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Archive for January, 2010

Tonality Has Landed!

We are witnessing a truly momentous juncture in the history of harmony: the birth of harmonically controlled and elaborated form. In the Italian instrumental music of a rough quarter-century enclosing the year 1700, we may witness in their earliest, “avant-garde” phase the tonal relations we have long been taught to take for granted. (II, 195)

Witness, for instance, this sonata by Arcangelo Corelli (op. 3 no. 11). The second movement, marked presto [at 1:23 in the video], follows the basic harmonic path that would eventually spread like wildfire and be encoded in our musical DNA (and music theory textbooks) ever since: I to V, V to I. Taruskin weaves the musical narrative:

The hocket effect between the violins is intensified after the first cadence (m. 7), their tossed motivic ball now consisting of only two notes in an iambic pattern (that is, starting with an upbeat), while the bass continues its frenetic run, made even more athletic by the use of large skips—octaves, ninths, even tenths. At the movement’s midpoint (m. 21) the original motive is tossed again, this time beginning a fourth lower than the opening—i.e., on the fifth degree of the scale. Thus the movement over all has the satisfying harmonic aspect of a binary form: a run out from I to V, and a run back from V to I. (II, 181)

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In today’s society, it may not be superfluous to observe, the charge of “political correctness” is almost invariably made by members of privileged groups against the claims and concerns of the less privileged. It is a way of warding off threats to privilege. “Classical music,” like all “high art,” has always been, and remains, primarily a possession of social and cultural elites. (That, after all, is what makes it “high.”) This is so even in a society like ours, where social mobility is greater than in most societies, and where entry into elites can come about for reasons (like education, for example) that may be unrelated to birth or wealth. To maintain that “classical music” is by nature (or by definition) apolitical is therefore a complacent position to assume, and a rather parlous one. Complacency in support of a not universally supported status quo can serve, in today’s world, to marginalize and even discredit both the practice and the appreciation of art.     (II, 112)

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Week 19 in Review

The Week in Reading: We began last week in Germany, where a variety of new genres were popping up to provide music for Lutheran services. The chorale concerto (52) was a mixed instrumental-vocal form practiced most vigorously by Scheidt, Praetorius, and Schein. A sad example of the role that terrible historical events can play on culture is to be found in the story of Heinrich Schütz, whose enormous talent was nurtured in Italy and who was perhaps Germany’s first truly cosmopolitan composer. Under the tutelage of Giovanni Gabrieli, Schütz incorporated Italianate harmonies and madrigal-inspired expression into his sacred music in the so-called “luxuriant style.” (59) It was Germany’s take on the seconda prattica, complete even with chromatic dissonances (“ugliness” for the sake of text expression) and erotic texts. But this was not to last. The Thirty Year’s War obliterated the communities of Germany, sent all of Schütz’s musicians to the front lines, and sapped up all the budget for the arts. During the disastrous war, he was forced to drastically scale back his musical ambitions. In one particularly poignant moment, he paired back the continuo to just one lonely bass line: indeed, there were so few musicians in his church to play his music that he was forced to work with the barest of textures.

In Italy around this time, composers like Carissimi were writing grand oratorios and cantatas (the monodic outgrowth of the madrigal). He was joined in cantata production by the composer/singer Barbara Strozzi, who presents us with the first woman composer of the volume and an opening for Taruskin to discuss the thorny problem of the representation of women in the western music tradition (78-83). It’s true that there are comparatively few of them, which can of course be explained today by the misogynistic cultures that women found themselves in during the period of “common practice” music. This presents the historian with a critical dilemma: do we elevate the work of those few women composers perhaps beyond their historical significance in the name of setting the record straight and atoning for past historical erasure, or do we acknowledge important women when we deem them musically important and then provide a massive caveat explaining why there are so few women in the history we write? It’s a really tough question that continues to perplex many musicologists.

