November 2008 - Posts
Recently, Britain's prestigious CD review magazine Gramophone, which has been reviewing new recordings since 1923, published its list of what it considers the world's 20 best orchestras, ranked in order. This has caused a great deal of discussion and controversy at classical websites, blogs and forums on the internet.
Many have pointed out how arbitrary and subjective such ratings are, and they are right. Curiously, some very famous and internationally acclaimed orchestras did not make the cut , and a couple of the orchestras on the list are opera orchestras which play sporadic concerts, and one consists of musicians from other orchestras who gather occaisionally for festival concerts.
Here they are : 1. Royal Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam 2. Berlin Philharmonic. 3. Vienna Philharmonic. 4.London Symphony Orchestra. 5. Chicago Symphony. 6. Bavarian Radio Symphony of Munich. 7.. Cleveland Orchestra. 8. Los Angeles Philharmonic. 9.. Budapest Festival Orchestra. 10.. Saxon State Orchestra of Dresden. 11.Boston Symphony. 12. New York Philharmonic. 13. San Francisco Symphony. 14. Orchestra, Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, Russia. 15. Russian National Orchestra. 16. St. Petersburg Philharmonic. 17. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. 18. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. 19. Saito Kinen Orchestra, Japan. 20. Czech Philharmonic, Prague.
According to Gramophone magazine, the principal criterion was how well the orchestras have preserved a distinctive sound of its own, even though it's actually impossible for any two orchestras to sound alike. But not every critic or fan agrees about ranking orchestras. Critic X will often declare that orchestra W is superior or inferior to Y, critic Y will declare the opposite.
Often it's a comparison of different sections within different orchestras. One person thinks this orchestra's string section is superior or inferior to another's, or its woodwind or brass section. Certain orchestras are famed for outstanding individual sections. For example, the Philadelphia orchestra's string section has long beenmous for its rich, silky sound, and the Chicago symphony has long been famous for its mighty brass section. Which is not to say that the other sections of either orchestra are less than world-class.
Some categories for judgement of orchestras are A. Technical virtuosity, B. Richness of sound, purity of intonation (playing in tune), C. Precision. Does the orchestra stay together or are there moments when things sound shaky? D. Stylistic adaptiblity. Does the orchestra adapt itself to the sound and style appropriate to the music being played?
Still, this listing is so arbitrary. There are many other superb orchestras elsewhere , such as American ones in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh,Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, etc, London's four other major orchestras, the London Philharmonic, Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic and BBC Symphony, the Munich Philharmonic, Berlin Deutsches Symphony orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle, the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands, the Israel Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, and French National Orchestra in Paris, etc. Even the tiny principality of Monaco has an excellent orchestra, the Monte Carlo Philharmonic ! Canada has the world-class Montreal Symphony.
WE ought to stop comparing apples and orchestras, and appreciate each great orchestra on its own individual merits.
If you attend concerts at different concert halls in America, Europe and elsewhere, you will notice that the sound of the music varies considerably, and you can even hear these differences when you hear radio and television broadcasts and Cds and DVDs from these concert venues. In other words, it's the varying acoustics of these concert halls. Acoustics is the science of sound ; this post will try to explain something about what makes for excellent or not so great sound in different concert halls without getting too technical , even though I'm no expert on this subject myself.
In some concert halls, the sound is wonderful; rich, reverberant and immediate. This adds greatly to your enjoyment of the music. In other locations, the sound is less pleasing. The music may sound lacking in warmth and reverberation, or even harsh and too loud. The sound in non-reverberant halls is usually described as "dry", and more reverberant ones are often described as "live".
Designing concert halls is a difficult art; there are acousticians who job is to try to make the sound a good as possible, and it's a hit or miss affair. Some concert halls built in recent years, such ad Davies hall in San Francisco, Verizon hall in Phildelphia and others, have had their acoustical problems, and many halls have had to undergo renovation to attempt to improve their acoustics. Avery Fisher hall in Lincoln center, home of the New York Philharmonic, has been problematical ever since it opened as Philharmonic hall in 1962, and will be renovated in a few years. The nextdoor New York State theater, home to the New York City opera and Ballet, is notorious for its poor acoustics and is currently being redone, and will reopen next season.
But such halls as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Symphony hall in Boston, and the Musikverein in Vienna are renowned for their superb acoustics. These are home to respectively, the Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam, the Boston Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic.
The website concerthalls.org lists these qualities as the criteria for judging the sound of a hall : Reverberation, Clarity, Intimacy, Warmth And Brilliance, Spaciousness, and background Noise. The time for sound to cease reverberating differes widely in different halls; in some it ceases quickly, causing a drier sound; in others, the sound takes more time to reverberate. In Cathedrals, where music is sometimes performed, the reverberation can last up to nine seconds !
Clarity refers to how distinctly things can be heard; if a hall is too reverberant, the sound can be muddy. Intimacy refers to the immediacy of the sound; in some halls, the sound seems distant and lacking in presence. Warmth and brilliance refer to how voluptuous the sound of a hall is; the Concertgebouw and the Musikverein sound warm and brilliant; other halls dry and clinical. spaciousness means the sense of being surrounded by space. Smaller halls do not sound as spacious; venues for chamber music are expected to sound less spacious. Background noise refers to how intrusive sounds such as coughing, people unwarpping candy and other extraneous noises are.
