-Firebird, this was Stravinsky's attitude as well.

The re-discovery of the Russian native traditions really began, ironically, with a book by Stasov published in 1872 that was a compendium of ornamental motifs from peasant handicrafts. One other area in which the neonationalist movement began was in architecture with gallery facades in an archaic Muskovite style. One outstanding example of the style is the Church of the Resurrection in St. Petersburg completed in 1907:

Click to enlarge
Nothing neoclassical about that!

Peasant art was celebrated from an explicitly modernist perspective by artists like Nikolai Roerich who, we will see, had an important role to play in the genesis of the Rite of Spring. Beginning with a huge exhibition of Russian painting in 1906, Diaghilev devoted his energies to the promotion of Russian culture in Paris. In May 1907 he presented a musical retrospective at the Grand Opéra that consisted of five concerts of celebrated Russian singers and virtuosi including Rachmaninoff, Chaliapin and Rimsky-Korsakov conducting his own works. In February 1908 Diaghilev was ready to present in Paris (at the Palais Garnier) a spectacle grander than any seen in Russia: the Russian opera par excellence, Boris Godunov. It was to represent the confluence of synthesism, neonationalism and the aesthetics of the World of Art. The leading role was played by Chaliapin, which made his career:


Diaghilev's production went back to the original sources, Musorgsky's manuscripts in the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg, and restored several passages that Rimsky-Korsakov had omitted in his 1896 revision. The emphasis was to be on the title role, theatrical grandeur and momentum. Diaghilev was more interested in the visual impact than in a literary one. The next step, logically, was to eliminate the verbal altogether, which takes us to ballet.

To end this post, we should have a listen and look at the great opera by Musorgsky, Boris Godunov. This is the Mariyinsky Theater production of 2012, conducted by Valery Gergiev:


Isn't it interesting that, like the Rite of Spring, Boris Godunov begins with a bassoon solo? Sorry about the French sub-titles.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The grandeur of the Beyoncé years continues with the release of a 600 page coffee table book on the making of Lemonade.


Love the fur.

* * *

Why is pop music slowing down? Rolling Stone has all the answers and, inadvertently seems to illustrate the industrial formula nature of the creation pop music:
All are in agreement that sedate tempos reign supreme. "You got a formula for a pop thing right now," asserts Felix Snow, who produced Kiiara's Top 15 hit "Gold" and is a member of the ascendant pop group Terror Jr. The ingredients: "Some sort of quirky bell thing going on around 100 bpm, a bouncy energetic vocal flow over that, obviously the snap on the two and four, and a pretty simple bass line that's going around the same three or four chords the whole song."
Pop music works with formulas that change direction like a flock of baby trout. The much-maligned "concert," "art," or "classical" genre is more about NOT following a formula. See how that works?

* * * 

The world's first album composed and produced by AI. Heh! Of course the song at the link sounds exactly like every other pop diva of the day because the AI was programmed by musicians who write and produce that sort of material. Artificial intelligence obviously means constructed, phony, shallow, formulaic and derivative. Oh, and by the way, if there is no human agency, then there is no art. So if there is art here, then it is entirely the product of human agency, i.e. the guys who programmed it. Better luck next time.

* * *

I've been of the view that the structure of the classical music world in society largely came about, for better or worse, with the ascendence of the middle class in the 19th century. But John Butt in The Guardian, begs to differ:
The art of music, which used to be the analogue of the proportions of heaven and the harmony of the entire cosmos, was increasingly brought down to earth, with the focus more on the human spirit and body. It would be simplistic to claim that all this was caused by the Reformation, but it is unlikely to have happened without the debates about faith, devotional practice and personal responsibility that the Reformation inaugurated.
Musical styles too began to change and diversify in the decades following the Reformation. How was the music actually heard? We will never know for sure, but Roland Barthes may well have been on to something when he suggested that Lutheranism inaugurated a culture of listening. Luther certainly developed a practice in which music took on a more highly charged value, consolidating the drama and struggles of belief within the mind of the believer rather than in the multi-sensory panoply of traditional Catholic practice. It is perhaps no surprise that Bach once related the presence of God and his grace specifically to music – something that cannot be seen or touched, but which permeates the believer’s world and mind. Scripture and faith coalesce in the believer’s own mind through the practice of listening.
Perhaps something of modern music culture was inaugurated through this intensification of listening, by which music ultimately became the elevated, autonomous art of what is so often termed “classical music”.
Now that's an interesting argument.

* * *

 Slipped Disc, classical music's leading obituary section, announces the death of Aloys Kontarsky, brother of Alphons, who passed away in 2010. Together they were an extraordinary piano duo. Their recording of the two piano arrangement of Brahm's Haydn Variations was my favorite Brahms ever. Perhaps their most astonishing accomplishment was their performances of Boulez' Structures for two pianos, a work of total serialism--from memory!