Ch. 3: Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored

To France! Nowhere was musical production (at least the literate variety) welded to state power as intensely as it was in France, where the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully enjoyed a close personal relationship with the “Sun King” Louis XIV and essentially held a state monopoly on all opera composition for his whole life. Opera had always been a tough sell in the Gallic lands: the French just weren’t having the idea of mixing drama and music a la the Italians. This changed when Lully (along with others) developed a specifically French form of musical spectacle for the courts, the tragédie en musique (88). It’s hard to mistake Italian opera for Lully: instead of the dramatic melodies so famous in Italian opera, the French variety is reminiscent of perpetual recitative, with lots of “talky” bits and few extravagant vocal displays. The French cherished their ballet, and many operas prominently featured dancing. Further, Lully brought the content of opera back down to earth – most of his works are thinly veiled representations of the exact same court that would have been watching them. In the French opera, therefore, mythology was transformed into politics.

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[Lully, Overture to Armide]

Opera in France was a completely different beast than its Italian cousin, with the glorification of state power front and center in its expressive agenda. Indeed, Taruskin writes: “Authority is what French music was all about, and Lully’s operas above all. They were the courtiest court operas that ever were.” (II, 86)

But they also represented a very particular, nay, a very French sort of political power. The French overture, a representative sample of which can be seen in the clip above, employed a distinctive, dotted rhythmic figure that quickly turned into “a universal code for pomp” all over Europe. (II, 91) National stereotypes, as invidious as they are, often have their origins in social reality, and Lully’s France provided plenty of cultural material for the essentialization of French culture by les étrangers and the French alike. For hundreds of years after the composition of these court operas, if a continental composer wanted to simulate Frenchness or simply represent a mood of stylized pomp, they simply had to draw on the musical techniques established by Lully and his cohorts.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the sound of Lully’s baton still reverberates around the world. Today, over 300 years later, people continue to associate the French with pomposity and conceit, daintiness and delicacy (as well as negative, gendered qualities like “prissiness” and “effeminacy”). The fine French restaurant is a stock setting for comedies, imbued as the location is with a prim formality just begging to be subverted; John Kerry was mocked for his ability to speak French (though those who believe a Francophile incapable of showing foreign policy muscle is clearly ignorant of Napoleonic history); and jokes about French cultural elitism are familiar to every American middle schooler (and many European kids too, I’m told). It’s fascinating, therefore, that some of these stereotypes established themselves as early as they did and were reinforced by musical practices.

Why is it that French culture, then as now, connotes arrogance to many people? Is there an inherently pompous quality to the French overture or was it simply seized upon as a representation of an already pompous court/culture/social ritual?

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Frescobaldi

The organ masses of Girolamo Frescobaldi (Taruskin might jokingly refer to him as “the guy with the freshly shaved head”) were meant to both accompany and replace items in the the mass ordinary. The music, therefore, consists of a hodge-podge of different functional items, from chant settings to canzonas to ricercars. His three most famous organ masses, collected for Fiori Musicali (“Musical flowers”), all end with “elevation toccatas,” which are both the musical and theological heart of the ritual. This is music to accompany the Eucharist, the most mystical moment of mass, and Frescobaldi captures the rapturous act through music of the utmost sublimity and grace. There is an elastic quality to time in this elevation toccata: the genre, after all, had its roots in improvisation, and the performer in much of Frescobaldi’s music is encouraged to interpret freely. Listen for all of the sumptuous suspensions, delicious chromaticism, and that raw, uncanny (some would say “out of tune”) quality of the organ temperament. (This would sound very different, and perhaps much less disorienting, on a modern instrument.) I can think of nothing so expressive of spiritual ecstasy as these elevation toccatas until we get to Olivier Messiaen.