Some of the acoustical success stories of our time are Walt Disney hall in Los Angeles , now home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic , and Myerson hall in Dallas, home of the Dallas Symphony. But designing halls is something of a crapshoot. The great European halls in Vienna and Amsterdam have been described as being designed in a shape resembling a shoe box; that is relatively long and narrow; for some reason this makes for better sound. And in the 19th century, before reinforced concrete and metal were used in building halls, timber was the main thing used in constructing the halls, and these elements contributed toward the superior acoustics. It was necessary to build halls in this shape to avoid building collapse. Acoustics had yet to develop into a science. Ironic how superior acoustics came about by chance, isn't it?
This term is not easy to define. First of all, not only Western Classical Music is called "classical". Sometimes, the ancient traditional musics of non- european countries are described as the " classical "music of the Arabs, Persians, or the traditional Sitar-based music of India. Also, in music history, the elegant music of composers such as Mozart and Haydn is often called "classical", that is belonging to the so-called classical period of western music, ca 1750 - 1820.
Sometimes what we call classical music has been described as "serious" music, which unfortunately implies that musicians who perform Jazz or folk music etc, aren't serious about what they do. Of course they are. Let's try to describe what classical music isn't fist. It's not folk music, although composers have often made use of folk music in their"serious" compositions. It isn't improvised, although improvization was once an important part of classical music. It usually isn't intended as casual entertainment, although some classical works in the past were written to entertain the nobility at banquets etc.
Another word for classical music is "Art" music, although this is a pretty vague term. Alright then; what we call classical music is the kind of music that we hear when we go to a concert hall and hear a symphony orchestra perform, or attend the opera, or chamber music such as string quartets etc.
It's written out carefully by one individual on paper (or computers now !), and some one has to study that printed music carefully to perform it. The sheet music of pop or Rock music etc is usually just a vague outline; the written music in classical often contains much more elaborate indications of how to perform the music such as loudness and softness, tempo, changes of tempo, either speeding up or slowing down, written instructions about the expressive character the composer intends, etc.
Much of classical music is purely instrumental, although vocal music is still a very important part of it. There are different forms of music such as symphonies, concertos, and miscellaneous orchestral works, and sonatas , quartets, trios, quintets, etc for different combinations of instruments, whether strings, winds, or piano. There are large scale works for orchestra, solo singers and chorus, sometimes based on religious subjects, and opera, which is sung drama with an orchestra as accompaniment.
Also, classical music has existed much longer than Rock music, pop, Jazz, Hip Hop etc. The forms used by classical composers have existed for centuries, and are still used by composers today, if often in a radically different manner. Composers such as Bach, Mozart, beethoven and Schubert etc have been popular for a very long time, and show no signs of going out of favor. But fortunately, this has in no way prevented a great deal of new classical music from being written and performed in our time.
Will the music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Madonna, Britney Spears and other superstars of popular music be popular centuries from now ? Only time will tell. But the music of many great classical composers has certainly stood the test of time.
On Thanksgiving, I thought it would be a good idea to point out how grateful those who love classical music should be for the current state of this magnificent art form, and show how different things were in the past for classical music in general.
Yes, things were vastly different in the past. Consider what the world of classical music was like in the time of such great composers as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in the period roughly from the mid 18th century through the early 19th, and even later. If you or I had lived then, the only kind of music we could hear was live. There were only a tiny fraction of the orchestral concerts , opera performances and other musical events which happen today. People who lived in remote rural areas had absolutely no access to classical music performances ; the only places with an active concert life were major cities such as Vienna, Paris, London, Munich, Dresden, Milan, etc, although some smaller cities had some performances.
Beethoven was born in the city of Bonn in the Rhineland, formerly capitol of West Germany until reunification. There was something of a musical scene there, but to realize his dreams and ambitions, Beethoven decided to move to Vienna , the real center of music. Members of the aristocracy who loved music supported it, and Haydn was for many years music director for the Hungarian count Eszerhazy, who had his own private small orchestra and regularly had concerts, opera and chamber music at his palace in a remote area of Hungary. And having Haydn as his music director, or Kapellmeister, to write music for him,hire musicians and be in charge was a feather in his cap.
Later, in the 19th and earlier 20 th century, the number of orchestras and opera companies increased, but people outside of major cities had to content themselves with piano transcriptions of a variety of classical works, orchestral or operatic, and a great many homes had pianos, and people would play them for their own enjoyment at family get togethers.
In the early 20th century, Edison's invention of recorded sound enabled more and more people to hear classical music at home, although the technology of recording was primitive in the extreme compared to the digital age in which we live. The legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873 -1921) became the first great singer to make best selling records and become a household name, although many other great singers also made recordings. Several years ago, RCA records, which recorded Caruso made a multi CD set of all of Caruso's recordings available.
It was still very difficult to record orchestras, though, but with the invention of electical recordings, orchestras could now be heard in greater fidelity, and such podium giants as Toscanini, Furtwangler, Walter, Stokowski, Beecham, Monteux, Weingartner, and others began to record complete symphonies and other works. Then came LPs, and an ever greater variety of classical repertoire became available, and many operas were recorded complete.
Now skip to the digital age, and consider how ubiquitous classical music is today, both live and recorded. There are now more orchestras and opera companies than ever before, as well as chamber ensembles such as string quartets, and more solo pianists, violinists, cellists, flute, and clarinet players appearing everywhere. And despite the lasting popularity of music from the past, there are more composers than ever before, and not only white males.
We can hear more ancient music than ever before ; composers from the distant past , 500 or more years removed from us. There are groups specializing in early music and who have done painstaking research into trying to recreate it as faithfully as possible. And there are ensembles which are devoted to the latest music by living composers. There is greater diversity of repertoire available to us than ever before in the history of classical music.
There is an absolutely mind-boggling variety of classical music on CD, and the repertoire on DVD is constantly growing. There are classical radio stations, and an enormous number of classical websites and blogs. Many concerts and opera performances can be heard and seen on the internet.
