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.