Tag Archives: classical music

Watching the repertory shift

otto1.jpeg.jpg

Where is the Nicolai of yesteryear?

I’ve lived long enough now to start seeing a repertory turning point in classical music, and I think the canon of the near future will be different in the kind of lighter music it lets in, among other things.

For instance, when I was younger, I could hear at orchestral or band concerts a couple pieces by Saint-Saens — the Danse Macabre and the Marche Militaire Francaise — reliably enough to think of them as repertory. But those two works seem to have disappeared, at least in my hearing orbit, though other works by Saint-Saens that were obscure 30 years ago, such as his late Clarinet Sonata, I have now heard in concert a number of times.

Light overtures, too, seem to be pretty much a thing of the past. Time was you’d hear the Merry Wives of Windsor Overture of Otto Nicolai, the Donna Diana Overture of Reznicek, and the von Suppe staples such as Light Cavalry. The Nicolai in particular was probably familiar to the German musicians who formed the core of major orchestras in the 1880s when most of them were being formed, and thus got frequent performances, but I can’t remember the last time I heard it live.

The same goes for other two; Reznicek got a new lease on life in the 1950s when it was a TV theme song, but it’s never played anymore that I’ve heard, nor is the von Suppe overture, probably because that older school of operetta was superseded by the Broadway musical and now has to be revived by opera companies.

Also, the music of Edouard Lalo is pretty much gone, with the Symphonie Espagnole never heard anymore, though Sarasate and Wienawski seem to be holding their own with their violin showpieces. Lalo wrote a nice cello concerto, though, and I have always been fond of the Le Roi d’Ys overture, which I haven’t heard it in years. Still, Lalo joins the ranks of Nicolai, von Suppe and Reznicek, it seems to me: Yesterday’s programs, yesterday’s enthusiasms.

Lighter music seems to represented nowadays by Astor Piazzolla above all, whose music I dislike, as I’ve noted previously. But it’s played everywhere now, and for the foreseeable future is repertory. Movie music by John Williams appears to be semi-repertory as well, in particular the Schindler’s List theme, which gets regular performances.

Among the heavier repertory, Shostakovich is the biggest winner, with the First, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and above all, the Fifth, symphonies having successfully secured strong canonical positions. The Second Piano Concerto and the Preludes and Fugues are now standard repertory, as are the first violin and cello concerti, and the string quartets, with the Eighth probably being the most played.

Of American pieces written in the past 50 years, the Bernstein Chichester Psalms is repertory now, and John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine seems to get a number of hearings, its brevity and color making it a good orchestral curtain-raiser. John Corigliano’s First Symphony should be repertory, though I haven’t heard it in a while.

American composers do better as repertory writers in wind ensemble music — Alfred Reed, Vincent Persichetti — and choral music — Daniel Pinkham, Norman Dello Joio, Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen. But these composers are most often heard in academic settings, and their profiles are not as high with the general public, no matter how fine much of this music is.

I’m hearing a lot of interesting repertoire in my concertgoing these days, with more frequent outings for writers such as Joseph Rheinberger, and overlooked pieces by canonical composers, including string quartets by Grieg and Sibelius and early symphonies by Dvorak.

But while the repertory has shifted to more Shostakovich and less Nicolai, it also remains solidly old-canonical. I’m still hearing more Beethoven than anything else, with Mozart closely behind (less Haydn, though, which is too bad).

I think it will be a while before I can hear a pianist in one of the big sonatas of Carl Maria von Weber, or a string quartet in something by Nielsen or Stenhammar, or an orchestra in a symphony by Roussel, just to name a few things I’d really like to hear.

Great art, odious people

Schmitt_FFlorent Schmitt.

One of the more persistent dilemmas of listening to music, or taking in any art form, is knowing too much unpleasant stuff about its creator.

I was talking to a fellow music critic the other day about a knockout performance he’d just seen of Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests, his 1949 oratorio in which some of the text hymns the genius of Stalin. Some really good music in there, but the words gave him the creeps, he said.

That brought me back to a concert earlier this month featuring a beautiful late work (Suite en rocaille, Op. 84) for flute, harp and cello by Florent Schmitt. A little research into Schmitt’s life revealed depressing things, and not the semi-comic one of his habit of yelling out criticisms from his seat while working as a music critic. What was depressing was his anti-Semitism and his collaboration with the Vichy government of World War II France.

What a shame that someone who could write something as lovely as this piece could be so odious otherwise. And that train of thought leads inevitably to Wagner, and interestingly enough a piece in last Sunday’s NYT about the Bard Festival this year, which features Fervaal, an opera by another anti-Semite, Vincent d’Indy.

I haven’t done much research into these composers’ lives, so I don’t know how fervently anti-Semitic they were, or how Schmitt in particular, who lived until 1958, might have come to terms with it after the end of the war. But it’s still depressing to think about.

It isn’t just composers, of course. How do we listen to Karl Bohm or Walter Gieseking, knowing their admiration for the Hitler regime? The truly great performances Bohm and Gieseking gave of the central repertory can’t be gainsaid; it’s great stuff. And yet thinking about their politics is bothersome.

I suppose it comes down to forgetting about it, and not tainting their achievements, or the art of music itself, with politics, which no matter how miserable is in any case ephemeral, while the greatest music is anything but. I guess when great art speaks, it speaks for itself, and we shouldn’t worry too much about the vessel through which it came.

In some ways, it’s like the secret lives of today’s movie and television stars. Given that everything you see is in some way an act of theater, it leaves you wondering who’s nice and who’s not. I think that’s because we all want to believe that the people who entertain us so well, who help us in our times of greatest emotional need, are people you’d be proud to call your friends.

That often they are not, and that the art has to stand aside from the person, is a fact of history. But it’s not one that makes me very comfortable.

Chamber music lures me to the work table

 

350px-Grün_-_Chamber_Music_Concert.jpg

Doing the composer/journalist/entrepreneur shuffle, as I’m doing these days, is difficult to keep up, in part because I find my allegiances sorely tested.

