Thursday, June 30, 2016

What happened to English music between Purcell and Elgar?

In addition to sporadically updating this blog, I write program notes for classical music ensembles. Part of the reason my posting schedule is erratic is that summer is my busy season; many orchestras like having all notes for their entire season in one booklet, so I have to write them well before their first concert in the fall. When researching my own notes, I sometimes consult program notes by other people, and too often I find examples of how not to write about music.

When researching a piece by Henry Purcell, I found a sentence that made me facepalm:
Purcell's early death, at the age of thirty-six, not only cut short one of the most promising of careers, but also sidetracked the development of a specifically English musical style until Elgar and then Britten emerged some two centuries later.
This was published for one of the world’s most prestigious ensembles, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! My home city should do better than this.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What is a “Masterpiece”?

UCLA musicologist (and friend of the blog) Robert Fink tagged me in a link to an essay about the watering down of the word “masterpiece.” As a lover of language, I do mourn the loss of specificity of certain words. Even though I acknowledge that language changes (and that it has to), I love the 18th century definitions of “sublime” and “picturesque,” and I wish that the former still conveyed a sense of overwhelming vastness while the latter still connoted variation and interesting juxtapositions.

But while Terry Teachout claims to be defending a dictionary definition in his article “‘Masterpieces’ Without Masters,” his sense of the word is tied up with a lot of Romanticized ideas of art and its production. And by “Romanticized,” I do mean that his way of addressing this topic is filled with ideas that originated in the 19th century. I have two main problems with Teachout’s essay: his rigid division between “popular culture” and “high art,” and his idea that a masterpiece must by definition exclude collaboration. To support this second point, Teachout makes many erroneous assumptions about how works of art, particularly classical music, are created.

Monday, June 20, 2016

You can’t change the canon…or can you?

Earlier this month, the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras met in Baltimore to discuss, among other things, the future of live classical music. Music critic Anne Midgette covered the conference for The Washington Post with an article about how musicians are tackling existential questions, reconsidering orchestras’ missions and even the purpose of concerts in the 21st century. One quote from the conference caught a lot of attention, particularly on Twitter:
I re-tweeted Simon Brackenborough’s response, thinking defiantly, “Hells yeah! We can change the canon!” As a Good Musical Citizen and Friend to Composers, that’s the reaction that feels correct. Despite the religious connotations of the term “canon,” it wasn’t ordained by God. Humans made the canon, and humans can change the canon—in fact, it’s been in a constant state of change since its inception. So, in the literal sense, Laing’s statement is false.

But I don’t think Laing meant his words literally, so I’m not going to pillory him. He’s a musician; I suspect he said it with resignation, maybe even some frustration. Yes, you can change the canon, but inertia has made it difficult to do so. The concept of the canon developed about 200 years ago, and while individual works have gained and lost canonic status, the idea of THE CANON remains a significant influence on concert and radio programming.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Is Tchaikovsky’s "Pathétique" Symphony a Suicide Note?

I haven’t updated this blog in a week, mostly because I graduated from UC Santa Barbara on Sunday, earning a PhD in Music. I’ve been preoccupied with the logistics of visiting relatives and the hooding ceremony. But my personal celebration has been tempered by a national tragedy, the attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 people. It’s an attack on humanity, and it’s an acute reminder to my friends in the LGBTQ+ community that their lives are in danger by virtue of who they are.

Among the many discussions on social media in response to the massacre, UC Riverside musicologist Byron Adams linked to an article in The Guardian about how some news coverage has glossed over the fact that the victims were targeted for being gay. He has studied the erasure of gay identities in music reception over the centuries, and the conversation on his post turned to a topic that fits with the mission of this blog: The myth that Tchaikovsky committed suicide from shame over a homosexual affair. This entry was shaped by my conversation with Dr. Adams on this topic, and I am grateful for his assistance.

Here’s the myth: Tchaikovsky had an affair with a young nobleman, and alumni of the School of Jurisprudence (where Tchaikovsky studied in the 1850s) thought it would discredit their institution. So, fearing blackmail and/or wishing to preserve honor, Tchaikovsky poisoned himself. As he died just nine days after the premiere of his sixth symphony, the work can be considered his suicide note, the last testament of a dying man.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

How "forgotten" was Bach?

Today, I'm getting back to one of the original goals of this blog: debunking myths about composers that have been repeated so many times that they're accepted as truth. This particular myth has resurfaced because Sotheby's recently auctioned the original publishing contract for J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the work that rekindled interest in Bach's music when Felix Mendelssohn performed it in 1829, over a century after it was written. Or, as our friends at Classic FM put it, "Bach would’ve been completely forgotten by history without this document."

The myth is that Bach's music had been forgotten until Mendelssohn resurrected him. You'll find it in biographic profiles and lists of interesting facts. It's an appealing tidbit because it seems so contrary to our perception of Bach today. Bach is one of the few classical composers that most people have even heard of; even if they can't name him, people can at least recognize a few bars of his work. Whenever we see a television character appreciating some Bach, we know we're meant to understand that their brain is processing information at a higher level, thanks to popular culture linking Bach's music to depictions of genius (a phenomenon that started in the twentieth century, as studied by my friend Kristi Brown-Montesano). Since Bach is ubiquitous nowadays, it would be easy to assume that it’s always been that way. Finding out that it was the exact opposite way for decades after his death is pleasantly surprising, in that it's something you can say to impress people at parties.

Like most myths, this one is based on a kernel of truth. Bach was not famous in his own time, certainly not an international superstar like Handel. Mendelssohn did organize a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and that concert did much to popularize Bach. But it would be inaccurate to call Bach "forgotten" up to 1829, and Mendelssohn is not solely responsible for launching Bach's posthumous career. Though the myth of Mendelssohn "discovering" Bach might lead one to imagine him as a musical Indiana Jones stumbling across a dusty manuscript, eyes widening as he gradually realizes its brilliance, that just wasn't the case.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Will these suggestions make classical concerts less "stifling"?

Classical music needs to attract new listeners. This isn't news. Pretty much anyone who cares about the future of classical music realizes this, and to believe otherwise is to be in denial. This isn't another  hand-wringing pronouncement that "Classical music is dying!"—it's an acknowledgment that classical music is subject to cultural forces and needs to build audiences with each generation in order to endure.

How to attract these new listeners remains the subject of debate. Some have proposed augmenting the concert experience, adding features that might help the highly sough-after "millennials" feel more at ease during a live performance—such as these listening guides by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which use notation that resembles video games such as Rock Band to explain form. Some argue that the concert experience itself need to change, due to classical music's image problem: it's too stuffy and old fashioned, and concert traditions are alienating.

Toronto critic Michael Vincent falls into this latter camp (though the positions I mentioned are not mutually exclusive, nor are they comprehensive). Earlier this week, he published a list of "Nine Things That Should Change About Classical Music." He explains, "[T]he concert etiquette at classical music performances can be a stifling experience for newbies attending symphony concerts."

Having taught music appreciation classes at UCSB, I agree with that assessment. Many of my students expressed confusion over certain traditions, including ones on Vincent's list. I like that Vincent focuses on the rituals surrounding music rather than the music itself; despite the headline, he is pointing out aspects of classical concerts he thinks should change.