August 2008 - Posts
If you read letters to the editor , reviews and commentary on classical music today, you will notice many people, listeners and critics etc, complaining that there has not been any great and lasting music written in recent years. Supposedly, all the new music is terrible. Just noise. Just sound effects. Where's the melody?
But the problem is that it's just too early to tell what will last, and become a staple part of the standard repertoire. Yes, many people, if they hear something by such highly respected but intimidating composers as Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Harrison Birtwistle, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen and others at a concert will hate it. Or at least be puzzled.
But when the Beethoven symphonies were new, as well as his string quartets and other works, many people found them just as baffling or off putting. Beethoven was a revolutionary. Now people flock to concerts where his music is played, and hate the new stuff. The strange new harmonies that Wagner concocted in the 19th centuries were so way out for many that they could not make head or tail out of his music. And he was constantly accused of writing music with absolutely no melody !
When The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky was new, the harmonies were so hideously ugly, and the rhythms so jagged and irregular that many were shocked. When the opera "Wozzeck", by Alban Berg was first performed in Berlin in 1925, one critic compared the music to a stinking sewer. This was the first atonal opera, and is now a staple of opera houses everywhere.
The fact is that most of the many orchestral works and operas etc that have been written in the past 50 years or so will never become popular, simply because they are not very good. The same is true of countless works from the past. It's been estimated that since the early 17th century, when opera was born in Italy, some 40,000 operas have been written. How many are performed today? But you can never predict when any given work might be revived. Many long neglected operas have been revived in recent years, and other works. Composers such as Louis Spohr, Saverio Mercadante, Heinrich Marschner, Carl Reinecke and others were well-known and widely performed in the past, but today, they are pretty much names familiar to those well versed in music history. You can hear their music on recordings. Antonio Salieri has gained some recognition today from the famous play and film Amadeus, which is actually anything but an accurate picture of the lives of Mozart and Salieri. Supposedly, Salieri was wildy envious of Mozart's genius and ashamed of his vast inferiority. But Salieri was a well known and respected composer, and some of his music is actually pretty good. Again, you can hear his music on recordings. There is not a shred of evidence that he was guilty of murdering Mozart, though.
The symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860- 1911 ) have been very popular since Leonard Bernstein started to champion and record them in the 60s. Other eminent conductors such as brunow Walter, Otto Klemperer, and Willem Mengelberg , who had known and worked with him championed his music, but his music was not heard nearly as often as today. Mahler was a renowned conductor, who held such prestigious posts as director og the Vienna opera, and New York Philharmonic, and appeard at the Met. But at his untimely death in 1911, many critics acknowledged his greatness as a composer, but predicted that his music would die with him. How wrong they were !
So immediate popularity or the lack of it is no indication of whether a given composer's music will last. It would be fascinating if we could come back a century from now and see which composers of the present day are popular, assuming that the world has not been destroyed by catacylsmic events.
In my last post I discussed how difficult it is to plan concert programs without displeasing either audiences or critics. There seem to be two factions in classical music; those who are angry that so much of what we hear today is music from the past, that new music rarely gets a chance to be heard, and that audiences are hostile to new music. The renowned French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez (1925-) has been for many years a dogmatic advocate of the most difficult and complex atonal music as a conductor, and has composed such music himself. Years ago, he declared that this kind of music is the ONLY valid style for composers today to compose in, and that all other conservative composers were useless and irrelevant. Of course, not many concertgoers agree with him.
American composer Ned Rorem (1923-), is angry that ours is the only age of classical music in which the music of the past is dominant. Another respected but not very popular modernist composer is Charles Wuorinen (1938-), who has been commissioned to write an opera based on the book and film Brokeback Mountain for the New York City opera is also dismayed by the lack of audience acceptance of difficult new music.
Then there are audiences, and some composers and critics, who reject all of this modernist stuff. Many concertgoers are appalled if their local orchestra plays anything by composers such as Boulez, Wuorinen etc at a concert they happen to attend. They just want to hear Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Beethoven, and Brahms etc. That's what they know and love.
