31 January 2009

Everything I Need to Know, I (Might Have) Learnt from Schoenberg

(All right, perhaps not; but sometimes it seems so.)

The main thing impressing the decline or downfall of our art and culture on all those Spenglers, Schenkers, and so forth, has been an awareness of themselves as totally lacking in creative talent. A natural and very simple reaction to such findings would have been contempt for themselves, not even for others comparably impotent. For that to happen, though, their realization would have had to be clear and conscious. But such people are outstandingly good at suppressing everything of the kind; their self-preservative instinct triumphs, everyone else can decline, so long as it helps them to get to the top and stay there. Nowadays, according to such prophets — the only ones ‘with honour’ in everybody’s country — the creative disposition no longer exists; what does exist, plentifully, is critical trash such as themselves, and these are the only ones still to have ideas, to possess creative gifts, even — the only geniuses, then! So there are no more geniuses, only critics. But if the latter are geniuses after all, then geniuses do exist; if they are not, then there is no reason to give them credence, for anyone knows as much as non-genius! The difference between the two kinds of person lies precisely in what they know or don’t know: secret science.

The Fatherland extends to these false prophets an incomprehensible amount of credit — it is downright inexhaustible! Fiasco follows fiasco, on the largest scale, yet the words of these men, who can do less than anybody, stay in business, in the same old way, alongside works whose value they have contested. Simply as curiosities, of course, and only thanks to the existence of the works they oppose. All the same, the tendency to start believing them again is always there. But the remarkable thing (or, rather, the characteristic thing) is that, in my case, respect for Spengler or Schenker never lasts very long! And it is too stupid of me, to let myself be impressed anew, time and again, by these loudmouths. Although I see that they are merely thrashing about with tasteful turns of phrase (Hauer does the same), although I see through their arbitrary clockwork mechanism, I fall for it every time; those who shout the loudest win the day.

At least I never praised Spengler, but I am genuinely sorry for what I have said about Schenker. I so enjoy paying due tribute, or tempering criticism by dwelling on whatever there is to praise — but I almost believe that here I am in the wrong, and that this case calls for action with a firm hand, or even, perhaps, foot.

Mödling, June 9, 1923
[ Untergangs-Raunzer : Those Who Complain About the Decline ]

30 January 2009

Latest Obsessive Recordings

Nor do I necessarily know why these, at the present time:

Munch Conducts Berlioz
Charles Munch
Boston Symphony Orchestra
10-disc box
BMG Classics 82876-60393-2 ADD stereo/monaural

Roméo et Juliette, Opus 17 (February 22 & 23, 1953)
Les nuits d'été, Opus 7 (April 12 & 13, 1955)
Les Troyens: Chasse royale at orage (April 6, 1959)
La damnation de Faust, Opus 24 (February 21 & 22, 1954)
Béatrice et Bénédict: Overture (December 1, 1958)
Le corsaire: Overture, Opus 21 (December 1, 1958)
Benvenuto Cellini: Overture, Opus 23 (April 6, 1959)
L'enfance du Christ, Opus 25 (December 23 & 24, 1956)
Harold en Italie, Opus 16 (March 31, 1958)
Le carnaval romain: Overture, Opus 9 (December 1, 1958)
Grande Messe des morts, Opus 5 (April 26 & 27, 1959)
Symphonie fantastique, Opus 14 (November 14 & 15, 1954)
Roméo et Juliette, Opus 17 (April 23 & 24, 1961)
Symphonie fantastique, Opus 14 (April 9, 1962)
Béatrice et Bénédict: Overture (1949)

Debussy & Ravel
Complete Works for Piano Duet & Two Pianos
Michel Béroff & Jean-Philippe Collard
2-disc set
EMI Classics 7243 5 86510 2 7 Stereo ADD/DDD

Petite suite
Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire
Six épigraphes antiques
En blanc et noir
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (arr. Debussy)
2 Nocturnes (arr. Ravel)

Sites auriculaires
Ma mère l'oye
Frontispice (5th hand: Katia Labèque)
La Valse: Mouvement de valse viennoise (arr. Ravel)
Rapsodie espagnole (arr. Ravel)

Georges Bizet
Jeux d'enfants, Opus 22

Paul Dukas
L'apprenti sorcier (arr. Dukas)

The Isle of the Dead, Opus 29
Symphony (Youth Symphony) (1891)
Symphony № 1 in D Minor, Opus 13
BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda
Chandos CHAN 10475 DDD

Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Images pour orchestre
Danses sacrée et profane
Czech Philharmonic
Serge Baudo
Supraphon SU 3478-2 011 ADD Stereo

29 January 2009

As Ormandy Was Saying

It can either be too soon or too late or not together.

28 January 2009

Tribute & Petition

Found in Howard Kurtz’s “Media Notes” column in the Washington Post:

T. Coraghessan Boyle in the New Yorker: “[Updike’s] stories are touchstones – I think of the gorgeous and heartbreaking Maples stories – and the Rabbit novels represent an achievement no one has equalled in our time. But perhaps my favorites among all his books are the rollicking, hilarious Bech books, which he seemed to shake out just to demonstrate his range. He enchanted me. He led the way. I will miss him in the way I would miss one of the peaks outside the window here if some natural catastrophe were to take it down.”

And (per l’affaire Brandeis) an on-line petition protesting the sell-off of the Rose Museum.

27 January 2009

A Stanza Meanwhile

I’ve a friend here in Boston (though we don’t cross one another’s path all that often) whose dad lately passed away. On the lines of our not meeting in person all that often, how I learnt of this event was via facebook. This friend is a fellow musician.

