February 3, 2018

When the Russians were especially enthusiastic...

Roger Sessions and Jean Martinon

The Russians I met ... were familiar with some American scores, and were especially enthusiastic about those of [Roger] Sessions.

These days no-one is especially enthusiastic about the symphonies of Roger Sessions.  Not even a little enthusiastic.  Too abstruse for some, too old-fashioned for others, Sessions' symphonies have been confined for decades to the dark and musty basement of music history where they pass time swapping tales of former glory with the symphonies of Dittersdorf, Spohr, Ries, Onslow, Kalliwoda, Wilms, Reinecke, Rubinstein, and other now almost completely forgotten composers.

I doubt the time will come when Sessions' symphonies, like the prisoners in Fidelio, occasionally will be taken from the dark basement to face the blinding footlights of a concert stage.  European orchestras have their own musical resuscitation projects to focus on; and American orchestras, never friendly toward modernist music to begin with, are now so obsessed with 'diversity' and 'relevance' of their programs that a dead white heterosexual male American modernist composer - who had never been blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer, never marched on Selma, and never dedicated a work to the victims of American imperialism - simply has no chance unless he is Elliott Carter (and Carter's works get precious few American performances anyway).

Listening to old live broadcast recordings, then, is as close as we may ever come to knowing what it might be like to hear a Sessions symphony in a concert hall.  Fortunately some of these live broadcasts are very good (both as performances and as sound engineering), and none are better than those documenting the mid-1960s performance of Sessions symphonies by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its then music director Jean Martinon.  Martinon's 1967 performance of Seventh Symphony has been available in this blog for quite some time.  Here I add his performance of Third Symphony recorded in concert on 25 November 1965.[2]

1.  Reporting from the 1962 Warsaw Autumn Festival, Collected Essays and Lectures 1937-1995, U. of Rochester Press, p.38.

2.  A stereo FM broadcast of this performance was originally recorded on reel-to-reel tape and later transferred to FLAC by David Royko (I hope I remember the name of this generous music lover correctly).
     For those who may want more information about Sessions' Third Symphony than what is usually provided in an LP jacket notes or a CD booklet, here is a PDF copy of a 1995 M.M. Thesis from Rice University which discusses this symphony in considerable detail.

January 7, 2018

Querying the dead

Listening to a Webern score without being able to read it must be rather like studying a great  architectural mastepiece without having access to a ground plan.  ...  The new [music], when it eschews any links with the past, can be absorbed only by those who are able to hear the music and read the score (the aural equivalent of the architect's blueprint).
Why should listening to a piece of art music be like studying a piece of architecture (or anything else)? Why shouldn’t it be instead like taking a tour of a palace (castle, cathedral)? 
     Does one have to study the shooting script and the production designer’s storyboard in order to “absorb” a film of Eisenstein, Godard, or Tarkovsky?  Or read the source code of computer programs used to produce some of the art works at MOMA in order to “absorb” such works?  

What exactly does the ability to read a score amount to? 
     When in 1854 the conductor Hans von Bülow sent Richard Wagner some scores to review, Wagner responded with a letter in which he admitted his borderline incompetence (if not impotence) as a score reader:
     ...[H]ow am I to get any clear idea of these [scores]? You know how abominably I play the piano, and that I cannot master anything by that means unless I can get a clear conception [of the music] beforehand.  What I get from a simple reading [of the score] is not enough ... to arrive at an idea of a composition.[2]
     Did Wagner have the ability to read a score?

December 21, 2017

It was a mad, mad, mad world....

Madness, for the Romantic artist ... promised not only different insights but also a different logic.

Writing about Robert Schumann, Charles Rosen tells us that

Schumann was haunted from the age of seventeen by the fear of going mad.  Only at the end of his short life were these fears realized.  In 1854 ... Schumann voluntarily incarcerated himself in an insane asylum.*

Rosen's chronology is correct with respect to Schumann the man, but not Schumann the composer.  The latter should have committed himself to an asylum a couple of years earlier when he displayed undeniable symptoms of musical lunacy by composing piano accompaniment to Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin BWV 1001- 1006.  Had Schumann produced this composition a few decades later, it could have been considered a musical counterpart of Eugene Bataille's  La Joconde fumant le pipe or Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. in the visual arts, making Schumann (rather than Eric Satie) the father of musical dadaism.  But composed in the middle of the nineteenth century, this work of Schumann has always struck me as by far the most shocking (and, because it was Schumann, the saddest) case of madness from the Romantic period in the history of music.

Or so I thought until a few days ago when, to my great surprise, I came across a case of nineteenth century musical madness arguably more pathological than Schumann's.

November 29, 2017

A friend of a friend 4

Penderecki's most impressive score, To the Victims of Hiroshima: Threnody, for fifty-two strings, calls for a host of new methods of playing these instruments ... [and] ... the extremely violent, almost "anti-artistic" expression of the music justifies the means.
ELLIOTT CARTER, writing in 1963 about new music in Europe, Collected Essays and Lectures 1937-1995, U. of Rochester Press, p.36.

