May 2009 - Posts
According to some people, classical music is "elitist". But is it really ? The term elitist has been used so loosely and indiscriminately that it's become virtually meaningless; just a nasty-sounding label.
And when applied to classical music, it implies that our symphony orchestras , opera companies and other groups are trying to exclude people, especially non-whites and those who aren't wealthy. But nothing could be farther from the truth. These organizations are not trying to exclude any one. In fact, they are extremely eager to find new audiences, of whatever age or ethnicity.
Our orchestras and opera companies have outreach programs to try to reach more people and expand their audiences, and people on staff whose job it is to do this. With all the reports of the "graying" of classical music audiences, they realize that it's vital to try to attract younger people, but people of any age are welcome.
But the stereotypical image still exists in many people's minds of rich, bored people in the boxes of opera houses, there just to see and be seen and show off their finery and jewels, while fat singers in Viking constumes shout at each other. This isn't what classical music like at all.
And the audience for opera in America has grown exponentially in recent years; there are now opera companies in all 50 states. It used to be that the only real opera companies in America were the august Metropolitan Opera in New York, which opened in 1883, and the San Francisco and Chicago operas, plus the less glamorous but plucky New York City Opera.
But now, there are major opera companies in Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and many other major US cities . Do you think this would be the case if opera were "elitist"?
There are hundreds of professional orchestras in America also, the top ones being in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Seattle, Cincinnati, Washington,Baltimore, St.Louis, Houston, Dallas, etc. All of these organizations desperately want more and more people to come to their concerts, no matter who they are.
And if opera tickets to the Met are expensive, and they range from about $250 -25, it isn't because of elitism, but because of the enormous expenses required to run a world-class opera company. Not the just the high fees for famous opera singers, but the costs of maintaining and great orchestra and chorus, and paying the army of people required to put on great operra: coaching staff, conductors, stage hands., people who work on constumes, constructing scenery, and so many other jobs.
Some one has to foot the bill, and ticket sales don't cover all the expenses. Private philanthropy covers some of the expenses, but not nearly enough to keep our orchestras and opera companies from serious financial difficulties and the risk of going under. But European governments provide generous subsidies for orchestras and opera companies, a luxury we don't have in America.
But classical music is not just a frivolous entertainment for the wealthy. It's a magnifient art form which enriches the lives of people all over the world, not only in Euriope and America, and has done so for centuries. So please don't call it "elitist."
If you've ever seen certain classic Hollywood films, such as The Sea Hawk, The Advendutes Of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex, The Sea Wolf, the colorful music for these films no doubt added to your enjoyment of them. And the composer was the once famous Erich Wolfgang Korngold, an Austrian Jew born in what is now the Czech republic, who was boen on this date, May 29 in 1897, and lived until 1957.
He was a child prodigy , and famous composers such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss were amazed by his comosing talent starting from when he was only ten years old. He was also a virtuoso pianist, and later became active as a conductor.
He was the son of the distinguished music critic Julius Korngold, who wrote for the New Free Press in Vienna, the leading newspaper in that legendary musical city . His rise as a composer was meteoric; his opera Die Tote Stadt(The Dead City) was a smash hit at top European opera houses when he was only 23 years old.
Korngold wrote other once popular operas such as Violanta and Das Wunder Der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane), which went out of favor when Hitler and the Nazis came to power in the 30s because the composer was Jewish, and much music for solo piano, chamber music, concertos and orchestral music.
But Korngold had settled in Hollywood to write film scores just before Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and had to remain there and become a US citizen. He won an academy award for best film score for the classic film The Advenutes of Robin Hood with Erroll Flynn.
But because of his success in Hollywood, it seemed that no one would take him seriously as a classical composer any more. His lush, colorful late romantic music was considered passe by modernists. And Arnold Schoenberg, his great countryman and founder of atonal composition , also lived in Los Angeles. Korngold died in 1957 at the age of only 60, considered a has been by many.
But in recent years interest in his music has grown, and his classic film scores have even been recorded to be heard on their own as serious music. Several of his operas have been recorded and even performed live; Die Tote Stadt was recently performed successfully in London, and his orchestral works have been championed by leading conductors and recorded. There are two Korngold biographies, by the English novelist and classical music fan Jessica Duchen, and Korngold scholar Brendan G Carroll.
But some critics and commentators just won't take Korngold seriously; one made the famous(or infamous) quip that his music is"More Korn Than Gold". But any one who enjoys lush,late Romantic music should find his music highly attractive. Try his single symphony, the violin concerto, which has been recorded by Jascha Heifetz and other great violinists, or the recordings of his operas, Die Tote Stadt, Violanta, and Das Wunder, although they may not be easy to find at the moment. Check arkivmusic.com for recordings ; you won't be disappointed.
"Early Music" is a term usually applied to music before the time of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, that is the so-called Baroque period of music, before 1700 or so. But these composers are sometimes classified as early music, too.