When my own dad passed on, I did not (for whatever passel of reasons) respond at all musically. Offhand, I do not now remember what may have been going on in my musical life at the time (my ‘musical timeline’ exists on something of its own plane, detached from day-to-day existence).

Belatedly, I became aware of my friend’s loss yesterday. Last night, there was a televised program about Gaudì which all of us at home wanted to see, but beginning at ten o’clock, which is a later show than I should really stay up to watch. The solution was for me to nap a while before, and I was awakened for the Gaudì show, after which I retired properly. My sleep last night was not of the most profound (though, nonetheless, completely restful) and at some point last night, in between bouts of sleep, a short musical epitaph came to me, a sustained whisper for solo trumpet. Musical ideas come and go, so in spite of the immediate practicality of returning to sleep (or, trending toward a return to sleep), I stayed my mind awhile, and thought this musical idea through, exercised enough concentration upon it that it should register in memory, but not so much concentration as to compromise a fairly prompt return to slumber, by too much mental activity.

I slept.

This morning’s routine of waking to the alarm, preparing to leave for work, and the walk to the bus, ran its course in entire forgetfulness of the music in the night. Once on the bus, I pulled out the notebook from my bag, and started to look at the page of Lutosławski’s Lullaby as I’d begun arranging it for cello ensemble.

At which point, I heard the short trumpet piece again in my inner ear.

So, I turned the page, and set to writing.

Tearing the House Down for Fuel in Winter

In today’s Boston Globe was a piece on how Brandeis is auctioning off the Rose Art Museum. Jonathan Lee, chairman of the Rose’s board of overseers: “What they’re doing is a travesty.” Museum director Michael Rush learned of the unanimous decision by the university’s board of trustees only as a fait accompli.

As if by coincidence, Lee Rosenbaum heads the Arts & Leisure section of today’s Wall Street Journal with a piece about the challenges of the current economic environment for Michael Conforti, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. Well, challenges for the museums, as well as for Conforti and the Association, to be sure. Challenges which drove the National Academy Museum in New York to pull a Brandeis. Rosenbaum writes:

. . . the academy’s sacrifice of two paintings to raise cash was condemned last month by AAMD’s board as a serious violation of museum ethics. The sales broke a cardinal rule—that proceeds from selling art may be used only for buying other art. . .

. . . “These objects are are there for the collective cultural patrimony of the people who live in this country. They are not fungible assets,” Mr Conforti declared to me.

Mozart’s Birthday

. . . in honor whereof, today’s listening hath included:

  • Vesperae solennes de confessore, K.339
  • Adagio & Rondo for Glass Harmonica, Flute, Oboe, Viola & Cello, K.617
  • Viola Quintet in C, K.515
  • Quartet in A Major, K.464
  • Quartet in C Major (Dissonant), K.465

26 January 2009

Pushing the Lullaby Along

Puttering some more with adapting Lutosławski’s Lullaby for a group of violoncellos. At first, when I thought in terms of eight ’cellos, I had a certain texture and manner in mind. And, having that in mind, when I subsequently learnt that what was wanted was four parts (possibly dividing into five), initially I discarded the idea of adapting the piece.

Since which time, not only have I decided that the piece can readily be made to work in four single-line parts, but I keep thinking of different ways to approach this musical ‘problem’. So the time had come to put some notions on paper, partly for the plain practical matter of sorting the divers notions of arrangement into priorities. The task proper has by now been made easy, because my thought has for such a while now been bent upon it, from a variety of angles.

25 January 2009

Knowing When (and Outside Commentary Notwithstanding)

Art is working on something until you like it, and then leaving it that way.

Legend on a T-shirt in
The Hamster Factor, & Other Tales of 12 Monkeys

24 January 2009

More on ‘The Universal Language’

In the course of one virtual discussion of the Shostakovich symphonies, a Dutch neighbor recently wrote:

Personally I don’t really need all the political baggage some people are dumping on DSCH’s music.
When Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony was premiered in April of 1948, there were quite a few who took the symphony as a musical reaction to the war; to which the composer’s reply was, “It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.”

All this resonates tidily with a Stravinsky remark I quoted here:

Composers combine notes. That is all. How and in what form the things of this world are impressed upon their music is not for them to say.
Whatever the truth behind this, it has not prevented listeners from fixing upon certain attachments and ‘meanings’.

In Expositions and Developments, Stravinsky elaborates upon the music is powerless to express anything remark:
That overpublicized bit about expression (or non-expression) was simply a way of saying that music is supra-personal and superreal and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. It was aimed against the notion that a piece of music is in reality a transcendent idea “expressed in terms of” music, with the reductio ad absurdum implication that exact sets of correllatives must exist between a composer’s feelings and his notation. It was offhand and annoyingly incomplete, but even the stupider critics could have seen that it did not deny musical expressivity. A composer’s work is the embodiment of his feelings and, of course, it may be considered as expressing or symbolizing them — though consciousness of this step does not concern the composer.
Setting aside the arguable disingenuousness both of his complaint about the earlier remark’s having been “overpublicized” (IIRC, the composer himself published it, after all) and of the carp about “even the stupider critics,” there is of necessity a ‘cloudiness’ about the ties between the composer’s feelings and the musical work worth reflecting on (a murk which, from this senator’s standpoint anyway, Stravinsky’s comments do not always help to dispel).

Symbolism in the Spectacle

The logistics of the high-grade mime aside, Bruce Hodges points out the symbolic nature of including a chamber performance of composed music as part of the Inaugural pomp.

