Archive for idle thoughts

Separating composers’ lives from their music

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

This is very difficult, isn’t it? We really want the composers whose work we admire to be admirable on a personal level too, even though we have no right to expect them to be any different from the rest of us. Speaking for myself, I’m afraid their perceived personalities do affect my ability to enter wholeheartedly into their music. I’m not happy about this: even though I reject all that old structuralist stuff about the sanctity of the text, as if music didn’t have a human creator behind it, I find myself quite conflicted over some works that I would otherwise love, because some reported awfulness in the composer gets in the way.

Just as one example, because I have the book to hand here, Michael Kennedy’s Portrait of Elgar refers to him as an “often dislikeable man, a flawed human being but a blazing genius as a composer”.

I think very few great composers are or were “nice” people, however lovely their music. Beethoven was notoriously volatile and moody (well, he was deaf), I’m sure I’d have found Mozart rather tiresomely rude, Wagner was probably tolerable as long as the subject of the conversation was how great his music was, Schoenberg’s difficulties with just about everyone are legendary (some of his replies to American students who wrote to him about his music are dripping with sarcasm), and although Otto Klemperer said Stravinsky was always courteous and polite, that doesn’t seem to have extended to anyone he regarded as his social inferior.

This can be explained by the need of a composer to exclude distractions, I suppose.

Sir Arthur Sullivan was a very easy man to get on with, by all accounts. He made friends easily and would do anything to avoid an argument. Some composers went to extraordinary lengths to avoid distractions (think of Mahler in his hut being driven mad by cowbells, finally demanding that they be removed), Sullivan would compose at his desk, with a large gin, away from the piano, pen in one hand and cigarette in the other, and hold conversations with people who came and went all at the same time.

I’ve always found musicians (great and small) to be very pleasant. The one exception was Sally Beamish. She was having a work premiered by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and was very off-hand when I attempted to talk to her. She also, when she was a mere violinist, ballsed up a piece of mine back in 1985.

As a result I’ve ignored her music as much as possible. Petty, I know.

So, you don’t like Wagner?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I first heard Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde nearly 30 years ago, hadn’t much of a clue what was going on, but the music gripped me like nothing else has ever done. I got to know all the mature operas very well, over time, but now many moons can pass by without hearing a note. However, once I almost reluctantly, and even with resistance, put one of his great dramas in the CD player, I am swept away all over again.

It’s intoxicating, heady, almost dangerous stuff, but that feeling of being swept away is like nothing else in all music.

I don’t care about Wagner’s family, his character, his beliefs, or what he liked for breakfast. I only care about the works. For me, they’re the greatest and most intense theatre pieces that I know, fathomless, inextinguishable and indestructible. I’ve seen them done superbly well and excruciatingly badly, and I regret more than I can say all the thousands of productions that I never saw and never shall see.

Many contemporary performances of Wagner seem wilfully to flout his intentions to the point where the music and theatre are almost divorced from one another. An “historically informed” production would be an interesting idea (as long as the orchestra also made use of gut strings, etc.) but it’s also worth bearing in mind that Wagner himself was a progressive thinker (at least concerning music and drama) who probably would not have approved of the petrification of his legacy begun by Cosima and continued by their descendants.

The question is whether whatever continuing relevance Wagner’s work has to other times and places is best served by attempting to reproduce his explicit instructions or not. For example, the action of Der Ring des Nibelungen takes place in a kind of mythical primeval past where time is only measured by the events of the story. Is this “timelessness” best expressed by using the pseudo-mediaeval trappings of its early productions? Or do we now have a different idea for what “timeless” might mean? (Wieland Wagner, for example, used the model of Greek tragedy.)

I wonder how many people, on hearing any piece of music for the first time, respond to anything other than the music itself? I bet they don’t usually go around asking whether the composer had beliefs they find repugnant, beat his wife, did even worse things to other people, had his music hijacked by other people who used it for nefarious ends, was a murderer, swindler, you name it … Obviously, if you start looking into the situation further you may well find out that sort of thing, but I doubt that initially it would colour your appreciation of any artist.

Let’s all listen to Schoenberg …

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I enjoy a lot of Schoenberg’s music, in the broadest sense of “enjoy”. It’s not really music to relax or wind down to, it can be so intensely personal and subjective, especially the works of the free atonal period, exhibiting a plethora of intense emotions which tend towards the dark side. I don’t expect any more than a minority of classical music listeners will ever want to listen to it on a regular basis, but I think it is unique and meaningful music (if very much a product of a particular time and place) and does have an importance for that reason.

