September 8, 2019


So ist der Jazz-Nigger auch in das Haus des Figaro, des Fidelio, des Hans Sachs, des Tristan, der Ariadne eingezogen.   .....   Der Nigger, der Bringer der Jazzkultur ... über das Europa Beethovens triumphiert? Man glaube nur ja nicht an eine satirische Pointe.
(So the Jazz-Nigger moved in the house of Figaro, Fidelio, Hans Sachs, Tristan, Ariadne.  ..... The nigger, the bringer of jazz culture ... triumphs over Beethoven's Europe?  Doesn't seem like a funny punch line.)

The above image is a poster for the Nazi exhibition Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) which took place in Düsseldorf in 1938.  The saxophone-playing "Der Nigger"[1] is a reference to the cover page for the score of Ernst Krenek's 1927 opera Jonny spielt auf.  (One of the opera's principal characters is an amoral and libidinous black jazz musician named 'Jonny'.)  The quote below the poster also refers to Krenek's opera, but did not come from the program booklet for the Nazi exhibition.  It came from a review of Krenek's opera published several years before the Nazis came to power.[2]  The author of the review, Julius Korngold, was a powerful and influential Viennese music critic and the father of the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

In retrospect Korngold's review borders on the surreal.  An eminent Jewish music critic - no doubt familiar with Wagner's venomous anti-Semitic attack on the music of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer[3] - derides a new opera because it alludes to musical and dance styles created by what the critic sees as a culturally and artistically inferior race.  The word Nigger appears ten times in Korngold's review and serves to underline his contempt for jazz (Niggermusik, Niggersongs) and dance styles like foxtrot (Niggertänze).
How can one resist Schadenfreude knowing that a few years after writing that review Papa Korngold himself had become a racial degenerate in "Beethoven's Europe", complaining bitterly about "anti-Semitic hounding in the papers"[4] and eventually fleeing to America, the very land of Niggermusik, Niggersongs, and Niggertänze.

1.  The German translation of the anthropological English term Negro is Der Neger.  The German term  Der Nigger, however, is a pejorative akin to the racial slur nigger in American English.

2.  Korngold, J. "Jonny spielt auf", Neue Freie Presse, 1.1.1928.

3.  In the infamous essay Das Judenthum in der Musik.

4.  In the letter to his Hollywood-based son Erich dated 15 March 1938 (English translation published in Korngold And His World).

August 29, 2019

Schoenberg's quip

CHRIS FARLEY to PAUL MCCARTNEY: Remember when you were in the Beatles ... you did that album Abbey Road ...  [where] ... the song goes "And in the end the love you take equals to the love you make"?  Remember that?
CHRIS FARLEY: Is that true?
The Chris Farley Show, Saturday Night Live

A quip is not quite the same as a line of poetry, and I certainly do not intend to be funny by questioning the factual basis of  Arnold Schoenberg's often mentioned quip:
My music is not modern, it is just badly played.
What did Schoenberg have in mind when he spoke of his music as "badly played"?  Technical defects of execution, such as wrong notes, faulty intonation, or poor ensemble?  Unacceptable deviations from clearly stated instructions in the score regarding tempo, dynamics, or phrasing?
     This I find hard to believe.  During his lifetime Schoenberg's non-tonal orchestral works were performed by major conductors and top-tier orchestras [1], and his concertos were played by distinguished instrumentalists (Louis Krasner, Eduard Steuermann) who were genuinely inspired by the music of the Second Viennese School.  Would these musicians risk damaging their reputations by agreeing to preform works they did not understand or could not rehearse to the point of assuring technically adequate performances?  And even if orchestral musicians disliked Schoenberg's non-tonal music, would they dare to sabotage performances conducted by such dictatorial figures as Furtwangler or Stokowski?
     Schoenberg's letters to various conductors and instrumentalists contain all sorts of complaints - e.g., that Furtwangler did not program additional performances of Variations for Orchestra Op.31, or that Klemperer did not ask Schoenberg's permission before scheduling a performance of one of his works - but I've never seen a reference to a letter in which Schoenberg - a man whose egomania occasionally bordered on sociopathy - chastised a major conductor or instrumentalist for giving technically inadequate performances of his music.
Perhaps Schoenberg felt that performances of his works, even if technically adequate, failed to communicate the music's meaning behind the printed score, so to speak.  If so, Schoenberg's feelings may be of biographical importance, but they certainly do not justify describing technically adequate performances as "badly played".  Schoenberg's authority over his works ended with the published scores.  When it came to performances of his works, Schoenberg was just one of the listeners whose feelings do not automatically entail any objective defects or merits of a performance.[2]

My guess is that Schoenberg's quip had nothing to do with actual performances of his music.  Rather it was one way in which he employed his often bitter sense of humor to deal with the public's intense and aggressively expressed dislike of his non-tonal works.  I don't know if these works have become more popular with the passage of time, but they certainly no longer provoke outright hostility.  Maybe persistent advocacy by distinguished musicians has convinced the public that Schoenberg was not a musical lunatic, sadist, or charlatan, but an important composer whose music need not appeal to a large audience.