And the late music critic and expert on all matters operatic and vocal Henry Pleasants (1910- 1999 ), hated most 20th century music, and thought atonality and serialism were awful. To him, classical music had declined from its glorious past when composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Handel, and Rossini etc wrote music that people actually enjoyed, and didn't alienate them. About 50 years ago, he wrote an interesting if annoyingly tendentious book called The Agony of Modern Music, in which he declared that contemporary music was no longer relevant because audiences, including him, rejected it. As far as I know, it's still available.
So who is right ? Should we only hear new music at concerts, and should it only be of the difficult modernist kind? Is tonality dead ? Or is contemporary music worthless, and only the familiar music of the past worth hearing? The answer is neither.
We need both old and new music at concerts. We can't do without either. It would be awful if we heard nothing but music of the past at concerts and the opera house. But it would be equally bad if we completely abandoned the music of the past. There is no conflict between old and new music.
People today read the novels, poetry, and short stories of great writers of the past such as Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Wordsworth, Dickens , and others, but they also read Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike etc. They see the latest films, but still watch classics such as Casablanca and Citizen Kane.
Why should it be any different with classical music? People should not be reluctant to continue attending concerts if they hear a new work they don't like at a concert. They may dislike some new movies they see, but that doesn't mean they stop going to the movies.
Symphony orchestras today play an an extremely varied repertoire,(at least many of them), ranging from works by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert etc, to the latest works by living composers. It's not an easy job deciding what to play in the course of an orchestra's concert season, and requires long term planning.
The orchestra's music director, or chief conductor is responsible for the lion's share of the planning and scheduling, with the help of the administrative staff. He or she conducts more concerts than the other conductors, who are guests who come in for a week or two of concerts. Orchestra seasons are so long now, ranging from September to May or June, with summer festival concerts too, that it's impossible for the music director of a major orchestra to conduct 150-200 concerts a year. The music director has to co-ordinate the programming so that guest conductors don't duplicate his or her scheduled programs, plus arranging for schedules of visiting, pianists,violinists,etc, singers, chorus(when needed) etc.
Then there's the problem with pleasing audiences and critics with the scheduled works to be played. It's impossible to please every one. No matter what is played,new, old, familiar or unfamiliar, some one may complain.
Many, but not all listeners don't like contemporary music, or most of it. They would rather hear their beloved Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky masterpieces for the umpteenth time. But orchestras must not allow the repertoire to stagnate. It's vital to give new music a chance to be heard, whether the audiences or critics like them or not. It's a crap shoot whenever a new work is played; chances are it will be quickly forgotten, like countless other works from the past. But you never know when any given recent work might be revived in the future.
And there are other difficult atonal or 12-tone works that are not new but which some in audiences dislike intensely ; music by such great but controversial figures as Schoenberg, Berg, Webern etc, who wrote in the first half of the 20th century.
So conductors and orchestras are stuck in a quandary ; if they play thrice familiar music the audience loves, critics, many of whom are advocates of new music and difficult 20th century works, will blast the conductor and orchestra for being timid and unadventurous in programming, and neglecting new music. If they play new music that is difficult or challenging, many in the audience will complain bitterly. It's not uncommon for those who have subscriptions to threaten to cancel them.
There are also some composers today who aim to please audiences with more approachable new music that won't puzzle or upset them, and who avoid atonality. Some of these composers have been widely and successfully performed. But some critics blast the conductors who program this music for pandering to audiences with "easy listening". No matter what a conductor decides to perform, some one will complain.
But there is also a welcome trend today to revive long-neglected works from the past , many of which are very much worth hearing. These may be the less frequently played works of famous composers, or music by composers who are not well known to audiences at all. This makes for more varied and interesting programming. And there are some composers who were almost unknown to concertgoers years ago which have now gained a fairly secure place in the repertoire, such as Denmark's Carl Nielsen (1865- 1931 ), Franz Schmidt (1874- 1939 ), Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871- 1942 ), of Austria, Albert Roussel (1869-1937), of France and Poland's Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937 ),to name only a few.
Programming repertoire for concerts is a tough juggling act, but the plus side is that there is greater diversity at concerts than ever before.
These two things might seem incongruous, but there is a definite connection. Some presidents have been indifferent to classical music, or even disliked it, and knew little or nothing about it. But Thomas Jefferson (1743- 1826 ), was a highly cultured man and a pretty good violinist. His famous home at Monticello had a harpsichord, and Jefferson, a contemporary of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, was interested in these composers.