There are not many record stores left selling classical CDs and DVDs, but websites such as arkivmusic.com give us infinitely more to choose from than any record store ever could. The Metropolitan Opera has started High Deinition broadcasts of some of its performances to movie theaters all over the country, and now Europe and elsewhere. If you want to attend a first-rate orchestra concert you don't have to live in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles or major US cities. There are fine orchestras all over the country, and the number of operaq companies has grown exponentially.
Yes, there are those who complain about the supposed narrowness of the classical repertoire, the alleged neglect of new music, the graying of audiences and lament orchestras in financial trouble and threatened with going under. But we must count our blessings.
If you attend a live performance by a pianist or other insrumentalists, or an orchestral concert or the opera, you hope that the performance will not be a disaster. You know, the kind in which a singer struggles with high notes, can't sing on pitch, the conductor is unable to co ordinate the orchestra with the singers, a concert where the horn misses most of the notes, a pianists hits thousands of clinkers etc.
Yes, accidents happen at performances. I've attended performances where things when wrong, and played concerts where everything was not up to snuff myself. Less than ideally polished performances can be a trying experience, although perfection should not be the ultimate goal.
Recordings produced under controlled conitions can spoil us listeners when we go to live performances. The recording engineers and producers can edit together an artificially perfect performance from many different takes of the same passage. Some so-called live recordings by orchestras have had mistakes edited out at patch-up sessions after the concert !
There's a funny story about the once famous Polish conductor Artur Rodzinski (1892 - 1958 ), who held music diretorships of the Cleveland Orchestra Chicago Symphony and New York Philharmonic during his career. He was scheduled to do a recording session with an unamed pianist and an orchestra of the two Chopin piano concertos. But the pianist turned out to be woefully uncertain in technique.Don't worry , said the recording engineer; we'll just stitch a note-perfect performance together by editing different takes
When the final product was ready, Rodzinski and the pianist listened to it. The conductor said "It's wonderful ! Don't you wish you could play like that ?" Yes, many musicians, aspiring students in top music schools, critics and others are obsessed with speed and accuracy. But what really matters is the SPIRIT of the performance, many remind us. Who cares if every note is not in place in the passion of the moment ? Let the chips fall where they may !
There are those who judge pianists by their ability to play the most flashy virtuosos stuff with speed and accuracy, and legends such as Vladimir Horowitz,(1903 -1989 ) are held up as paragons of musical virtuoisity. But the once famous pianist Artur Scnabel (1882 - 1951 ) the first pianist to recod all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas (stiill available) was no spectacular technician. Other pianists, living and dead could play circles around him. He wasn't interested in flashy technique for its own sake. To him and his admirers, it was the music that counted, and getting to the heart of it.
Schnabel avoided flashy , superficial piano works and concentrated on Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Brahms. He didn't like to practice much, and his performances could be full of missed notes. But audiences didn't mind. Schnabel concentrated on the meaning of the music. Once critic has said that Schnabel's recording of the fiercely demanding Beethoven sonata no 29, known as the "Hammerklavier" has "fewer of the notes, but more of the MUSIC" than any other recording of this Mount Everest of piano sonatas.
French hornists in top professional orchestras, particulary principal ones, go through constant worry about whether they will hit all the notes without a clam, particularly in exposed solos. But critics shouldn't complain about an occaisional missed note at a concert; what matters is - did the overall perfornace bring the music vividly to life ? Who cares if a horn player misses a note? If some of these critics would take a lesson or two on the horn, they might come to see how difficult it is to play this instrument.
Perfection in musical performance is a desirable goal, but it's the spirit, and not the letter that counts.
In the last 30 years or so, the classical music world has been tranformed by a movement which has sought to recreate the music of bygone eras as closely as possible, using ancient instruments or carefully reconstructed copies thereof, doing extensive research into performing styles of the past, and studying musical treatises from long ago. Some have called this "Historically informed performance".
The movement has stirred a considerable amount of controversy; some critics and listeners find the performances on period instrumets delightful and refreshing, others have contemptuously rejected the whole movement and pour scorn on these scholarly performances and recordings, and others have mixed feelings about the whole matter, including yours truly. Some people, including myself, find the pronouncements of HIP musicians about their so-called "authenticity", and the superiority of old instruments irritatingly smug, arrogant and self-congratulatory. The very term "Historically Informed Performance" implies that those who use modern instruments are uninformed, which is not necessarily the case.
Throughout the 20th century, orchestras, conductors and soloists have been performing the music of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and other composers of the past on instruments of our time which are very different from those of the past. And interpretive styles have changed also. You might compare this with actors today who perform the plays of Shakespeare without the same pronunciation used in the Elisabethan era, which was quite different from modern English, and costumes, sets and stagings vastly different from Shakespeare's day.
Today, mainstream string players use strings made out of steel or nylon ; until the 20th century, strings were made from the guts of sheep, and there were other differences in the instruments, also. Vibrato was used much more sparingly than today, but not totally absent as some HIP musicians advocate today. Wood wind instruments were simpler and had fewer keys. Horns and trumpets lacked valves, could not play all the notes of the scale, and had too change to different lengths of tubing every time players performed music in a different key. Tympani, or kettle drums, were covered with leather instead of plastic. Harpsichords are now widely used, as well as early pianos, which sound quite different from modern ones.
