Posts Tagged: Wagner

I love this quote

from Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher, p. 269:

What to my mind sets Wagner and Shakespeare apart from other artists is the fact that they deal with everything.  Their works confront the totality of human experience, and present our emotional life as it is, in its wholeness.  So much of even the greatest art is aspirational, concerned with, and aiming at, ideals.  Bach said he was composing his music to the greater glory of God; Beethoven said he was trying to express the highest of human aspirations; and one could multiply these sentiments many times over by quoting from the mouths of some of the greatest of artists.  Art that springs from such motives can be wonderful, but cannot articulate the realities of human feeling across more than part of its range.  Wagner’s work, by contrast, is not aspirational but cognitive, truth-telling; and he tells it like it is, down to emotions we disown.  Shakespeare does the same, across an even bigger canvas.  If Wagner is enabled to go deeper it is only because his chief expressive medium is music rather than words.

Now me: I think Mahler was aspiring to do what Wagner did naturally (if not heedlessly,) but it comes off as self-conscious and pretentious in his music instead of id-driven and inexorable as in Wagner’s.

In other news, if you ever get a chance to hear Tchaikovsky’s conservatory dissertation setting of “Ode to Joy”, run for the hills.  Aside from a precious few lovely moments, it’s just one primitive melody after another, set in a wandering morass of the blandest counterpoint.  However, I find it deeply gratifying to know that the composer of Pique Dame and the “Pathétique” Symphony did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus.  Not every great composer had to start off that way, and that gives hope for the rest of us.

I mention this piece because we’re performing it on a concert with Beethoven’s 9th.  Beethoven’s music, of course, completely overwhelms the text, tossing it around like a raft upon a stormy sea.

Luckily for Schiller, one musician set “An die Freude” perfectly, lending just the right wind to its sails: Franz Schubert.

Civic Orchestra 4/11/11: Addenda

This concert featured pieces by four composers who were all innovators in the areas of harmony, orchestration, musical form, and music-drama.  Here’s some examples of what they did and where they came from:

Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826)

Below is the first part of the famous “Wolf’s Glen” scene in Der Freishchütz.  Note Weber’s use of low, dark orchestral string colors and demonic shrieks from the woodwinds to represent cavorting with dark powers in this eerie space.  The arrival of Max, the young gamesman, is accompanied by bright horn calls, our constant reminder that he is a man of the hunt.

[The production below, overall, is pretty cool and certainly very striking.  If you are easily offended by rabbit pornography, however, I’d recommend skipping 1:40 – 1:50.]

Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)

The best part about researching 19th century composers is getting to read their own writings.  This is especially true in the case of Berlioz.  Never has there been or will be a more over-the-top, extravagant musician or man, prone to bouts of depression and, especially, exaggeration.  Berlioz’s Memoirs make for immensely entertaining reading, and I recommend them highly.  All you have to do is look at some of the chapter and page headings:

Berlioz’s memoirs take us back to a time when artists still presented themselves passionately, vividly, fearlessly.  In recent times, this seems to have gone out of fashion.

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)

The Civic Orchestra concert included the little known Wagner work Eine Faust-Ouvertüre.  Another work dating from around the same period (1839 – 40) is the overture Wagner wrote for the German playwright Guido Theodor Apel’s Columbus.  Here’s what it sounds like:

Wagner presented this piece on a concert that was attended by Berlioz.  He writes in Mein Leben about the experience of presenting this work in Paris:

One great objection was the difficulty of finding capable musicians for the six cornets required, as the music for this instrument, so skillfully played in Germany, could hardly, if ever, be satisfactorily executed in Paris.  I was compelled to reduce my six cornets to four, and only two of these could be relied upon.

As a matter of fact, the attempts made at the rehearsal to produce those very passages on which the effect of my work chiefly depended were very discouraging.  Not once were the soft high notes played but they were flat or altogether wrong.  In addition to this, as I was not going to be allowed to conduct the work myself, I had to rely upon a conductor who, as I was well aware, had fully convinced himself that my composition was the most utter rubbish – an opinion that seemed to be shared by the whole orchestra.  Berlioz, who was present at the rehearsal, remained silent throughout.  He gave me no encouragement, though he did not dissuade me.  He merely said afterwards, with a weary smile, ‘that it was very difficult to get on in Paris.”

Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951)

Schoenberg is so well known both by lovers and haters of 20th century modernism as its radical founding father, that it’s interesting to remember his firm grounding in the Wagnerian Romantic tradition:

Top 10 Most Influential Composers

List #2 in my Top 10 Top 10 lists game.  Today, we look at the composers whose music inspired the musicians who came after them.  I’d like to note that, in general, this is something that is totally out of a composer’s control – how can they possibly know if their musical language will be absorbed by anyone following them?  [The big exception is people like Shönberg who were also significant teachers and disseminators.]  So, I’m mostly trying to judge a simple historical fact here, not a composer’s talent or skill in “being influential”.

1. Guillaume de Machaut (1300 – 1377)

I realize it’s sort of obnoxious to start my list with someone who is only slightly older than music itself, and whose name is only vaguely familiar to the most astute of  Early Music History Review students, but isn’t being sort of obnoxious one of the tenets of good blogging?

Guillaume really does deserve pride of place here for a lot of reasons – basically, he influenced a century and a half of musicians after him, something that very few other people have done.  He popularized the use of four voices in mass settings, he added complexity to popular song forms, and he was also an accomplished poet.  His intense vanity compelled him to publish his “collected works” in several volumes at the end of his life, something noone else had ever done and something that added considerably to the idea of music publishing and dissemination, not to mention scholarship.

Guillaume’s music sounded like this:

(Messe de Notre Dame, Hilliard Ensemble)

Influenced: Basically every 14th, 15th, and 16th century composer right up through Josquin and Vittoria.  In fact he’s so influential, that some crazy person let loose on the grounds of Deutsche Grammaphon’s corporate headquarters even released a CD of Machaut remixes (including one by Brad Mehldau).

2. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

Time to break out the big guns, boys – Johann’s in town.  Bach’s name will appear on a good many of these lists, because he did a good many things.  Even though he was beyond everyone in his own time period, he was considered old-fashioned.  Ever the musician’s musician, he continued to be revered by composers and scholars even when his public image languished.

Influenced: His sons (JC, CPE, and the rest of his alphabetic brood), Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Brahms, Hindemith, and probably everyone that ever wrote two lines of counterpoint.

And he very definitely influenced Mahler.  From deep in the bowels of the “Resurrection” Symphony:

3. George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

In his short lifespan, George Gershwin wrote popular tunes that were irresistible to broadway, classical, and jazz musicians alike.  Jazz musicians in particular latched on to his melodies and practically invented the idea of “standards” around them.

Meanwhile, he influenced several generations of popular classical composers (especially Lenny Bernstein) to try out jazzier idioms in the concert hall.  I don’t think any single person is more responsible for the state of popular music worldwide than George Gershwin.

Here’s a little tour through 20th c. popular music history via Gershwin’s “Summertime”:

Influenced: Bernstein, Sondheim, Ravel, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Ferde Grofe, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, every jazz musician who ever soloed over “Rhythm Changes”, every jazz composer who ever wrote a new tune over “Rhythm Changes”, every pop composer up to the present time who ever stole the descending bass line pattern from “I got Rhythm” (otherwise known as “Rhythm Changes”), at least.

4. (Franz) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Papa was on our first list because he was a musical ground-breaker, but he appears on today’s because all his innovations were taken up by other people.

Influenced: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, Ravel, and literally anyone who ever wrote a symphony or a string quartet.

5. Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1754 – 1792)

Master of every domain, including opera, chamber music, symphony, and concerto, Mozart cast a wide net over his successors.  Not surprisingly, opera composers down the ages worshiped him – Rossini was even dubbed “The Little Mozart” because of his affinity for the composer.

