Showing posts with label Mozart. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mozart. Show all posts

Friday, February 9, 2018

Mozart's C Minor Mass Choreographed by Scholz


I came across the late Uwe Scholz's ballet to Mozart's C minor mass on the Classic Arts Showcase a couple of years ago. (I miss the eclectic channel, but it is available online now.) The particular clip I saw was of the Cum Sancto Spiritu, which left me awestruck. I hadn't experienced the piece so strongly since I first discovered it. 

I can't find a selection of that particular part (discs of the performance seem to be getting hard to find, but it is available for digital purchase/rental), but take a look at the Kyrie here, which too demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity to the subtitles of the music.


Monday, February 3, 2014

Unity of the Muses


Mozart encompasses the entire domain of musical creation, but I've got only the keyboard in my poor head. –F. Chopin

Most minds relish the familiar. We like familiarity, consistency, and sameness, whether it's in our television programming, house furnishings, or daily routines. Yes, some people seem to worship all things new, but that's just an attempt to relive the thrill of novelty. Smart people are not exempt either, most only holding a few stock ideas about which they ramble before attaining senility. Even the mind of a genius is usually confined to relatively tight quarters. Yet we have all-encompassing geniuses like Aristotle and DaVinci, and lesser polymaths from Cicero to Jefferson, but far-seeking minds are the most rare, and the most rare of them was Mozart. Mozart absorbed, innovated, and perfected with a speed which amazes and terrifies. The Greeks would have called him δεινός, marvelous, wondrous, and terrible.

21 piano sonatas, 27 piano concertos, 41 symphonies, 18 masses, 13 operas, 9 oratorios and cantata, 2 ballets, 40 plus concertos for various instruments, string quartets, trios and quintets, violin and piano duets piano quartets, and the songs. This astounding output includes hardly one work less than a masterpiece. –George Szell

Absorbed, innovated, perfected. Each of those words needs a little qualifying. Mozart absorbed the work of his models with astonishing rapidity, from his father's early assignments at the harpsichord, in which little Woferl delighted, to string quartets, concerti, and fugues. One story from April 1770, when Mozart was fourteen and impressing the Italian contrapuntists in Rome, paints the picture. Herr Mozart and his son attended a performance of Gregorio Allegri's Fiftieth Psalm, a passion piece for two choirs, four- and five-part, which concludes with a finale that interweaves both choruses in nine-part counterpoint. Shortly after the performance the teenage composer proceeded to write out the piece from memory. (W. A. Mozart by H. Abert. p. 135)

From this immense facility for absorption grew Mozart's own interpretations in his early maturity. Hoary polyphony and contrapuntal exercises became the ebullient Salzburg masses. Mozart devours set after set of Haydn's string quartets and again and again throws the spear from sight. The prettified keyboard tinkering of the galant becomes an endless parade of Mozartian characters. The snoozy nocturnes and pompous end-of-semester finalmusik become the serene lightness of the Gran Partita. Endlessly rhyming, sing-songy, and audience pleasing singspiels become the the giddy love of Die Entführung and a frightening, untamed spirit is breathed into old an workhorse text in Idomeneo.

Finally, perfection unto death. The body of Mozart concerti is one of most stupendous achievements ever, without qualification. The endless variety of melody, the relentless ability to tease excitement and novelty from sonataform and even rondo, shifting keys, moods, and characters, is nothing short of astounding. Not only do we find with glee intellectual rigor and structural novelty, but even in its most tumultuous depths, the cosmos-rending D minor, the Mozart concerto is life-affirming, pleasing the heart and the mind. And what love Mozart has for his instruments: the jovial horn, the oboe here sprightly there melodious, and the chimerical clarinet.

All the while, through the counterpoint and delayed tonal areas of the quintets and the vast sonataforms of the operas, and the ever more-delicate symphonies, always we find a unity of style and affect. We're never distracted by learned or simple elements for all is reconciled by the most perfect taste and order. We don't hear a contrapuntal marvel when we see finale to Act I of Don Giovanni, we see a carnival. We don't hear a north German choral in Die Zauberflöte but see the initiate poised before his sacred trial. We don't listen for fugato in Piano Sonata No. 18, but delight in the interplay between these wildly diverse themes. There is only the music, unifying as it goes: time, place, us, everything.

Mozart tapped the source from which all music flows, expressing himself with a spontaneity and refinement and breathtaking rightness. - Aaron Copland

Mozart's earthy side confuses many, whether it's by his priapic joke in the Champagne Aria, his song Kiss My Ass, or his bawdy letters to his cousin. It's not a side that would have confused, say, Catullus or Rimbaud, but it befuddles those who seek a clean idol. We need a pure font because we see time as expendable. We need to get and use as much of time and Mozart as we can. Yet it is time which is sacred, not the man Mozart. Yet he doesn't have to be because he has preserved the best of us in time, and we don't nee to horde it, nor do we even need to share it. We nee to be it. We need to feel his melodies in our step and his shapes in our thoughts. We need to feel his terror and chipper love, his lonely afternoons and sumptuous galas. Mozart is not the font, but the unity of the Muses, and beyond performance and beyond listening there is living, where the perfected goes on forever, though only for a time through us.

Mozart's music is the mysterious language of a distant spiritual kingdom, whose marvelous accents echo in our inner being and arouse a higher, intensive life. –E. T. A. Hoffmann

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Mostly Mozart, 2013: Closing Night

Avery Fisher Hall. August 23, 2013. 

It is often boasted that the arts are for everyone and likewise touted that more young people ought to attend concerts and too that music brings people together. This is at least partially rubbish, and I would like formally to wish the two young women who jabbered to their mortified boyfriends during six of the night's twelve symphonic movements, some period of banishment to the most beshitted pits of Tartarean hellfire and there to enjoy the tantalizing torment of hearing, amongst the rattling chains and spinning wheel and serpentined fury, the echoes of Elysian peace and, now and then, some fading chord from spurned Parnassus. (Henceforth known as The Curse of the Philistines.)