The premises of the movement are, that if we do scrupulous research, follow the dictates of eminent musicologists, and use the instruments of the past, we will get rid of all of the encrustaions of tradition, and reveal the music in all its glory, as it was in the past, just as a great painting restored from centuries of grime. But these are questionable assumptions. How do we know what long dead composers would or would not have approved of when it comes to performing their music ? How do we know that old instruments or copies thereof sound exactly as they did in the past, and that that the music is being interpreted exactly as the composers would have wanted and expected ?
It has certainly been interesting to hear what the music of the past might have sounded like, but that is exactly what we are hearing; what it MIGHT have sounded like. After all, we don't have a time machine yet. Now that would be fascinating ; to hear how close the HIP performances have actually come to recreating the performance styles of the past. Personally I have found SOME of these perfomances enjoyable, but some have merely thrown the baby out with the bath water. And I still don't mind hearing "Inauthentic" modern performances.
There are now many period instrument orchestras and chamber ensembles in Europe, America, Canada and even Japan, with such fanciful and sometimes pretentious names as "The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Orchestra of the 18th Century, Concentus Musicus, Vienna, Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique" etc, performing under the leadership of distinguished HIP musicians as John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, Frans Bruggen, William Christie, and others. These groups have made an enormous number or recordings, some of them best-sellers, and have toured widely.
The movement originally started with the music of the 18th century and before, but has expanded into 19th century romantic music, and even early 20 th century music. We can now hear supposedly "authentic" performances of Brahms, Wagner, Berlioz, Bruckner, Mahler, and even Gustav Holst of "Planets" fame, who died as recently as 1934 !
This is interesting, but the later HIP extends, the less difference there is between old and modern istruments. Other changes in performing style are tuning to a lower pitch , generally around a half tone lower than the present day, so that a piece in C major sounds like B major to some one with perfect pitch, the use of tempi that are considerable faster than today, and ornamneting works, which was expected. Composers would often provide a bare melodic line, and expect performers to improvise spontaneous ornamention of that line. This is especially important in 18th and early 19th century opera.
But none of this means that old "inauthentic" recordings by great musicians of the past such as harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and Pablo Casals the eminent Spanish cellist, who flourished in the earlier years of the 20th century are no longer valid. Great musicianship is great musicianship. We can now hear performances of the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven opn period instruments, but we also have classic recordings of them by such great conductors as Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham, Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwangler and other podium giants, as well as more recent recordings which use modern instruments but which follow some musicological evidence of the past such as performances by eminent living conductors such as Sir Neville Marriner, Raymond Leppard and others.
You can hear a variety of different recordings and make up your own mind. No one has a monopoly on the right way to perform the music of the past, living or dead.
In newspapers and on the internet, there seems to be a great deal of bad news about classical music in America, and even in Europe. Orchestras are floundering and going out of business; opera companies are forced to cancel ambitious and expensive new productions. Some orchestras are on strike and being torn apart by internicine squabbles.
The New York City opera in Lincoln Center was looking forward to a new general manager, the controversial Belgian arts administrator Gerard Mortier. But unfortunately, he decided to resign before taking over a couple of weeks ago, because the company simply could not find the funding for his ambitious plans for it. Mortier complained that the smaller regional opera companies in France receive much more government funding than the important New York City opera ! And he is right.
Because of this, ambitious productions there such as Messiaen's only opera "Saint Francis", and others are in limbo, as well as two comissioned but as yet unwritten operas.
The Metropolitan opera was going to revive its acclaimed production of "The Ghosts of Versailles" by the distinguished American composer John Corigliano next season, which was premiered there in 1991. But financial problems forced the Met to cancel it, and replace it with Verdi's familiar "La Traviata". The Corigliano opera is a lavish spectacle and very difficult to cast. Other top opera companies in San Francisco and Chicago etc are feeling the financial crunch.
The orchestras of Cincinnati, Columbus Ohio, Charleston South Carolina, Honolulu, Shreveport Louisiana and elsewhere are in financial trouble. The Columbus orchestra went belly up, but was revived at the last minute but with reduced musician salary and fewer concerts per year.
Despite all this, classical music continues not merely to survive, but flourish. This season, there will be as many as 35,000 classical performances throughout the nation ! A century ago, there were only a tiny fraction of this number.
Opera is more popular than ever in America ; until recently, the only important opera companies in the US were the Metropolitan in New York, the New York City opera, and the Chicago and San Francisco companies. Now there are opera companies in all 50 states, and cities such as Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minnesota , Baltimore etc are flourishing centers for opera.
Summers are no longer off season for classical music. There are great festivals in Tanglewood, Mass, Aspen, Colorado, Santa Fe, New Mexico ( for opera, ) Saratoga, NY, and elsewhere. Mostly Mozart is internationally famous and has inspired similar Summer festivals.
Despite financial problems, there are about 350 professional orchestras in America, and many smaller ones, more than in any other country. The so-called "Big Five" orchestras in America; New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia orchestra are no longer considered the very best; there are world -class orchestras in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Seatlle, Dallas, Houston, Baltimore, Atlanta and other US cities.
So let's be grateful for what we have, and hope for the best.
It's fairly safe to say that classical music is on the whole much more complex than pop or rock etc, and within classical there are many degrees of complexity, ranging from something as simple and straightforward as a concerto by Vivaldi or Mozart's famous serenade for strings "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," to the unbelievably intricate music of contemprary composers such as Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez and others.
In classical the harmony is usually much more complex, and there are often many different lines of music going on simultaneously, and works can last more than an hour or so. And there aren't just melodies, but themes which undergo constant transformation. The score of a Mozart or Haydn symphony from the 18th century will consist of only about eight or nine parts written top to bottom, but the score of a Mahler symphony or Richard Strauss tone poem will have as many as 30 or more different parts going on simultaneously in the score.