Be that as it may, it is hard to imagine anyone who enjoys the music of Late Romantic composers not being captivated by Schoenberg's Violin Concerto, Op.36 as heard in this 2019 concert performance by Isabelle Faust and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding.  Adding about five minutes to the typical duration of this work, the Faust-Harding performance zooms in on transitions and orchestral details to give them dramatic and structural significance reminiscent of old Furtwangler recordings.  In this interpretation the music indeed is not "modern", but not, pace Schoenberg, because it is played with consummate craft and musicianship.  The performance simply brings out the Late Romantic side of Schoenberg's musical personality, the side which makes his 12-tone orchestral works a stylistically convincing farewell to Late Romanticism.[3]

Of course, this side of Schoenberg's 12-tone music can be downplayed, but I think that doing so may only make the music sound stylistically amorphous.  This is not a negative value judgment because I keep returning to just this kind of anti-romantic concert performance of  Schoenberg's Violin Concerto by Christian Tetzlaff  and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.  Fast and coolly phrased, this performance keeps transitions and orchestral details at a sufficient distance to focus on the structural arc of each movement.  Despite Tetzlaff's gorgeously rich tone, the motifs in the outer movements sound more pugnacious than dramatic, and the chilly central Andante leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste.  To me, the music in this performance sounds neither "modern" nor "late romantic", but strangely elusive with respect to its stylistic commitments.

It is utterly pointless to speculate which of these two performances Schoenberg would have disliked less.  (What I know about the man's character tells me he was rarely, if ever, happy about anything.)  But since it costs nothing to venture a meaningless guess, I think Schoenberg would have preferred the Faust-Harding performance for its more emphatic musical communication.  He might have even described the Tetzlaff-Jurowski performance as "badly played".  I, however, find both performances equally attractive, not the least because they prove that Schoenberg's concerto - like all good music - has more layers of meaning than can be revealed by any one interpretation.

1.  The list of conductors includes Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Klemperer, Karl Muck, Leopold Stokowski, Henry Wood, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and Hans Rosbaud. The list of orchestras includes the Berlin Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the NBC Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic.

2.  Beethoven, for example, dismissively described Mozart's piano playing as "choppy", and he must have played Mozart's D-minor piano concerto (K.466) very differently from the way it was played by Mozart.  (Beethoven's cadenzas composed for that concerto already suggest this much.)  Had Mozart lived long enough, he might have disliked hearing his music subjected to Beethoven's overblown rhetoric, but I doubt Mozart's feelings would have convinced Beethoven's contemporaries (or today's music-lovers) that the latter's performances were "badly played".

3.  Or so they sound to me.  Superimposing 12-tone compositional techniques on entirely traditional conceptions of musical form and intelligibility does not make Schoenberg's music any more modern than putting tires and shock absorbers on a horse wagon makes it an automobile.  The music is still held together by prominent motifs which mimic traditional themes and whose recurrence in fragmented or otherwise manipulated form mimics traditional development procedures.  With dramatic cadenzas, dynamically underlined finales, and patently 19th century rhythms, orchestration, and rhetoric, this music is more likely to be heard as Brahms-with-wrong-notes than as a modernist challenge to tradition on a par with, say, Edgar Varese's works from the 1920s.

July 15, 2019


It took Alan Turing only a couple of years to solve the Entscheidungsproblem (Decision Problem) in a branch of mathematics later to become part of theoretical computer science (along with developing the most convincing mathematical model of computability known today as the Turing machine).
It took Great Britain 67 long shameful years before the Bank of England could make this decision ...

I'll have an extra bourbon tonight.

June 30, 2019

No better way of putting it

It is from performances like this that one realizes that the music of Elliott Carter offers pleasures and delights that no other composer can offer.

Charles Rosen's observation was made about a commercial recording of Carter's Cello Concerto, but is also a perfect description of this 2009 live broadcast from Berlin's Philharmonie of Carter's Interventions for piano and orchestra with Daniel Barenboim as soloist and Pierre Boulez conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin.

May 25, 2019

From tragedy to farce and back to tragedy, all in a single word

First the tragedy:

29 April 2019, JACKSONVILLE, ARK. (AP)

A baby died after escaping from a truck while visiting a central Arkansas military base for a family event.

Not really a newsworthy tragedy since millions of babies die every year all over the world.  Still, it must have been a tragic event for the baby's relatives and at least a traumatic one for those present at the mentioned family event.

Except that it wasn't because in the above quoted sentence I omitted one word.  Here is the complete headline as it was published by AP (italics mine):

A baby kangaroo died after escaping from a truck while visiting a central Arkansas military base for a family event.

Now start with the trivial observation that kangaroos can no more visit family events at military bases than they can visit friends in state prisons or grandparents in retirement homes.  Then count the questions one can ask about the meaning of this sentence.  If you think of language as a biological organism's most important evolutionary gift, this brief exercise will take you right back to what you started with: the tragedy of death, albeit this time the rapidly approaching death of language.

April 22, 2019

Giving the C-word its due

chasm, n.,
a deep fissure in the earth, rock, or another surface;
 figurative.  a profound difference between people, viewpoints, feelings, etc.

In her review of a recent Netflix web series, Sophie Gilbert, a staff writer for The Atlantic, tells us that

... it’s hard to square the chasm between the philosophical comedy the show begins as and the discomfiting farce it becomes. (italics added) 1

Perhaps Ms Gilbert's observation reflects her conviction that, in this era of endless possibilities, we should be doing a lot more with chasms than just bridging or closing them.  If so, I'm one of those not yet convinced.  But if she proves to be right, I would love to learn how to sauté a chasm.  Especially the chasm between the supposedly high reputation of The Atlantic and the magazine's employment of incompetent scribblers like Sophie Gilbert.

Sadly, Ms Gilbert's illiteracy may not be her only professional shortcoming.  She also seems genuinely dimwitted for someone paid to spill her thoughts on the pages of a reputable magazine.  On her website she has a section where she shares with the world what people have said about her.  And the quote she proudly puts first is "Finally! A woman." 2

I leave it to you, my dear reader, to decide what should be done with the chasm between a writer's pride in the acclaim received by her work and Sophie Gilbert's pride in being praised for having two X chromosomes.