* * *

The New York Times has a piece on the Salzburg Festival, currently in progress. I'm hoping to spend a week or two there next summer. The article is oddly non-musical as its focus seems entirely on celebrities, the fortunes of the recording industry and backstage gossip.
SALZBURG, Austria — The curtain had just come down on Anna Netrebko’s highly anticipated debut as Verdi’s Aida here earlier this month. But her next performance was already beginning.
As the elegant Salzburg Festival audience filed out of the theater — the men in black tie and traditional Austrian jackets, the women in long gowns and dirndls — Ms. Netrebko was upstairs in her dressing room, changing out of her black wig, costume and makeup. When she emerged, she was blond and in a gala-ready black dress, and she made her way through a narrow hallway packed with well-wishers, managers, record company executives and fellow singers.
Plácido Domingo was waiting by the stage door to praise her performance as “perfection.” Ms. Netrebko paused to sign some autographs and pose for a few pictures and then left for the opening-night party in a nearby Baroque palace where Mozart, born just a few blocks away, once performed.
* * * 

Pianist Stephen Hough offers some words of wisdom about classical music in the Pacific Standard:
There's an argument that, in the pre-electronic era, humans had more access to their inner lives, and the great composers incorporated those feelings into their music. Thus listening to Mozart or Brahms provides access to emotions that we've largely lost touch of in this era of constant distraction. Do you think that's true?
I do. Music helps us find our way into that inner world. It actually takes up the time. You can glance at a painting, but if you listen to a five-minute-long piece, it forces you to be in that space for five minutes. Also, it teaches discipline—a word that too often has negative connotations, like you're being rigid.
* * * 

For our envoi today let's listen to the Kontarsky brothers. Oddly, Blogger won't embed so just follow the link:


Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Whig Theory of Music History

A really odd consequence of the complaint that the older generation never understands the younger one, well-exemplified in the dueling comments to my post on Eurocentric music, is that the culture can never be in decline. Every generation has newer and better music than the one before. Kanye West is as important as Beethoven because his music is of the now. This theory of the inevitability of progress is known in historiographical circles as "Whig history."

I happen to think that music history, like all history, has its ups and downs. The glories of late 18th and early 19th century Vienna were followed by the dreary pomposity of the mid 19th century. The astonishing delights of the high Baroque were followed by the peculiar oddities of C. P. E. Bach and J. C. Bach before Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven got going. Music history ebbs and flows and it is odd to think that ebbing is no longer possible. But that is the hidden claim every time someone says, hey, you can't criticize the music of Kanye West because he speaks to the youth of today. All disputes about popular music are clouded by a lot of sociological problems and the lack of much in the way of procedural clarity, but surely there are better and worse in this field as in every other.

Even if we just look at popular music, we see that moments of great creativity, such as we see in the last half of the 1960s with many brilliant albums by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and a host of others, can be followed by a creative lull within which perhaps are stirring the new shoots of an entirely different musical style: disco, punk and so on. I have tuned in and out of popular music ever since 1970 with the release of Abbey Road, so my knowledge is spotty at best. I tuned back in for a while in the early 1980s and found some interesting and stimulating music being made by the Talking Heads, David Bowie, the English Beat and others. But then I got bored again!

I think the two basic issues with the historiography of popular music are the sociology of it and the foreshortening that comes from the lack of any historical distance on it. Actually, I don't think "foreshortening" is quite the right word, but I'm not sure there is one. What I mean is that all the events, persons and styles of popular music of our time seem to loom very large simply because they occupy nearly all of the public musical space. Someone like Kanye West seems a huge creative artist because he is part of our time and constantly issuing new recordings and performances. The same holds for a lot of others like Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. They all loom rather large. But let's make a comparison: Beyoncé is releasing a 600-page coffee-table book (for $300) about the creation of her album Lemonade. Surely this is an indicator of the historical importance of the music? But the real comparison here is the book that Madonna released in 1992, at the height of her fame and influence: Sex.


At the time it was a big deal, but now it is just a quaint relic of the era. I choose this as an example instead of a particular piece of music because it highlights the point without igniting a musical debate which can soon become rather technical.

As for the sociology, this comes into play in a number of ways. First of all, we all have passionate love affairs with certain kinds of music. In the popular arena, the music that was coming out when we were in our late teens always seems to be with us. Most people do not go on a musical journey of discovery throughout their lives. Classical music lovers are a bit different, though. Some are like this, but others are constantly searching for new varieties of music. But in the pop field this is less common. The other sociological factor is that pop music is usually not primarily about the abstract aesthetic elements, but about the "message" which is part and parcel with the sociological context. Fair enough, but it complicates the aesthetic evaluation of the music.

Anyway, just some musing on the historiographical problems of talking about pop music. If you want to read a really interesting and revealing essay on musical historiography, you will find one by Richard Taruskin standing as the introduction to his mammoth Oxford History of Western Music. He titles it "The History of What?" and it is well worth your time.