But complexity in classical music is nothing new. Composers of the Renaissance wrote choral music of dauntingly complex polyphony, and in the first half of the 18th century, Bach wrote many fugues and other contrapuntal works of great intricacy.
In the 20th century, the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896- 1989 ) aimed at writing music of deliberate simplicity in reaction to some works his time whose exagerrated complexity he considered pretentious. In the 1930s, he colaborated with Gertrude Stein on a curious abstract and surrealist opera called "Four Saints in Three Acts". The opera is supposed to represent the life of the saints, but has no plot, and the words are deliberately nonsensical and meaningless, with lines such as "Pidgeons on the grass alas, and a magpie in the sky". Thomson used deliberately simple harmonies and music remeniscent of the hymn tunes he knew from his youth in the midwest. The opera had considerable success at its premiere, but has not been revived very often since.
Later, composers such as Philip Glass and others created the so-called minimalist music which has been widely performed and recorded in our time, and uses constant repetition with slow and subtle changes.
However, the English composer Brian Ferneyhough (1943-) has deliberately written music of such complexity that is is virtually impossible to perform. I haven't actually heard any of his music, but have seen some printed examples of it, and it appears to be mind-bogglingly difficult. This kind of music has been given the German name "Augenmusik", or music for the eyes, that is, music which is so complex it's interesting just to look at on paper. However, this is no guarantee that the music will be interesting to listen to !
But complexity or simplicity by themselves are not the criteria by which we should judge classical music. We must consider each work on its individual merits.
Just as in politics, there are conservatives, liberals, radicals , lame ducks and mavericks in classical music. The liberals in classical music might better be called radicals, and others might be better described as independents. These include composers, instrumentalists, conductors, and critics.
Musical conservatives and radicals go back centuries. Some composers have started out radical innovators and ended up as conservatives as they aged, and new musical trends ememrged.
Beethoven started writing music in the style of his older contemporaries Haydn and Mozart; then he wrote revolutionary works such as the "Eroica" symphony (his third), the fifth, in which trompones, piccolo and contra bassoon were used for the first time in a symphony, and the monumental and unprecedentedly long 9th or choral symphony. The complex structures of his innovative works baffled many listeners and critics. Some even questioned his sanity !
In France , Hector Berlioz (1803- 1869 ) used the orchestra to paint colors that no composer had ever depicted before, and often used gigantic orchestras and choruses with unusual new instruments in the orchestra. His contemporary Felix Mendelssohn ( 1809 - 1847), a much more conservative composer, was scandalized by boldness and wild imagination of Berlioz, and called his music vulgar and uncouth.
The legendary Hungarian born pianist and composer Franz Liszt ( 1811- 1886), and the radical German Richard Wagner (1813-1883), who became Liszt's son-in-law, founded the so-called "New German" school, and Wagner wrote what was called"The Music Of The Future" in his monumental and harmonically innovative operas. Many were appalled by this kind of music, calling in deafening and incomprehensible. Wagner even participated in an uprising in Saxony in the 1840s and had to flee to Switzerland to escape being imprisoned.
Liszt invented the symphonic poem, or tone poem, a one movement orchestral work telling a story, portrarying nature, expressing philosophical ideas etc. But conservative Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), avoided program music and outlandish new harmonies and concentrated on symphonies, concertos, chamber music,piano works, songs and choral works etc.
In the late 19th century , Viennese born composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874 -1951 ) started out writing lush. late romantic music , but became a radical, and started writing music which abandoned any sense of being in a key in the early 20th century, and invented the 12-tone system of composing, in which the 12 tones of the chromatic scale C-C are arranged into constantly manipulated rows. His two most famous pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, took up his composing system and made it their own.
In France, Claude Debussy (1862-1918 ) created a sensuous and evocative "impressionist" music, influenced by Asian music, with vague, floating harmonies , and he abandones such traditional forms as symphony and concerto etc, with their clear cut structures, making music more loosely constructed and concentrating on sensuous color.
But many listeners were baffled and hated the new music, and many still find it disturbing. Russian born Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a kind of musical chameleon, starting out as a Russian nationalist, and writing the fiercely dissonant and rhthmically jagged Rite of Spring, and then becoming a sort of fashionable Picasso of music, writing "Neo-classical" music mixing old and new compositional techniqes. In his later years, he adopted the 12 tone method, but in his own way, just as many opther composers.
Other composers never abandoned the sense of music ina key, such as Russian Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943, Frenchmen Poulenc, Milhaud, Prokofiev (even if some of his early works are highly dissonant), Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten , of England, Leonard Bernstein, Walter Piston, Samuel barber and others in America etc.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was an American maverick, mixing folk tunes, hymns, dissonant polyphony etc into a wild mish mash, and anticipating later develpments in music. Other composers experimented with electronic music , such as French-born American based Edgard Varese (1883-1965), sometimes mixing electronics with acoustical instruments. But American composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989 ), wrote quaintly folksy American style music with Frewnch influences, as he had studied and lived in France.
Radical Frenchman Pierre Boulez (1925-), also a famous conductor, adopted the 12 tone technique into (total serialism", in which not only pitch, but rhythm, duration and other elements are tightly controlled, and the music extremely complex and un melodic. He was arrogant and dogmatic, and poured scorn on conservative composers who did not adopt his radical methods. Meanwhile, the conservative American composer and writer Ned Rorem (1923- ), poured his scorn on " serial killers", who write boringly arid stuff audienced don't want to hear.
