31 December 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Our Man in Vermont writes:
This morning our three-year-old grandson Eli informed his grandmother ‘Beethoven is dead.’ ‘Where did you hear that?’ she asked. ‘I read it in a corn muffin book.’


Things I’ve learnt so far from reading Rickard’s Sibelius book:
  • His grandfather’s name was originally Sibbe, and he “latinized his name after the bourgeois Swedish fashion to Sibelius.”
  • In school, the subjects of mathematics, history and natural science held his attention better than others.
  • With his sister Linda (pf) and brother Christian (vc), the Sibelius chidren played as a piano trio en famille.
  • The only time that Sibelius is known to have played in public with his friend, Ferruccio Busoni, the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat was on the program.
  • Kullervo (premiered 28 April 1892) had been a great success (it was revived three times in1893), but reflective unease at its folkloristic aspects prompted Sibelius to suppress the score. He allowed the third movement to be performed in 1935, for the centenary celebration of the Kalevala’s publication; but the Kullervo Symphony would not be heard again in its entirety until a year after the composer’s death.

Electric Don Quixote: The Story Of Frank Zappa Electric Don Quixote: The Story Of Frank Zappa by Neil Slaven

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
On the whole, some interest in Zappa is probably a pre-req for enjoying this book. The good news is that it is better (and better informative) biography than either The Real Frank Zappa Book — the 'autobiography' which Peter Ochiogrosso assisted Zappa in compiling . . . which, while it has its certain (in Zappa's phrase) 'folkloric' significances, gives the reader to understand that Zappa was prepared to focus for hours getting the music right, but didn't have the patience to apply to 'proper autobiography' (which was probably the right balance of attention for Zappa) — or the Barry Miles bio, which thinly veils the author's hostility to the subject in places (count the times he uses the phrase Sicilian patriarchal control freak or its variants — no, really, count 'em).

30 December 2008

Words of Passion, After

It works so well as a whole. I am not sure of the terminology to describe the repeating theme such as at 14:52 — but it really ties the work together with great strength, and that combined with great individual sections such as the prolonged hushed part from around 20 mins onwards makes its length feel essential and fully justified. It gives a very strong coherent quality as well, there isn’t any feeling of pointless asides being made. — Sara, UK

. . . The Passion According to St John was a bit trickier for me [compared to the instrumental Irreplaceable Doodles and The Mousetrap]. There are a few areas of classical that I just have not been able to get into — and a cappella works are one of those areas. But I listened. [...] Again, you keep the work taut and don’t let it go on too long. You also pull off a couple interesting tricks. For one, you build a sense of urgency into much of the music, especially the latter parts. For the other, you make some of the music sound, for lack of a better word, comforting. I’m not religious personally, but there’s always something special about well done sacred works, and this was a fine work to listen to, even considering my general antipathy to a cappella works.” — Todd Arola, US

At last I have had a chance for a run at your substantial St John Passion. I listened to it on a train journey, both going then returning from Leeds. Thanks....it really took me back. When I was a child, although not brought up in a remotely Christian atmosphere, nevertheless, my Radio fan parents would, through inertia, leave on the Daily Service or even the Sunday Service broadcasts.

Although these were substantially ignored, there would on occasion be metrical psalms from Scottish sources and quite a bit of your setting reminded me of those. It is certainly an ambitious piece and a lot for the choir to learn, though most of it is straightforward for them. I enjoyed it with its sudden lush passages and the clear telling of the story. — Mike Brook, chorister, Gloucestershire, UK

I’m listening to the Passion right now. Spellbound. I adore it, especially the fluidity of the harmonic language, the use of different harmonic types as part of the way you define your various musical materials — the fourths, the telescoped Stravinskian harmonies, the almost Bachian moments — and yet (this is my point) it all gels so beautifully. The restraint and purity still remind me of Pärt’s Passio, but of course this is very much your own. A fantastic achievement.

And, oh, Karl — the startlingly new music starting on page 28 is simply exquisite, as I thought it would be from the first time I saw it. Kudos in great heaps — such a beautifully realised idea. And though this may not be the perfect performance, I actually think that the vocal quality of your various voice types in this section works splendidly well.

The closing choruses, too, btw. The delineation of the three main sections — before, during, and after crucifixion — is masterfully done. — Luke Ottevanger, composer, UK

Luke further commented:

I’ve just had the immense pleasure of listening to Karl’s Passion and I’m simply staggered by it. I’ve just overloaded Karl’s PM box with a series of missives as I ponder on just some of the many and various striking qualities of the piece, but essentially I think it is a consummately realised, perfectly paced, and above all hauntingly beautiful piece which Karl must be immensely proud of. The large-scale structure is underpinned with the most wonderful sense of harmony and harmonic type, and an ability to slip between these types completely naturally. The spellbinding chorus during the crucifixion is almost unbearable, with its aching augmented intervals, its melismas, its softly droning lower voices — I expected it would be when I first saw the score a few months ago. The restrained and sonorous beauty of the closing pages, though, really only comes home listening to a recording, and again it’s bursting with subtle touches — like the soprano/alto doubling on the last page — which passed me by when I read the score but which seem inspired now I hear the music in the flesh. Which puts me to shame somewhat, I feel.

Thanks for sharing this piece, Karl — it’s one of the very very few ‘pieces-by-a-bloke-I-know-off-the-internet’ that I’ve acquired which is worthy of a much, much greater hearing. Most of the others are by Henning too, FWIW.....

The Passion is a beautiful piece. Wringing harmonies. The last section is hypnotic in a Pärt-like way (Fratres sprang to mind). I think you have created a very effective and affecting piece of music. — JZ Herrenberg, writer, The Netherlands

I found that listening with the text enhanced my response to the music. The verse by verse chanted narrative, seemingly simple and predictable during the first few minutes becomes poignant as the story progresses and prepares the ground for a crucifixion/entombment that is almost wrenching. The tessitura widens markedly, modulations and vocal effects (droning voices) are introduced for the first time to quite dramatic effect. All the while keeping an almost distanced stance. Very moving. I certainly wish it will be taken up by professional ensembles.

What I crave most about your Passion, Karl, is its closeness with John’s unique writing style. He, alone among the Evangelists, wrote in a repetitive-accretive idiom. And that’s where that First Part really hits it: the increasingly hypnotic manner in which John brings us into the Passion narrative. And then that break of emotional/writing style for a more emotional, broken, “quavering” response to the Crucifixion and Entombment. And how the initial “archaic” musical style comes back in places in that last third of the work. Mixing the old with the new is particularly relevant here.

I’ve always preferred Bach’s St-John Passion to his St-Matthew one — even though the latter has a more ‘spiritual’ bent. No wonder he was called St-John The Divine. Karl has grasped this essential — unique — character about John’s writing. I’m not comparing Henning to Bach, but the artist’s response to his subject. And it’s fully worthy of It. — André Purenne, Canada

This is an outstanding piece of work, in itself a musical manifestation of Corpus Christi, being full and melodic in the Western Christian tradition and quoting directly from the gospel of St. John. It can be heard in two parts. The denial of Peter and Jesus’s trial are contained in the first part of this sacred anthem which lasts for 20 minutes, and gives the listener a deep religious understanding of events through beautifully structured vocal harmonics. The second part opens with deep and resonant male voices overlaid by a clear, lower register female voice announcing: “There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.” The harmonics throughout this part are considerably different from what went before, and we come to appreciate the gravity and horror of what is happening unto the end of St. John’s gospel.

To paraphrase a decree on Litany by The Council of Vaison in 529; Let that beautiful custom of all the provinces of the East and of Italy be kept up, viz., that of singing with great effect and compunction the 'Kyrie Eleison' Henning’s St. John’s Passion at Mass, Matins, and Vespers, because so sweet and pleasing a chant, even though continued day and night without interruption, could never produce disgust or weariness.

Christian music performers and publishers out there should do more than take note with this one. It should be pressed to CD immediately and both released and performed in time for Lent so practicing Christians can listen and come to understand with every fibre of their being the holiness and reverence Paschal Time demands. — John, UK

Just finished listening to the Passion piece on good speakers @ home w/ my wife — I really loved that composition and the use & blending of the voice, but was disappointed w/ the chorus and the recording quality — not sure about your impressions? I would love to hear this work done by a more ‘professional’ chorus (esp. better diction & my wife, Susan, agrees) and much better recording w/o all of the distractions.

Not sure that you can arrange such a recording, but I would certainly be ‘first in line’ to make a purchase, which you deserve!

Keep up the great work — wonderful to have you as a member of the forum. — Dave, North Carolina

Just a note to let you know that I’ve just listened to your passion and I loved it very much. The main repeating theme of the chorus when John speaks is strikingly simple and beautiful. The part I liked most is when Peter is asked again, by the slaves, if he is a disciple and once more he denies it. Very effective.

