Special isn’t Better

I can trace my love of classical music from the moment, aged 11, I attended my first musical appreciation lesson and the needle of a badly battered record player dropped with a loud thump onto a scratchy recording of Holst's The Planets. Then I heard sounds that excited me in a way that somehow the recordings of Deep Purple and King Crimson my brothers played never did.

— Armando Iannucci, “Classical Music, the Love of My Life” (The Guardian, 13 May, 2006)

This is an old article (at least by internet standards), but it’s been making the rounds again recently, and it always gives me a lot of feelings. It’s an excellent speech, and there’s so much that could be said about it, from the importance of early music education to the non-judgemental openness of people who don’t know what they’re not “supposed” to like, from the sacredness of the paradoxically private experience of going to a live concert to not being moved by Mozart and so much more. But today I want to zoom in on that one quote, because it touches on an attitude that’s pretty common among classical musicians, and it’s one that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

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Music Monday: The Red Book of Montserrat

My knowledge of Medieval Europe is somewhat patchy, to say the least. My high school’s basic world history course tracked Europe thru the fall of the Roman Empire, but then shifted south to cover the kingdoms of Africa (a curriculum that I’m very down with; it’s a shame that more public high schools don’t teach about Songhai, Mali, Kush, Axum, and the many other kingdoms and empires that have existed in various incarnations on that continent.). Then, when I took AP European History, I came down with pneumonia the week that we covered the Middle Ages in Europe, and never really made up the material. And while I did take the Medieval and Renaissance music history course in college, it was . . . considerably less politically focussed than the Baroque-to-1950s, so it did little to fill in the gaps.

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Music Monday: Schoenberg: Wind Quintet

SERIALISM. The very name has come to stand for a musical bugaboo. Treated interchangeably with "dodecaphony" or the "twelve-tone technique", serialism refers to a style of twentieth-century composition that is notoriously standoffish and difficult to get into. The starting point for the style goes something like this: Tonality — the system of harmonic organization in most Western music from the 1600s on* — by emphasizing one note over and above all of the others. One way to get away from tonality, then, is to prevent any one note from being super emphasized by coming up with a system to make sure that all twelve notes are played roughly the same number of times. The key mechanism to this is the "twelve-tone row", a specific ordering of all twelve pitches in the Western musical system that can be transposed, flipped upside down, and played backwards in any combination. This results in music that lacks a tonal center, music that does not operate along the same tropes of tension and release, expectation and fulfillment as other Western music; it is obeying a different set of rules.

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Music Monday: Arrieu: Wind Quintet

As a wind player, I spend a lot of time playing repertoire that originated in Paris in the 1920s. There are a number of historical factors playing into this, from the relatively late development of modern woodwind playing mechanisms (at least compared to the string family) to the annual round of competition commissions from the Conservatoire de Paris, but the result is that wind players are disproportionately familiar with the style in vogue at the time, Parisian Neoclassicism.

Regrettably, I think this style is often misunderstood. On its surface, it is usually light, effervescent, and bubbly, and this sometimes leads people to dismiss it as trivial repertoire, fun listen to, sure, but lacking in real depth and musical substance. It isn't. I've written in various places on this blog in the past about the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) school of composition that arose in Germany as a response to the horrors of World War One, but it shouldn't surprise you to learn that that was not, in fact, the only such response. While the Neue Sachlichkeit reacted to the intense, hyper-emotional music from before the war with caustic mockery and sardonic wit, the Parisian Neoclassicists* reacted more by turning away, almost with a sense of resignation. If the extreme introspection of the late Romantics couldn't expose and scour away the darkness that led to the war, why believe that delving even deeper into the human psyche could help with the fallout from it? Better to set those things aside, leave them to things outside the realm of music.

Reading that, you might get the impression that this was a musical movement of stuffiness and repression, but that isn't the case. Instead, it's an aesthetic that makes a very conscious, deliberate choice to smile even tho it is surrounded by nightmares. After all, despite the many dead, the sun still shines. There are still birds singing in the savaged trees that survived the bombing. Even after the corpse factories of the Passchendaele and the Somme, some good things endure. The cheerful surface of this music is a mask, a papering over, a tacit acknowledgement that all is not well but music is not the medium for exploring these ills. It is music with a tremendous amount of pain hidden just beneath its glibness, and there are times where it spills into plain view, all the more heartbreaking because even the most determined joy could not keep it at bay.