What those philistines missed was an agreeable if flawed performance of Mozart's final three symphonies by the Mostly Mozart Orchestra under the baton of Louis Langree. The same strengths and shortcomings pervaded all the symphonies of which the minuets came off the strongest. There, Langree's firm strokes brought the dances to shaped and lively, if not nimble, life. The syncopations of the G minor menuetto were especially off-balancing thanks to the basses who weighed in heftily there and the whole night. Sometimes their energy supported the piece, as in the their responses in the E-flat finale and their snarling kickoff of the G minor's 1st movement exposition fugato, other times they swallowed the other lines as they did at points in all the fugal sections.

Right on target the whole night, though, were the winds, especially during Symphony 39. There, whether for their spot-on dynamics or  punctuation during the first movement, for floating aloft the fleeting canonical passages of the andante, or cheekily chiming in during the symphony's finale, they earned their section's special applause. The songful lines of the menuetto were especially soft and sweet.

Though the fugatos lacked the ideal separation between voices, Langree brought off the slow movements of the last two symphonies with a special romantic fullness which didn't collapse into languor. The concert was well worth hearing these two slower movements, often hurried over in favor of their flashier bookends, treated so well. Concluding, the Jupiter finale traded in some articulation for exuberance, but not to the point of laxity. The movement's themes were well-shaped and thwacking around until they joined each other in the great polyphonic coda which brought deserved smiles and vigorous applause.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Charm


I vaghi fiori
Giovanni Palestrina
A heated debate followed one of The Atlantic's puffy articles this week when Benjamin Schwartz's The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men rang in the next bout of history's longest-running conflict. In fact the wrangling in the comments impresses, given the lightweight nature of the piece, and to me highlight a few points. First, no one is sure what charm is. Second, everyone thinks charm is desirable. Third, charm is lacking today and no one knows why. Let us see if we can lighten the befuddlement.

First off, while Schwartz never defines charm, the dictionary seems adequately to have done so as, a power of pleasing or attracting, as through personality or beauty. That's not half bad, for charm is certainly a magnetic force of attraction. Another definition clarifies further, saying that to charm is, to act upon (someone or something) with or as with a compelling or magical force, a property which emphasizes the natural, seemingly mystical, pull toward the charming.

A still better definition we find, though, in the more obscure source of a Renaissance treatise on beauty. Here, Florentine poet and man of letters Agnolo Firenzuola, leaning on Petrarch and Boccacio, calls our mysterious property vaghezza. From these poets he isolates three properties of what we broadly call charm: wandering, desire, and beauty. I'll depart from Firenzuola's analysis but consider myself these properties, which seem to me wisely discerned.

Rembrandt Laughing
Wandering is perhaps the most surprising of these traits, for why should that which moves itself, move us? Firenzuola wrote that what we see at ease moves us less than what we must work for, an observation which might figure into the raging gender war, but this seems at best a secondary property. First, though, we must clarify that it is not simply movement which charms us, for no one finds a swinging pendulum or spinning fan charming. Nor do we find sunsets or blowing leaves charming, although we might describe their motion as beautiful. Rather we find charming that which seems animate, that is, alive, and full of vitality. Too this is a property particular to people, for although animals move themselves we do not find them charming. It is the self-possession of an individual, moreover an awareness of his place in the world and an ease in that place, that we find charming. The charming man neither hurries or tarries, speaks too much nor too little, or suffers from want or excess.

He exists with joy in the order of the world, or even seems himself to order it, and thus we rejoice in the apparent excellence of both him and "his world." Such is why the charming are so desirable to others. The charming man extends his apparent good order around us, hence the propensity for the charming-and-devious to use their power for swindling others. We comply with charmers because we are so persuaded that the ease with which they move signifies the rightness of their order. Even the man of intelligence may be persuaded by a charming man, for in seeming to find the mean in personal conduct and himself to be happy, the charming man approximates wisdom. For this reason, charm may conceal a lack of wisdom, lead to wisdom, or flow from wisdom, and hence the various disputations about its essence and goodness.

In speaking of beauty I will quote Firenzuola, who writes that charm is, "a beauty that attracts and sparks the desire to contemplate and enjoy it." [Eisenbichler & Muray, 36] As alluded, at the personal level we seek to enjoy the company of the charming. We find enjoyment in their apparent harmony with the world and with us. Not inappropriately, we call this harmony beautiful, although not friendship per se, which has other requirements. Hence again the propensity to abuse charm, for it may simulate the appearance of friendship with simple friendly feeling.

At the aesthetic level too, though, we seek beauty. The beauty of the human face which charms us and moves eros through us may move us either toward love, friendship, and giving, or to lust and utility.

Finally, although we described charm as appropriate only to people, we might attempt discuss two potential qualifications. The first is for certain places, which are not properly called charming because they are not vital or self-possessed, but which draw us into their order and beauty. We call them charming nonetheless because we project ourselves into them and in doing so feel a part of order and beauty, and thus at peace. Hence the charm of a well-ordered farm, a cozy cabin, or a simple nook in nature where we feel at home.

The second potential qualification is for music, because a musical idea 1) exists in time, 2) has shape and character, and 3) seems to act and react. The seems there is the catch, though, for the musical idea is the will of the composer and not self-possessed. Still, though, but for that one qualification would we not call both the seductive and sensuous Adagio and the bumptious Rondo themes of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto KV.622, like Rembrandt chuckling above, charming?


Does that theme not seem at peace with itself and the world? Does it not call us?

Charm may be misconstrued and misused, but it's a call to something greater, for to charm one must know oneself and cultivate the good, and to be charmed we must be open to goodness and beauty. If we wish charm to return, that is where we ought to start.


Eisenbicher, Konrad and Murray, Jaqueline (trans. & ed.) On the Beauty of Women, by Firenzuola, Agnolo. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1992.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Mozartian Counterpoint: Addendum: KV.465


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


String Quarter in C, KV.465


I. Adagio-Allegro

The String Quartet Kochel 465 enjoys the most fame of Mozart's six Haydn quartets due to its dissonant 22-bar opening Adagio. The infamous dissonance of the introduction, however, has passed from hot topic of 19th century disagreement, inciting critical feuds and even re-written editions, to bearer of dissonances "mild" and "unproblematic to describe." (Irving, 54) Of course Mozart's music, here and everywhere, needs neither rewriting nor description, but understanding and enjoying. Robert Greenberg has also pointed out with humor and truth, "Only mild, vertical dissonance? As compared to what–a cat on a cactus?" Indeed there should be enough harmonic and melodic dissonance for anyone, but we're here specifically to talk counterpoint.

