Friday, October 26, 2018

Did Stravinsky say the Vivaldi wrote “the same concerto, 500 times”? And if so, is it true?

Among classical music fans, there’s an old joke that Antonio Vivaldi didn’t actually compose 500 concertos, he just wrote the same concerto 500 times. The quip is established enough that a 1986 book—Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys by David W. Barber—riffed on it: “People who find [Vivaldi’s] music too repetitious are inclined to say that he wrote the same concerto 450 times. This is hardly fair: he wrote two concertos, 225 each.”

Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi: A one-hit wonder, five hundred times?
“People say” is good enough for a book of classical music humor, but for this blog, I wanted to trace the joke to its origin and discuss why it caught on—and why it persists.

A Google search for the phrase shows attributions mainly to two different twentieth-century composers: Igor Stravinsky and Luigi Dallapiccola. Overall, people seem more willing to cite Stravinsky as the source, probably because his name is more recognizable. Even someone as informed as pianist/musicologist Charles Rosen attributed the quote to him when asked which composer he found most overrated:
“I'm tired of [Vivaldi]. Stravinsky once said that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times. I disagree. Instead, I think he began 500 concertos and never achieved anything in them. So he kept trying over and over again without ever quite succeeding.” 
—Charles Rosen to The New York Times, 1987
Yet Stravinsky’s fame also provides the means to discount him as the source of the quote. Stravinsky was a self-mythologizer, intent on shaping his own legend through press releases and publications, which makes it easy to find why so many people think he said this.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Would Beethoven prefer a modern piano if he had one?

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for The Avid Listener that debunked several myths about Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness. I relied a lot on research and feedback from Robin Wallace from Baylor University, who was then working on a book about the subject, which I mentioned in my promotional blog post. Well, that book, Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss & Discovery, was released earlier this month (October 2018). I’m reading it right now, and I’m stunned by all the assumptions he calls into question.

Cover of Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss & Discovery by Robin Wallace
Hearing Beethoven: Marvel as it systematically undermines
every Beethoven myth your music teacher told you!
In Hearing Beethoven, Wallace reexamines how Beethoven’s life and compositions were affected by his gradual loss of hearing, with insight gained from his late wife Barbara’s reported experience with her own deafness. Wallace examines journals, letters, conversation books, old listening devices, composition sketchbooks, and recent scientific developments to put many aspects of Beethoven’s adult life into context. By doing so, he challenges many assumptions and overturns some generally accepted Beethoven lore—which is the kind of work I aspire to!

I was most impressed with the fifth chapter, “The Artifacts of Deafness,” by the way that Wallace shifts the assumed relationship between Beethoven and the contemporaneous developments in piano manufacturing. As he points out, the piano was constantly changing throughout Beethoven’s lifetime, expanding the range of keys, changing the mechanisms to evoke louder sounds, experimenting with materials to ultimately make the instrument bigger and bolder.

Now, doesn’t that seem just ideal for a composer who was gradually losing his hearing? One might even speculate that there’s a reason Beethoven’s style and pianos co-evolved—perhaps piano manufacturers were even influenced by his new piano sonatas, challenged to create instruments to accommodate their idiosyncrasies. After all, didn’t Beethoven once rave at a famous violinist, “What do I care about your damned fiddle when the Spirit seizes me!” I mean, Beethoven, the great innovator, wasn’t constrained by what was, only concerned with what could be! Surely, if he were alive today, he would be impressed by our pianos, finally able to produce the powerful sounds that had only existed in his imagination!

Except…no, probably not.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Who wrote the symphonies, and why should it matter?

I’ve devoted much of this blog to challenging the stereotype that classical composers are all “dead, white men,” even though the canon makes it seem that way. So far, I’ve only addressed the “men” part, in several posts and a guest post.

Yet I haven’t written as much about the “white” part, mostly because it’s uncomfortable to discuss racism as a white person in the US—especially in connection to something I love, something I’ve built into my identity. It’s hard to talk from the privileged position without inadvertently making assumptions (which is why I’ve sent drafts of this post to many people for feedback).

But recent events have challenged my perspective, to the point that the “whiteness” of classical music is something I can’t not address anymore. I must push beyond any discomfort because this is a conversation that needs to happen, especially in the current political environment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Report from "Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth" (with link to the paper I delivered there)

Hello! If you haven't been following this blog on Facebook or Twitter, you may be wondering why I haven't updated the blog for a few months. I was preparing for a conference last week in Dublin, Ireland, where I delivered a paper and had some incredible conversations with fellow music scholars who share some of my concerns about music and its role in today's society.

When I saw that the  conference title was "Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth" and read the call for papers, I knew it was a great fit for my views as a scholar and the mission of my blog. Mythbusting is a quest for verifiable truth, and I do my best to explain how certain myths endure and why people choose to believe them.
Program booklet for the conference, featuring a collage of images alluding to several of the different topics covered by the papers.
Programme booklet for the Music and Musicology
in the Age of Post-Truth conference.

Since this conference intended to reflect on present culture, I realized I had to step away from my nineteenth-century comfort zone and find something recent to investigate. I pitched a paper that would be an offshoot of the lecture I delivered at Utah State University last January, which dealt with the perception of classical music as cultivating better morals in its listeners. Since the presentation could only be twenty minutes long (with ten additional minutes for questions and discussion), I had to narrow my focus. So, I chose one of the hottest topics in classical music at the moment: the scandals surrounding former Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Did Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring incite a riot at its premiere?

I knew this entry was inevitable from the moment I had the idea to start this blog. Of all the classical music myths, this might be the one most deeply entrenched in the popular imagination: the riot at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

The Rite of Spring premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The ballet depicts ritual sacrifice in prehistoric Russia, or at least what Stravinsky and his collaborators imagined “prehistoric Russia” to be. The premiere was expected to be a major cultural event, given the talent involved.

The Ballets Russes—literally, “Russian Ballet”—was a hot ticket, as Parisians were drawn to the Eastern exoticism of previous productions, including Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), both of which had music composed by the young up-and-comer Stravinsky. Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer, was known for his shocking and often risqué choreography (such as his 1912 performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d'un faune, reproduced in this video).

The performance was unlike anything the audience expected: the costumes were ugly, the choreography heavy, and the music harsh. In the words of 21st-century music critic Ivan Hewett:
“The audience was shocked – and with good reason. Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring contradicted every rule about what music should be. The sounds are often deliberately harsh…The music was cacophonously loud, assaulting the ears with thunderous percussion and shrieking brass. Rhythmically it was complex in a completely unprecedented way.”
Some in the audience booed and jeered at the performance, causing others to defend the artistic integrity of the ballet with shouts and insults, causing such a ruckus that no one could even hear the music, including the dancers. The fighting in the audience got so bad that some resorted to physical violence, causing a riot that overshadowed the actual performance.

So the story goes.

Even sites that aren’t devoted to classical music have published articles covering the riot, especially in light of the premiere’s centenary in 2013. As for classical music sites, you can count on it to appear on lists like “Top Five Crazy Riots in Classical Music” and “10 OMG moments in classical music” Radiolab devoted an episode of their podcast to reimagining the premiere “through the lens of modern neurology.” And, I confess, as a grad student I even taught this to a bunch of unsuspecting undergrads in a music appreciation course. But here’s the problem:

The riot never happened.