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.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Opera Singing: Torture

When I was younger, I often scoffed at opera singers, who I thought were just a bunch of fat people screaming. I assumed that as I matured musically, I would one day abandon this idea, since most classical musicians seem to hold opera singing in high regard. Instead, my youthful instincts have become strong opinion: most opera singing is simply offensive to the discerning ear.

First on my list of grievances is the almost constant out-of-tuneness exhibited by opera singers. No other group of professional musicians could possibly get away with such frequent, flagrant disregard for correct pitch. Imagine, for instance, a violinist playing a lyrical line in an orchestra, but every few notes are more than a half-step sharp. Our ears wouldn’t tolerate such playing; yet, we’ve learned to accept it from opera singers.

Equally unpleasant, is the overuse of vibrato. Vibrato is either a fluctuation of pitch or of volume (usually both), but when the pitch varies too much, the resulting noise is confusing and vexing to the listener who is trying to perceive an actual musical tone. Tasteful vibrato would vary by much less than a half-step in each direction from the pitch center; yet, I’ve heard opera singers at the Met whose vibrato spans nearly a major third! How is one to know what note is being sung? I suppose the ear naturally averages the two extremes, and we imagine the exact midpoint, but when this midpoint isn’t even the correct note . . . (see the above paragraph).

Solo arias (or anything with just one opera singer), accompanied by instruments, are sometimes tolerable, because the listener naturally corrects the out-of-tune notes. However, as the number of opera voices increases, harmonic chaos quickly ensues. Examples of this that come to mind are the amazing fugal passages in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, or the contrapuntal portions of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand. When the chorus is singing, everything is relatively clear, but as soon as they are replaced by the four soloists, any attempt to perceive harmony or contrapuntal lines is futile.

Don't misunderstand my intentions in writing this post -- I love opera itself. Despite being perhaps the least sophisticated genre of what we call "classical" music, it does contain some of my favorite musical passages. It's the singing style, so lacking in musicality, that ruins opera for me. For instance, one of the most exquisite moments in music is the beginning of the quartet, Mir ist so Wunderbar, from Beethoven's Fidelio. Regrettably, the orchestral bliss lasts only for a moment before being shattered by the cacophonous wailing of the soprano (the same tragedy occurs in every recording/performance I've heard, so there's no need to specify which singer).

So, if opera singing is distasteful, what kind of singing isn’t? I think many of the greatest singers are found in unassuming early music ensembles. For example, try listening to the various Bach Cantata CDs directed by Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi label). The singers (choir and soloists) are wonderfully in tune, and sound almost ethereal. I also think that some pop-singers are more pleasant to listen to than opera singers, although the music they sing isn't quite as good.

In conclusion, if you’re in the majority of people who cringe at the sound of an opera diva, don't feel uncultured or immature for having such a sound opinion!

Friday, July 15, 2005

A new kind of music history:

It would be interesting to read a history of western music that focused only on the great masterpieces. Most of the survey-type books tend to discuss “representative” pieces of a certain composer, instead of that composer’s greatest works. This creates a skewed first impression for students unfamiliar with that composer’s output. In a survey class, where the goal should be to spark interest, it seems illogical to showcase only a composer’s mediocre pieces. For instance, why do so many music histories spend a page analyzing a Mozart piano sonata (even the greatest ones, like K. 310 or 533, are rather insignificant when compared to the rest of Mozart’s output), instead of discussing the Jupiter Symphony, the last ten quartets, the quintets, the piano concerti, etc.? These masterpieces are usually mentioned in passing, but are rarely analyzed in any detail. Perhaps the authors believe they’re helping students by focusing on simple, easily-understood pieces that are still “Mozartian.” In reality, they are perpetuating a false image of Mozart – that his music is completely void of any complexity.

This new music history would make a clear distinction between “influential” pieces, and “great” ones (clear, but subjective). For instance, the works of John Cage and some of his contemporaries were extremely influential, transforming the “art music” scene for the next fifty years into a radical, avant-garde wasteland of gimmicks. However, I don’t know many people who argue that any of Cage’s works are “masterpieces.” Certainly many of the most influential pieces have also been great masterpieces (the Eroica Symphony, or The Rite of Spring). However, consider a composer like Anton Bruckner – his output wasn’t very influential at all, yet it contains some of western music’s most valuable treasures. His fifth symphony is one of the most well-crafted, complex, and inspired compositions of all time, but most students will finish their music history class without ever having heard Bruckner (or of him). Instead, they’ll spend an entire day discussing the deep philosophical questions raised by 4’33’’.