Friday, December 31, 2010

Around the Web

New Year's Eve Edition
for December 18 through December 31.

1) King Henri IV's mummified head identified 400 years after assassination. 

2) Why doing a PhD is a waste of time.

3) Cities from Scratch: A new path for development.

4) Weimar Istanbul: Dread and exhilaration in a city on the verge of political catastrophe.

5) The Vandals in Retreat: Britain rediscovers its architectural heritage.

6) The Lies of Science Writing.

7) How Government Failure Caused the Great Recession.

8) The lounge suit, battledress of the world’s businessmen, is 150 years old—possibly.

9) Culture Shock: How joy buzzers, trick chairs, and other prank devices helped manufacture the post-industrial American male.

10) There Is No ‘Right to Be a Scholar"

11) Steve Martin on art and his new book, An Object of Beauty.

12) A World in Crisis: What the thirties tell us about today.

13) Managing the Federal Debt.

14) Don't Look for the Soul in the Language of DNA.

15) Philharmonic Trumpets Faith and Power: Aaron Jay Kernis' "A Voice, a Messenger."

16) Hugo Wolf: A Lifetime Dedicated to Dear Lieder (1860-1903.)

18) 2010 in Photos.

19) 2010 in Books.

20) The Five Worst Op-Eds of 2010?

21) The Ear chooses James Smith for 2010 Musician of the Year.

22) Classical Music Best of 2010: Amazon | ArchivMusic | Classical Review

Book Reviews

23) All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly

24) Bad Laws: An Explosive Analysis of Britain’s Petty Rules, Health and Safety Lunacies and Madcap Laws, by Philip Johnston

25) Fame by Tom Payne

27) Galileo: Watcher of the Skies by David Wooton and Galileo by J. L. Heilbron

28) When Money Dies: The Nightmare of Deficit Spending, Devaluation and Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany by Adam Fergusson 

Mozartian Counterpoint, Part V

Mozartian Counterpoint
Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

Before beginning Part V, which focuses exclusively on keyboard music, we ought to note (however briefly) some chamber music in which counterpoint figures but does not predominate. The popularity of some of these works likely suffers because they do not inhabit famous and familiar genres like the symphony or sonata. Yet what intimate dialogues in these pieces and what wonderful combinations of instruments such as in the Piano Quintet in E-flat, KV.452, scored for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and piano. So also for the Quartet for Piano and Strings in E-flat and the Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Viola, KV.498 (which is probably more famous by having been dubbed the "Kegelstatt" and associated with Mozart's skittles-playing.) Also to this group we should add the Violin Sonata in A, KV.526, the opening allegros to the Piano Trios KV. 496, 502, 542, 548, and the String Trio in E-flat, KV.563.[14] The counterpoint here is utterly transparent and Alec Hyatt King put it well that, "in spite of his deeper instincts, Mozart became a master of allusive and incidental counterpoint–the union of themes in nimble sections of fugato–swift inversions and graceful canons, all bubbling up with kaleidoscopic suddenness. . ." [15]

While the final quintets, operas, and the Requiem undoubtedly dominate amongst the works of Mozart's last years one ought not overlook the splendid and intriguing keyboard music from this same period.

25. Rondo in A minor, KV.511

Abert called this "one of the most important keyboard rondos ever composed" [Abert, 986] and Arthur Hutchings said its mood is "lovely in a musical expression like this, but morbid beyond pathos in a man's behavior." [16]

The chief figures of this landscape are chromaticism and the trills and turns, which as Abert says recur so regularly as to be thematic. We will see this rondo's very close imitation in the stretto entries again in the sonatas, yet not so fierce as here where the mood is perhaps but slightly removed from that of the allegro to the Sonata in F for 2 pianos, KV.497. Like the theme to the finale of that same sonata, this theme too is one of Mozart's most veiled and mysterious: bare yet secretive, intimate yet detached,
longing yet resigned. That it enters so suddenly yet so logically and naturally renders it all the more potent; its return is always as a sort of disturbing reminder. Here the form of the dance creates an air of gentility even as the chromaticism bares unrestrained pathos. Such an unsettling pairing nonetheless transfixes.[17]

While the "easy" Sonata in C KV.545 utilizes some imitation in its short rondo finale and the Sonata in B-flat, KV.570 features counterpoint in its outer movements, it is in the two sonatas KV.533 in F and KV.576 in D where we hear Mozart striking an extraordinary balance between the "learned" and "galanterie" styles. In these works we have both lightness and seriousness, accompaniment and counterpoint.

