A brilliant little list/essay was recently published, and I heartily recommend reading it. The subject? ‘Which composer should you fight?‘ I surely prefer violins to violence, but the topic is nevertheless intriguing. In the spirit of taking things a step further, I propose the following list: Which conductor should you fight? This is limited to historical (read: dead) conductors for…very obvious reasons.
Mendelssohn: A gentleman masquerading as an artist, despite the high quality of his genius, Mendelssohn would steer you away from a fight, then invite you to tea. No fighting.
von Bulow: Sure, you could take him, and it’d be a good, spirited fight. Unfortunately once it is over he would insist that you fight again.
Richard Strauss: He’d fight you, and would probably overwhelm you with futuristic moves. Your only chance at a victory is to make sure the fight drags on long enough for him to start thinking about the post-battle card game.
Arturo Toscanini:….you’re kidding, right?
Wilhelm Furtwangler: Oh God, the fists just don’t stop…
Leopold Stokowski: If those magical hands don’t get you, that magnificent hair will.
Fritz Reiner: His movements will be so small, you’ll never see them coming. Best to stay clear.
Bruno Walter: He’d put you down with just a few well placed punches…then gaze upon you with a heartbreaking expression of disappointment.
Karl Bohm: A tricky fight. He’ll lull you into a false sense of security, then somehow get you to match his very deliberate style of fighting.
Otto Klemperer: Run. Run fast, run far.
Sergiu Celibidache: Fight? Why would you want to fight? Just close your eyes and breathe…very slowly…that’s it…just breathe…
Sir George Solti: Pound for pound you will fight well, but his battle cry will finish you off.
von Karajan: Fight? Who gave you permission to fight?
Leonard Bernstein: You’ll lose, but he’ll make you feel like the best loser in the world.
Carlos Kleiber: Why would you fight him when you could not fight him instead?
A recent article in the Wall St. Journal reported on the awarding of a $400,000.00 grant from the Mellon Foundation to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Normally this would be cause for celebration: 6 figure grants for performing arts organizations are significant and not easy to win. Orpheus, besides being a top-flight ensemble, seems almost like a bit of a Cinderella story, especially today: formed in the 1970’s by a group of musicians who worked together from the start, building a sustainable organization and driven by their mission, they’ve become world renowned and an important institution in New York City. Yes, a $400,000.00 grant is nothing to sneeze at. The reason for this grant, however, may be cause for cautious optimism at best–and active worry at worst. A significant reason for the awarding of this grant is to hire more minorities–especially, at least ostensibly, latino and black musicians. The article quotes the League of American Orchestras figure which estimates that a mere 5% of orchestral musicians in the United States are of hispanic or black descent. A grant designed to address this problem seems, at first glance, to be a boon to those it may help. After all, bringing attention to the problem is the first step in rectifying it; taking steps to fix it is a logical second step. Unfortunately this sort of thing throws into sharp relief the problems behind the problem–many of which are not addressed at all. Perhaps the first issue is the lack of classical music in the ‘black’ and ‘latino’ communities. It was more than a century ago that one of the musical giants of the Romantic, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, visited the United States. During the four years he lived and worked here he taught, traveled and composed, among other things, his 9th Symphony, the ‘New World,’ which is regarded as one of his finest works (and certainly one of his most popular.) Dvorak also became familiar with the music of Native Americans and freed slaves–the so-called Negro Spirituals. His enthusiasm for this music was genuine, and he advised the American musical community to take advantage of this bounty and incorporate it into the American musical language. No less a person than Leonard Bernstein, arguably the most accomplished and admired classical musician that the United States has ever produced, also argued this point with great fervor, going so far to say in his senior thesis at Harvard, that “(To sum up, then:) American music owes one of its greatest debts to the Negroes, not only for the popularly acknowledged gift of jazz, but for the impetus which jazz has given to America’s art music. This incentive has come in two ways—melodically and rhythmically—with further support from tone color and contrapuntal feeling. Both the scale patterns and the rhythm patterns, as first manifested in jazz itself, were used freely in symphonic composition by men like Gershwin. With more advanced composers or with composers in a more advanced state [i.e., Sessions and Copland after 1929], this initial use—especially of the rhythms—has grown into a new style, which might be called the first tangible indigenous style that can be identified in American music.” While the particular merits of each argument may be debated in social and scholarly circles, the positions of both men are clear. Yet more than a century after Dvorak’s proclamation and three quarters of a century after Bernstein penned his thesis, the idea of a National Musical language influenced by indigenous and minority cultural experience largely remains an historical footnote. Classical