Time for some music. This is "L’alouette calandrelle" from Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux. The pianist is Messiaen's wife Yvonne Loriod:



Incidentally, you can see how large Kanye West looms in comparison with this clip when you consider that one of his songs typically has tens of millions of views on YouTube. The clip above, when I viewed it had, wait for it, one hundred and thirty six!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Stravinsky: Influences and Development, part 3

Reading Taruskin is a delight because his learning is so wide-ranging. For example, in continuing to set the scene for Stravinsky's artistic development he discusses the trends and movements in art, especially of the World of Art (Mir iskusstva) circle. A kind of mystical archaism was a fashion among the Russian Symbolists which led to the Scythianism and neoprimitivism of the last years of the old regime. One painting in particular he cites is Terror Antiquus by Leon Bakst (1866–1924), painted in 1908, showing a kore presiding over the destruction of an ancient city:


Diaghilev and Benois' retrospective interests, as apostles of aristocratic aestheticism, tended more towards the 18th century. In 1905 Diaghilev organized an enormous exhibition of portraiture from 1700 to 1900 in the Tauride Palace. After this triumph, Diaghilev turned his eyes to the West and embarked on a project to celebrate the spirit of Russia in Europe. Synthesism, the group's attitude towards theatre, and neonationalism, their attitude toward Russian folklore, would both prove important.

The first musician that the Diaghilev circle worked with was not Stravinsky, but Nikolai Cherepnin whose skills as a conductor as well as a composer proved useful. The premiere performance of the Ballets Russes in 1909 featured Cherepnin's ballet Le pavillon d'Armide. As Taruskin notes, "these exquisitely crafted and 'painterly' little sketches already forecast the Russian ballet ideal in embryo." [op. cit. p. 453]

Let's listen to the suite from the ballet. This is the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Igor Blashkov:


Monday, August 21, 2017

Eurocentric Music?

Ethan Hein seems to be an example of where the "new" musicology is going these days. No longer content with just singling out the odd composer for punishment as Susan McClary did with Beethoven, or offering blanket dismissals of all "dead, white, males" now it seems that a truly "woke" musicologist needs to get on board with the more extreme position that:
I have nothing against European classical music as music.
But it’s time to stop teaching it as if it’s in any way superior to or more fundamental than any other musical tradition.
Otherwise we’re giving intellectual and cultural validation to those assholes with the swastika flags.
This is from Slipped Disc where the item has garnered 83 comments to date. Traditionally we classical musicians have felt little need to either defend or apologize for our music as its quality speaks for itself. But I am beginning to think that those days are gone. I was at a musical gathering this past weekend where about equal numbers of classical and non-classical musicians were present and it turned, inevitably, into a blues jam session. That was preceded, however, by a shakuhachi player, who exalts in his inability to read music, offering a "two minutes hate" on those musicians who are literate. No-one offered to disagree with him. All I did was leave, but I regret not standing up and telling him he was wrong, in no uncertain terms.

Hey, if you want to turn all musical gatherings into blues jam sessions then count me out. And I am using that as a metaphor. A musicologist who states that he has nothing against European classical music as music is really in the wrong job and belongs to the wrong tribe (because the unstated subtext is that there is lots to condemn European classical music for in moral, social and cultural terms). The task of a musicologist is to understand and teach European classical music. Sure, there have grown up sub-disciplines that study blues, jazz and world music, but they are founded on the basic training and methods developed for use with European derived classical music. Honestly, you don't need to do Schenkerian analysis of Duke Ellington or Riemannian examination of West African drumming. The study of pop music can be quite interesting, but I think that anyone who approaches it with serious intent recognizes that the study of a Beatles' song and the study of, say, the Rite of Spring or a Bruckner symphony lie in rather different places on the aesthetic spectrum--and it's not just because of the length.

So yes, European classical music is IN FACT more fundamental than any other musical tradition for two reasons: first, because it is OUR musical tradition and second, because most of the highly developed techniques for writing music, including the ability to WRITE it were developed in Western Europe over the last thousand years. Basic history. These include, counterpoint, harmony, formal structure, development and a host of other things. Other cultures have used music in different ways, but with few exceptions the music has been limited to a small range of traditional elements and techniques due to the inability or disinterest in writing music down.

Now this has nothing whatsoever to do with those assholes with the swastika flags, nor those other assholes dressed in black with the anarchist flags. Frankly, it is astonishing that anyone with a scrap of education in music would even say things like this.

But we live in very strange times...

Since many of the comments reference the Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" by that notorious rapist, Beethoven, let's listen to a performance. This is the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Christian Thielemann:


 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Stravinsky: Influences and Development, part 2

Taruskin begins the second section of volume one of his book on Stravinsky by musing on how a concatenation of circumstances led to the blossoming of Stravinsky: a certain jealousy of Steinberg, the 'indifference' of the Conservatory people, the death of Rimsky-Korsakov and, around the same time, the World of Art group around Diaghilev was beginning--the symbiosis that developed between Diaghilev and Stravinsky was probably the most important of these.

In order to trim down a 2,000 page book (and that's just volume one) into a few blog posts I have to do a lot of skipping and one section I can't give full justice to is Taruskin's discussion of the social context of the World of Art group. He calls them "rightists of the left" because these progressive thinkers were not working class or even bourgeoisie, but educated members of the upper class. As one of them, Alexander Nikolayevich Benois wrote:
This very class was the one that achieved all that was calm, worthy, durable, seemingly meant to last forever. They set the very tempo of Russian life, its self-awareness, and the system of interrelationships between the members of this extended family "clan." All the subtleties of the Russian psychology, all the twists of what is typical Russian moral sensibility arose and matured within this very milieu... [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 424]
The World of Art figures, that included Dmitriy Vladimirovich Filosofov and Walter Nouvel (whom we have previously mentioned) as well as Benois, believed strongly in an age-old liberal arts ideal that art was meant to serve us rather than the other way around. But they also asserted aristocratic values in art and in that sense the movement was retrospective. The key figure in transforming what was essentially a movement of dilettantes into a social force was Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872 - 1929):


In 1896 he began to propagandize the views of his circle by means of a series of reviews of art exhibitions soon followed by organizing his own exhibits. Diaghilev showed his enormous talents for manipulation and publicity in the way he goaded the elder statesman of Russian art, Vladimir Vasilyevich Stasov, into making rash attacks on him--which only served to strengthen his position. Nothing so useful as a dependable adversary!