Certainly all art is very much a product of its time and place – the question is whether it still has anything to say to people here and now? That sort of sensibility that comes through in Schoenberg – rootlessness, alienation, inhabiting a certain precipice within “high culture” and the social world it inhabits, etc., certainly speaks to me, but I don’t find it wholly surprising if many others don’t find it relevant to them.

Schoenberg’s life beyond the concert-hall – his listing by the Third Reich as “degenerate”, his escape to the United States, his life as an émigré, his teaching there, his prominent position as a Jewish refugee – brought his name to a greater prominence than many of his contemporaries. His name became a byword for a kind of purposed complexity and intellectual rigour in music … to a wider public who’d never heard a note of it, but had heard of Arnold Schoenberg.

And they fervently believed that this Schoenberg man represented the very summation of everything they wouldn’t like in music, and should be avoided like the plague.

John Cage: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Of course he’s not a composer, but he’s an inventor … of genius.
(Arnold Schoenberg)

A composer with often serious intentions, who was perceived a bit too gimmicky by many people.

Too many musicologists and journalists have had a field day spewing out more column inches about Cage’s ideas than his music (which perhaps says something about the influence of his ideas vis-à-vis the value of his music) and in so doing elevating his status disproportionately high, versus contemporaneous musical explorers such as (for example) Cowell, Harrison, Hovhaness, Partch or Rudhyar.

History tends to sort itself out within a century or two.

Aria and The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, both performed by Cathy Berberian were the first works by Cage I ever heard. I was hooked. Aria is a wonderful, beautiful musical work. I recall a particularly effective performance by Sarah Walker, as part of a Cage retrospective organised by Tim Souster, if I recall correctly, back in the 1970s. Her superficial visual resemblance at that time to Cathy Berberian was exploited to the full.

I suppose that, over the years, I must have listened to at least half of Cage’s output at one time or another but, whilst I see no reason not to take him seriously, he deserves to be taken seriously on his own terms, not those of someone else. It is hard to forget what Schoenberg said of his one-time student but, for me, it is Cage’s way of taking nothing for granted that marks him out as someone worthy of note; Albumasar has put it succinctly with the words:

Something that could be characterised as a “musical” quality of attention, a heightened awareness of the relation between sound(s) and time which we associate with music … it isn’t a question of learning special techniques as a listener so much as opening listeners’ “sense of music” to a much wider range of experiences, whether a frog plopping into a pond as in the famous haiku or a pneumatic drill on a building site …

This, to me, is what characterises Cage’s rôle in the musical life of his time.

My own listening experiences nevertheless have led me to get little out of Cage, but that’s a very personal matter and not intended as any kind of value judgement. Whilst a good deal of the gimmickry of which Cage has been accused by some has its origins largely in the imaginations of the accusers (i.e. I do not see Cage as the kind of artist who would set out to do that kind of thing for its own sake), I have to admit that the Cage pieces that I find the most disappointing of all are those that would perhaps be least likely to attract such accusations in the first place, such as the string quartet pieces and the Freeman Études.

As to the “frog ploppng into a pond” and the “pneumatic drill on a building site”, I cannot help but think that Cage did himself few favours or helped his real cause when he stated that he had never heard any sound that he hadn’t enjoyed; I’m not for one moment suggesting that this wasn’t true but, taken purely at face value, it could be interpreted as seeking to undermine a sense of discrimination.


John Cage’s 4’33”

Scordatura: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Scordatura (simply retuning of the strings from their conventional pitches) is not a technique exclusive to modern music; it dates back to the 16th century, when it was employed by French lutenists, then taken up for the violin by many composers, most notable of whom was Biber. After falling out of fashion in the 18th century (though employed for the viola part in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 for violin and viola), many 19th century violin treatises mention it (including that of Baillot from 1834), and it was a speciality of Paganini, and after him de Bériot, Vieuxtemps, and others. Also employed in Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

The technique is also common in much non-classical music, especially amongst folk fiddlers in various places. It’s questionable how meaningful the term is when alternative tunings can themselves become standard (as apparently an a-e-a-e tuning is in parts of Scotland and North America).

It is also impossible to play Nick Drake’s songs on the guitar because nobody knows how he tuned the instrument for different songs.

The Biber Rosary Sonatas are surely the classic examples where each sonata is tuned differently. On the only occasion when I heard them performed live the violinist (Elizabeth Wallfisch) had three different violins, each of which was immediately tuned for its own next sonata once it had been played, laid down, and then retuned again when its turn came round. It’s actually a bit of a palaver which detracts a bit from the whole performance because so much time is spent tuning the instruments.

