Archive for February, 2010

I’ve been anticipating the difficulties of blogging Bach ever since this humble project began, and sure enough, the master is upon us and the perfect approach to presenting his music is proving illusive. (It also doesn’t help that the last three weeks have been punishingly busy for Mark and me.) Where does one start when dealing with one of the two or three most transformational figures in western music? RT begins his discussion circumspectly, introducing Bach along with his exact contemporary Handel (they were both born in 1685) and demonstrating the vastly different careers both men enjoyed. Handel was a musical cosmopolitan extraordinaire, traveling from Germany to Italy to England; Bach, on the other hand, never once left Germany. Handel primarily composed secular music, particularly opera seria, although he is remembered today more for his sacred music (go to any large church in the western world around Christmas and you’ll witness the work that has won Handel a spot in the collective memory); Bach, who specialized in sacred music, is perhaps more revered today for his secular instrumental music (or rather, it is through his instrumental music that most people first encounter him). The question of how this group of gifted composers who share a birth year (including D. Scarlatti) came to influence our musical tradition is a monstrous, woolly one indeed, and Taruskin spends about a third of the volume sorting it out.

Tackling Bach is mighty intimidating. I’m just going to jump right in with one tiny question related to this giant. Check out the clip below (Brandenburg Concert 5, mvt. I) for a quick primer:

Something very peculiar is going on here, although it might not be immediately apparent (and no, I’m not talking about the darling duckling image that accompanies the clip). All the Brandenburgs are equally kooky in their own right, and instrumentation plays a major role in historians’ head scratching and brow furling. The concertos are all scored for different ensembles, some of them quite unorthodox, then as now. However, this one performs perhaps the most radical flip in instrumentation; listen to the harpsichord here, and compare it to the role of the harpsichord in all previous music. Got it? Indeed, this instrument has always served an accompanimental role as a continuo voice, but here, the harpsichordist goes off the tracks. You can first hear it at around 0:22, and all hell breaks loose at 6:20. All of these lighting quick flourishes are strictly notated, moreover; this isn’t simply a ground bass that the player is realizing on the fly. Bach is putting a continuo instrument right into the middle of the concerto as the featured voice. In the view of one musicologist (McClary), the humble harpsichord “hijacks” the ensemble.

In Bach’s time, the orchestra was seen as a “social microcosm, a compact mirror of society. The orchestra, like society itself, was assumed to be an inherently hierarchical entity.” (II, 290) It is no surprise, then, that historians have pondered Bach’s odd harpsichord-centric structure. There are other instruments in this ensemble that would have made a lot more intuitive sense to feature, but just when one expects the violin or the flute to step forward and take the hierarchical reigns of the piece, they drop out and the harpsichord goes wild in pure virtuoso fashion. This would be like featuring the bass guitar in a rock band (well, Primus did it..).

So why did Bach do this? What does it signify? Clearly any compositional choice this bold must have been made for some reason. Historians have concluded that perhaps in this transgressive musical gambit we can see a strain of social subversion. It’s purely speculative, as Bach left behind no musings on political philosophy, but nonetheless it’s an argument that can’t be ignored. According to Susan McClary, the harpsichord in this concerto is a musical “storming of the Bastille”; it expresses “the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.” (302) (It should be recalled at this point that Bach himself had a somewhat frustrated career, consistently trying for more prestigious gigs and getting turned down. In fact, the Brandenburgs were a gift to a powerful local elite in the hopes of patronage. They were shelved, apparently never having been performed, until after the elite’s death.)

Michael Marissen, however, posits that the elevation of the harpsichord to such a position of prominence in Con. 5 reflects more his religious thinking than his political leanings. Bach accepted the notion that musical hierarchy reflects God’s will on this earth; however, Marissen argues, he held the Lutheran idea that the present world is of little significance compared to the kingdom of God. Transgressions like these might simply be reminding listeners that the order of this world is ephemeral.

