good deal of what I have written here is related (sometimes only tangentially) to serious music. A few posts about interesting but not well-known musicians or composers are accompanied by live broadcast recordings, with download links in the comments. (If there is a problem with a link, or if you need to contact me for some other reason, you can email me at boomboomsky at gmail dot com. )
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March 23, 2012

Why not make excuses for Le Nozze di Figaro?

Il Prigioniero
Opera National de Paris
(image credit: Opera National de Paris)

Listening recently to a beautifully performed and excellently engineered live recording [1] of Luigi Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero I kept thinking that stubbornly conservative audiences and lack of public funding are not the worst enemies of modern music in America.  That distinction belongs to patronizing, condescending, and (as we shall see shortly) largely incompetent music critics who think that discussions of important non-tonal compositions must begin with (a) veiled excuses for the work's idiom, and (b) smarmy assurances that despite its idiom the music has much to offer to lovers of Chopin and Verdi.
      One American music critic, who attended the very production of Il Prigioniero I've been enjoying so much, described this opera as a bleak, 12-tone, boldly modernistic work from the mid-20th century ... [whose] 12-tone musical style ... is certainly complex - tremulous with astringent harmonies and fraught with skittish thematic lines.   Then, to assure his readers that the music does not call for doubling their usual doses of Zoloft and Ritalin, he added that Dallapiccola used the 12-tone language in a sensually lyrical way ... [with] intervals that produce plaintively consoling sustained harmonies. [2]  (How the poor reader is to make sense of an incoherent description of the music's  harmonic language as being both "astringent" and "plaintively consoling" is left unexplained.)

This kind of writing makes me feel as if I'm being set up for a blind date with a woman of stern looks and uncompromisingly difficult personality, yet whose acquaintance I'm promised to find rewarding once I get to know her well enough.  Such attitude would be annoying even in the case of genuinely challenging music (e.g., Helmut Lachenmann's Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern), but with works like Il Prigioniero - and even in the context of a newspaper review for non-specialist readers - it is simply unintelligible. 

First, as far as the standard operatic repertoire goes, there is  nothing peculiar to Il Prigioniero to motivate its description as bleak (unless the point was to link this adjective in the reader's mind with the immediately following 12-tone).  Is "Don Giovanni" cheerful?  Is "Otello" heart-warming?  Is "Boris Godunov" optimistic?  Are "Salome" and "Elektra" uplifting?
     Second, because Il Prigioniero was finished nearly four decades after Schoenberg's Erwartung, a quarter of a century after Berg's Wozzeck, and 15 - 20 years after such 12-tone operas as Schoneberg's Von Heute auf Morgen, Krenek's Karl V and Berg's Lulu, there was nothing "boldly" modernistic about Dallapiccola's opera even at the time of its premiere (1950).
     Finally, and ignoring the earlier noted incoherence, to describe a piece of music as being "certainly complex" because of its "astringent harmonies" and "skittish thematic lines" is to promote a sadly dim-witted (or deliberately misleading) notion of musical complexity.  Assuming there is a well-defined and adequate measure of musical complexity in the first place, it seems to depend entirely on what the composer does with the musical "raw materials" of intervals, motifs, harmonies, rhythms, etc., and not at all on the specific (and listener-relative) characteristics of the raw materials themselves, such as harmonic astringency or thematic skittishness.  It takes only a few minutes of listening to such composers as Galina Ustvolskaya to know that simple, even simplistic music can offer ample amounts of dissonance more "astringent" than anything to be found in Dallapiccola's oeuvre.