Magic of Spectacle

This is getting a fair amount of play in the blogosphere; each will have his own preference, no doubt, but I rather enjoy Joel Achenbach’s take on the matter.

There is much mitigating realism in the matter (weather not at all amenable to a chamber quartet performing, and weather aside, not really the acoustic environment for that sort of thing, e.g.); and yet, something of a sour aftertaste of deception, perhaps.

(I missed that particular ‘event’ on the day, so I cannot possibly have an opinion.)

21 January 2009

Listen, and Listen Again

At Musical Perceptions, Scott Spiegelberg recounts a homey instance of the value of repeat listening. Somewhere or other (Charles Rosen?) I recall running across a most apt denunciation of (I paraphrase) “The Fallacy of Instant Comprehensibility.” Scott’s post is about a Schubert sonata, which I find of especial relevance — frequently, I hear it asserted that the “obvious” inferiority of so much new music is, how The Average Listener can’t comprehend it right away.

Behind all this, there is a meaty discussion of how we understand music, the nature and mechanics of that understanding. But to the present purpose, I point out that the first time I heard almost any of Beethoven’s nine symphonies (say), I didn’t completely understand them. I knew well enough that I liked them, that I had no ‘objection’ to them — but I knew that after a single hearing, there was more in there, than I had succeeded in gleaning from a first real-time listen. (In general, one might even assert that this is a property of great artwork: that there is more fuel in it than you can burn in a single use.)

Now, some decades later, the nine Beethoven symphonies are long favorites of mine, I’ve gotten more and more out of them with successive hearings; there may not be, at this point, any great ‘mystery’ in them for me. But I have not forgotten that this is not music which (because of its inherent ‘superiority’ to, say, music being written today) was immediately and entirely transparent to me.

That notion, the plaint that if the music written today were really great, everyone would be whistling it straight off, is misguided on two or three points.

This morning, I put down on paper some thoughts on a cello ensemble piece. Cryptic, perhaps, but it does what I require of it this week:

20 January 2009

Sketches for a Flow-Chart

1. Get an idea.
2. Does it seem a good idea?
yes » go to (3.)
no » Why did you bother? go to (1.)
3. Is it a corking good idea?
yes » go to (7.)
not quite »»
4. Write it down, do some puttering [or]
5. Think it over, think it up, think it through a few days [or]
6. Set idea aside. Think other things for a few days » go to (3.)
7. Write it up.

19 January 2009

Ravenous Bicentenary

Today is the bicentenary of the birth, here in Boston, of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe and Boston did not get on, perhaps (faults on both sides, no doubt).

He was almost my earliest literary awareness, and certainly my first literary passion. The music of “The Raven” (the music inherent in the poem, I mean, not any musical setting thereof) so enchanted me that I committed it to memory . . . and probably my first artistic exploit was impressing a teacher or two in grade school with this feat. As I am shy by nature, this was in effect my leverage into performance, I suppose.

Much later, when I was undertaking my Master’s in Charlottesville, I saw the room in The Lawn which is preserved as a memorial to UVa’s illustrious expellee (gambling was his weakness, here).

[ click on the photo, and a characteristic bird will come into view ]

Yesterday I ran into this amusing remark from a man whose precise centenary will defy celebration:

I don't know how old I am because the goat ate the Bible that had my birth certificate in it. The goat lived to be twenty-seven.
— Satchel Paige (1906?-1982)

18 January 2009

Yes & No

“[The Symphony in Three Movements] both does and does not ‘express my feelings’ about [world events].”

“In spite of what I have said, the Symphony is not programmatic. Composers combine notes. That is all. How and in what form the things of this world are impressed upon their music is not for them to say.”

— Stravinsky, from Dialogues and a Diary

17 January 2009


2 partridges
2 Mallard ducks
a Dungeness crab
24 hours out
of the Pacific
and 2 live-frozen
from Denmark

— William Carlos Williams,
from “Two Pendants: for the Ears”

A recent intensive revisitation of the six Bartók string quartets has me thinking again about form. I ought really to settle into some detailed comment on the quartets (and at some point shall). I bought this bound edition of the complete quartets at Patelson's on 56th Street, oh, years since; must have been on one of the holiday breaks from Wooster. At about the same time (maybe the same occasion) I bought scores for Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, the Hindemith Konzertmusik Opus 50 for strings and brass, the Shostakovich Tenth & Fourteenth Symphonies, the Messiaen Quatuor . . . I must have looked at least partly through the Bartók scores at the time, but a proper page-to-page complete reading was on the to-do list for . . . decades.

For the moment, two immediate details which it tickled me to see. One is a rhythmic device I've used myself, and maybe once on a time I saw it first here in the score (or, in some score); but I've thought that I came up with it independently (and maybe I did), and it is a pleasure to run across it in a Bartók quartet. [Anyway, what is it?] An “off-beat” quintuplet . . . say the meter is 2/2, the half-note is a beat, and your two beats subdivide into four eighths; and instead of taking one of those half-notes and altering its four eighth-notes to a quintuple eighth-notes, you take that eighth-note quintuplet and begin it, not on the accented beat, but on an upbeat: in the following example (from Intermezzo II from White Nights) examples are the violas in the first measure, and the cellos in the third.

The second detail to mention here is a four-note motif which I don't recall actually reading in a Bartók score, but I probably picked it up by ear, for it is an element I used in that movement of the Three Things That Begin with ‘C’ in which I was taking Bartók for a model: two perfect fourths, a minor second apart (e.g.: D,G,G#,C#).

