Monthly Archives: July 2020

Ludwig: the 20-21 season that wasn’t

I’ll admit it: I’d planned a Beethoven celebration season for 2020-2021. Obviously OSSCS won’t be presenting anything like a normal concert season, and maybe that’s just as well: I may well have been saved from myself.

The idea of a Beethoven celebration is considered deeply unfashionable in many circles, the most basic of basic bitchdom. One of my former students wrote me an email saying she thought Beethoven celebrations were plainly immoral.

For everyone who’s not on twitter, here’s why: Beethoven already has a cemented position in music history. Every time we perform a Beethoven piece, we lose an opportunity to hear a living or marginalized composer. Beethoven’s music may be great (though there are those who dispute/problematize the very notion of “greatness”), but is that any reason to further entrench the dead white male-ness of the classical music industry when we could be striking out in bold new directions?

When I decided to take on the challenge of programming a Beethoven season, I did it with this in mind. My goal was to make a season that used Beethoven as a framework to explore these ideas and to juxtapose his art in unexpected ways with forgotten voices of the past and those of the present.

Anyway, none of it’s happening now, but just for posterity’s sake, here’s what I came up with. It’s a season of 5 mainstage choral-orchestral concerts, one orchestra-only, one mostly-choral, and 3 smaller chamber concerts.

Ludwig: OSSCS’s (Theoretical) 2020-2021 Season

Marathon

BEETHOVEN  Symphony No. 6
BEETHOVEN  Ah! Perfido
BEETHOVEN  “Gloria” from the Mass in C
BEETHOVEN  Piano Concerto No. 4
BEETHOVEN  Symphony No. 5
BEETHOVEN  Sanctus from the Mass in C
BEETHOVEN  Piano fantasia, op. 77
BEETHOVEN  Choral Fantasy

More than just a (long) evening of music, this concert is a historical re-enactment of the December 22, 1808 gave in Vienna, “the most remarkable concert of his career.”

Passages

MARTINU  Memorial to Lidice
BEETHOVEN  Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II
MOZART  Requiem (Levin completion)

Martinu’s transcendent Memorial was composed to commemorate the Nazi destruction of the Czech village of Lidice (and it happens to quote Beethoven’s 5th symphony.) It’s followed by a total rarity, a cantata composed by the teenaged Beethoven in 1790 while he was still living in Bonn. Beethoven never heard this piece performed, but it displays his unmistakable voice from the first notes. The second half features Mozart’s Requiem, composed the year after Beethoven’s cantata.

Messiah

HANDEL Messiah

This is on the program really just because it’s an annual tradition, but it’s worth noting that Handel was Beethoven’s favorite composer.

The Fans

REICHA  Overture in D
ADAMS  Absolute Jest
BERLIOZ  Symphonie Fantastique

Anton Reicha was a close friend and admirer of Beethoven, and a musical revolutionary of a different sort; this overture is considered to be the first orchestral piece in a mixed meter (5/8). John Adams’ Absolute Jest is a super-charged piece for string quartet and orchestra, built entirely around motives by Beethoven. And of course, nobody worshipped Beethoven more than Berlioz.

Echoes

MAYER  String Quartet in E minor
BRAHMS  Geistliches Lied
BEETHOVEN  “Pathéthique” Sonata (mvmt 2)
ELGAR  Lux Aeterna
SHAW  Seven Joys

First we have an 1846 string quartet by Emilie Mayer, known in her time as “the female Beethoven.” Then Brahms’ stunning choral Geistliches Lied and the choral version of Elgar’s “Nimrod” variation, known as the “Lux Aeterna” (preceded by the movement of the “Pathéthique” upon which it was modeled.) The major work on the concert is Caroline Shaw’s Seven Joys  for choir and brass quintet, which explores spatial effects and resonances as it pays homage to the 9th symphony.

The Haters

DEBUSSY  Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
CHOPIN  Piano Concerto No. 1
CAGE  4’33”
BRITTEN  Scenes from Peter Grimes

It seems only fair that, in a concert season devoted to Beethoven, his detractors should also have a voice. These four composers leveled some pretty sick burns at ol’ Ludwig, and they are each represented by the piece that made them famous (or infamous).

Master and Scholar

NEEFE  Piano Sonata No. 1 [mvmt 1]
ALBRECHTSBERGER  String Trio No. 2 [mvmt 1]
HAYDN  Il maestro e lo scolarevon
ARNIM  Songs and Duets
Archduke RUDOLF  Clarinet Trio in E-flat [mvmt 1]
BEETHOVEN  “Archduke” Trio

A concert featuring music students and their teachers. We all know that Beethoven “studied” with Haydn, but the two never really got along; Beethoven considered his greatest teacher to have been Christian Gottlob Neefe, a Bonn-based opera composer and organist. After moving to Vienna, Beethoven sought out Johann Albrechtsberger, a rigorous theoretician and counterpoint expert. Haydn’s divertimento for 2 pianists, Il maestro e lo scolare, is a delightful theme and variation setBeethoven didn’t care much for teaching himself, but he did give some tips to one of his unattainably noble girlfriends, Bettine von Arnim, and he gave formal lessons to his great benefactor Archduke Rudolf, who became the dedicatee of his monumental trio, op. 97.