So congratulations, and I hope that it is recorded in a studio to be released on CD soon! — Alain Matalon

Beautiful, quite, quite beautiful!! And so moving!

My grandfather was a church organist in a Presbyterian church near Glasgow during World War One and in an Episcopal church during World War Two and my father and brother sang in church choirs.

I love plainchant; it seems to me one of the purest forms of music, the unaccompanied human voice! I would have loved to hear the work in the acoustic of the cathedral in Boston. Music like this so benefits from the marvellous real church acoustic.

Thank you for the opportunity to hear this glorious music! — Colin, UK

Add another emphatic and enthusiastic vote for Karl’s St. John’s Passion.

I have still not been able to perform the score mentally in one sitting, and have not really looked at the middle or end unfortunately, (that will happen tonight for sure!) but the first part contains some marvelous moments: (those of you with the score can chime in here, if you wish) e.g. the E major chord for Peter’s denial (bar 139) I find highly ironic with Jesus’ E major chord on the word “voice” in the line “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (bar 226)

Pilate’s music for “truth” consists, however, of the chord E/A/Bb. (bar 231)

Also, I can imagine the open fifth of bar 253 on the word “man” (“Here is the man!”) echoing medievally throughout the church: no dynamics are given in my copy, but I would think this would be forte with a long pause afterward.

See?! I am already interpreting the work as if I am the conductor. — Lee Schulte, writer & composer, Ohio

29 December 2008

Cracking Open at Last

. . . Guy Rickard's book, in Phaidon's 20th-century composers series, on Sibelius. These are whirlwind biographies, generally furnishing bits of interest . . . but will Rickards have something toothsome to say about all (or even most) of the Sibelius works to which I am wont to groove, in the space of not quite 200 pages? Is it fair to wield that as a demand?

Parenthesis to Passion

O you must wear your rue with
a difference.
— Ophelia, Hamlet : IV.v

For an unknown composer, opportunities for performances are few, and audiences small. In order for a composer to succeed, he must make a name (— indeed, that sounds a tautology: since any composer whose name is known to the public has succeeded —); and the catch-22 is, that to the composer with no name, none of the apparatus for creating a name is available. No major orchestra pays attention to him; for in the first place, their programming priorities are heavily weighted to the long-established literature; and in the second, if the orchestra programs a new work, the board of the orchestra is apt for business reasons to favor already-known living composers who are the current ‘hot properties’. The u. c. is no property at all, not even a frosty one. Even the ‘guerrilla musical’ tactic which in principle is open to the living composer, the surprisingly large number of chamber ensembles in the large cities which dedicate themselves to new music, is a dicey proposition. There is such a variety of new musics in the air at present, that (a) it would be a surprising thing for the music director(s) of such an ensemble to embrace everything (one prefers to excel at a few things, rather than to come across as a mediocrity at everything); (b) there is a tendency to become somewhat proprietary about the stuff one has come to favor, which is at best simply a gyroscopic property of the perfectly artistic aim to be good at what you do; and (c) the new music groups are themselves caught in the Need for Name Game, and they, too, are musicians probably cobbling together a bucket of revenue-streams.

[ On point (b) above, I have on more than one occasion been told (with regret) that my music isn’t like some other — and reasonably famous — living composer; and this is given as the core of the reason why, alas! space cannot be found for my music. To be sure, one does not want a conductor to present one’s work, unless the conductor does indeed ‘believe in’ it, because that goes a great way towards engaging the ensemble in the music. And yet, of course, this rationale rests on an uneasily inartistic foundation: we don’t want ten new composers who are cookie-cutter imitations of other composers we already know of. The great composers of our day will have their own voice, won’t they? ]

A composer’s name does not become a household word (even in those statistically few households in which composers’ names are actually spoken) in the US without large-scale premieres which are media events: a John Adams opera at the Met, an Elliott Carter orchestral piece at Carnegie Hall, a Tan Dun or Osvaldo Golijov commission played by the New York Philharmonic. It is no wonder that a musical friend wrote to me that he is near to losing patience with my stream of chamber and sacred choral pieces, that he is keen to hear a Henning symphony! But the fact is, I have largely written pieces for which there was some realistic prospect of performance (not that this has stopped me from composing hours of music yet awaiting play, of course). My friend is right, though: a half dozen unaccompanied clarinet pieces (for myself to play), a handful of impractically eccentric groupings (clarinet and viola, for crumb’s sake) — none of this is music which is going to grab anyone’s attention. It is the catalogue of a composer who will eventually die in obscurity.

It is a difficult and challenging environment; some years have passed and I have made no apparent headway, yet I will not yet call it an impossible environment. For a talented artist who has not managed to elbow his way to the table, it were hard to overstate the frustrations. But any natural reaction to the frustration, is not going to change the environment; it is a nursery for the virtue of Patience. Even more important than the patience, is the need to go on doing the best work of which one is capable.

And so I post here, not to curse the darkness, but to light a candle.

A 40-minute unaccompanied choral setting of the Passion narrative is no small undertaking. It is a great privilege (even if the performance falls some distance shy of ‘reasonable perfection’) to have a choir made available to carry out the experiment which is the premiere of such a piece (though, in brief, the composer has had such extended practical experience in composing unaccompanied choral music, that the risks of the experiment were minimal). On paper, the venue of the premiere is grand: Boston’s Episcopal Cathedral! Located, however, in a downtown Boston which is less residential than in the past, and dwarfed by the commercial buildings and concerns in the area, St Paul’s is a dwindling congregation; by headcount, the audience for the premiere was modest, though response to the piece was of the warmest.

And there the matter would have stood: a fair performance, to a handful of attentive people; and none the best recording to document even the fair performance. Hardly a soul in Boston, who was not immediately involved, knew anything of it; let alone beyond Boston.

That might have been the end of it, save for the Internet, which made it possible for the piece to find an audience much broader than that in physical attendance at the premiere. Their words will follow.

28 December 2008

Something You Don't Hear Every Day

I lent my copy of Thrak to the CIO . . . .

The Passion: Snapshot of the Premiere

On the whole, yesterday’s premiere of the Passion went well. Of course, I could readily draw up a list of 50 items which want improvement, or modification, or which just plain wanted happening, and I wish there had been the opportunity to address these (in many cases, preventively) in rehearsal — and the opportunity simply was not made available to me. But nothing that went amiss was ‘fatal’. And considering that it was the first public performance of a 40-minute piece for unaccompanied choir; that it did not even get started until the choir had already been singing off-&-on for 3 hours (the call was 11, and the Good Friday service started at 12); and that it was scheduled in Holy Week when there’s a lot else on the choir’s plate . . . truly, the composer is well content to say, “on the whole, good.”

[ 22 March 2008 ]

27 December 2008

A Chapter Opening Onto . . . ?

Thoughts on “Of Gnawing Time” in particular,
and Lee Schulte, writer, in general

The author Lee Schulte permitted me to read the opening chapter of his novel-in-progress; and it is a task to which I was looking forward, for I had been a reader of an earlier novel of his while it was in progress. I read it, in its entirety, on a northerly bus ride on Christmas Day; mulled upon it a couple of days; and re-read it (straight through, again) last night. That’s right: I read it, 83 pages in MS., late in the day (and after an evening of making some little merry), and it held on tight.

I like the balance of idea and narrative. There are places where the author illustrates/discusses issues; for another author with less skill, and more determination to dwell on the res, such passages would get so hidebound in the Issues, that the narrative had lost all steam. In “Of Gnawing Time” I think the balance is very well gauged: the ‘moral choice’ discussion (p.16ff), the sharp-but-still-friendly ‘ex nihilo’ argument (p.24ff), the ‘draft-avoidance seminarism’ plus general ‘America-the-self-loathing’ presented as a ‘rude awakening’ severally for Tom Schranker (p.32ff), James Sztajn (p.40ff) and for Anita (& Teresa?, p.40ff) with the ‘Gregorian chant / Latin / Vatican II’ bit nested within (p.36ff). There is a fair ‘load’, but it seems to me that the narrative has sufficient fuel and power to keep from stalling.

When P.G. Wodehouse was at work, he would have pages pinned up all over the walls while he fine-tuned; I seem to remember him quoted as saying that he had to make sure there was something amusing on every page. Schulte’s style is his own; yet, similarly (perhaps), he lets scarce a page go by, not necessarily without a joke per se, but without some wrily engaging turn of phrase. And yet, like Wodehouse, the effect is always natural, never forced.

On p.1, I saw “the toad not taken” coming, but it was still an amphibian delight. To whom else would I turn to learn of the unbridled mirth and frivolity of pharmacists? For subtle but well-turned gems such as “a tiny beige disgrace to the state’s name”?

A very nice echo, on p.34, of G.K. Chesterton’s “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” And the brutal, “Of course it was stupid! I said it happened in Tennessee,” on p.43.

And a subtly musical touch in the ‘repeating note’, the periodic reminder of “the eternal day of the Second of July.”