A surprisingly large amount of music from nearly a thousand years ago to around the 17th century has surived in manuscript form, and sometimes published. This ancient music from the Medieval and Renaissance eras is quite fascinating, and interest in it has grown enormously from the late 20th century to the present day.
It has been the task of musicologists to study, decipher and transcribe the old notation, which is very different from the kind in use today, and to edit and oversee its printing. This is no easy task, and scholars do not agree on how this should be done. In addition, many musicians in our time have specialized in studying and performing this kind of ancient music, and trying to determine how it should be performed, and ancient instruments such as viols, early string instruments, and wind instruments such as cornettos and sackbutts(an early form of the trombone) have been revived.
Early music ensembles specializing in this kind of music exist all over Europe, America, Canada and even Japan and elsewhere, and have toured everywhere and made numerous recordings. Many bear such quaint names as Hesperion XX , La Chapelle Royale, Piffaro, His Majesty's Sackbutts and Cornetts, Anonymous Four, La Capella Real Catalunya, and Chanticleer etc.
Thery perform works often of the a capella kind , by such once famous composers as Germany's Heinrich Schutz, Italy's Claudio Monteversi, and composers of the golden age of polyphonic religious music by composers of what is now Belgium, the Netherlands and Burgundy in France such as Josquin DesPrez, Guillaume Dufay, Jacob Obrecht, Johannes Ockeghem, Gilles Binchois, and other names you've probably never heard of.
Medieval and Renaissance music may sound strange to you at first; but once you get to know it you should find it really enjoyable. Performers and musicologiusts have had to do a lot of guesswork about learning how to perform this ancient music; composers left much up to the performer, and often the printed music does not even indicate what kind of instruments are to be used, or whether the music is to be sung or performed on instruments !
As well as the great 16th century Italian church composer Palestrina, who served as choirmaster to several Popes. In addition, there is a rich heritage of early music from Spain. The Catalan musician Jordi Savall is one of the leading specialists in early Spanish music, but he performs a wide variety of music by other early composers of other countries. In Belgium, the versatile conductor Philippe Herreweghe erforms everything from Renaissance music to Baroque, classical and Romantic music.
For more information about this important area of classical music, try earlymusic.net, which offers a wealth of information on the subject, and check arkivmusic.com for recordings.
May 29th 1913 is one of the most memorable days in the history of classical music and ballet. This was the world premiere of a new ballet score by the rising young Russian expatriate composer Igor Stravinsky (1882 -1971). The location was the Theatre de Champs Elysees in Paris, and the ballet company was the legendary Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo under the equally legendary Russian impresario Sege Diaghilev.
The gifted young Russian composer had already had considerable success with his two previous ballets, The Firebird, based on Russian fairy tales, and Petrushka, a whimsical tale of puppets which come to life at a fair in Russia. But Paris and the world were about to be assaulted by savagely dissonant music unlike anything the musical world had heard - The Rite Of Spring, or Le Sacre Du Printemps in French.
Stravisnky had conceived of a ballet about the pagan rituals of the ancient Slavic tribes who eventually became known as the Russians. He consulted the eminent Russian scholar Nicholas Roerich , who was an expert on ancient Russian history, and who designed the costumes for the Paris premiere. According to the story of the ballet, the tribes come together to celebrate the arrival of spring after the brutal Russian winter, and choose a young girl to sacrifice herself to the god of spring by dancing until she drops dead of exhaustion.
The brilliant young ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was chosen to choreograph the performance, but the fiendishly complex and irregular rhythms caused him great difficulties, and Stravisnky was not satisfied. The distinguished French conductor Pierre Monteux was engaged to conduct the very large orchestra for the ballet, and had to work very long and hard with the musicians in order for them to master the ballet's formidable rhythmic intricacies.
This is the copmposer's description of the idea for the ballet: " The wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of a girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of spring in order to gain his benevolence". The ballet is divided into two parts of equal length : The Adoration Of The Earth, and The Sacrifice.
The sections are First part: Introduction. Augurs of spring. Dances of the young girls. Ritual of mock abduction. Spring Round dance. Ritual of the two rival tribes. Procession of the wise elder(Shaman).
Second part: Introduction. Mystic circles of the young girls. Naming and blessing of the chosen one. Evocation of the spirits of the ancestors. Ritual actions of the anccestors, and finally, the sacrificial dance.
At the first performance, the audience literally went wild ! There were boos, catcalls and utter chaos. It was a near riot. But what great publicity for the young composer.! The music opens with a solo bassoon playing in its highest register unaccompanied. This disturbed some composers, who thought this an outrageous abuse of the instrument.
The music becomes ever louder gradually and there are brutal stamping rhythms depicting the lumbering dances. There a wildly asymetrical rhythms and savage dissonances, and there is use of polytonality, or several keys at the same time instead of the traditional one. The audience , which was accustomed to the elegant traditional dancing of 19th century ballet, was shocked, confused and outraged.