music, unfortunately, remains a prisoner of stereotypes: that it is ivory tower music, elitist, snobby, inaccessible, and perhaps most unfortunately, that it is exclusively white. Blame is ample on both ‘sides’ of the problem: orchestras tend to cater to ‘traditional’ audiences, in traditional (and ‘safe’) venues, waiting for the willing to come to them. Non-traditional communities are ignored, but often don’t take initiative: disadvantaged youth, particularly those ‘of color,’ are not encouraged to listen to Beethoven and Brahms, not introduced to the instruments of the orchestra, and, simply, rarely, if ever, told that they could be a violinist (or pianist, or oboist, or composer) if they wished. It is a poor message to send, and perhaps the cornerstone of the issue. It is interesting to note the presence of high-budget orchestras in cities which have large black and hispanic communities. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, has a budget of nearly $100m, a black population of 9.6% and an hispanic population of 48.5%. Boston, whose famed Symphony comes in 2nd with a budget of $89m, includes populations which are 24% black and 17% hispanic. Orchestras in such cities with large minority populations as Baltimore (no. 15) St. Louis (no. 16) and Detroit (no. 17) are outside of the top 10 in budget size but, with budgets over $20m a season, still have plenty of resources. Orchestra administrators across the country often cite a desire to be more ‘representative (on stage) of the communities in which we play’; but when orchestras in these major cities include minority members whose numbers account for just 5% of membership, one may wonder how great that desire truly is. A second problem is that of the attempts at ‘solutions’ that have cropped up here and there in recent years. From the Sphinx competition to orchestral fellowship programs designed exclusively for ‘musicians of color’ to ensembles comprised of minority musicians, there have been some well recognized ‘innovations’ over the last decade or two. But oh, what problems they come with! A competition designed exclusively for a single demographic immediately attaches a qualification to its competitors–not to mention its winner. Thus the career of a ‘brilliant young violinist’ becomes the career of a ‘talented young black/latina’ violinist.’ Descriptive adjectives and personal pride in ones heritage aside, that sort of qualification can do as much harm as good, if not more. Instead of anticipation building ahead of a performance because the soloist is known for, say, an especially luxurious legato tone or a special way with Brahms, he or she becomes known simply as ‘the winner of this particular competition.’ In short, a musician–a complex human being!–becomes an other, possibly even a curiosity. Fellowships for minority musicians are helpful, but I wonder how they can help but being seen as a sort of affirmative action program. Music is hard enough: getting just the right colors in Debussy, the depth and subtlety of emotion in Brahms and the right articulation and tempi in Bach, for example, are challenges that require the most intense attention to detail. To be scrutinized for those details is difficult enough, particularly in an audition, but to have additional scrutiny because one is seen as the ‘other’ fellow–well, that is another thing entirely. And lastly–the idea of an ‘all ethnic’ ensemble is perhaps the ultimate double edged sword. It certainly runs the risk of reinforcing or affirming the convictions of those who may think that ‘people of color’ have little to no place in a professional symphony orchestra–that it is not ‘their’ music. Orchestras such as the ‘Soulful Symphony,’ performing gospel versions of Handel, could be seen as apologizing for (or even misunderstanding) classical music. Perhaps the best thing to take away from this is that music is designed to break down barriers, not to reinforce them. Beethoven has as much to say to a poor kid in the Bronx as it does to the Wall St. exec or PhD. The kid in the Bronx needs to know that he’s welcome: welcome at the children’s concert, welcome on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, welcome to take up the violin or the trumpet, welcome to love Beethoven and Brahms–and, perhaps some day, welcome to study at Juilliard and take his place in (or in front of) the orchestra, too. And for all the talk of hispanic and black, heritage and identity, that kid also needs to know this: when the music begins, that’s all that matters. What you are is irrelevant; who you are is important. Yes, there have been more outreach programs recently. Certainly the philosophy of ‘El Sistema’ has taken the country by storm, and programs are springing up all over the country. And of course the purpose served by organizations like Sphinx is noble and useful! But there is more to do–much more. And it really isn’t that complicated. So to Orpheus or any other organization out there that is ‘grappling’ with diversity, here is my advice: forget about diversity. Embrace inclusiveness. Do a runout concert in a rough neighborhood. Send your musicians to give free lessons in a failing middle school or high school. Preach the Word According to Beethoven, and let them know that his music is for them, too. And above all, don’t look at someone dark-skinned as an other, a minority, someone different: look at them as a friend, a colleague, a musician, a member of Schiller’s universal brotherhood. Look, listen, and give them a chance. That is worth far more than $400,000.00, and it’ll cost you far less.