Sonata Mulattica

BOULOGNE  Overture to L’amant anonyme
HAYDN  Symphony No. 62 in D
BEETHOVEN  “Kreuzer” Sonata
BRIDGETOWER  “Henry, a Ballad” (orch. White)

Beethoven’s life story intersects with the history of race in Europe in fascinating ways, not least of which is that he was frequently thought to have African ancestry himself. This concert features the work of two biracial composers who were active during Beethoven’s lifetime: the “Chevalier de Saint-Georges” aka Joseph Boulogne, a French violinist, fencer, and composer who knew and influenced Mozart; and George Bridgetower, a multi-national musician who grew up in the court at Esterhazy, where his father was a servant. Tutored by Haydn, Bridgetower went on to a stunning career as a virtuoso violinist, and was the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata. This concert will be interspersed with poetry from Rita Dove’s 2009 collection “Sonata Mulattica,” which tells the story of Bridgetower’s life.

Ode to Joy

SCHUBERT  “An die Freude” (orch. White)
MASON A Joyous Trilogy
BEETHOVEN  Symphony no. 9

This concert begins with Schubert’s setting of the “Ode” text that doesn’t take it quite so… seriously. Then a repeat performance of Quinn Mason’s A Joyous Trilogy, which was such a hit when we premiered it in February 2020. Followed by the very cornerstone of the choral-orchestral repertoire: Beethoven’s mighty 9th symphony.

A Taxonomy of Stylistic Developments

All composers develop their musical language over the course of their careers — it’s inevitable. Some composers’ outputs, it seems to me, can be rather neatly divided into Early, Middle, and Late periods. With others, the situation is slipperier. 

This kind of thing is navel-gazing in its purest form, but since there’s nothing else to do right now…

Early-Middle-Late

Beethoven
Beethoven’s output is not only neatly divisible, but it established a paradigm: during the Early period, the composer masters the common style of the era, infusing it with their own particular genius (1st symphony, Pathétique); in the Middle period, the composer breaks out in bold new directions (the Eroica symphony, zum beispiel); in the late period, the composer condenses what they’ve learned into a more austere, introspective language, wrestling with the ghosts of their predecessors as they contemplate the end of their own life (the late quartets).

Verdi
The early stuff literally nobody listens to (aside from subscribers to the Sarasota Opera) — Giovanna d’arco, per esempio. Then there’s the essential three operas from the early 1850s, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, and La Traviata, which sparked his middle period (lasting as long as, say, Aïda). Then the output becomes sparser, finally arriving at the late glories of Otello and Falstaff (with Don Carlo and Bocanegra pointing the way there).

Schoenberg
The early style, many are surprised to find, is Mahlerian and tonal (Gurrelieder, Pélleas, Verklärte Nacht). Gradually he pushes past tonality until we get the mid-period free atonality of Pierrot Lunaire and the Fünf Orchesterstücke. Round about 1925, he invents a new, more stringent set of compositional rules for himself, giving us the blockbuster Moses und Aron, the violin and piano concertos, Survivor from Warsaw, etc. 

Now that makes for three periods clearly enough, but they’re not of the Beethovenian paradigm wherein the Late style is a reckoning with the early style. But, Schoenberg did have a brief and sporadic dalliance with tonal music once again at the end of his life, so do with that what you will.

Stravinsky
Early: the “Russian” style — Firebird through Les Noces
Middle: the neoclassical pieces (Octet, Dumbarton Oaks, The Rake’s Progress)
Late: the dodecaphonic works (Agon, Septet)

Once again, Stravinsky breaks the mold in that the Late style isn’t a look back to earlier days.

Ligeti
The early style is primarily influenced by Bartók and Kodály (no surprise). Then he defects to the West and encounters Stockhausen, Berio, and Kagel, sparking the Middle period, his own very particular brand of modernism: Atmosphères, Lontano, Apparitions and the like. Then he takes a decade to compose Le grand macabre, which turns out to be both a capstone and a transitional piece. After that, there’s a clear condensation of his style (gone are the ginormous pages of micropolyphony) and we get my personal favorites: the Violin Concerto, the Hamburg Concerto, the Nonsense Madrigals, the Viola Sonata, and Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel.