Taruskin offers some interesting thoughts on the historical situation at the beginning of the 20th century:
The touchstone of radicalism for art and esthetics at the beginning of the twentieth century was the conception of the nature and function of the artist. The real artists of the left were those whose attitudes grew out of the Nietzschean/Wagnerian cult of art as eschatological mystery. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 437]
This ideal reached a height in Russia with the Silver Age poets and Symbolist writers like Alexander Blok. The hope was that by harnessing the Divine Force, artists could enlighten and regenerate the world. Such apocalyptic art ideals crystallized around the concept of "Scythianism." The musician who was the supreme realization of this ideal was Scriabin. The World of Art movement had entirely different ideals: "Their mission was neither to explore the world, nor to transfigure it, but to adorn it." [op, cit. p. 438] "Social, religious, philosophical, ideological programs of any kind, in their view, were 'fetters,' "earthly things." [p. 440] The artist's role was to express his individuality through style, that is to say, form and formalism was what distinguished the World of Art movement from the other trends of the day. Taruskin asserts that this is the source of the Stravinskian aesthetic.

Perhaps this is enough history for today. Let us end with a piece we are about to spend some time with, the first major commission from Diaghilev for Stravinsky, The Firebird. This is the complete 1910 version with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. It comes in several clips:






Wow!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Alex Ross Perplexed by Sokolov

As readers know, I am a big fan of the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, about whom I have written quite a few posts. I also had the opportunity to hear him in Bologna in May in concert, which was quite an experience. He plays the same program for a whole season, so it was the same pieces that Alex Ross heard him play in Salzburg on August 1st. I linked to his piece on the Salzburg Festival in yesterday's miscellanea, but just now got a chance to savor his comments:
A cultish, worshipful atmosphere can prevail in Salzburg, to sometimes irritating effect. A case in point was an evening of Mozart and Beethoven sonatas with the enigmatic Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, who avoids travel to the United States but has an avid European following. He has an extraordinarily sensitive touch, and specializes in the surgical separation and articulation of voices: when he plays a crisp, marcato line with his left hand and a flowing legato with his right, the parts are so distinct that it sounds as though two different people were at the instrument. He is also deeply eccentric. His accounts of Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 545, and the Fantasia and Sonata in C Minor, rendered without pause, veered from porcelain prettiness to turbulent Romantic gesturing and back again, neither manner suitable to the music at hand. In Beethoven’s Opus 111, Sokolov’s interpretive meanderings matched the saturnine magnificence of the score: endless even-toned trills and ethereal figuration cast a spell. Still, a humorless self-indulgence prevailed. The crowd roared and stamped; I went away perplexed.
This is delightful, isn't it? Alex Ross really is a creature of his environment, Manhattan's Upper West Side, the world view of which was captured in this New Yorker cover, years ago:

 

Imagine if the artist had been looking East instead and how foreshortened Europe would have been. That's the sense I get from this phrase in the review:
Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, who avoids travel to the United States but has an avid European following.
Norman Lebrecht expressed similar misgivings about a pianist who simply does not give concerts in the UK: after all, how good could he be? Well, good enough to pack halls in Europe. As a bit of a corrective, here is a quote from a review by Geoffrey Norris in The Telegraph:
An enigma in his lifetime, the Russian-born pianist Grigory Sokolov restricts his recitals to about 60 a year, refuses to make studio recordings and, for the past seven years or so, has declined to play in the UK. He used to but then withdrew from appearances here in 2008 when new requirements were introduced for Russian citizens seeking entry visas. It sparked a furore, but the stand-off continues.
To experience him in concert, therefore, you have to be on mainland Europe – no loss to Sokolov when he can draw capacity crowds to the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Berlin Philharmonie or the Vienna Konzerthaus.
 As Ross seems to have only the vaguest idea of with whom he is dealing, let me fill in the picture a bit. Grigory Sokolov is a very great artist and pianist in the Russian tradition. He won first prize in the Tchaikovsky competition in 1966 at age sixteen--the head of the jury was Emil Gilels. Here they are in a photo taken at the time with Mischa Dichter on the left:


Since then he has pursued a career in which his devotion to the art has completely overshadowed any desire for fame or commercial endorsement, which is why so many music lovers do not know him. In Europe, however, he gives a tour every year to packed halls. He refuses to do studio recordings as he sees his art as that of the live performance. After many years of being perplexed by this, one record company, Deutsche Grammophon, has given in and begun releasing CDs of his recitals. He is an astonishing performer. I have one recording, of the Bach Art of Fugue recorded live in St. Petersburg around 1980, that is absolutely transcendent.