Tchaikovsky, however, was probably his most ardent admirer.  Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades is totally saturated with Mozart, but I don’t even know if Mozart could have written as Mozartean a number as this:

(“Moi milenki druzhok”, Gergiev)

Influenced: Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Schubert, Schumann, Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff.

6. Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951)

This poor man is so maligned for having opened the Pandora’s box of 20th century modernism in music.  And with good reason.  Starting with his close circle of pupils in Vienna, everyone just had to compose using his various systems.  The real hook was dodecaphony, Schönberg’s principal for organizing the 12 pitches into previously unthought-of combinations.  The 12-tone technique spawned an even more mathematically rigorous offspring: serialism.

There’s no point in judging whether or not this was a good thing – it simply is what happened.

Influenced (for better or for worse): Berg, Webern, Boulez, Nono, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Eisler, Babbitt, Sessions, Wolpe, and leagues of other composers who wrote even uglier music.

7. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Beethoven’s an interesting case – sometimes he even influenced people not to compose.  That was the case with Brahms who couldn’t get it up to write a symphony while Beethoven’s shadow was still in the room.  More than any technical specific procedures, I think Beethoven’s biggest influence was in the philosophical scope of music – would Mahler ever have been able to compose the “Resurrection” symphony without Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”?

Influenced: Berlioz, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Ravel (I think), Bartok, Mahler, anyone who put a chorus in a symphony, anyone who ever thought music could literally change the world.

8. Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Few composers had such a devoted cult in their own lifetime (not to mention after).  Wagner’s innovations were far reaching, and spread like wildfire.  Others had used themes to represent characters and objects before, but Wagner’s organized use of leitmotifs became a principle followed by several generations of composers.  He also influenced a number of non-compositional disciplines: conducting, dramatic staging, architecture, and, unfortunately, philosophy.

Influenced: Mahler, Strauss, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Franck, Sibelius, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Dvorak, Elgar, Max Steiner, Karl Goldmark, Howard Shore, and anyone who wanted to convey a dramatic impulse through music.

9. Mikhail Glinka (1804 – 1857)

I know hardly anything about this man or his music, but what I do know is that any time you read anything about a Russian composer who came after him, those guys are always talking about how big an influence he was.  So, it’s a slightly “provacative” inclusion on this list (and yes, I do expect wide-spread violence as a result of it) but maybe it will induce someone – anyone – to give his music a first listen and a fair shake.

Tchaikovsky adapted this theme from Glinka’s “Ivan Susanin” for the head motif of his 5th symphony:

Influenced: Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich

10. Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643)

In the first list, I quoted the eminent music scholar David Ewen in noting Monteverdi’s profound accomplishment.  The fact that we still have people writing operas today is largely due to him CM, not to mention the fact that he more or less invented the idea of instrumental tone painting.

Influenced: Schütz, Cavalli, Lully, Scarlatti, Rameau, Vivaldi, and essentially everyone who ever wrote an opera.


Rules of the game: either submit your own top 10 list, or submit one or more alternates to my list in the comments section.  If you choose the latter option, note that you must replace someone on my list, and make sure you tell us who it’s going to be.

Or just use this space to chat amongst yourselves about various Influential composers.  “Composers”, for our purposes, means people who write music using any Western notation (it could be of their own devising).  There is no limit as to genre or time period, so I’d be very interested to see some bizarre responses (think: Anton Reicha).

Journey into the heart of dorkness

I recently listened to this concert, the 66th of the current Proms season, featuring the Berlin Phil with Simon Rattle in the following program:

Wagner, Parsifal Overture
Strauss, 4 Last Songs

… and then, played without any break:

Schoenberg, 5 Orchestral Pieces
Webern, 6 Orchestral Pieces
Berg, 3 Orchestral Pieces

[I should mention before we go any further that the audio from this particular concert is available for only another 12 hours (i.e. you won’t be able to listen to it after Friday morning.)  Sorry!]

I think this is really a hell of a program, and certainly an interesting choice for a Prom, given that those programs usually tend toward the populist side of things.  But first off, if you end up listening to one of the Proms broadcasts on the BBC iPlayer, you’ll notice something a tad peculiar about the volume adjuster.  This has got to be a joke, right?

