Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ann Coulter on a classical music blog?

If Ann Coulter is most famous for her incendiary and reason-defying antics, then Susan McClary can certainly be considered the Ann Coulter of musicology. For those who aren't well read in the field of musicological feminism (I'm not joking), Susan McClary is famous for describing a certain portion of Beethoven's 9th Symphony as the "murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release." This gem is found in her book, "Feminine Endings," in the middle of a dizzying interpretation of the sonata form itself as being misogynistic and imperialistic. Her book is the prototypical example of what most "academics" in musicology are doing these days -- coming up with far-fetched speculations and cherry-picking musical examples to defend them. What results is writing that shows profound misunderstanding of the composer's complete output... especially if it only focuses on one work, and makes erroneous conclusions about the composer's life (or at least false links between the composer's music and life). Susan McClary, the majority of musicologists, and Ann Coulter are all guilty of the same thing: being idiots.
Mozart vs. Rachmaninoff

To my dismay, a friend recently told me he prefers the Rachmaninoff piano concertos to those of Mozart because Rachmaninoff is more “gutsy” and “wears his heart on his sleeve.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Even for people who can't imagine that anything in a major key could be worthwhile, Mozart should still reign king. In addition to the amazing stormy movements from 20 and 24, he composed the brooding slow movements to 9, 18, 22, and probably most famously, 23. For someone who only appreciates the melancholy, this is still enough nutrition to make resorting to simple carbs like Rachmaninoff unnecessary.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Decadence of Contemporary Classical Music

We've all suffered through the token "new composition" that all too often graces the concert-hall program. After enduring the silly sound-effects, colored strobe lights, and wild gesticulations of the performers, we wonder if we're just too stupid to get it. After all, the old fur-clad sophisticate sitting next to us has plenty to say. In reality, this kind of concept piece is anything but cerebral or intellectual -- mostly it's the product of very weak and uncreative minds. What classical music desperately needs is a new Bartok or Stravinsky -- a musical messiah to save us from this wasteland of gimmickry. Most of our current (com)posers lack any type of genius whatsoever, but they want us to believe they're in the same vein as Beethoven and Brahms, and that we're somehow just incapable of understanding them. On the contrary, I understand quite well the meaning of a piece that "uses silence as a quasi-contrapuntal device" -- it means the composer isn't talented enough to write real counterpoint (or even quasi-counterpoint, whatever that might be). Unfortunately, the public lumps together great masterpieces like the Bartok or Shostakovich quartets with this kind of pseudo-music, and calls it all "difficult music that's hard to listen to," or "music that's not pretty." Then, if someone intelligent tries to expose these musical used-car-salesmen for what they really are, they're considered part of the naive public that cringes at the slightest dissonance.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Finding Concrete Meaning in Absolute Music: Why?

After a performance of his First Symphony, Carl Nielsen was approached by an old lady who told him she had loved the first movement, and was most impressed by its “organ-like character.” That movement is entitled “Allegro Orgoglioso” (“orgoglioso” means “proud”) She had misinterpreted the Italian. This anecdote shows that some people are never content merely to listen to a piece of music, and that whatever they’re told, even if it's false, they'll somehow find in the music. That's why Mahler was so reluctant to include programs for his symphonies (even though some of them are overtly programmatic). He probably only gave in to placate those who can’t be satisfied by music alone. I have a better solution for that kind of person -- go to an opera, where silly stories and glittering costumes are sure to divert and entertain.

While I'm on the topic of music meaning something, I’ve always been amazed at how many people think a certain composition’s mood is always directly related to the emotional state of the composer when the piece was written. While this may be somewhat true for pieces like Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, it certainly isn’t the norm. I wonder if these people think Mozart composed the intense parts of Don Giovanni only when he was in a rage, and the humorous parts only when he was amused. What about pieces that abruptly change mood in the middle of a movement? Does that mean the composer heard some bad news while composing and was suddenly incapable of writing cheerful music?

Stockhausen: Useful?

