A Good Time to Listen

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

This is a very long article that I might not finish any time soon, but what I have read is quite interesting. My thanks to reader Snedcat for pointing it out.

Heather MacDonald of City Journal argues that, at least in many respects, no time is like the present for lovers of classical music. She takes as her point of departure a comparison of what things are like now versus what they were like in the nineteenth century, as seen through the eyes of Hector Berlioz:

As the maverick French composer tours mid-nineteenth-century Europe conducting his revolutionary works, he encounters orchestras unable to play in tune and conductors who can't read scores. A Paris premiere of a Berlioz cantata fizzles when a missed cue sets off a chain reaction of paralyzed silence throughout the entire sorry band. Most infuriating to this champion of artistic integrity, publishers and conductors routinely bastardize the scores of Mozart, Beethoven, and other titans, conforming them to their own allegedly superior musical understanding or to the narrow taste of the public.

Berlioz's exuberant tales of musical triumph and defeat constitute the most captivating chronicle of artistic passion ever written. They also lead to the conclusion that, in many respects, we live in a golden age of classical music. Such an observation defies received wisdom, which seizes on every symphony budget deficit to herald classical music’s imminent demise. But this declinist perspective ignores the more significant reality of our time: never before has so much great music been available to so many people, performed at levels of artistry that would have astounded Berlioz and his peers. Students flock to conservatories and graduate with skills once possessed only by a few virtuosi. More people listen to classical music today, and more money gets spent on producing and disseminating it, than ever before. Respect for a composer's intentions, for which Berlioz fought so heroically, is now an article of faith among musicians and publishers alike.
There's no denying that -- as MacDonald notes in this article and has indirectly commented on before -- "the tidal wave of creation that generated the masterpieces we so magnificently perform is spent." Nevertheless, it is interesting how scientific and technological advances are at least making what there is so readily accessible and at such better fidelity to the original wishes of the artists.

-- CAV


Jason said...

While we're on the topic of classical music, I'll venture to make a recommendation....

I've taken a recent liking to Mozart's Sonata No. 18.


It's a basic, joyous melody tightly constructed.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the recommendation!

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, I have a number of thoughts inspired by her article, but I'll limit myself to two or three and keep the length short so's to make just one comment per point.

First, you write, "Nevertheless, it is interesting how scientific and technological advances are at least making what there is so readily accessible and at such better fidelity to the original wishes of the artists." I would add another example of the benefits of technology and a fairly free market for classical music: There's a cornucopia of specialized or just small record labels for people who love a particular period or type of concert music, and many of them have a distinctive founder's touch to their repertoire and sound. This is certainly true for early music, but many other niches have impressive devoted labels as well--wind band music, music for percussion ensemble, even chamber music from the Romantic era (which is surprisingly underplayed and appreciated).

For example, one of my favorite labels is a German one, CPO (Classik-Productions Osnaburg, I think), which has a very wide catalog of early music, Romantic chamber music, and the less ear-curdling 20th century concert music as well; I like to joke that my dream is somehow to be in the right place to save the company's president from drowning, so that he can show his thanks by letting me take a shopping basket through one of his warehouses. Another is ECM, which has a peculiar catalog of contemporary classical and jazz music; the former are a mixed bag for sure, the latter routinely excellent. (Another label with the same feature is Innova; those you must audition beforehand unless jazz.) And there are others worth at least a mention, such as Bis (specializing in Scandinavian and Baltic composers, a much-underrated bunch with a lot of talent), Crystal (a label devoted to wind and percussion music), New World, Albany, and New Albion (American concert music from throughout the nation's history, and so with very mixed bags), and Lyrita (specializing in British composers), just off the top of my head. There's a lot more out there besides Sony/Phillips/Decca/EMI/etc.

Snedcat said...

And a couple thoughts about Mac Donald's article. First, she discusses the idea of musical teleology: "But the greatest difference between the musical past and present is what we might call musical teleology: the belief that music progresses over time." In some ways it does: One of the reasons Romantic music is distinctively different from what went before is because of advances in musical technology in the 19th century--improvements in instrument design that extended the ranges of many instruments (especially winds) and made playing them ever easier, never mind the creation of new instruments (the modern piano and saxes, for example). These technical changes are part of the reason performance practice changed so with the 19th century, though the social factors are equally important: Larger ensembles, the rise of virtuosi performers with mass audiences, and an increasing scale to music as pieces were written increasingly large and ponderous.

She mentions as a result the way performers of early music have to dig deep in the hitorical record to recover contemporary performance practice; as she mentions, the result is music much sprightlier and vivacious than you'd get from the virtuosi steeped in 19th century practice even as late as the 1980s (Isaac Stern, for example, whom she quotes--he's well worth listening to if the music's by Beethoven or later, but Heaven spare us him doing Bach).

Now, it's probably true that earlier composers would have universally rejoiced to have current musical resources to write music for, but they didn't; instead they wrote the best music they could for the musicians and instruments they had at the time, and that is why the early music movement has been so fruitful: It's rather like hearing poetry written in Middle English read in accordance with the contemporary pronunciation, not the modern, for the differences in the language itself combined with different poetic techniques to make a sound that fits the period well but which gets lost if modern pronunciations are used.