American Elliott Carter, who turns 100 next month, started writing conservative folksy music and developed his own radical atonal but not 12 tone style with incredibly complex rhythms and different instrumental lines proceeding at their own pace within a work. Despite this, his music is being celebrated and widely performed currently. Other mavericks include Olivier Messiaen, Stockhausen, John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, and minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Among performing musicians, there are lame duck conductor Lorin Maazel , about to give up his music directorship of the New York Philharmonic to the younger and more adventurous Alan Gilbert. Some musicians are more conservativve in their repertoire, and perform little or no new music, such as the recently deceased conductors Carlo Maria Giulini and Carlos Kleiber, or violinist Itzhak Perlman, now active as a conductor also. The late , great tenor Luciano Pavarotti limited himself to a relatively small number of operatic roles from the past, but Spanish tenor Placido Domingo is much more versatile and has sung a number of operas by contemporary composers, including roles written with him in mind. Latvian-born violinist Gidon Kremer, is very interested in contemprary music, and has championed a variety of leading composers of the day.
Certain conductors are staunch champions of new works, even if they still conduct older music, such as Americans Michael Tilson Thomas, Leonard Slatkin, David Zinman, Marin Alsop, Gerard Schwarz, James Levine, Alan Gilbert, England's Simon Rattle, and Europeans Riccardo Chailly, Pierre Boulez, Michael Gielen, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Christoph Eschenbach and others, and Argentinian born Daniel Barenboim.
Some music critics, such as 19th century Viennese Eduard Hanslick, were conservative and were hostile to new musical trends. Hanslick praised the conservative Brahms and famously opposed Wagner and Bruckner etc.
More recently, Harold C Schonberg, chief music critic of the New York Times from 1960 to 80, was hostile to many important contemporary composers, but not all. Other criticsa have been more receptive to new trends. There are all manner of viewpoints and stances in classical music, just as in politics.
It's long been customary in opera houses everywhere to makes cuts in certain operas for a variety of reasons. It's not nearly as common in orchestral music, although conductors have been known to makes cuts in symphonies and other orchestral works.
Not every one agrees over which cuts are good or bad in every opera; usually conductors decide before rehearsal starts, often keeping individual singers in mind. Some critics and musicologists object strongly to certain cuts in certain operas; sometimes conductors decide to use the complete, uncut version . Some complete, or more or less complete studio recordings of operas make cuts, and others don't. Some recordings even include extra music which was deleted by the composers themselves. You are more likely to get an unabridged performance of certain operas on recordings than live.
Some operas are extremely long, such as William Tell by Rossini, best known for its overture once heard on the Lone Ranger. This is a great opera, probably his crowning masterpiece, and rarely performed, and even more rarely uncut. The distinguished Italian conductor Riccardi Muti ( 1941 - ), who is set to become music director of the Chicago Symphony, has a reputation as a purist who always tries to use the most complete text possible, and avoid opera the house routine of cuts, alterations and musical expedience. The is a DVD of his complete performance of William Tell from MIlan, once available on CD too.
Wagner operas are not only extremely long, but extremely taxing for the lead singers; therefore cuts have often been made in works such as Tristan & Isolde and Die Meistersinger to avoid singer fatigue. This is unfortunate, because audiences lose a lot of great music. This does not usually happen at the Bayreuth Festival in northern Bavaria, where the operas are produced under special festival conditions with hour long intermissions.
When I used to play operas, we pit musicians often had cuts marked in our parts. In some operas, entire scenes have been known to be omitted, such as in the Gothic Scottish opera "Lucia Di Lammermoor, " by Donizetti, where a scene where the hero and villain (tenor and baritone) angrily confront each other on a"dark and stormy night". Too, bad; it's an effective scene and adds to the opera.
In operas of the Baroque period, which generally consist of an endless series of solo arias with an occaisional duet or enseble piece separated by what is called "Recitative", or a non melodic kind of singing accomapnied by harpsichord and and perhaps a stringed instrument, which represent dialogue between arias, it's not uncommon for entire arias to be omitted for time's sake.
In some cases , composers have approved of certain cuts in their operas, or at least accepted them reluctantly. In other cases, certain cuts became customary after the composer's deaths. For example, in some Verdi operas, a character will sing a lyrical aria, which is followed by what is called a "Cabaetta" or faster concluding section with galloping rhythms . In some cases, the cabalettas are omitted. In some cases, cuts have been made simply because certain singers were just not up to the techical demands of the roles.
Today, many conductors are interested in musicological research, and have opened up many traditional cuts, although it's simply impractical to expect every opera to be done note complete.
If you get CDs of certain operas and orchestral works etc, you may notice in some cases that the booklet says that that this recording uses the "Original Version" of this or that work. This can be really interesting, if complicated and sometimes confusing.
Over the centuries, many composers have been compelled for various reasons to revise certain of their works, and therefore opera X or symphony Y may exist in two or more often very different versions. Opera is very similar to broadway shows in that composers have often made cuts, additions and all manner of adjustments to fit this or that singer, or because the original version of an opera was a fiasco.
Composers such as Mozart would would custom tailor their operas for particular singers, writing vocal roulades to show off their voices. Other times, they were stuck with less than great singers who simply weren't up to the deamnds of a particular role, or certain arias. So they would simplify certain arias or just omit them ,or write new music.
Sometimes versions of operas are identified with the city where there were premiered. Orfeo & Euridice (Orpheus and Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 - 1887 ), is one of the earliest operas to maintain a lasting place in the repertoire. It was first heard in Vienna, and Gluck prepared a revised version some years later for Paris, in French. Sometimes performances today mix elements from different versions.
Italian opera composers of the 19th century were constantly revising their operas for different singers and for different productions in different cities. Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi did this constantly, and musicologists today have a field day doing research into the different versions and variants, preparing them for publishing etc.