Bravery is a difficult concept. It is a term that is overused and often misunderstood. It is currency for many, a source of esteem and a badge of honor. Yet even as ubiquitous as the desire to be brave is, bravery finds itself usurped and appropriated more often than not, too often relegated to a narrow set of circumstances, professions and personalities.
Bravery among artists, especially in our own epoch, seems to be a punch-line in search of a joke. As the Knight of the Lion argued in his passionate (if amusingly troublesome) speech, the sufferings of the man of arms is often seemingly much more profound than that of his counterpart in the profession of letters.
But there is also the adage about the pen and the sword, which has enough of the weight of history on its side to give even the most skeptical (or philistinic) among us pause, however brief. That the pen is sometimes mightier can be seen in the works of Voltaire and Jefferson, Ghandi and Goethe, and so many to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for the beauty and enlightenment of the modern age.
It is with this knowledge that a recent local controversy has left me shaking and scratching my head. A few weeks ago it was reported that a local high school chorus canceled a concert it was preparing to give. The cancellation was apparently in response to criticism over the choice of venue: namely, a church in the community. Since then the local paper has been flooded with letters bemoaning this choice; but those who opposed the performance on grounds of ‘intolerance’ (or exclusion) have stood their ground, with highly personal stories from third parties included in the discourse.
Perhaps this point of view has more to do with idealism than the personal musical and professional experience of the writer, but this controversy seems rather out of place. Music–and choral music perhaps more than any other sort–has a natural home in church, no matter the denomination. The contributions of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert–the list goes on, and the notable omissions are made only for the sake of brevity and, possibly, reinforcement of the point–were made with the church in mind, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, it was for the Church: in the case of Bach, for Sunday services or, in the case of the Passions, both for occasion and posterity (for it cannot be denied that Bach’s spirituality was central to his work–his fervor and sincerity cannot be discarded for the purpose of being politically correct, nor can it be regarded simply as a musicological pertinence.) Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were employed by the church, literally in the case of the former two composers, and in the case of the latter two by a deep, nearly pathological desire to express particular feelings. Indeed, is there any work in the repertoire which is more bold and cathartic than Beethoven’s mighty ‘Missa Solemnis’? And to offer yet another disclaimer–the cases of Haydn and Mozart are not to suggest at all a lack of spiritual motivation at the expense of that related to their career and financial prospects!
Now, in the literal sense, there is the matter of the Churches for which this music was conceived and composed. This is so both for the institution–the orchestra and choral musicians educated and employed by the church–and the physical structure–stone buildings which were highly resonant and offered incredible possibilities for compositional devices such as fugue and antiphonal counterpoint.
An attempt to disregard either influence for reasons either practical or politically correct is foolhardy. Worse yet, to disregard it in the context of education–the very setting in which a high school chorus rehearses and performs–is irresponsible.
Forget, for a moment, the associated disciplines to which studying choral music affords access–a beautiful advantage, particularly for the junior high or high school student in America. These disciplines are many, to be sure: foreign languages, history, theology, philosophy, poetry, drama, folk-lore, phonetics, diction. And let us also temporarily put aside, however painful it must be, the character building opportunities that come with it: discipline, honesty, team-work, trust, loyalty, persistence, and patience (especially in the case of young voices!) There is another valuable, essential–no, indispensable!–trait that this uproar overlooks: tolerance.
Tolerance may be the cranky uncle of that most beautiful Muse, Acceptance, who counts among her kin such luminaries as Patience, Wisdom, Empathy and Love. But tolerance, temperamental and imperfect though he may be, is a wonderful point of introduction to this healthy family which strives, through kind acts, to wear the crown of every civilization.
Music teaches us tolerance. It also demands it from us–whether composer, performer, academic or audience member, we are required to be tolerant. It can be a wonderful experience–in fact, it is often followed closely by Empathy and carries with it only the prerequisite of Sincerity.
How should we call ourselves musicians if we are prepared to go without Tolerance? One needn’t hold membership or even have personal experience to walk the proverbial mile in a strangers shoes. Must one be German to understand the spirit of Beethoven? It is entirely possible to sing a mass by Mozart or Haydn without so much as ever having been inside a Catholic church. Do we need to be an expert in modern music to correctly play the Berg violin concerto, a Lutheran to sing a Bach cantata or to have braved a few dozen Moscow winters to do justice to Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich? No, this is not required. But Tolerance–ah, that is so very necessary! For with Tolerance, our eyes are opened to the strength of Beethoven; the setting of Mozart’s Latin is revealed to be profound as well as masterful; the excruciating agony of the Berg emerges from the dissonance clothed in the robes of Heaven; the spirituality of Bach leaps forth from the page; the brooding introspection of Tchaikovsky becomes a chance to comfort a dear friend; and the sense of fear and the courage in its face shown by Shostakovich is made manifest.