So when I read that Ross thinks that Sokolov's performance:
veered from porcelain prettiness to turbulent Romantic gesturing and back again, neither manner suitable to the music at hand
I suspect he just doesn't get out enough and is unfamiliar with the idea of expressive interpretation. Indeed, he seems much more in tune with the young Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang, whom he reviewed like this:
The program, under the direction of the striking young Estonian conductor Anu Tali, consisted of Niels Gade's Hamlet Overture, Grieg's Piano Concerto, and Sibelius' Fifth. I'll save the Sibelius for an upcoming New Yorker column and comment briefly on the Grieg. Yuja Wang was the soloist; I knew her from Leon Fleisher's Carnegie Hall workshops, which I wrote about last year. Then, I was gripped by her playing, though I felt she hadn't fully grasped Schubert's language. She has certainly mastered Grieg's. She gets a huge sound out of the piano, which isn't surprising from a well-traveled young prodigy. What's more impressive is that she plays in big paragraphs, shows a powerful grasp of structure, brings delicate fantasy to lyric passages.
To my mind, Yuja Wang rather resembles a music box with legs:



Grigory Sokolov, on the other hand has a different relationship with the notes:


Unfair, apples to oranges? Well, sure. Just making a point here. On Sokolov's Beethoven, Ross has this to say:
Sokolov’s interpretive meanderings matched the saturnine magnificence of the score: endless even-toned trills and ethereal figuration cast a spell. Still, a humorless self-indulgence prevailed. The crowd roared and stamped; I went away perplexed.
 A humorless self-indulgence? You know, I would be just a tiny bit sympathetic with Ross' view if he had a shred of evidence to back it up. Which he doesn't. So, a pox on your house, Alex. You really should get out more. I think that endless string of Julliard note-spinners has dulled your ear.

Here is another quote from Norris' review in The Telegraph:
As is so often the case with the greatest musicians, it is hard, and perhaps not always desirable or essential, to analyse what makes them great. It is simply a fact that, listening to Sokolov, you know unequivocally that you are in the presence of someone extraordinary, someone possessing special insights and a thoroughly individual way of articulating, clarifying and communing with music so that his interpretations seem to find its very heart.
Yep, that's pretty much it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a really interesting piece of jazz musicology that looks at a pair of 1967 concerts for clues as to why jazz has been sidelined in the decades since, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and One Night in New York City:
the basics of straight-ahead jazz were also being taught to incoming freshmen at an increasing number of American colleges. The influx of students mandated digestible rules. During the mid-seventies, a lead sheet of “In a Sentimental Mood” appeared in “The Real Book,” the most widely disseminated jazz manual ever made, a “fake book” of tunes and chord changes produced by students in the powerful jazz program at Berklee College of Music, in Boston.
If a student wanted to sound like Bill Evans on “In a Sentimental Mood,” he or she could quickly start getting close with the help of a chart in “The Real Book.” The sheet begins with four versions of D minor, “D-, D-(maj7), D-7, D-6.” These aren’t wrong, exactly, but they are far closer to Evans than Ellington, and suggest ways of articulating harmony in a blocky and unmusical fashion, one divorced from the idea and emotion of the original song.
Read the whole thing for a fascinating and informed look at how jazz is transmitted.

* * * 

I've been on a long crusade against what I call "scientism" because much of it appears to me to be wildly misinterpreted or simply wildly wrong attempts to prove the, at least, dubious. Call it science as cult. I started on this because just about every article I ran across on the scientific study of music was hilariously mistaken. This week the Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece supporting my view titled Studies Are Usually Bunk, Study Shows:
Pop psychologists have churned out mountains of books proving some intuitive point that turns out to be wrong. It’s “sciencey,” with a whiff of (false) authenticity.
Malcolm Gladwell is the master. In his 2008 book, “Outlier,” he argues that studies show no one is born better than anyone else. Instead success comes to those who put in 10,000 hours of practice. That does sound right, but maybe Steph Curry shoots hoops for 10,000 hours because he is better than everyone at basketball in the first place. Meanwhile I watch 10,000 hours of TV. Facing criticism, Mr. Gladwell somewhat recanted: “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.” News alert: Professional sports are cognitively demanding.
Gladwell's 10,000 hours claim was one that I attacked years ago--as any music teacher knows, there are lots of students for whom 10,000 hours of practice will get them not very far, while with some students a fraction of that time will see them far ahead. In fact, most of these studies are simply mistaken:
In August 2015, the Center for Open Science published a study in which 270 researchers spent four years trying to reproduce 100 leading psychology experiments. They successfully replicated only 39.
Things like "unconscious bias," that is the theory that underlies masses of social engineering are simply unlikely:
In his best seller “Blink,” Mr. Gladwell finds studies suggesting we are all unconsciously biased sexists, racists, genderists, ableists, and a litany of other “ists”—victimhood’s origin story. Newer research has deflated this theory, but the serious conclusions, and boring training seminars they inevitably lead to, remain.
What we have to always remember is to be skeptical, especially of those ideas that are very beneficial to those people that purport to administrate society for the better. Turns out it benefits them and almost no-one else. Now that's critical thinking!