But the conductor Monteux stayed calm throughout the chaos rather like pilot Sullenberger at the recent Jet crash in New York; he was a consummate professional and remained a lifelong friend of the composer. He was a real pro ! Since the [premiere, most performances of the Rite of Spring have been in the concert hall, and it is now an established masterpiece played by orchestras everywhere, and even youth orchestras tackle it with confidence. But it was fiendishly difficult to play when new. A very large orchestra is called for , with unusual instruments such as the small and shrill e flat clarinet, a bass flute, not one but two contrabassoons, 8 horns including two alternating with Wagner tubas, bass trumpet, and a large percussion section icluding an instrument called the Guiro, a kind of Mexican gourd.
Audiences at concerts found the work shocking at first, but it has long been a staple of the orchestral repertoire. There have been numerous recordings, including at least two by the composer himself, and Monteux, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Igor Markevitch, Leopold Stokowski, Seiji Ozawa, and many other eminent conductors. A truncated version of the Rite was used for the famous Disney film "Fantasia", which the composer hated. But don't miss the Rite of Spring. You certainly won't hate it !
Some think it did, but it's much more complicated than that. There are those who say that somehow, classical music went astray in the 20th century, especially with the invention of atonality and Arnold Schoenberg's 12 tone system of composition. Many composers no longer strove to write music which pleased audiences; instead, they wrote fearsomely complex, knotty works without a shred of hummable melody and harmonies which people could grasp, and rhythms which were so irregular and asymetrical that the performing musicians needed an enormous amount of extra rehearsal time.
But certainly, not all composers chose this path, and audiences did not reject their music at all. In fact, they managed to write music of real substance and stature without selling out to the lowest common denominator or merely writing a pallid imitation of the music of the past. Composers such as Dimitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, are just a few who come immediately to mind.
But we should avoid false dichtomies here, and the simplistic notion of "Tonal Good" and " Atonal Bad". The music of such 20th century pioneers as Schoenberg and his disiples Alban Berg, Anton Webern and other composers of rigorous and complex music should not be dismissed out of hand either. In fact, if you make the attempt to get familiar with their music, you may find it highly rewarding. Tonal means that the music uses the system of tonality, and is a a key, such as C major or D minor etc.
The music of Schoenberg and his discples may not be as popular as Rachmaninov or Puccini, but it has held its own and is still performed today, and has received numerous recordings over the years by conductors and other musicians who believed in it, such as Pierre Boulez, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Robert Craft, Michael Gielen, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Hans Rosbaud and other eminent musicians.
Detractors of rigorous music like to say that since audiences have rejected it for the most part, it will never survive and achieve the lasting place in the canon of Western Classical Music occupied by such greats as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and others. But we should not equate mere audience popularity with success. Merely because composer X is played much more often than composer Y does not mean that compser Y is worthless. .
It's important to see the big picture. The whole history of Western classical music goes back centuries, to the time of such great early composers as Claudio Monteverdi , Heinrch Schutz, Giovanni Gabrieli, and others from before the 18th century, and the birth of opera and the symphony orchestra. The number or works written is unimaginably huge. It's been estimated that approximately 40,000 operas have been written since the early 17th century. Who knows how many symphonies, concertos, sonatas, cantatas, oratorios and other works have been written? There's no way to know.
Over the centuries, countless works have been forgotten, probably deservedly. It's no different for 20th century music. Much of it has been deservedly forgotten,too. But classical music is in no way stagnant; new works are constantly being premiered and neglected works from the past are constantly being revived.
And who knows what new trends and movements in the classical music of the 21st century will emerge? There's no way to predict. No doubt there are talented composers now who are just children or teenagers, and there are already talented young composers starting to gain recognition. Johannes Brahms (1833- 1897) , considered a conservative as opposed the his revolutionary contemporary Wagner, could have lived long enough to hear Stravinsky's once shoicking "Rite of Spring", which had its legendary and scandalous premiere in Paris in 1913. Brahms would have been 80. The Rite would have left him speechless , and no doubt he would have said that it was not even music. But today, this once outrageous work is in the repertoire of virtually every orchestra, and audiences cheer .
The great English composer Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) , whose opera Peter Grimes I profiled here recently, wrote a great work in the early 1960s which is highly appropriate to discuss on this Memorial Day. This is the monumental "War Requiem", for large orchestra, chorus, boy's choir and soprano, tenor and baritone soloists.
Here, Britten combines the text of the traditional Latin mass for the dead, which has inspired so many composers, with the anti-war poems of the English Poet Wilfred Owen (1893 - 1918), who died in combat at the very end of the first world war. The composer was a lifelong pacifist. The world premiere took place in May, 1962, at the newly restored Coventry cathedral in England, which had been destroyed in 1940, with the composer conducting. This great and powerful masterpiece has gone on to be performed by leading orchestras all over the world.
