Archives for category: Music

President Donald Trump defended Western civilization while in Poland, mentioning “symphonies” as exemplary achievements.

“We write symphonies, we pursue innovation,” he said.

Now, taking glory from others’ achievements ain’t my bag, but defending Western civilization against its detractors and enemies is surely worthwhile. A great tradition of liberty did not pop out elsewhere, even if many good people and great things and ideas did. Many of us here in the West are still caught between Hebraism and Hellenism, and live in an ongoing dialogue between Jerusalem and Athens. And we have no reason to be ashamed of this.

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And we have no reason to take shame in symphonies — which not coincidentally remain my favorite form of art, bar none.

But . . . I just heard an African-American man on CNN admitting to being “triggered” by this mention of the symphonic tradition in particular, thought it was evidence of “white nationalism.”

This is just so stupid. I commend to the attention of the under-educated ideologues at CNN the symphonies by American composer William Grant Still (pictured in caricature) — especially his Fourth, “Autochthonous,” and Fifth, “Western Hemisphere.” The symphonies are very good, if not great; they consciously build upon a long civilized tradition of fine art music; they reference in their titles the very idea of growing new out of the old; and the composer was the first African-American to have a symphony performed in America.

Blacks are not defined by jazz, or soul, or rap/hip-hop. Maybe it is time to give up your low-brow, anti-white fixations. You do not make anyone look (or sound) good.

Thankfully, you do not speak for anyone but yourselves, and perhaps the pathetic racists you cater to.

twv

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At the end of Charles Ives’s great orchestral fugue on the hymns “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” and “All Hail the Power,” the trombone plays a phrase or two from “Joy to the World.” Is it a droll incongruity thrown in as more than a lagniappe, one of the composer’s many japes? I believe it was put there by the composer to crown the whole affair with a frisson of the transcendent — as if to prove that one can indeed experience the numinous from the old and familiar as well as the rich and strange.*

While I suppose most listeners would be repelled by the other movements from Ives’s Symphony No. 4 — especially the second movement, marked “Comedy” (a rhythmically complex and harmonically dissonant scherzo) — this movement will probably please most ears, at least of anyone who can listen to music without hearing somebody mumble-sing words into a microphone, accompanied to electric guitars and a relentless drum kit. No guitars here, and no vocals either. The choir sings in the first and final movements. There is a timpani, though — just not a drum kit, or “trap set” as we called it in band.

I love the whole symphony, for what it is worth. But I recommend to most people — especially those familiar with traditional Protestant hymnody — to listen to just this third movement. Maybe more than once. Then read the liner notes to the CD you have obtained (classical albums almost always have extensive liner notes), and then listen to the whole symphony, from beginning to end. Ives is one of those composers who it does help to understand the context of what he was doing. There is something like a program to this symphony, and it helps to be familiar with it.

The symphony was first performed when I was a kid, though the composer died a few years before I was born, and this symphony had been composed decades earlier.

There are several recordings of this work, now, as difficult as it is to perform, and as expensive as it is to produce. I do not think I have heard a bad performance — something I cannot say about his 2nd and 3rd symphonies, that is for sure.

In 1944, in one of his private notes, composer Arnold Schoenberg — he of Verklärte Nacht and dodecaphony and the great unfinished opera Moses und Aron — wrote this: “There is a great Man living in this country — a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one’s self and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.”

Ives tried, it seems to me, to “let heaven and nature sing” through his music.

twv

IMG_3720* In the first version of this fugue, which can be heard in the composer’s String Quartet, No. 1, “From the Salvation Army,” the tune “Joy to the World”  is not present. The Christmas hymn was written by Isaac Watts, but who composed the music is not clear. Because the famous phrase quoted by Ives appears as part of Messiah, it has often been attributed to Georg Frideric Handel. The problem I pose about this interpolation — jape or transcendence? — need not be exclusive, one or the other. With Ives, the joke and the numinous are often so closely juxtaposed, and the method of delivery so similar between the two, that the distinction might not even be valid.

Well, the afternoon concert of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra that I attended last Sunday was about as good as it gets. The program consisted of two pieces:

  1. Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod
  2. Olivier Messiaen, Turangalîla-Symphonie

I’ve been critical of the OSO in the past. The orchestra tends to perform extremely well on one piece per concert — but botch at least one other. The outfit usually ends with some gigantic war horse full of sound and fury, playing remarkably well. But a middle or early piece in the program has . . . problems. I’ve heard Carlos Kalmar, the conductor and musical director of the orchestra, successfully conduct, say, Ravel or Richard Strauss, at concert’s climax, but have trouble making a convincing case for, say, Bartok’s great masterwork, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, earlier on in the evening. But they’ve managed to pull off some difficult music extraordinarily well, such as by contemporary composer Aaron Jay Kernis.

Today, however, was a different story. The mastery with the Tristan music was exquisite. This is a very Romantic piece, and one that I have not listened to very often. Wagner is not my usual cup of tea. But I am not an idiot, or a bigot about music: I can recognize greatness when I hear it, and it is wonderful to hear it in a concert hall. It is a perpetual motion machine of the heart — a sacred and profane love machine, perhaps — a tone poem to longing, to aching passion, to doomed desire and death. It is based on the old Tristan story, of course, which my fellow Arthurian Legend aficionados know only too well. With Wagner that story reached a sort of apotheosis.