Adagio
KV.465. Adagio. 
Annotated by N. Vertucci.
Click to enlarge.

The Adagio divides into two sections of 15 and 7 measures, with the first section breaking down into units of 4, 4, and 7.
  1. 15 Measures
    1. 4 Measures
    2. 4 Measures
    3. 7 Measures
  2. 7 Measures
Section I.A begins with the cello vainly droning out quavers of Cs which fail to establish a tonic center because of the viola and 2nd violin entrances on A-flat and E-flat which create the A-flat major chord. The 1st violin then enters, but on A-natural, clashing with the previous A and contemporaneous G of the viola and forming a tritone above the 2nd violin's A. The polyphonic entrances of the upper three voices which bring these dissonances create a formless coming-into-being and the descending chromatic lines following the initial dissonances evolve a sinewy chaos. Yet at the same time the imitation by its nature creates a framework of stability.

Section I.B begins and functions much the same way with the same phrase rising up, though now a step below, a beat apart through the trebles over the now-descending bass line.

Section I.C breaks the symmetry with a chromatically ascending figure, again treated imitatively although not passing through the 2nd violin.

Section II. The final seven measures finally establish the tonal area of C before we enter the Allegro, although not without disruptive syncopations and passing dissonance.

Allegro

In the exposition we arrive at the long-sought after C major with a leaping, bounding theme. The imitation throughout this section amplifies the lush energy and vertiginous activity of the theme and scalar figures.

Exposition. mm.41-47
The development section begins with imitative polyphony of the main theme over a descending bass line which proceeds, in reminiscence of the chaos of the Adagio, to tug the whole polyphonic jaunt down into a crash of highly disjunct, forte, accented figures.
Development. mm.113-118
Whereas the imitation of the exposition magnified the energy and motion, the imitation here intensifies the drama of the minor tonalities.


This is extraordinary music, not just for its radical harmonies but for its wealth of contrasts and expression. Mozart moves from cosmic chaos to bounding human exuberance and concludes in a fusion of the two. The complex harmonies and contrapuntal frames don't stand out as learned and instead all but disappear within the effect.

Soloman concludes,
[Mozart] composes states of ambivalence that do not unfold successively, but occur at the same time, achieving the effect of simultaneity by chromaticisms, rhythmic shifts, modulations, registral contrasts. . . Mozart specialized in the representation of amalgams of opposed affects, of beauty and sadness, of consolation and terror, of longing and anger, of pleasure and pain, teaching us what it may mean when the object of desire is simultaneously the source of fear. [Solomon, 203]
Bibliography

Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. 2007.
Greenberg, Robert. The Chamber Music of Mozart. The Great Courses [Lecture]. 2004.
Irving, John. Mozart: The Haydn Quartets. Cambridge Music Handbooks. 1998.
Mozart, W.A. String Quartet in C, KV.464Score via IMSLP.
Solomon, Maynard. Mozart: A Life. 1995.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A 21st Century Mozart


". . . in modern conditions Mozart would make a fortune with the products of one side of his genius which he would lose in performances of works of the other side." 
–A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Arthur Hutchings, p. 160.

Arthur Hutchings' companion to the Mozart concerti is one of those densely perspicacious books in which one can find insight at every page and line. The one-off line I quoted above is one of many you could profitably unfold into a long essay.  At first look it seems a throwaway what-if to tantalize historians: What if Alexander the Great had lived, what if Cicero debated Demosthenes, and so forth. Yet the question is a little deeper, methinks.

You see, Mozart has rather unwisely been made the patron saint of starving artists, especially musicians. In truth, he wasn't the best servant to the Archbishop in Salzburg and afterward he made tidy sums throughout his ten years in Vienna. At the time of his death he was poised to explode on the opera world. So while we may be wrong to see in Mozart the subject of grievous injustice, we can't help and I don't think we're wrong to feel that he was let down. We who greedily lap up the masterpieces he produced-week by-week find unbearable the autocratic constrictions and lowbrow tastes with which he contended. Why should such a rare genius answer to anyone? Yet Mozart, very much the first freelance musician, responded to the demand and especially in the concerti and operas produced works both finely-crafted and appealing.

We should realize instead, from Mozart's experience, that ours is a liberated time. A 21st century Mozart wouldn't have to cater to the whims of a handful of rich patrons or the citizens of one city because the transportation and information revolutions have given every artist a global audience. Can you imagine the demand for Mozart's prolific universal genius? He'd have an opera premiering in New York, a new movie he scored opening every few months, he'd be on tour performing concerti and symphonies, and his serenades would dominate the Top 40. He would have commissions lined up for years and pupils lined up around the corner. Imagine a Mozart masterclass, and a Mozart not wasted teaching Franz "shithead" Sussmayr.

With his popular success Mozart would fund the projects of his heart. No more dense pupils and comissions for mechanical organ. What would we see? What would a mature, unfettered Mozart produce? Would he glory in the esoteric or elevate the everyday? Both, probably. What intimate chamber worlds and celestial symphonies might be. Surely he'd still be outraging the conservatives with his daring harmonies and befuddling the avant-garde with his knowledge of the old ways. I'm sure he'd still be giving cutting criticism of his contemporaries, and I can just see him walking Bimperl along Central Park on the way home to a private chamber recital with family and friends.

I would worry about his education, though. Would Mozart's father have been able to remain his private tutor? Could he have afforded to? Would Leopold have been dragged through the tabloids for exploiting his son? What scandals would have been cooked up in a media frenzy?  We should probably spare ourselves the thought of young Wolferl in a government school classroom of 30.

Aside from the fact that no musical education could replace that from his father, young Wolfgang's interest was almost exclusively musical. Would it have profited him, his family, or anyone, to have dragged him though a "Core Curriculum?" Yuck. Is not the disconnect between the thoughts downright offensive: Mozart and Core Curriculum. How different the associations. If the young Mozart was as attention-deficient as many of his sonatas, might he have been medicated dull as so many other spunky, innocent boys today? We rightly noted the virtues of our liberated culture, but it seems clear the young Mozart was a freer boy and the Mozart family a closer, freer family than most today. What Wolfgang might have gained in the technological revolution from looking at digitized scores of Bach he might have lost early in other ways and early on.