The various parts of the Latin requiem text, Requiem Aeternam, or grant them eternal rest, Dies Irae,or day of wrath, the Offertoruium, Sanctus(holy), Agnus Dei(lamb of God) and Libera Me ( free me from eternal death), are mixed with Owen's anti-war poems. The Latin and English texts alternate. A large orchestra is used, and a much smaller group of instruments is used for Owen's poems., which are sung by a tenor and a baritone. A soprano soloist is used for the Latin text.
The massive and grandiose outbursts of the Latin mass sections alternate with the quieter and more intimate passages using Owen's poems. The Dies irae,or day of wrath section, is brutal and terrifying, but the work ends on a note of hopefulness. Owen wrote : "My subject is war, and the pity of war - The poetry is in the pity. All the poet can do is warn".
At the time of the premiere, Britten , who was an excellent conductor as well as composer, recorded the War Requiem with the London Symphony orchestras and chorus for Decca records, with the great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, wife of the late , great Russian cellist and composer Mstislav Rostropovich , his close friend and colaborator tenor Peter Pears, and the renowned German baritone Dietrich Fischer -Dieskau as soloists. This recording is still available, but other leading conductors such as Simon Rattle, Robert Shaw, Kuert Masur, and John Eliot Gardiner have made subsequent recordings.
You owe it to yourself to hear this powerful and unforgettable masterpiece.
The other day I was visiting the website of the iconoclastic composer, critic and blogger Greg Sandow (gregsandow.com). It's certainly very interesting and thought-provoking, but unfortunately, it, as well as his other writings can give people who know little or nothing about classical music the wrong idea. You can see his blog at artsjournal.com.
Sandow is also a fan of Rock music and popular culture, and although he deeply loves classical music, is concerned that the audience for it may not only be diminishing, but in danger of dying out altogether, and he's certainly not alone in this. Why? Because classical music is no longer"relevant", it's too rarified, and audiences no longer behave as they did in past centuries, and most of the music we hear today is from the past.
In addition, classical music concerts need to be more like Rock or pop performances. The atmosphere is toop stuffy and reverential. This centuries -old art form must change and adopt or risk dying. But Sandow is makinbg the mistake of judging classical music by the wrong standards. Just because audiences at the concerts by our symphony orchestra concerts are not loud and boisterous , the way they are at Rock concerts does not mean that there is something"wrong' with classical music today.
You can read an article on his website by Sandow called"Why isn't classical music more like Rock", or something to that effect. But what if some one to write an article called"Why can't Rock be more like classical music?" Any one who did this would be accused of snobbishness and elitism. Why can't we just let both be the way they are?
Some of the problems Sandow cites in classical music today are the way people who are new to concerts are sometimes shushed when they applaud between movements of a symphony or concerto, and the fact that audiences in general are too quiet at concerts, except to applaud or cheer at the end of a work. Things weren't like that in the 19th and 18th centuries..
Well yes. He's right up to a point. But the behavior has simply changed. This doesn't mean however, that audiences don't get an enormous amount of pleasure and even excitement at concerts. And applauding between movements is making something of a comeback today. But it's true that nrewcomers to concerts do get terribly embarrrassed by being told to be quiet between movements.
And some members of orchestras or solo performers say that applause between movements is disconcerting(no pun intended), and causes them to lose concentration at performaces. But what is wrong with people being quiet at concerts? After all, when you go to thew movies, you don't like the people around you making noise; it's rude, inconsiderate at extremely distracting. Why should it be any different at concerts?
Another Sandow complaint is that we don't hear enough new music at concerts today. There's too much concentration on music from the past. In Mozart's day, the late 18th century, almost all music at concerts was new. Mozart was always organizing concerts to perform his own piano concertos and symphonies, for example.
But Sandow is conveniently ignoring certain important facts. In Mozart's day, the symphony orchestra as we know it was a relatively new thing. They just didn't have the enormous accumulation of repertoire which exists today. Today, you can hear anything from music by Mozart and his good good Joseph Haydn, and Beethoven, who lived from 1770 to 1827, to the latest music by contemporary composers.
Yes, it's true that the so-called"Standard Repertoire", that canon of long-established popular works at concerts, is still popular. But this hasn't prevented an enormous number of new works from being premiered in our time. As well as the revival of many,many long neglected works from the past.
In addition, in the 18th century, there were only a tiny fraction of all the orchestras,opera companies and other perfoming groups existing today. Public performances were nowhere near a frequent as today. Only major cities in Europe, such as London, Vienna, Paris etc, had an active musical life. If you were just Joe Schmo in some remote rural Austrain village , your chances of attending Mozart's concerts in Vienna were non-existent.
Today, virtually any one can hear CDs, see DVDs, listen to classical music on the radio, or the internet of the entire range of classical music. Our orchestras and opera companies perform a wider variety of repertoire than ever before. So classical music isn't relevant today?
