April 3, 2018

If Grandma had a dick ...

Roger Sessions (seated right) in 1959, with
Douglas Moore (seated left) and (standing left to right)
Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter,
Wallingford Riegger, William Schuman,
Walter Piston

That's what history is: the story of everything that needn't have been like that.
CLIVE JAMES, Cultural Amnesia.

If Grandma had a dick, she would have been Grandpa.
A sober response to metaphysical speculations about counterfactuals and possible worlds.

This is as sentimental as Clive James ever allowed himself to feel on the printed page: A memorable turn of phrase infused with longing for a world where human decisions and subsequent actions - which is what history is ultimately about - are not subject to the tyranny of causal determinism.  Alas, so far causal determinism is the only coherent perspective on how the world works, and it tells us that everything happens exactly as it has to, if often not as we wish it had.  The latter may give rise to feelings of regret, but to elevate such feelings to the status of 'ontological detectors' of how things might have been is sentimental daydreaming at best.

Still, it is good to know that even a tough Aussie like Clive James can get sentimental about history.  For those of us with less armor-plated psyches, this knowledge can be an excuse to whine about the unfairness of history - such as the sad fate of Roger Sessions' symphonies - without having to think of ourselves as hopeless wimps.  But since I have done enough of that already, here I only add to the blog another live recording of a Sessions symphony, his Second, performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Andre Previn in December of 1982.

March 11, 2018

A Mozart puzzle...

If I don't practice one day, I know it. Two days, the critics know it. Three days, the public knows it.

In his book Mozart: A Life, Maynard Solomon gives the following description of Mozart's typical daily routine:

During his early years in Vienna, Mozart would customarily arise at six o'clock, be at his desk by seven, and compose until nine or ten, when he would make the rounds of his pupils, giving lessons until one o'clock.  "Then I lunch," he reported to his sister...  Returning to his room after several hours of social visits, he would again compose ... "I often go on writing until one - and am up again at six." ... With variations, that was Mozart's daily routine as he described it in his letters home... [On some] days the only time he had for composing was in the evenings, "and of that I can never be sure, as I am often asked to perform at concerts." (p.309).

With Mozart's time divided between composing, teaching, socializing, and frequent concert performances, the above description of his daily routine suggests that Mozart had no time to practice at all, or at least that he did not practice regularly enough to warrant mentioning practice among his daily activities.  This I find very hard to believe, but since I have no compelling evidence to the contrary, the best I can do is offer a few rather inclusive speculations on this matter.

March 4, 2018

Modernism as an attitude problem

Mr. Carter never has made concessions to his listeners. ... It will take many hearings for the relationships in the score to assert themselves.

So there you have it: An innovative composer's pursuit of his artistic vision is an attitude problem.  The composer is described as one who refuses to "make concessions to his listeners", who is "uncompromising", who expects his listeners do heavy mental work involved in keeping track of a bewilderingly rapid succession of seemingly unrelated sound events.  Put in a euphemism-free way, the composer is an arrogant motherfucker who pursues his aesthetic ideals at the expense of his listeners' desire for pleasantly comfortable aural experiences after a long and busy day at the office (or at the country club).

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.

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.