26. Piano Sonata in F, KV.533

Allegro in F

Mozart subverts our expectations straightaway. The main theme enters by itself but then is joined at bar 4 by the Alberti accompaniment which proceeds to sort of clash with the scalar figure before it drops out entirely. What are we in for here? We barely get to know the main theme, which only drops into the bass, jumps up again, and is repeated, before it is treated in counterpoint. After the imitative development of the first theme, the second enters (at m. 41 and on the dominant C) and it too is treated in counterpoint straightaway. A third theme enters at m.66 and is not treated in imitation but rather it ushers in an exuberant virtuoso passage of scales and triplets.
click to enlarge

The passage from m.125-145, right, in the development is also a feast of imitation. Here the first part of the second subject is inverted over and over, modulating each time through D minor, G minor, C major, and F major.

At last in the recapitulation at m.194 the third theme enters again, this time as counter-subject to the main theme which enters at m.220 and which is again thrown against counterpoint (m.213.)

Andante in B-flat

Here, "Mozart carries the language capacity of his epoch to the breaking point, and nearly to his end."
–Hans Werner Henze [18]

The beginning of this sonata brings us near to the world of the introduction to the Sonata in F for 2 pianos, KV.497. The restlessly modulating and fantasia-like passage from m.47-72 is the heart of this movement and of it Abert wrote:
This is one of the most austere passages in the whole of Mozart's output. Certainly none of his contemporaries ever wrote anything to match the present passage in terms of its searing relationes non harmonicae. Together with its contrapuntal accompaniment, which is reinforced in thirds, the motif. . . strives upwards with its sforzato accents, creating a feeling of bitterest self-torment, until it reaches the dominant harmony of B flat major, thereby producing a sense of emotional tension unique in Mozart's sonatas. [Abert, 1146]
N.B: A finale for this sonata was begun but only 16 bars are completed (K.Anh.30 = 590.) The rondo performed with this sonata (KV.494) was composed about 18 months before the preceding movements, and expanded with a twenty-seven bar contrapuntal episode, perhaps to create symmetry with the imitative counterpoint of the first movement.

27. Piano Sonata in D, KV.576

Allegro | Adagio | Allegretto

Mozart completed this sonata shortly after his trip through Leipzig to Berlin (see No. 28 below) possibly in fulfillment of a commission for six "easy" ("leichte") keyboard pieces for the Princess Frederika of Prussia. That this is the only sonata Mozart wrote for this planned series, that it is not at all "easy," and that it was published alone and posthumously all suggest a different purpose for its composition. I once heard Robert Levin give a most insightful (and fun) pre-concert talk about this sonata, a talk of which you can hear a variant here: YouTube. His remarks bring to mind a similar comment from another great pianist, Alfred Brendel, who said that, "Where Mozart somehow manages to surprise us with what we expect, Haydn excels in the unexpected." [19] Indeed while that observation plays out over the course of this sonata there is nothing expected about the contrast in the main theme's pair of figures. Levin respectively terms them "fanfare" and "goody-two-shoes":
click to enlarge

This sonata takes further the stretto and inversion and re-inversion of the parts in the B-flat Sonata, KV.570. Contrapuntal procedures begin almost immediately when the first theme is joined by a similar counter-subject. This counter/second subject begins with the "fanfare" theme and continues with a descending semiquaver figure. Soon after at m. 28. this figure enters in stretto. The development section begins with canonic imitation soon repeated in inversion. The rising chromatic passage at m.77 and subsequent semiquaver figures give way to the figure of two triplet quavers from the close of the exposition. For eleven bars it alternates between the hands, treated against a rising chromatic line and dominant pedal before a descending scalar passage enters forte and reintroduces the main theme for the recapitulation.


The form of this movement has been variously referred to as "free rondo" "sonata-rondo" or "irregular-sonata-form." F. H. Marks in "The Sonata Its Form and Meaning as Exemplified in the Piano Sonatas by Mozart" offers an extended discussion of this question of form. Here though we may briefly note that on the one hand this movement has three entries of its subject with interstitial material and on the other the transposition of the melody to the dominant makes it a second subject rather than an episode, and bars 80-116 are developed from existing material, making it a development section. Too, the exposition is not repeated. Of contrapuntal procedures we see the stretto of the main theme at m.34, m.103, m.117 in sharp relief from the virtuosic runs of ascending and descending quavers.