Despite all the controversy surrounding his musc. life, and character, Wagner's music still packs opera houses all over the world. If you want to get tickets for the annual Bayreuth festival in Germany, which opened in 1876 and is still run by the composers descendents, you'll have to wait ten years ! It's easier to get an audience with the Pope.
Wagner's music will always divide people; there are those who find his operas and orchestral excerpts thrilling and inspiring, and the characters and their inteaction fascinating, and those who find the music loud, bombastic, pretentious, and excriciatingly boring, and his characters ridiculous and the plots as preposterous as they are pretentious.
Wagner-bashing has a long and venerable tradition. Thr composer has been at times the victim of either sneering mockery or outright viterperation. There are many amusing quotes about the music. Here are some :
"Wagner's music is better than it sounds". Mark Twain." Wagner has its great moments but awful quarters of an hour. " Gioacchino Rossini.
"Every time I listen to Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland." Woody Allen.
" I like Wagner's music better than any other muisc. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing what one says." Oscar Wilde.
Wagner's music recognnizes only superlatives, and a superlative has no furure. It is an end, not a beginning." Eduard Hanslick, a famous 19th century music critic and Wagner detractor.
"Of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningness, endless, topless, bottomless, topsiturviest, scrannel-pipiest, tongs and boniest doggerel of sounds , that eternnity of nothing was the deadliest I ever endured." 19 the century art critic John Russell on Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg.
And the controversy over this dazzlingly brilliant genius will continue as long as classical music and opera are performed.
May 22 is the birthday in 1813 of the most controversial composer of all time, Richard Wagner, in the historic German city of Leipzig, in the former DDR, which is also the city forever associated with Joann Sebastian bach and Felix Mendelssohn. Wagner is also one of the most fascinating of composers; a megalomaniac, anti-semite, womanizer and deat beat.
But he was also one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, in any field. He wasn't the nicest of people, although he was hardly evil, as some have made him appear to be. People tend either to love or hate his music; I'm a passionate Wagnerite, but others ,including some famous composers, absolutely loathe it. There's something about the music and the man which just rubs some people the wrong way. In some cases, the intense dislike is colored by the fact that he was an anti-semite, and wrote a notorious essay called "Judaism in Music".
And yes, Hitler had idolized Wagner from his youth, and turned him into the unofficial symbol of the Third Reich. The two will be forever associated with each other. But Wagner dies in 1883, six years before Hitler was born. Unfortunately, Hitler read all manner of things into Wagner and his music which simply aren't there. The monumental four opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelungen " isn't a paean to Naziism at all. In fact, it's the story of how the Germanic God Wotan and the other gods are destroyed by his lust for power and riches.
Wagner may have disliked Jews, and he was convinced that they were intrinsically incapable of greating great music or other art. But he never advocated genocide against them or any other group of people. And he actually admired some of the music of Mendelssohn, who was four uyears older, and a Jew whose family had converted to Lutheranism. And as the old cliche goes,"some of his best friends were Jews".
Wagner's music is unofficially banned in Israel; there's no actual law against performing his music there, but it just isn't done. The distinguished conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, himself a Jew, has received considerable flak for attempting to play his music there. It's a fact that some holocaust survivors cannot bear hearing his music because they heard it constantly in the concentration camps during WW2. The memories are unbearable, and you can't blamer them for this.
But still, if you can set aside the prejudices against Wagner, his operas can be absolutely enthralling. Some say that his music is like a drug; you just can't keep from listening to it and being fascnated by the sheer genius of his music. And hearing the overtures, preludes and other orchestral excerpts from his operas is also wonderful.
Wagner's music has had an enormous influence on so many composers, both his contemporaries and those of the 20th century. His innovations in complex chromatic harmony and his dazzlingly rich and colorful orchestration had an enormous impact on such composers as Claude Debussy, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, and other important composers. The music of the 20th century would not be what it is without Wagner, and of course, other composers conciously strove to write a vastly different kind of music, such as Stravinsky and others. Like it or not, you can't escape the mighty Richard Wagner !
In 1918, the Metropolitan Opera presented the world premiere of Il Trittico - the triptych of three short ,one act operas which can be performed together , making a full length evening of opera. The three are , however sometimes perfomed coupled with other short operas instead.
They are varied and interesting stories, each with vastly different atmoshperes and music. Il Tabarro(The Cloak, )is usually performed first, and is a gritty and violent opera of the Verismo (realism) type , set on a barge on the Seine in Paris. The middle opera Suor Angelica(Sister Angelica), is a sentimental tale of suicide and redemption in an Italian nunnery, while Gianni Schicchi is Puccini's only comic opera, and is a sparkling comedy about greed, fraud and clever conniving in medieval Florence.
Il Tabarro is dark and highly atmospheric, and vividly de[icts life on a commercial barge on the Seine. Michel,(Michele in italian as the opera is in that language,) is the skipper of a barge, and lives on it with his beautiful but unhappy young wife Giorgetta, and the crew and stevadores. Luigi is a young stevadore who falls in love with Giorgetta. Michele suspects something afoot. The crew go about their business, and you can hear young lovers on the banks of the river and a song peddlar, etc, and the noises of the barge.