I’m only scratching the surface, here, but it is an opening chapter which incites eagerness to continue further.

Words of Passion, Before

2008 started out on the best compositional footing I could have wished, as I spent a week in a warmer clime essentially sequestered to complete composition of an unaccompanied setting of The Passion According to St John.

For several years, the Good Friday tradition at St Paul’s (the Episcopal Cathedral in Boston) included the choir’s singing of an edition (prepared by prior music director, Mark Engelhardt) of a plainchant setting of the St John Passion. It’s nice enough, and was an appropriately solemn musical reflection for that annual occasion. Apart from the crowd bits (parallel organum with full choir), we always sang it with individual voices for the personages, and of course far the greatest burden rested on the Narrator, an alto formerly with the Cathedral choir who was unusually comfortable in the top of her range. In truth, the whole “lie” of the setting was high-ish (the role of Pilate especially could, without due care, come off as rather a squealy tenor) . . . but, as I say, musically satisfactory.

The performance of this Passion setting the first year of the new music director’s tenure was unsettling in its degree of musical and liturgical dissatisfaction — though nothing went wrong with it which could not have been avoided by (a) proper rehearsal and (b) assigning the roles to voices suited both to the tessitura, and to the style. The musical result of this provoked an irrational and irreversible dislike to this lovely traditional Passion setting.

Anyway, as quondam Interim Choir Director, I did not see any good outcome to a hypothetical attempt to restore that traditional plainchant Passion to the graces of those who seemed now fixed against it. So, as then Composer-in-Residence, I essentially seized the opportunity, and put forward the suggestion that I compose a new setting, tailored to our choir.

Originally, I had the idea of spare use of some instruments, though mostly for interludes, hardly at all for accompaniment, strictly speaking. And in fact, I began by composing an instrumental introduction. Even so, my early thoughts were to basically compose the choral setting, and fit in interludes after; before long, though, I decided on a purely unaccompanied piece.

Another early decision (especially considering how ill-suited the solo voices which had been employed in the ‘old Passion’ proved for this musical environment) was that there would be no solo voices; the whole choir would (for the most part) sing through the whole thing.

At the start, I knew that for the Crucifixion I wanted to write something in the harmonically rich, rhythmically supple vein of my anthem Nuhro; that much of the text before would be delivered in a plainchant Psalm-tone (something not all that technically removed from the ‘old Passion’ we had used); and that I wanted polyphonic-ish passages to break things up from time to time (‘wrong-note Monteverdi’, if you like).

With that much pre-compositional notion settled, I started by writing an original plainchant Psalm-tone one morning while riding the bus into Boston. And for probably almost a month, I would chip away at the task of setting the text on the morning commute (including the imitative material for the sections, “I told you that I am he …” and “Now Simon Peter was standing …”). When I had gotten a good start on the piece (perhaps a quarter of the text taken care of), I set the piece down to see to other pieces (the Nativity mini-cantata Castelo dos anjos for Tapestry, and the completion of the clarinet/viola duet, The Mousetrap). This was perhaps late May of 2007.

Time and events interposed, and it wound up being some while before I could take up composition again. My weekly schedule got rather too hectic for me to find musical purchase in order to resume the task; and a friend (and the unfailing patience and support of my family) made it possible for me to spend a week down in Florida, when I should be at complete liberty to compose, and do nothing else (nothing else obligatory, at any rate).

Honestly, then, I don’t really have a clear, conscious bead on how I got from that one-quarter ‘torso’ of the piece, and the final result. I flew to Florida, had dinner with my friends, went to bed, woke up the next morning, and got back to musical work. There was a lot of work yet to do, and I was not conscious of any ‘this is what I’ll do at this point in the text . . . and this is what I’ll do at this other point . . . .’ Enough time had passed that I simply had to get the piece finished; I had ‘lived with’ the text and project long enough that I just felt that I could write it, if I had time to dedicate to the work. And I wrote; I just kept writing until I got to the end of the text. One of my own favorite passages, the Descent from the Cross, I started writing one morning; but the musical idea for that bit of the text only came to me the evening before.

One amusing post-script to that is: once I got to the end of the text as my friend at the Cathedral had sent it to me, I realized that the end was missing a few verses. I had written the double-bar (p. 45 of the score), and I was elated at having finished at last! And I went for a swim. But through that blur of delight in the accomplishment, there gradually came the (obvious, it ought to have been, really, as I’ve sung it God knows how many times) realization that we’re supposed to sing a bit more. I didn’t do anything about it right away, since my stay in Florida was about drawn to an end, anyway. It was a Sunday night when I returned to Boston; Monday morning I got up, went in to the office, searched the on-line Lectionary, and found my “missing” text. On the train-ride home that night, I composed the melody to set the text, and over that evening and the next, composed the accompaniment ‘underneath’ the text.

The not-quite-finished MS.

One thing I should add, especially since I’ve stated that I composed this setting not for solo voice(s): in this first performance, we do hear solo voices for most of the rhythmically demanding soprano and alto lines. It is not, repeat, not what I wanted; but the ladies of the choir had not been properly rehearsed in this music, and inevitably we reached a point when time was running short. So the “solution” proposed to me (with no realistic alternative) was to let soloists sing.

Ah, well.

26 December 2008

Missing Page

Missing, not from the score, but from the blog post where I'd meant to pin it.

Reflections on Matisse

One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
— Geddy Lee, Rush (“Spirit of Radio”)

Bicker, bicker, bicker . . . brouhaha . . . balderdash . . . ballyhoo: it’s only talk. (Back-talk.)
— Adrian Belew, King Crimson (“Elephant Talk”)

That he did not expect to meet such a blithely lethal female at a kiddie pool in the middle of a park in Dayton goes without saying.
— Lee Schulte (“Of Gnawing Time”)

These reflections bear not directly on Matisse’s work, but on this quote, which I harvested a couple of years ago from a too-brief visit to Hilary Spurling’s excellent two-volume life of Matisse:

What I want is an art of balance, of purity, an art that won't disturb or trouble people. I want anyone tired, worn down, driven to the limits of endurance, to find calm and repose in my painting.

I posted this (without comment of my own), and J.Z. Herrenberg asked if it were part of my own artistic creed — which is a great compliment, of course, from one who has heard some few pieces of mine.

These are artistic purposes to which I can readily assent (and I hope this may be evident from some of my sacred choral music, for instance). One of the illuminative aspects of these remarks, for me, is that it is Matisse saying them. A great many of his canvases and cut-outs (to say nothing of the design of the Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence) testify to Matisse’s success in pursuit of these stated aims; but he was also a lion-tamer of a colorist, and when I consider (for instance) the ‘un-portraitly’ colors of Woman with a Hat (1905) or Self-Portrait in a Striped T-Shirt (1906), and especially the sheer power of the color in The Dance, these are the work of an artist who had something in view other than calm and repose.

In other words, this statement means something deeper, coming as it does from Matisse, than if it had been the remark of, say, Waterhouse.

Then, too, ideally one’s audience is not always tired, worn down, or driven to the limits of endurance. There is certainly art and music which I like a great deal, but which requires of me a certain level of energy for me to engage with it. Which is not the same thing as suggesting that the art of Matisse’s balance and purity is somehow “easy,” for either viewer or artist. Mastery of simplicity is not a thing immediately to be won.

Where my prelude comes into play here is in my recognizing the flexible truth to be found in Matisse’s aims, and in recognizing, too, that this inspiring goal has meant somewhat different things to my own application of the art of composition, at different times.

Nor am I done with it yet; that were presumption, indeed.

You climb down a trapper’s chimney, you learn to count the reindeer. — Santa

25 December 2008

Really Did Hear It That Way

. . . in a convenience store in White River Junction, Vermont this afternoon:

Police Navidad!


Hodie Christus natus est:
hodie Salvator apparuit:
hodie in terra canunt Angeli,
lætantur Archangeli:
hodie exsultant justi, dicentes:
Gloria in excelsis Deo:

Today is Christ born:
today the Savior has appeared:
today the Angels sing,
the Archangels rejoice:
today the righteous rejoice, saying:
Glory to God in the highest:

The St Paul’s Cathedral Choir did such a fine job in the 16 November 2003 Evensong, I wished to make a present to them of an immediate setting of this Christmas anthem for 5-part choir (basses divisi) and clarinet in A. We gave it a go on Christmas Eve, although a certain portion of the choir necessarily leave town to spend the holidays with family. Director Mark Engelhardt had sufficient faith in the piece, that we revived it for a performance with full membership, on the (what used to be an annual choir tradition at St Paul's) Mother's Day concert.

[ recording ]

24 December 2008

Night Afore

Wash the knife and fork, Isthmus,
Edna ordered ruby hose;
Not a Greek cherub's whirring —
Naughty venomous.

23 December 2008

Prelude to Reflections on Matisse

You cannot step twice into the same river.