This past week I did a review of the opening concert in the 18th season of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival, as well as turned in an advancer to The Miami Herald for a concert coming up later this month. But at the chamber music concert I had the same feeling I often do as I sit in the audience and listen: Envy, more or less.

And it’s compositional envy. The chamber music repertoire is one of vast richness, and it’s wonderful when an organization engages its musical curiosity to seek some of these things out. And so much of it is good — this morning, I listened while working to three early Schubert quartets on a Kodaly Quartet release on Naxos, and I couldn’t get over how engaging Schubert’s very first quartet, in C minor (D. 18), really is.

But reference works that mention it, and even the disc’s own program notes, are very dismissive of this piece, and I can’t for the life of me understand why. Is it because it ends in B-flat? And so what if it does?

Anyway, as a composer, I can’t help but sit in a chamber music concert and feel that I should run right home and crank out an oboe sonata or a string quintet. There’s something so compelling about chamber music that I can’t help but wish I could take part right then and there.

I think this has to do with the intimate nature of the music; this is how we actually are able to hear the individual qualities of instruments, and hear what a single violin, a lone clarinet, truly sound like.

And it is also to marvel at how much music a skilled writer can get out of very small forces. In writing like this, the composer has to be aware of all the sonic possibilities of the instruments he is bringing together, and understand absolutely what one plucked cello will sound like under three wind instruments.

It’s a precise kind of writing, and I think one of the reasons I find it so attractive is that it’s so challenging: it’s a puzzle, and you have to figure out how best to make all the pieces fit.

But it’s hard to leave enough mental space for that challenge when you’re concentrating on mundane things such as earning money. I’m not making much these days, and I find it difficult to get music finished when I’m getting weighed down with worry about finding enough cash to keep the household going.

It makes me respect those composers all the more. How did they keep going in the midst of far worse problems than I have? Schubert, his body wracked with syphilis, working under a death sentence, for instance. Surely, writing music was the only thing in the world that made him happy.

Or Gabriel Faure, who didn’t have that problem and lived a relatively long life, still didn’t have time to write during the Conservatoire year, and it wasn’t until the very end of his life that he could write at any time other than the summer.

How did he bring himself back to the compositional place in his mind after all that administration and management? It couldn’t have been easy, but again I imagine he probably lived for it in a very real way, and when classes were out of session, he could go deep and get back to his favorite musical activity.

I guess we all have to find a balance between the work we have to do and the work we would love to do, unless we’re fortunate enough that they’re the same thing. These are hard days (relatively so) for me, and finding the right balance is proving very difficult indeed.

Second stimulus should include arts programs

beethoven-series-300x192

It seems clear to me that sometime next year, if not sooner, the Congress is going to have to come up with a second massive stimulus plan to re-goose the economy.

The first stimulus was too narrow in its belief that funneling huge amounts of money to the banks would encourage them to lend again, but having been burned so badly in the runup to the recession, the chances of them handing any money out to anybody but the healthiest corporations and individuals is slim.

So a second stimulus is going to have to happen, and it’s going to have to be much more creative than the current one, which is far too narrow. The new one is going to have to rejuvenate many more sectors of the economy, from retail to infrastructure, and it’s in line with that idea that I would like to make a call for the revival of the federal arts programs of the 1930s: the Federal Music Project and the Federal Writers Project, among others (the Civilian Conservation Corps, too, which would be plenty busy down here in South Florida ridding the Glades of Burmese pythons, for one).

I’m sure this isn’t a fashionable idea, and some research into the history of these programs shows that they basically were fairly short-lived, as yahoo Congressmen of one kind or another let their grumpy glands inflate as they saw artistic expression suffused with the red glow of Communism. But leaving aside all that, there is some merit in the idea of giving work to underemployed writers and musicians, actors and painters.

In the Federal Music Project, for instance, according to this valuable precis of the New Deal arts programs, the government-funded musical ensembles reached about 3 million Americans each week in about 5,000 separate performances. That’s a lot of music, and for a country whose population was little more than a third (125 million) of what it is now. Music instruction was widespread, folk music was extensively catalogued, and there was a Composers Laboratory in which composers could try out their works.

Unsurprisingly, I like all those ideas, and not just for the laudability of a country taking care and pride in the artistic powers of its citizens. I like the idea in particular because, like so many of the New Deal make-work programs, it offered a real boost to the self-esteem of the people who worked them.

One of the most damaging things that happens to people who fall out of the day-to-day bustle of the working world is the one that’s hardest to see, and that’s the damage to the psyche. One day you’re virtuous and hardworking and bringing home the bacon, and the very next day you’re unwanted, unneeded and a drain on society.

A country that lets formerly productive people who lose work through no fault of their own and then does not allow them the wherewithal to recover, either through rational unemployment benefits (unlike Florida, which forces you to file a claim against your former employer, a hideous and vicious idea obviously dreamed up by a lobbyist) or temporary make-work as they look for new labor in their own fields, is not a country that is organized to help most of its people. It is a country designed to benefit people and institutions that already have plenty of money, and that’s true of the majority of our country’s history.

Tax dollars spread out through the economy, with national projects that need doing — environmental cleanup, infrastructure — and cultural projects that enliven our nation outside commercial channels, would at the very least give millions of people, at least temporarily, a feeling of usefulness once again, and that’s crucial to making them do what needs to be done to return to the regular workforce. And since Congress has no trouble allocating a first-class health plan to its members, the revitalized New Deal programs could include a government-run health plan, too.

No, government is not the answer to everything. But government often spends its money on things that don’t benefit enough Americans. Here is a chance for Congress to do the right thing and come up with some temporary work and economic recovery programs whose benefits will be immediate in putting people back to work and long-term in rebuilding infrastructure and encouraging all forms of cultural expression.

