Archive for the “Music History” Category
It’s still the 200th anniversary of Franz Josef Haydn’s death, and in honor I thought I’d borrow a few words from Chris Wendt’s Haydn bio on Chris’ “Here of a Sunday Morning” website. But what I’d like you to do, is read it as if it’s being written about some “maverick” in the last 20 years — Picking up what you know outside academia, living on ramen in cheap apartments giving a couple lessons & freelance, a couple lucky connections, landing a sweet commercial gig but with a lot of dogwork, copyright violations and pirated music that paradoxically work in your favor…
At St. Stephen’s Haydn received instruction in voice, violin, and keyboard, but little general education except for a smattering of Latin. In 1745 he was joined there by his younger brother Michael, and almost immediately the gifted younger sibling assumed the elder’s position as soloist. Passing out of the limelight probably encouraged Haydn in his natural bent for composition, but he received little help: Reutter, himself a professional composer, gave the youngster only two lessons. As Haydn’s voice changed, his position as a chorister became increasingly untenable. In late 1749 he was dismissed peremptorily over a practical joke.
Taking an attic room next door to St. Michael’s Church, he made ends meet by giving violin and keyboard lessons, working as a free-lance musician in churches, and performing in (and sometimes composing for) groups playing the open-air evening serenades so popular in Vienna. At the same time he began an intensive study of counterpoint (using the writings of Fux) and figured bass (using Mattheson). The results of his industry were clearly evident by 1751, when Pietro Metastasio, the renowned poet and architect of opera seria, engaged Haydn to tutor a gifted girl, Marianna Martines. [...In 1753] Martines began vocal studies with Nicola Porpora; through her and Metastasio, Haydn gained an entree to that famous opera composer.
Haydn proposed to serve as Porpora’s factotum in return for instruction; although this arrangement was undertaken for no more than three months, Haydn later credited Porpora with teaching him “the true fundamentals of composition.” [....]
Haydn had worked scarcely a year when the prince died on March 18, 1762. If Haydn was once again plunged into uncertainty about his future, his fears would have been dispelled quickly, for Nikolaus, brother and successor to Paul Anton, possessed an appetite for music that was, if anything, even keener than his predecessor’s. Haydn’s original contract stipulated that he report to the prince in the morning and again in the afternoon to see if music making was wanted. This arrangement probably continued with Nikolaus, whose evenings were given over to theater and music theater. Daily music making often meant accompanying the prince in divertimentos for his favored instrument, the baryton, typically in concert with viola and cello (Haydn created a repertory of at least 126 such works in the years 1765-76); it sometimes meant playing solo keyboard works. Twice a week, orchestral “academies” were held; for these Haydn could probably count on assembling, before 1776, two oboes, two horns, one bassoon, and nine strings (disposed 3-3-1-1-1), with himself the leader; trumpets and drums were added on festive occasions. [....]
In his contract of 1761 it was stipulated that Haydn “neither communicate [his] compositions to any other person, nor allow them to be copied … and not compose for any other person without the knowledge and permission of His Highness.” This injunction did little to slow the dissemination of Haydn’s works abroad. Between 1764 and 1780, 51 authentic chamber works and 43 authentic symphonies had their first publications in unauthorized editions in Paris, Amsterdam, and London. These 94 works are but the tip of an iceberg that includes pirated republications, a large number of circulating manuscript copies, and many spurious works. The extent of Haydn’s complicity in this dissemination is not known, but he cannot have been pleased to go without recompense for his labors. From this flagrant piracy two results ensued. First, in 1779 Haydn obtained from Prince Nikolaus the freedom to write for and publish with whomever he pleased. Second, by the early 1780s Haydn had become one of the best-known and most sought after composers in Europe.
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The science journal Nature has been working its way through a nine-part series of essays on Science and Music. Not all are online or free yet, but you can currently read Phillip Ball’s and David Huron’s contributions on the site.
Huron provides provides an important — though to many of us not very surprising — reminder that the worldwide musical landscape is nearing the completion of “The Great Flattening”; soon, there won’t be anyone making anything that doesn’t have the Western musical tradition either at its heart, or as its wrapper:
Last year I joined an expedition of biologists to the remote Javari region of the Amazon. The biologists were censusing the wildlife. I was interested in the people. We encountered subsistence hunter-farmers with transistor radios. Even in the western Amazon, people listen to Funk Carioca and Christina Aguilera.
Linguists know how fast languages disappear. Musical cultures may be an order of magnitude more fragile. It will be many centuries before the whole world speaks Mandarin. Meanwhile Western music has swept the globe faster than aspirin. Robust musical cultures remain in China, India, Indonesia and the Arab world, but even in these regions, most people are thoroughly acquainted with Western music through film and television. Less robust musical cultures are disappearing rapidly or are showing deep infiltration by Western musical foundations. Many have already disappeared. There remain only a few isolated pockets, such as the highlands of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya.
