Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bach's Cantatas as 21st Century Chamber Music

To those who wish to get to know these priceless works [i.e. Bach's cantatas] in bulk, [Albert] Schweitzer's advice is invaluable---to gather a few friends together round a pianoforte and sing them through. The inadequacies of performance are compensated for by the intimacy of common music-making. Let all the sopranos sing in unison the recitatives and arias for that voice, and so on. Afterwards the student, in the solitude of his sanctum, with the great score in his lap and the memory of the actual sound of the great music in his mind's ear, can attune himself to the spirit of the noblest master of all time.
W.G. Whittaker The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (Vol 1, pg. 433)

W.G. Whittaker's words are music to the amateur musician's ears. I have often wished to do just what he recommends, not only with Bach but with the Renaissance masses and madrigals I love little less.

The musicians who rendered the music in Leipzig's Lutheran liturgies might justly be called amateurs (a word undeservedly maligned and misused today): Bach's difficulties in getting his works adequately performed with the resources to hand are well-documented.

Bach composed in such a way to buttress his poorly-trained singers, doubling their vocal lines in the strings or winds. His vocal music, difficult though it is, is within the compass of an amateur's abilities. And with the help of a piano, to fill in the harmonic gaps, other instruments might be added as available. And although most of the Baroque instruments will be unavailable to the amateur, reasonable substitutions of modern instruments might be made, with due allowance for style and ensemble.

The Petrucci Library contains the complete scores of the cantatas, from the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, as well as vocal scores with piano reductions. In short, the musical resources are easily accessible. Go ye therefore and sing!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Our Tumblr Feed

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We hope Tumblr will be conducive toward us sharing our shorter, though equally brilliant, thoughts. It should also allow us to post miscellaneous items without cluttering this page which will remain reserved for longer articles. 

Movie Review: Contagion

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. 2011.

*Spoiler Warning*

The structure of Contagion must have scared a few producers. Nothing else can explain why A-list actors fill the supporting roles of this movie. They are well-filled, to be sure, though not one is particularly distinct or memorable and none called for a particular screen talent or presence. Matt Damon, though, is an especially convincing everyman, even if he is just channeling the confusion from his Bourne blockbusters.

Still, I can understand a producer getting cold feet from Contagion. "You're going to kill off some of the main cast? Not  the disposable characters we construct to be killed off when we need to inject gravity into a sagging part of the story, but the main cast? And you're not dropping hints that they're going to die? And you're not going to bring them back? And you're going to front-load all of the tension of the movie? Steven. . ." Hence the expensive cast and hence some horribly cliché lines undoubtedly thrown in to fulfill audience expectations of a movie clearly sold as an "outbreak thriller."

Contagion's unconventional structure, though, is of far more interest than its stock "medical thriller" elements. The film begins innocently enough by emphasizing nothing in particular, which thereby draws attention to the ordinary: the touching, eating, drinking, coughing, sneezing, and fidgeting we do all everyday without note. Someone is sick, though, and all of our touching and playing leads to the outbreak of a flu-like virus. Matt Damon carries these early scenes of agitation and helplessness. Damon's Mitch Emhoff is plausible both in strength, for example when Mitch's wife collapses in front of the children in the kitchen, and in angry disbelief when doctors tell him his wife suddenly died, ". . .of something. We really don't know." This is, I think, how most of us might react to his predicament. We expect our ills to be cured or at least diagnosed. We rely on the closure of a scientific explanation.

Shortly thereafter the experts are brought in. They run around, get information, call other doctors, and so forth. Risking their lives they work and work as the outbreak continues. They work productively as newscasters speculate, random kooks come forward with pretend cures, and people start to seclude themselves. Then the doctors cure it. There is no setback, no conspiracy, no intrigue, no genius to be brought in from retirement, and no plant to be flown in from the Andes. There is no shtick and no pointless twenty minute diversion which results in them curing the disease anyway. They cure the disease and life begins to go back to normal. We retreat from the public chaos back into Mitch Emhoff's life in which the biggest concern is his daughter's prom date.

Does the pattern seem familiar? A minor event, a public outbreak, news reports, speculation, experts and cranks, and finally a cure and going back to your life? I would think so, though gladly we have witnessed nothing so severe. Contagion, then, more resembles a slice of our lives (one we probably never thought twice about) than any thriller I can think of. That such a plot seems in no way extraordinary is because of the tremendous success of modern medicine which manages to meet our unrealistic expectations, and this is ultimately the point of Contagion.

To be fair, Contagion drops a few plot lines but this feels appropriate. How many peripheral news stories, important as they are, fall by the wayside once the main crisis has subsided?

Dispensing with any extraneous plot lines and any postponement of the main line's resolution, Contagion is a tight thriller with a subtle and significant message. Moreover, to appreciate that message you need, at least a little, to reflect on your life and what you consider normal. Not too shabby for a genre which almost exclusively confines its ambitions to being "effective" (i.e. scary, thrilling, or tense) and seldom aspires to ask any larger questions.

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

Monday, September 5, 2011

Minus Virtue

Aristotle and the Neuroscientists

The NY Times is running psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker's review of the new book, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. Pinker's review is one of those pieces, of which the Times specializes in, that makes me wince. Not because it is poorly written or even wrong but because it is liable to leave the reader unacquainted with the deeper problems of the issue at hand with a facile, shallow, understanding of the topic while making him think he is at the cutting edge of thought. Unfortunately it is not quite so easy to critique a book review. Whose ideas am I critiquing? Those of the reviewer, those of the author, or those of the author as understood by the reviewer? I will persevere, though, because it is the impression the review leaves which is of interest to me.