The Federal Music Project, for one, could reinvigorate music education, which has disappeared across the nation’s public schools. Learning how to read a simple line of notated music, for instance, is invaluable for churchgoing people confronted with an unfamiliar piece of group music to sing. But our culture now encourages musically minded people to use their ears alone, and technology helps them record even the minutest effusion of their muses.

But it hasn’t improved anything; it’s just made people more comfortable in making only their kind of music in a hermetically sealed technological shell. That’s not good in the long run, and just as being able to read words on a page helps open up the rest of human experience to anyone at all, reading simple notation does the same for the vast world of music, too.

I would further argue that in the 1930s, before industrialized agriculture seized the nation’s food supply, that it was still possible for people who bombed out in the big city to go home to the soybeans, sadder but wiser. Now that avenue is almost completely gone, and the jobless urbanite’s position is far more precarious thereby.

So let’s bring back government-provided work in the second economic stimulus, and in particular the arts projects. Sure, there were plenty of problems with the programs the first time around, but their legacy seems to me today to be overwhelmingly positive. Today’s jobless American workers are just like those of the ’30s generation: They don’t ask for permanent government help, just a little bit of help and useful work until they can get things back on track.

And in the meantime, we’ll also get a much better picture of how creative a people we are. The Internet is ostensibly a democratic medium, but the people whose voices are heard loudest there are the best marketers, and there are millions of worthy people out there whose work deserves to be heard and seen, but who will never be able to market themselves effectively.

Here, too, my tax dollars would help level that out. A second stimulus is inevitable, so let’s have one that really does the work that the banks will not do, and that’s dig deep into all the layers of our economy and get them going again.

A playlist for the Fourth

July 3, 2009
One of my favorite blogging things to do for the Fourth is create an all-American playlist that I try to adhere to during the day. While one of our country’s most important exports is our popular music, the United States has a tremendous and marvelous corpus of classical music that rarely gets the attention it deserves.
There are historical reasons for that, such as the rise of a music-loving public with leisure in the years when German musical culture was at its most influential, and the heritage of the Bach-Mozart-Beethoven tradition remains a major part of our classical music. But American composers made something new out of those models, and it’s my hope that one day most of our concert halls will feature American music as a matter of course rather than making us all wait for major holidays.
Until then, I’ll offer up a few pieces that I’ll have on my various players tomorrow. These pieces are quite Romantic for the most part; that’s the mood that appeals to me this year:
1. William Grant Still, Symphony No. 2 (Song of a New Race). (Neeme Jarvi/Detroit SO; Chandos 9226; 1993) This piece has become a staple of my Independence Day soundtrack, and every time I hear it, I can’t for the life of me understand why Still isn’t recognized as the major American composer he was. Doubtless infrequent performances have the most to do with that, but give this symphony a listen and then start badgering your local conductor.
It reminds me of Dvorak and Schubert in its liveliness, color and ease of expression, and Still strikes me as the only other American art-music composer besides George Gershwin to have so successfully melded the worlds of pop and classical. It’s a lovely piece, full of good tunes in fine orchestral dress, and completely accessible to every audience. Unlike many other leading American composers whose work requires hundreds of pages of program notes to explicate, Still speaks with no less skill and sophistication, but much more directly. The neglect of this well-wrought, attractive work, as well as Still’s music in general, is a scandal.
2. Samuel Barber, Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (Hilary Hahn/St. Paul Chamber Orch, dir. Wolff; Sony SK 89029; 2000). When it comes to concerti, Americans write lots of them, but there are only a handful that have entered the repertory with any frequency: Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano, and the Bernstein Serenade, which is a violin concerto in everything but name. But it is the Barber Violin Concerto that is perhaps the finest of all of them, and it makes an eloquent case for Barber’s very conservative but lovely aesthetic.
From the opening bars to the moto perpetuo finish, this piece never fails to win over an audience, and I’ve seen it played less than spectacularly on a couple occasions. Barber’s melodies here are some of his finest, beginning with an unforgettable inspiration in the opening bars that is immediately appealing and gets topped only by the ravishing slow movement. It’s now a classic of the literature, but it still needs to be heard more often in regular concerts; perhaps next year’s Barber centenary will provide the impetus.
3. Howard Hanson: Laude and other pieces. (John Boyd/Philharmonia a Vent; Klavier 11158; 2006). The wind band is the original American concert ensemble, the performing group at whose hands most Americans of earlier generations heard great European orchestral music as well as their own native pieces. Who knows how many Americans only ever heard something like the ballet music from Gounod’s Faust in wind-band guise?
Plenty, is the answer, and this year I’m including one all-wind disc for the Fourth, because here, too, is a woefully underappreciated musical category at which Americans have excelled for more than a century. Howard Hanson, whose Second Symphony is hanging on for dear life at the far fringes of the repertory, represents not just a late-Romantic tradition but also the church tradition of the Midwest.
The states of the upper Midwest in particular have deep ties to the Lutheran Church and Scandinavia, and Hanson, the son of Swedish immigrants to Nebraska, was deeply attached to the religious music of his youth. This fine all-Hanson disc on Boca Raton’s Klavier label, featuring the Indiana State University Philharmonia a Vent, contains the title work, Laude, along with director John Boyd’s transcription of the suite from Hanson’s lone opera, Merry Mount.
4. William Schuman, New England Triptych (Jose Serebrier/Bournemouth SO; Naxos 8.559083; 2000) Not a surprising choice, perhaps: This is the one piece by which this estimable composer and educator is remembered today. But it remains an exciting listen for the way Schuman infuses the music of the early Boston choirmaster William Billings with something astringently 20th-century that nevertheless respects its archaic character.
The second movement, the poignant When Jesus Wept, has an intimate beauty that’s easy to associate with a dark, frosty day in New England, where I lived for a couple years as a music student in Boston, and this movement always takes me back there. The closing movement, Chester, the best-known of the three, also makes its point with relative restraint, even though the composer brings plenty of brass and drums to bear on his argument. In its clarity, precision and harmonic profile it reminds me of Hindemith, but without losing its distinctive American flavor.
5. Shenandoah, arr. Marshall Bartholomew and James Erb (Chanticleer/A Portrait; Teldec 0927 49702-2; 2003). This most achingly gorgeous of all American folksongs gets a slightly fussy arrangement at the hands of Bartholomew and Erb in this performance by the San Francisco-based male choir Chanticleer, but that’s a quibbling.
There’s nothing that will shut up a crowd and bring it to attention more reliably than a beautiful tune like this, with its sad, desolate lyrics and plush harmonic setting perfectly performed, as it is here. There’s a lot of debate over what the song actually is about, but I go along with the school of thought that maintains it’s originally a sea chantey of the early 19th century sung by men working the rivers of the west and dreaming of home in Virginia.
It also works for me as a Civil War song, sort of, but ultimately for me it’s about the love of a place where you no longer are, but a place you had to leave to make your way in the world. That, it seems to me, is much of what the American story is, and perhaps that’s why it usually reduces me to a shuddering, sobbing wreck.
Best wishes for a wonderful Fourth of July to one and all.