There are of course other explanations as well. Maybe Bach had a transgressive sense of humor. Perhaps he simply got tired of his beloved instrument always playing second fiddle (figuratively) to the violin and other solo instruments. We will probably never know for sure. Nonetheless, this little case study poses a fascinating question for music lovers and historians: when composers or performers subvert a well-established musical code, how should we approach it in the absence of documentation? Should we plumb for speculative conclusions based on what makes the most sense in today’s world, or in theirs? Should we throw up our hands and let the matter rest? Just what do you make of Bach’s subversive harpsichord anyway?

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Way back in September, before we started vol. 1, chapter 1 (it seems so long ago now!), I pondered whether musical meaning could ever go beyond social correlation. The question came up as a result of Prof. Taruskin’s stated intention in his introduction to address the full spectrum of musical meanings as he progressed through his historical narrative. Since the discussion of that post has recently started up again, I thought I would return to this issue, since it came up again in last week’s reading.

J.S. Bach’s Toccata in F (BWV 540) for organ is a gem of an example to demonstrate the way tonally conceived music manipulates desires in the listener. Bach creates and prolongs that desire by writing a pedal point that is an astounding 54 measures long. He then provides a medial resolution by returning to the tonic, before launching right back into creating, prolonging, and frustrating the listener’s desires, whipping them into such a frenzy that the final resolution to the tonic is tantamount to salvation.

And this reaction to the music is not completely subjective, says Taruskin. It takes our encoded understanding of tonally organized music (something assumed to be shared by a quorum of listeners) and creates a sequence of events to play off of those shared understandings, much like a dramatist creates a narrative arc moving from conflict to resolution.

Bach’s Toccata is one of the earliest pieces to so dramatize the working out of its form-building tonal functions, adding an element of emotional tension that is inextricably enmeshed in its formal structure. The listener’s active engagement in the formal process is likewise dramatized. The listener’s subjective reaction to the ongoing tonal drama is programmed into the composition. Subjectivity, one may say, has been given an objective correlate. It even makes a certain kind of figurative sense to ascribe the desire for resolution to the notes themselves, objectifying and (as it were) acting out the listener’s involvement. (II, 213)

In a way, then, the music is indeed acting on the listener, through a set of socially encoded signs.

We miss something, however, by discussing only the tonal organization of a piece (and watching it on youtube). What we miss is the physical experience of hearing the music live, in a church, with massive ranks of organ pipes. There is a big difference between listening to this piece through headphones, where the distance between the speaker and your eardrums is minimal, and hearing it in a church. In the acoustic environment of a church, sound waves pound against the entire body, creating physical reactions that can sometimes be unsettling, as anyone who has felt his chest rattle against an organ’s rumbling low note can attest. In this way, the music can be not only metaphorically, but literally moving.

How could a physical/sound-wave analysis of this toccata enlighten us to the effectiveness of the piece? At what points do the sound waves support our tonal readings of the piece? Where do they crosscut our expectations?

These kinds of contextual/experiential insights seem critical to me when discussing a piece like Bach’s Toccata in F, especially since a live experience of the music was the only possible way to hear it in Bach’s time. Leaving it out is like tasting a fine cheese while plugging your nose—you can comment on shape and color and texture, but will have a severely dulled experience of taste. And isn’t the taste of the cheese the most important part?

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Our new header is a famous keyboard piece by a composer who’s, well, kind-of famous too. This header image will take us through the next hundred-fifty or so pages, while we read about and discuss “The Class of 1685.”

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Dire News?

All lovers of classical music should take note of Alex Ross’s recent New Yorker article “Close Reading” (only available online by subscription, unfortunately), which takes a sober look at the sharp decline of classical audiences. We all know that the majority of folks in the symphony hall are geriatric, and this has been the case for a while. However, for many years, orchestras could rest assured that as people aged they would grow more interested in classical music – after all, our “high art” tradition is only for those with mature, cultivated tastes, right? Not so today. As boomers hit their 60s they show no sign of suddenly wanting to spend their money to hear Brahms (they’re buying the latest Bob Dylan reissue instead?). The NEA has just released a survey showing trends in the public participation in the arts, and it’s pretty dire. (Ross blogs on these findings here and here.)