28. Eine Kleine Gigue in G, KV.574

This short gigue is of the French, fugal, type and of course such is what brings it into our purview here. It seems rather curious in Mozart's output at this late date, does it not? Girdlestone suggested it was a pastiche[20] of Bach, probably spurred by Mozart's April 1789 visit to Leipzig where he met Johann Friedrich Doles (1715-97), Kantor of the Thomasschule and pupil of J.S. Bach. While in Leipzig Mozart played and improvised on the Thomaskirche organ, looked at some of Bach's motets, and heard Doles' students perform Bach's motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. While the precise date of this gigue is uncertain, it likely dates from around May 16 of the same year, when Mozart in fact returned to Leipzig and where he presented this little piece to Carl Immanuel Engel, organist at the Schlosskapelle.


Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

[14] King, Alec Hyatt. Mozart's Counterpoint: Its Growth and Significance. Music & Letters, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1945), pp. 12-20 (quotation from p. 17)
[15] Hutchings, Arthur, "The Keyboard Music" in H. C. Robbins Landon and Donald Mitchell (eds.), The Mozart Companion (London, 1956), p. 62 –– cited in Sutcliffe, W. Dean "The Keyboard Music" in The Cambridge Companion to Mozart, Simon P. Keefe (ed.) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2003.
[16] See also Levin, Beth:
[17] See lecture, "Mozart: Divertimento in E-flat major for Violin, Viola, and Cello, K. 563 (1788)"
[18] Brendel, Alfred. Alfred Brendel on Music: His Collected Essays. A Capella Books. Chicago. 2007. p.12
[19] ibid. p.110
[20] pastiche should not in this context carry the the often negative connotation of our common usage.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie Review: Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Directed by Michèle Hozer & Peter Raymont. 2009.

At some point in the life of every music lover, particularly fans of J. S. Bach and keyboard music, he comes across Glenn Gould. Perhaps one does not so much come across Gould so much as get struck by him. Be it the articulation, the distinction of the voices, the tension, or perhaps just the humming, I suspect the first acquaintance is often a startling one. Such was certainly the experience of many when Gould burst from obscurity onto the music scene with his recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. That an introduction to him and his take on music still arrests individuals would please him very much, I think, and I say that a little more familiar with him after this splendid documentary.

To begin at the end, the film concludes with the notion that it is the mystery of Gould, not the narrative of his life, that drives peoples' attempts to rediscover him again and again. In this respect, and another which I think would please the late pianist, Gould is himself like a piece of great music: it asks a lot of you, it brings a lot to you, and it gets richer the more you live with it. I say live with and perhaps that's what comes off most from this two-hour film, that Gould lived a musical life. From the age of three when he began to read musical notation (before he could read words) and acquired his trademark habit of singing along to his playing, through his truncated concert career and through his long sessions practicing and recording it is clear he lived and breathed music. He came at a piece from every possible direction, he took it apart and put it back together again, and he internalized it. We gather that he understood pieces as only their creators did and in fact Gould once told a composer who was fretting at Gould's interpretation, "You don't know your own piece!"

Perhaps this internalization was closely linked to the loneliness which followed him through his whole life. As a child he avoided common social affairs and during his adult life it seems he never had more than a handful of friends. This desire or need for privacy and isolation, whether on account of illness or an inability to share his clearly vibrant passion for music or both, was clearly at odds with a musical career. First, performing is an intimate experience in which the performer shares a great deal of himself with a great many people. Second, there is a certain intangible feedback a performer gets from an audience. Third, there is probably a certain degree to which an audience drives the performer to greater lengths. Yet Gould considered "concertizing" hideous and audiences (not individuals but audiences en masse) "rule of mob law." Such too is at odds with his plans, rather vaguely conveyed at least in the film, to "democratize music" with "kits," i.e. to provide people with recordings they could somehow manipulate themselves. (Presaging, of course, today's remixes, edits, "mashups," and playlists.) Yet this paradox in Gould between inner and outer is again like music itself, with its dichotomy between being personal and universal, and both with the utmost intensity.

