May 2013 - Posts
A century ago today , Igor Stravinsky's revolutionary ballet score Le Sacre Du Printemps (the Rite of Spring ) was given its world premiere by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo , and as they say, the rest is history . This seminal work ushered in the modern age of music, and classical music would never be the same .
Although it is now usually performed as as a purely orchestral work , Le Sacre du Printemps was originally conceived as a ballet ,albeit one unlike any ballet which had come before it , and the legendary dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky was responsible for its then wildy unconventional choreography . Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971 ) was a young , up and coming expatriate Russian composer who had written two successful ballet scores , The Firebird , based on Russian fairy tales , and Petrushka , a whimsical tale of puppets which come to life at a country fair in Russia . The renowned Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev had given the gifted young composer a chance and taken him under his tiutelage .
Collaborating with the Russian folklorist and historian Nicholas Roerich , Stravinsky conceived of a ballet which would depict the strange pagan rites of the Russians in ancient times in which a young virgin would be sacrificed to propitiate spring by dancing herself until she died of exhaustion . In place of the elegant choreography of traditional 19th century ballet there was an attempt to recreate the wild pagan dances of the primitive Slavic trubes who were the ancestors of today;s Russians .
This attempt , plus Stravinsky's jagged and wildly cacophonous music caused a near riot at the premiere exactly 100 years ago . Le Sacre was unlike anything fashionable Parisian ballet audiences in Paris or elsewhere had ever experienced before , and many in the audience began to make a commotion which actually drowned out the already extremely loud music at times ! The conductor was the great French maestro Pierre Monteux (1875-1964 ) , a close friend and trusted collaborator with the composer , and the unprecedented complexisty , wild rhythmic irregularity and jaggedness of the music required an enormous amount of rehearsal time for both the orchestra and the dancers .
According to all reports , Monteux remained calm throughout the chaos and kept the orchestra going while the audienced whistled and jeered the weird primitive choreography of Nijiinsky . Later performances by the company at the theater went without a hitch though .
The Rite began to be performed more often in concert halls by symphony orchestras all over Europe and America by many of the world's leading conductors ,including Monteux ,and the composer himself , and although audiences initially found the music shockingly discordant and weird , Le Sacre has become one of the most frequently performed orchestral works of the 20th century and is still popular .
There have been who knows how many recordings , by the composer, Monteux, Leonard Bernstein , Pierre Boulez , Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Igor Markevitch , Ernest Ansermet (another close friend and collaborator of Stravinsky ) , Herbert von Karajan , Erich Leinsdorf , Charles Dutoit and so many other renowned maestros . Stravinsky, Boulez , Bernstein and some others have made more than one recording of it over the years .
The Rite calls for an enormous orchestra , including unusually large woodwind, brass and percusiion sections , and includes such unusual instruments as an alto flute , a special low-pitcned flute , not one but two contra bassoons , eight horns , piccolo trumpet ,two tubas , and a wide variety of percussion instruments .
The ballet is divided into two parts of equal length , the "Adoration of the Earth ", and "The Sacrifice ". In the first part , the pagan Slavic tribes have gathered to celebrate the beginning of Spring , and wise tribal elders supervise the rites . There are ritual abductions of girls , round dances , and solemn processions . The second part opens with an eerie evocation of the night , and a young girl is chosen as a ritual sacrifice to the Slavic gods when day breaks . She begins a wild, orgiastic dance , and dances until she literally drops dead ! (There is no historical evidence that such a ritual sacrifice actually happened among the ancestors of the Russian, though ).
Stravinsky's music is not actually atonal in the Schoenbergian sense , but breaks completely traditional harmony , and features juxtaposiitions of different chords which do not conform to what audiences had come to expect in the 19th century . There are eovocations of old Russian folk music , and several actual quotes .
But Stravinsky's use of rhythm is wildly innovative ; instead of the simple ,square and symmetrical phrasing to which audiences were accustomed , the composer invented wildy irregular assymetrical rhythmic patterns , with the time signature sometimes changing with every measure . Instead of bars constructed with the usual 2,3 or 4 beats oer measure , there are measures with 5,7, and even 11 beats , constantly shifting . This was extremely difficult for the orchestral musicians when the work was new , but they have since become accustomed to it and many later composers have created works of at least as much rhthmical complexity, if not more .
After The Rite , Stravinsky explored many different styles of composition , and became on of the leading exponents of what is caled "Neo-classicism" , or 20th century music which makes use of the techniques and style of 18th century music while remaining modern , and in his later years he began use 12-tone Schoenbergian techniques while always remaining himself . Stravinsky was something of a chameleon as a composer , constantly changing his music while preserving his own distinctive voice . But he never seems to have written anything as earth-shaking as "Le Sacre Du Printemps ".