The setting of a concert, whether humble or grandiose, is ultimately irrelevant: music takes us to a higher place. To perform music in a religious venue does not confer on the performance or the music a sense of religiousness. And houses of worship, despite being home to a particular religious community, are meant to be homes to all: warm, welcoming and safe. If this is not the case, then shame on that house–it is their own problem, whether through failure or hypocrisy. But we should not and cannot blame the music for existing, nor the composers who wrote it for having faith (or not having it, for that matter.)
Yes: we must be brave. And that should begin with tolerance.
There have recently been a few top-10 lists about classical music floating around. I’ve never been a huge fan of such lists–they aren’t especially useful, are by nature subjective and lead to the omission of the worthy and, not infrequently, the inclusion of the unworthy.
However, there are some silver-linings to these lists. They can provoke thought and introspection on the part of the author; they may be subjective, but they force us to reveal our tastes, whether driven by aesthetic judgement, emotion, nostalgia or, the dark side, prejudices. And though the omission of the worthy (works, artists, etc) is always lamentable, it does foster a sense of spirited debate which can often lead to greater understanding. Finally, though it is also not entirely useful, there is one more upside to lists: making them can be fun!
In this spirit of reflection and merriment, I am listing–not necessarily in any particular order–some of my favorite moments in music.
Brahms: 4th symphony, trombone chorale
Brahms’ 4th is a powerful work. It is unique in several ways. It is the only minor-minor–that is, both beginning and ending in a minor key–of Brahms’ symphonic works. It is the only one of his symphonies to add a stylized movement (the 3rd, which is quite Hungarian, even adding a triangle.) But perhaps most notably, it is a curious farewell. Composed more than a decade before Brahms’ death, it does not carry the Paramount grandeur of Beethoven’s final (completed) symphonic work, the transparent ferocity of Dvorak’s ‘New World’ symphony or the mystical, ethereal and death-obsessed aura of Bruckner and Mahler’s respective 9th symphonies. But being thoroughly introspective, with moments of levity and light still draped in autumnal melancholy–in essence, quintessential Brahms–it leaves the listener leaving the concert hall with as many questions as answers.
The final movement looks to the past through the form of pasacaglia. Summoning all of his considerable creative strength, Brahms states his theme with the vigor and forcefulness of a great orator. The early variations storm along with an overwhelming energy and a passion much less restrained than we expect from the Man who Would Woo Clara. In the middle of the movement, however, he slows himself considerably, and we are given a lovely melody in the flute: lilting, even pastoral. And then comes the Moment.
Trombones–used only for special (mostly ecclesiastical) occasions in the Baroque and Classical, and for Weimarian Bombast in the romantic–take over, presenting a chorale that is simple but breathtaking. Yes, they yield to and are joined by a horn a few moments later..but by that time the goosebumps have come to stay. Well played, Herr Brahms. Well played indeed.
Bruckner: 4th Symphony ‘The Romantic’, 4th movement coda
Bruckner is greatly misunderstood, and largely under-appreciated. He is to music what Kant is to philosophy. Lacking the charisma of a Wagner, the charm of Liszt or the relative brevity of Brahms, he nevertheless stood among them as a titan of the romantics and as sincere an artist as any that the era produced.
His 4th (and arguably most accessible) symphony is full of merriment, bombast and charm. Its nickname has more to do with the Song of Roland than the sentiments of 19th century sensuality, but it is not strictly program music. It is full of wonderful moments, but for me none is more hair-raising than the final 3 minutes or so: the coda.
Starting softly and building slowly but steadily, he builds to an incredible climax and a simple but powerful ending. Not a bad way to end the night.
Mozart: Symphony No. 40, 4th movement–beginning of the development
I’ll keep this entry brief: 12 tone music, in Mozart? Why, yes. Yes it is.
Bach: Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Prelude in E-flat Major
Bach is filled with wonder, and WTC is as full of marvels as you will find anywhere in the repertoire.
The whole of the E-flat major prelude is a wonder–it leaves me breathless, filling me, in the space of a few minutes, with the emotion of an entire month. My favorite moment is the beginning of the chorale: coming on the heels of a grandiose opening and brief moment of technical brilliance, it seems like the pre-service music for an average, quiet Lutheran Sunday morning. That it is to be followed by such a torrent of counterpoint (leaving one to wonder if, perhaps, Bach is in fact ready to begin the fugue!) shows us just how dramatic and crafty the grand old man could be.