Gould seems to elicit rather strong, often contrary, emotions. He was quite difficult, but most kind. He tried to control situations, but not people. He had perfect technique, but imposed on the piece. Famously conductor Leonard Bernstein, before a performance of a Brahms concerto with Gould, actually prefaced the concert with a disclaimer that he had great respect for Gould but differed with the interpretation which was to follow. A revealing fact, and one consistent with the man this film introduces us to, is that Gould took Bernstein's comments as having been said in the best spirit. What Bernstein did was of course what anyone who understands music would do. The performance cannot be constrained even by the conductor. It has to, as Gould says, express the individuality of the performer. For Gould, and he said this many times throughout his life, art was about creation and making your own world. It was about expressing your own uniqueness and isolation. Again we see a dichotomy, here between composer and performer.

Indeed in one segment while discussing his performance of a Mozart sonata Gould explains why, though reverently, he changes Mozart's adagio marking to allegretto, and why he draws out the opening so slowly, almost comically: to bring the audience into the world of the piece. You cannot do that by pulling a piece off a museum shelf but by creating something in front of people. He takes such liberty to seize the audience, to let them know something important is happening in front of them, that something rare and beautiful and fleeting is being created and will pass away. In this way too Gould is himself musical: he was himself as fragile and fleeting as a piece of music desperately reaching out through time.

Genius Within falls rather cleanly into two halves, the first of which chronicles his youth and concert career. It was a career with a sudden dazzling rise, punctuated by his spectacular Soviet tour in 1957. The first performance of the tour was poorly attended, owing in part to a lack of popularity for Bach due to him being broadly labeled as evangelical by the government, yet after the intermission the house was packed. One imagines hundreds of giddy phone calls to friends and family akin to, "You've never heard anything like this before. Come!" Surely their enthusiasm for the music gratified him. During his performing career the quirks and eccentricities were under control and perhaps Gould, knowing how they helped his popularity, didn't even mind when they were overplayed in the news. He had his custom chair, his gloves, he canceled performances. He was popular. Yet on April 10, 1964 he gave his last public concert. Henceforth he was to perform only in recording studios, which suited both his desire for privacy and his desire to control the environment of the performance. He also began a series of radio programs and documentaries.

He was to gain something else which he lacked and sought: intimacy. Cornelia Foss, wife of German-born American composer, conductor, pianist, and professor Lukas Foss, left her husband for Gould and moved with her children to Toronto. Again, Gould seemed happy. A friend recollects that he must have said a dozen times throughout his life that, "These are the happiest days of my life." Gould pioneered recording and took advantage of the unique creative possibilities (mixing and splicing) it provided, using an auditorium in a Toronto mall. After a seemingly ideal period in which he recorded prolifically, enjoyed time with Cornelia and her children, indulged his love of nature, and enjoyed his control and privacy, he grew more difficult. His paranoia, controlling temperament, and hypochondria all worsened.  Cornelia left him, saying the eccentricities began to overshadow his personality. Despite a period of collaboration and likely romance with Ukrainian-Canadian soprano Roxolana Roslak, Gould was clearly slipping away. He began to script all of his public appearances. Yet before he died he recorded the Goldberg Variations once more. More eccentric this time, but perhaps more thoughtful too. A touching scene is composed of original footage from Gould's Toronto funeral. In a packed church of over 3,000 they played Gould's performance of the Goldberg aria and the attendees wept as as they listened, Gould characteristically humming along.

Genius Within is a little conventional as a documentary. Chronological and neatly segmented, it is structurally simple. Too it spends a tad much time on his romance with Cornelia Foss and his guilt late in life at not having properly taken care of the parents who were so devoted to him. It is very light on musical analysis. Yet the film is brought to vivid life by the plethora of original footage of Gould and the many interviews with those who knew him. They are all particularly candid and frankly they seem a little baffled and overwhelmed by the effect Gould had on their lives. The most penetrating remarks are from Gould's biographer, Kevin Bazzana, and two of his friends, including the late violinist and conductor Peter Ostwald.

The film ends on a perfectly fitting note: that his mysteriousness perplexes and draws us in to rediscover him. And rediscover him we ought to. His friend suggests he'd have liked to be remembered not just as a performer, but as a Renaissance man, a creative artist who didn't just play but tried to share a philosophy of performance for this most special, curious thing we call music.