As the medium of music is the most abstract of the arts, musical form is more flexible than is sometimes credited. This must be the case, if we consider how little regard we should have for a composer (a fictitious exaggeration, of course) with so little creativity as to use and reuse only the same tried-&-true models. There are great composers who worked ingeniously within established forms; there are great composers whose talent was expressed partly in stretching, expanding, transcending established forms. But a composer who, when he wrote in ternary form (say), always used the same proportions, the same phrase-lengths, always the same harmonic motion . . . .

[As on so many levels, there is a balance (or tension) between one’s habit, one’s characteristic methods or manners, and what can be a descent into ‘routine’.]

Sonata-allegro design, now . . . which I wonder may be one variation on the theme of Beethoven, the Mold-Smasher, taken for The New Mold. Beethoven took new liberties with the scale of the sonata-allegro design, with its ‘moving parts’, he would introduce new material in the development, &c. &c. He pushed, pulled, bent & shook down the design, and showed it could still work. How do we know it stills works? Is there an answer to that question which is not at heart an echo of PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves? — I believe Beethoven has given general satisfaction, sir. We hear the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, and we feel its coherence, and approve its excellence of form. (Not all of Beethoven's contemporaries were willing to offer such approval, we might note.)

Right after Beethoven, some composers were inspired by his example to continue experimenting with the symphony as a composite form (Berlioz, Mendelssohn, e.g.) Brahms was himself, and after a First which was praised as ‘Beethoven's Tenth’, afterwards wrote a Third and Fourth which are, if anything, surprisingly ‘tidy’ in contrast to Beethoven's progression. Nought wrong with that, as is partly my point: approach each artist on his own terms.

Not the least shade of a formal ‘problem’ do I have with, say, the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies (though some respected colleagues harbor some reservations); they give ample satisfaction, and I tend to wonder if any formal problem had with them is a kind of WWBD (What Would Beethoven Do?)

At risk of seeming to invoke Debussy's dictum (Pleasure is the law), as a composer I wonder where the line can be crossed, so that one can say, There! That is a violation of the sonata-allegro design! For there are many pieces, written in a style not especially close to my own work, which I think perfectly fine applications of the design. The first movements of the Rakhmaninov First and Second Symphonies, for instance.

Indeed, I proclaim my entire contentment with the monstrous interruption that Shostakovich makes upon the sonata-allegro design of the first movement of the Leningrad Symphony, with the march tune that starts out simple & jaunty, and eventually becomes a devouring flame.

One sonata-related statement puzzled me mightily when I first read it; it puzzles me still, but I don't mind if I never sort the puzzle out. In a course on Stravinsky while I was pursuing my Master’s at UVa, one text we used was Roman Vlad’s survey of his life and music (in general, a most interesting book to read). On p. 148 of the third edition, Vlad writes:

With regard to the shape of the first movement of the Symphony in Three Movements, it should be pointed out that it follows quite strictly the pattern of the classical sonata movement as found in the first Allegro of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony.

Would this statement be perhaps improved, if we substitute the adjective loosely for quite strictly? Setting aside the question of key and harmonic centers, there’s a wealth of material in (what we are invited to consider) the Exposition which we don't hear again in that form (which would be the case if the pattern followed Beethoven strictly). Rehearsal № 34 is a reasonable candidate for the start of a Development, and it has resonant ties with what came before, but at № 38 Stravinsky switches gears to what feels more like a contrasting section, than like a Development proper. What we must probably consider the Recapitulation, is the jazzy strings-&-piano section which returns (a whole-step higher than in the Exposition) at № 88; but again, that means that there’s 30 busy measures from the start of the movement that haven't come back. We will at last hear the opening flourish again, but only after echoing back to № 38 (a recap of the Development rather than of the Exposition?)

I should step back to say: it's a great piece, and I like it as it is, and it works just fine. Unless I'm really misunderstanding Beethoven, I don't find the form of the first movement of the Symphony in Three Movements in strict ‘compliance’ — and that's fine. Maybe this is near enough for Vlad to make the parallel. There is certainly an opening section of a series of musical ideas presented for the first time; there's a middle section which treats some reflection of that material in a new way; and then there is a varied return to material in a way that we've heard before.

Musically, it works; it bears some resemblance to the process of sonata-allegro design. Does there need to be a comparison to Beethoven for ‘authentication’? Wherein does the usefulness of considering form in music reside?

This has been more ramble and reflection than anything which I might expect to be of use to anyone else. If an apology is in order, I offer it.

Anything is good material for poetry. Anything.
— William Carlos Williams,
from Paterson, Book V

16 January 2009

Listening to Night

My about-to-drift-off listening last night was Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, a piece of which I am very fond, which I have long known and often studied, so I am at peace with the idea of drifting into sleep at some point in the Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus. There are some ways in which the performance is a bit shy of ideal, but still worthy the listening.

Each successive movement is scored for a different combination (after the example of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire). Of the four instruments, it is the clarinet which Messiaen singles out for the sole movement for but one instrument; and it is the longest single movement. (It was this boldness which in part inspired, for instance, my own Studies in Impermanence.)

In the middle of what proved a very restful night, I lay briefly awake, and I started to think of a new unaccompanied clarinet piece. I 'heard' the first few phrases in real time, and then as I caught a mental breath, I thought — Karl, you have other things to write, and you don't need another unaccompanied clarinet piece; let use be found for the unaccompanied clarinet pieces you've already written, first.

So, on my mind's blackboard in the middle of the dark night, I took those two-three lines of clarinet music, and tentatively re-scored them for small cello ensemble.

Quite separately, at work I found a pad of note-paper, whose topmost sheet was nearly blank. All that was written was 3lbs stew, in tidy proximity to the upper edge.