Of lessons we should be wary of drawing too many. It's all too easy to start pointing and wagging fingers at the alleged causes of the artistic lacuna in our society. The solution, however, is no political or social prescription, but the personal one to cultivate him in our lives through his music. Toward this end Mozart can have done no more, having left us his most perfect, universal art. The only appropriate responses, I think, are love and gratitude.

And more music. Especially opera.





Friday, August 10, 2012

Mozart: An Annotated Selection


I just purchased Robert Harris' 1991 book, "What to Listen for in Mozart" and to my surprise what did I find inside? Why annotated selections of the score, I found. It seems so obvious, to print a score and label the sections. Anyone who studies or performs has marked up many a score but this was the first time I had ever seen an extended section annotated before. Labeling the sections, important modulations, cadences, and so forth is an enormous aid toward appreciating the structure of the music, which can get lost amid the lengthy descriptions we usually find, laden with flowery descriptions and technical terms.

Of course any aid can become a crutch, but I think the format has potential. As an example I've digitized some of my notes on the exposition of the first movement to Mozart's famous String Quartet in A, KV.464.

You can click to enlarge but you might want to download the image and zoom in on it more. You can of course listen as you read along.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mozart on Film: Bergman's Die Zauberflöte





Bergman's opening scene to Mozart's final opera is itself a miniature masterpiece. We begin with the Three Ladies veiled and with spear in full warrior-maiden mode. A visually imposing presence, Bergman arranges the armed trio in a tableau bathed in flashing light and smoke. Their dark clothes against the light background emphasize the menacing sight and Bergman raises their dominant position further by shooting from a low angle.

Musically we now have a falling scalar figure alongside shouts of victory. Which will Bergman utilize? He chooses not to use the falling scales to emphasize the falling of the dragon but the calls of "Triumph!" to accompany close-ups of to the Ladies. These close-ups, preceded by a marching figure in the winds, further the Ladies' warrior look by showing us their flared nostrils and gaping maws. Yikes!

Tamino, looking equal parts comfy and conked-out, rolls around on the floor alongside the comically kicking dragon. In one smooth motion the camera pans up from the flaccid Tamino to the dying dragon to the victorious Ladies who now unveil to look upon their spoils: a handsome prince whom the camera dwells upon in closeup. With the shot fixed on Tamino the Ladies' hands enter the frame, emphasizing their agency and interest while contrasting the previous image of them as marauders. Those hands that had just thrust spears are now seen closeup in their silken femininity as they cradle and caress (and compete for) Tamino.

In the same unbroken shot they raise up Tamino and each Lady has a turn at his ear.


The relative stillness of the camera throughout the Ladies' movement in the shot gives the moment an ethereal quality.

Bergman holds the next shot in close on the two singing Ladies and pulls out to accomodate the third who joins them. This might seem more literal, with the camera mimicking the music, but it works because the joining Lady was the last to look upon Tamino and her delay makes it seems as if she lingered upon him longer, unable to tear herself away. This simple shot itself is worth lingering on a while longer. Do you notice the tension in the shot to the right? Where are we supposed to look? The left Lady attracts our attention because her blondness makes her brighter but the right Lady is taller, hence the introduction of the third Lady to the left and slightly lower feels like a resolution.

Bergman creates this scene with the barest minimum of movement but the fullest utilization of color, size, and spatial arrangement. It has life and energy without relentless motion. It is also the most sensual image so far, centrally displaying in close distance the Ladies' slender necks. Their heads then turn left to Tamino, first the right lady, then the left, then the center and in such order because our eyes must follow the center Lady. (Watch the clip trying to follow one of the other two and see how awkward it feels.)

The Ladies surround Tamino in another engaging tableau. Unlike before when they barely grazed him now the Ladies get handsy. Their caressing and wandering hands complement the music which here begins with an excited energy of quavers in the Ladies' voices against clipped quavers in the strings. This motion gives way to a throbbing iambic motion in two of the Ladies as the third is completely carried away. Visually and musically the Ladies are having their own private moment with Tamino. What could be less relevant here than the text about bringing him back to the Queen?


No sooner, though, do the ladies start eyeing the competition. The ladies enter one at a time, each offering to stay behind with the newfound stud and each in turn getting interrupted by one of the other Ladies who insists she be the one to stay. Musically this is handled with successive entries and visually Bergman has each entering Lady step in front of the other, blocking her competition from the camera. Bergman follows Mozart and repeats the pattern twice, the women working their way up to the camera until finally each thrusts herself forward, forcing the camera back.


Bear in mind that for this part of the scene the Ladies look directly into the camera, which is now at eye level instead of beneath them. Naturally this creates the impression that they are competing for us instead of what's-his-name. Bergman completes the moment with a cutthroat smile. If you're not drawn in at this point. .  .


The Ladies twirl their bodies away from us and start arguing about who will get to stay behind. ("I'm supposed to go?!") The camera quickly pans back and forth across the Ladies' faces as they argue. The staging of the Ladies here is quite brilliant. The two back to back have to turn their necks to argue, which adds tension, and the uppity response from the third who is left out makes way for a visual joke. Lastly, the continuous and close physical contact gives the scene a sensual charge.

Next each Lady how she won't leave Tamino for the others and Bergman is somewhat pressed to handle these musical repetitions with visual language. He arranges them as a pair discussing with the third separate, first in the foreground, then in the background, and with them joining all together to say "Nay Nay!" in between. This simple trick proves surprisingly effective at creating a sense of variety.


They join hands and circle around the dazed prince as if preparing for some more touchy-feely but instead they share a kiss amongst themselves: a truce. None of them will have Tamino. It cannot be.


Convinced of their defeat the Ladies move in front of Tamino and bemoan their loss, swooping forth one after the other like Mozart's stretti, first falling then rising. The Ladies turn and twirl until rising in proud acceptance and then collapsing in dejection. They return to him one last time, grasping him ever more boldly in knowing they'll get no further. . .


. . . before at last gracefully bowing out.