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade–trombone entrance, 2nd movement
Scheherazade is a curious work in some ways. It is one of the pieces of truly great music that lacks truly great music. It is brilliant, evocative, thoughtful–and fun! I dare say that it would be at home on a program of light classics as much as on any subscription concert. But there is nothing about it that is epoch-making, uniquely profound or philosophical. On the other hand, it is not whimsical or empty. One might call it thoughtful fun. One might also call it a concerto for orchestra–with all apologies to Bartok–due to the unabashed orchestral and solo virtuosity which it both demands and displays.
The 2nd movement begins in such a lovely, lilting manner that we must take care not to be lulled into a false sense of security. But at the moment the celli and basses growl, we are jolted upright–and then the trombone gives its call. It is not the most exciting moment in the movement–one which is filled with wonderful solos–but it builds anticipation in a marvelous way.
Chausson: Symphony, 3rd movement opening
Chausson was a wonderful French composer who died in a freak bicycle accident. So, remember kids and hipsters–always wear your helmets. He also had a lot in common with Wagner: they both loved medieval subjects, both loved chromatic harmony, and both adored Wagner.
His symphony is woefully underplayed and is absolutely wonderful. Using cyclical form without the same, shall we say, self-awareness of some of his contemporaries, it is an excellent example of the technique.
The opening of the 3rd movement is absolutely hair-raising. Like a great novel, it leaves one wondering, at every moment, what will come next. It’s well worth a listen…or two, or three.
This is a greatly abridged list, but it’s a start. And now to you, dear readers–what are some of your favorite moments, and why?
Evil is winning. It is in the hearts of our leaders; it is flirted with by our celebrities. It drives central components of our societies and economies, and it laughs heartily. It is a master of disguise, and is adept at seduction, oratory and charm. However, it will not prevail. And how should this be? Because its enemy is love. Love, as we are reminded, is patient. Love is kind. Love is not callous, nor is it jealous. Therefore, it will not give up. It will not fight with hatred. It will be understanding, it will wait, and it does not need the limelight. It may be ragged and wounded on its day of victory, but it will stand victorious nonetheless. So go out and seek love. Not sex, not lust, not infatuation, not conspicuous ‘philanthropy’ or a (conspicuously) vocal reaction to scenes of evil: seek love. If you don’t know where to find it, I can offer suggestions based on experience. Look in nature. Look in the love of your parents. Listen for it in the laughter–and the wisdom–of a child. Read it in the words of the great novels and poems. Digest it through the words of the philosophers. Live it through music. And above all, feel it–it is in you at all times, in every cell of your body. Be patient, be kind, be understanding, be compassionate, be hungry for a healthy humanity–and you will find love.
A recent article posed a fascinating question: Is it possible for someone to be a genuinely nice person and also be a great artist? The argument against the possibility was a strong one, at least as far as historical and empirical evidence was concerned. Throughout the ages there have been many examples of artists whose bodies of work were virtually celestial, yet their sense of humanity, at least in terms of day to day life and relationships, was closer to hellish. The obvious example is Wagner: a womanizer who stole his friends wife, a man who supported a violent revolution in the hopes of wiping out debt and a rabid bigot, he also wrote some of the most sublimely beautiful and profound works in western civilization.
An entire article could be devoted to creators whose work and personal lives were a paradox, but the article to which I refer focused more on the recreators–specifically orchestral musicians and conductors.
Conductors make easy targets for many reasons. It is no secret that the baton seems to come with a license for conspicuous displays of ego, a subjective set of criteria when it comes to evaluation and a long leash in terms of tolerating bad bad behavior.
Conductors make the big bucks, get to stand in the spotlight and take credit for the work of others and often get away with certain types of behavior–such as sexism and verbal abuse–that is generally frowned upon in society. It has long been so, of course; the difference is that in our increasingly tolerant (or at the very least politically correct) world, this behavior is now named and, usually, not tolerated quite so much. There are notable exceptions, of course, but that also is not the subject of this particular essay.
The question is this: why is there a need for a conductor to behave in an abusive manner towards his (or her) musicians? Our mothers always taught us that it is easier to catch flies with honey rather than vinegar; at what point is this lesson lost?
The complexity of the conductors craft is quite interesting to examine. The public, after all, merely sees the end result: the elegantly dressed, perfectly coiffed maestro standing on the podium, furiously and passionately waving his arms and leading his frenzied players into the musical abyss, always emerging triumphant by the finale. Magic, they cry, genius! How is it possible?