p322354-Shenandoa

One of my favorite blogging things to do for the Fourth is create an all-American playlist that I try to adhere to during the day. While one of our country’s most important exports is our popular music, the United States has a tremendous and marvelous corpus of classical music that rarely gets the attention it deserves.

There are historical reasons for that, such as the rise of a music-loving public with leisure in the years when German musical culture was at its most influential, and the heritage of the Bach-Mozart-Beethoven tradition remains a major part of our classical music. But American composers made something new out of those models, and it’s my hope that one day most of our concert halls will feature American music as a matter of course rather than making us all wait for major holidays.

Until then, I’ll offer up a few pieces that I’ll have on my various players tomorrow. These pieces are quite Romantic for the most part; that’s the mood that appeals to me this year:

1. William Grant Still, Symphony No. 2 (Song of a New Race). (Neeme Jarvi/Detroit SO; Chandos 9226; 1993) This piece has become a staple of my Independence Day soundtrack, and every time I hear it, I can’t for the life of me understand why Still isn’t recognized as the major American composer he was. Doubtless infrequent performances have the most to do with that, but give this symphony a listen and then start badgering your local conductor.

It reminds me of Dvorak and Schubert in its liveliness, color and ease of expression, and Still strikes me as the only other American art-music composer besides George Gershwin to have so successfully melded the worlds of pop and classical. It’s a lovely piece, full of good tunes in fine orchestral dress, and completely accessible to every audience. Unlike many other leading American composers whose work requires hundreds of pages of program notes to explicate, Still speaks with no less skill and sophistication, but much more directly. The neglect of this well-wrought, attractive work, as well as Still’s music in general, is a scandal.

2. Samuel Barber, Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (Hilary Hahn/St. Paul Chamber Orch, dir. Wolff; Sony SK 89029; 2000). When it comes to concerti, Americans write lots of them, but there are only a handful that have entered the repertory with any frequency: Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano, and the Bernstein Serenade, which is a violin concerto in everything but name. But it is the Barber Violin Concerto that is perhaps the finest of all of them, and it makes an eloquent case for Barber’s very conservative but lovely aesthetic.

From the opening bars to the moto perpetuo finish, this piece never fails to win over an audience, and I’ve seen it played less than spectacularly on a couple occasions. Barber’s melodies here are some of his finest, beginning with an unforgettable inspiration in the opening bars that is immediately appealing and gets topped only by the ravishing slow movement. It’s now a classic of the literature, but it still needs to be heard more often in regular concerts; perhaps next year’s Barber centenary will provide the impetus.

3. Howard Hanson: Laude and other pieces. (John Boyd/Philharmonia a Vent; Klavier 11158; 2006). The wind band is the original American concert ensemble, the performing group at whose hands most Americans of earlier generations heard great European orchestral music as well as their own native pieces. Who knows how many Americans only ever heard something like the ballet music from Gounod’s Faust in wind-band guise?

Plenty, is the answer, and this year I’m including one all-wind disc for the Fourth, because here, too, is a woefully underappreciated musical category at which Americans have excelled for more than a century. Howard Hanson, whose Second Symphony is hanging on for dear life at the far fringes of the repertory, represents not just a late-Romantic tradition but also the church tradition of the Midwest.

The states of the upper Midwest in particular have deep ties to the Lutheran Church and Scandinavia, and Hanson, the son of Swedish immigrants to Nebraska, was deeply attached to the religious music of his youth. This fine all-Hanson disc on Boca Raton’s Klavier label, featuring the Indiana State University Philharmonia a Vent, contains the title work, Laude, along with director John Boyd’s transcription of the suite from Hanson’s lone opera, Merry Mount.

4. William Schuman, New England Triptych (Jose Serebrier/Bournemouth SO; Naxos 8.559083; 2000) Not a surprising choice, perhaps: This is the one piece by which this estimable composer and educator is remembered today. But it remains an exciting listen for the way Schuman infuses the music of the early Boston choirmaster William Billings with something astringently 20th-century that nevertheless respects its archaic character.

The second movement, the poignant When Jesus Wept, has an intimate beauty that’s easy to associate with a dark, frosty day in New England, where I lived for a couple years as a music student in Boston, and this movement always takes me back there. The closing movement, Chester, the best-known of the three, also makes its point with relative restraint, even though the composer brings plenty of brass and drums to bear on his argument. In its clarity, precision and harmonic profile it reminds me of Hindemith, but without losing its distinctive American flavor.

5. Shenandoah, arr. Marshall Bartholomew and James Erb (Chanticleer/A Portrait; Teldec 0927 49702-2; 2003). This most achingly gorgeous of all American folksongs gets a slightly fussy arrangement at the hands of Bartholomew and Erb in this performance by the San Francisco-based male choir Chanticleer, but that’s a quibbling.