Michele and Giorgetta are having marital problems; she has recently lost a child in infancy,and their relationship is strained. She longs for her old life in Paris. Michele broods constantly. Luigi and Giorgetta sing a love duet. He is desparate to leave the barge and find work elsewhere. But Michele confronts Luigi and strangles him underneath his large cloak. Then he reveal's the young man's body to Giorgetta to her horror. Not a pretty story, but the music is haunting ,powerful and highly atmospheric.
Suor Angelica takes place in a nunnery. Sister Angelica has been put here because she disgraced her family by having a child out of wedlock. The child, a boy was taken from her. She accepts the life of a nun and goes about her daily life hoping that she will someday be able to see the child.
But her aunt the princess , a stern and unforgiving woman comes to visit her. She tells her that she is being disinherited for disgracing the family, because she became the guardian of Angelica and her younger sister after their parents died. Now the younger sister is about to be married. Angelica asks about her child, but the princess coldly tells her that the litlle boy died two years ago. Angelica is cushed, and her aunt leaves.
Later, Angelica sings a touching aria mourning her child who died without his mother , and commits suicide by taking poison. She realizes her terrible sin and prays to the virgin for forgiveness. She sees a vision of the Virgin and dies in grace as a celestial choir sings. A mawkish story? Possibly, but the music is very beautiful, and audiences enjoy it despite the sentimentality.
Gianni Schicchi is a cunning peasant from the countryside in medieval Italy. The story opens in the palace of one Buoso Donati, a rich man in Florence who has just died. His greedy relatives surround him, weeping crocodile tears. They want his inheritance ! A young man, Rinuccio,is in love with Gianni's pretty young daugherr Lauretta, and the two are hoping to marry, but there are problems with the dowry,as her father is not rich. Rinussio's elderly aunt is opposed.
But unfortunately, Buoso's will has stipulated that most of his considerable possessions , including a prosperous mill, will go to a monastary ! The relatives are horrified. They'be been given mere pittances. But what will they do? Gianni comes up with an ingenious plan to save the day, but warns them that if the fraud hr'e coming up with is discovered, they risk being banished for life from Florence and having a hand cut off.
So Gianni calls the lawyer to take Buoso's last will and testament again, and cons him into thinking that the old man was still alive, and he's the dying man ! But the cunning fellow double crosses the greedy relatives and "gives" most of the possessions to Lauretta and Rinuccio ! When they find out,they're furious., but Schicchi chases them out warning about the fraud. The two young people sing of their love and prospects for wedded bliss, while Schicchi asks the audience to forgive him, since Dante mentioned Schicchi in hell in his famous inferno !
Puccini's music is witty , sparkling and at times grotesque. You may have heard Lauretta's famous aria"O mio babbino caro"(oh my dear daddy) on television commercials. It's a gorgeous meelody and sopranos love to sing it. The three operas make a very satisfying and enjoyable evening in the theater, with tragedy,sentimentality and comedy. Puccini's melodious and colorfully orchestrated music is as appealing as any of his more famous operas.
There are several complete recordings of the trittico on one set, and several available separately, with such famous singers as Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni, Mario Del Monaco, Placido Domingo, Renata Scotto, Sherill Milnes and others available. Check arkivmusic.com.
What is the Fauxharmonic, and what significance does it have for classical music today and in the future? It's the ingenious invention of classically-trained composer and conductor Paul Henry Smith, and is a digital orchestra able to approximate the sound orchestral music and perform either familiar works or new music It uses Nintendo Wii technology and Bang & Olufson speakers.
As of this post, Smith gave a concert, with guest performers, on May 20th at the Holy Name church in Roxbury,Massachisetts with the Fauxharmonic. Beethoven's first symphony was played, as well as music by Paul Hindemith and excerpts from a new opera by composer Tom Myron. Conductor? Smith controlled the device, with its digital equipment and software, approximating the sound of a full orchestra, and controlling crucial matters such as speed, loudness and softness, and flexibility of rhthm,ie slwoing down or speeding up.etc.
Smith hopes to encourage more and more composers to write music for the Fauxharmonic, as well as playing familiar works for audiences. He had studied composition at Brandeis and Oberlin, and conducting with no less than Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood festival.
This ingenious device raises a number of questions. Will digital technology such as this be beneficial for classical music, or could it cause serious problems? Yes, it's often difficult for contemporary composers, particularly younger ones, to get performances by US orchestras, which are constrained by conservative audiences which tend to be reluctant to hear new music, and limited rehearsal time.
But the Fauxharmonic and other digital technology could enable more and more composers to have their music performed without the time, expense and money required by traditional orchestras. And it could enable audiences in remote areas to hear orchestral music without all the expenses of travelling to cities, or having orchestras tour remote areas.