True, there are elements of magic involved; that is, if getting 100 egos to form one voice constitutes magic. And genius–as Issac Stern called it, ‘that most overused term’–is bound to be encountered. There are few conductors who possess it, but every good conductor is familiar with it and, by virtue of leading performances of such composers as Mozart and Beethoven, will often have a brush with it, of only by proxy. How does this translate into actual performance?
As I mentioned earlier, the concert itself is only the final step in a long and complex process. Ignoring the first part of that process–the training of a conductor as a musician and then as a leader on the podium–the rest falls into three parts: score study, rehearsal and performance.
Score study is the way a conductor practices. I would like to say that it is an exciting (or at least entertaining) activity, but that would be an outrageous lie. Most of score study is quite routine and would hardly suggest to the observer any sort of special quality on the part of the subject. The conductor sits at a desk or table, score spread out in front of him; close at hand are a metronome, array of pencils, staff paper, dictionary (usually Italian, French and/or German) and ruler. The latter is especially useful for doubling as a tool for self-flagellation, a necessary part of the process. It is easy to imagine a chorus of angels and Heavenly sunbeam always at the ready for those frequent moments of epiphany (“A-HA! That’s what Beethoven meant!”), but most Angels these days are unionized; and the fact of the matter is that those moments are much rarer than most conductors care to admit. So it is usually a process carried out in complete isolation.
The second is rehearsal, and that is where this excellent question comes into play. It is worth noting that a generation (or two) ago, the idea of conductor as God was rarely, if ever, questioned. The conductor was a dictator; what he said (and it was always a he) went. The conductor could hire and fire at will; he could berate, cajole, threaten, insult and injure. Orchestras played in terror–and this was in addition to being, most of the time, overworked and underpaid (to the point that even members of major orchestras sometimes had to take second jobs outside of music.) Modern conductors (present company excluded, naturally!) refer to this era in this history of conducting as ‘the good old days.’
But were they? By modern sensibilities, certainly not! What good is a threat when trying to coax a musician into creating a thing of beauty?
The true power of a conductor is, when one considers its depth, a truly awesome thing. Conducting is unique in the world of leadership–even today. Think about this: the President of a country–say, for example, the United States of America–does not have absolute power. In military matters, he consults his joint Chiefs of Staff; in matters of legislation, he is limited by checks and balances and battled by Congress; when it comes to justice, the Supreme Court limits his power. Even day to day he is advised by his senior staff and his cabinet–and, of course, the threat of being tried by the court of public opinion. In baseball, a manager has to report to his general manager (and team of statisticians), not to mention the owners and, these days, take into account the reports from his training staff and bench coach. In the corporate world there is the CEO–responsible to his shareholders and the market itself.
It is not so for the conductor! Can one imagine a board member approaching him during a break in rehearsal and suggesting a different type of legato in the slow movement of a Brahms symphony? Would an assistant, mid-rehearsal, suggest a change in tempo? How about a concertmaster standing up before a concert and announcing to the audience that tonight the orchestra has decided to go in a different direction, but that they might reconsider the conductors interpretation on another occasion?
No, those scenarios are unthinkable! And those are just the bureaucratic powers a conductor holds. What about the artistic?
The dirty little secret about conducting is that the baton makes no sound. No conductor, no matter how brilliant and accomplished a musician, can make music alone. Yet the power of that baton can be overwhelming. The collective wisdom of an orchestra is always greater than the individual knowledge of the conductor; yet it is the conductor who holds the virtuosity of his musicians in his hands. A conductor can coax different sounds from his musicians; he can make them play faster or slower, louder and softer. When he inspires, he can make talent sound like genius and genius into transcendence; when he cajoles, he is more likely to get (in the best case) an excellent, note perfect performance; but in doing so the orchestra may sound like him rather than like the composer.
The struggle for freedom and identity by orchestral players is a daily grind, an exercise in humility as the virtuoso subjugates individual talent for the good of the whole and in service of a master. Again, when a conductor inspires, the whole becomes a family and the master is rightly acknowledged as the composer and his ideals; but when the conductor is abusive, the orchestra becomes a band of survivors and the master is only the conductor himself. It is an old story and a fascinating drama to see being played out in concert halls and opera houses around the world. But only the conductor may decide whether the drama serves a purpose or merely his own ego.
Why do we place responsibility in the hands of politicians? Why do we expect that they can (and will) effect change in any positive way? When did the artist–the musician, writer, philosopher, teacher–lose power? When will the citizenry of humanity realize that man does not need to be governed, but rather inspired?
