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

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