And I thought: What a fine name for a band.

15 January 2009

Amorphous & Forward-Looking

. . . and a couple of paintings from Sears.
— Billy Joel, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant"

Trivia: On this date in 1967, Ed Sullivan compelled an alteration in lyrics, and Mick Jagger sang, Let’s spend some time together; now I need you more than ever . . . .

Bryan Kirk on ComposerBastard wonders why anyone could be hatin' on Sergei Vasilyevich, and I am happy to share his puzzlement. Recently I've made closer acquaintance with the First & Second Symphonies, and have learnt that I like them entire and uncut. (Fair disclosure: This is in conspiratorial keeping with an earlier determination that that's just how I like the Third Concerto, too.) This week is also the first I have listened to The Isle of the Dead.

Today is the first in . a . long . . time . . that I've listened to King Crimson's Red played out of speakers in a room (rather than headphones). As always, was especially enjoying the riff in 13 dominating the center of "Starless" . . . and then realized that there are actually two: the slow-burn crescendo riff I've long known and loved; and then afterwards a riotous double-time section, which in spite of feeling persuasively chaotic, is a tightly counted 13.

In the spirit of Ed Sullivan bowdlerizing the Stones . . . over the closing credits of As Good As It Gets, Art Garfunkel sings the crucifix-tapper from the end of Life of Brian, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," only with the subtitutionary phrase, Life's a counterfeit. Which, viewed from a certain angle, is a cosmically right alteration, the faux phrase itself being a counterfeit.

Today saw the passing of Patrick McGoohan and Ricardo Montalban, № 6 and the wrathful Khan, respectively. What a different world it might be, if McGoohan had played Mr Roarke on Fantasy Island. It should no doubt have gone much harder on Hervé Villechaize.

Today also, I was reminded that the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony has not released me, at all, from its fell grip.

But for now: back to The Isle of the Dead.

[ title courtesy of Greta Brannan ]

14 January 2009

Over a Beer in a Bar in Dedham

My bus back to Boston from Montreal had run almost two hours late (which made for a most tedious two hours in South Station for my wife and mom-in-law). While driving me home, one of the first bits of news that Maria shared was that I should check for an e-mail message from Paul. The funeral for former Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island was to be held that coming Monday at Trinity Church in Newport. As it was still holiday season, it proved not possible to get in touch with Trinity’s Interim Organist. Paul’s name arose as an alternate, and as the widow had heard him play, he was tapped. Time was short, and Paul and his wife, cellist Audrey were (as is often the case given their divers musical activities) stopped on the road . . . Paul was tapping out a brace of e-mail messages to me, and he and Audrey were madly (in only mild madness, I am assured) considering what to use for the Prelude, and I believe Audrey may have said, What about those pieces of Karl’s you played?

And thus it came to pass . . . a few notes of Henningmusick have now actually fallen upon the eardrums of a former US President (although Clinton had not committed at the time they took the Order of Service to press, he delivered one of the eulogies), of the Vice President-elect of the United States, and of the senior Senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And the widow of the draughtsman of the Pell Grant, heard some music composed by a former grantee.

Especially with the appearance of former President Bill Clinton, the event would be televised on C-Span, and there was some nervousness of attempt to see if the last few notes of the Henning Opus 34 might make it out on the broadcast (and thus be captured in video); but in the event, C-Span 2 cut to Newport only when the Service proper was already in progress. At the conclusion of the service, though, one saw a bit of Paul playing the Widor Toccata on camera.

Assorted patches of news:

Artist Mark Stephenson has a show which opens at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on Friday, 23 January.

Naxos is releasing disc 2 of the Pacifica Quartet’s Elliott Carter set in February. The quartets with which I am already acquainted are some of my favorite not sure if I understand it, but I like it music. (I do think that [ the music I like ] should be a larger category than [ the music I completely understand ].)

Patch of non-news:

Lately revisited the Shostakovich Thirteenth Symphony, setting poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. One quatrain from “A Career”:

Зачем их грязью покрывали?
Талант – талант, как ни клейми.
Забыты те, кто проклинали,
но помнят тех, кого кляли.
Why was mud heaped on them?
Talent is talent, like a seal.
Forgotten are those who flung curses,

But we remember them who were cursed.

13 January 2009

And He's Beautiful

Perhaps we are at a moment of renaissance for Schoenberg, and in after years we might say it started in Boston, with James Levine’s two-season Beethoven-&-Schoenberg pairings. Levine’s programming drew a great deal of noise, it drew the predictable “protest absenteeism” from a certain percentage of subscribers, and (as Levine himself expected) it drew a hitherto-untapped audience-group of listeners genuinely interested in Schoenberg, and for whom the prospect of hearing The Usual Suspects (nice though they all are) is insufficient magnetism towards Huntington Avenue.

And then, too, Deutsche Grammophon released a disc of Hilary Hahn playing (gasp!) the Schoenberg Concerto — and it has been well received.

Now, Bruce Hodges reports on NY Phil conductor-designate Alan Gilbert’s plans for his first season. And Gilbert points out that, by his reckoning, the NY Phil hasn’t played a premiere in an opener since 1962 (when Bernstein led Copland’s Connotations); and what Bruce calls his secret agenda: Schoenberg is beautiful.

The Press Office would like to calm everyone’s fears, and reassurance is firm that C Major remains alive and well still.

12 January 2009

Music in State

11 January 2009

The Continuing Adventures in Schoenberg

. . . Krenek says the design of an opera must be
like that of a potpourri.