N.B. A selection (Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Book II) of Gould's performance of J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was included on the Voyager I space probe launched in 1977. See for the other music included.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Around the Web

For Saturday, December 4 through Friday, December 17.

1) Victor Davis Hanson on The Destiny of Cities.

2-3) Matt Ridley on:
4) Putting on 'The Hard Nut," Mark Morris's two-act dance set to Tchaikovsky's score for "The Nutcracker."

5) An interview with Oliver Sacks, neurologist (and author of Musicophilia and The Mind's Eye.)

6) On Schubert's Winterreise [1] [2]

7) On Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House [1] [2] [3]

8) The NEH vs. America?

9) David Yezzi on Andrew Marvell

10) Hitchens, Robinson, and Ricochet readers on Vietnam.

11) Obama and the Rhetoric of Progressivism

12) The Crisis of the American Intellectual

13) Human Nature and Capitalism

14) The Fed: The Chicago School's Achilles Heel

15) Stephen Hawking’s Radical Philosophy of Science

16) On a Career Choice, or, "Why I love being a professor."

17) 20 Obsolete English Words that Should Make a Comeback

Book Reviews

18) DC-3: A Legend in Her Time by Bruce McAllister

19) The Fighting Temeraire by Sam Willis

20) Class Conflict, American Style
  •  Pathology of the Elites: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life by Michael Knox Beran
  • Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America by David Callahan 
  • The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It by Angelo M. Codevilla
21) The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff 

22) The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey by Robert Morrison

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Inside Chamber Music with Bruce Adolphe

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has a wonderful series of lectures with composer, scholar, author, and pianist Bruce Adolphe. (Here is an interview with Adolphe from September's Opera Today.) His series with the Lincoln Center CMS, Inside Chamber Music, is a wonderful look into the world of chamber music. In particular Adolphe looks at a Bach concerto, selections of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and a Mozart String Trio. He gets into substantial depth discussing theory and elements of style while still taking the time to define basic concepts and avoiding technical jargon. The lectures are elucidating and highly entertaining too.

In particular he touches on a number of issues we have been looking at of late in our discussions of music and culture and of Mozart's counterpoint. Over the course of the series Adolphe discusses the philosophical dimensions to Bach's structures and sheds light on his "learned" style by looking into the details of Bach's thorough, encyclopedic, explorations of musical ideas. If you enjoyed our "Ideas" essays (see here and here) I think you'll enjoy these lectures. He gives a splendid talk on the adagio of Mozart's String Trio in E-flat, KV.563, contrasting the dramatic expression of the classical style and the introspective nature of Bach's music with a comparison to a famous stage play. This also bears on our discussion of music qua language (see here and here.)

Of the B-flat minor fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Adolphe says it
is so complex and so learned that most people can't deal with it. This is an example of a level of dissonance that only Bach and people who have devoted themselves to what he was doing and who tried to follow the processes of his mind could tolerate. . . But every single dissonance can be explained by a logic.
Yet Bach, as Adolphe says, did not consider this music for concert or popular performance, but for the personal study of a composer. We ask again, though, can a language be too complicated, too esoteric, too unique to one individual, to serve as a language? (In describing this fugue in particular, ought we distinguish between philosophical, scientific, and artistic characteristics? What does the fugue do, how, and why?) Adolphe notes Rousseau's famous criticism of Baroque music's "ugliness." [1] Is it too "learned" or too dissonant? (The learned contrapuntal style was in fact on its way out, though we'll see Mozart reconciling the styles in his late sonatas in the next part of the counterpoint series.) Yet this Bach piece is highly chromatic and fugal, and recall the finale to Mozart's Symphony No. 41. Are these pieces too "learned" or too dissonant?

These are of course nearly the same questions Alex Ross asked about modern music last month in his article in The Guardian. One the other hand one of the most common observations about Bach's music is its universal appeal, that his fugal explorations of ideas, his modulations, and symmetries are universally understandable as mathematical relationships (and profound and beautiful ones at that.) (Such is also apart from the philosophical dimensions.) Comments about the cosmic dimensions to Mozart's final symphonies are not so dissimilar. Moreover, many composers have claimed they learned about music from the Well-Tempered Clavier, thus to some extent they are in fact self-explanatory.