There’s nothing that will shut up a crowd and bring it to attention more reliably than a beautiful tune like this, with its sad, desolate lyrics and plush harmonic setting perfectly performed, as it is here. There’s a lot of debate over what the song actually is about, but I go along with the school of thought that maintains it’s originally a sea chantey of the early 19th century sung by men working the rivers of the west and dreaming of home in Virginia.

It also works for me as a Civil War song, sort of, but ultimately for me it’s about the love of a place where you no longer are, but a place you had to leave to make your way in the world. That, it seems to me, is much of what the American story is, and perhaps that’s why it usually reduces me to a shuddering, sobbing wreck.

Best wishes for a wonderful Fourth of July to one and all.

What Bach’s job benefits tell us

beer-395.jpg

In the middle of my current Bach mini-0bsession, I’ve come across a couple interesting things.

The first, and not hard to find, was that I can see the entire documentary of the John Eliot Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir cantata pilgrimage of 1999-2000 on YouTube, and it’s a beautiful thing. This is one of the last major cultural documents from the pre-9/11 era, for me, and it’s poignant to see in the New York section of the program the World Trade Center standing there where it was supposed to be.

But aside from the shading that piece of history casts on the enterprise, this was a remarkable effort, and I would imagine being part of it was extraordinary and something you would never forget. I have cherished my Vol. 15 set of the cycle for some years now, and it’s good to see what part it played in the larger story.

The other thing I’ve found interesting is in the economic arena. J.S. Bach, as we read in Christoph Wolff’s solid, illuminating biography (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician), did well for himself when he took a job in Weimar in 1708, when he would have been around the same age as a college graduate today:

And with an initial salary of 150 florins plus incidentals (18 bushels of wheat, 12 bushels of barley, four cords of firewood and 30 pails of tax-free beer) , he could indeed look forward to “a better living,” as his Muhlhausen resignation letter reads.

In addition, as a court servant (he was the organist) he was entitled to lodging in one of several buildings reserved for court employees in the middle of town.

JSBach.jpgFirst, there’s the money, and if we use Wolff’s table at the back, we find that 150 florins was roughly equal to somewhere under $9,500 in 2000 dollars, which is around $11,700 today, according to a couple of calculators I used on the Net. So Bach at 23 was making a little less annually than the pastor of a church,  but about three times as much as a barber, if we can take wages from the 1720s and assume they were comparable a few years earlier.

Not bad, and at this time in his life he already had a reputation as one of the most brilliant young musicians in the German states. But what I find really interesting are the benefits.

Imagine if today you were to get a job in which you would get not just your salary, but guaranteed housing, as well as the equivalent of wheat, barley, beer and wood. In other words, you’re getting bread as well as fuel to heat the house and do cooking. So it would be as though you got your job at some company somewhere, and in addition to a decent salary, you’d get a place to live, as well as some of your power costs and food staples taken care of.

That’s a pretty good deal. Say you worked at Acme Widgets in its accounting department. They pay you $30,000 a year. Then in addition they pay most of your power costs — somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000 a year — plus enough wheat and barley to make bread all year round, and the table suggests that the 30 bushels of wheat and barley was worth in the neighborhood of $2,000.

So you get free housing, $30K a year, plus $4,000 for food and energy costs. Well done, Sebastian! And that’s not even counting the beer!

When was the last time an American employer paid its workers anything but salary? Wouldn’t it be nice to get a Cost of Living Voucher along with the salary, plus a Beer Voucher to go along with that? Is there anything else we generally require? This also is at a time when you weren’t expected to keep horses and a carriage for yourself that you bought from Dietrich down at Hohenstaufen Motors. Transportation was on foot or it was public, unless you were an aristocrat, in which case you hired people to do that.

The real fact of the matter is that we as workers in today’s global economy are required to support a gigantic industrial complex that influences most of the laws under which we live and which burdens us to the point of bankrupcty. We have to have cars, which cost far more to buy and operate than most of us have, but we don’t have any choice if we live in a place like South Florida; we have to pay for power, which for most of human history we provided ourselves; we’re forced to subsidize the private insurance industry on pain of breaking the law; if we’re ordinary people the only access to credit we have is at absurdly usurious rates.

It’s a giant, bruising, endless ripoff, and sometimes it takes looking at the economic arrangements of people a few centuries ago to see how out of whack things have become. Sure, not having money in the old days was just as bad as it is now, but nowadays, because we are forced to support so many enormous business operations, the fall is much sharper and steeper, and far more painful. And if you’re in the United States, the social services system is almost nonexistent, pace the selfless volunteers who work tirelessly on behalf of their fellow man simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Bach had it pretty good in most places he worked, even though the folks in Leipzig made him tear off his peruke from time to time and curse in a manner most unbecoming a Lutheran church official. And I think we should recognize that and insist our employers help us meet cost of living right off the bat.

Beer vouchers for everyone!

Luck a bigger player in life than we like to admit

 