Snedcat said...

And another point about musical teleology. One can certainly make the point that advances in musical technology and practice (for training has steadily improved, unquestionably, over the past couple of centuries) give a certain teleological trend, but there are stronger claims that the music itself is objectively better as time goes on. The trouble there is the same as with any claim of historical inevitability--it sets up the bandwagon of history as the standard of morality or quality, and unless you take an entirely passive view of the matter and accept the newer as better just because it is newer, you're in trouble when your own tastes fall out of fashion. Or, more realistically, you have to realize that the bandwagon of history is irrelevant--instead, you're making esthetic claims that should be made on their own terms, supported by developing a system of musical criticism, and never mind the vagaries of history.

So, I have heard lovers of Romantic symphonies argue that Romantic music is objectively better than classical-period music because of progression in technique, scope, comprehensiveness, or what-not, and in fact you could make an interesting argument along those lines by looking at the changes in composition by Mozart, Beethoven, Johann Christian Bach, or whomever as new instruments came on the scene; however, the argument breaks down when you get to the 20th century, in which ever greater technique and proficiency was used to play ever more arid music. (And yes, some critics claim this arid music was the culmination of musical history--not just Schoenberg and company, but such critics as Theodor Adorno.)

So, in a nutshell, I remember once commenting to a friend in the presence of a pianist that Grove's Dictionary of Music was very much of its time in the claim, for example, that Rachmaninoff was nothing but a second-rate epigone of Medtner and Taneyev (both talented composers, but Medtner was in fact an epigone of his friend Rachmaninoff and Taneyev, one of Rachmanionoff's teachers, was equally second rate). The pianist replied, "I agree with that. If Rachmaninoff had lived 30 years earlier, he'd have been a great composer, but as it was, he was a reactionary throwback to a dead past." So, musical greatness is determined by influence? To some extent, yes, but musical worth is not, and it is the conflation of greatness (that is, influence on one's times) and worth that's troublesome there. And when you've disentangled the two for yourself, you can see how good music by long-past, often obscure composers is worth digging out for its own sake--though whether you care to listen to older music to get accultured to alien performance practices is one's own judgement by one's own values. Fortunately, the contemporary scene allows that acculturation as easily and painlessly as one could wish for.

Snedcat said...

And some more thoughts about musical teleology and early music. In a comment to another post, I mentioned the label CPO. I especially delight in their recordings of classical-era wind music, of which there is a massive amount yet to be recorded. It's wonderful stuff--light, zippy, melodic, and showing a lot of talent. Composers throughout the Hapsburg Empire wrote a lot of it, especially in Vienna; wind musicians were routinely hired to play the music on the streets (serenades, for example, being played in the evenings), say to catch the ear of a romantic interest or to liven up a party, and many of the musicians were Bohemians--literally. (That was an interesting consequence of the destruction of the Hussites; the religious tendencies the Hussites represented were turned inward and led to, among other things, widespread musical education throughout Bohemia.) Composers in turn wrote a lot of music for wind musicians because the social scene of the time made it quite easy to gain a public audience for your music that way, as well as making for a ready supply of skilled wind musicians for chamber music and concert music as well.

In addition, at the time the symphony and the string quartet were only just being created and articulated as the major forms of absolute music, so talented composers wrote substantial music for a wide variety of musical ensembles without feeling compelled to craft their strongest efforts for the symphony or quartet. The most famous composer of such music was Mozart, of course; his wind serenades and divertimenti are probably the pinnacles of this wind music, and perfectly Viennese. On the other hand, Beethoven wrote a few pieces for these ensembles early in his career, but he of course was the fellow who made the symphony and string quartet the ultimate works of musical art for 19th century Europe (or at least the more Germanic parts of it) and didn't devote much effort to wind music, in which his contemporaries followed him overwhelmingly.

So, the naive teleological view would be that wind music simply wasn't as substantial as the concert orchestra or the string quartet, which naturally came to the fore because they were ideally suited to musical progress. (And of course throw in the development of the concert piano.) And the naivest view would be that this meant that all that Viennese wind music was by the nature of the medium less capable of expressing whatever it was that musical progress required and is thus of less inherent musical worth and therefore has been justly forgotten--Mozart's wind music is worth listening to, but even it was the last flourishing of a musical dead end, and the rest of it must therefore be even less worth hearing. (I'm sure someone has made each of those points at some time in the past, but it's more an unspoken attitude than anything else.)

But in fact this music is of high quality, by many lesser-known fine composers like Krommer, the Stamitzes, Hoffmeister, and even Johann Christian Bach (J.S.'s fourth son, and my favorite of the brood); even if the tradition didn't flourish outside Vienna in the 19th century, it's a substantial body of worthy music. If you look at music teleologically, you'd be likely to pass a lot of it by; but the revival of early music has allowed it to be played on its own terms, which really is all it takes, I think, to enable it to make its true worth known. And it provokes another thought, for the next comment...

Snedcat said...