And could this technology create diffiulties for our live orchestras, and decrease their ticket sales etc, and possibly even threaten their existence? Who knows ?. As many critics, fans and other maintain, there's no substitute for a live performance, with human musicians, the spontaneity and inspiration of the moment and all that.
Well, at least for the time being, are orchestras, whatever the difficulties that threaten them, are alive and kicking. But it will be interesting to se what happens. I heard a bit of Beethoven's symphony no 7 on Smith's interesting website fauxharmonic.com, and it sounded pretty close to a real orchestra, but something was missing.... Try it and make up your own mind.
In 1897 , the world premiere of the symphonic poem "Don Quixote by Richard Strauss took place in Munich. The composer used the full force of his vivid imagination and his prodigious skill in orchestration to create a masterpiece of descriptive music.
As is well-known, the great novel by the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, an almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare, tells the story of an elderly Spanish nobleman whose mind is confused by his reading of ancient books of medieval chivalry into thinking he is a wandering knight errant. He meets a peasant named Sancho Panza who humors him and becomes his"spuire", and they go through all manner of strange adventures.
Strauss casts the work in the form of a theme and variations with an introduction. Each variation describes an episode from the novel., and a solo cello represents Don Quixote, with a solo violist portraying Sancho. A large orchestra, complete with a wind machine ,extensive percussion and even a baritone horn or euphonium is used.
The composer describes the work as "Fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character" on the title page of the score. The introduction depicts the Don's mind being led astray by his reading of ancient books.
Theme : Don Quixote, the knight of the sorrowful countenance. The solo cello depicts the melancoly knight with his wild imagination.
Variation: Sancho panza, the bumbling peasant who humors the Don and is willing to accompany him on his misadventures, portrayed by a solo viola with a baritone horn.
Variation: The Don and Sancho fight a battle against bleating sheep which to the old knight represent a hostile army. The brass and woodwind use a technique called"flutter tonguing" to depict the bleeting of the sheep.
Variation : The Don encounters a windmill.
Variation: The battle between the Don and the imaginary evil emperor and his army.
Variation : Dialogue between the knight and his squire.
Variation. A procession of pilgrims.
Variation: The knight stands vigil.
Variation : The Don meets Dulcinea, a common woman whom he imagines as his chivalric beloved.
Variation. The Don and Sancho imagine they are taking a magic ride through the air, with a wind machine in the orchestra.
Variation : Voyage in an imaginary boat.
Variation: Battle with the imaginary evil magicians.
Variation : Battle with the knights in white. Here, the Don is finally brought to his senses in a mock battle.
Final variation : The elderly Don, now in his right mind, dies peacefully.
In Don Quixote, Strauss created a masterpiece that is both whimsical, grotesque ,picturesque and touching. There are many fine recordings of it, including ones by such eminent Strauss conductors as Herbert von Karajan, Rudolf Kempe, Lorin Maazel, the composer himself and others.
The discussion on my last post about the hostility of so many people to contemporary music reminded me of the fact that in classical music, the old saying that"familiarity breeds contempt" isn't true at all. In fact, it's the opposite. -unfamiliarity breeds contempt.
That's why recordings are so valuable. If you go to a concert, and the orchestra plays something by Schoenberg or his disciples Berg and Webern, or some other 20th century composer, the music may leave you completely baffled. But if you get a recording, you can give the music repeated hearings, and if you take the time and effort to do this, chances are, the music will start to make much more sense to you. You can even get to find it downright enjoyable !
This can even be true of complex music written before the 20th century, such as the elaborate polyphony in Bach, the intricacies of Beethoven's late string quartets, the vast and expansive symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, and other works. From my own experiences listening, I've found this has happened so many times to me. I would listen to an unfamiliar piece the first time on a recording and couldn't make head or tail of it.
But with repeated hearings, what seemed like chaos at first became perfectly clear and coherent. Of course, this isn''t true of all classical music. The are plenty of simple and straightforwardly melodious works that aren't difficult at all on first hearing. But even here, repeated hearings can reveal new subtlties to you. Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusic (meaning a little serenade, not a little night music, as in a little bit of music), for strings, or Vivaldi's Four Seasons are pieces that appeal to audiences everywhere and are good for classical newbies.
But Mozart wrote much more complex and challenging music, such as his last three symphonies, some of his piano concertos, masses, string quartets etc. He wrote music to please audiences, as composers were expected to do, but also music for his own personal reasons, aimed at experts. Mozart wrote a large numer of works called Divertimentos, serenades etc, for quick profit and to please the aristocracy at banquets etc, as composers were expected to in those days.
Today, pop music is designed for immediate appeal to mass audiences. There's nothing wrong with that, but certain composers , such as Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez and others, write extremely complex ad esoteric music which many people who attend concerts find utterly puzzling or even disturbing. The distinguished American composer, theorist and teacher Milton Babbitt wrote an article many years ago for the now defunct record review magazine High Fidelity about his music and his aesthetic ideas. He said that he wrote music for learned musicians and composers which was deliberately esoteric, much as scientists and mathematicians wite their impenitrable papers and treatises.