Giuseppe Verdi made revised versions of several of his operas such as Macbeth, La Forza Del Destino, and Simon Boccanegra. I recently heard a recording of the rarely heard original version of La Forza Del Destino, which was comissioned for the St. Petersburg Imperial opera in Russia. This is a tragic tale of a young man from South America, half Inca, who falls in love with a young Spanish noblewoman, but who accidentally kills her father. Her vengeful brother pursues the two throughout the opera , determined to kill them both to avenge the family's honor. In the familiar version, the brother kills his sister, but is killed by her lover ; in the original, the lover commits suicide by jumping off a cliff, unlike the familiar version, where a priest who has been observing the tragic situation attempts to console him by telling him that she has finally found peace in Heaven. Pretty melodrammatic stuff !
I also have the original version on CD of the famous opera Madama Butterfly by Puccini. The original version premiered in the Italian city of Brescia was a fiasco, and Puccini revised the opera extensively, adding and deleting music and scenes. The familiar version was premeiered successfully at the historic La Scala opera in Milan. My Cd recording can be programmed to show all the different musical variants, or just play the standard version. Even today, opera composers revise their operas , often after perceived weaknesses in the libretto or music have been pointed out by critics and others.
Beethoven's only opera Fidelio went through a number of changes before it took its definitive form ; it was originally called Leonore , the actual name of the woman who disguises herself as a jailor's assistant to rescue her husband, a political prisoner in Spain. She disguises herself as a young man, and calls herself Fidelio.
Symphonies and other orchestral works have often been revised, too. Best known are the various revisions which Anton Bruckner (1824 -1896 ) made of his symphonies. Bruckner was unsure about his works, and often gave in to pressure from conductors and friends to revise his symphonies. Sometimes., conductors were unhappy with the original versions, and Bruckner obliged. Others, such as conductors and Bruckner's pupils made changes of their own, altering the orchestration and making cuts. These adulterated versions used to be performed failrly often, until the unadulterated versions were established.
I have a CD of the original version of the 4th symphony, one of Bruckner's most popular. The third movement of the familiar version is a scherzo with fanfares evoking the hunt, and is very effective. The original scherzo is a completely different and has different thematic material, and the other movements are very different also, even if they use the same themes. All of these revisions have given musicologists, conductors and listeners considerable trouble. Certain versions are played more often because the parts are more easly available for rental.
Revised versions aren't always the composer's own. The four symphonies of Robert Schumann (1810- 1856 ) are beloved staples, but many conductors and critics are unhappy with the orchestrations, which are generally considered faukty; too thick , mushy and ineffective. A later composer and symphonist, Gustav Mahler (1860- 1911 ), made extensive re - orchestrations, aiming for greater clarity and effective sound. The noted italian conductor Riccardo Chailly has recently made recordings of these revised version with the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra of Germany, which he currently leads.
The whole issue of compser revisions is a complex and fascinating one. It's often very interesting to hear composer's first thoughts about a familiar work.
One of the most important and controversial trends in classical music in the past 30 or 40 years or so has been minimalism , a name taken over from minimalist art . Minimalism in classical music has also been influenced by popular and world music.
After the heyday of complex avant garde serialism, some composers wanted to escape what they felt to be the stultifying influence of academic complexity, and developed a kind of music based on constant repetition, and returned to tonality. A seminal work in minimalism was Terry Riley's IN C, which can be performed by any combination of instruments.
Later, American composers such as Philip Glass (1937 -) and Steve Reich (1936-) achieved popularity and numerous recordings. Reich is interested in non-western musics and spent time in Africa studying African drumming, and incorporates elements of it into his music. Glass has written widely performed operas such as Satyagraha, The Voyage, Einstein On The Beach, Akhenaten and Appamattox, based respectively on Mahata Gandhi, Christopher Columbius, Einstein, ancient Egypt and the Civil War, and a variety of other works including symphonies.
Some minimalist composers have used electronic special effects and tape loops which repeat incessantly. Some listeners find the constant repetition hypnotic and soothing; others are simply exasperated. The American composer John Adams (1947 -), started out as a minimalist but now has rejected it, and has written the operas Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and most recently Doctor Atomic, about the invention of the atom bomb by J Robert Oppenheimer, as well as orchestral works etc.
A number of prominent European composers have taken up minimalism, such as Arvo Part of Estonia, John Tavener and Michael Nyman of England, Henryk Gorecki of Poland and Louis Andriessen of the Netherlands. Interestingly, Part and Gorecki started out writing complex serial music, but abandoned it. Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs", written for soprano and orchestra is based on writings of Polish Jews in concentration camps, and a recording by soprano Dawn Upshaw and conductor David Zinman became a surprise best seller several years ago. This ands other recordings are probably still available. Arvo Part has used medieval music as an influence on his works.
So try music by these composers, and decide for yourself. A knock-knock joke goes - Knock knock- who's there ? Knock knock- who's there ? Knock knock- who's there ? Knock knock- who's there - Knock knock- who's there ? Philip Glass.
Recently, I received a message from a reader asking me about the availability of a certain classical recording on casettes. I don't know about the availability of classical casettes today, but I discovered that there are a couple of websites which do have them along with the usual classical Cds, and e mailed the reader with my findings.
So if there are any of you out there who have any questions about classical music, or comments, or would like me discuss any aspect of classical music, please feel fre to contact me. I'll be glad to try to help you with any questions, and will discuss anything about classical music. I look forward to hearing from you.
If you attend opera performances or read magazines such as Opera News, you will hear experts and fans using opera jargon about different voice categories and operatic roles, so I thought this might be a good time to explain some of their lingo.