Classical, rich in its simplicity, this is one of the great metaphors. Part of the value I find in reflecting on it is, that even in the abstract, my response is in part assent (the water I stepped into yesterday has long since flowed on into the sea) and in part dissent (the water today is different, is fresh, but it's the same old river that has flowed here for centuries).

Any music-lover of many years must experience, to some degree, at one time or other, a specific variety of disappointment. (I'll be a little circuitous getting there.)

Some music, the first time we hear it, we dislike immediately (or, perhaps, believe immediately that we dislike). Some music, on an initial hearing, leaves us tepid yet later, on 'absorption' of the piece, we grow into a keen enthusiasm for it. (And let me note that one can grow into a k. e., too, for music one initially disliked.)

All of us, probably, have some pieces (a large handful, even and the larger, the better) which set our souls afire the very first time we heard it. The specific disappointment mentioned earlier, is related to this class of music.

That inaugural, soul-igniting listen to a piece of music, is an experience which indeed makes us glow. It seems natural for us to want to relive that experience again (and again), yet re-creating that experience is sometimes not so simple as listening to the same piece again. It's a river we cannot step into again. Or, not as a result simply of our will and desire, anyway.

A practicing musician necessarily (meseems) lives through such an experience with many pieces over decades. (I hope so, in all events: I should want all my colleagues to be driven, in part, by the spontaneous, all-consuming admiration for examples of the art.) Probably one's reflection upon and response to this phenomenon vary according to character and temperament.

Now, I began this train of thought by speaking of disappointment. When one has experienced a sort of sonic brilliance on first acquaintance with a piece, if that brilliance seem to fade on subsequent encounters with the piece . . . a type of disappointment seems natural. But it needn't be, nor should be, the end.

One's experience of a given piece of music is not anything etched in stone; it's a river, and the surface of the river looks unchanging but it's always fresh water.

For myself, there are pieces which I heard (and pieces which I was in an ensemble playing) as a teenager, and I fancy I can still now perceive the echo of the fresh excitement I felt then; but at present, I don't think it fair to say that the music has 'staled', but my response to the piece has certainly become sober.

I actually find, over time, that I have an ever-expanding 'library' of pieces which preserve their Excitement Quotient with eye-opening reliability. There must, I suppose, be some subtle adjustment of internal expectation (of the general experience, not of the particular piece, I mean), and the excitement is no whit less genuine.

Perhaps I have learnt a kind of 'renewable musical excitement' framework? It is hardly a matter whose depths I expect to plumb.

22 December 2008

From the Archives :: 8.xii.06

Interesting couple of weeks at St Paul’s. Four pieces of mine are slated for the Evensong we are singing at 5pm Sunday, 17 December; and three of them we read for the first time only this past Wednesday, the 6th. There is, of course, a lot of finishing ahead; but at the least I am relieved that there were fewer train-wrecks in the initial read-through of the Magnificat than I might have expected. The Nunc dimittis and O Gracious Light went pretty smoothly, as they ought. And it was the third time we’ve had a swing at Nuhro, which is still a bit of a distance from ready, but achievable. I simply do not know quite when we’ll rehearse everything, not only for the 17th, but the ton of music which we’ve got on our plate for two services on the 24th (a Lessons & Carols in the morning, and the Christmas Eve service at 8pm). In the past, we’ve always had supplementary Saturday afternoon rehearsals before the special Sunday afternoon events, but no such rehearsals are on the schedule (and while in musical principle I would welcome them as late additions, practically, I cannot be there anyway, as my Saturday afternoons in December are all hired out). Recent track records show that we don’t cover nearly so much ground in the Wednesday evening rehearsals as we need to, and if anything, this need is yet more intense this month.

We shall see.

[ 8 Dec 2006 ]

In hindsight, I had more foundation for apprehension than I was quite permitting myself to yield to at the time. This was the third (and probably final) Evensong at St Paul's in Boston to contain music of mine. Both the first (16 November 2003, under Mark Engelhardt's direction) and second (19 March 2006, myself directing) featured music newly composed for the occasions; and (one might almost say) in spite of the pressures of preparing "untried" music like that, both yielded creditable performances, which the composer has been able to permit the larger public (small though his larger public be) to hear. No such matter, from the Evensong from 17 December 2006. Indeed, how could it be otherwise, when the choir (most of them new to the Cathedral as of two and a half months prior) did not read through the music together until the 6th (eleven days before the performance).

If I had been in charge of the choir . . . but no, no: that way madness lies.

Ce qu'a voulu Henri Matisse

"What I want is an art of balance, of purity, an art that won't disturb or trouble people. I want anyone tired, worn down, driven to the limits of endurance, to find calm and repose in my painting."

21 December 2008

Not Quite a Christmas Card

the glove that
someone left
on the 'e' train
was indeed a

. . . to face unafraid
the clothes we mislaid
walking in a winter wonderland

Harpo spielt die Posaune auf eher unkonventionelle Weise.
(German caption to a still from A Night at the Opera.)

19 December 2008

First Things

Tonality's origin is found — and rightly so — in the laws of sound. But there are other laws that music obeys, apart from these and the laws that result from the combination of time and sound: namely, those governing the working of our minds.
Arnold Schoenberg, from Opinion or Insight? (1926)

18 December 2008

A Different Lullaby, the Same Bus

To my delight, I have been made welcome to furnish a piece for an ensemble of cello students. On a time, mention was made of the Bachianas brasileiras № 5 . . . and so, thinking eight parts, I was considering an arrangement of an old piano piece of mine, Lutosławski's Lullaby. Because of the textural possibilities of eight parts, I was thinking of ways to 'break out' the harmonic outline of the piano ostinato.

We reconsidered that my piece ought to be cast in four parts (with the possibility of divisi in the first part), and I began to think of an entirely new piece; still in the mulling stages, I am taking a distant cue from a garage band, and thinking of three chords. Think of it in the right ways, and you can actually make a restricted range of materials interesting and artful; the challenge for the composer is, to find the right way (or a right way), and the rest is pure, exhilirating discovery.

Without abandoning the idea of that new piece, though, this morning on the bus (as often happens with me), I realized that it is still very workable, to arrange Lutoslawski's Lullaby for four parts, instead; and (knowing my Muse as I do) I shall likely see to that arrangement first, before going on to complete the new piece. There is a registral change which coincides with the recapitulation in the piano original, which will be impractical for cello ensemble; but I have readily found an alternative 'signal' for that point, I believe.

To work, to work . . . .

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

. . . my true love sang to me:

Igor Stravinsky
Alberto Ginastera
Benjamin Britten
Astor Piazzolla
Carl August Nielsen
Witold Lutosławski
Anton von Webern

Claude Debussy!

Jean Sibelius
Arvo Pärt
Henri Dutilleux

& a motet by Josquin du Prez!

17 December 2008

My Own Private Beethoven

And Shakespeare, he’s in the alley,
With his pointed shoes and his bells . . . .
Bob Dylan (“Stuck Inside of Mobile With These Memphis Blues Again”)
[ italics added to indicate contour peaks ]

Without in the least minimizing his importance in music history, I see a huge irony in Beethoven’s impact. He was revered as a rule-shatterer, a liberator, a mold-breaker. (And it is worth noting at the outset that this reverence pertains to him not for the mere fact of his breaking rules, but by reason of the surpassing excellence of his art.) Scarcely a composer lived after him in the 19th century, but found wonder, power and inspiration in the example of Beethoven’s music.

Indeed, Beethoven’s excellence and example are such that, as a student myself a century and a half after Beethoven’s day, I once learnt a great deal about music by poring over his scores, and absorbing his musical echo — little though my own music resembles that of Beethoven.

If musicians themselves, as a ‘peer review board’, grant Beethoven such effulgence of praise, then the fact that so much of the general music-listening public adores Beethoven, is profoundly harmonious. Beethoven’s music deserves its popularity. (I say much the same of Tchaikovsky’s music, for instance, but that, Gentle Reader, is the tale of another day.) Wherein the irony exists is: Beethoven’s oeuvre is a monument in the literature, and one of his attributes is the Sign of the Mold-Smasher — yet in part the audience since Beethoven (both general public and musicians) set him forth, perhaps unconsciously, as a new mold against which to assess other composers since.

All of us would laugh, probably, at the notion of criticizing, let alone finding fault with, a Beethoven symphony for its ‘failure’ to fit the stylistic norms of a Haydn symphony. Yet it is quite common for even cultured listeners to feel musical dissatisfaction with symphonies later than Beethoven which fail to conform to the norms encompassed by his work.

One peculiar icon of this ‘enshrinement’ of Beethoven is specifically related to the Ninth Symphony, in whose finale the composer famously brought in chorus and a quartet of soli voices to declaim a setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”: to compose a new setting of the Schiller poem made thus famous by Beethoven, was a graduation exercise completed by Tchaikovsky at the St Petersburg Conservatory. What with Beethoven was fresh invention, became institutionalized, and perhaps even in some danger of becoming rote.

