April 26, 2012

When smart people say stupid things II

I have become completely dissatisfied with [serialism's] narrow terms.  I found the palette of constant chromaticism increasingly constricting, nor could I accept any longer the limited range of gestures that always seemed to channel the music into some form or other of expressionism.  The over-intense manner of serialism and its tendency to inhibit physical pulse and rhythm led me to question a style which made it virtually impossible to express serenity, tranquility, grace, wit, energy.
George Rochberg, liner notes for the 1973 recording of his Third String Quartet issued on Nonesuch Records LP  (italics mine).

I happen to like Rochberg's 12-tone music (2nd Symphony, Piano Trio) and I have no problem with his decision to abandon serialism (by which he means only serial organization of pitch, not integral serialism of Babbitt, Boulez, and Stockhausen) in favor of (mostly) tonal composition.  But his attempted justification of this decision strikes me as borderline incoherent.

April 13, 2012

How history becomes "music history" ...

First, a bit of history in pictures:

A typical workday in a Soviet concentration camp ca. 1932

A typical workday in a Nazi concentration camp (Auschwitz) ca. 1942

Officers of Hitler's Wermacht and Stalin's Red Army enjoying a friendly smoke
in celebration of their joint invasion of Poland (1939)

Soviet Composer Dmitri Shostakovich 
9 years before the Pravda editorial attack:
Symphony No.2 "October" (1927)
(celebrating 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution)

6 years before the Pravda editorial attack: 
Symphony No.3 "First of May" (1930)
(glorifying the "proletarian holiday"
 and, again, the Bolshevik revolution)

7 years after Stalin's death:
joins the Communist Party (1960)

8 years after Stalin's death:
Symphony No.12 "The Year 1917" (1961)
(glorifying  the first Bolshevik mass-murderer Lenin 
and, once again, the Bolshevik revolution)

And now lets take a brief look at how history is transformed into "music history":

... in the end [Shostakovich's] art, as it now becomes increasingly clear, remained for many years the only artistic phenomenon ... which actively resisted the totalitarian regime.  We can say without exaggeration that dissent was an integral part of this great composer's creative output.
Mark Aranovsky, Muzikalnaya Akademiya 4, 1997, p.3  (translation and italics mine) 

At a deeper level,  Shostakovich's works had spoken the truth about the tragedy of his times and the evils of the system of which he was himself a victim.
Alexandra George, Escape from "Ward Six", University Press of America, 1998, p.388 (italics mine). 
*     *     *
With eloquent cocksuckers like these two never in short supply,  soon we will be told that atheism was an integral part of Bach's creative output (with his Passions vividly condemning the mixture of lunacy and cruelty in religion); that Wagner fought antisemitism by exposing its irrationality in his deliberately outlandish antisemitic pamphlets; and that Stalin's  vicious 1948 attack on "formalism" in Soviet music was secretly engineered by the CIA...

April 9, 2012

SCHOENBERG: String Quartet in D minor, Op.7

After years of trying to like Schoenberg's Op.7 string quartet I still perceive it as a mildly irritating exercise in compositional excess.  Its forty five minutes densely packed with feverish thematic development, frenetic piling up of counterpoint, and restless harmonic motion simply refuse to sum up to an aesthetically rewarding experience.  (Despite a committed and technically superb performance by the Borromeo Quartet from a 2011 concert at the Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston.)
I even thought that perhaps "compositional excess" is an uncharitable way to describe what might be a case of compositional despair felt by a composer who wants to keep things fresh and interesting with compositional tools that have been badly worn-out by two centuries of heavy use.  What if Schoenberg's constantly varied asymmetric themes, his restlessly crisscrossing voice leading (with its constant spray of non-harmonic notes), his fluctuating rhythms, his refusal to punctuate his "musical prose" with musically meaningful pauses - what if all this is meant to divert my attention from the fact that the music's inner core consists of essentially triadic harmonies moving in familiar ways along the tonic-dominant axes of D minor and related keys?

If my guess is correct, then perhaps sympathy rather than irritation is an appropriate emotional response to Schoenberg's struggle with tonality -- the kind of sympathy one may feel for the desperate efforts of a long married couple to camouflage the boringly predicable and worn-out anatomical reality of their sex life with romantic getaways, Victoria's Secret underwear, and assorted contraptions delivered in plain wrapped parcels from Babes in Toyland...

April 3, 2012

When smart people say stupid things ...

Imagine you are a composer who is a pioneer of non-tonal music.  You already know from  violently scandalous premieres of your works that the general concert-going public is not receptive to significant doses of dissonance (at least outside opera) because it associates dissonance with psychological and physical discomfort as well as with ugliness in general.  You are convinced, however, that the public's attitude toward non-tonal music can change as a result of greater familiarity with and deeper aesthetic understanding of your compositional idiom.  So you decide that one way to promote your creative direction in composition is to come up with a catchy slogan which will sum up your aesthetic goals in a concise and attractively positive way.  And the slogan you finally settle upon is ... emancipation of dissonance. [1]

Now lets put this slogan in perspective.  You know that most people hate a certain thing with which they have a variety of strongly negative associations.  And you propose to emancipate the very thing that they hate?  As a public relations strategy this is no less doltish than it would be for gay rights advocates to employ 'emancipation of felonious sin' as the slogan which sums up the political, social, and moral aims of the gay rights movement!