Or is their player really just louder?

My analytical juices started to flow when Sir Simon mentioned in his introductory remarks that the Parsifal Overture was in many ways the most rhythmically complicated piece on the program. This seemed like it might be kind of a stretch particularly because when you listen to it, it sounds like pure, unfettered melody with a subtle oscillation running underneath (like around 0:44).

But not being familiar with the Overture (or is it a Prelude?) myself, I decided to take a look at the score:

So now things start to get very interesting, because if you look at the flute part in the last bar, you see this:

which is one of these musical-mathematical conundra that conductors just love to stew over.  See, what happens is that while the rest of the orchestra keeps playing in 4/4 – i.e. four quarter notes per measure – the flutes and two of the clarinets have to count 6 quarter notes to each measure.  So, each of their quarter notes will end up being shorter/faster than the other players’ at a ratio of 6:4.

It would be easy enough if all they had to do was play 6 of their shorter, faster quarter notes against a conductor beating a four pattern of slightly slower quarter notes – musicians have to do this basic sort of trick all the time.  But Wagner doesn’t make it that easy.  Instead, he writes a rather complicated rhythmic figure (which, vexingly, will hardly even be heard in the orchestral texture.)

In this figure, the flutes and clarinets have to subdivide each of their six quarters into three triplet-eighth notes, so the total number of these notes in a bar is 6 x 3 = 18.  This is all well and good, lest we forget that their visual and musical reference in lining up with the rest of the orchestra is 4 (quarter notes to the measure, that is).  18 ÷ 4 = 4.5.  Since 4.5 isn’t a whole number, it’s not exactly useful.

Except that a particularly clever flautist bent on finding a practical solution to this problem (the problem being how to know how fast to play her triplet-eighth notes in a bar of six and line that up with the conductor’s four pattern) might notice something: despite the fact that 4.5 seems to bear little logical relevance to the problem at hand, if we take a closer look at the particular rhythm that she’s playing:

we notice that the second beat in this pattern consists of 2 eighth notes.  So, one solution is to approximate the triplets and make sure that the second eighth lands on the conductor’s fourth beat.  1 eighth note = 1.5 of the triplets; therefore 3 triplets + 1 eighth equals 4.5 triplets.

And that’s likely what everyone who actually plays this does, but the University of Chicagoan in me just hast to know the exact, theoretical answer, as practically untenable a solution as it may present.  The next step is to multiply the 18 triplet-eighth notes by 2 – basically, we’re looking for a least common multiple between 18 and 4, i.e. 36.

So then, the really anal-retentive flautist, who probably has no job and definitely has like zero friends, if she were hired to play the Parsifal Overture (Prelude?) would sit at home and practice counting 36 notes per bar (that’s 9 notes per beat, btw), and regroup those 36-lets into twos so that she would wind up with 18 groups of 2 and divide those 18 groups by 3 so that she could feel 6 beats per bar and know that she had done a really thorough job.  She might employ a chart that looked something like this:

and still not be quite satisfied with the outcome.  Now, if she really got to thinking smart, said flautist might decide to trip the conductor before he went on stage and step in for him, since beating a simple four pattern and letting everyone else worry about this crap is a way better idea.  But she wouldn’t be able to escape her obsession – her obsession with rhythm.  And now it would just get even worse, because did you see what was going on with those violas??  They play 8 notes to the beat, multiplied by 4 beats to the bar, so 24 notes in total per measure.  Now our valiant flautist/conductor must find the least common multiple of 24 and 36 (it’s 72) if she wanted to figure out how the flute and viola parts really lined up.

I wonder if any conductor or musicologist or whoever has ever actually taken the time to figure out how these two parts line up by dividing the bar into 72 parts.  I can only think of one conductor who I would even remotely suspicion of doing such a thing [who shall remain nameless.]

NEXT TIME: I rate Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.  [Which I actually meant to do this time, but it seemed like things were getting a little intense already.]  Somebody had to do it.