I have been thinking a lot about luck in the past few weeks, and this is something you do when you get older and you start to look at the things you’ve done and not done with your life.
People don’t like to admit it, but luck and chance often have much more to do with the trajectory of your life than any amount of hard work or laying about you do. I’m not advocating that everyone snooze until good luck comes his or her way,  just noting that life isn’t really fair, and that while work is the only way to make the most of whatever talent you’ve been given, sometimes there’s nothing you can do about being dealt a crummy hand.
This occurred to me the other day as I listened to a symphony by Juan Arriaga that came over the radio. If there ever was a sadder case of a great talent being cut off just as it was about to take off, I’m not aware of it. Arriaga was a composer from Basque country, and he died at 19 of tuberculosis, a week shy of his 20th birthday, in 1826.
In the short time he lived, he wrote three fine string quartets, that lovely symphony (in D) and works for the stage. He was singularly blessed in his exceptional talent, and yet he was dismayingly unlucky in coming down with TB so young in a pre-penicillin age. His music seems to have established itself more firmly in the repertoire in recent years, especially among string quartet players, so his ultimate legacy is a positive one, if one shadowed by tragedy.
Or poor Vasily Kalinnikov (1866-1901), the Russian composer who died at 34 of TB, having lived for most of his life in wretched poverty. Tchaikovsky thought highly of him, and his two symphonies are wonderful pieces, much better to my ears than the Borodin symphonies, which get more frequent play. But he couldn’t catch a break, lacking the money to study in Moscow, and was forced to relocate to the Crimea for his TB and give up a theater directorship.
There are other tragic bits of luck like this throughout classical music history: Maria Malibran falling off her horse, Enrique Granados delaying his trip back home from the U.S. and ending up on a ship that was torpedoed, Ernest Chausson losing control of his bicycle. I have been listening, too, in recent days to the String Quartet of Alberic Magnard (picking up the record after hearing the Ysaye Quartet in a beautiful concert in Palm Beach), a fascinating, somewhat mysterious work.
Magnard was defending his house in France in September 1914 from the invading German army by taking out his shotgun and letting fly at the cursed Boches. One of the soldiers was killed, and his fellow soldiers retaliated by firing back and setting Magnard’s house on fire, which he did not survive. 
I don’t know that any of this amounts to anything more than scattered late-night thoughts, but it’s somehow comforting to know that you really can try your best and it might not matter because luck might be against you. And I say that’s comforting because it allows you to just create, whatever the consequences.
What remains is the work, and that’s what matters more than anything else.
Here’s a performance of the Third String Quartet of Arriaga, played by the Quiroga Quartet, on YouTube. A lovely work, well-played: 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YU_kVxHSAmU 

 

200px-Juan_de_Arriaga.jpg

Juan Arriaga (1806-1826).

I have been thinking a lot about luck in the past few weeks, and this is something you do when you get older and you start to look at the things you’ve done and not done with your life.

People don’t like to admit it, but luck and chance often have much more to do with the trajectory of your life than any amount of hard work or laying about you do. I’m not advocating that everyone snooze until good luck comes his or her way,  just noting that life isn’t really fair, and that while work is the only way to make the most of whatever talent you’ve been given, sometimes there’s nothing you can do about being dealt a crummy hand.

This occurred to me the other day as I listened to a symphony by Juan Arriaga that came over the radio. If there ever was a sadder case of a great talent being cut off just as it was about to take off, I’m not aware of it. Arriaga was a composer from Basque country, and he died at 19 of tuberculosis (or some other lung infection), a week shy of his 20th birthday, in 1826.

In the short time he lived, he wrote three fine string quartets, that lovely symphony (in D) and works for the stage. He was singularly blessed in his exceptional talent, and yet he was dismayingly unlucky in coming down with TB so young in a pre-penicillin age. His music seems to have established itself more firmly in the repertoire in recent years, especially among string quartet players, so his ultimate legacy is a positive one, if one shadowed by tragedy.

Vasily Kalinnikov (1866 - 1901)Or poor Vasily Kalinnikov (1866-1901), the Russian composer (at right) who died at 34 of TB, having lived for most of his life in wretched poverty. Tchaikovsky thought highly of him, and his two symphonies are wonderful pieces, much better to my ears than the Borodin symphonies, which get more frequent play. But he couldn’t catch a break, lacking the money to study in Moscow, and was forced to relocate to the Crimea for his TB and give up a theater directorship.

There are other tragic bits of luck like this throughout classical music history: Maria Malibran falling off her horse;  Enrique Granados delaying his trip back home from the U.S. and ending up on a ship that was torpedoed; Ernest Chausson losing control of his bicycle. I have been listening, too, in recent days to the String Quartet of Alberic Magnard (picking up the record after hearing the Ysaye Quartet in a beautiful concert in Palm Beach), a fascinating, somewhat mysterious work.

Magnard was defending his house in France in September 1914 from the invading German army by taking out his shotgun and letting fly at the cursed Boches. One of the soldiers was killed, and his fellow soldiers retaliated by firing back and setting Magnard’s house on fire, which he did not survive. 

I don’t know that any of this amounts to anything more than scattered late-night thoughts, but it’s somehow comforting to know that you really can try your best and it might not matter because luck might be against you. And I say that’s comforting because it allows you to just create, whatever the consequences.

What remains is the work, and that’s what matters more than anything else.

Here’s a performance of the Third String Quartet of Arriaga, played by the Quiroga Quartet, on YouTube. A lovely work, well-played.

Master criminal? Must be a classical fan

 

 

5.jpg

Robin Tunney and Simon Baker in The Mentalist.

My wife Sharon is a fan of police procedural shows, which means she has most of network TV to choose from (J. Edgar Hoover must be smiling somewhere, having innovated with newsreels and so effectively propagandized for the good guys in the Big G).

One of the shows she likes, and which I must watch with her,  is The Mentalist (renewed Wednesday, according to CBS, though she’s not happy about losing Eleventh Hour and Without a Trace). The Mentalist stars the fine Australian actor Simon Baker, and this is a cute show because he’s good and so is the ensemble of actors he works with — though he was much more interesting on a far better show, The Guardian, a few years back.

Be that as it may, the plot of the season finale Tuesday night turned on the return of Red John, a psychopath who killed the wife and daughter of Baker’s character, Patrick Jane, a mind-reader who works with the California Bureau of Investigation. I despise hackneyed plots like this, with returning super-criminals presenting the big challenge to our hero; it’s lazy and stupid.

But the worst part was the plot development, when Jane goes to visit a blind woman (Alicia Witt) at her home, and learns that she knows Red John, though of course she’s never seen him. (Another cheap gag.) And what do we learn about this mysterious killer, this freak who haunted the whole first season and doubtless will do so in the second?

He loves classical music.

And we learn this as Witt’s character plays the familiar C major Prelude from the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Not all that long ago on another cops show, Criminal Minds, a master serial killer played by Keith Carradine, who thwarts the dedicated FBI profilers, is described as a lover of Beethoven.