* * *

There have been several articles lately bemoaning the invitation to conservative pundit Dennis Prager to conduct the Santa Monica Symphony in a benefit concert. According to them, anyone who disagrees with them is a bigot and should not be allowed to show his face in public. Here is an article making the contrary case that politicizing everything, especially classical music, is just a very bad idea: Was Haydn a Bigot? Are you?
My friend Dennis Prager, the radio talk-show-host, is conducting the Santa Monica Symphony in a Haydn symphony this Wednesday at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and, of course, his appearance has "drawn fire" and "raised controversy" in the fever swamps of the Left, which is freaking out at the prospect of having a "bigot" on the podium. Anyone who knows Dennis, or who even listens to his daily radio show on the Salem Radio Network, understands this is codswallop.  Prager is an observant Jew and a man who has spoken and written extensively on the moral issues of our day. His bona fides as a public intellectual are impeccable.
I can remember when most of life was entirely free of politics--and it wasn't that long ago! If I sat down to play chamber music with someone it wouldn't have occurred to me in a million years to even wonder what their views on socialized healthcare or immigration policy were. And I really can't see why the horn section of the Santa Monica Symphony should care either.

* * *

The BBC Proms concerts in London, one of the great summer music festivals, apparently have an Early Music problem, Time to ditch authenticity for early music Proms:
They say the first step towards recovery is admitting that you have a problem. So I’m staging an intervention and asking the BBC Proms to admit what they’ve known for some time: they have a big problem when it comes to early music. How to perform it, where to perform it, even who should perform it — these are all questions that, year after year, remain unsatisfactorily, inconsistently or superficially answered, and there’s little in this year’s programming to suggest that 2017 will be any different.
If the problem is that the repertoire and ensembles do not translate well to the large halls, what is the solution?
Some of the most exciting performances of baroque and early classical repertoire we’ve heard this season (Rattle’s Haydn with the LSO; Rebel’s Les élémens — an opener for Joshua Weilerstein and the BBCSO) have been not from period specialists but symphony orchestras. Not because the quality of playing was any better, but because the repertoire was embraced into a musical continuum, was explicitly related to the rest of musical history rather than ghettoised, set apart. If this means we lose authenticity then I think it’s a price worth paying for music that has the spirit (if not quite the sound) that the composer intended.
Yep, the problem of translating subtle, smaller ensemble performances into the larger spaces of today has never really been acknowledged.

* * *

This is the kind of article I like to see, all about the librarian for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Librarian helps keep Philadelphia Orchestra running smoothly:
“We’re not taking 40-year-old parts and putting in new bowings,” Grossman said. “Rather, there are three new ways this is done: Yannick marks his score and we transfer everything to the parts; or he marks only the principals’ parts (concertmaster, second violin, viola, cello, bass); or, because we understand his approach, he lets the principals work together to produce a bow master. They now have regular meetings to look at all the music. Yannick likes the orchestra to be prepared. He’d rather spend time in rehearsals getting into interpretive issues.”
* * *

All the rights to the royalties as well as to the name and image of Glenn Gould have been sold to a US agency. I'll bet he's glad he is dead and doesn't have to hear about this. I think that was black Canadian humor...

* * *

Since I'm planning on attending next summer I am delighted to hear about a rejuvenated Salzburg Festival. Alex Ross waxes ecstatic:
In recent years, this most sumptuous of classical-music gatherings has reverted to its default identity as a parade of musical celebrities with no clear artistic destination in sight. Last year, though, the progressive-minded Austrian pianist and impresario Markus Hinterhäuser took over as Salzburg’s artistic director, and he is stirring memories of the festival’s most vital period—that of the nineteen-nineties, when Gerard Mortier presided over a superb array of provocations, including an avant-garde series that Hinterhäuser co-curated.
* * *


As has been said before, for the post-modernists, all relationships are power relationships so any respect for the aesthetic quality and traditions of Western music has to be understood as a naked claim to superiority and therefore crushed. Sorry, but classical music is neither racist nor the Black Plague. These kinds of arguments are nauseating...

* * *

For our envoi today this is the Symphony No. 51 in B flat major by Joseph Haydn, the one chosen for the Santa Monica benefit concert. The Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood:


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Record Review: Salonen conducts Stravinsky

I never do reviews of current record releases here. Not sure why; it just doesn't seem to fit the blog somehow. I do have a series of Retro Record Reviews where I review some old recordings, which is what I usually buy. But I just finished listening to a newly-purchased box of CDs and was shocked to discover that it is a new release, April 2017:


The recordings themselves were made over the last 20 years or so, but the integral release is new and available from Amazon for $25. Great value. And a great recording. The Rite is brisk and precise and well-handled. I'm really not a reviewer--I suspect I don't listen much for the kind of thing specialist classical reviewers do. But I have heard a lot of different versions of the Rite and  I think I prefer this one.

But there is a whole lot more in the box. With the exception of the Symphony of Psalms and the Symphony in C and a few other pieces, this box contains nearly all the Stravinsky you will ever need. There are seven discs:
  1. Petrushka, Orpheus
  2. Firebird, Jeu de cartes
  3. Sacre du printemps, Symphony in 3 Movements
  4. Pulcinella, Renard, Ragtime, Octet
  5. Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra
  6. Apollon musagète, Concerto in D, Cantata
  7. Oedipus rex
Orchestras include the Philharmonia, the LA Philharmonic and the Swedish Radio Symphony.

