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Archive for the ‘Seventeenth Century’ Category

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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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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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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