This below recording of Frescobaldi’s Toccata nona is about as good as it gets, folks. Pierre Hantai (harpsichord) absolutely nails it. His performance is flexible, free, and improvisatory, some might even say “wild.” There’s been an unfortunate trend in recorded performances of this repertory (and “early music” in general) to make it sound smooth and “pretty”; perhaps contemporary audiences would like to transport themselves to an imaginary age of musical calm and purity. (There are a number of books on early music performance practice, including one by RT, on the must-reads list.) Hantai eschews this approach in favor of getting at the fiery essence of the music. There is nothing museum-y about this recording. Furthermore, working off of evidence from musicologists, the harpsichord used here was tuned down a 4th from A=440. This dark, wolfy quality puts us into a different sonic realm than we might be used to with harpsichord music. (And one that is, by most accounts, more historically accurate, for whatever that’s worth.) This is slobber material, and I’d highly recommend the full recording (although it’s showing up for a dreadfully high price on amazon. Most U libraries will have this one.).

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Week 18 in Review

This Week in Blogging:

The beginning of a new volume was heralded by Monteverdian fanfare, and a new feature on the blog. The must-reads page has already stirred good discussion, and has had its first update. (For future reference, you can always access that page via the tab at the very top of our website.) Be sure to continue checking it in the future for new materials. Also, Zach wrote a short but insightful essay on the cost of musical extravagance.

This Week in Reading:

Preface* (II, xxi-xxiii):

This volume is organized around several watershed events:

  • The establishment of opera;
  • The pervasive basso continuo texture, and its implication for harmonic musical thinking;
  • Increasing dominance of instrumental over vocal music, and
  • The composer’s social role changing from “service personnel to autonomous agent,” of which Monteverdi and Beethoven are especially emblematic.

“Chapter 1, Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi”

Opera, now thought of as a quintessential 17th c. genre, had two distinct periods of emergence (i.e., court opera and public opera), and likewise two distinct aesthetic streams. Claudio Monteverdi, the quintessential 17th century composer, provides a perfect frame to approach both streams, as this chapter’s delightful title hints (it’s a quote of opera scholar Nino Pirrotta).

  • From Mantua to Venice (II, 2). Monteverdi’s fame was established during his time as maestro di cappella at the Mantuan court. There he wrote several books of madrigals, became embroiled in one of the most famous musical polemics in history (the quarrel with Artusi that birthed the label seconda prattica for expanded harmonic liberties in service of text expression), and began using basso continuo and the concerted style in his publications. Monteverdi became Maestro di cappella of St. Mark’s in Venice in 1613, and spent the rest of his career there.
  • Poetics and Esthesics (II, 12). An introduction of the poietic fallacy (see this post), and the importance of esthesics, which takes into account the audience’s viewpoint and expectations (not to be confused with the closely spelled esthetics).
  • Opera and its Politics (II, 13). Court opera carried political cachet in at least three ways: 1) the grandeur of the production reflected the power of its princely benefactors; 2) the story lines were thinly veiled allegories meant to honor these same benefactors; and 3) “severe limits were set on the virtuosity of the vocal soloists lest, by indecorously representing their own power, they upstaged the personages portrayed, or worse, the personages allegorically magnified” (II, 15), and thus the noble’s authority was retained.
  • Sex Objects, Sexed and Unsexed (II, 16). Over the course of the 17th c., castrati moved from the church choir to the opera stage, where they became super stars. The stage was the site of all sorts of “carnavalistic” happenings: cross-dressing, gender ambiguity, and authority turned topsy-turvy.
  • The Quintessential Princely Spectacle (II, 18) Taruskin exegetes a scene in act II of Monteverdi’s  first opera (he called it a favola in musica, a musical tale), l’Orfeo (1607).
  • The Carnival Show (II, 26). Taruskin’s reading of Monteverdi’s late opera L’incoronazione di Poppea casts it as a carnivalistic celebration of virtue over vice, lust over romance. In other words, geared specifically to the Venetian public audience for which it was performed.
  • These two opposing streams which are now called opera—the princely spectacle and public opera—define the rest of the history of the genre.

