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.