I 1924 , a wag in Boston wrote an anonymous piece of doggerel about the wild and clangorously prmitive ballet score after a perforance by the Boston symphony orchestra :
"Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring , what right had he to write this thing , with its crash, crash , cling clang bing, bang bing ?
And then to call it Rite of Spring , the season when on joyous wing ,the birds melodious carols sing and harmony's in everything !
He who could write the Rite of Spring, if I be right, by rights should swing ! "
The death on May 22 of the eminent French composer Henri Dutilleux at the age of 97 leaves the world of classical music bereft of yet another of the world's foremost composers , only months after the passing of the even more aged Elliott Carter . Among the older statesmen of the compositional world , only Pierre Boulez, 88 remains .
Dutilleux's music , while basically atonal , eschewed the rigid and intimidatingly arcane techniques of post-schoenbergian serialism typified by the worls of Pierre Boulez ,now 88, who rejected the music of his older contemporary as insufficiently complex and dogmatically avant-garde . Dutilleux was a careful and deliberatel craftsman and anything but prolific in his output ,leaving a limited number of orchestral works , chamber music and vocal works characterized by a sensuous beauty of sound and vivid colors .
His music has been championed by such eminent conductors and instrumentalists as Charles Munch , George Szell , Esa-Pekka Salonen , Serge Baudo, Daniel Barenboim , cellist ocnductor Mstislav Rostropovich ,violinist Isaac Stern and others , and he was one of the most widely performed of contemporary composers . Dutilleux won numerous presitigious awards for his works and was a distinguished teacher of composition at the Paris conservatoire , the Tanglewood festival in America and elsewhere .
Among his best known works are two symphonies , violin and cello concertos and several miscellaneous orchestral works . Perhaps the best knows is Metaboles , which was premiered by the great conductor George Szell and his Cleveland orchestra in 1965 .The cello concerto ("Tout un Monde Lointain", a whole distant world ) , was written for the great Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich .
Dutilleaux's music is not the kind of dry as dust complex avant-garde music which so many concertgoers dread ; it is characterized by a luminous beuaty of sound and shimmering shifting colors . The catalogue of recordings of his works is not enormous but still ample, including recordings of the concertos by their champions Rostropovich and Isaac Stern .
For an excellent set of his complete orchestral works on CD , try the four CD set by the noted French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier with the B.B.C. Philharmonic . You won't regret this evne if you are leary about trying contemporary classical music .
On the eve of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner , the most hotly debated composer in the history of music , it's important to realize that he is not merely a composer who happened to be an anti-semite and the favorite composer of Hitler ,the butt of jokes about obese opera isngers in ridiculous costumes with horned helmets , but the creator of some of the most inspired , powerful and compelling music ever written , a great dramatist , and a visionary genius whose startlingly original operas have enthralled countless people all over the world for over a century and a half .
His influence over composers who followed him was enormous , and he even caused some later composers to rebel against that overpowering influence and strike off in radically different directions . Such great composers as Bruckner,Mahler, Richard Strauss , Arnold Schoenberg , Camille Saint-Saens, Puccini , Debussy , and others would not have become what they were without Wagner .
No composer has ever divided other composers , critics, musicologists and audiences to the same degree . Wagner's music has been both idolized and despised by so many different people for a variety of reasons ,but it has rarely left anyone indifferent . How could it ? There is something about his music which arouses either love or hate in different people . It has a kind of primal power to effect people's emotions . Some find it exhilherating and intoxicating , while others are somehow repelled by it to a degree that one cannot find with other composers .
The Great Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) , was one of the most voiciferous of Wagner's detractors , and sneered at his music as pretentious, bombastic and turgid , calling himself " Wagner's anti-christ ". He thought of himself as the Apollonian opposite to Wagner's Dionisian intoxication . His French contemporary Darius Milhaud (1892 -1974 ) , who specialized in music of Gallic elegance and coolness , was such a rabid anti-iwagnerian that he once wrote a review of an all Wagner concert in Paris with these words alone "Down with Wagner!"
A number of earlier French composers of the 19th and early 20th century became passionate Wagnerians , such as Emmanuel Chabrier ,Ernest Chausson, and others . Claude Debussy , the founder of musical impressionism even though he did not like to think of his music as impressionist , was deeply ambivalent about Wagner and had a kind of love/hate relationship with it .
But the worm in the Wagnerian apple remains Adolf Hitler and the *** . It's a grave mistake, however ,to assume that Wagner turned Hitler into the sick monster he was . Yes, Wagner was an anti-semite and wrote an appallingly nasty extended essay called "Judaism in Music", in which he accused Jews of being incapable of creating great art among other things . However, his anti-semitism never came remotely close to the insane extremism of Hitler, and he never advocated genocide against Jews or anyone else .