On the one hand languages rely on rules and standards to be tools of communication and on the other hand all great artists, both composers and authors, seem to stretch the rules a bit. They displace phrases, use words in unusual ways, they make obscure references, and sometimes simply break the rules. Why is this necessary? Is the language at fault? The artist? Perhaps a certain flexibility is necessary, for the artist and the person experiencing the work. Perhaps too a flexibility in the language itself is an asset. Yet flex too far, and it becomes esoteric and perhaps unintelligible. Can any language, though, be said objectively to be easy? Would perhaps the easiest language be the most natural in some respect? Would that really be a virtue? Is there a dichotomy between artificial and natural in terms of language? Ought the language or the music mimic nature, should they be naturalistic?

For example, is there anything intrinsically difficult about fugal music, or easy about galanterie? What about factors like periodicity? Is the phrasing of, say Mozart's fugue KV.394  any "easier" than Bach's? We looked at this fugue earlier this year. Try comparing it to a Bach fugue. Whose phrases are longer? How are they balanced? (Adolphe discusses this in the Q and A section of the lecture Classical Counterpoint: From Bach to Mozart, but see also the article On Mozart's Rhythm by Edward E. Lowinsky [2])

Also, what might be said to constitute the language and its norms? For example, we consider the "Classical Style" primarily that of Mozart and Haydn. Now not only were they both revolutionary composers who transformed the musical language they inherited, they themselves were quite different. Too we think of Bach and Baroque as closely related, but Bach's music is in many ways a world unto itself. Of course time is a factor too: can you step into the same culture twice? Would it be good if you could?

Of course the greatest music confounds these questions by being both profound and popular, learned yet appealing, and cosmic yet personal. Are they better only because of their craftsmanship or is there too some truth in them that binds the opposites and transcends them? (Is that tantamount to being "natural" as we said above. Could such just an impression of nature?)

Anyway that is another round of thinking about, or at least pondering, these perennial questions, a round spurred by Mr. Adolphe's wonderful lectures on this extraordinary music. He speaks about a lot more than I've highlighted here. Go check them out!

[1] This volume of the Bach Cantata Choir's newsletter has an insightful discussion of the issue: [1.2 MB]
[2] Lowinsky, Edward E. On Mozart's Rhythm. The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Apr., 1956), pp. 162-186

Friday, December 3, 2010

Robert Levin on Improvisation

This short excerpt is from from the 1992 documentary "On the Edge," written and narrated by Derek Bailey. The clip features pianist, conductor, composer, and musicologist Robert Levin and conductor Christopher Hogwood, with the Academy of Ancient Music. Levin discusses the importance of improvisation to performance and culture, both for contemporary playing and in the classical and baroque eras.

His points are particularly relevant to our recent discussions of a living culture and music as language. I have added a short summary below the video and emphasized a few of Levin's statements as they relate to the themes we have been discussing. As usual Levin is affable, enthusiastic and gives a most illuminating talk.

Also take a look at this article from the Washington Post which discusses Levin's performance of Beethoven's first piano concerto, op. 15, earlier this year with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Part I | Part II

Levin begins by suggesting that the degree to which standardization and lack of improvisation in much modern music-making has created a lack of challenging, interesting, and unique performances.
Many of the performances are interchangeable, they're middle-of-the road, they are not challenging. They are above all concerned with the outlines of composition, but not with their inner content: neither the emotional nor the intellectual fundaments that create all of the inequalities, the dissonances, the stresses, the strains in this music.
Of course performing with improvisation and ornamentation has risks. In terms of recording, which often splices sections from different performances, not all takes will be compatible since an ornamentation in one take might clash with one from another. In terms of live performance, there is the chance the performer might in fact play a few wrong notes due either to the challenge of creating spontaneously or to the excitement it creates, or that you might offend a few people by deviating from "standard practice." Yet if more people were playing in this creative way, Levin says, people would not be willing to forgo a live performance in favor popping in a CD. They would say:
Oh its really a pity I have this CD at home since I have the same silly thing all of the time and not the sense that I have experienced a performance that belongs only to me and only to those who heard it; to be treasured forever or exchanged with another which I treasure even more. But which is fragile as this music really ought to be and not capable of replication.
Levin concludes by mentioning the fact that we have undoubtedly heard, say, Mozart's music not just more but hundreds of times more than even the composer himself ever did.  Some have become museum pieces through ceaseless repetition and a lack of flexibility in performance.
The risk of appalling a few people who hear a couple of extra notes is more than balanced by the rewards of assimilating a language and bringing it alive. We are very fortunate in that in the piano variations and in the solo sonatas we have many examples of precisely the vocabulary Mozart uses when he desires florid embellishment