Schnittke
Ma boyyyy. Probably the composer whose output most clearly hews to the Beethoven model. Early Schnittke is beholden to the Soviet modernists, particularly Shostakovich (who would always remain an influence, but whose influence on Schnittke is, I think, overrated). This includes the Symphony No. 0 (“Nagasaki”), and a few pieces of a more modernist bent such as the first string quartet and the first violin concerto. Then there’s the great polystylistic breakthrough in the early 70s: the first symphony and the first Concerto Grosso, most notably. Then in 1985, he dies for the first time, comes back to life, and thence embarks upon his late, STARK style. For us serious Schnittkephiles, this is the best stuff. The language still nods to his roots, but the polystylism has been dialed way down, and now exists as shadows. Pieces from this era include the late symphonies (especially no. 8), the 2nd cello concerto, Faust, and Peer Gynt.

Easley Blackwood
I know this won’t mean much to many people, but he was my teacher, so I know a lot about him. His early music from the 1950’s was very much in the style of Shostakovich, Schoenberg, and Messiaen and even veered into higher modernism. Then he got involved into mathematical research surrounding various tuning systems, both historic ones and newfangled equal temperaments. This led to his studies of tonal music in tuning systems in octave divisions of 13-24 notes, after which he decided the one system he hadn’t engaged with was 12 notes. For the last 30-some-odd years, he’s written tonal music in the style of Franck and Saint-Saëns.

Other Neat Periodizations

Rossini
All the operas are Early Rossini, then yada yada yada, 25 years later we get Late Rossini! There is no Middle Rossini, since he was just chillin.

Robert Schumann
With Robert Schumann, his stylistic development is much more attached to genre, since he would devote entire years (or more) to, say, writing songs, or symphonies, or chamber pieces. There is, perhaps, an organic change of style over his career, but it’s harder (for me) to pick up on.

Brahms
The first and second piano sonatas are Early Brahms. Everything else is Late Brahms.

Janáček
All Janáček is Late Janáček.

A Less Distinctive Blurring

Tchaikovsky
So many experiments (third orchestral suite, Manfred), yet constantly on the verge of neoclassicism (fourth orchestral suite). Did his style ever actually change, or did he just get better at it?

Sibelius
His music definitely got colder and bonier as it went on, but when did it happen? It’s such a large output, and I’m no specialist. And if he had continued to compose during the last 30 years of his life, would there be a clearly-demarcated Late style? We’ll never know.

Debussy
His opus 1 string quartet sometimes gets assigned into an “early period” of its own, but I think there are many reminiscences of the quartet in Pélleas et Melisande, to the point where you’d have to group (at least) those two together. I guess you could argue that there’s an early period from the quartet through Pélleas, and then a middle period starting with La Mer, but just as much of Pélleas sounds like La Mer. There are the three late sonatas which are kind of doing their own thing, but the piano music and chansons suggest a continual working-through of similar ideas over the course of his career. It’s all very blurry.

Ravel
There’s clearly a development; you can’t say that Une barque sur l’océan sounds much like the G major piano concerto. You could maybe make a bipartite division into Early (impressionist / neoclassical) and Late (jazzy / neoclassical), but that doesn’t sit right somehow. It’s a slow development where you can see some interesting signposts along the way, but I think his style incorporates changes very conservatively and always excellently. The experiments are always successful, and he stays true to form.

Ended Pretty Much Where They Started

J. S. Bach
I mean, I actually have no idea, but it seems like it was all equally exquisite, experimental, and perfect all the way through?

Richard Strauss
With the exception of a mid-career genre change from tone poem to opera, and perhaps a slight mellowing of his musical language after Elektra, I don’t see much to suggest that he really changed styles.

Inconclusive

Schubert
People get all bent out of shape talking about Schubert’s “Late Style”. The guy was 31. Give him a break!

Mozart
See above. I’d say a case could be made that Mozart was moving into a distinctive Middle Period, but we’ll never know!

Lili Boulanger
The greatest tragedy in 20th century music. Even though she was developing rapidly, sadly, all Boulanger is Early Boulanger.

And as for me? 

As for me… I think I’m probably one of those smooth operators who experiment and gradually change, but that’s really for the musicologists to figure out. I hear they’ve got four more detectives working on the case down at the crime lab. All I really hope is that I never have a “late style” because honestly, I really don’t want to have to pretend to care about fugues.

Eaters of Flesh!

or A Song Only Its Composer Could Love

Right, well, let’s begin at the beginning. In the early months of this year, I slogged through an exhaustive and exhausting book titled The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India. In it, I learned about a peculiar chap from the early 19th century, a preacher named William Cowherd (not making that up) who created a vegetarian sect called the Bible Christian Church.

The Rev. Cowherd was also a writer of hymns, and with a little googling, I found his major contribution to the genre, Select Hymns for the Use of Bible-Christians. The last three hymns in the book are on the theme of “Humanity and Religion Pleading Against Flesh-Eating.” I decided to set them to music (which, you can download for free!)