The problem is that Hitler read his own insane ideas INTO WAGNER , ideas which cannot be found in the philosophy and aesthetics of the composer . You cannot blame Wagner for what Hot;ler caused ,any more thna you can blame Jesus for the Spanish Inquisition . The composer has been dogged by guilt by association since the second world war . Even to this day, there is an unofficial ban on performing Wagner's music, either on teh operatic stage or in concert in Isarel ,although eminent conductors and advocates of his music active in Israeli musical life such as Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta ,have attempted ,without much success, to defy this .
Another stumbling block for many people is the fact that Wagner, while a towering genius , was hardly the nicest human being imaginable . In addition to being an ant-semite , he was a notorious womanizer and serial adulterer who carried on affairs with the wives of some of his closest friends and associates , a megalomaniacal self-centered and unscrupulous man who ran up enormous expenses in his private life to live a luxurious lifestyle while regularly evading his creditors , and often made obnoxious statements about composers whose music he disliked , which included most of his contemporaries .
But many great composers have been guilty of reprehensible behavior , and Wagner was by no means the only composer with anti-semitic views . You have to separate the man from his music . Wagner's stage works are towering masterpieces , and the protagonists ,including such fascinating characters as Tristan and Isolde , Wotan, ruler of the Gods in the mighty tetraology the Ring of the Nibelung, his daughter the Valkyrie Brunnhilde , the evil dwarf Alberich who is Wotan's arch enemy , the cobbler poet Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg , to name only several , are among the most complex and many sided characters in all opera . John Philip Sousa called Wagner "The Shakespeare of music ". This is why Wagner's immense and complex works have remained relevant to the present day . and will remain so far into the future .
After a long and difficult search , the world-famous Boston symphony orchestra has chosen a new music director , 34 year old Latvian Andris Nelsons, who is currently music director of the City Of Birmingham symphony orchestra in England . Nelsons will fill the shoes of the eminent but ailing American conductor James Levine ,who was forced to resign because of severe back trouble and various injuries caused by accidents .
Although not a household name , Nelsons has conducted many of the world's greatest orchestras with considerable success for several years as well as at the Metropolitan opera and other leading opera companies . From all reports , he has earned the respect and admiration of the demanding musicians of the world's great orchestras , something which is not easy to win , as they do not impress easily . Nelsons was rumored to be one of the most likely candidates to win this prestigious appointment .
He follows in the footsteps of such legendary Boston symphony music directors as Serge Koussevitzky , Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, Erich Leinsdorf ,and more recently ,Seiji Ozawa and James levine , and will assume his post beginning with the 2014-15 season . Ndelsons has appeared with such storied orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic , the Royal Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam , the Vienna Philharmonic , the New York Philharmonic etc and has had considerable success at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth Germany .
Despite his youth , Nelsons has a wide repertoire and is committed to programming contemorary music , which is vital for the health of orchestras everywhere in order to ensure that they do not stagnate . Only time will tell how Nelsons and the Boston symphony will fare in the course of classical music in America , but for the time being , things are looking up for this storied orchestra .
A recent production of Wagner's opera Tannhauser (Tann - hoy-zer ) at the Dusseldorf opera in Germany has opened up a hornet's nest of controversy in the opera world . Outrageous productions of operas are the norm in German opera houses ,and have been for many years ,as well in other European countries , but this one took the cake for sheer perversity .
The director of the production , one Burkhard C. Kosminski , has set the production in Nazi Germany , despite the fact that it is set in that country in medieval times . Huh ? The minstrel knight Heinrich Tannhauser is the protagonist , and he is a member of the Minnesanger, or the German equivalent of the Troubadors of southern France . He is a member of the medieval German nobility who sings of the medieval ideal of chaste love from afar . He is ostracied by the supposedly chaste and puritanical community of Minnesanger (Minne being an archaic German word for love ) because he has dallied with the goddess Venus, who lures men to her grotto in a cave with her voluptuois nymphs for a life of orgiastic self-indulgence .
So they send him off on a pilgrimage of penitence to Rome in order to beg forgiveness from the Pope . Although the Pope tells him that his dalliance with the goddess of love has doomed him to eternal damnation , he dies in the end ,miraculously redeemed . What the heck does this have to do with Nazi Germany ? Absolutely nothing . Kosminski portrays Jews being executed by the *** for sheer shock effect in this production set in the 1940s .
There was so much outrage in the press and the public that the production was cancelled by the administration of the Dusseldorf opera after only one performance and the following performances are beinbg done in concert form, that is without sets and costumes as is sometimes done when symphony orchestras perform operas in the concert hall rather than the opera house .