Karlheinz Stockhausen, famous primarily for his electronic music (and for his unfortunate remarks about the 9-11 attacks) was capable of producing amazingly interesting sounds and raw material, but like most composers of electronic music, had no idea how to incorporate them into real musical pieces. His random arrays of interesting sounds aren't music, and so I don’t consider him a real composer. Maybe he'll be instrumental in providing a palette of sounds for real composers to draw from in the future, but most of his pieces (for example, the Helicopter Quartet) deserve nothing but derision.

Speaking of which, most Stockhausen fans I've talked to have never actually listened to the Helicopter Quartet, yet they love the idea that it exists. They're intrigued that the score is written in 4 different colors, and they’re more interested in the concept behind the piece than in the piece itself. This, as far as I'm concerned, is proof that it's nothing but a silly gimmick. It's been fashionable for the past 80 years to pay attention to this sort of buffoonery, and to snobbishly deride anyone who refuses to fall into the same trap. I can only hope future composers focus on the useful aspects of Stockhausen’s legacy, and resist the urge to write meaningless concept pieces.
Liszt: Virtuoso Pianist, Amateurish Composer

Everyone seems to mention the B minor sonata in defense of Liszt's greatness as a composer. They admit that most of his output is crowd-pleasing surface music, but they hail the B minor sonata as the continuation of Beethoven’s tradition in the genre. I’ve never understood this argument, since the B minor sonata has never seemed ingenious to me in any way. It certainly doesn't have the Romantic originality of Chopin or Schumann, and where craftsmanship is concerned, one might generously equate it to Beethoven's Op. 14 Sonatas (the worst ones). What does it have? I don't even hear the virtuosic flair that seems to have been Liszt's sole talent. I know it's devilishly difficult to play, but the perceived difficulty is much less than usual for this silly type of flashy music. The time he spent transcribing the Beethoven symphonies was much more productive -- maybe instead of composing such mediocrities as the Faust Symphony, he should have transcribed the Haydn and Mozart symphonies as well.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Bach Chaconne: Really the Greatest Piece Ever?

Virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell calls the Bach Chaconne, from the D minor Partita, "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history." Many musicians I know have expressed a similar sentiment, which has always completely baffled me. Bach alone composed literally hundreds of other works that I find more complex, beautiful, and amazing than the Chaconne. For example, the cantatas, the organ works, the Well-tempered Clavier, the B minor Mass, the Magnificat, etc.

I admit the Chaconne is a fascinating demonstration of what can be achieved using limited resources (unaccompanied solo violin), and watching a violinist perform it certainly elicits awe (in the same way a Paganini caprice might), but judging solely its compositional worth, I find it unremarkable. In addition, the ubiquitous quadruple stops and awkward bouts of counterpoint make it almost unlistenable at times. It’s nice to know that a single violinist can theoretically stumble through multiple watered-down contrapuntal lines simultaneously, but when it comes to Bach, I’d much rather listen to something like this:

Christen, Ätzet diesen Tag (Cantata #63, mvt. 1)

Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Grosse Fuge: Unequally Yoked

It's fashionable these days to perform Beethoven's Op. 130 quartet with its original finale, the Grosse Fuge. Behind these performances is the belief that following the composer's initial intent is somehow more authentic or correct. Although it's interesting from a historical perspective to experience the quartet as it was first envisioned, this type of performance should be much less frequent.

At the quartet's premier, two other movements were encored at the audience's behest, but the fugue left them quite bewildered. Beethoven was upset, and supposedly responded, "Why not the fugue? Cattle! Asses!" This is an understandable reaction, since the fugue represents an almost superhuman culmination of his artistic and technical skill -- undoubtedly, he was fiercely proud of it. Later, when the publisher suggested he compose a replacement finale, he agreed, and the quartet was published with the new movement (the fugue was published separately, as Op. 133).

Why, then, do so many modern performances include the fugue instead of the replacement finale? Do performers assume that Beethoven faltered under pressure, yielded to the publisher's demands, and begrudgingly allowed the quartet to be published with the new movement -- Beethoven, who was notorious for his stubborn independence? It's much more likely that Beethoven simply realized, independently of the publisher, that the gigantic fugue was frighteningly out of place. Its forceful character, strange thematic material, relentless counterpoint, and gargantuan proportions are completely foreign to the rest of the quartet. The replacement finale, on the other hand, compliments the previous movements perfectly with its character and size. The Grosse Fuge, given its monolithic nature, doesn't deserve to be trivialized by these previous movements (I'm not questioning their quality -- the cavatina is one of Beethoven's most inspired utterances), and these movements don't deserve to be bogged down or overshadowed by the fugue.