The point of all this, however, is not to bemoan the combination of incompetence and arrogance frequently exhibited by mainstream media music critics.  I've already done that in a couple of earlier posts (1, 2).   Here I am simply frustrated by what seems to be a hopeless addiction among music critics to making excuses for music whose aesthetic riches are accessible only as dividends on an initial investment of time (repeated listening), mental effort (background reading), and patience (suspending one's infantile expectations of instant gratification).  Having taken (and struggled through) some mathematics courses in the past, I don't recall ever hearing excuses for the difficulty of the (allegedly very beautiful) subject matter.  The attitude was that if you want to know how (and how beautifully) the world really works, you need to learn how to make sense of differential equations, groups, probability distributions, and some other mathematical constructs.  If you're too lazy or too stupid for that, then you always will be a Neanderthal-with-an-iPod; and a degree in folklore or philosophy will not change that one bit.
      I don't see why a similar attitude should not be taken toward a Wall Street broker who expects any music he pays to hear at Avery Fischer Hall to give him an instant "Bruckner high", just because his time and energy are too precious to invest in becoming an experienced listener who is rewarded by the music of such acknowledged post-war masters as Carter, Maderna, and Boulez.  To me, the task for music critics is not to make excuses for important modern music, but to make the Wall Street broker feel like a fucking retard for demanding instant gratification in the concert hall.  That's how art critics would make him feel if he expected an instant "Rembrandt high" from every exhibition he pays to attend at a major museum.  That's how wine critics would make him feel if he complained that a highly regarded wine he bought did not taste like Manischewitz.  That's how an intelligent woman would make him feel if he demanded a blowjob under the restaurant table on the first date.  Yet when it comes to music criticism, the critic is eager to comfort all those doofuses with season subscriptions to the Philharmonic by assuring them that it is not because they are lazy or stupid that they feel antagonistic toward non-tonal music (even when such music is as passionate and lyrical as in Dallapiccola's operas, or as meltingly lovely as in Krenek's works for string orchestra).  It is because the music is "difficult"... [3]

Of course addictions are hard to break (my avatar is a proof of that), so I don't expect changes anytime soon.  But so long as the critics are bent on apologizing for important music,  how about making excuses for important works that really need them, such as Le Nozze di Figaro?  It only seems fair to apologize for the relentlessly diatonic and numbingly major key character of the music (only one brief aria is in a minor key); to admit that the music's tonal centers attract harmonic motion with the force of black holes, so that no harmonic progression ventures too far from the center of tonal gravity; to warn that the opera's three hours worth of themes tightly wrapped around major triads may induce sonic claustrophobia of the kind one gets from prolonged exposure to an ice cream truck jingle.  And while we are at it, how about also making excuses for Parisfal?  Music lovers surely deserve to be assured that enduring endless stretches of rhythmically monotonous declamatory recitative-like singing - in which every character's contribution ends with the same fucking cadence based on a major triad (sub-dominant, dominant, tonic) - will be amply rewarded by thirty or so minutes of music that changed the world forever.

Lest you think I am being sarcastic, I assure you I am not.  My first exposure to opera was with Wozzeck; and although I did not understand its music the way I do now, the opera's sound world was so intoxicating, so interesting that I left the opera house that night craving more operatic experiences of that kind.  Alas, while still living in the second largest city in America, the closest I could ever get to that kind of operatic experience in actual performances were Salome and Elektra.  Which is why I ended up visiting the Cinerama Dome far more frequently than the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (home of LA Opera), even though the price of a student ticket was about the same at both venues.  This deprivation of my youth only makes it natural for me to feel contempt for credentialed imbeciles who, after all these years, continue to make excuses for the kind of music that can save opera from becoming a form of entertainment aimed exclusively at culturally pretentious but hopelessly inbred musical mongoloids.

 1.  Rosalind Plowright (mother), Evgeny Nikitin (prisoner), Chris Merritt (Grand Inquisitor), Paris National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Lothar Zagorsek (conductor), April 8, 2008, Paris. 
2.  'Il Prigioniero' is Staged in Paris, Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, April 23, 2008.   
3.  I don't mean this as a rehash of Milton Babbitt's extremist who-cares-if-you-listen attitude.  I think composers should care if we listen to their music, if only because the formal properties of musical compositions, when completely divorced from the psychological effects of their physical realizations on experienced listeners, are nothing but embarrassingly trivial exercises in applied mathematics.


Bob Falesch said...

Oh, how proud I'd be to have written this. And thanks, Boom, for a reference to the Babbitt. Along the way I lost my copy and now, well, here it is again. I shall now go to the shelf and pull out my recording of Philomel. Listening to it will provide me instant gratification, conditioned by all those hours and days of repeated listening, mental effort, background reading, and patience. Oh, and I might add: ...conditioned also by some internal need which I've never found the words to describe.