Not Ulysses S Grant. He declared that he was familiar with only two songs, (I believe) Yankee Doodle, and the other one he couldn't remember.
There were opera performances in Washington when Lincoln was president, and he is said to have enjoyed attending them. Richard Nixon is said to have played the piano well, and also enjoyed opera. Jimmy Carter enjoys classical music too, and according to reports, classical recordings were played in his office when he was president.
Bill Clinton is an accomplished saxophonist, and in his youth, even considered becoming a professional musician. He also likes classical music, and several years ago attended a performance of Carmen at the Metropolitan, his favorite opera, and posed for a photo with Hillary and James Levine, who conducted that performance.
The president who was most involved with classical music was Harry Truman. He was also a good pianist, and collected classical recordings. And get this- he regularly attended performances of the National symphony orchestra of Washington as president, and brought along miniature scores to follow the music !
The late Ronald Reagan enjoyed going to the opera on ocaission.
George Bush senior and junior are not really fans of classical music, but in 1991, the bicentennial of the death of Mozart, the elder Bush released an official White House proclamation acknowledging the genius of Mozart, and when the great Luciano Pavarotti died almost a year ago, George W and Laura sent their condolences.
Barack Obama also has ssome recordings of Bach on his i pod. Maybe this is a good sign.
Many classical music critics, fans and experts think that there is just no substitute for attending a live orchestra concert or opera performance, and that recordings, whether LP or on CD pale in comparison.
Possibly there is some truth to this, but I'm not sure. It's great to go to a live performance, but I must confess that I've always gotten a great deal of enjoyment listening to recordings, whether LPs, CDs or tapes. There are those who say that a live performance is much more alive, more spontaneous than one recorded without an audience, and edited together from different takes to eliminate errors and technical glitches. It's a very artificial way to perform music, some say.
Perhaps, but mistakes could be annoying and distracting on a recording, such as when a French hornist splatters a note like a fly being swatted. (There are some studio recordings with bloopers that somehow escaped the tape editors.) And there are plenty of recordings made at live performances. The top commercial record labels have sessions after the performance in which mistakes at orchestra concerts can be fixed. The smaller labels have pirated recordings , warts and all.
But there are many absolutely inpired studio recordings, too , that are generally considered classics, such as the legendary recording of the Beethoven fifth symphony with the late Carlos Kleiber and the VIenna Philharmonic, still available on Deutsche Grammophon records. Better a great studio performance than a humdrum live one.
So it isn't so simple. There are other factors, too. It's great for people who are ill or incapacitated to have such a wide variety of recordings available on CD. Or those who live far from cities with orchestras or opera companies. And to listen to classical radio stations,(those that still exist), and to see telecasts of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan opera on PBS, and listen to performances on the internet.
Also, Cds enable us to hear an enormous amount of obscure but interesting classical music that we would have little or no chance of ever hearing live, and to hear it much more than once. In recent years, hundreds of obscure operas have been recorded for the first time , often at or after live performances. For example, you can now hear recordings of operas by George Frideric Handel (1685- 1759 ), which had not been performed for about 250 years ! You don't hear live performances of the following composers very often at concerts, but their music is well-worth hearing : Hugo Alfven, Arnold Bax, Franz Berwald, Mily Balakirev, Havergal Brian, Arthur Bliss, Carlos Chavez, Paul Dukas, Gheorghe Enescu, Zdenek Fibich, Alexander Glazunoc, Pavel Haas, Charles Koechlin, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Vasly Kallinikov, Rued Langarrd, Ion Leifs, Nikolai Miaskovsky, Bohuslav Martinu, Hans Pfitzner, Max Reger, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Franz Schmidt, Franz Screker, Erwin Schulhoff, Karol Szymanowski, Sergei Taneyev, Heitor Villa Lobos, and Alexander von Zemlinsky. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Lovers of classical music have never had it so good.
Here are some more great blogs and websites that you should try.
mvdaily.com This is a English classical music website called Music and Vision. Though British, it covers classical music all over the globe, including the US, and has plenty of reviews of opera and concerts, CDs and DvDs, book reviews, blogs, commentary etc. There is even an advice column for people with difficulties in classical music !