In short, Bergman's staging of Mozart is brilliant. Making use of all of his visual resources he is able to create a beautiful, effective and in fact quite simple visual vessel for Mozart's music. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Causa Pulchritudinis

"At any time between 1750 and 1930 if you had asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art, or music, they would have replied: beauty."

So says philosopher and author Roger Scruton in his 2007 documentary Why Beauty Matters. The radical purpose to Scruton's work is the classical notion that beauty matters, that, contra postmodern cacophilia, beauty is a value in itself as much as truth or goodness. He makes an honest and convincing case for beauty while tracing its genealogy from Plato through its banishment in the 20th century.

I would like, however, to trace and amplify a point slightly glossed over in the documentary. Scruton calls up Wilde's phrase that, "All art is absolutely useless," by which Wilde meant that art is more than useful. Scruton continues, applying Wilde's pointed compliment to mean that today we suffer under the "tyranny of the useful." We have more than utilitarian needs and suffer in not fulfilling them, he argues. I would like to return to Wilde, though, and ask: is all art absolutely useless?

Yes, and I would add that it is even more obviously useless than it might seem.

Let us begin by looking at the famous work of Hamlet since it seems to have a point. For our purposes permit a gross, obscene even, simplification: that the moral of the story is that indecisiveness and delay are bad. (Gasp! Alack! if you must, but stay with me, I beg.) If that is your goal, to demonstrate that indecisiveness is bad, why would you fulfill that goal by writing a four-hour play filled with complicated dialogue? It would be much easier, much clearer and more apparent, to write a simple morality story. What is gained by pages of complicated dialogue, shades of meaning, and a complex plot? Let me put it this way, why is:
To be, or not to be,--that is the question:--Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?
so much more full of meaning and portent than
He screwed me! Should I suck it up or kick his ass?
Well, Shakespeare's verse is more meaningful because it is more persuasive and it is more persuasive because it is more beautiful. The logic is the same, but the structure, diction, imagery, syntax, and figurative language of Shakespeare make it seem more important. The ideas take on greater scale and meaning when they are beautiful.

Let us look at another example in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. We must first observe that the entire fourth act is unnecessary to the plot since Figaro and Susanna are married at the conclusion of the third. Why conclude the opera titled The Marriage of Figaro with the Count being forgiven by his wife, then? Because all of the distrust and running around of the first three acts is well and good, but it only adds up to the rather uninspiring fact that everyone outwitted the Count. We want a bit more.

Unfortunately, the final scene of forgiveness has only a tenuous element of contrast to tie it to the plot. After all of the intrigues and fits of anger and distrust, even by Susanna and  Figaro, the Countess' act seems different, but why does it seem important somehow? Susanna and Figaro aren't villains, and neither are Bartolo and Marcellina, so why is this contrast necessary? Besides, everyone's mistrust is more heated than malicious. This simple element of contrast, then, is a relatively thin thread with which to conclude a three-hour endeavor whose main plot is already resolved. Mozart makes this finale relevant, to the plot and to us, by making it beautiful. This brief moment of sublime beauty takes on extraordinary dimensions and significance far disproportionate to the plot. This scene does not demonstrate that the Countess does the moral or just thing or that the Count will reform and be a better man or that Susanna and Figaro learn a lesson about marriage. The opera simply says that forgiveness is beautiful and the scene says this by being beautiful.

In the above examples we look at beauty acting as the element of persuasion in art which attempts to make some other point. Beauty persuades us that Hamlet's dilemma is grand and that the Countess' deed is good, but what about art which exists purely to be beautiful?

Take the fifth fugue from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Why is that string of thirty-second notes followed by the dotted figures so full of meaning? More importantly, why does it take on so much more when developed? In fact, why should any figure played in canon, or augmented or what have you, be meaningful? Who cares if something is in inversion? Because the symmetries, rhythmic and harmonic, are beautiful.

Below Botticelli's point is not to describe the birth of Venus or even to show it, but to show beauty. Do we actually care about Venus or her birth?


Why are such symmetries and consonances pleasing to man? Why is, as Marcus Aurelius observed, the cracking of bread and the bursting of a fig a pleasing sight? Marcus' answer was the classical one that such things are naturally beautiful. I'm not sure what scientists hope to discover in asking that question today but is it likely to result in more beauty? The more experiments confirm that people prefer certain shapes and ratios the more the findings, oddly, are interpreted to mean that the pleasure we derive from contemplating and seeing beauty is meaningless. The more some preference is thought to be evolved the more one hear that we "only" prefer it because of such and such.  Yet in truth little seems to hinge on the question. Beauty by nature cannot be made vulgar, unnecessary, or undesirable. Because of its "uselessness" it can never be replaced or outdated. Fragile though it is in our hands, in this respect beauty is indestructible.


If you enjoyed this essay you may be interested in:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Musical Forms from the Middle Ages to Beethoven


I assembled the following to be a pleasing and perhaps instructive journey through music history and because we all know people who refer to "Classical" music.


Friday, January 27, 2012

So you think you know about Mozart?


A Mozart Crossword Puzzle. I think I made it moderately difficult. Click to enlarge. It's an 8.5x11 image if you want to print it out. As usual please post any questions, comments, or corrections in the comments section below. Have fun and good luck!


Mozart, Two Worlds


Through the years since his death in 1791 the image of Mozart has worn many masks: the traditionalist, the avant-garde, the idiot-savant, the eternal child, the near-autistic, the font of the muses, the bawdy giggler, and so forth. Scholarship has likewise tread many paths through his full, if short, life, with analysis of his music, his finances, his family relations, his travels, teachers, students, pets (a dog and a starling), and on and on. Most of this does in some way shed light on the music and the man. In time and with study a not-fantastical portrait comes together if we ever bear in mind Mozart's humanity, that is, his own failings and the trappings of life which concern us all.

Toward that end, this year on the anniversary of the composer's birth I would like to reflect on Mozart as composer, that is, as a working composer, and an extraordinarily busy and prolific one at that. One who was inseparable from music from his first tinkling at the keyboard to his last days dictating the Requiem. Even a cursory glance at the catalog of Mozart's works should give one the proper sense of not just the musicality, not just the creative musicality, but the continuous creative musicality of Mozart's entire life. From the heedless hours of musical play with his father and sister in their parlor, to the improvising, performing, and composing during the European tours of his youth, through his maturity in Salzburg composing for the court, to his professional solo career in Vienna which lasted until his death, Mozart wrote and performed music.  We will only in passing mention the obvious, that his music is both voluminous and ingenious.