And finally (I think), to tie together a number of threads I left hanging, remember what I mentioned about the great improvements in wind instruments throughout the 19th century. Music that Mozart wrote for the most virtuosic clarinetists, flautists, and oboists of his day is easy for our moderns, and that is due to the great improvements in the instruments themselves--improved designs, keying mechanisms, and so on. An important figure there was Theobald Boehm, who's well worth reading about:


So surely the composers of the 19th century must have leapt on these improvements with gusto, right? Well, yes and no. They seized on them for better orchestral writing, but not for solo or chamber music for them. Classical music of the Romantic era shows a great elaboration of resources and techniques, but a marked straitening of musical forms. For example, if you're immersed in 19th century concert music like most classical music lovers are, it's perfectly natural for almost all great concertos to be piano or violin concertos, but why just those two? Why are there so few Romantic cello concertos--Schumann, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, and in a way Brahms's Double Concerto, but no other substantial ones (Lalo wrote a very fine one, for example, that has only in the past two decades entered the standard repertoire)? And once you pass to other instruments, you find virtually no major concertos for them from the 19th century (and to find the ones that were written, you generally have to go to the specialized labels).

Snedcat said...

Okay, next part, cut off the last one for length.

So, at the same time that the wind instruments were improving by leaps and bounds, composers were uniformly considering them minor instruments most valuable for their contributions to the sound of the full orchestra. Part of this is due to the fact that concert music was getting bigger and louder, so most instruments would have been too soft to play against a full orchestra without special scoring, unlike pianos and violins, so you can make a teleological argument there, but it's not a historically inevitable development unless you see the increase in loudness and scale throughout the 19th century as historically inevitable (and some critics did--the growth of orchestras paralleled the growth of the modern state, yadda yadda yadda, huzzah Hegel and all that).

Instead, it was a result of the esthetic sense of the age, which aimed for ever-larger artistic statements in an effort to mirror human grandeur in the universe; that's why the music from the Romantic era has so many adherents and so many great works. At the same time, it had a certain ponderousness and Teutonic austerity of purpose that the symphony and string quartet were suited to (or at least most readily made suited to), while the Viennese wind music I started from was too trivial, light, and unserious. (Too wedded to melody, too influenced by Italian opera, even one might say too Catholic and ceremonial.)

And there it hearkens back to an old divide between North German and South German culture, the former austerer in a Protestant vein, the latter more cosmopolitan (lots of Italian, Bohemian, and even Ottoman music was beloved by the Viennese listening public) and worldly. In fact, the two sons of J.S. Bach symbolize this divide. Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, J.S.'s second son, was austere in the northern line, partly by force of circumstance--he became a court composer for Frederick the Great, a talented flautist with very conservative tastes in the French line, and had to write the music Berlin society preferred; after he got out of his contract in the 1770s, he moved to Hamburg, where he flourished writing a rather wider style of music for private patrons. (He wrote a set of six string symphonies once he arrived in Hamburg, the Hamburg Symphonies, that are a great joy and that must have given him great joy in writing, for example.)

His half-brother Johann Christian, on the other hand, was much more Viennese in his tastes; he actually converted to Catholicism so that he could become an organist at an Italian cathedral (Milan, I think), and he wrote superlative music in the gallant style--very melodic and Italianate. (His music was a big hit in London, where he spent much of the last years of his life.) Haydn and Beethoven admired C.P.E. Bach, while J.C. Bach was a close friend of Mozart's and the only living composer Mozart admired (almost) as much as Haydn; and it was the esthetic sense of C.P.E. Bach, not J.C. Bach, that carried over into German music of the 19th century. (Of course, I can't help adding, if C.P.E. and J.C. had not been J.S.'s sons, they would have been better remembered, I think; they had the misfortune not only of writing music that fell out of style, but of writing music usually different from their father's, and not as good as his music when they did try his favored forms--damned if they did, damned if they didn't.)

Anyway, I'll stop here; it's enough of a mosaic I've written as it is and no need to cover more walls with it.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, just thought of a pair of comments. Heh, so much for saying my fill...

First, an interesting historical connection: One of the religious organizations founded on the ideas of Jan Hus after his execution for heresy was the Moravian Brotherhood, which spread throughout Central Europe and later to America--and in the late colonial period and the early republic the Moravians were famous for their musical attainments, again because the Hussite religious tradition was very musical. The Brotherhood held concerts in Salem, North Carolina, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at which many European works were premiered in the US, and which Americans travelled long distances to attend. (Take that, Boston and New York, you laggards!) There are even a number of European works that only survive in Moravian archives, if I remember aright. (One Moravian composer in the US was David Moritz Michael, who wrote some excellent wind music worth keeping an ear out for.)

Second, an interesting article taking exception to one particular strand of musical teleology, the position of Schoenberg's serialism as the historically inevitable culmination of the Germanic musical tradition, is the following blog post by Kyle Gann, a contemporary composer and one-time critic for the Village Voice:


I think his estimate of serial music is quite just.

Gus Van Horn said...


As you know, I may not get to all these comments for some time, but I do look forward to reading them (and finishing the Heather MacDonald piece) once I can.

In the meantime, I wouldn't be surprised if some of my other readers enjoy these.