Some Italian words that used to begin “dis” now begin with just “s”. So scordatura probably used to be discordatura.

Johannes Brahms: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Personally, I’m passionate about Brahms; but I’m very aware that some people, including some quite eminent composers, feel or have felt the opposite.

There are some composers whose work is more likely than that of others to invite extreme reactions, although I would not immediately have singled out Brahms as a particularly notable example, for all that there are some for whom he could do no wrong and others who detest much of his work – in other words, I’m less than convinced that these extreme positions vis-à-vis Brahms are especially common. Britten’s loathing of Brahms, whilst well known, was by no means universal; he had, for example, a lot of time for the D minor piano concerto.

Delius strikes me as one example of a composer whose work tends to elicit mostly very positive or very negative responses; Havergal Brian is another. Why it is that certain composers’ works more often than not tend to attract these extreme reactions is quite another matter.

It’s interesting that most people associate Brahms with his chamber and orchestral works, when around three-quarters of his output includes voices. Many, many songs (countless treasures in there), numerous works for multiple solo voices and instruments, and much for choir (Brahms conducted several choirs through the course of his career) and choir and orchestra.

I tend to believe that the problem with a lot of Brahms performance lies not so much with the use of vibrato, larger orchestras, modern pianos, or whatever (all of which Brahms experienced on occasion), but the approaches to phrasing and articulation – already problematic in editions appearing very soon after his death (for example those of the piano music by Sauer) which tend to smooth out the many very subtle details in this respect, and replace his sometimes fragmentary and delicate approach to the balance between small-scale units and longer lines with a rather homogeneous approach stressing maximum continuity. And the rests are very important (and Brahms took immense care over them when preparing editions) – many pedal markings in others’ ediions of the piano music make little sense in this respect, nor do some conductors’ attempts to artificially make contrasting fragments cohere into a continuous whole, negating some of the inner tensions.

Giacomo Meyerbeer: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Meyerbeer – like Halévy, Auber, and several other contemporaries – has mostly disappeared into a black hole. Even in France he is mostly ignored (although he worked primarily in France, he was German by birth).

Richard Wagner had personal differences with Meyerbeer (mainly rooted in private jealousies that Meyerbeer’s music was so successful by comparison to his own works at the time – and his perilous financial position for much of his life). However, this does not completely explain the disappearance of Meyerbeer’s works from the repertoire in the 20th century, which seems to be also related to fad and fashion. It’s the entire genre of French grand opera which has fizzled out.

It can be claimed – but without any real justification – that Meyerbeer and Halévy were discriminated against as Jews, but this doesn’t explain why Auber (who had been enormously popular) has dropped off the radar entirely … why Gounod’s works are rarely performed (except for Faust) … why Bizet’s other operas (except Carmen – does anyone even remember them, except for their overtures?) are never staged … why Delibes is utterly ignored … why even Massenet is relegated to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy League.

For me, I’m afraid, the axe-grinding excuse of anti-semitism doesn’t explain any of this … there are too many non-Jewish composers in the same genre who are ignored too. Nor does the word of Wagner, which is a red herring – what opera manager takes Wagner’s views into account when programming a season nowadays?

In short, Meyerbeer’s French grand opera is clearly out of fashion these days. Vast amounts of utterly bloated bombast, a dearth of melodic imagination, and the most ludicrously melodramatic plots, reedemed by the odd inspired moment and a certain dramatic sense. L’Africaine is probably the best (or least bad) and has a few genuinely striking sections. Robert le Diable, the opera that truly established his reputation, was a massive success in the Paris of the July Monarchy; nowadays it works as an unintentional comedy (try the scene in Act 3 with a chorus of dead nuns rising out of their coffins). There’s a pretty good section on Meyerbeer in Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation; also worth reading for those interested to know more about the composer are Jane Fulcher’s The Nation’s Image: French Grand Opera as Politics and Politicized Art, Heinz and Gudrun Becker’s Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Life in Letters, and Mark Everist’s collection of essays Giacomo Meyerbeer and Music Drama in Nineteenth Century Paris.

The whole genre of French grand opera (encompassing the works of Meyerbeer, Halévy, Auber and some of the later works of Rossini, and becoming influential on the work of Donizetti, Verdi and even Wagner) is certainly of great interest to those wanting to understand better the cultural history of the period; the works are worth hearing a few times, but I’d be very surprised if they would stand up to the numbers of repeated performances and productions that would lead to their being incorporated into modern standard repertory.

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