In the last ten years of his life, his solo professional career in Vienna, Mozart was especially prolific. He wrote music in every genre for private patrons, state commissions, friends, and concerts of his own design. These concerts, as well as operas, had to be arranged by the composer himself who, putting all of his own or borrowed money up front, had to hire the musicians, rent the hall, make the schedule, sell the tickets, and, of course, write the music. Music which, of course, had to be just the right music for the tastes of the day and the audience at hand, in addition to whatever higher purpose the composer might have had for his art. For example, the aristocracy would summer outside of Vienna and the composer would have to accommodate. A composer would also likely have to support himself, to varying degrees, with pupils. Slowly we see that Mozart's life was not at all one of leisurely composition. Consider Mozart's daily schedule, which he relates in a letter to his sister back home on Salzburg in 1782:
. . . at 6 o'clock in the morning I'm already done with my hair; at 7 I'm fully dressed;–then I compose until 9 o'clock; from 9 to 1 o'clock I give lessons.––Then I Eat, unless I'm invited by someone who doesn't eat lunch until 2 or 3 o'clock as, for instance, today and tomorrow at the Countess Zizi and Countess Thun.–I cannot get back to work before 5 or 6 o'clock–and quite often I can't get back at all, because I have to be at performance; if I can, I write until 9 o'clock. After that I go and visit my dear Konstanze;–however, our pleasure of seeing each other is often ruined by the galling remarks of her mother[. . .] I get home at around half past 10 or 11 o'clock at night;– it all depends on her mother's darts and how long I can endure them.––Since I can't depend on being able to compose in the evening, because of the concerts that are taking place but also because of the uncertainty whether I might be summoned somewhere, it has become my habit to compose a little before going to bed, especially when I get home a bit earlier.––Often enough I go on writing until 10' clock–and then, of course, up again at 6 o'clock.–
That sounds like a fairly full day by any estimation, especially when we consider the aforementioned duties and the cares which pepper all lives. Need we mention again that the works are of inestimable quality? Let us remember Mozart was one of many composers working in Vienna, few of whom are known today to anyone other than scholars. How much of their, or our, or anyone's daily work would stand up to the painstaking analysis endured by Mozart's compositions? Arthur Hutchings, a loving but critical writer on Mozart, wrote:
For so prolific a man, and for a composer who died so early, Mozart left behind a proportion of second-rate work which his worst enemies could not call disgraceful. His magnificent integrity as an artist has not been duly recognized as a virtue; it has been regarded as heaven-sent. We are inclined to applaud skill, in games as in art, which shows no apparent effort. The 'effortless', the 'inborn artistry and impeccable taste', are thought to be part of Mozart's genius, reinforced by the standards of an age which had more taste than feeling[. . .] every time he expanded his materials Mozart's perfection was brought about by mental effort. –Arthur Hutchings, in his "Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos"
We of course struggle to make these observations about Mozart's human limitations because of the transcendent nature of his music. In contrast it is not so hard to see Mozart the figure of history, between two worlds. His European society consisted of a nascent middle class, of a peaking aristocracy, and popular revolutions waiting in the wings. Mozart's Vienna saw the passing of the long reign of Maria Theresa and the liberalizing reforms of  her son and successor Joseph II. Musical tastes were shifting from rococo refinement to classical balance and clarity, though here and there still bearing the stamp of baroque complexity. Mozart did not just see these trends as historical, but as life, and that life is to varying degrees and in varying ways in his music. Far harder is it for us to explain, but not harder to feel, where Mozart's music points.

We relentlessly labor asking, "How did anyone, any person down here with us in this messy world, make such perfection and such beauty?" and we are not new or alone in this inquisition. The source of beauty and our reaction to and need for it has prompted the inquiries of philosophers for thousands of years. Plato thought the poet was inspired by the muses. How else could the composer of such a sublime piece as the paean ode, Plato asked, not ever have written anything else of worth if the skill was truly his? How would Plato have reacted to the existence of Mozart and his music? Perhaps he simply would have thought Mozart very inspired. We happy moderns of course have scant recourse to Plato's argument, but we further deny ourselves understanding of Mozart and his music by neglecting to take up or develop any concept of beauty. Beauty as something necessary, as something itself a good, something revealing yet mysterious, something within creative and perceptive reach yet ever, ever pointing to some greater realm.
When we see beauty as the proper end for art, and not self-expression, self-discovery, self-identification, self-aggrandizement, self-promotion, and self-satisfaction, it might seem less impossible that the greatest composer in the world, a tireless worker and constant student, in an age that valued beauty, might make something beautiful.

Perhaps it is the 19th  century rise of the Composer and the prettification of beauty that distances us. Maybe it is Mozart's gentility that does not seize the obvious, obdurate modern. Mozart's music in its tender vigor does not seize but rather invites. Let us simply listen.

On the Meaning of Figaro



The point of Figaro is not that the Count repents, or that contrition is a virtue. The point is not that he is forgiven, nor even that forgiveness is a virtue. The point is that forgiveness is beautiful.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part III


In our first essay on Sacred Music we looked at chant and discussed some of the properties which make it uniquely appropriate for the liturgy. In our second essay we looked at one short section of the liturgy and examined its treatment by various composers. Now I would like to look at some of the choices a composer has when setting a text. In articulating and observing them it is my hope we will then be able to appreciate when composers make (and do not make) excellent and novel use of the resources at their disposal.


1. Declamation vs. Development

In setting a section of the mass a composer must choose whether he wishes merely to decorate the text or to develop the idea, that is, he must decide whether he will simply mention the idea or whether he will attempt to explore its meaning or describe. We might find a few examples to define the spectrum of choices. On the extreme of one side would be mere declamation, i.e., pronunciation of the text. Opposite might be a fugue, a dense development of the idea. In between might be plainchant, the use of sequence and repetition, and imitation. 