If music is frozen architecture, then the potpourri is frozen coffee-table gossip, instability caught in the act, a parody of all logical thinking. It is justified, to any degree at all, only as a harmless travesty; it behaves as people behave when they get together socially — jumping from one thing to another, so that an egg-recipe suggests Columbus, a match a risqué story, and the decline of the world a boxing match — all involuntary associations against which primitive brains are defenceless, to which they succumb, being able to link them only by the word 'and': A and X. Potpourri is the art of adding apples to pears; its law applies ithout being able to divide, and it multiplies through non-repetition. It is an accumulation, a mass of things adding up to nothing.

From "Glosses on the Theories of Others" (1929)

10 January 2009

Or: He Is Largely Right, Although . . . .

Trying to play a guitar solo in this band is like
trying to grow a watermelon in Easter hay.
— Frank Zappa

In this post of mine, I expressed relieved pleasure (or it may have been pleased relief) that someone else out there (in this case, Jno Bellman on Dial "M" for Musicology) saw through a certain variety of projective cultural narcissism.

Also on Dial "M", Phil Ford picks a most reasonable quarrel (though with a title apt to rile a few Bach-o-philes) with a tag to a rhetorical question:

[Bellman] :: How can any of us be sure how people's minds worked? Particularly people whose minds are better than ours, by many parsecs?

In brief, Mr Ford's point that the mind of the artistic genius differs from the everyday mind (for the most part) in degree, rather than in kind, is well taken. But, I think that Mr Bellman's tag there is honorific, in a way inessential to the point of his rh. q. I think there is some middle ground to be struck between Mr Bellman's uncertainty, and Mr Ford's pragmatism of [having] to proceed from the assumption that other minds work basically the same way as ours.

Art is I; science is we.
— Claude Bernard

To adapt Mr Bellman's example, it seems to me fair to claim that when I proof a choral octavo, I [do X]; when Vaughan Williams proofed a choral octavo, he [did X]. There's ample field for presuming much the same functionality, particularly regarding the more 'mechanical' tasks within the broad umbrella of composition; but the creative work, that's something of another matter.

A neighbor elsewhere, in the course of discussing the question of genius, observes:

Einstein was clearly a genius, but had he been run over by bus in 1904 someone else would have worked out special and general relativity. Had JS Bach died in 1700 we would not have the WTC.
And why? Because Einstein's discoveries are out there in the natural world, awaiting (one might say) comprehension. Apart from the unique circumstances which result in a composer's writing it, the work of music is not. And while I should agree with Mr Ford that other minds work basically the same way as ours, two ancillary concerns which I see in the present topic are: if there is variety in personality 'type', how might this translate to differences in the workings of mind; and (to build on Mr Bellman's question), how can I be sure that Beethoven's compositional mind works the same as mine, when there is a limit to how well I might elucidate my own process, the compositional experience I walk through myself?

09 January 2009

Indeed, a Most Absolute and Excellent Violin Concerto

(brought to my attention by a 'virtual friend')

Also this year you talked of Elgar, and the newspapers said that he was ill.

If you see him will you present my constant pleasure in his music, whether human rendered or from my box? Nobody who makes sounds gets so inside my defences as he does, with his 2nd Symphony and Violin Concerto. Say that if the 3rd Symphony has gone forward from those, it will be a thrill to ever so many of us. He was inclined to grumble that the rewards of making music were not big, in the bank-book sense; but by now he should be seeing that bank-books will not interest him much longer. I feel more and more, as I grow older, the inclination to throw everything away and live on air. We all allow ourselves to need too much.

T.E. Lawrence to Mrs Charlotte Shaw, August 23, 1933

08 January 2009

Four Firsts, Compared

Shostakovich Symphony № 1 in F Minor, Opus 10

López-Cobos, Cincinnati: Excellently played, and there is a cleanness and transparency (both in the sonics and the performance) which is part of what, for me, means excitement (so long as the music itself is exciting, of course). This was the recording by which I first got well acquainted with the piece. I don't believe that this means that it's the recording to which I expect all subsequent recordings to sound similar . . . but it has always felt to me a faithful and stimulating account of the score, and its merits have held up well as I have listened to other recordings.

Ancerl, Cz Phil: Good sound, though slightly dated (a bit more so than a number of other Ancerl Gold Edition recordings I've heard). Nothing fatal, only there are moments (such as the measure of divided basses / divided celli / divided firsts and seconds, five bars before the Allegro molto of the last movement) one dreams of such an account of the piece favored by the sonic advantages of the López-Cobos, for instance. Something I should mention, which I have gotten used to discounting in favor of other benefits of these Ancerl & al. recordings of the Cz Phil: the flavor of the winds is a bit different, there's often a little more 'flexibility' in some of the woodwinds (not reaching the degree to be called a warble), and there are times when the brass tone is not so solid as I tend, what?, to be used to, or to prefer, or whatever; nonetheless, overall and 95% of the time, the tone is good, and certainly markedly better than some vintage Russian orchestra recordings I have heard, e.g.

The second movement is especially interesting. The opening Allegro is nicely driven, just half a notch perhaps faster than in the López-Cobos, but very excitingly 'locked in' and not a runaway train. It seems to be something of a liberty (though Ancerl makes it work) but he takes the Meno mosso (where the flutes start in the repeated perfect fifths) a bit under tempo — it feels almost eighty-ish to the quarter, rather than the 100 marked. But the contrast to the opening material, the return to the first theme in the slower tempo, and the subsequent accelerando back to Tempo I, are all very nice.

Should say here that both López-Cobos and Ancerl start that accelerando a few bars before it is notated in the score; they both make it fit the character.