Kosminski explained that he had no intention of offending anyone in the audience who might be Jewish , but this did not hold water . He complained of censorship . A production of the same opera back in the late 80s by the Chicago Lyric opera took a similar revisionist approach but without being anywhere near as arbitrary and perverse . At least the production had some similarities to the original story .This time, the opera was set America, and Tannhauser is a televangelist and country wetsern style singer who must repent for having spent time in a legal brothel in Nevada, and flies off to Rome ! , also hoping for a Papal pardon, even though he is not a Cathoilic .
The Met's recent production of Verdi's Rigoletto, which is set among the decadent Italian aristocracy in 16th century Mantua Italy , has been updated to Las Vegas in the 1960s . Here too , the production is set in an environment which is not at all off the mark . In the original, Rigoletto is the hunchback court jester to the libertine duke of Mantua , and is terrified of the Duke seducing his innocent motherless young daughter , whom he keeps isolated for her own protection . But everything goes horribly wrong .
In the Met production , the duke is a handsome and charismatic Vegas singer who is also a serial womanizer , and Rigoletto is a Don Rickles like commedian in his act . This taped production will be shown on PBS this Friday evening, and you can check tis out on the Met's website metopera.org . You can also see it streamed over the internet .
How far can directors and designers go in making travesties of beloved staples of the operatic repertoire ? Just when you think they could not possibly be more outrageous , they never fail to outdo themselves, particularly in Germany . Will this madness never end ? The operatic world is eagerly awaiting th ebicentennial production at the Bayreuth festival this Summer of Wagner's mighty Ring of the Nibelungen, the epic portrayal of Germanic and Scandinavian mythology . There have already been numerous productions of it which take ridiculous liberties with story , and who knows what will ensue at the Wagner shrine this Summer . Chances are it won't be pretty .
If you want to see an excellent traditional realistic production of Tannhauser on DVD , get the one from the Metropolitan opera conducted by James Levine , which should be easy to find at amazon.com .
I hate to harp on Greg Sandow and his constant complaints about how there is supposedly something very wrong about the world of classical music and that unless our orchestras and other classical institution change radically , they are doomed to irrelevance and lack of an audience, particularly one with lots of young people attending . I like the guy and of course he means well . However, he's barking up the wrong tree .
I've come up with a name for this onslaught on orchestras etc ; it's "The classical blame game ". If only classical musicians would play in a freer , more spontaneous way , more people would attend concerts .Supposedly . If only concerts weren't such stuffy affairs, more people would come .If only musicians would stop wearing tuxedos or black ties at concerts, more people would come . If only orchestras played more new music, audiences would increase . If only classical musicians weren't so obsessed with accuracy of performance rather than spontaneous communication with audiences , more people would come . Yadda yadda yadda .
Somehow, it's always the musician's fault , or the fault of orchestra managements if they're having such a rough time increasing their audiences and attracting more younger people to concerts . But has Sandow ever considere the fact that one of the main reasons it's so difficult to increase the audience for classical music are other factors ? For example, the myth that classical music is "stuffy,boring and elitist," which too many people accept blindly ? Or the fact that so many people just aren't aware of how enjoyable classical music could be if they just GAVE IT A CHANCE ?
Or that too many people in America of whatever age just haven't had any exposure to classical music ? The problem is certainly not a lack of excellence in performances ; on the contrary , standards of performance are higher than ever . There are so many outstanding conductors, solo violinists, cellists ,concert pianists etc , and there are more world class orchestras in America than ever before . There is no lack of new music at concerts .
But how can you expect to attract more people with new music alone when they have never even heard the great symphonies ,concertos and other works of Mozart,Beethoven, Schubert,Brahms,Tchaikovsky and other great composers of the past ? If your first exposure to classicla music at a concert is a program of Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt ,Charles Wuorinen or other composers of esoteric and complex modern music, you are going to be completely baffled by it .
New audiences need a context, a frame of reference, before they are ready to hear contemporary music, and that context is the great works of the past . And newcomers ot concerts should not really be concerned with what themusicians wear on stage ; these concerts are not displays of fashion . They should just concentrate on THE MUSIC .
Another problem Sandow has often mentioned is that newsomers often tend to applaud between movements of a symphony or ocncertos, and are often hushed by experienced concertgoers , and this sometimes intimidates them and causes them to decide they don't want to attend any more ocncerts, which is unfortunate . I suppose it wouldn't be a bad idea if applause before th eend of a work became more ocmmon , but many performers seem to get unnerved by mid performance applause and it upsets their concentration . Why not just explain this to newcomers to concerts ?
So let's stop blaming the victims, namely the performers ,for their plight and explore other ways to expand the audience for classicla music in America . It won't be easy , but we need to stop barking up the wrong tree .