The texts of the mass, both ordinary and proper, provide various opportunities for the composer. Clearly some ideas seem suited to one type of treatment. For example, "Kyrie eleison," "cum Sancto Spiritu," and "Osanna" have traditionally been treated fugally and this seems both appropriate and acceptable. Why? First, they occur either at the beginning or the end of a section of the mass and a large fugal section is more suited as an introduction or conclusion than a middle. Second, the ideas are short and self contained and thus they are appropriate candidates for fugue subjects.  

Please let me note it is not my intent to map out the mass and suggest how each section ought to be set, but rather point out that the composer must first make certain considerations and then choose a course of action. The mass of course presents challenge and opportunity for composers, the greatest of whom have responded with genius. No theoretician could have predicated Bach's setting of the Crucifixus, which Forkel, Bach's first biographer, called a "crown of thorns." My reason in articulating these points is to suggest that good liturgical music will attempt to address them. Likewise when a piece fails to address these problems it will be seen to be proportionately lacking in affect.

2. Strophic vs. Through-Composed

A composer would then have to consider how he wishes to divide the text, if at all. For example, will it be  
  1. Through-composed, i.e. with unique music for each line but with little or no repetitions and doubling back.
  2. Broken up by line or phrase as seems appropriate to the composer
  3. Treated strophically, with each line or stanza set to the same music. 
Again, certain parts of the mass lend themselves to certain treatments. For example, one can compare Palestrina's through-composed setting of the Gloria in his Missa Papae Marcelli to Bach's setting in the B-minor Mass in which Bach carefully sets particular phrases to particular music. Likewise one might compare the traditional setting of the Dies Irae sequence which is strophic to Mozart's setting in his Requiem in which he groups the stanzas and then sets them.

3. Soloists vs. Choral

An individual in an audience or congregation will invariably perceive a relationship between himself and a solo singer as different from one between himself and a choir.  If a soloist sings "adoramus te" or "miserere nobis" it seems as if he is speaking on behalf of the congregation. If a choir sings them it seems as if the choir asks as an extension of the congregation. Looking at the Dies Irae sequence is instructive here also. If a soloist sings "Mors stupebit" we empathize with him as a fellow man looking at death and the effect is dramatic. If a choir sings these words the result is more descriptive and we are more affected by the sight than any personal situation. The composer must then, if he uses soloists, be aware of this difference. 

4. Time

While the issue of the passing of time does not so much affect music for the liturgy as other non-liturgical sacred music such as oratorio we ought briefly touch on the matter. In principle we may say that in an aria time seems to be still as the music explores a given moment whereas recitative and drama push the action forward. Much like the difference between a fugue which explores a particular idea and chant which declaims it, the aria describes or explores the present emotion or situation whereas the drama or recitative conveys action. A fine example of this contrast are the contrasting and adjacent pieces from Part II of Handel's Messiah. Time seems to stop in the aria "Thou art gone up on high" as the soloist repeats and reflects on the idea. In contrast, the subsequent music for chorus conveys action: The Lord gave the word. Superficially the pieces might not seem different, but how much more reflective and personal (and longer) is the aria than the choral piece? How much more emotional and suited toward sudden flights of feeling?  

5. Detail, Structure

Lastly we must note that detail must be contextualized within a large-scale structure to be understood. Only if we know the language and rules of the composer and the direction of the piece can the composer convey a sense of departure, significant action, and return. This requires attention to structure within and among movements, that is, attention to and consistency in the:
  1. passage of keys within movements
  2. tonic keys of each movement
  3. thematic material if it is repeated
  4. instrumentation
  5. setting of music for soloist or choir
  6. meter and tempo
  7. four points mentioned above
  8. use of parallelism

In setting the mass a composer will make these choices whether consciously or not. If he is not conscious of the possibilites it is hard to imagine, even if the music is competently written, that it will suit the text or that there will be any unity of affect.

Next time we will look at a famous setting of a mass and see whether its composer paid attention to these five aspects.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part II


In our first look at sacred music last month we discussed some concrete principals and why they functioned as the essence of good sacred music. It is, however, often said that taste is subjective. This I do concede to a point, and as an experiment I would like to make a less scientific comparison. We may say certainly that people have reactions to music but of course it is something in the music that has generated that reaction. I would like to look at a few incipits from some sacred music and briefly characterize what they suggest. I decided to use the beginnings of these pieces because they invariably receive an enormous amount of attention from the composer and they set the tone of the piece. In short, we can assume them to be the best the composer has to offer and exactly what he wants. Many musical works have weak transitions, lines, and moments, but we tend not to discuss the ones which fall out of the gate.

The incipits should briefly and perfectly capture the essence of the piece, or at least set a clear stage for development. So we may ask, then: first, do they, and second, what do they say?

N.B. I included only pieces using the Latin text of the Gloria from the Ordinary of the mass. I included the intonation of the Gloria de Angelis only once, which naturally excluded many settings which begin with the famous phrase. I have edited the chant and classical examples into the video below. The modern pieces have links to performances next to their descriptions.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Top Ten: Mozart Works for Oboe


Sometimes my lists spiral into large projects. This is not one of those times. I offer only one word of clarification, that I restricted myself to one movement per work. I only mention those other parts of Figaro because the implied "and see other movements of the same work" is not so helpful for an opera.

Complaints/Suggestions welcome! (Did I miss anything?)

Oboe by Grundemann, 1784
10. Trios from Symphonies KV.550-551 in G minor and C major

9. Adagio & Rondo in C, KV.617 - Adagio

8. Oboe Concerto in C, KV.314 - Allegro

7. Oboe Quartet in F, KV.370/3686b - Adagio

6. Serenade for 8 Wind Instruments in C minor, KV.388 - Allegro

5. Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, KV.491 - Allegretto

4. Serenade for 8 Wind Instruments in E-flat, KV.375 - Adagio

3. Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, KV.361/370a, 'Gran Partita' - Adagio

2. Le Nozze di Figaro, KV.492
1. Piano Quintet in E-flat, KV.452 - Largo - Allegro moderato

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mozart's Sibling Themes

The other day we spoke of sibling themes throughout Mozart's oeuvre. Since you will be deprived of my review of the finale concert to this season's Mostly Mozart Festival due to said concert having been prematurely and peremptorily cancelled, I assembled a few of Mozart's sibling themes here.