You might create and like an embellishment while practicing, he says, and try it in front of an audience where it falls completely flat. Why did it work at home and not in front of an audience?
There is a truth about a performance, about playing in front of people, that transforms even the absolute identity of notes and tells you that they're right or that they're wrong. The most important thing is the willingness to take risks and the acknowledgment that doing so invests the artistic statement with a level of integrity, with a level of personality, with a level of uniqueness that nothing [else] can.
Levin concludes by discussing the interconnectedness of the nature of the music, the performance of it, and its reception by an audience.
Baroque and classical music have a texture which is peculiarly ideal in terms of an improvisatory discourse. This music, despite is occasional elaborateness on the page, has a translucency which is very much designed to allow this practice [of improvisation] that was so integral to the period to be successfully put across. One of the issues that addresses is the gap between popular and serious culture that exists in our society now which certainly was not nearly so far during Mozart's time, with folk music constantly being borrowed and used and also when the composer was much closer to the audience and catered more to the audience and calculated his music to impact upon the audience in a way that these days does not take place.

Mozart's letters talk about how he wrote a passage that he knew the audience would like and sure enough they burst into applause in the middle of the movement. Now who would dream of applauding in the middle of a movement in today's performances? However if you go to a jazz club and you hear a jazz player and the jazz player plays a great lick then everybody applauds immediately and it is extraordinary to think as you read these letters that the ethos in Mozart's concert life was exactly that that one finds in a jazz club today.

Now if we're incapable of seeing that then it shows something about the rigidity that has grown into the performance of this kind of music, which is most unfortunate.

Around the Web

For Saturday, November 13 through Friday, December 3.

1) From Bach To Beer Bottles, The Physics of Music

2) Two previously unknown Vivaldi sonatas found.

3) Why do we hate modern classical music?

4) Economics, Intellectual Property, and the Well-Pilfered Clavier?

5) The Case Against Health

6) German Impressionist Landscape Painting?

7) Holbein cycle presented for the first time in centuries

8) Stop Smearing Federalism!

9) Antony Beevor in Defence of History

10) George Mason and the First Dissenters

11) The Buddhist Caves of Xiangtangshan

12) How Can I Possibly Be Free?

13) Churchill on Science and Civilization

14) Disenchanting Determinism

15) J. R. R. Tolkien and. . . anarcho-monarchism?

16-17) Christopher Hitchens:

Book Reviews

18) The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results by Stephen Bungay

19) Saul Bellow: Letters by Saul Bellow & by Benjamin Taylor (ed.)

20) Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth by Oliver Hilmes & Stewart Spencer (trans.)

21) I Found This Funny by Judd Apatow (ed.)

22) Ancient Roman Lives Stolen from Death by Eugene Dwyer

23) Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

24-25)) The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life by Kenneth Minogue
26) Letters from London and Europe by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa & J. G. Nichols (trans.)

27) Crown and Country: A History of England Through the Monarchy by David Starkey

28) Salman Rushdie on Fantasy Fiction

29) Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution by Charles Rappleye 

30) Tories by Thomas B. Allen

31) Manifest Destinies by Steven E. Woodworth

32) America's Medicis by Suzanne Loebl

Sprachkunst and Musical Expression

Music critic and author of "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century" Alex Ross has an interesting article in this past weekend's The Guardian in which he ponders why so many people seem to dislike modern classical music. I would like to elaborate on a few of his points.

He seems to suggest that music is, or people who listen are, by nature more conservative. Why is modern art in other fields like literature or painting better received? He seems to praise the propaganda put forth by museums for other arts, but this translates only into popularity at best. Of course popularity is what he is talking about, but surely he would want to suggest modern music is as good as older music, not just that it is potentially as good. We'll talk about popularity again in a bit.

Ross properly notes that people are not inherently hostile to dissonance. Yet this is rather incomplete. All music makes use of dissonance, the question may simply be of means or degree. As when he writes that he learned to "acknowledge the force of dissonance" we can only beg for clarification. 