Leave us point out, as well, that his present pre-eminence notwithstanding, Beethoven’s popularity was not immediately universal. The composers who followed (Berlioz, Schumann, Liszt) labored tirelessly to communicate their enthusiasm and respect for Beethoven to an at times uncomprehending public. Berlioz found conductors who routinely ‘corrected’ Beethoven’s harmony, and had to fight for the integrity of Beethoven’s scoring.

Before the century turned, though, the pendulum had swung to near-deification of Ludwig van. “There can never be a second Beethoven or a second Shakespeare,” wrote George Grove (he of the landmark Dictionary) to conclude a book on Beethoven’s symphonies, first published in 1896. In good conscience, I find this a bit rich. For all the encomia that Beethoven rightly deserves, I think it folly to assign quite so much of the musical oxygen in the room to him. Did Beethoven smash idols, only to the end that a couple of generations after would cast a golden object of worship in his image?

A weekly radio show geared towards children recently committed its inevitable simplifications about Beethoven, making it sound as if, once he went wildly Romantic, his music obeyed no steenkin’ rules. Anyone who studies late Beethoven scores can attest to their powerful coherence. That wouldn’t make an exciting kids’ show; I can see that.

His oeuvre is testimony that the composer is possessed of a robust framework for questioning the musical conventions of a season, and capable of customizing his own sonic architecture. To set Beethoven up as a ‘new gold standard’ is (not to put too fine a point on it) to betray the musical legacy of Beethoven himself, and to place the art of music in confinement.

When I hear Beethoven’s music, I see the flame of Liberty alight.

16 December 2008

Not Knowing (Musicological Edition)

Beethoven’s baptism is documented at 17 December 1770. Of the actual date when he was born, however, we have no hard documentation. The article on Beethoven in the Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, with a caution particularly becoming to scholars, gives the birthdate as “15 or 16 Dec.”

When a historical figure is not only of pre-eminent fame, but has contributed greatly to the world’s culture, and whose work inspires widespread affection and even passion, there will necessarily exist some degree of general dissatisfaction when simple (even homey) questions (such as When was Beethoven born?) do not yield definite answers.

We take it for granted that apocryphal documents exist which sought to fill in the biographical gaps for Jesus (pseudepigraphal accounts of his childhood, which tell of his miraculously lengthening a plank which his carpenter father had hastily sawn, for instance). There’s an understandable, almost folksy need to fill out the picture. What are we given the gift of curiosity for, anyway?

In this case, a bit peculiarly (really), we even have a pop culture reference to inspire proprietariness of the question, because there is a character in a comic strip famous for his obsession with Beethoven, and who, as the end of each year approaches, counts down the days, not until Christmas, but until Beethoven’s birthday.

How can Schroeder do that, if we don’t even know the date of birth!? Good grief!

Well, there it is. One understands the desire to raise a glass to Beethoven's birth; yet there remains value in distinguishing between fact, and speculation. Like Mozart’s final resting place, Beethoven’s precise date of birth is something we’ll probably never know. (And to this composer, it seems a strange object of faith-based initiatives.)

I’m not crying in my beer, though, as there is so very much else in the musical world, which we can know, which is worth the knowing, too.

Separately, whenever it’s a drizzly November in my soul, and I feel indifferent to the music of Arnold Schoenberg, I can count on listening to Anja Silja’s recording of Erwartung to rekindle intense admiration for That Most Difficult of Composers. And what fine music with which to greet the Eve of Beethoven’s Baptismal Anniversary!

15 December 2008

Odds & Ends (In Their Entirety)

Two of our discs that I'm not succeeding in finding anywhere in the apartment for Masha are the Beethoven Seventh Symphony (Gewandhausorchester & Masur) and one of the many (I mean, we only own one of the many) Mannheim Steamroller Christmas CDs. Which, by the bye, I am still not certain has quite the same arrangement of theirs of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" which so cheered us over the car radio a Christmas season or two ago.

A colleague and friend who from time to time rails against Rakhmaninov, has lately been especially insistent in railing against the Second Symphony in E Minor, Opus 27. And, truth to tell, I am grateful: this proved the occasion at last for me to listen to the entire symphony, score-in-hand. As a result, I think more highly of the piece yet.

On the car radio today, while beetling around the county wondering if we couldn't find an even better tree (without getting into Ridiculous Money to Spend on the Yule Tree) there was a very funny and clever arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" which roped in a number of other carols, and at the last ran away into an adaptation of a Toto hit (whose words are normally about feeling rains in Africa). Maybe this one will wear poorly after twenty iterations, or maybe it will have legs; first time was certainly richly amusing.

New passport arrived today, and it adds the schmancy after fancy.

The local classical station some time slipped deeper yet into the Dark Side by starting to play only one movement of a symphony (or concerto). Now, when they actually play a full concerto (or symphony) they sound eerily pleased with themselves by adding the over-excited phrase in its entirety! A couple of weeks ago, on the road to one of the Framingham State College Chorus concerts, they played Mozart's Flute Concerto № 2 in its entirety! "Yeah," jadedly retorted fellow singer Nathan, "all fifteen minutes of it."

A bit more amusing still, yesterday, was: And now, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, in its entirety! Maybe they know something Schubert didn't.

14 December 2008


After Rothko / Feldman

13 December 2008

Corrective Without Backlash

I do remember . . . we were rehearsing the Eighth Symphony for a forthcoming performance in the concert season. Dmitri Dmitriyevich had come up to Leningrad as usual for the rehearsal. In the break Mravinsky turned round to us and said, ‘Do you know, I have this impression that here in this place Dmitri Dmitriyevich has omitted something; there’s a discrepancy between the harmonies of these chords as they appear here and where they occur elsewhere. I’ve always wanted to ask Dmitri Dmitriyevich about this point, but somehow I have never got round to it.’

Just at this moment, Dmitri Dmitriyevich himself came up to Mravinsky, who put the question to him without further ado. Dmitri Dmitriyevich glanced at the score: ‘Oh dear, what a terrible omission, what an error I have committed. But you know what, let’s leave it as it is, just let things stay as they are.’ We then understood that this ‘error’ was deliberate.

Yakov Milkis, violinist with the Leningrad Philharmonic, quoted in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Second Edition by Elizabeth

12 December 2008

A Perch Knelt Snorting

Found on Laura Goodin's blog (A Motley Coat): the Internet Anagram Server.

karl henning yielded only some ten results, none of them inspiring ("rankling hen" probably the best of a weak field). But the inclusion of my middle name generated 52633 results, some of them . . . well, here is a sampling:
Rectangles Ninth Pork
Tentacle Prong Shrink
Carpenters Long Think
Channeling Perk Torts
Repacking Lent Thorns
Capering Knelt Thorns
Channel Pert Stroking
Penchant Longer Skirt
Trenchant Sponger Ilk
Rancher Kens Plotting
Chanters Tinkle Prong
Tacklers Rent Phoning
Central Sponger Think
Spectral Rent Honking
A Perch Knelt Snorting
Grackle Tenpins North
Chapter Knelt Snoring
Transect Leghorn Pink
Nectar Sprinkle Thong
Ranching Elk Portents
Nightcap Kernel Snort
Starching Kennel Port
Lacking Serpent North
Lacking Northern Pets
Clanking Strophe Rent
Prancing Kettle Horns
Clang Thinnest Porker
Clangor Rethink Spent
Conga Tenth Sprinkler
Chalk Roentgen Prints
Chapel Rent Strong Ink

11 December 2008

Happy Birthday, Mr Carter!

Steve Hicken is writing a series of posts on his blog, listen, discussing ten works by Elliott Carter which have especially impressed him, in honor of Mr Carter's centenary.

Last night, there was an engaging conversation with Elliott Carter, Daniel Barenboim and James Levine on Charlie Rose. [Seems that Carter's first name is misspelled on that page.]

And, in November of 2007, on the occasion of James Sommerville playing the premiere of the Horn Concerto, the maestro agreed most avuncularly to sign my program:

10 December 2008

Pythonic Bayreuth

Musical Cross-Reference Within The Meaning of Life

Why does it always seem to hit me in the middle of the ni - i - ight?
— Billy Joel, "Sometimes a Fantasy"

Sometimes artistic insight comes unbidden, in the middle of the night, and at the cost of a little sleep. Sometimes, too, it's just a little silly.

A couple of months ago I was struck by the similarity which is the first item detailed below (less surprising in the fact of similarity, than in my only picking up on it decades after I first saw the movie). Yester even, after watching The Meaning of Life again, I at last awakened to the Wagnerian magnificence of its musical interconnections, befitting the grandeur of theme of this, the Python troupe's final film as a group.

Both of the first two songs under consideration were written by Eric Idle and John du Prez.