The editor at High Fidelity came up with a catchy but misleading title for the article called"Who cares if You Listen"? This damaged Babbitt's relation with the public. It's not true that he doesn't care if you listen. Ironically, Babbitt is also a great admirer of popular music , broadway musicals and Frank Sinatra etc, and has even written popular songs of his own.
AS a horn player, I once performed a very dense, abstruse work by the austere Austrian composer Anton Webern( 1883 - 1945), the one who was tragically shot and killed accidentally by an American soldier on guard just after WW2. He had studied with Schoenberg, and adopted the 12 tone system of composition. of his teacher, but developed his own style of composing.. It was a brief work called"Six Pieces For orchestra," six brief, enigmatic atonal pieces.
During the rehearsals, the music started to make much more sense to me; and it even started sounding tuneful after a while ! But back in the 1950s, when the distinguished Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896 - 1960) was music director of the New York Philharmonic and led it at a concet in Carnegie hall, not oonly the audience, but some of the musicians were appalled. Many booed or walked out in disgust. Throughout his career, Mitropoulos was a staunch champion of difficult contemporary music. His attitude was Damn the torpedos !
Things are still like this at concerts in many places. Many in the audience want their beloved Tchaikovsly and Rachmaninov, and their Beethoven and Brahms etc. It's comforting. But shouldn't concertgoing also be mentally stimulating too?
With all the controversy about toruture today, it occurred to me that we might use music by contemporary composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and other distinguished living or recently deceased composers who are known for torturing audiences at concerts.
If audiences are so pained by the music of these composers, why not use it to get confessions out of suspected terrorists? All kidding aside, it seems that many concertgoers would in fact prefer waterboarding to music by these and other contemporary composers. Heck, they're even pained by the music of Arnold Schoenberg, who lived from 1874 to 1951, and started writing his dreaded modern music about a century ago !
But as I've explained before, Schoenberg didn't start out writing this awful modern stuff. His early works are in fact highly romantic, and influenced by Wagner and Brahms, composers whose music he never even rejected,and in fact revered. But even these early and approachable works seem to be box office poison. The Philharmonia orchestra of London had to come up with a clever marketing ploy recently to attract audiences to a performance of Schoenberg's massive oratorio "Gurrelieder," which is not at all atonal or forbidding
They advertised"Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back". But unfortunately, some concertgoers, and opera fans too,are so hostile to anything that isn't superficially pretty and hummable that they are reluctant to hear a lot of wonderful music that isn't even particularly avant-garde.
Just the other week, conductor Alan Gilbert, who will become the New York Philharmonic's next music director this September, did a performance with the orchestra of a symphony by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890- 1959). Many in the audience had walked out before the performance, apparently only wanting to hear the music on the first half by Dvorak and Saint-Saens, both popular 19th century composers.
But the Martinu symphony isn't atonal at all, and though its harmonies are often pungent, there is absolutely nothing unpleasant or ugly about it . Many consider it to be a masterpiece, myself included. If these people had stayed to hear it, they might have been surpised at how much they enjoyed it.
But maestro Gilbert is absolutely committed to giving new music a chance to be heard, as well as championing lesser-known works from the past, and he is far from being alone in this among conductors today. There is concern that his adventurous programming might alienate audiences and even cause the Philharmonic to lose revenue through lower ticket sales. But never fear, the orchestra will continue to offer the familiar masterpieces which audiences know and love.
The opening night performance will feature the Berlioz "Symphonie Fantastique", which though popular today, was considered an outrageous avant-garde shocker when it was new in the 1830s. Rossini, composer of "The Barber of Seville" and other famous operas, declared that it was not music ! But as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Who knows how people in the futuire will react to the avant garde composers of today? We might be surprised if we could come back a century from now.
Recently, the great Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman was giving a recital at Disney hall in Los Angeles. He's a wonderful pianist and musician who has delighted concertgoers all over the world with his playing of Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninov and many other composers. He's made many superb recordings for Deutsche Grammophon records.
But unfortunately, he interrupted the L.A. recital with a brief tirade against the U.S. government, and said"Keep your hands off my country". The audience was dismayed and confused. Zimerman was also complaining about the mess in Guantanamo, and expressing his outrage to rumors that the US government is keeping suspected Al Qaeda members at secret locations in Poland.
He was scheduled to give recitals elsewhere in the US, including Boston, but canceled them,allegedly due to illness. But the suspicion is that Zimerman was not actually ill, and the pianist has said that he will never again perform in America. What a loss this would be!
But why can't classical musicians just keep their political opinions to themselves? What does it accomplish by ruining a performance with tirades like this? It might be better to confine these to interviews, or perhaps Zimerman should start his own blog. But who needs such temper tantrums at performances ?
More Posts Next page »