Barshai, WDR: First off the sound environment is more resonant than in any of the other recordings I've heard. That does not make any of these others less 'warm', but there are quite a few points in the Barshai where things get muddy, to the disadvantage of a very nicely colored score (the eight-part string choir measure I mentioned above, for instance, hardly seems like an event here).

As with the Presto of the Ninth Symphony in the same set, there are half a dozen places, perhaps, where things don't sound together, or under control, or either, and given the cloudy acoustics, there's a bit more mush than I like. A particularly 'fuzzy' moment — at a point where you really don't want fuzz — is five bars before the end of the piece. The four-bar tutti sustained chord has just cut off, and the trumpets, trombones, tuba and side drum come in; the brass seem all together enough, but they and the side drum don't quite match.

(These is by no means a general problem; the synchronization of the two clarinets, strings and cymbals at the Allegro molto of the last movement is above reproach, for instance.)

One instance of particularly mourning the 'cloud': the piano trills in octaves accompanying the horn solo in a Meno mosso section of the last movement get sort of swallowed up.

Oh! And peculiarly, of these four recordings, Barshai is the only one to rush the Lento.

Bernstein, CSO: In many ways a powerful reading, partly just because of the sound of the band and the quality of the recording. There are a couple of characterizations which seem a shade unorthodox on Bernstein's part (perhaps a bit more like Mahler — or even, a bit more like the Fourth or Seventh Symphony — than like Shostakovich the Wunderkind at the Leningrad Conservatory) but they carry off well, all the same. The march-like tune in the first theme group of the first movement (clarinet solo against low strings beating time) is a little more ponderous and menacing, than like a "Symphony-Grotesque"; and Lenny gives the waltzing second theme an expanded, nigh-unto-fin-de-siècle lilt, which is unlike any other reading I've heard in this piece.

Bernstein makes more of the tutti sections of this predominantly chamber-textured symphony than the other three in my mini-survey, but the effect is organic, never excessive. This is one of those Bernstein interpretations (like the Sibelius Sixth with the NY Phil) which, if I cannot quite endorse some of the decisions in principle, the performance itself is justification enough.

This was a survey I undertook in March of 2007 . . . and I should add remarks on the Maksim Shostakovich (Prague Symphony) and Kondrashin (Moscow Phil) recordings.


07 January 2009

He's Right, You Know

On Dial "M" for Musicology, Jno Bellman waxes enraged (righteously) over the error of taking one's own musical experience, and claiming that it is normative for all places and times:

Here is an illustration. “Look, when I compose a symphony, I [do X]; when Beethoven composed a symphony, he [did X].” I swear, that’s an exact quote of something I once heard. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or weep.

[ from A Fallacy Needing A Name ]
In more than a decade of higher schooling, from when I arrived at The College of Wooster in 1981, until I returned to the University at Buffalo to defend my doctoral dissertation in 1996, I don't ever recall speaking with anyone in person who labored under any such misapprehension; but if I've seen it on the wing over the Internet once, I've seen it five-score times.

(Much of the time, it's an even worse variety, e.g.: I like [piece of music X] better than I do [piece of music Y]; and anyone with musical taste and sensitive ears will perforce agree with me, because this preference of mine reflects an 'Absolute Aesthetic Ranking'.)

Honestly (and doesn't this tie in neatly) I'm relieved simply to find that another musician is crying out against this.

06 January 2009

[...] Because I Could and It Was the 80s

(One friend's justification for growing a mustache.)

Had an inquiry after more, really, as my publisher shortly after took an order for 20 octavos and percussion parts for Timbrel & Dance, a psalm setting whose memory still sends tremors of fear along the spines of some choristers who participated in the première.

For a few years previous, much of the sacred choral music which had been asked of me was to be sung by a small choir of modest musical means. A composer rises to the challenge of writing within a certain ensemble's technical abilities, of course. Still, over time, I felt that I wanted to write something more, leave us say, gnarly for choir.

Then, too, there arose the possibility of having such a piece sung by the choir at St Paul's in Boston, then under the most capable direction of Mark Engelhardt, who would take care to rehearse the piece amply.

Subject to subsequent memory-jogging . . . I don't recall at the moment just why I lit on the idea of three percussionists accompanying the choir. Maybe it is as simple a matter as this: that I started sketching the tenor-bass ostinato which sets the piece in motion, and spontaneously felt that some rhythmic counterpoint would be just the thing. Memories of taking part in Scott DeVeaux's African drumming seminar in Charlottesville, still vivid years later, were probably part of the driver there.

Even when the tenor and bass are together (rhythmically), it demands some attention and precision from them; and then when the tenor pulls 'out of phase' from the bass (m.41ff, e.g.) there does not remain even the shadow of a margin of error.

There were moments where suggestions from the text inspired 'turns' in the setting, such as Praise him with the trumpet-call which finds musical application the soprano/alto Hallelujah in mm. 35-36; and the sopranos divisi in seconds for loud-clanging cymbals (m.91ff.).

Even allowing for a few things which ideally should be fixed, the première is a fair document of the piece:

[ recording ]

05 January 2009

Two Years Since

Work on White Nights continues. Intermezzo II is done, and Intermezzo III is nearing done-ness.

Program is now settled for the 7 March recital at St Paul’s, assisted by a violist and cellist. The cellist, though, has begged off Terpsichore in Marble for the present, and Plan B must be a new clarinet solo which should be finished in a few days, Irreplaceable Doodles.

The St Paul’s choir will sing Bless the Lord, O My Soul in a few weeks. Perhaps even the Magnificat. Nuhro has been scheduled for a concert at Eastern Nazarene College in April.