101cds.blogspot.com. This is an excellent blog for classical newcomers who are starting a CD collection. There is expert advice on how to go about doing this, and interesting comparisons of different recordings of the same work.
classicalnotes.net. Peter Gutmann, an enthusiastic but knowledgable amateur, offers interesting commentary on recordings by great musicians of the past, and some great living ones. There are surveys of recordings of famous individual works, such as Beethoven's fifth symphony, Dvorak's New World symphony, Schubert's Unfinished, and other famous masterpieces, comparing old and new recordings, and illustrating the changes in interpretive stle and recording technology.
Jessicamusic.blogspot.com Jessica Duchen is an English novelist, classical music fan, and wife of a violinist in the London Philharmonic. She offers the latest news in classical music , and offers many links to other classical music websites and blogs.
operachic.typepad.com This is sort of a gossip column for opera and classical music by a young American woman living in Italy. It's hip and trendy, but full of substance. You get all the latest gossip on the lives of today's most glamorous operas, conductors, directors and stage designers, plus ample links, and reviews of performances. There is a tendency to concentrate on the latest news at the legendary La Scala opera company of Milan.
There are countless websites and blogs devoted to classical music, or ones which have some coverage of it. Here are some I particularly enjoy.
WQXR.com Even if you don't live anywhere near New York, you can hear the marbelously varied classical programming the radio station of the New York Times offers on the internet. There is a daily playlist, and ample information about what is going on in classical music.
artsjournal.com Although this websites has blogs on dance, film, Jazz, etc, and the arts in general, there are classical music blogs critic/composer Greg Sandow, classical music grouch Norman Lebrecht, and Henry Fogel, president of the League of American Orchestras, and other classical experts. You can also read the latest newspaper and magazine articles about classical music and the arts.
classicstoday.com. This site features reviews of classical CDs , new and reissued, and classical DVDs. There are also reviews of live performances, a variety of interesting articles and commentary about classical music, recommended recordings, and a complete list of reviews. A variety of different classical music critics write for this site.
arkivmusic.com. This is the place to order classical CDs and DVDs. The selection is enormous, and you can look up any CD or DVD by composer, conductor, instrumentalist or orchestra. There is a separate section devoted to opera CDs and DVDs. classicstoday and WQXR.com link to this site.
classicalcdreview.com. Another excellent site for reviews of classical CDs and DVDs. You can also order from this site.
soundsandfury.com. An always interesting blog on what is going on in classical music by the irascible and often opinionated AC Douglas. His commentary is always interesting, and there are links to many other classical music blogs.
musicweb-internatinal.com This is an English classical music website with many really interesting articles on famous and obscure composers, reviews of CDs, DVDs, and live performances, book reviews and much more.
Therestisnoise.com. This is the blog of Alex Ross, music critic of New Yorker magazine, and author of the acclaimed book ,also called The Rest Is Noise, an absorbing cultural history of classical music in the 20th century. This book is a bestseller, and not to be missed. There are many links to other classical music blogs etc.
I participate in another forum devoted to politics, current events, and other hot issues of the present. It also has a section devoted to entertainment. Recently, I posted something asking if there were any classical music fans at the site, and explaining that I was a classical musician. I got a number of responses by such fans. But one person stated that "Classical music is for pretentious snobs". H'es a fan of rap. Fine. He also stated that classical music is also for people who think that Shakespeare is a great playwright. He prefers the writings of Eldridge Cleaver.
But isn't this just snobbery in reverse? In my response, I said that he is certainly entitled to his tastes in music, but that he shouldn't knock classical music. I asked if he had ever been to a concert by a symphony orchestra, or attended a performance of an opera. And I added the quote "Don't knock it if you haven't tried it." And also if he had ever heard any classical CDs.
Why is the onus always on those who love classical music? Why is it okay for people to knock classical music ignorantly , while the assumption exists that if you love classical music and defend its right to exist, you must automatically be a snob? I added that I have nothing against other kinds of music; I just love classical. And at least I've actually heard them.
Multiculturalism has also fostered intolerance of classical music. Don't listen to classical music- it's by dead white European males ! It will turn you into a racist, sexist, homophobic, imperialist monster !