Regrettably, most cognitive scientists are ill-equipped to do remote field work, and few ethnomusicologists know how to do an experiment. This situation must change rapidly if we are to have much hope of glimpsing the range of possible musical minds. We have perhaps just a decade or so before everyone on the planet has been brought up with Western music or its derivatives.
Of course the plea for keeping all this diversity alive and thriving is right, good, noble… but it’s just not going to happen. There’s always something in the call to “preserve your culture” (whoever the “you” may be), that has its own tinge of a kind of reverse-imperialism. On the one hand, the old-school thought was “here, ditch all that silly crap you’ve been doing for generations, and we’ll teach you the only true civilization”; while the other asks people to not join up, stay fat and happy (or skinny and miserable, as the case may be) and and just keep doing what you’ve always been doing over there in your own little world. And through all of this noble theoretical bickering, the people just do what they think they want to do… I’m not making any plea myself, just saying “get ready”. Sure, there’ll always be different styles of music, but only one foundation: that of the West. Everything else will just be interior decoration.
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Geoff Edgers over at Boston.com’s Exhibitionist blog, posted a few thoughts today on composers’ attitudes to their early works. Some keep ‘em, some never want them to see the light of day, and some wish that, even if they might have become popular, they’d just go away.
I know I’m a pack-rat. I still have every cassette tape recording I ever made in my bedroom, starting at about age 15; and in a box in my garage is the musty, yellowed remnants of my first-ever score (titled Mountains, it opens with long string runs up and down a C diatonic scale… pretty darn original, huh?). I’m fifty-freaking-two now, and so much of this early stuff is embarassing, hilarious, even painful — so why do I still keep it all around? I suppose simply because it’s a record of me; most everything I became musically is hiding out in this or that phrase or moment.
How about you? Are you a hoarder, historian, or spin-meister? Do you want your musical story with warts and all, or all neat and tidy?
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Very nice article in today’s NYT online on 12-tone music by Anthony Tommasini. The point of the article is that 12-tone music isn’t dead, but is merely part of the musical richness that is new music, to the point that people like us can choose from whatever musical techniques we want, taking a little bit of this and that, etc.
I think he’s correct. Having been a “12-tone composer” many years ago, I was turned off by the rigidity of the system, just as I was turned off by the rigidity of tonality. But I still like to listen to a lot of 12-tone music. And rows do at times creep into my more recent music, even though it’s in another galaxy in terms of its distance from dodecaphonism. Indeed, I think that’s one of the great things about our current situation—we can pick and choose what we want to do, and not be servants of any particular movement, be it serialism, the new romanticism, postminimalism, minimalism, indeterminacy…whatever.
Incidentally, Tomassini has a nice video clip of him explaining all this. He’s a pretty good pianist, and I like his short excerpts from Schoenberg’s opuses 11 and 25.
So is 12-tone music dead? Is that question even meaningful? Should we care?
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A lot of folks in the New York City classical music community were very upset last week over a list published in Time Out New York magazine of the fifty greatest New York musicians of all time. Each was honored with a photo, a brief description of their contribution to music history and a recommended CD.
Not a single person cited on the list was someone who worked primarily in classical music. Sure, John Zorn, Duke Ellington, and John Cale (the Velvet Underground was TONY‘s number one pick) all wrote symphonic works, but those were never mentioned anywhere. That said, the list was full of variety and arcana: everyone from Broadway diva Barbara Streisand to free jazz tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler to salsa vocalist Hector LaVoe (although salseros know that his most enduring contributions to the genre were the result of frontman/trombonist Willie ColÃ³n’s work).
A similar list a few months back in Time Magazine made my blood boil even more. To me, lists like these reveal the mainstream media’s total cluelessless when it comes to classical music. It’s not just innocent ignorance: the folks who spin such news perpetuate the myth that classical music is dead and not at all a part of contemporary life. To Time Out‘s credit, they published a letter by NYC Opera dramaturg Cori Ellison expressing disappointment that Time Out‘s list could ignore New Yorkers like George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Maria Callas, and Beverly Sills. That said, a close reading of TONY Music Editor Mike Wolf’s response is revelatory. (Bold emphasis below is mine.)
“[O]ur primary mistake was in not specifying that classical music artists were, in fact, excluded from consideration for the “50 Greatest” list. We felt we needed to do this partly because classical has its own section in the magazine, but also because Gershwin and many others chiefly proved their greatness off the stage. Measuring the greatness of Public Enemy versus Billie Holiday was some challenge; adding Beverly Sills to the mix would’ve killed us.”