Before The Meaning of Life proper (the feature presentation), there is a short live-action film by Terry Gilliam, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, which closes with "The Accountancy Shanty" (see Ex. 1):

The two phrases are generally contrary in motion, the first outlining a stepwise descent of a fourth, the second (again temporarily disregarding the pick-up eighth-note) a stepwise ascent (with one chromatic passing-tone) of a major third.

Compare this with another Idle / du Prez song from the second half of the main film. On screen, Eric Idle himself surprises Terry Jones (in pepperpot guise) by stepping out of the refrigerator, and breaking into song with such force, that the architectural integrity of Jones's kitchen is compromised . . . and Idle sings the "Galaxy Song" (Ex. 2):

(I've cast all the examples in C major for ease of comparison.) Note that the first two phrases of the "Galaxy Song" describe exactly the same contours as those of "The Accountancy Shanty": the stepwise descending fourth (and indeed, the same pick-up pitch) of the first phrase is broadly the same in both songs; and the second phrase is even closer (the rhythmic 'space' of the successive pitches is more closely related in the case of the respective second phrases).

Nor is this all. Leave us consider the musical number from The Miracle of Birth, Part II: The Third World, "Every Sperm Is Sacred." At first the song is in a solemnly decorous duple meter (Ex. 3a):

Afterwards, though, it is metrically recast (with variation in contour) as a bumptious march (Ex. 3b):

Note that the E-to-G to which the phrase every sperm is sung is inverted in the march: the spaciously ceremonial descending sixth of the opening has been converted to a (rascally, it must be admitted) ascending minor third, which also relates to the ascending major third (stepwise via chromatic passing-tone) of the b phrase from both "The Accountancy Shanty" and the "Galaxy Song." (I await word from a Dutch neighbor on research suggesting that this ascending chromatic figure may in fact be derived from the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.) What is more, this "rascally" third is a compressed echo of gradual stepwise ascent (E-F-G) of the 'peaks' of the three successive phrases of the opening (marked by the bracket in Ex. 3a above).

The grand musical summation of the interlocking musical motifs in The Meaning of Life, predictably, is reached in the final number, "Christmas in Heaven" (Ex. 4):

"Christmas in Heaven" does not merely recapitulate phrase a (with pick-up), but then repeats the phrase transposed diatonically down a fourth. And the paradisal character of the music is a shrewd echo of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" (Ex. 5):

The descent at the start of "Christmas in Heaven" is stepwise rather than the arpeggiated tonic triad of the Foster; but the goal in both cases is the lower-neighbor figure on D and then an ascent of a fifth.

The musical coherence and archetypes of The Meaning of Life are little short of overwhelming, and magnificently redeem the choric promise of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from the Life of Brian.

Next week: Fischedämmerung, Piscine Twilight

09 December 2008

The Inevitable

. . . postscript to this:

How did I forget Albert Roussel's symphonies?

So much music, so little time. — Clay Brunson

08 December 2008

A Ridiculous List

100 Symphonies I like a great deal, and confound “greatest”

1. Haydn, Symphony № 49 in f minor, La passione
2. Haydn, Symphony № 89 in F
3. Haydn, Symphony № 96 in D, Miracle
4. Haydn, Symphony № 104 in D, London
5. Mozart, Symphony № 36 in C, Linz
6. Mozart, Symphony № 38 in D, Prague
7. Mozart, Symphony № 39 in E-flat
8. Mozart, Symphony № 40 in g minor
9. Beethoven, Symphony № 4 in B-flat
10. Beethoven, Symphony № 7 in A
11. Beethoven, Symphony № 8 in F
12. Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique
13. Berlioz, Harold en Italie
14. Berlioz, Roméo et Juliette
15. Mendelssohn, Symphony № 3 in a minor, Scottish
16. Mendelssohn, Symphony № 4 in A, Italian
17. Brahms, Symphony № 1 in c minor
18. Brahms, Symphony № 2 in D
19. Brahms, Symphony № 3 in F
20. Brahms, Symphony № 4 in e minor
21. Schumann, Symphony № 1 in B-flat, Spring
22. Schumann, Symphony № 2 in C
23. Schumann, Symphony № 3 in E-flat, Rhenish
24. Schumann, Symphony № 4 in d minor
25. Liszt, Faust Symphony
26. Saint-Saëns, Symphony № 3 in C, Organ Symphony
27. Tchaikovsky, Symphony № 3 in D, Polish
28. Tchaikovsky, Symphony № 4 in f minor
29. Tchaikovsky, Symphony № 5 in e minor
30. Tchaikovsky, Symphony № 6 in b minor, Pathétique
31. Dvořák, Symphony № 6 in D
32. Dvořák, Symphony № 7 in d minor
33. Dvořák, Symphony № 8 in G
34. Dvořák, Symphony № 9 in e minor, From the New World
35. Mahler, Symphony № 9
36. Schoenberg, Chamber Symphony № 1 in E
37. Schoenberg, Chamber Symphony № 2
38. Webern, Symphonie
39. Rakhmaninov, Symphony № 2 in e minor
40. Rakhmaninov, Symphony № 3 in a minor
41. Sibelius, Symphony № 4 in a minor
42. Sibelius, Symphony № 5 in E-flat
43. Sibelius, Symphony № 6 in d minor
44. Sibelius, Symphony № 7 in C
45. Janáček, Sinfonietta
46. Nielsen, Symphony № 3, Sinfonia espansiva
47. Nielsen, Symphony № 4, The Inextinguishable
48. Nielsen, Symphony № 5
49. Nielsen, Symphony № 6, Sinfonia semplice
50. Prokofiev, Symphony № 1, Classical
51. Prokofiev, Symphony № 2 in D
52. Prokofiev, Symphony № 6 in e-flat minor
53. Prokofiev, Symphony № 7 in c# minor
54. Stravinsky, Symphonies of wind instruments
55. Stravinsky, Symphony in Three Movements
56. Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms
57. Shostakovich, Symphony № 4 in c minor
58. Shostakovich, Symphony № 10 in e minor
59. Shostakovich, Symphony № 14
60. Shostakovich, Symphony № 15 in A
61. Honegger, Symphony № 2
62. Honegger, Symphony № 3, Liturgique
63. Honegger, Symphony № 4, Deliciae basiliensis
64. Honegger, Symphony № 5, Di tre re
65. Milhaud, Symphony № 3, Te Deum
66. Milhaud, Symphony № 6
67. Milhaud, Symphony № 10
68. Milhaud, Symphony № 11, Romantique
69. Britten, Sinfonia da requiem
70. Copland, Symphony № 3
71. Chávez, Symphony № 2, Sinfonía india
72. Chávez, Symphony № 3
73. Chávez, Symphony № 5
74. Chávez, Symphony № 6
75. Mennin, Symphony № 6
76. Mennin, Symphony № 7, Variations Symphony
77. Hindemith, Symphony Die Harmonie der Welt
78. Hindemith, Sinfonia serena
79. Vaughan Williams, A Pastoral Symphony (№ 3)
80. Vaughan Williams, Symphony № 5
81. Vaughan Williams, Symphony № 6
82. Vaughan Williams, Symphony № 9
83. Malipiero, Symphony № 6
84. Malipiero, Symphony № 5, concertante, in eco
85. Malipiero, Symphony № 8, Symphoniae brevis
86. Toch, Symphony № 4
87. Toch, Symphony № 5, Jephtha
88. Toch, Symphony № 6
89. Toch, Symphony № 7
90. Martinů, Symphony № 3
91. Martinů, Symphony № 4
92. Martinů, Symphony № 5
93. Martinů, Symphony № 6, Fantaisies symphoniques
94. Braga Santos, Symphony № 3
95. Braga Santos, Symphony № 4
96. Braga Santos, Symphony № 5
97. Braga Santos, Symphony № 6
98. Langgaard, Symphony № 4, Leaf-Fall
99. Langgaard, Symphony № 6, The Heaven-Storming
100. Langgaard, Symphony № 10, Yon Dwelling of Thunder
101. Langgaard, Symphony № 13, Belief in Wonders
102. Pettersson, Symphony № 9
103. Dutilleux, Symphony № 2, Le double
104. Lutosławski, Symphony № 3
105. Lutosławski, Symphony № 4
106. Holmboe, Symphony № 3, Sinfonia rustica
107. Holmboe, Symphony № 4, Sinfonia sacra
108. Holmboe, Symphony № 7 in one movement
109. Holmboe, Symphony № 11
110. Schuman, Symphony for strings in three movements
111. Schuman, Symphony № 9
112. Carter, Symphonia Sum fluxae pretium spei
113. Wuorinen, Symphony № 8, Theologoumena


1. Admittedly arbitrarily, I decided to limit any single composer to four symphonies.
2. Although two of the Berlioz works do not contain the word “symphony,” these were works which he himself numbered among his symphonies.
3. The Symphonies of wind instruments is arguably a chamber work, the Symphony of Psalms arguably a choral work, and Stravinsky’s own comments distance both pieces from traditional symphonism; but I’m including them, anyway.
4. Similarly, I went ahead and included the Janáček Sinfonietta.
5. The inspiration for this personal, whimsical list is the occasional “100 Greatest Symphonies” list which gets published here or there, from time to time. Such lists tend (for instance) to include all nine Beethoven symphonies, where (what appears to me obvious) the notion that Beethoven’s First Symphony — likeable though it no doubt is — is somehow necessarily “great,” to the exclusion of many another (and, it may be, far worthier) artistic endeavor, is balderdash. While this sort of “we know what we know, and we continue to know mostly what we already know” tunnel-vision isn’t such an utterly reprehensible exercise in a compiled list, it does reflect the sort of run-in-the-same-ruts thinking which drives a great deal of orchestral programming.
6. Although there are several works on this list of mine which I want to get to know better still, I am delighted to be able to compile a list of a hundred symphonies, and so many of them off the beaten tracks, which I have actually heard. (There, I have patted myself on the musical back, haven’t I?)
7. 100 was an initial target, but when my list overshot, I decided not to trim off any symphony I had already included.
8. I’ve more symphonies to listen to, so the list is not meant as anything ‘fixed’.
9. There ought to be nine notes to a list of symphonies, right? Nice, round number . . . .