I find Salonen's conducting style unusual but compelling. Here he is conducting the LA Philharmonic in the Sacrificial Dance from part 2 of the Rite:



Damn. You can take your heavy metal and, well, you know!

Stravinsky: Influences and Development, part 1

The next element taken up by Taruskin in his monumental book on Stravinsky that I am loosely following here, is the influence of his peers and how that gave him a window on the wider world outside the circle of Rimsky-Korsakov. The key figure was Mikhail Gnesin (1883 - 1957) a fellow-student and later music educator who taught both Khrennikov and Khachaturyan among his composition students.

Gnesin was well-connected with the artistic circles outside of music, particularly the Symbolist group that included the radical poets of the day. He set a lot of poetry of the group, including that of Alexander Blok, and they encouraged him to experiment in order to find a musical style that matched their aesthetic striving. This group was also connected to the organizers of the Evenings of Contemporary Music that presented concerts in St. Petersburg from 1901 to 1912. One of the leaders was Alfred Nurok (1863 - 1919), a musical dilettante and iconoclast. Another figure was Walter Nouvel (1871 - 1949), a "Sunday composer" and recognized arbiter of taste in contemporary music.

Despite the radical ambitions of these figures, the first several years of the Evenings were characterized by moderation. Western composers such as Franck, d'Indy, Reger, Debussy and Ravel were interspersed with works by local composers such as Rachmaninoff, Cherepnin, Glazunov, and a very small amount of Scriabin. Nonetheless, to the Rimsky-Korsakov circle, this was definitely the "other camp."

Gnesin managed to have a foot in each camp: he did not find the nasty criticisms of Rimsky-Korsakov by Nouvel justified (but with a grain of truth), but at the same time his music had admirers in the circle of Rimsky intimates. As one of Rimsky-Korsakov's most "advanced" students, Gnesin sometimes wrote specifically to appeal to his taste by carefully eliminating academic transgressions and adding bits of contrapuntal effects. Stravinsky did the same as we can see not only in the Scherzo fantastique but also his Etudes for piano, op. 7.

Stravinsky, along with the Rimsky students he was closest to, Maximilian Steinberg and Gnesin, was featured in a concert of the Evenings of Contemporary Music on December 27, 1907 in performances of settings of Symbolist poetry. This was the first time that Stravinsky's music was performed before a paying audience.

Steinberg, of Polish Jewish descent, was a very talented student and his gifts were praised to the skies by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. He married Rimsky's daughter Nadya and succeeded Glazunov as professor of orchestration at the conservatory. Indeed, he was considerably more highly regarded than Stravinsky, whom he displaced as heir apparent of the New Russian School. Some of Stravinsky's later resentment of both Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov may be a result of their favoring Steinberg's talents above his. Before The Firebird, this was rather a general critical opinion. Taruskin uncovers a revealing quote by the reviewer Karatïgin appearing in the journal Apollon in the fall of 1910:
However highly we may value the musical wit of Stravinsky's latest works--the Scherzo fantastique and especially the orchestral fantasia Fireworks, a piece dedicated to Steinberg and absolutely dazzling in its immense richness of harmonic and coloristic invention--still and all one cannot deny that from the point of view of sheer musical content and profundity of musical ideas, Stravinsky's work is much inferior to Steinberg's. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 395]
The fact that his music was, compared to that of Steinberg's, regarded by quite a few of his contemporaries as being a bit lightweight might have been, according to Taruskin, a powerful motive for Stravinsky's modernist revolt.

For our envoi, let's listen to some music by Stravinsky's rival. This is the Symphony No. 2 dating from 1909 and the piece that was evaluated as being of greater quality than Stravinsky's. The performers are the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi:


That sounds rather Brahmsian to me.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 6

Stravinsky's journey away from the Belyayevets circle around Rimsky-Korsakov begins with the setting of a poem by one Sergey Gorodetsky, a much-acclaimed poet whose book Yar was published in 1907 (Stravinsky's setting is from the same year). The section in the book titled "Yarila" is devoted to paganistic and shamanistic poems and has been pointed to repeatedly as part of the cultural background to The Rite of Spring. This kind of cultural reference is referred to as "Scythian," about which more later.

The poem Stravinsky set, titled "Vesná," is about young love and the tolling of a cloister bell. The sound of bells and the setting of artificial folk songs goes back to Glinka and Musorgsky in Russian music. Stravinsky's performance of his new song at a gathering in October 1907 was not well-liked and Rimsky-Korsakov termed it "wildly unrestrained and harmonically nonsensical." There was a growing gap regarding the aesthetic role of folklore: for composers like Rimsky-Korsakov it was mere "content," something cited for color, but it was not something that flowed into and influenced "style," the fantastic/chromatic side. Here is a performance of the song with Marija Brajković, soprano and Radoslav Spasić, piano:



The poet Gorodetsky had made an intense study of ancient peasant rites and customs, which could still be witnessed in Russia up into the 1930s and in 1908 Stravinsky set another poem by him with the title Rosyanka (Khlïstovskaya) which is rather untranslatable: the first word means "dew" and the second refers to a quasi-Pentecostal sect dating to the 17th century and much persecuted by the Orthodox establishment. Stravinsky's setting does not reveal his later immersion in folklore, at this point it is rather retrospective in style, recalling perhaps what Musorgsky might have done.