Program music is a tricky thing to experience. Whether conducting it, performing it, listening to it or even composing it, it is difficult to avoid falling into a sort of extra-musical purgatory from which emergence is often difficult.
This kind of music has two chief concerns. The first is its genesis: it was a product of the Romantic, pioneered by Liszt and a cornerstone of the ‘Music of the Future.’ The goal of the romantics was hyper-emotional expression, with an emphasis on individuality. Sometimes this meant musical individuality, but it often meant that of the composer—and his ego. Thus it became entirely possible for the subject of program music, whether heroic or tragic, to be a representation of the composer himself rather than a musical exploration of an extra-musical subject such as literature, art or history.
The second concern was the place of this kind of music within the scope of musical form. Program music sat comfortably (perhaps uncomfortably!) at the intersection of absolute music—pure, some would say—and storytelling. The former was, in orchestral terms, expressed most powerfully by the symphony, which was fast becoming a cornerstone of concert and compositional culture as Beethoven’s life drew to a close and the first wave of romantics, including Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Wagner, began to mature. As the symphony orchestra became independent and concert culture evolved, the symphony took on new meanings—and new dimensions. Its evolution into a vehicle for program music was an intriguing form of intellectual and musical currency, albeit only one side of a very large coin.
The latter became increasingly complex. Music had always been used as a storytelling device, and it crossed boundaries very easily. Stories were told around campfires with singing and dancing; this had always been true. Folk-songs were story-telling devices almost as a rule. Opera had found a way to marry music, drama and literature in an entirely new way and was two centuries old by the time the Romantic era began. And even the Catholic Church, with their strict rules about…well, everything…had room for musical storytelling: forms such as the Miserere and Stabat Mater were very popular among composers.
Program music was not always about a story, of course. It sometimes dealt with ideas and philosophies, specific emotions and experiences. A linear narrative was not necessary; but imagery abounded, aided by the unbridled passions of the romantic composer and the ever-expanding orchestra and art of orchestration.
So with program music, where does the musician or listener begin? For that matter, where does a composer begin? The latter is an intriguing question with which to begin. First is the selection of the subject. It is an idea? Is it an existing work, such as a painting or character from a novel? Is the goal to recreate faithfully the inspiration for the music, or to merely suggest it through imagery? Is it an interpretation of that work or a reimagining of it? And then what should the audience listen for? Which is more powerful—symbolism or literal meaning?
Some composers’ intentions seemed clearer than others. The opening of Strauss’ Don Juan is brimming with bravado and virility; it is not only clear that Strauss is introducing us to the legendary lover but that the composer has definite ideas as to what kind of lover he is. We may hear clearly that this man, Don Juan, loves love, loves women, and is a master of seduction. We understand immediately that this is not the scoundrel of Mozart’s opera but the complex protagonist from the original story—with, perhaps, a slightly Straussian influence.
Other times we are entirely unclear as to where we are in a story—or what that story is! In the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, we are informed by the title ‘The Kalendar Prince’ of the subject for the movement. The story involves a young Prince and his misadventures following the escape of a coup-d’état. Rimsky-Korsakov spins a magnificent web of sound, with brilliant orchestration and virtuosic exclamations from every section of the orchestra. It is marvelously exciting music and wonderfully written. But alas—there seems to be no hint of the Prince himself, or anything resembling a narrative of any kind! To try and find one or interpret the program literally is utterly confounding.
This is where the matter of music interpretation comes into play, along with a host of questions. How intimately acquainted with the original subject matter should the musician be? Is it part of a larger tradition? Such is the case with Don Juan, which Mozart set to great effect, and Strauss revered Mozart; so is it fair to ask whether Strauss was influenced not only by Molina and Byron but by Mozart as well? What of the context of a movement or motif in a larger work? With Scheherazade it is clear that the second movement is not a literal musical telling of the Kalendar story; perhaps the movement is about Scheherazade’s telling of the story rather than the story itself? But then, though the work evokes the mysticism of the Orient, it is at its heart Russian—so, then, should it sound ‘authentically’ Oriental or authentically Russian? Ah, the questions!
There is yet another matter that arises from the performance of programmatic music, and that is music which has been taken from a dramatic work. The orchestral repertoire is full of overtures and suites taken from ballet, opera and stage plays.