I must have heard at least a dozen concert recordings of Penderecki's Threnody (1960), and all but one presented this piece as a shrill Modernist tantrum of a young musical dissident behind the Iron Curtain.  Heard in such performances, the music amounts to little more than an echo of Xenakis' Metastaseis (1954), making it easy to think that its continuing survival on the fringes of the orchestral repertoire is due solely to its contrived anti-American title.
    Which is what I used to think before I discovered how poignant, even sensuous this music can sound when its avant-garde stylistic devices (swooping glissandi, tone clusters, behind the bridge bowing, etc.) are treated as background technical means to emotionally significant musical ends.  I owe this discovery to the performance of Threnody by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien under the impressively versatile Cornelius Meister, recorded in concert on 3 November 2016.

October 26, 2017

A friend of a friend III

With music, we must learn what to listen for—or, indeed, what not to listen for. After a 1964 concert in Berlin of Xenakis’s music in the 1950s, the great Nadia Boulanger ... said to the composer in her usual forthright, no-nonsense manner: “Xenakis, you don’t know how to develop your themes!” “What themes?” he replied reasonably.
CHARLES ROSEN, Freedom and the Arts, Harvard U. Press, p.237

I wonder if Nadia Boulanger's remark was simply a joke which somehow went over Charles Rosen's head.  Surely by 1964 Boulanger must have been familiar with the decades-old music of composers who "did not know how to develop their themes", e.g., Schoenberg's Erwartung (1909) or Varèse's works from the 1920s (Ameriques, Arcana, Ionisation).  Or perhaps she was too shocked by what she heard and blurted out the first thing that popped into her head (thematic development may have been a subject of criticism she frequently directed at her many composition students).  Either possibility sounds more plausible to me than Rosen's (admittedly funny) portrayal of Boulanger as a musical dimwit.

Be that as it may, Xenakis' music may have been pretty shocking back then, but I doubt  it has much of a shock value today.  Not after half a century of exposure to Xenakis-influenced sonorities in concert halls (e.g., the fake-titled, frequently performed Penderecki's Threnody) and movie theaters (THX's audio trademark Deep Note).  Yet if the shock of Xenakis' music has worn off, its ability to thrill remains undiminished, at least when heard in the ambience of a concert hall rather than on poisonously equalized and (as a rule) poorly edited studio recordings.

But why take my word for it when you can decide for yourself with these live recordings of Metastaseis (1954), Syrmos (1959), Aroura (1971), and Voile (1995).  The first recording was made at a 2009 concert given by ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien under Bertrand de Billy, while the remaining three were recorded at a 2011 concert given by Amsterdan Sinfonietta under Johannes Kalitzky.

September 10, 2017

Bye-bye, the baby in the bathwater

[The music is] bizarre ... melodically as well as harmonically, and avoids natural flow ...  [Vocal writing] is overladen with surfeit of harmonies ... and tricky intervals which are often very hard for singers to remember and intone. 

For ... melody we have searched in vain; nor have we even found any varieties of form, indicating an original fancy at work...  All seems worn and hackneyed and unmeaning.  ... if effect there be, it must be monotonous, and bizarre.

There is a vast deal of ugly music ... that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddlestrings played on by a coarse file.

[The singers] all carry on in indistinguishable, angular swoops and shrieks. 
[The opera] boasts ... avoidance  - as if on principle - of any hint of beauty, expressive content or sensual delight...  [T]there is something singularly horrifying about this new score... It's a dehumanizing brand of art ... and to see it applied to the warm-blooded genre of opera is enough to chill the bones.
Reading the above excerpts from reviews of contemporary operas, you may feel sorry for the audiences traumatized by sadistic composers.  You may also feel grateful to the critics whose unflinching reviews must have prevented many music lovers from becoming additional victims of these musical counterparts of Marquis de Sade.  And why wouldn't you feel this way, if the composer in these reviews is made to look like the defendant in a criminal trial charged with multiple counts of fraud, vandalism, and intentional infliction of pain and suffering?  (The defendant used false promises of an enjoyable experience to swindle hundreds of people.  He lured these people into a large building where he held them captive for hours while subjecting them to various forms of psychological and physical torture.)

But then suppose you learn that the first excerpt comes from a 1793 review of the then present state of opera and refers specifically to the operas of Mozart; the second comes from a 1844 article on the operas of Verdi; the third comes from a 1907 review of the American premiere of Strauss' Salome; and only the fourth and last excerpt comes from a review of an opera (Elliott Carter's What Next?) which is contemporary for both the critic and yourself.  Would you still feel sorry for the audiences? Grateful to the critics?
     Or would you instead begin to wonder if there is any line of work where incompetence and arrogance are encouraged and rewarded as much as they are in music criticism?