Did Beethoven ever change his mind about any of his other pieces? Did he ever have to struggle to make compositional decisions? The answer to both questions, of course, is yes. For instance, he originally performed the Op. 53 Waldstein Sonata with the Andante Favori (in F major) as its slow movement. After weighing the criticism of a friend, he published the movement separately, and composed the replacement "introduction" to the finale. Another example of this involves the early, discarded sketches of the Ninth Symphony's finale, which he later recycled in his Op. 132 quartet. In fact, all his large compositions undoubtedly involved some major rearrangement or rethinking.

So, while these performances of the quartet and fugue together are indeed interesting curiosities, the idea that they are somehow more "correct" or "authentic" is blasphemous disregard for Beethoven's ultimate (and wise) decision.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Carl Nielsen: Music Critic

Apart from having been a hilarious teenager (I've never seen a picture quite like this from the 1800s) and probably the most unduly neglected composer of the Twentieth Century, Carl Nielsen was also an insightful music critic. His little book of essays, Living Music, contains a wealth of sound advice and criticism for performers, composers, and musicologists alike.

One of the essays, entitled Mozart and Our Time, contains this brilliant quote:

“It is an offence against Mozart and against the young student of music, therefore, for a teacher to set his pupil to play Mozart’s sonatas and quartets as soon as he has acquired a modicum of technique. It is barbarous, in fact, and will only spoil the pupil’s desire to study Mozart subsequently. How can we expect young people to appreciate the exquisitely alternating moods of this music, or feel the beauty of an art which expresses itself with such restraint and in so strangely spiritual a manner! What youth wants, above all else, is something it can grasp, something it can lay hold on with both hands. But the content of Mozart’s music is the least tangible, and so it is better to let the young musician get his fingers into Chopin and Liszt than choke the life out of Mozart. Later, however, when a measure of spiritual maturity has been attained, and the executive musician must learn to exercise not only his fingers but his mind and his soul, then the music of Mozart will be infinitely instructive. . .”

Incidentally, this reminds me of a scene from the movie “Shine,” from which I quote the following:

Peter: I have decided I would like you to teach David.
(Hands him some music.)

Rosen: Rachmaninov? (the Third Concerto) Don’t be ridiculous!

Peter: He can play it already.

Rosen: He’s just a boy. How can he express that sort of passion?

Peter: You are a passionate man, Mr. Rosen. You will teach him, no?

Rosen: No. I’ll teach him what I think is best.

Peter: Rachmaninov is best ---
But you are his teacher; I let you decide.

Rosen: Thank you. We’ll start with Mozart.

As a composer myself, this scene offends me, since I value any Mozart piano concerto more than all four Rachmaninov concerti combined – but I can see why a pianist might prefer Rachmaninov’s, since they are better vehicles for satisfying egos. In any event, Mr. Rosen should have heeded Nielsen’s advice, and agreed to teach Rachmaninov – until the boy was ready to play something that required genuine passion, and not the overblown, immature passion with which impetuous performers play surface music (watch Lang Lang’s face as he plays Rachmaninov for a dramatic visualization of this nauseatingly insincere “passion.”).

Well, since this was meant to be a post about Carl Nielsen, I'll conclude with a listening recommendation. Nielsen’s six symphonies are relatively well-known (although the First and Second should be performed much more frequently), but a startling masterpiece remaining still in obscurity is the E flat major quartet, Op. 14. Here is a work of impeccable craftsmanship and exotic beauty. I can’t think of a comparable quartet between those of Beethoven and Bartok (granted, there isn’t much competition, even from great composers like Brahms). Here are some excerpts:

Mvt. 1 (exciting ending)

Mvt. 2 (exotic beauty)

Mvt. 3 (crazy middle section)

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Program Notes: The Abstract Composer's Saving Grace

How valid is music that requires a philisophical essay to explain why the listener should be interested? I remember going to one of those "Emporer's New Clothes" types of new-music concerts where everyone pretends to understand and enjoy what's going on, when there's really nothing to understand or enjoy. As I struggled to sit through one of the pieces, I began reading the accompanying, lengthy program notes. The composer of the piece claimed to be using "silence as a quasi-contrapuntal device." When I read this, I chuckled to myself at the outrageously meaningless, but at the same time, quasi-compelling phrase. There was, of course, no real counterpoint in the piece (or any musical ideas whatsoever) -- It was just the composer's way of using big words to mystify the audience into believing his piece was worthwhile.