Unfortunately, there is a myth that classical music is stuffy, boring and elitist. But if more people would just keep an open mind and try it, they might love it. What a shame.
On my last post, I discussed how many classical music fans and critics have a knee-jerk tendency to be dismissive about today's leading classical musicians, and seem to automatically prefer old recordings to recent ones. I could write a book about this. I wish I had a dollar for every review I've read over the past 40 years or so,since I was a teenager, longing for the supposed"golden age" of classical music.
For example, a music critic back in the 80s for the New York times, who was barely out of his 20s, was constantly dismissing the performances he heard(not all of them) because of his idealized image of the golden age. He has since gone on to a career as an opera conductor and coach of singers. This young man was very smart and had, and has an encylopedic knowledge of matters operatic, vocal technique and music history. He was constantly referring to the"blandness" of performances today, implying that all the performances of the past were so much more exciting and flavorful. But he was simply too young to have heard musical life on a daily basis from the past recordings, he simply failed to realize that there had been plenty of lackluster performances in the past, too.
In the 80s, he also wrote an article for the New York Times bewailing the alleged fact that all or most of today's orchestras have lost their distinctive individuals sounds, and that now they have a generic sound, and all sound alike. Many other critics think this is so, too. But I am convinced that this is a psychological illusion based on their idealization of the past. It's a physical and acoustical impossibility for orchestras to sound alike. They never have and never will. This is because orchestras consist of different musicians playing different makes of instruments in concert halls with different acoustical properties. In particular, different woodwind and brass players everywhere have always had different timbres. They vary from Germany, France, Russia, the Czech republic, the Netherlands, America and elsewhere. You can hear this if you listen carefully to recordings etc.
Critics say that musicians today are too pedantically literal in their interpretations, and that there is far less individuality among today's musicians. This is absolutely untrue. If you read reviews today, you will constantly see critics who mercilessly lambaste the musicians for all the liberties they take with the music! Isn't this something of a paradox? There's a double standard here. Critics praise legendary musicians such as conductors Leopold Stokowski and Dutchman Willem Mengelberg, and pianists such as Horowitz and others for the freedom, flair and "personality" they bring to the recordings, yet denounce musicians of today for all the liberties they take with the music. This is extremely unfair. Critics insist on having it both ways.
Take two great living violinists such as Israel born Itzhak Perlman and Latvian born Gidon Kremer. Both are great violinists and musicians, yet they are as different in their sound and interpretive approach as steak and lobster. They're anything but carbon copies of each other. This is true of many other great musicians today. But critics just keep on rehashing the same old myths.
If you read many classical music critics today , and listen to other experts, the answer will probably be yes. I have read countless reviews and articles longing for the"Golden Age" of classical music, when supposedly orchestras were so much better, the legendary conductors of the past were active, great pianists,violinists,pianists and other musicians were bountiful. And then, there is the knee-jerk dismissal and belittlement of today's conductors, orchestras and instrumentalists, bewailing the supposed lack of great musicians today. And when it comes to opera, the oldest cliche in the book is that opera, and singing standards are in hopeless decline from the golden age of such undeniable greats as Callas, Tebaldi, Flagstad, Caruso, Gigli, Chaliapin, Ruffo, and other legendary opera singers.
I suppose it's human nature to idealize the past and pine for the"good old days"; this is universal. People today are always complaining about lousy, trashy, smutty, and cynically commercial television,films,books, etc, and complaining that immorality is rampant today, and that crime, sexual immorality, and morals in general are in an awful state, and the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But as the French say,"The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the 50s, people thought that Elvis Presley was a threat to society.
But having heard countless recordings of classical music, old and new, as well as live performances, radio and television broadcasts, I'm just not sure that standards of performance were better 50 or a 100 years ago. Of course there were many great musicians in the past. The recorded evidence is plentiful, and there are many written accounts citing the greatness of musicians who lived before the age of recording.
But I see absolutely no evidence today of a lack of great musicians today. We have such great conductors and Valery Gergiev,Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, James Levine, Simon Rattle, Leonard Slatkin, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, etc, to name only a handful. Violinists such as Perlman, Zukerman, Mutter, Bell, Hahn, Kennedy, Kremer and others, and such great singers as the late,great Pavarotti, who died only 11 months ago, Domingo, Fleming, Voigt, Mattila, Hampson,Terfel, Borodina, Netrebko, Pape, and so many others. Great pianists such as Peter Serkin,Jean Yves Thibaudet, Alfred Brendel (just about to retire at almost 80), Pierre Laurent Aimard, and so many other outstanding people of all instruments.