It’s somewhat disingenuous to claim classical musicians “chiefly proved their greatness off the stage” in defense of omissions on a list featuring recommended recordings. And indeed, if it would kill adjudicators to consider Sills or Gershwin when faced with applications from Lady Day and P.E., people concerned that it could be the death knell for recognition for contemporary classical music if awards like the Pulitzer and the Grawemeyer were open to all genres of music have good reason to fear. Of course, there are people who understand the bigger musical picture. Time Out‘s own classical music editor, Steve Smith, is a musical polyglot who could argue the comparative merits of Anthrax, Robert Ashley, Missy Elliott, and Charles Wuorinen. All the more pity that his voice seems conspicuously absent from that list. Or, more importantly, that such a broad view of music really can’t be found anywhere. At the end of the day, having a separate section or separate awards for what we do really doesn’t allow us to reach out to a wide audience, yet not having our own things would keep the smaller audience who is interested from ever finding out about this stuff.
As the Civil Rights movement showed us two generations ago, separate is not equal; we should not be content with a small corner of the playground whether it’s a single page among hundreds in a magazine or a handful of Grammy Awards that we’ve been exiled from collecting on prime time television. Twenty-five years ago as an undergrad at Columbia, a fellow student expressed shock when I told him that I composed things like sonatas and concertos. “Really? No one’s written that kinda stuff for a hundred years.” When I described to him the history of classical music in the 20th century, he was incredulous. “Never heard of it. Classical music died with Wagner and then there was big band jazz. Jazz died after World War Two and there’s been rock and roll ever since.” At the time, I thought he was an idiot. Now I realize that he’s merely a byproduct of the American education system who got all his information about cultural history from reading and watching mainstream media. We have the power to reclaim the media by writing and by speaking out.
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A while back on NPR, I heard Scott Simon interview Marin Alsop about Mahler’s Fifth. Simon kicked it off with a nice quote from Mahler about how a symphony should be like a whole world, then there was this exchange:
SS: …but when Mahler introduced [his Fifth] to the world in 1904, conducting the symphony himself, he apparently was disappointed with its reception. He’s reported to have said, “nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.”… [the music swells, then he introduces Marin Alsop]… Thanks very much for being back with us.
MA: Great to be here, Scott.
SS: And were those words born of great self-knowledge, did it take fifty years for audiences to appreciate this?
MA: Well, that’s tremendously insightful. A good friend of mine, John Corigliano, always says a composer’s work really can’t be judged while he’s still alive, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
Though it could be that Alsop was misrepresenting him, the implication is that, by “judged,” Corigliano meant “understood”–composers aren’t understood until they’re dead. And you can’t be appreciated if you aren’t understood. So there it is–death as the ultimate career move.
OK, there was a pattern in the 19th century of the major figures being maybe a generation ahead of their audience–I can see how Mahler might have expected the same thing, and it’s fun to think about how that fifty-year-late premier would have actually gone over. But it’s really just a matter of time. The dying part is a romance that comes from the ones who were tragically cut short in their prime. Van Gogh is the ne plus ultra, but there’s also poor Schubert, and Mozart, sort of, and a few others. It’s great 19th-century mythification, but these day? Are we still expecting big collective ah-ha moments in the 21st century, when audiences finally really get Ligeti, or Reich, or Babbitt, or Corigliano?
I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse, so I’m wondering. Does anyone else find it, let’s say, over-dramatic for a living composer to be thinking in terms like this? And bizarre for a sophisticated classical music person to take it seriously? Even in a general-public discussion of Mahler it seems like a very tired cliche, doesn’t it? I have a few more thoughts about it on my blog, but I’m still curious to hear other reactions.
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Dear Jerry ,
I want to bring your attention the documentary on Beethoven’s Ninth that I am working on (called Following The Ninth: In The Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony, and ask for your suggestions. I’ve shot close to 50 hours of tape, but the film is really just beginning, thus I am looking for more stories about the Ninth. You can read about the project at http://www.followingtheninth.com/. What I’m hoping to find here in this discussion forum are new stories that I might follow, develop, as the film proceeds. As of today, I will be filming in Japan, where the Ninth (Daiku) is performed by hundreds of variously sized orchestras, sometimes with choruses of 5000 people or more. I will also be going to Chile and other countries in South America, where a version of the “Ode to Joy” was sung as a song of resistance and hope by those living under military dictatorships.
I would also like to have some of your filmed stories and reflections on the Ninth on my website. That could be arranged in various ways, to be determined if you have an interest. I’m trying to bring the power and passion of one of the greatest works of art ever done to a broader public, and the best way to do that, I think, is through people’s stories, stories from those who are deeply in love with Beethoven’s music. Please write if you have any questions.
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