I came away from this concert with an idea for a future composition of my own. I had always been fascinated by canons of various types, and I'd just finished writing a piece called Thirteen Diverse Canons at Each Interval (each chromatic interval from unison to octave). My new idea would be to extend the piece by writing a canon at the interval of "silence." It would be just one line, and I would leave the responsibility of realizing the answering voices to the listener (to do in his or her head). These voices could enter at any pitch or time interval, and could be manipulated in any way (augmentation, inversion, retrograde), as long as the listener was sophisticated enough to keep track of them. In other words, the composition would cater to every level of listener -- in fact, the least (musically) sophisticated member of the audience could still just follow the single line. A problem would arise, of course, for listeners who chose very large time intervals between canonic entries, because they'd still be in their seats long after the concert was over (for this reason, my piece would have to be last on the program). All of this would be explained, of course, in the lengthy program notes.
Einstein Mozart Biography: Disgraceful

It’s almost impossible to finish any one chapter of the Alfred Einstein Mozart biography (1945) without encountering some horrible misstatement, inaccuracy, or illogical conclusion. For the sake of brevity, let me discuss just two:

The chapter entitled “Mozart and Counterpoint” contains this gem:

“Although before 1780 Haydn had sometimes treated the finales of his quartets and symphonies fugally, he did not do so in a single one written after that date.” (p. 154)

This, I assume is referring to a movement which is entirely fugal (like the finales of Haydn's Op. 20 #2, 5, and 6), and not one that is “treated fugally” by introducing a fugato in the development (otherwise, his statement would be astronomically more false than it really is). As it turns out, Haydn did write an entirely fugal finale in his Op. 50 # 4 quartet in f# minor. This was composed in 1887, seven years after Einstein’s cutoff.

Little errors like this are certainly irritating (the book is riddled with them). It’s more discouraging, however, that his overall concepts are often flawed. In the abovementioned chapter, for instance, he claims that Mozart’s discovery of Bach’s music resulted in a “revolution and crisis in his creative activity.” Anyone who has listened to a large portion of Mozart’s works, spanning his entire career, knows this statement is nonsense. Stanley Sadie, who knew better, made a rather emasculated reply in The New Grove Mozart:

“Some scholars (notably Einstein, 1945) have ascribed a deep significance to Mozart’s encounter with Bach and with fugue in particular; but although some absorption of contrapuntal techniques cannot be excluded, their influence on Mozart’s central musical development is easily overrated.” (p. 90)

While Mozart’s encounter with the music of Bach is perhaps responsible for his preoccupation with fugues from 1782-83 (of which the most outstanding product is the fugue for two pianos in c minor) it is difficult to understand Einstein’s conclusion that the event “resulted in a revolution and a crisis in his creative activity.” The fugal finales of the two 1773 string quartets, K. 168 in F and K. 173 in d minor are certainly more Bach-like than anything Mozart wrote after the encounter (except possibly the works for mechanical organ, K 594 and K 608, and the church music, which is understandably Bach-like in character). Moreover, Mozart’s incorporation of fugato into sonata and rondo movements (beginning with the K 387 quartet in 1783), is simply a continuation of a tradition represented by a vast repertoire of works composed between 1750 and 1782 (see Fugue and Fugato in Rococo and Classical Chamber Music, by Warren Kirkendale). The increase in the contrapuntal nature of his music was actually very gradual, and since he lived in a time when counterpoint and craftsmanship were still valued, this was a natural development, and had little to do with any specific encounters.

I realize that debunking a silly book from 1945 might seem like a foolish undertaking. However, many of today's popular misconceptions of Mozart stem from books like this one, which somehow has managed to escape the critique it deserves.