Please indulge me, though, with a few minor points. First, Adam and Eve, Odysseus, and Augustine lived at different times. Agreed? Thus saying that "Ever since" and listing those figures is sloppy and, I might add, annoyingly so. Second, Pinker writes, "the very idea of self-­control has acquired a musty Victorian odor." If it rose in the 19th century (the Victorian era) then it was simply Victorian. If it declined starting circa 1920 then when exactly did it, acquire the "musty Victorian odor?" Did it come back after that? Pinker doesn't say. Not to put to fine a point on it, but the opening two paragraphs make a terribly sloppy preface to what Pinker really wants to talk about. Oh, and "a homunculus in the head that physically impinged on a persistent antagonist." Editor on aisle five!

Anyway his hastening to the 20th century is "rather telling," as I am fond of saying. Pinker passes over the time when not having self-control was considered a moral failing. Now it is not. Now it is a utilitarian "virtue" to be used to get ahead and ensure maximum efficiency in getting whatever it is we want. You strengthen it like a muscle and then gloriously resist temptation. This and the authors' advice about building it up is all well and good. It is, predictably, in concert with Pinker's own notions as he set forth in The Blank Slate. So what am I quibbling about? That he treats this shift as a historical and not a philosophical one. We will revisit this point at the end of our discussion.

Meanwhile, Pinker calls "self-control" a virtue. Is this appropriate? (Also, the title of the book is "Willpower." I suppose we should understand self-control and willpower as synonyms.) Let us first consider what he means by "virtue." In Aristotle, "The opposed virtues are virtues only because they encourage and help constitute a full rich life." [1] They are not the oxymoronic "utilitarian virtues" Pinker in effect calls for. Likewise acting virtuously requires 1) knowledge of your self and the situation, i.e. being virtuous and not simply foolhardy, 2) being virtuous for its own sake, 3) being virtuous out of character and not by accident or incidentally. If there is no particular good for man then it seems inappropriate to call these "useful habits" "virtues."

Let us now consider what "self-control" means. Unfortunately in the review the word is not defined, though it seems simply to mean. . . well I'm not so sure. It cannot simply the ability to do something, anything, since the gist of the article is resisting one inclination to pursue something else.  Interestingly, all of Pinker's and the authors' examples involve physical activity. Likewise the faculty is likened to a muscle which can be flexed to resist temptation. This is a most convenient analogy because it implies that self-control 1) is a faculty, 2) exists in one already, albeit undeveloped. In fact it is just as plausible that one is learning to do something he was not inclined to do at all, but that it is still necessary to do. Does one truly have a virtue before one exercises it, the same way an infant has sight before it is developed into acute vision, or in contrast is it acquired through habituation? The analogy disguises a question of great importance.

Self-control, then, seems inherently to be connected with bodily pain and pleasure. In this it seems akin to temperance, though temperance implies a mean and not just resisting. Yet Pinker uses the word "passions" for that which needs controlling. Yet surely we must distinguish between appetites and passions, the former occurring in individuals without any stimuli and the latter only after some conscious appraisal of a situation. There are then both bare appetitive forces and "deliberative decisions" and thus also a role for reason in virtue. Yet deliberation itself consists both in conscious reasoning and desiring a particular end. Pinker, though, derides the "ghost in the machine" and then glosses over the issue with the problematically vague, "mental entity." So your soul with reason and desire toward an end does not guide the passions, but your "mental entity" with your "self-control" does. This is neither a clarification nor an improvement.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bach, Eliot

– J. S. Bach. Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV.582

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.
– T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages

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.

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]
Violin Sonata in F, KV.377 - Variation No. 6: Siciliana [YouTube]
String Quartet in D minor, KV.421 - Allegretto ma non troppo [YouTube]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in F, KV.280/189e - Adagio [YouTube]
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, KV.488 - Adagio [YouTube]
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]
Missa Solemnis in C, KV.337 - Agnus Dei [YouTube]
Le Nozze di Figaro, KV.492: Act II: Porgi amor [YouTube]

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Presidential Rhetoric III: Thomas Jefferson

Welcome to Part III of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Feel free to take a peek at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
As with the the previous speeches we will not be addressing the truthfulness of the assertions but rather we will consider primarily two questions: what is it trying to persuade us of and how does it do so. We will also, as before, look at some rhetorical criteria as set forth by Aristotle. For clarity I have chosen to annotate certain sections.

[Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country,] I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and [to declare] that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire. A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye—when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.

Jefferson's structure defers mention of himself to the middle of the sentence and begins by stating that the people have asked him to take up duties in the government. He continues by acknowledging with great care the American people, both those present and those elsewhere by saying "that portion of my fellow-citizens." Jefferson thanks them for their favor and states that he is humbled before the task. His use of the phrase "above my talents" compliments the opening "undertakes," both images of the president below the task. Clearly Jefferson is doing everything he can to convey humility. Even his structure does this, for example he says, "I avail myself. . . to express, to declare, that I approach" Clearly the "that I approach" utilizes some understood infinitive (for example, "to acknowledge") parallel to "to express" and "to declare" but he omits it to the effect of a mild anacoluthon, that is, a breaking off of the structure to suggest that he is being carried away by the moment. Jefferson continues to describe the awesomeness of the task before him, describing them not just as "anxious and awful presentiments" but "those anxious and awful presentiments, which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire." The phrase, "which the greatness of the charge" suggests that anyone ought to be humbled by this office and the word "those" amplifies the sentiments by suggesting that the presentiments are somehow familiar to the men who have been president and endemic to the office. "Those" implies, "those same presidential." Jefferson continues to humble himself by expressing, parallel to the previous thought, that his own weakness is the cause of some of his apprehension. The logic of this naturally elevates the status of his predecessors. The phrase, "so justly inspires" emphasizes both points, that his apprehensions are cause by 1) the natural greatness of the office and 2) his own weakness.

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.