Is it tremendously significant to point them out? Perhaps not, but I've always found such musicological sleuthing quite fun. Still, the similarities do reveal points of interest.

How grateful one feels to see the hidden world of the theme from Die Zauberflöte, which we just glimpse in the opera, open up in so many ways in the rondo of the Trio. Look in Example 2 how many variations Mozart gets from the main theme, itself a variation from the set in the Violin Sonata. In Ex. 3 how different are the effects of the second subjects on that same heartbroken siciliana. Yet how similar the moods in Ex. 4, in which both manage the curious pairing of great affectiveness and even danger along with a detached, almost ethereal, innocence. The last pairing exemplifies the consistently operatic nature of Mozart's music even across genres.


1.
Piano Trio in E, KV.542 - Andante grazioso [YouTube]
Die Zauberflöte, KV.620: Act I: Quintett: Hm! hm! hm! hm! (theme from the Andante at m.214) 4:47 [YouTube]
2.
Violin Sonata in F, KV.377 - Variation No. 6: Siciliana [YouTube]
String Quartet in D minor, KV.421 - Allegretto ma non troppo [YouTube]
3.
Piano Sonata No. 2 in F, KV.280/189e - Adagio [YouTube]
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, KV.488 - Adagio [YouTube]
4.
Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, KV.456 - Andante un poco sostenuto [YouTube]
Le Nozze di Figaro, KV.492: Act IV: L'ho perduta . . . me meschina [YouTube]
5.
Missa Solemnis in C, KV.337 - Agnus Dei [YouTube]
Le Nozze di Figaro, KV.492: Act II: Porgi amor [YouTube]

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mozart's Melodies

We have discussed the wonderful structural features of Mozart's music many times in this space. From fugues and fugatos, canons, themes and variations, rondos, sonatas, arias, Mozart mastered all of the forms of his age and wrote masterworks in each. Yet one aspect of these pieces we have not looked at so much, or looked at only incidentally, is that of the themes themselves. Perhaps this is due to an inability to describe them. How does one speak at length about a theme? One can describe it as perky or lofty, angular or flowing, dance-like or lyrical, and so forth, but how else? Of fugue subjects in particular one does not discuss the potential of the subject theoretically but by studying what the composer actually  does with it, i.e., the fugue it self. Yet the great themes "vibrate in the memory" and to create one is no small task. A consideration of Mozart's gift for theme-writing in fact reveals several virtues.

The first is the rather apparent fact that Mozart, with and perhaps beyond Schubert and Rossini, was one of music's great melodists. All of Mozart's music brims with beautiful melodies, all of them utterly individual though the careful listener will notice some siblings. There is lyricism, joviality, coyness, humor, dread. Perhaps it is in opera that Mozart's gift for melody is most often appreciated, a not unfair turn since opera occupied Mozart's attention more consistently than any other genre.  Second, Mozart created themes with great potential. As we have seen from our structural studies, Mozart created themes attractive both by themselves and decorated, themes revealing in variation, often suitable for treatment with counterpoint of varying strictness and length, and surprising in modulation. Some are treated in turn by the different groups of the orchestra, some only for one group, some are treated in lengthy developments, others appear but once in moments all too brief. The issue of quantity and variety of thematic material of course intersects with the matter of structure. In the concertos for piano, for example, Mozart used what Arthur Hutchings cleverly called a "jig-saw" technique by which a theme leads to or "fits" not just one other, but several, and those themes fit several as well. Hence the Mozartian concerto is one of both great variety and great structural control, though matters of economy, structure, and unity of effect are separate and considerable inquiries.

The concertos then seemed to me a good place to look at Mozart's many melodies as there are many of them and they are varied. We have discussed some of them before, but how do we appreciate the quantity and their variety? To that end I edited them together, below. Two notes before viewing: if you haven't heard the concertos before, it's up to you whether you want to hear them presented this way before you hear them in context. Second, it is fruitful and fun to play with the themes yourselves. What does each one suggest? What are you inclined to do with it? What might another composer have done? And finally, what does Mozart do? If it were different, what would it not be able to do, or how would its character change?

If nothing else I think the contrasts calls attention to a talent (refined with effort into a skill) that is not overlooked, but rather taken for granted.  Who could create all of these characters out of nothing?

N.B. I included only the opening themes of concertos KV.449-595 in the video.
N.B. I didn't have the heart to truncate the glorious opening to KV.503 any more than I did.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mostly Mozart, 2011


Iván Fischer
I just stepped in from my first Mostly Mozart concert of the season. I do not know who programmed the Ave Verum Corpus, Symphony KV.551, and Vespers de Confessore into one concert, or why, but the evening was terrific. The utmost credit to Iván Fischer. The Ave Verum was delicate and affecting and the final symphony came to glorious life. Jupiter's first movement fugato was especially vigorous yet never bombastic. Well-balanced forces brought out Mozart's extraordinary writing for winds and interplay between strings and winds in the allegro cantabile. The winds were especially beautiful in their fleeting moments of the menuetto.

With finely articulated rhythms and crisp fugatos Fischer brought out the ecstatic energy of that famed last movement. So much, in fact, that one acutely sensed the counterpoint keep the whole affair from bursting apart even as it amplified the energy by way of synthesizing the themes. The contrapuntal coda pushed the whole experience over the top, as it should. A most stirring performance of the symphony.

Lucy Crowe
Soprano Lucy Crowe made her Mostly Mozart debut tonight with Mozart's second set of vespers, proving she's not just at home in Baroque, Classical, and Romantic opera and oratorio but Viennese sacred music too. She brought a delicacy and restraint to the potentially operatic writing, gently covering the wider intervals of the Laudate Dominum and even the octaves of the Magnificat. Fischer's rather swift tempo for the Magnificat took away some of its heraldic grandeur but Crowe let that "Et Exultavit" out and Mozart's lively rhythms were in good hands for a spirited finale.

Last but not least, James Bagwell and the Concert Chorale of New York did a fine job with all of the counterpoint and Latin, especially the great and grave fugue on Laudate Pueri.

This concert, the Mostly Mozart debuts of both Fischer and Crowe and one of the few all-Mozart concerts of the festival, was a great success.