The bulk of the article is a review of a new venue in NY called “Le Poisson Rouge,” founded by a couple of 20-something classical musicians. The concept: make the music intimate, up close, and casual, like a jazz club. The interior of the club looks a bit like “The Village Vanguard” or “Iridium”; Ross writes about the surreal experience of eating nachos while listening to Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor; and as you can see from the calendar, they run a pretty eclectic gamut of music, from DJs to Gorecki. Lincoln Center this is not.

I think this is a really promising concept. Perhaps for the older generation, a darkened voluminous concert hall, reverential silence, and formal attire symbolized class, sophistication, and “good taste.” For many young people today (and I’m counting Gen Xers and even baby boomers as young here), this ritual is alienating, pretentious, and irrelevant. What sort of a musical event regulates everything down to the decorum of coughing?

This is really a troubling problem. Like the newspaper industry, American orchestras are going to need to do something about this. How do you interpret the decline of classical music audiences? Is this dire news, or can you imagine strategies for getting butts back in the seats? What do you think of the “Le Poisson Rouge” concept – is this the future of classical music?

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Week 20 in Review

The Week in Reading: The history of opera is riddled with heated reforms and counter-reforms, which only attested to the level of cultural power it held during this period. Indeed, opera often became the site for proxy wars between competing political ideologies, commercial strategies, and aesthetic philosophies, and fierce querelles – often over considerations that may strike us as absurd – dot the history of the genre. The political utility of operas gives Taruskin an opportunity to address the tricky issue of how we today should discuss (and perform) music that is so deeply associated with unfavorable political philosophies and regimes. We have the tendency, with such a yawning gap of time between us and them, to dismiss the political content of high art; after all, many people today are still steeped with the romantic notion of the autonomy of the artwork, and something as quotidian as politics has no place in the exalted realm of Art. Taruskin warns that we should ignore politics only at our own peril; dismissing concerns of “political correctness” can have the effect of marginalizing as irrelevant and out-of-touch a style that is already at grave risk of being perceived this way.

After these final thoughts on France, we traverse the Channel up to Britain, which hasn’t made an appearance in these pages since half way through Vol. I. A few unique styles flourished in Jacobean England, most notably consort music, perhaps the earliest form of instrumental chamber music to gain such wide popularity. Catering to upper-class amateur musicians, consort music tended to be conservative (even to the point of using cantus firmus technique). During “the distracted times” (the English Civil War of 1642-48), music production took a drumming; Puritans like Oliver Cromwell didn’t take too well to music. But during the Restoration, Charles II returned from his exile in France, bringing with him all the musical goodies he had learned during his years abroad. This infusion of continental music was decisive, and the great Henry Purcell came on the scene as England’s musical polyglot par excellence. The chapter ends with an extended discussion of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which, surprisingly, was barely performed in its day. Rather, it was first published in 1841 and received its great modern revival in 1895 as a nationalistic testament to England’s hollowed musical past. Again, we can’t talk about music without talking politics.

CHAPTER 4: Class and Classicism – Opera Seria and its Makers:

Naples at this time was a contradictory place: on one hand, it was ruled by the Spanish and had severe problems with poverty; on the other, all the teeming masses of the poor led to lots of orphanages and foundling houses for homeless boys. Why is a negative countered with another negative, you ask? Because such institutions (known as “conservatorio,” or conservatories) paid for themselves by putting the kids to work as choirboys. Thus, training of musicians became a major business in Naples and led to real flowering of musical culture. Yes, from exploitation came art (not the first nor the last time this will happen, either). The Neapolitan composer Alessandro Scarlatti wrote 114 operas, helping to standardize the operatic form and lay the groundwork for opera seria. Among his many contributions: the “da capo aria,” which featuring a repeat structure that took a time burden off the over-stretched composer; Neapolitan 6ths chords (you remember this harmonic device from Freshman theory!); and “binary” dance movements that exemplified “closed” tonal motion and would come to be profoundly influential in the burgeoning development of tonality.

And this takes us (belatedly) up to last week, which Mark will be reviewing shortly. Thanks for hanging in there while Mark and I went through two spectacularly busy weeks – it feels good to be caught up!