“Chapter 2, Fat Times and Lean”

  • For the first time, composers could build careers primarily around instrumental music. Girolamo Frescobaldi, who did just that, was the leading organist of his day. The organ works that were written down represent only the top portion of what was still a pervasively improvisatory practice. As with any improvisatory practice, certain conventions and genres were used, such as the corrente, balletto, ciaconna, and passacagli.
  • The toccata was a keyboard genre that in the hands of Frescobaldi could become quite extravagant, with incendiary flourishes and rash chromaticism. Some toccatas were played in liturgical settings.
  • Jan Sweelinck was a Dutch organist and composer who wrote “old-fashioned vocal music and extremely up-to-date keyboard compositions,” and is “in retrospect…the last of the legendary ‘Netherlanders’ of the polyphonic Golden Age” (II, 45).

Stay tuned for next week’s review, which will finish out this chapter and then pop over to France to survey their operatic goings on in the second half of the 17th century.

*In the paperback edition of the OHWM, each volume is meant to stand on its own. Therefore, an Introduction addresses the overall project, and is reproduced verbatim in each volume, and a short preface outlines the thrust of each individual volume.

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It is easy to marvel at the grand feats of human creativity and ingenuity without stopping to consider whence these achievements came. This is only natural, I suppose; after all, the slaves who constructed the pyramids are long gone, but the pyramids remain. Similarly, the era of “cocaine cowboy” drug trafficking in Miami is over, but the shining glass towers downtown stand as a silent testament to all the laundered cash dumped into development during the 90s. Feats of construction, imagination, and intelligence endure in the form of magnificent structures and artwork. The sometimes dark forces that underwrite them, however, are usually lost in the sands of time.

In any extravagant human achievement that takes great amounts of resources and labor to produce, the wealth required for its creation must come from somewhere. This introduces a fundamentally ethical question. For instance, the money required to build Steve Jobs’s house came from Macs and iPods, and most would say that this is a fair trade. However, the wealth required to build Bernie Madoff’s house in West Palm came from bilked investors. Madoff’s beautiful mansion, then, is a physical manifestation of illegality, abuse, and treachery.  The question of funding, therefore, is critical whether one is contracting a new condo tower or commissioning a symphony. Behind any sign of material power is the ethical question of where that power came from, and at whose expense.

The same is true for music. At the beginning of the 17th century, court favolas (or early operas, depending on how you’d like to look at them) provided opportunities for powerful families to flaunt their influence, status, and wealth. The more extravagant, the better. We’ve talked about complexity arms races before on this blog; in the case of early opera, it was an arms race of lavish excess. From costumes to special effects, stage settings to musician fees, noble families spared no expense to put on a magnificent spectacle. A work like Monteverdi’s Orfeo is typically seen as the positive artistic outcome of such noble largesse. What typically isn’t accounted for, however, is the question of just how these noble families procured the funds to throw such lavish musical extravaganzas. This sort of question should be of paramount concern to us music historians, however far it might be from a purely musical matter.

As historian Manfred Bukofzer has shown, the ever more exorbitant costs of bankrolling extravagant music spectacles led many nobles to apply oppressive taxes to the lower classes. But the exploitation didn’t stop there. To take an example: “The Duke of Brunswick, for one, relied not only on the most ingenious forms of direct and indirect taxation but resorted even to the slave trade. He financed his operatic amusements by selling his subjects as soldiers [in the Thirty Year’s War] so that his flourishing opera depended literally on the blood of the lower classes.” (II, 15)

Wow. This duke makes Madoff look positively saintly. After learning this, it’s hard to listen to Orfeo and other early operas in quite the same way. But knowing the high social costs of high musical extravagance shouldn’t plague the opera lover with guilt, either. It is a somewhat sad but inescapable fact that the passing of time neuters human suffering; we are left with Orfeo, and all the unfortunate slave-soldiers who died so their duke could have his opera are preserved only in scholarly footnotes.

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