We have magnificent orchestras in New York, Chicago,Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, LA, San Francisco, London,Berlin,Vienna,Amsterdam, Paris, Moscow, St.Petersburg, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, and other cities. No, the classical music scene is anything but lacking in greatness.
And you can be 100% sure, that 40 or 50 years from now, older classical music critics and fans will be longing for the golden age- the musicians of today !
The war between Russia and the republic of Georgia is very much in the news today, and this is an area that I have long been fascinated in. The Caucasus region lies between the Black and Caspian seas, and is home to a mighty mountain range with spectacular scenery. It is the crossroads between Russia, Europe, the middle east and east asia, and is home to an astonishing crazy quilt of obscure but fascinating ethnic groups long dominated by Russia, christian and muslim. Genghis Khan's hordes, Persia, the Ottoman empire and Russia have fought over this strategic area for ages.
Naturally, this region has a rich tradition of folk music, and a number of composers, both native to the region and foreign , have written colorful and exciting music based on that tradition. Aram Khatchaturian (1903- 1978 ) was born in Tbilisi of Armenian parents, studied in Russia and wrote some garish but exciting works based on Armenian and Caucasian music. The famous Sabre Dance comes from his ballet score "Gayaneh" (Guy-a -neh), a tale of life in Soviet Armenia. His three symphonies, the violin and piano concertos, and other works are not profound, but very entertaining.
The late 19th and early 20th century Russian composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (quite a mouthful), was fascinated by Caucasian and central asian music, and his orchestral suite"Caucasian Sketches", is ocaisionally heard, and very entertaining. A second suite is almost totally unknown, but I have a recording on the Naxos label which also includes the first suite. Check this CD out at the Naxos website.
Giya Kancheli (1935-) , is the best known Georgian composer of the present day. he currently lives in Germany , and I have a Sony Classical CD of two of his symphonies which I find very interesting. Kancheli has written a variety of other works which can be heard on CD.
The eminent conductor Valery Gergiev, now conductor of the London Symphony orchestra, music director of the Maryinsky opera in St. Petersburg, and principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan opera is often described as a Russian, but was born in Moscow of Ossetian parents. The Ossetians are the descendents of the ancient Scythian tribes, and speak a language related to Persian. Another eminent conductor also wrongly identified as Russian, is Yuri Temirkanov, music director of the St.Petersburgh Philharmonic. He is an ethnic Circassian. The Circassians live in the Black sea region a and are related to the Abkhazians.
I also have a CD by the Rustavi men's choir of Georgia singing the traditional polyphonic choral songs of that country on Sony Classical. It may not be currently available, but it's fascinating and well-worth looking for.
There are no easy answers to this qustion. But it certainly is very important to try to do this. Unfortunately, most children and teenagers don't get any exposure to classical music in schools, although some colleges and universities do have requirements for introductory courses on it.
And classes introducing kids to classical music must be taught very well, in a manner that will stimulate those young people. If the teacher does a boring job, it can turn students off to classical music for life. I remember how indifferent or even hostile some kids were to music appreciation class when I was growing up, and the teachers I had were actually very good.
Unfortunately, we don't have anything quite like the marvelous concerts by the late,great Leonard Bernstein for kids, although these are still available on DVD. There are SOME outreach concerts for young people,though.
It's not easy to get youngsters who love Michael Jackson, Hip Hop and Rock interested in something that is so vastly different from what they are accustomed to. Not that there's anything wrong with them being fans of these kinds of music. Our society is so vastly different from the world that produced Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert etc. What happened to me when I entered my teens was something of a fluke. I just happened to discover classical music and it changed my life forever. But I am convinced that we not only must, but can popularize classical music with young people.