In a chorus, there are soprano, alto, tenor and bass , but in opera, there are a variety of different sub categories . For example, women's voices are either soprano, the highest, contralto, the lowest, and mezzo-soprano, an inbetween category. Roles such as Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor or Brunnhilde in Wagner's Ring are soprano, but there are different kinds of soprano.
Many roles in Bel Canto operas for soprano are for coloratura soprano, that is one who sings roles with a lot of elaborate ,flowery and rapid fire notes, or fioritura (flowery) in Italian. Then there are lyric sopranos, dramatic sopranos, and lyrico-spinto sopranos. Spinto means "pushed" in Italian, that is combining lyrical and dramatic elements. Coloratura sopranos can often sing spectacularly high notes.
Certain sopranos specialize, and others have the ability to move between categories, such as Joan Sutherland of Australia, now retired, who had spectacular coloratura agility combined with bigness of sound. But you wouldn't expect a coloratura soprano specialist to tacle such roles as Wagner's brunnhilde or Isolde any more than you would expect a featherweight boxer to fight Mike Tyson or Mohammed Ali.
A Mezzo-soprano voice has a slightly darker coloring and generally does not sing notes as high as a soprano. The Gypsy seductress Carmen is generally sung by Mezzos, but sometimes by sopranos. Famous mezzo roles in opera include the princess Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlo, and Laura in La Gioconda, wife of a treacherous Venetian nobleman. The charming Rosina in Rossini's Barber of Seville was origianlly written for mezzo but has often been sung by coloratura sopranos in our time.
Composers have often adapted vocal parts in operas to meet the requirements of certain singers or make the most of their abilities. The lowest female voice is Contralto, the female equivalent of bass. These roles are often older women, such as the blind mother of La Gioconda in that opera, or Erda, the earth mother in Wagner's Ring.
The highest male voice is the tenor, unless you consider the counter tenor, who uses falsetto and sings female roles, usually in 18th century operas. There are the Tenore leggiero, or light tenor roles, lyric tenor, and Tenore Robusto, for more heroic roles such as Verdi's Otello and Manrico in Il Trovatore. The there is the Heldentenor, or heroic tenor for Wagnerian roles such as Tristan and Siegfried in the Ring. These kind of tenors are not very common, and perhaps the most famous was the Dane Lauritz Melchior (1890 - 1973 ), a large man who was world famous for singing Wagner.
The baritone is the next lowest and has a range between tenor and bass. Famous baritone roles have been written by Verdi for operas such as Rigoletto, in which the singer must portray a hunchbacked court jester, and other operas such as Iago in Otello, the Count in Il Trovatore, and Macbeth etc. Other juicy baritone roles are the evil and lecherous Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca, the ruthless chief of police in Rome , and the bullfighter Escamillo in Carmen. The baritone is often the buddy a tenor character, or often the rival for the love of a woman with the tenor.
Bass is of course the lowest male category, but there are roles for Basso Cantante, or lyrical bass, often in the roles of kindly older men, and Basso Buffo, or comic bass, in comic operas by Rossini and other Italian composers. This is often the role of a pompous, bossy, but ineffectual older man who gets the wool pulled over his eyes by scheming characters, and makes an ass of himself. One of the most famous examples of this is Doctor Bartolo in The Barber of Seville, who wants to marry his ward Rosina, despite her love for Lindoro, the disguised young nobleman,(natually a tenor).
A bass baritone is a singer who combines the range of a baritone with the weighty sound a of a bass, and the ability to sing low notes. The late Canadian George London (1920 - 1985 ), was an example, and so is the popular Welsh singer Bryn Terfel of the present day.
So please take all this into consideration if you go to the opera, or watch it on DVD Television or listen on the radio.
In a recent post I discussed how different from the past and uncertain the classical recording industry is today. Overall sales of classical CDs and DVDs may be down, but there are so many different classical record labels competing for sales.
But one decided success story is Naxos records, founded in 1987 by Klaus Heymann, a German businessman and entrepreneur based in Hong Kong. He decided to start a low budget record company which would cut corners in things such as pay for musicians, art work on jewel boxes etc, and offer affordable classical recordings for any one.
So he started making low cost recordings of standard repertoire with little-known but not at all bad orchestras in Poland and Slovakia etc, with less than stellar conductors. And by golly, these CDs started to sell well. Naxos grew and grew, and its repertoire expanded from early music from 500 or so years ago, to music by living composers.
Now, Naxos was able to record with prestigious orchestras such as the London symphony and the London Philharmonic, and started recording in America with the Seattle, San Diego and Nashville symphonies etc. (Yes, Nashville has an excellent symphony orchestra ). Well known conductors such as Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop and Gerard Scwarz now make Naxos recordings.
There have been ambitious projects such as recording a wide variety of music by American composers, including many long forgotten works. And numerous operas have also been recorded complete, live and recorded by Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, Bizet, Berg and other great opera composers.
On Naxos you can find music by composers from Latin America, Asia, and forgotten corners of Europe. There are a growing number of operas and other music on DVD now. On the Naxos website Naxos.com, you can find out all the information you want, and listen to a wide variety of their recordings, order CDs and DVDs and make downloads.
Of course, there are many other notable record labels, all with their own websites, including such major and long established organizations such as Decca, EMI classics, Deutsche Grammophon, Phillips , RCA BMG and Sony Classics. There are also such great independent labels as Chandos, CPO, etc, BIS of Sweden, Undine, and Supraphon of the Czech republic, which specializes in Czech music.
You can also order an enormous amount and variety of CDs and DVDs from arkivmusic.com. There's an embarassment of riches !
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