07 December 2008

Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle

Listened anew last night to a London Symphony/Claudio Abbado recording of Janáček's Sinfonietta. Was a little disappointed in the relaxed tempo taken for the first movement, which felt a little 'deliberate', a little solemnitized. Still, the band sounded fine, and the remaining four movements were of such excellence that any disappointment over the first was well compensated for.

Tuned in the car radio while driving to a housewarming party (with genuine firebrands, as it turned out). There sounded the strains of the well-loved Beethoven Seventh Symphony in A. Time seemed to stand still in between movements, and I realized that it must be the weekly live broadcast of the Boston Symphony. A couple of dicey ensemble moments in the first movement, but in general the first two movements sounded fine. The dicey moments remind you that, although the Opus 92 has been in the repertory practically since its premiere, it's not a cakewalk, even for the well-honed instruments which our present-day professional orchestras are.

The menuet & trio of the Beethoven, though: faugh. The menuet tempo was too lackadaisical (nor do I feel that I require aught like a demonically driven scherzo for this symphony); and then, the trio felt rushed. Atop all that indignity, the trumpets were at times blatty (and we all know they can do better). There is a decent sound as a base-level for the BSO, but when they phone it in, it sounds it. And the fact that, even at reduced classical-music inventories in the CD shops (such as are still around town), you can readily find multiple recordings of the Beethoven symphonies . . . no one needs to trek to Symphony Hall for lackluster Ludwig van.

Our Good Angel furnished a prompt parking space, so we declined to continue tuning in, fearing the worst for the fourth movement. Instead, we passed out into the Cambridge night, where whirling flames awaited.

06 December 2008

On With the Skating Vicar

Only 34 years and a day after the transmission of the sixth (and last) episode of the fourth (and last) season, I have been wonderfully surprised by the fourth season of Monty Python.

Much maligned in the literature . . . no, hang on . . . passingly slighted in at least one actual book . . . no, just a moment . . . sneered at by an over-medicated hack in the Personal Ads Section of one of the less reputable tabloids, the fourth season was first brought to my attention with the parenthetical "but they're not at their funniest"; and (while one understandably rues his absence from the fourth season) the ex-Python-ness of John Cleese was offered as the necessary reason for the downtick in the Amusement Index. Nor had I seen any episode from the fourth season on those infrequent occasions when I saw the Pythons on the odd late-night PBS broadcast. But even if we take for argument's sake the point that they're not 'at their funniest' in this fourth season, they're still, well, dashed funny. And I don't care who knows it.

Funny; a nice, woody sort of word. And no, I'm not taking this war seriously enough.

05 December 2008

And, Back in the Romantic Era

as to some rare concert
we listened to the rainfall

at first it tapped out
the march of time
until she took her mother’s clock away
smothering time in blankets

the rainfall said
i know i got up late and all
is it really still just today
or a brighter tomorrow already

i could listen more closely
after she trimmed my beard

i thought i heard the rain say
how about some tea
seems it might have been
my wife

for all the flowers on the table
i couldn’t get to the kettle
helpless i watched it boil
steam falling up to the sky

(... chopin on majorca)

04 December 2008

Ostinati Do Not a Prison Make (Do They?)

I want my MTV.
— Sting (singing to the tune, slowed down, of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”)

Only gradually (and with much interruption over time) am I making my acquaintance with the symphony cycle of Allan Pettersson. For a number of reasons (none of them immediately germane) it is several months since my last foray there; but on the indirect encouragement of a ‘virtual neighbor’ I cued up the Ninth Symphony this morning.

A big surprise! Out of luck of the draw, I suppose, most of the other Pettersson symphonies I have already heard left me with something of a lugubrious impression (meaning more musical arc than ‘tone’). But the Ninth strikes directly into a vital, energetic vein which reminds me more of US composer Peter Mennin, than it does (ironically) of the other Pettersson music I’ve listened to; there is a well-spun (and, it seems to me, non-maudlin) lyrical strain which takes the stage in the middle — and even a brief (and rather quirky) hint of a habañera rhythm. If I say that there are moments which subtly recall Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, the comparison is an indicator of only general character, and of high artistic quality; this is a symphony with its own personality . . . and (perhaps curious to say) it is the first music of Pettersson’s which I have heard, in which I feel as if I have ‘met’ a musical personality. The ending I find tentative, and fairly serious, but not outright ‘tragic’. (I am searching for the right way to describe the tone I hear; I am not at all finding ‘fault’ in the tone of the ending, which in fact works perfectly well.) The closing statement in the unison string choir strikes me as rich and strong (not ‘isolated’ in the way that this reduction of texture, in music of quite another character, might sound), and this is confirmed by the peaceful plagal cadence (“amen”) in the winds which ends the symphony.

Earlier listening to (I don’t at present remember just which of) the symphonies had left me unimpressed and ambivalent, expecting at some point to try again, but feeling that I needed to be in a certain humor to try again. Here in the Ninth Symphony, I seem to have found a Pettersson piece for listening, without requiring a specific mood; an artistic plus, I think.

The following extract (from this document) refers to a “comparatively impressionistic article on the Ninth Symphony” by Peter Gülke, bearing the almost obviously eisogetic title “Protest, Futility, Denied Resignation: Thoughts on the Study of Allan Pettersson's Ninth Symphony”:
Pettersson blows up the continuous multi-movement structure by minimizing the coherence of the individual segments by including "associated encounters that are opposed to [each movement type]". The "symphonic process" thus permits "segmentation and editing". Coherence, when desired (which is not necessarily always) is often found (yet again) through the tool of the repeating ostinato, which Gülke interestingly describes as having "a nearly physical menacing force" (8). The effect is painted as "a blind loping through the world coexistent with the possibility of catastrophe" (9). These ostinatos, then, might be interpreted as an expression of the stifling imprisonment felt as a matter of course in the lives of the physically immobile. (In Pettersson's case, this imprisonment was not only physical at the time, but literal: He lived in a Stockholm walk up apartment, and literally could not leave his residence. Is it possible that these biographical conditions would not have a significant effect on Pettersson's music?)
Mention was made in the preceding paragraph of “a politically committed, defiant existentialism” which is proposed as the symphony’s “character and ‘morality’”; I will content myself here with the rhetorical question of how one composes political commitment or existentialism in music.

The writers referenced in this document know Pettersson’s oeuvre in general (and the Ninth Symphony — to which I am listening for only the first time today — in particular) much better than I do, so I haven’t earned my place at the table, you might say. But again, I hear what I hear; I’m just reporting, and I should think that the fresh experience of a listener who is also a musician, hearing the music for the first time, might be considered a species of valid input.

I’ve heard ostinati in a great variety of music: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Glass, Reich, Adams, & al. I’ve used many ostinati in my own music. Gimbel’s cautionary use of the modal might be is very well considered in his statement, “These ostinatos, then, might be interpreted as an expression of the stifling imprisonment felt as a matter of course in the lives of the physically immobile.” In my initial audition of the symphony this morning, I did not ‘interpret’ the ostinati in any such way; nor did I hear much which might answer to Gülke’s description of “a nearly physical menacing force.” (Well, all right, the snare-drum rolls get a bit old, maybe; but they don’t attain to menace.) I find it of interest that this is how Gülke perceives them; but as my own perception of them is very different, I entertain doubts that this is a necessary ‘interpretation’ of the musical document.

Gimbel’s closing question in that paragraph is of keen interest, too; it seems compelling: Is it possible that these biographical conditions would not have a significant effect on Pettersson’s music?

It seems not especially possible, but then, what is the nature (what the significance) of the effect? Is this effect felt in all the music?