The size of the orchestra any given composer might write for can vary greatly, and has varied greatly over time. In the time of Mozart and Haydn in the second half of the 18th century, orchestras tended to be quite small, with perhaps fewer than 20 strings, plus flutes, oboes, clarinets , horns and trumpets in twos. Sometimes even fewer were used, perhaps just two oboes, bassoons and two horns, plus tympany. On rare occaisions when a lot of musicians were available, the strings were greatly fortified and the winds doubled. Mozart is said to have been delighted to hear one of his symphonies played with very large forces.
Occaisionally, four horns were used, crooked in two different keys to increase the number of notes that were possible to be played, as in Mozart's symphony no 25. It was not until Beethoven's fifth symphony in the early 19th century that three trombones were added, plus piccolo and contrabassoon. Every one knows this standard work today, but when it was new, it was absolutely revolutionary.
In the 19th century, orchestra size increased, and four horns became the norm, and trumpets were increased to three or even four. The tuba was not invented until the 1830s. Piccolo, English horn,bass clarinet and contrabassoon were used more often, and the percussion section ,usually limited to tympany, was expanded to include cymbals, triangle and other percussion instruments at times. (Haydn's symphony no 100 uses cymbals and bass drum, and is called the "Military", but that was very unusual).
The great and revolutionary French composer Berlioz called for really large orchestras , including quadrupled woodwind, four trumpets, tuba, and expanded percussion among other things. His massive setting of the Requiem mass calls for four brass bands stationed around the auditorium to represent the judgement day !! A good performance will tingle your spine.
Wagner called for a huge orchestra in his monumental operatic cyle The Ring of the NIbelungen. For the first time, no fewer than eight french horns were used, and the second four horns switch at times to a new brass instrument which Wagner had invented called the Wagner tuba. It's sort of like a baritone horn ,but uses a horn mouthpiece. Later, other composers such as Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg used this instrument along with horns. The ring also calls for something called a bass trumpet, which is rather like a trombone. The Ring also uses no fewer than six harps!
Arnold Schoenberg (1874- 1951 ), famous, or infamous for having invented 12 tone atonality, wrote some non-atonal early works which are not a problem for any one. His massive oratorio "Gurrelieder", from around the turn of the century, is based on an old Danish legend of a Danish king whose beautiful young mistress is murdered by the jealous Danish queen The devastated king curses god, and is cursed by the lord to wander as a ghost through eternity. As well as a huge chorus with vocal soloists, Gurrelieder calls for no fewer than ten horns, huge woodwind and brass sections. Because of the impractical demands, it's rarely performed, but there are some fine recordings by such conductors as Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Chailly, Giuseppe Sinopoli and others. It's really spectacular, and even those who hate atonal music should love it.
Gustav Mahler (1860- 1911), and Richard Strauss (1864-1949 ), often used huge orchestras with eight horns ,four or five trumpets, many woodwinds etc, and large percussion sections. Mahler's 8th symphony, premiered around 1908 in Munich, is a setting of a Catholic hymn in its first part, and the second is a setting of the end of Goethe's play Faust, where the hero finally enters heaven after having sold his soul to the devil. There are eight singers, TWO choruses, a boy's choir, and a massive orchestra. It became known as the"Symphony of a Thousand", although it doesn't actually use that many performers.
The Alpine symphony of Richard Strauss, his last tone poem, is an amazingly vivid description of a day climbing the Bavarian alps. There are not only eight horns in the orchestra, but twelve off-syage horns are aslo rquired. There is a thunder machine,too for the part describing an alpine storm. Really spectracular ! Talk about everything including the kitchen sink !
For economic reasons, these works are not played that often. They require many extra musicians, but the top orchestras have the budgets for them. But they are certainly worth the extra expense !
Here are some myths about classical music which stubbornly refuse to die. Many classical music critics keep on rehashing them, and some classical composers and others do this as well.
!. Classical music is stuffy, boring and elitist. If you go to a concert, you'll be bored. Why would so many people persist in going to concerts, opera and recitals etc if they were so boring? On the contrary, unless the performance is awful, or just dull, audiences often react to performances with enormous enthusiasm, even if they are not as loud and rowdy as Rock audiences. There's nothing"elitist" about classical music. Our orchestras and opera companies aren't trying to exclude people who aren't rich and snobbish. On the contrary; they want very much to attract new people, and have outreach programs for this.
2. Classical music is just old music from a distant and irrelevant past. Wrong. Classical music is a continuum of music from centuries ago to music written by living composers which is being performed today. It's been around much,much longer than the Rock,Pop, Jazz, etc that is familiar to most people.