What is the deal? Why is elite criminality associated with a love of classical music? Surely it’s just more lazy scriptwriting, in which writers can easily telegraph to the audience that this is a criminal to be reckoned with, simply by summoning up the idea that he listens to string quartets.

In a way, I suppose it’s a complimentary stereotype: If you love classical, you must be a brainiac. That’s certainly not true; classical music is just music — of a different genre than others, but still music.

I guess the thing to do is research the musical tastes of the world’s biggest criminals and find out whether Mozart was or is on their turntables, CD players, or iPods. I’ll pass on this, since it would be gory, depressing research, but I’ll wager a guess that their musical tastes would vary widely, and classical probably wouldn’t be right up there at the top.

But maybe someday one of these recurring creeps can be enamored of a completely different kind of music. They wouldn’t be any less scary, and Bach wouldn’t have to be besmirched in the process.

Writing for the theater not for every composer

 

I’ve been rather busy with other projects lately, such as this piece for the Miami Herald, and these two for ArtsPaper.  It distresses me to miss so many days on this blog, but if I can get a greater degree of organization implemented, I should be able to post more often.
A third piece of recent writing involved this review of a CD of early music by Marc Blitzstein. I’m not a huge fan of his work, but I really liked the first of the two string quartets on this disc, and the second one was almost as good, and sort of prefigured Shostakovich.
The period of the 1920s and the 1930s was a fascinating one for music in general, as the chaos engendered by the First World War led to numerous fascinating experiments. In the United States, of course, jazz had taken France at least by storm when James Reese Europe played with his Hellfighters in 1918, and classical writers found themselves drawing on this new sound but also carving out a sort of angular neoclassicism.
George Gershwin, because he had an exceptional melodic gift, was able to make something memorable about the sounds he was hearing, and while he went in for some of the percussive power of his fellow composers, his essential orientation was the tuneful song; it was, after all, a chance over hearing of Rubinstein’s Melody in F that riveted the child Brooklynite to the spot while he was out playing.
Blitzstein didn’t have Gershwin’s melodic gift, but he pursued the theater in any case, and I find that interesting. He wanted to make political statements in the theater, and that’s laudable, but the tricky thing about being a composer for the theater is that you have to be able to write distinctive, memorable melody. 
That doesn’t mean all melody has to be as effective as Puccini or Verdi, Berlin or Rodgers, but ultimately a musical show has a hard time making a permanent impact without strong tunes. That may be less true today in some sense: Operas by abstruse melodists such as Benjamin Britten are deeply respected, and the recent mounting of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic (wonderful production, dreadful score) shows that people will work through music that doesn’t have an immediate aural impact if the subject is compelling enough. 
There was a great deal of talk a few years aback about Blitzstein’s Regina, but I haven’t seen that work make a strong return appearance on operatic stages. That’s too bad, because it has some lovely moments in it, such as the aria What Will It Be for Me? But as pretty as that is, this early disc shows him writing fine absolute music in the first stages of his career. A work such as the Italian Quartet should be welcome in chamber music recitals, but it would be  even more so if there were a body of Blitzstein quartets with which to associate them.
It’s fascinating to see how many composers throughout history pursued theatrical composition, even when some of them weren’t really cut out for it. Poor Franz Schubert, for instance, with most of the gifts you need for the theater except a sense of workable libretti and a sense of musical proportion. He might have done better, though, had he lived past 31.
Writing for the theater usually takes much more time than writing the occasional instrumental piece, and it’s a different kind of activity, too: more collaborative, more prone to sudden, heart-wrenching changes. That’s been one of the saddest things about reading the Simon Morrison biography of Prokofiev’s Soviet years. While the composer wrote plenty of chamber and orchestral works in those years, he also spent a good deal of time on theater projects that went nowhere, often for nasty Soviet reasons. 
He recycled much of that music, but it’s clear from Morrison’s book that Prokofiev was determined to be big in the theater, and while he did succeed, ultimately, it took a toll on his health, and it might have been better for him had he followed the lead of Shostakovich, who stayed away from the theater for the most part once he realized creative control was really in ideological hands.
Blitzstein, too, I think, would have been better off writing some more solo piano and chamber music, which he had an obvious affinity for, and by now he would have had more performances generally than he does, because so much of his music is tied up in the theater. For him it might have been more of a dead end than he thought, and I for one, on this evidence, would rather have had a good deal more instrumental music than another theater piece.
http://www.pbartspaper.com/2009/05/cd-review-disc-of-early-blitzstein.html 
http://www.miamiherald.com/living/story/1038962.html 
http://www.pbartspaper.com/2009/05/artsbuzz-st-pauls-music-series-explores.html
http://www.pbartspaper.com/2009/05/music-review-seraphic-fires-jew-and.html 
http://www.marcblitzstein.com/ 

 

MB_piano.jpg

Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

I’ve been rather busy with other projects lately, such as this piece for the Miami Herald, and these two for ArtsPaper.  It distresses me to miss so many days on this blog, but if I can get a greater degree of organization implemented, I should be able to post more often.

A third piece of recent writing involved this review of a CD of early music by Marc Blitzstein. I’m not a huge fan of his work, but I really liked the first of the two string quartets on this disc, and the second one was almost as good, and sort of prefigured Shostakovich.

The period of the 1920s and the 1930s was a fascinating one for music in general, as the chaos engendered by the First World War led to numerous fascinating experiments. In the United States, of course, jazz had taken France at least by storm when James Reese Europe played with his Hellfighters in 1918, and classical writers found themselves drawing on this new sound but also carving out a sort of angular neoclassicism.

George Gershwin, because he had an exceptional melodic gift, was able to make something memorable about the sounds he was hearing, and while he went in for some of the percussive power of his fellow composers, his essential orientation was the tuneful song; it was, after all, a chance over hearing of Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F that riveted the child Brooklynite to the spot while he was out playing.