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Handel’s Games

In his Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6 no. 7 (1739) Handel’s second movement (at 1:06 in the example below) is the traditional fugal canzona with a twist. It’s joke-like subject (a systematic diminution of a single note) is so striking, lucid, and memorable that it allows him, as Taruskin points out, to play with the listener’s expectations. The entrances of the subject are irregular, creating a game of “hide-and-seek”—where will it pop up next?

The example is one of several Taruskin gives to indicate a shift in compositional technique and listener experience: instead of music evoking an emotion, the composition requires an intellectual consideration. It sets up a listener’s expectation, then fulfills or delays the expectation. In Taruskin’s estimation, this was “a virtual revolution in listening, in which the listener’s conscious mind was much more actively engaged than previously in these processes of forecast and delayed fulfillment, and in which the form may even be said to arise out of the play of these cognitive processes.” (II, 208)

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Noise levels astonished diarists from abroad, nobility arrived with servants who cooked whole meals, talked, played [at cards], and relieved themselves in the antechambers that stood in back of each lavish box.  (II, 174)

It would be natural to assume that the scenario above refers to a sporting event. One can picture a gaggle of the privileged gossiping away about which noblewoman is in bed with which nobleman, noshing on treats, sharing the latest dirty joke, sipping wine and laughing. It’s like a baseball game today: you go for the camaraderie over hot dogs and beer and when you hear a sharp “crack,” you look down onto the field to see what just happened. It’s all about the socializing; the ostensible reason for the event is secondary.

Of course, there was no baseball in 17th/18th century Italy; instead, the landed classes amused themselves in the opera house. The passage above comes from Martha Feldman’s article “Magic Mirrors and the Seria Stage,” which meticulously describes the fascinating social milieu that existed around opera seria performances in the early 18th century. The performance halls were fully lit, giving spectators just as good a view of the other spectators than of the stage. People came to see and be seen, to chat amongst themselves, and to eat. (Indeed, a standard item in the seria opera was the “sherbet aria,” a tune sung while audience members devoured their dessert.) The music was entirely incidental to the partying, which makes sense when one learns that patrons typically rented their opera boxes for the whole season, and a season consisted of only a few operas, each performed 20-30 times. After the first couple of performances, audiences would be familiar enough with the plot and the music to mentally check out and still know what’s going on. When the virtuoso castrato onstage begin belting his signature tune, audiences would stop their conversations to enjoy a moment of music.

Taruskin comments that there is nothing in today’s world of classical music similar to this sort of socio-musical event. (One would have to go to a bar with a bad cover band for something resembling the opera seria culture.) Indeed, he likens it more to today’s TV set, which passively lights up the background to so many peoples’ lives (II, 175). It is used less for concentrated recreation than it is for distracted ambiance. To the modern person, steeped as we are in the 19th century idea of darkened concert halls, sublimity and transport, and the private contemplation of musical art, the opera seria can seem more like circus than Kultur. The carnivalesque element is perhaps what makes seria such a marginal player in today’s repertory, but it also makes it queerly fascinating.

Prof. Mitchell Morris likes to tell his undergrads that one reason why the 20th century has so few fantastic operas is that, to write an opera that truly “works,” the composer has to “have the courage to be boring.” When you’re dealing with a musical form that can easily stretch for 3 or more hours, a composer needs to “let the audience go,” to free them up for staring blankly at the ceiling, checking their iPhones, and people watching. One does not have the cognitive capacity to deal with hours straight of concentrated brilliance; they need some mental downtime. In the 20th century, only the courageous composer has the guts to be boring.

It might be easy to forget this today, but distracted listening has a long and distinguished history in the western art music tradition (not to mention all the rest of human musical cultures out there). You could receive a dirty look for coughing in some esteemed concert halls today, but throughout most of music history, the coughing, distracted, socializing audience member was the norm, not the decorum-destroying exception. This is perhaps what makes opera seria so interesting – it is so utterly different from what we think of opera now. Taruskin lowers the curtain: “.. it is just those aspects of bygone art that are most bygone from which we can learn the most about ourselves and our present world, and the place of art within it” (II, 176).

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