Most interestingly he writes, "All music is an acquired taste; no music is everywhere beloved." which I don't quite agree with. It seems to me to be the extreme end of a rather old debate on the nature of music. On one end of this debate is the concept of music as affektenlehre, i.e. that it is of a sort of rhetorical nature. In this theory there are stock musical components which are arranged to elicit particular reactions. It is not quite as mechanistic as it sounds but that is the essence. On the other hand is the concept of music as wholly autonomous and understandable only on its own terms.

Perhaps it would be fruitful to consider music more as sprachkunst, a term typically but not out of necessity associated with musical hermeneutics. Perhaps we can consider music as a language, one of great power but lesser ability to communicate specifics. It seems to me that the aforementioned extremes are ideologically consistent but most unhelpful. In contrast the analogy to spoken and written languages seems quite natural. In this line of thinking, some few musical tendencies are common to all people at all times, some more to particular ages, some more to particular regions, and to individuals.  Thus you might categorize a piece of music as Baroque, but you might also specify Italian or German, or you might specify further Bach or Vivaldi. So yes there are Baroque styles, Italian and German styles, and features particular to Bach and Vivaldi. The analogies to linguistic roots, families, and dialects seems to apply here also.

This framework also leaves room both for general rules about music and how we listen and for individual taste. Music is neither wholly mechanistic nor wholly esoteric. It is possible to write in Baroque style, but it is not possible to write Bach. This approach also seems more sensible when you consider that an artist, no matter how unique he is and how unusual his idiom, has to use a language of expression which is partly inherited and partly shared in order to express himself. It seems rather incredible to invent your own language and then complain no one understands you.

Ross writes, "By the time Schoenberg, Stravinsky and company introduced a new vocabulary of chords and rhythms. . ." Let me ask you this: if you met someone on the street and spoke a language of new words would you be able to understand him? Worse, what if there was no dictionary to turn to because he made them up himself? That's not really the fault of the listener now is it? Now of course and individual should have some musical education, but 1) it is not acceptable to consider "dissonant" music to be somehow inherently harder to comprehend or beyond other music, 2) one must have an incentive to learn the new language. What incentive is there? Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart have reputations which precede them as do many of their pieces. For my part, I have never heard a champion of 20th century music say, "I understand you don't like this but listen to X, it will change your mind." In contrast champions of earlier music say, "Listen to Beethoven's 5th, Don Giovanni, et cetera." If someone asks me why they should learn say, ancient Greek, I would say because you can read Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristophanes, and so forth." In the absence of those great works, would you take up an esoteric and complicated language, new or old?

Perhaps, if you are a composer. Yet still you must consider if the old one inferior or if are you unable to use it with the skill of your predecessors. Is the new language as capable of expression? Different languages have different rules and present different challenges and possibilities. How should the new and the old get along? We certainly want our musical culture to be alive and not simply preserved, and to achieve that the new and the old have to vie a little. Many artistic movements, musical and otherwise, came and went, never really catching on. Sometimes it is hard to say why something catches on somewhere and sometime rather than another. Take two of Mozart's operas for example. Figaro and Don Giovanni were hits in Prague but not in Vienna. Why? On account of taste, or because they were said to be complicated?

Mozart's father cautioned him against harmonic progressions which would go over the heads of listeners, but the composer maintained a balance between the esoteric and complex and the need to get people in the seats. Still his music was considered difficult. Bach was considered to have written in a depreciated or archaic style even though his harmonies were bolder than his predecessors. Both were in some respects more famous as keyboard performers than as composers. What aspects of their styles went on to be popular with audiences and emulated by composers, by whom, and when?

Maybe modern composers simply lack the cultural cachet of their predecessors. Maybe people simply don't think of classical music as a contemporary genre. Maybe its problem isn't its language but its message.

Overall I am in sympathy with Ross' complaint that good music is overlooked without good reason. I'm not at all saying modern music is bad, rather I am just saying there are understandable, unextraordinary, and probably as yet unknown reasons why it's not as popular as some people think it ought to be.

N.B. There are number of insightful thoughts in the comments section so I encourage you to take a look there.

Also, Ross writes, "What must fall away is the notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty." Now I appreciate his sentiment but I think he has misstated it. I think he means music should not be palliative or therapeutic, that it should enliven not dull. Indeed! Yet using the word beauty rather implies that beauty only consoles, and that being beautiful prevents a piece from being arresting. It also sort of implies that what is arresting,  purportedly "modern" music, is arresting but not beautiful, which I don't think he means.