I don’t hear ‘imprisonment’ in this music; the Ninth Symphony has immediately made an impression upon me as robust, and well articulated, which to me (in my admittedly incomplete awareness of his work) seems unusual for Pettersson.

The title of Gimbel’s paper is “Allan Pettersson as a Topic for Disability Studies in Music.” Is there a degree to which the music is being taken as a sort of Rorschach exemplar?

If so, in the paper Gimbel includes the seeds of his own corrective:

. . . “Missing from the German biographical literature [on Pettersson] is an example which offers as its recurrent minimal element something other than the constant iteration of illness” (41). What is needed, he writes, is to regard Pettersson’s disabilities as simply “biographical fact” rather than “fundamental quality (causation)”, with [Andreas] Meyer [in the article “A Background to the Development of Pettersson Reception in Germany through 1994”] proceeding to align such (mis-) understandings with the critical receptions of Mahler and Shostakovich, whose music also suffers from such conceptual abuse (42).
It is, perhaps, a cautionary example of letting the ideas which we bring to the music, drive the “meaning” of the music (the ‘conceptual abuse’ of which Gimbel warns us).

[ A bit more about menace here. ]


How can you start a revolution when the revolution before last has already said anything goes?
— Chas Wuorinen

. . . and after all, we’re only ordinary men.
— Pink Floyd (“Us and Them”)

On the Misery Loves Company principle, this past US presidential campaign just concluded was a most verbally gratifying experience. The general public was visited by a plague under which we musicians suffer on practically a weekly basis: the tiresome overuse of the word maverick.

You all know what a “musical maverick” is! He’s the composer who zigs where all those other composers zag!

It does not, however, require any great penetration of the environment of musical composition in the past 50 years, to find that, actually, there is no broad consensus of composers who (herding ruminant-like) are all zagging.

The piquant irony in this reduction of maverick to a cliché is: where the practice among ranchers was to brand their cattle for ready recognition, the Maverick family did not brand theirs. And yet, the indiscriminate slinging of the word in our time is all about branding.

We retreat for a moment to the Baroque era. In rehearsing the Vivaldi Gloria last week, we heard the alto soloist begin her aria with an arresting musical contour:

Compare this to the celebrated opening of one of Bach’s most famous organ works:

Out of consideration for my fellow musicians in a rehearsal, I contained my mirth, of course. But inside, I was laughing with hearty delight.

I shan’t concern myself with any musicological puzzle of “what Bach knew, & when he knew it.” Mine is pure delight in the mere fact of this similarity. In Vivaldi, it is a phrase tucked away in the middle of a multi-movement work, which is largely unknown outside the choral music community; in Bach, it is a phrase which has passed a threshold, onto general cultural awareness. It’s a phrase known to Mickey Mouse, for crumbs’ sake.

Why that should be, is an interesting course of thought. But our task at the moment is otherwise, and freely tangential.

The magnificent Toccata & Fugue in d minor, BWV 565 — and why this organ work of Bach’s has penetrated popular awareness, rather than any other . . . no, no, Judith (says Bluebeard), do not open that door — has accumulated popular associations which are apt to diminish the piece, even as it is raised to the status of a musical celebrity. The piece — the opening, at any rate — has become a brand for menace. A search at imdb.com with the keywords “bach toccata” yields 17 movie titles, ranging from The Raven (1935) to My Stepmother Is an Alien, Gremlins 2: The New Batch and beyond. (With some of these, the brand encompasses self-parodying mock-menace, it must be.)

It is what it is, and I only make the observation; it’s a river I do not have the energies or will to re-direct. Il faut cultiver son jardin.

Besides, it is this fund of cultural reference which fuels the amusement of hearing the amiable saxophones of the Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band quoting Bach as the punctuation to Viv Stanshall singing the refrain of “Look Out, There’s a Monster Coming.”

Listening yesterday included:

Elliott Carter, Clarinet Concerto
Vivaldi, Le quattro stagioni
Dvořák, Symphony № 4 in D Minor, Opus 13

[ “for crumbs’ sake” courtesy of my friend Juhan, formerly of Maryland ]

03 December 2008

Venetian Games

Thought I saw angels but I could have been wrong.
— Ian Anderson (“To Cry You a Song”)

This week I sang Vivaldi’s Gloria amid the Framingham State College Chorus. At first I thought, Wonderful, this is a piece I have not sung since high school. But then, as I considered more, I realized that my recollection had likely gone funny: we never sang the piece in high school, but I had seen the vocal score in the chorus room there, and looked it through. It’s one of the first choral scores I read through, and had a reasonable idea of how the piece sounded, just by reading the score. This experience alone made a strong impression, and I think that as time passed, the strength of this impression somehow got muddled as a mistaken memory of actually singing the piece.

In any event, I was singing in the tenor section this week, and I had certainly never sung the tenor line before.

It being the season, we also sang some Christmas carols, and there is a refreshing novelty in singing music which you’ve been singing every year for . . . a long time, and yet finding that you need to read the music, because (say) you’ve never had to sing the tenor part before.

There’s a story of a famous pianist who had been playing the Beethoven sonatas forever, and at last was finding it difficult to make the sonatas ‘fresh’ in performance; and another pianist advised him to concentrate on the inner voices. That slight re-orientation cast the music in a new light. I had not reached any state of genuine jadedness to “Ding Dong Merrily on High” (it helps that we ony sing it the one time each year); nonetheless I benefited from the opportunity to ‘get inside’ this simple old piece from a different angle.

It was great fun to be part of such a lovely occasion for the students. For one thing, I remember the fun we had in the Wooster Chorus sing a “Madrigal Supper” or two. Music-making has always had a social-ritual aspect in my experience; when you sing or play in a large ensemble, you are both working and playing with and in a group, and part of the activity is a mode of communication strikingly unlike the more prosaically verbal means which we use far more frequently. The ‘muscle memory’ of this has been a helpful ‘grounding’ for me at various times. There are some environments where music as a performing art seems to trend instead towards music as a library science, and some events transpiring there would make Kafka proud, if he had invented them in some of his fiction. The surrealism can at times seem to assert itself as reality.

An awareness that I am asking people (in many cases, people whom I know and like) to play or sing the music, is one of the considerations informing my composition. And as a performer myself, I project sounds with my compositional imagination. Hindemith went through a period during which he would not write any note for an instrument, which he himself could not play upon that instrument. Although he must have found that a useful rubric for a time, it is at the last too restrictive.

A great many musical rules are of just such a nature: there is no absolute necessity to them, and their value lies in the artistic use that a composer may find in them. There is a rather simplistic view of music history which sees composer as successively smashing rules. I think this simplistic, because it invests an idea of too much permanence in the rules.

The rules are in a state of flux. Artistry operates beyond the rules.

02 December 2008

Not Knowing

Though it seem strange to tell that I enjoyed the experience, I got lost yesterday. People are apt to take it the wrong way if you say, Get lost, but if you can arrange to do so in a way which is not worrisome, permit me to recommend the exercise without reservation.

I had dropped Maria and Irina off, and started driving back home, in a part of the state no great distance from home (and yet, not particularly familiar to me), and I took a wrong turn. It was a turn I knew might be mistaken, but I took the turn not caring. (The absence of care was not reckless, only low-level adventurous.) It may be the very same wrong turn I may have taken eight years ago, who knows?

I had, not all day, but certainly ample time. I needed to get back to town to pick up a fellow musician for a concert that afternoon, but I was not going to get lost to any degree as to strain our timeline. And even if I had taken the most direct route home, there would not have been so much time to allow me to get anything productive accomplished. It was a relaxed (if not altogether recreational) time. I was negotiating a half- (or quarter-) familiar maze, and I didn’t care about any cheese at the goal.

I had been lost in a much more concerning way this past summer. As a result of a surprising and unpleasant event, I went from a state of musical productivity, and keen readiness to pursue the next task, to a condition of apparent incapacity for any creative work, for about five weeks. It was a very strange time.

Didn’t know why I couldn’t work; nor did I know what it would take to get back to work. In spite of the obvious annoyance of knowing myself to be in such a condition, I knew it wasn’t going to last forever.

In a way, getting lost driving yesterday was a relaxing ritual shadow of the creative abyss I experienced in the summer. The inability to compose was vexatious, and as I was driving yesterday, momentarily unsure of the way home, I understand how completely free of vexation this situation was. Probably that is the closest I can come to explaining why I actually enjoyed being lost yesterday.

There is an outdoorsy recreation, a game of chess in which there are human ‘gamepieces’, who move from square to square as directed by the actual players. If you’re a piece (a rook, a bishop) you take part in the game, and yet none of the responsibility for the game’s outcome rests on your shoulders. That’s not a great analogy (for I was driving, and I got lost as a result of my own mis-navigation), but it does give some idea of the tone in which I lost my way yesterday.

If you can get lost like that, embrace the wrong turn.