Blitzstein didn’t have Gershwin’s melodic gift, but he pursued the theater in any case, and I find that interesting. He wanted to make political statements in the theater, and that’s laudable, but the tricky thing about being a composer for the theater is that you have to be able to write distinctive, memorable melody. 

That doesn’t mean all melody has to be as effective as Puccini or Verdi, Berlin or Rodgers, but ultimately a musical show has a hard time making a permanent impact without strong tunes. That may be less true today in some sense: Operas by abstruse melodists such as Benjamin Britten are deeply respected, and the recent mounting of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic (wonderful production, dreadful score) shows that people will work through music that doesn’t have an immediate aural impact if the subject is compelling enough. 

There was a great deal of talk a few years aback about Blitzstein’s Regina, but I haven’t seen that work make a strong return appearance on operatic stages. That’s too bad, because it has some lovely moments in it, such as the aria What Will It Be for Me? But as pretty as that is, this early disc shows him writing fine absolute music in the first stages of his career. A work such as the Italian Quartet should be welcome in chamber music recitals, but it would be  even more so if there were a body of Blitzstein quartets with which to associate them.

It’s fascinating to see how many composers throughout history pursued theatrical composition, even when some of them weren’t really cut out for it. Poor Franz Schubert, for instance, with most of the gifts you need for the theater except a sense of workable libretti and a sense of musical proportion. He might have done better, though, had he lived past 31.

Writing for the theater usually takes much more time than writing the occasional instrumental piece, and it’s a different kind of activity, too: more collaborative, more prone to sudden, heart-wrenching changes. That’s been one of the saddest things about reading the Simon Morrison biography of Prokofiev’s Soviet years. While the composer wrote plenty of chamber and orchestral works in those years, he also spent a good deal of time on theater projects that went nowhere, often for nasty Soviet reasons. 

He recycled much of that music, but it’s clear from Morrison’s book that Prokofiev was determined to be big in the theater, and while he did succeed, ultimately, it took a toll on his health, and it might have been better for him had he followed the lead of Shostakovich, who stayed away from the theater for the most part once he realized creative control was really in ideological hands.

Blitzstein, too, I think, would have been better off writing some more solo piano and chamber music, which he had an obvious affinity for, and by now he would have had more performances generally than he does, because so much of his music is tied up in the theater. For him it might have been more of a dead end than he thought, and I for one, on this evidence, would rather have had a good deal more instrumental music than another theater piece.

Loss of music store means loss of healthy serendipity

 

joseph_patelson_music_house_resize

Wanted to make a brief note about the closing of the Patelson music store in New York, which I never was able to visit, but which has engendered much talk from musicians living up there.

Here’s Frank Oteri’s take at New Music Box, and the Sequenza 21 version has fascinating comments from well-known musicians who weigh in on the disappearance of the store. Several of them have very sharp things to say about what they thought was a history of terrible service, and it may be that simpler retail considerations such as carrying a wide selection of material and being nice and helpful to customers had more to do with its demise than everyone’s favorite villain, the Internet.

I say this because I really do think serendipity, as Oteri notes in his piece, is more than just a nice thing that we will miss once the traditional sources of printed matter have vanished down the memory hole to be replaced entirely by digital sources. Serendipity on the Web tends to be possible once you’ve already looked up something, and there might be something in what you’re reading that leads you down the endless research tunnel that is the Web.

Serendipity in the library or a well-stocked music store is easier because so many things are right there in front of you, and the pleasure of looking through physical objects to see the kinds of paper and typefaces the publishers used, the covers they created, the way they laid out the music, is something delightful enough in itself. 

But the best part is simply stumbling on something because it just happened to be there, and you just have to see where it leads. For instance, I used to frequent a music store in Hagerstown, Md., called Machen Music, and one of the best things about it was the deep selection of titles it had. I picked up several things there simply because they were there, such as Poulenc’s Les Soirees de Nazelles and the Third Piano Sonata of Ned Rorem, which make a good pair when played together, incidentally.

One thing I kept meaning to pick up but never did was the Ricordi vocal score of Belfagor, an opera by Ottorino Respighi, who to my mind is the most important Italian composer in the generation after Puccini, if for no other reason than that he made it acceptable for Italian composers to pursue instrumental music again. I still haven’t heard the opera, but the score looked fascinating, and I still don’t know why I didn’t buy it.

Another good thing about Machen, not to mention Carl Fischer, in downtown Chicago (which must have had a huge selection, but I didn’t go often enough to find out, just once or twice), was its wide selection of manuscript paper. Now I have Sibelius, and there are many other ways to make as much staff paper as I want right here in my home office. But nothing beats being able to sift through format after format of blank staves on different colored papers, dreaming about what you’re going to put on them. 

And I think that’s a habit of mind that is not only healthy, but vital. Serendipity on the Web is more like a research project or investigative reporting, but serendipity in a good bookstore or music store is a chance to give your brain free intellectual play. You let it go, it leaps after what it wants to leap after, and you always come back from it energized. The Web experience is very different. It can be fun, but more often it’s a chore, and ends for me in exhaustion and sheer despair about the overwhelming number of choices I’ve come across.

And maybe that’s what makes it more fun in a physical-object setting: There, choices are limited by what’s there, and you have to make the best of it, and you find that there’s more than enough choice for you to deal with for weeks, not to mention a single day. 

So I regret the loss of another bricks-and-mortar music store; the IMSLP is wonderful, but it also is incomplete, and some of the editions are of necessity quite old and out of date. A really good store with excellent help and a wide, deep selection gathered by people who know what they’re doing is something that can’t be replicated on the Web, not really.

It’s also better for you as a person to be in a store with other people, I think; we are social animals and we need the contact. It’s also a good place to meet other musicians, who might very well point you in the direction of that stack of Henle editions over there, where you might find the Mozart sonata that’s been eluding you.

I’d like to think there always will be a need for a good music store, if for no other reason than mental and social health. Here’s hoping Patelson’s is replaced by someone even better who knows how to reach one of the nation’s leading musical communities in a way that will be mutually beneficial.