Anonymous said...

gotta change the entire music education system before people look to actually 'thinking' about sound. those wall street bozos will just stop funding the symnphony if they have to work at 'difficult' repertoire.

all of the arts have been dumbed down considerably via tv, pop culture, youtube, soundbyte culture.

but conceptual art freed visual art to explore the realm of ideas. i have no problem with that, just that ideas are mostly lacking or poor. it follows that getting a 'rembrandt fix' today is a whole different matter. the rembrandts are there in the museum anytime you want them (funded by the wall street guys).

but contemporary viusal artists have insisted on experimentation and exploration beyond paint and canvas, while musicians so often stick to their bassoons, clarinets, oboes, flutes, strings – ancient technology.

as the visual arts had, art music needs a freeing force that will figure in the jettisoning of ancient claptrap. not for nothing nam june pike burned a piano.

cage tried to find that something, but chance is it's own authorless anarchist with at best tongue-in-cheek humor and bad-boy faux-truculence. for cage a career, and now a dead end that's still fueling miles of after-rans.

as for opera, much as i dislike the hypocrite boulez, i think he was right back in the 50s when he said that we should blow up the opera houses.

jackbrahms said...

Well, if Santorum is elected, you may be on a list of suspected intellectuals, freethinkers, and fellow travelers. Or if A. T. is elected...

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Great posting,and I am going to have to read it several times before I can totally make up my mind what to think about it. My tentative reaction is that I am willing to listen repeatedly to a difficult piece, but that the first time I listen to it I have to get something out of it -- there has to be something about it I find interesting or attractive. To put it another way, I am willing to admit that there is much more to a piece than I can pick up on in just 1-2 listens, but if I just don't enjoy it, I am not willing to be bullied into thinking I am obligated to listen to it over and over.

I notice also that one or two blog posts from you forces me to think more about issues in listening to music than many entire books of criticism that I've read from professional music critics. I hope you are working on your own book.

On a different note, if you moderate the comments, why is it also necessary to use those "prove you're not a robot" thingies? I can never make out the letters on a first try.

laybl said...

My mind, or what's left of it, tells me that we need a new word for atonal or serial or "difficult" music. The non-maths, such as myself, are conditioned to summon images or emotions in response to "traditional" (tonal)music.

As one who responds positively to didgeridoo, its preternatural scrapes and yawps, sensing basic biological evocations, I realize that there are deeper issues than opera or social strata. Demonizing Wall Streeters or yahoos or babbits does little to bring order to the chaotic state of music.

We have new vocabularies in mathematics and physics, so there is no reason not to create terminology that doesn't pit one class of sonorities against another.

Rembrandt can be viewed in terms of subject matter, but the true alchemy of his art lies in his mysterious ability to convert swathes of paint into almost tangible objects.

We might look at music in terms of our physical/mental state. Similarly, setting out to climb a mountain is not the same as reclining with a glass of Jack in front of our audio system. And we cannot escape the rhythms and melodies of our past.

I think I'll stop now...the problem is too labyrinthine for life, maybe.

Bob B. said...

This is up on youtube. After reading your comments, I checked, but am presently listening to Alois Haba's La Madre (Matka), an opera from 1929. Love his quarter tone stuff.

Bob B.

Tassilo said...

ANONYMOUS wrote that, "as for opera, much as i dislike the hypocrite boulez, i think he was right back in the 50s when he said that we should blow up the opera houses." Anonymous doesn't explain the charge of hypocrisy leveled at Mr. Boulez, but, like everybody else, he quotes the remark about blowing up the opera houses out of context. In the original interview (which was published in Der Spiegel in 1967 and reprinted in English in the English periodical OPERA in June of 1968) Boulez suggested blowing up the -- as he saw it -- antiquated and inadequate opera houses of the period and replacing them with new and modern theatres. As for myself, I'm not in favor of preventing others from having venues where they can attend, say, performanes of the operas of Mozart and Verdi, both of which Dallapiccola revered.

laybl said...

The air is rife with "modest proposals": "Kill all the lawyers!"..."blow up the (outmoded) opera houses!"..."death to the extremists!"...sorry, that's my contribution...atonality will have arrived when the defense of or justification for atonality does not require semantic acrobatics.