It also became one of the most influential pieces of the 19th century, setting fine art music on a road away from common practice harmony, and into the realm of atonality. It was not popular at first performance. It grew on our civilization. I will readily confess to usually preferring, more than the music itself, this music’s legacy in works by Debussy and, yes, Bernard Herrmann — the Vertigo score is sort of a late echo of the very same longing and doom, and using many of the same techniques (it’s almost a pastiche).

But it is not for everybody, or even most. The old man sitting next to my sister, Rebecca, snored through it. Alas.

It is certainly not a warhorse, like the same composer’s Ride of the Valkyries, or the Wedding March from Lohengrin

Also not an obvious crowd-pleaser is the Messiaen work. Here we have one of the most-performed BIG masterworks of the 20th century (it premiered in 1948). It was basically panned by its first critics and audiences, even called the “Messiaen Monster” and music fit for “Hindu hillbillies, if there be such.” 

But it became one of the most played works after the heyday of populist modernism in the works of Sibelius, Copland, Shostakovich, et al. Surely it is one of the most played “hard-to-perform” works. I have several recordings of it in my collection of recordings. After the concert, I purchased another one, featuring the same soloists from Sunday’s performance.

The disc I bought after the concert.

It is a work of eccentric genius.

Messiaen dared to combine simplicity with complexity. He dared to draw out a tune now and then. He dared to base extended works on motifs that some have found trivial, trite, but which are at least readily identifiable. Though there is a lot of hidden complexity in his music — amazing rhythmic and modal patterns— much of it is noticeable on the surface, unlike the tone rows of the serialists that almost always hidden in a score, indiscernible to any but the most trained ear. 

Most of all, though, Messiaen dared to dream big. (When he accepted the original commission, he told the purchaser that he would begin dreaming about it immediately. Messiaen, a French Catholic, was also a mystic.) Though the work lacks a kettledrum, there are plenty of tuned and untuned percussionist working overtime throughout the piece. The brass, particularly the tubas, get to blast away, very memorably. The pianist is up front, and obligato throughout. But it is not a concerto, no matter how demanding. Steven Osborne’s performance was brilliant.

And then there was the ondes martinot.

The ondes, an electrical instrument that can do not only theremin-like things, but also perform, as Kalmar put it, “fifty times more things,” plays throughout the symphony, often doubling the violins. Cynthia Millar performed on the instrument.

The symphony is long. Ten movements.

I, recovering from a cold, think of it as an “eleven lozenge symphony.” I did not have a problem until the sixth movement — my favorite — halfway through which I struggled to suppress a cough, a very painful thing to do. But unlike the other members of the audience, I did not cough while the music was playing.

Hint to audiences: between movements, one is not supposed to clap . . . but coughing is mandatory, if you have a tickle. Do it then.

And the audience did not clap between the Wagner movements, and not in the Messiaen, either, with one exception: at the end of the fifth, which is nearly seven minutes of a “dance of frenzied joy,” and contains his most whistleable themes — an actual jaunty tune, played loudly in the brass — the audience burst into applause. It is the obvious crowd-pleasing movement of the ten.

The audience can and should be forgiven for the sound burst. Actual appreciation sometimes needs an outlet. And the audience, three fifths of whom probably hate Messiaen’s brand of modernism (a number of old people walked out in the middle movements), and only one tenth that probably loves it, had a respite of sorts.

In addition to the music performed, the orchestra had commissioned a local artist and her students to design and “perform” a light show to accompany the music of the Turangalîla. It started out monochrome (white), and by the end of the piece was in full color. 

The symphony, which has some of the loudest as well as quietest music in the repertory, ended with a huge swell of major-chord bliss.

twv

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It’s Malipiero in the morning,
And Nancarrow at noon;
Stravinsky some time after,
And Nono none too soon.

The evening’s left to Elgar,
By midnight, after Toch
I’ll slumber along with Debussy,
And wake five times with Bloch.

The day is made with music,
To distract me from the pain
Of politicians pushing Promise
And the voters’ sad refrain:

“The other side’s more evil!”
And other dubious talk.
It’s why this secret I reveal:
“The answer lies in Bach.”

twv

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I like the music of Steve Reich — and not just because Music for 18 Musicians is the best make-out music ever composed. His list of masterpieces is long, and includes Drumming, Music for a Large Ensemble, Octet, Different Trains, Sextet, The Desert Music, and many other works.

I even enjoy some of his earliest minimalist experiments, such as Piano Phase.

Here we learn that this early classic has been adapted for harpsichord:

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Apparently Harpsichord Phase is a riot.

What we have here is a bit of a reversal.

After The Rite of Spring ballet elicited a riot at its 1913 Paris premiere, the story got related to Rite fans in the late 20th century as a case of snobby, stodgy oldsters who didn’t really appreciate music. They were no better than culture snobs who wanted their ears blessed with the merely pretty (and perhaps by the merely Parisian). But the folks objecting to harpsichord minimalism at this recent boo-out no doubt love music. They love their music, not others’. And by going to a harpsichord recital, they thought themselves insulated from alien sounds. This cannot be construed as simple snobbery, can it?

Fortunately, my tastes are broad enough that I wouldn’t even object to some painful rendition of a dodecaphonic monstrosity.

But then, my manners and respect for others’ property and contracts preclude me from interrupting even dreck.

I would not cry fire in a crowded theater, either.

Unless there was a fire.

We can be certain: there was no fire in Harpsichord Phase. That music is saved from the heat and rufosity of that most volatile element.

Grohl-ABBA

 


 

I don’t often watch CBS’s 60 Minutes, but when I do, I want to see something as fun as Dave Grohl sauntering through New Orleans in a jazz parade while wearing an ABBA t-shirt.