If this seems like a lot to reconcile, an example will doubtless help. Claude Arrieu (originally Anne-Marie Simone, tho as this article mentions in passing, there appears to be some uncertainty on this point, as well as on why she ultimately changed it) was born to a musical family in Paris in 1903, and she spent the bulk of her life in that city. After graduating from the Conservatoire with the first prize in composition, she went to work as a radio producer, but composed prolifically the entire time. She worked in pretty much every genre out there, from operas to chamber music to film scores. (IMDB lists seven film credits to her name, tho other sources seem to indicate that she worked on considerably more.) Evidently she wrote prodigious amounts of vocal music, but very little of it has entered the standard performing repertoire. Indeed, very little of anything she's done has entered the standard repertoire, and there's almost no information about her or her works easily accessible online. I'm not sure why — she seems to have had a prolific and successful career right up until her death in 1990 — but for whatever reason, her extensive body of works hasn't inspired much interest of late.

Even so, it's quite good, and certainly deserves to be heard. So today, in the wind-dominated spirit of the Parisian Neoclassicists, we feature her wind quintet from 1955. The first movement jumps right into the fray with bustling theme that melds seamlessly into more lyrical interludes as the music progresses. There's a brief quote of the opening material towards the end, but for the most part, the music is non-repetitive, developing everything continuously in a heady rush. Next is a languid but no less sunny dalliance, or at least it starts that way. It cools as it progresses, until a stark passage in octaves seems to pull it up short. It tries to restart, but it seems haunted, and has a hard time holding on to perfect tranquillity.

Up next is the scherzo, which is at times almost borders on the snide. It's over in a flash, paving the way for the introspective fourth movement. A plaintive oboe solo sets the stage, and an air of melancholy settles over the proceedings. It is late, the sun is setting, there is too much time to fill, and weariness is creeping in from the corners. The finale sets things to rights. A breakneck dance, it balances out the frantic energy with elegance and poise, in true Parisian Neoclassical fashion, skating deftly around pools of darkness, choosing, with full knowledge of the alternative, to be happy in its final moments.

*Confusingly, many of the German composers working under the Neue Sachlichkeit umbrella are also referred to as Neoclassicists, the most famous of these being Paul Hindemith. There's a lot of validity to that label in terms of shared aesthetic principles and musical techniques, but there are also significant differences between the German and French Neoclassicists. For the purposes of this post, I will only be talking about the French side of this split. (Sergei Prokofiev and Bartók Béla are both also sometimes called Neoclassicists; for Prokofiev I think it's sometimes usefully applicable, but for Bartók I think it is generally a miscategorization.)

Some Thoughts on the Absence of Mahler

I'm not sure I would have noticed if the lawyer hadn't been Schoenberg's grandson.

The Woman in Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann's fight to regain ownership of Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, an iconic painting that the Nazis stole from her family's home in Vienna on the eve of World War II. Her legal representative in this affair was E Randol "Randy" Schoenberg, the grandson of the (in)famous composer Arnold. Thruout the film, numerous people, on learning his heritage, make a comment about Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and how difficult and yet rewarding it can be to listen to. And this turned out to be a bit of a problem.

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Music Monday: Walker: Lilacs

When John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865, the United States (or at least the northern faction of it) was thrown into a period of profound national mourning. One result of this outpouring of grief was Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain", but the poet also wrote a much longer pastoral elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", a free-form poem that draws its imagery from drooping stars and keening birds. More than a century later, this poem would become the basis for George Walker's Lilacs, the first piece by a black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize.