One of those hymns, the strikingly-titled “Eaters of Flesh!” caught my particular fancy, and I wrote the above song, a sort of emo ballad with an extended Sibelius-inspired breakout and a faux-Renaissance coda. As you do.

You might think this piece was purpose-built to alienate everyone but its author: too churchy for the secular crowd, too weird for the church music crowd. The text features many 19th century contortions of grammar and syntax (“Had God for man its flesh designed … lifeless, to us, had been consigned”) and on top of it all, it’s straightforwardly accusatory in its vegan pleading, which will probably turn off everyone who wasn’t turned off already.

But you know what? I wrote it for me, and I like it just fine. Quite a lot, as a matter of fact!

Three Vegan Hymns, op. 46

It occurred to me that with more and more people adopting ethical dietary habits, there might soon be a call for church materials that reflect this burgeoning awareness on the part of congregations.

As luck would have it, earlier this year, I read a tremendously interesting (if slightly academic) volume titled The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India. The author, Tristam Stuart, charts the rise of vegetarian diets among the European gentry of the 17th-19th centuries, with a special interest given to the ways in which Christians attempted to square vegetarianism (which, truth be told, they received by way of the recently-colonized East) with their own theology.

One of these newly awakened vegetarians was a minister named William Cowherd (not making that up) who established a minor sect known as the Bible Christian Church. Cowherd preached vegetarianism and supposedly found a biblical foundation for his stance (though I fear the connection is tenuous) and most importantly of all, he penned three hymn texts on the subject of abstaining from flesh.

As far as I can tell, no music was ever expressly been written for these texts. That is, until now:

These hymns are free for anyone who cares to use them. Do with them what you will.

A side note: one of these hymns, the vividly-titled “Eaters of Flesh!”, caught my particular fancy, and I used it as the basis for an extended fantasia, a piece so peculiar in its design that I have trouble describing it. I’ve arranged it as a sort of emo rock ballad which then leads into a Mahlerian / Sibelian piano rhapsody, and after a crunchy-chord climax, it returns to its original cast, but then ends with a faux-Renaissance coda. If that makes any sense.

In praise of quiet

Tonight we shall be bombarded by the bloody racket of those blasted, blasting gunpowder follies known as “fireworks.”

(Alas, not the Stravinskian variety. A pity.)

Not only are they an unabated nuisance that literally frighten some birds, pets, and wild animals to death, but they are also a harmful pollutant to water, air, and land. (This year, we’ll be able to find out just how harmful various types of fireworks are.) They are almost all manufactured by child laborers in Asian and Latin American countries.

Most civic institutions have cancelled their fireworks shows this year. Jolly sensible, and something I hope should continue past the socially distanced era of Covid-19.

I wish people would take more care of their aural health. We live in an obscenely loud era. Sounds are blasting at us from all corners, every day. As far as I’m concerned, the worst offenders are the power tools driven by gas motors: cars, motorcycles, trucks, buses, airplanes, seaplanes (a particular nuisance here in Seattle), lawnmowers, power washers, power tools, weed-whackers, and my most hated of all, the leaf blower.

Why do leaf blowers gall me so? Perhaps it’s something about their particular frequency, but I think it’s more the fact that their job is so easily replaced by the humble rake. (You could say the same of the lawnmower of course — all one really needs is a scythe. Read Anna Karenina, people!!)

And let’s not forget the “flash-bangs” employed at the protests recently. These are getting less attention than the tear gas and rubber bullets (and perhaps rightly so) but those things can cause permanent hearing damage. Of course, it’s entirely possible that cops and protesters alike routinely subject themselves to grotesque levels of volume at amplified music shows, but that’s another story.

And here’s an idea for Elon Musk: instead of sinking your billions into space rockets, why not make a Tesla for electric airplanes? I guarantee you that would advance the cause of humankind a hundredfold over space exploration.

So many diatribes (and I haven’t even mentioned by neighbors’ dog yet.) I used to lodge these noise complaints on Twitter, but I’ve recently renounced the tweet as a mode of expression. Twitter, it seems to me, is part of the same problem. Has anything that is technically silent ever been quite so loud?

Gentle readers, I bid you this fourth of July, at the very least, not to set off any firecrackers. That’ll earn you a passing C. If you want to go for a B, then do whatever you can to avoid singing or hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” easily the worst national anthem in the entire globe (right up there with “La Marseillaise.”) If you want an A, then be sure you’re grilling veggies on the grill instead of any dead animal carcasses.

And for those looking for extra credit, perhaps take a quiet moment to consider whether our violent founding is even worth celebrating at all. Don’t forget, had we not declared independence from the British crown, today we would simply be Canada, and our head of state would be that glorious monarch Elizabeth II. Vivat regina!