How does the meaning of the music change by being transported from the stage to the concert hall? Clearly the audience is now tasked with shifting their attention from singers or dancers to the orchestra. And how should the orchestra respond? After all, they are no longer accompanying theater but are now the main attraction. Certain considerations made necessary due to the technical concerns of accompanying may, in theory, no longer apply. Suddenly a written p, necessary so as not to drown out a singer, may be played mp or mf. Shall the dynamic be altered or will it remain p with a different quality and color? Similarly, a tempo may be adjusted: Allegro with the quarter at precisely 126 may be perfect for a performance with dancers, but with an orchestra on its own it may change. Would going slightly faster (assuming it sounded good!) change the music drastically or give a better or worse effect? Would new meanings reveal themselves? Ah, there is the magic!
In the end, we may be left with one important question: Does program music tell the story of the story—or the story itself?
There has recently been much discussion regarding ‘the death of classical music.’ Such conversations are nothing new, of course; classical music has been dying for some time and yet always manages to outlive the very authors of its obituary. Yet the whispers persist, too often rising to a dull roar and, now and then, erupting as a full-throated shout from the rooftops.
It is most unfortunate, because classical music is actually doing quite well. In spite of the funeral march we have witnessed many exciting developments in the field in recent years: record ticket sales at some orchestras, the introductions of new outreach programs, the establishment of modern music ensembles and festivals, the proliferation of orchestras and opera houses in new markets across the world, exciting young soloists bursting onto the scene and the release of notable and important new recordings. And the music–oh, the music! Mozart and Beethoven have aged extremely well; their music is still as fresh and vibrant as it was in the Enlightenment and Napoleonic Europe. Mahler’s prophecies about the future of his music have come to pass and he has become a repertoire mainstay. The eternally autumnal glow of Brahms’ oeuvre continues to find new ways to warm us and his romantic-era sparring partner, Wagner, has continued its Kantian hold over our collective psyches. Yes, the music is just fine, thank you very much.
But, back to the issue of death. Yes, to read recent articles would leave the music lover scratching his or her head in puzzlement. While there are problems–real problems which need to be solved–the music, that which is most important, is absolutely fine. So why do we keep reading such grim reports?
The fact is that there has been a death in the classical world, a death which we should all mourn. Unfortunately it has gone unreported, its corpse still animated and somewhat coherent. It is a death in two parts, with one all but completely gone and the other still in the throes of Denial.
This is the death of musical criticism.
The first death is the most lamentable. Full time positions for critics and journalists have been eliminated at major publications across the United States, leaving many audiences without a voice. This may lead to a sigh of relief for musicians and arts administrators in some corners; but the fact is that a critic (a good critic) is an essential voice in a musical community. That these positions have begun to disappear is cause for real alarm and dismay, and we may only hope that they may experience a resurrection in the future.
The second death, however, is regrettable for different reasons. This death is not yet complete, but the animated remains are too often kept alive only by large amounts of hubris. This death, that which still resides in Denial, is the death of the Critic (or Journalist) as Artist.
Musical commentary seems largely to have followed the trend of journalism in general. Fact is replaced by conjecture; insight by opinion; a desire for truth by a desire to be first, loudest or most sensational. This is not to say that it has always been different historically. On the contrary: musical criticism in the 19th and early 20th century was often salacious and motivated by politics, leading to near destruction of some of the greatest musicians in history. Yet there were notable bright spots: this was an art practiced by Schumann, Shaw and Twain, after all! And the one thing those men had in common: they always wrote about the music.
Today, sadly, we seem to read more about the politics and finances of institutions; the personal lives, rather than the musical insights, of performers; and, worst of all, comparisons of performances to other performances (or even recordings.) This last matter is most troubling. To compare one orchestra to the other, especially in the performance of a particular work, is not especially helpful. To compare one performance to an historical performance is often even less productive. Certainly the commentary may be interesting or entertaining, but the only comparison which truly matters is that of a performance to the score. The intentions of the composer are the most important things to consider. What a great conductor or orchestra did in the past; what traditions have developed over time; these are beside the point. To offer any meaningful commentary, one must begin with the score.
Unfortunately it is rarely thus. Aside from the often mediocre quality of the writing in general, especially in non-traditional formats, reviews seem to spend a very little time actually writing about the music. And why should this be so? The musicians of an orchestra have a responsibility to the music: to inspire those who hear it. Likewise, the journalist has an obligation: he must find a way to inspire his readers to love this music, to become curious, to explore, learn and grow. Far too many seem to buy into the most ridiculous aspect of the ‘brand’ of classical music: gleeful snobbery.
There are excellent journalists writing today, absolutely; but we need many, many more. If the critics are to be the proverbial watchers, then on whom may we rely in turn to watch them? In an age of ubiquitous musical virtuosity, it is time for a few more Virtuosi of the Pen.