3. Our orchestras and opera companies etc, just keep repeating the same old warhorses. While certain famous works like Beethoven's fifth, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Schubert's Unfinished symphony and Orff's Carmina Burana are still popular, there is greater diversity of repertoire being performed today than ever before in the centuries old history of classical music.
4. New music is not performed today, or very rarely. Wrong again. An enormous number of new works have been premiered in recent years by orchestras and opera companies everywhere, by many different living or recently deceased composers.
5. Classical music is about nothing but "Dead White European Males". DWEMs are an important part of classical music, but the are many LIVING white European males in it, plus Asians, Americans, Latin Americans, women, and even African Americans in it, too.
6. Classical music is not relevant to non-whites. Really? Why are there so many prominent composers, conductors, and instrumentalists from Asia today, or Asian Americans? Why is western classical music so popular in Japan, which has so many symphony orchestras, and the world's HIGHEST sales of classical CDs? And why are millions of young Chinese studying piano and violin etc today ?
7. The classical music scene was much better and healthier in the past, because at that time, all or most music was new. There's something wrong with classical music today because we concentrate on music from the past. This is a half-truth. When Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were alive and working in the second half of the 18th century, and the early 19th, the symphony orchestra as we know it was a relatively new thing. They just did not have the enormous accumulation of repertoire we have today. Also, there were only a tiny fraction of the orchestras and opera companies we have today. Concerts were much less frequent. If you were just Joe Schmo in some rural Austrian village, your chances of ever getting to hear a concert in Vienna in the 18th century were just about non-existent. Nowadays, any one can listen to classical music through CDs, DVDs, radio, television and the internet , as well as attending live performances.
I've never really been a ballet fan. Not that I don't like it. I do sometimes watch it on television. I just never got into it as much as classical music. And I am very fond of a lot of ballet scores as concert music, and some ballet scores are very popular at orchestra concerts, usually as excerpts taken from the complete ballets. Occaisionally, orchestras program complete ballet scores at concerts.
Probably the best -known ballet scores in concert are the three by Tchaikovsky : the ubiquitous suite from the Nutcracker, and suites from Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Audiences have loved this music for well over a century, and there are many recordings , either complete or in suite form.
In the early 20th century, Tchaikovsky's great countryman gained international fame with three ballet scores : The Firebird, based on an old Russian fairy tale about a magic flaming bird which helps a handsome young prince to rescue a beautiful young princess who is being kept in captivity by an evil sorceror, and the whimsical "Petrushka,", which deals with puppets at a Russian shrovetide fair which seem to come to life , and finally, the revolutionary "Rite of Spring", which caused a near riot at its first performance by the legendary Ballets Russes in 1913. This ballet deals with the primitive rites of the pagan Russians long,long ago. To propitiate the god of spring, a young girl is chosen to dance until she literally drops dead.
Stravinsky's colorful music, with its highly irregular rhythms, caught both the dance and concert worlds by storm, and the legendary Nijinsky danced .
The Rite of Spring, with its brutally pounding and wildly irregular rhythms, and grindingly dissonant harmonies, shocked many listeners, but it soon became a staple of the concert hall. The eminent American composer Elliott Carter, 100 this year, said that when his father first heard the Rite long ago, he thought the composer was insane !
Stravinsky later wrote more restrained but interesting ballet scores about Apollo anf the muses, and Orpheus, among others.
Another great Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953 ), made Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet into a wonderfully lyrical and melodious ballet, and excerpts from it are popular in concert.
Marice Ravel ( 1875- 1937 ), famous for his Bolero, wrote a gorgeously sensuous ballet called "Daphis and Chloe", based on Greek mythology. The shepards Dapnis and Chloe are in love in a bucolic mythical Greece. Chloe is captured by pirates, and is rescued with the help of the great god Pan. The ballet ends with a dionysiac dance of celebration. The suite no 2 from the score, which is actually just bout the last 20 minutes of the ballet, is very popular in concert, and sometimes the complete ballet is performed in concert, too.
To look for CDs of these and other ballet scores, check out arkivmusic.com; classicstoday.com , which is linked to it, has a list of recommended recordings.
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