[ 22 Jan 07 ]


Intermezzo III was indeed finished shortly thereafter; I also finished Irreplaceable Doodles in good time, and did play it on the 7 March recital . . . which wound up being a solo recital. And, in the event, a recital with which I was pleased.

The concert at Eastern Nazarene College never materialized.

We did sing the Magnificat on 18 March 07, but it was rather dicier than the composer quite liked.

04 January 2009

Cagey Bridgekeeper

Today wraps it up for the special exhibit currently in the Gund Gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston:

Like the Napoleon exhibit not long since, Assyria proved not a big draw of the public. A pity, as both exhibits struck me as magnificent, and beautifully laid out by the curator.

It is sorry to see such exhibits neglected (relatively); perhaps the general public here are trending towards forgetfulness that great canvases form only part of a fine museum's holdings, and that there is value both aesthetic and historical in spending a little time gazing directly at the dinner-table furnishings of the Corsican-soldier-turned-Emperor, and at a cuneiform-etched clay “document” from the ninth century before Christ.

On a less sober note, I must confess that this exhibit first made me think of Terry Gilliam’s question, posed to a Sir Robin who little understood his peril, at the Bridge of Death. It may be time, in fact, to consider a little too closely some apparently effortless comedy . . . .

Bridgekeeper: Stop! Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
Sir Launcelot: Ask me the questions, Bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.
Br.: What is your name?
Sir L.: My name is Sir Launcelot of Camelot.
Br.: What is your quest?
Sir L.: To seek the Holy Grail.
Br.: What is your favorite color?
Sir L.: Blue.
Br,: Right. Off you go.
Sir L.: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.
Sir Robin: That's easy!
Br.: Stop! Who approacheth the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
Sir R.: Ask me the questions, Bridgekeeper. I'm not afraid.
Br.: What is your name?
Sir R.: Sir Robin of Camelot.
Br.: What is your quest?
Sir R.: To seek the Holy Grail.
Br.: What is the capital of Assyria?
Sir R.: I don't know that! Auuuuuuuugh!
Br.: Stop! What is your name?
Sir Galahad: Sir Galahad of Camelot.
Br.: What is your quest?
Sir G.: I seek the Grail.
Br.: What is your favorite color?
Sir G.: Blue. No yelauuuuuuuugh!

Maybe you’ve seen it once, maybe you’ve seen it twenty times, and it’s funny, so we might leave funny enough alone. But like much of Pythonoid work, it’s funnier than you think, or smarter (and yet, funny in its smarts).

First, of course, is the mythic allusion to the hero needing to solve a riddle to continue his way, and the perils of getting it wrong. Launcelot (the Brave One) gets off easy with the absurd question of his favorite color.

Then, Robin (not at all brave) bellies up to the bar, only to be stumped by the question which nominally ties this skit to my blog post. He plunges to his death; probably doesn’t even have time to soil his armor (again).

Galahad then has it easy, but muffs it . . . he doesn’t get his favorite color right. Now, this is the part that I find particularly funny.

It echoes a sort of “Aesthetics 101” discussion I have from time to time, for the fact is, Gentle Reader, I cannot (or, in principle, I refuse to) settle upon a single favorite book, or composer, or piece of music. (Or color, for the matter of that.) This aspect of the matter makes even the Bridgekeeper’s ‘easy question’ an occasion for a tickle. (That’s all right, I’ve been called strange before now.)

Nor are we done yet, because the responses of the two knights who fielded the color question aptly reflect their characterization through the course of the script. Launcelot is a testosterone-fueled cloth-head who charges in slaughtering wedding-guests right and left in his efforts to rescue, well, Herbert as it turned out. He gives the Bridgekeeper a straight answer “blue” without any thought, and off he goes. Galahad, who after earnest attempts to resist the temptations at Castle Anthrax, at the last finds that he could stay a bit longer . . . he equivocates on the matter of a favorite color, and he’s sprung to his death, too.

But perhaps Galahad had philosophic reservations about lighting on one favorite color. We shall never know.

03 January 2009

winter’s tale

opera’s beginning
they know it’s love
they feel that
at the final curtain
they will make a nice
couple but the composer
makes them sing in different keys

he writes their parts on two separate
corners of his desk
on a blanket on the sidewalk
powder falling from the sky
shaken from carillon starlight
an opera winter night
twinkling flickering tintinnabra
shining clappers in deep blue belfry
ringing winter into my ears

i saw myself dreaming
and myself dreamt of me
sitting at a desk where the me
meant to get some work done
the me had got as far as
lifting the my hands to the desk-top
fingertips danced

curtain fell
i would have written before now
but my hand was resting so comfortably
on the unsmudgeably blank sheets

(... winter’s tale)

02 January 2009

Loss of a Masterpiece

Never thought I'd see the day
Playing with my life this way.

— Sting, The Police (“Deathwish”)

Reading the final chapter (“The Silence of Järvenpää”) of Rickards’ book on Sibelius is a bit like watching Titanic: you know how it’s going to end, and cannot feel good about it; but there is a fascination with the progress of events, and (I think) even more important than this fascination, there is speculation on how things might have gone otherwise, to avoid disaster.

The disaster in the case of Sibelius is, of course, the composer’s act of destroying a basket of his MSS., apparently including the Eighth Symphony whose premiere he once promised to Boston’s Serge Koussevitsky.

I will not here recapitulate that story, partly because to tell it in brief is perforce a kind of infidelity, partly because it would be spoiler (!)

Read the book.

01 January 2009

Welcome to MMIX, Folks!

Dare untiringly to pursue excellence.