There is a rather curious song from this time that reveals more of the future Stravinsky, his little Pastorale set to the text: "A-oo, A-oo." It's open and airy texture and particularly its ceaseless sixteenth-notes give it a genuinely Stravinskian sound. Here is the original version:


Taruskin speculates that another influence on this piece, with its evocation of a French musette, might have been early music as the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in that same year, 1907, was giving her first Russian tour--she gave two recitals in St. Petersburg in February and March. We can't be sure that Stravinsky attended either concert, but one piece performed, a "Styrische Tanz" by Lanner, would turn up later in the third tableau of Stravinsky's Petrushka.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Aesthetics, part 5

It is pretty clear that aesthetic objects are phenomenally objective: we don't have any difficulty in distinguishing between what is in the painting and our reaction to it. Nor do we confuse our feelings with those of Hamlet on the stage. Even in music, it is quite easy to distinguish between the music itself and how it makes us feel. But one of the things that leads to a relativistic view of aesthetics is the fact that a lot of criticism confuses the phenomenally objective and the phenomenally subjective. A great deal of arts criticism seems to go out of its way to confuse the two. A critic referring to a "feeling" of solidity in a Cézanne landscape might be referring to either the painting or his reaction to it. The word "effect" is also used ambiguously. Indeed, the whole class of what Beardsley calls "affective terms," ones that contain some reference to the effect of the work on the percipient, need to be considered carefully for they may contain little objective information about the work itself, but merely record a critic's response. If he is careful about recording what details in the work lead to his response, that can be useful, but sometimes, or often, it may be an eccentric response of little objective value. [Referring to Beardsley, op. cit. pp 38 to 42]

If I could give a musical example, sometimes I debate with commentators here about the aesthetic value of the symphonies of Mahler which I have mentioned were once favorites of mine but which I now find nearly unlistenable because they seem melodramatic and neurotic to me. I am describing a subjective impression which is not, of course, objective criticism. If I were to take the time and analyze just what it is in a Mahler symphony that sounds melodramatic and neurotic to me, then that would be a decent piece of criticism. I suspect I have not done so because it would be quite time-consuming and also because I have a vague inkling that it would involve some foundational work on what neurosis in music might consist in. In other words, it could get very involved indeed. My subjective impression is pretty clear to me though!

I have mentioned before the interesting issue of the ontological status of a piece of music and by this formidable phrase I mean the interesting fact that we might hear several different performances of a piece of music that we would all reckon as the same piece of music. Beardsley handles this by describing these different performances as different presentations of the same aesthetic object. A particular presentation of an aesthetic object is one experienced by a particular person on a particular occasion. Certain presentations may be more adequate than others. Generally we regard the aesthetic object itself as not being identical with any particular presentation. Some critics, however, are impressionistic in that they are constantly giving their impression of the presentation without much effort to distinguish it from the aesthetic object itself. It may be easy to write that the musical composition seemed formless, but that might have been your impression simply because you failed to perceive the form on first hearing.

Beardsley gives a set of six principles that he calls the Postulates of Criticism that lay out the way to conceive of the relationship between aesthetic objects and presentations of them in order to render objective criticism possible. Here they are:

  1. The aesthetic object is a perceptual object; that is, it can have presentations.
  2. Presentations of the same aesthetic object may occur at different times and to different people.
  3. Two presentations of the same aesthetic object may differ from each other.
  4. The characteristics of an aesthetic object may not be exhaustively revealed in any particular presentation of it.
  5. A presentation may be veridical. that is, the characteristics of the presentation may correspond to the characteristics of the aesthetic object.
  6. A presentation may be illusory; that is, some of the characteristics of the presentation may fail to correspond to the characteristics of the aesthetic object. [Beardsley, op. cit. p. 46]
This is not, of course, an argument for the acceptance of these postulates, but they are fairly widely assumed amongst critics, at least ones who think about what they do.

Beardsley mentions as an example different hearings of Bartók's Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. One day you hear it on the radio, another time you listen to a clip of it on YouTube on your laptop, one day you hear a live performance of it and perhaps one day you sit down and study the score. These are all different presentations of the same aesthetic object, but some are more adequate than others and they all have different tonal and interpretive characteristics. But I think it would be widely accepted that in experiencing these different presentations we are experiencing the same aesthetic object. This is a necessary first step in countering the view that all aesthetic experience is merely subjective.

Now let's listen to this very fine piece by Bartók, the Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. This is the RIAS Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ferenc Fricsay: 




I remember doing a Bartók seminar with a rather crusty composer who got rather upset with me when I pointed out that the first movement is a fugue. Which it is, of course, but his ideological stance was that as Bartók is one of the most important figures in musical modernism in the 20th century, we always have to look at his music in terms of its modernistic elements and NOT in terms of its relationship with the past.