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Earnest Absurdity

The stage is lit with eerie blue and purple light. The music is tense and skittish. A crowd of French aristocrats looks on as two ghostly figures — the ghosts of Louis XVI and Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, to be precise — draw swords in a fit of sexual jealousy. After considerable back and forth, the King gains the upper hand and plunges his sword into the body of Beaumarchais. There is a moment of stunned silence as the onlookers crane to see whether he's going to make it. And then, quite abruptly, Beaumarchais straightens up, pulls the sword out, and giddily proclaims "We're all dead!", whereupon the entire company break out in eerie, cackling laughter and begin stabbing each other with playful abandon. So it goes in Ghosts of Versailles, John Corigliano and William Hoffman's "grand opera buffa" which had its West-coast première last Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

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Music Monday: Bonds: Songs

Before diving into the music for today's post, I want to draw attention to a quote by the poet whose texts are set in it. When faced with the question of why black authors were less prolific than their white counterparts, Langston Hughes pointed out [Google Book, p 528] that, due to racism, black authors were not afforded the same lucrative opportunities to write for mass media as white authors, and thus "[are] not in touch with the peripheral sources of literary income that enable others more fortunate to take a year off and write". He was talking specifically about writers of words, but the same considerations apply to writers of music as well. Conductors and performers have never made commissioning decisions based solely on musical quality (if that can even be determined objectively); they've always tried to work with people they like. Given the entrenchment of structural racism in our society and the oblivious self-positioning of concert music as the music of the cultural élite, it is wholly unsurprising that African-American concert composers would find many fewer opportunities to ply their craft, and that the works they produced for what opportunities they did get would languish in relative obscurity.

(Obviously, things were somewhat better financially in the world of Jazz, a rich and vibrant genre created and shaped at every turn by African-American musicians. White mainstream culture's treatment of Jazz was (and frequently still is) baldly racist, and many white composers are guilty of pilfering from it in highly questionable ways, but at least black musicians could have successful careers in it. My focus on concert composers for African-American History month is emphatically not meant to claim that concert music is in any way superior to or more legitimate than Jazz — these posts are not trying to replace the old canon with a new, equally exclusive one — I am merely focussing on the genres of music I know best. While my knowledge of concert music is far from complete, I know enough about Jazz only to be aware of the vast, yawning chasms of my ignorance.)

Now for the music! Margaret Allison Bonds was born in Chicago in 1913, and she spent the first two decades of her life there. Her mother was a practiced musician and gave Bonds her earliest training on piano, an instrument that Bonds continued playing thruout her life. While studying music at Northwestern University, she became, at the age of twenty, the first African-American soloist to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and had earned her Master's in Music by the age of 21. She continued her studies at Juilliard, but returned to Chicago to open her own music school (where she taught, among others, a young Ned Rorem), and was also active as a performer, composer, and impresario. In 1968, she moved out to Los Angeles, where she lived until her death in 1972.

Dark, brooding chords introduce her setting of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" from 1942, a setting of the poem by Langston Hughes. (Bonds had a long and enduring friendship with Hughes, and they collaborated on several projects including a cantata and at least one musical.) As with the opening words, these chords return at various points to anchor the song, sometimes in the original, but sometimes transformed from melancholy to grandeur and even joy. The music slips easily, almost dreamily, between styles, but never loses its powerful cohesion. (According to Wikipedia, Bonds submitted this piece as part of an application to study with the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger, but when Boulanger saw the song, she declared that Bonds needed no further lessons and declined to teach her. Listening, it's not hard to hear why, even if the story is apocryphal.)

Several years later, Bonds set three more poems by Hughes, resulting in the "Three Dream Portraits" (published 1953), a cycle that shows up in pretty much every biographical sketch of the composer that I've found. The first is "Minstrel Man", set to a rolling accompaniment that seems to hover right on the cusp between comfort and tragedy — fittingly, for a text that has to do with missing a black man's deep suffering because of his (forcedly) happy surface. The mood lifts in the "Dream Variations", with a whirling, expansive fantasy land that blossoms almost to the point of ecstasy before catching on a moment of poignancy and ending on a reserved note. It's back down to earth for the concluding "I too Sing America", which is at turns  sarcastic, falsely cheerful, and boldly swaggering. The swagger wears off by the end, however, and the cycle draws to a close in a somewhat gloomy mood despite the assurances of the text. Looking at the subsequent and continuing history of racism in this country, it seems a sadly prescient choice.

Music Monday: Agincourt Carol

And now for something completely different. All of the posts to date have featured music from the 20th and 21st Centuries. That's been deliberate: I have an overwhelming fondness for these musics, and I think most of them are neglected and often unfairly maligned as cacophonous and unpleasant to listen to. But they're also not the only good music out there. So today I'm turning to the other side of the Western Art Music common practice, to feature a piece born out of the bitter rivalry between Medieval France and England.

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