Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Das ist die ewige Kunst


Driving down to Glendale that was the question: What bad music do you like to listen to?

It's a provocative question, coming from the woman who published some of my music and two of my books — a woman who'd married a fine composer, who'd made a living as a music librarian, who'd played piano as a child actress, most memorably in Intermezzo, in which Ingrid Bergman made her American film debut.

Well of course I like to think there isn't really any bad music, but one knows what she means. The most likely candidate that came to mind was German operetta, composers like Kalmán and Benatzky. I do enjoy listening to such things; I identify with Jakob, in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, who listens blissfully to an out-of-tune piano playing sentimental music and exclaims: Das ist die ewige Kunst!

What I listen to these days is mostly Mozart and jazz, and while driving I find myself singing, especially when hearing jazz — growing up playing inner-voice instruments (bassoon, French horn, clarinet, alto saxophone) I naturally heard a lot of alto and tenor lines, and to that harmonic impulse I find the cross-rhythms of Latin music and the off-kilter countermelodies of jazz making almost intuitive companions.

Then today, driving to Santa Rosa, I caught the last few variations of Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn, in an interesting, personable interpretation recorded at a live concert. What a glorious piece! Immediately I slip into sententiousness, a familiar mode to the patient woman in the passenger seat:
Brahms is like Tchaikovsky; he composes best in his lesser pieces. Their symphonies are dutiful and pretentious; their serenades are completely engaging.
Brahms responded by launching into that wonderful rising scalar passage in the strings in the seventh variation, grazioso, at the end of the bridge, a passage that reminds me of the similar phrase divided (much quicker) by the two clarinets somewhere in the Second Symphony (the symphony that is the exception to my statement in the preceding paragraph).

And then the finale, with its easy slip into and quickly out of a fugue, and the return of the woody original theme, the St. Anthony Chorale, not Haydn of course as the announcer couldn't help pointing out, but as good as Haydn, and that's saying a lot. (And then the surprising revelation of the performance: the Buffalo Philharmonic, JoAnn Falletta conducting.)

I think what does in Brahms and Tchaikovsky, in their symphonies, is the curse of Importance. Any reasonably hard-working high-school band musician could hold his own in the St. Anthony Chorale, and once he did, could go on to Haydn symphonies and Mozart divertimentos. Beethoven was the guy who began taking all this [too] seriously, and began writing music that makes real demands on its performers. Too fast, too intricate, too unruly. The odd-numbered symphonies especially: revolutionary (the First, starting on its seventh chord); heroic; fateful; compulsive; unworldly: each setting the bar a bit higher, demanding more attention from its audiences and more work from its performers. How explain such stuff? It must be... Important.

From then on symphonies (and concertos and string quartets) have Numbers, not Names, to emphasize their pure, abstract, you might almost say noble intentions. They tell no stories, let alone jokes: they are rigorous and mathematical. The exceptions, like Ilya Mourometz and Night in the Tropics and Song of the Earth, are defiantly exceptional. Brahms in his Serenades and his overtures (well, perhaps not the "Tragic") and above all the Haydn Variations is cajoling, engaging, cuddly; playful even. Only the relaxed Second Symphony, of his four symphonies and four concerti, is as user-friendly throughout.

Once, years ago, I heard a performance of the Violin Concerto that made the music sound almost human, rather than stern and defiant. When I congratulated the conductor afterward he said that he'd merely followed the markings; the piece is supposed to open quietly, lyrically. Brahms of course wrote for violins with gut strings and relatively slack bows; "modern" performances sharpen the pitch, tighten the strings, turn things metallic and, ultimately, nerve-wracking.

But the symphonies are not only good, they're Great. Great Music by a great master; we've been assured of this for years. It's a big responsibility, writing symphonies; it scared Brahms off for years. Fortunately, while warming up to the task, he gave us those Haydn Variations.

Last Sunday Daniel Wolf posted an interesting comment on Passagework on his blog, Renewable Music. "Most of the matter in the universe is dark, and most of the matter in music is passagework," he writes; and later
Passagework has the capacity to extend material indefinitely and while in much traditional music this always risks inflating the values of those materials, an achievement of minimal music was the erasure of a distinction between the passagework and the music the passages were meant to connect, [an] economy of musical materials that was at once new and very ancient.
In much traditional music this always risks inflating the values of those materials. I know Wolf means something different here than what I have been going on about; he means the value of the fiddle-de-de and filligree — Alberti bass and such.

But the idea of "values," of inflated values, is something that set in, in "classical" music, sometime after poor Mozart died. It's what Satie was thinking of when he complained of Wagner's operas ("Look: the trees on stage don't have to shudder when a character appears!" [no attrib.])

I'm writing this partly in the wake of having read Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, which covers the (western European-derived concert) music of the entire Twentieth Century with hardly a mention of Satie. Who are the Great Composers of the Twentieth Century, Ann asked at another mile on the drive down to Glendale last week, and I recalled the lists I'd given my students at Mills: for each half of the century, three Heros:
Ives             Varèse
Satie           Cage
Webern      Stockhausen

and three conventional "Greats":
Debussy                  Carter
Stravinsky              Boulez
Schoenberg             ...
Well, you see how difficult is is; I'd have to go out in the cold damp night to the workshop and dig around in the files to find the syllabus; I'm sure I found a third.

Ross — I'll blog about his book later, but just let me end this with a preview now — Ross singles out four Twentieth-Century composers for extended attention: Sibelius, Copland, Britten, and Messiaen. Moi, j'adore Sibelius; in his seven symphonies (especially the last five) I do find true abstract purity; he is perhaps the purest symphonic composer since Mozart. He is surely a Hero. But he's in odd company, don't you think?

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