Sunday, February 19, 2012

Electronics in Art and Popular Music

            Trying to choose just one aspect of electronic music is difficult for me. When I was 20 years old I decided that I would pursue the life of a pop musician, I had taken piano lessons for a long time and therefore I decided that my instrument would be keyboards. My first was a Korg Z1 then I moved to an MS2000, Yamaha DX27, and Rhodes Piano and Roland Hammond organ emulator. I learned to use recording and synthesis software (Sonar and plug-ins, usually Kontakt but also EastWest platforms, Vocaloid and Reason). I mention all of this because with the advent of music recording in the home, I think there is a tendency on the part of younger people to think that electronic music has only to do with their generation.  It was very interesting to me, to read about the long developments in the art world on the part of Stockhausen and Babbitt which contributed greatly to the development of electronic music studios where a great deal of groundbreaking research had been done.
          I suppose if I have to define “electronic” music, it would be music in which some kind of electronic synthesis was involved. It would be easy to define compositions for tape as electronic pieces because there is a mechanical device being used for music which operates on electricity. But electricity is the workhorse in this relationship and not the focus. In other words, electricity provides the means for an analogue sound to be transmitted, but the sound being produced is not electronic, it is simply a reproduction of a non-electronic origin. For this reason, I have to lump all samplers into the same category, therefore; the Melotron is not a focus for consideration because it was a tape machine that could be played like a piano. So, it appears as though I am left with the Theremin, the Odes Martinot, and the synthesizers of Buchla, Robert Moog as well as those of RCA.
          Almost everyone who does Hip-Hop, Slowcore, Trip-Hop, Funk, House, Techno, Jungle and every other genre of popular electronic music owns a T-shirt that says “moog.” This is a lasting testament to the legacy of Bob Moog. It is interesting that the company which bears his name is still producing analog synthesizers, except the new models are complete  with modern digital interfaces that make it simple to sync up to a computer (about 7 years ago, retrofitting an old moog with a new midi patch was all the rage, it seems like the company got the hint). What is truly interesting is that very rarely are stand-alone keyboards and synthesizers being used any more. For the most part, computers have become so powerful that the software emulators are almost every bit as versatile and pristine as the old models but in a very manageable form. Now, electronic musicians can access the sound of an old moog or vintage Korg by simply routing a plug-in to their sequencer of choice. This was unthinkable only 10 years ago (perhaps even 5 years ago) but now is common place. This is probably a byproduct of computers reaching upwards of 2 TB of hard-drive space, with 4-8 GB of RAM and multiple CPU. With all of this in mind, I find it miraculous that composers such as Stockhausen and Babbitt were able to do the kind of work they did on those old machines. I also feel a little saddened that Varese did not live to see an age that I truly think he would have enjoyed. 

Reich and Glass Techniques in Composition

            The process of composing the phase pieces of Stephen Reich were, according to the composer, discovered by accident while trying to create a spoken canon using dual tape players. What Reich found out was that slowly the two audio tracks would drift apart until it became a reverb, then an echo, then a canon and finally the two would merge again. When I first read about this technique in regards to human performances, my first thought was one of impossibility and I marveled at the musicians (sometimes as many as 18 or more) able to achieve this effect. It reminded me immediately of Cowell and the Rhythmicon and later the pieces which originally Cowell believed were unplayable by human musicians became possible. Today, I attempted this on my own by recording a simple bell loop into Cakewalk Sonar and then trying play with the sound slightly faster, this proved very difficult the first couple of tries, then I managed to achieve a phase shift by playing slightly slower.

            The main thing that can be said about Reich’s music since the 1960s is that he has often increased the number of musicians he has used as he has gained more notoriety. The recent composition The Daniel Variations is for a sizeable ensemble with recognizable tonalities and triadic harmonies (as opposed to early tape compositions or percussion pieces that were melodically tonal but did not have any formal harmonic structure). The incorporation of Reich’s music into modern electronic music is notable and his commission of DJ’s to remix his pieces says something about Reich’s view of the viability of contemporary popular music.

            To my knowledge, Philip Glass has not employed any phase techniques in his compositions and furthermore it appears as though the music of Glass has always employed a tonal melodic and harmonic foundation without the heavy emphasis on percussion (as is present in the music of Reich). Philip Glass has also contributed greatly to the theatre, film and especially Opera (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and The Beauty and the Beast are three successful Glass operas).  Both the music of Philip Glass and Stephen Reich weave long pieces out of very simple melodic or harmonic material but the approach seems to be a fairly different one. Philip Glass’s compositions seem to rely primarily on the chord progression, or chord alternation. In a Glass composition it is not uncommon for there to be two repeated chords and chord arpeggios built off the pattern that go on for an incredibly long time. The music of Reich, more than anything seems to be centered on the melody (especially during his phase pieces) and if harmony is able to come out of the melodic material than all the better, but the pieces are not lesser if no distinguishable harmony emerges.

The Determined Indeterminate; Cage and Company

            I think it is safe to say that for most people, in late 20th century, the most famous indeterminate piece would be John Cage’s 4’33”. It is, however; difficult to say how indeterminate that piece really is, the sounds that occur during the musician(s) stillness changes from performance to performance, but the action (or non-action) of the musicians(s) remains consistent regardless of who is “playing” the piece. It lasts for a set amount of time and I think that modern audiences are inclined to honor the concept of “silence” although I don’t believe that absolute silence was ever Cage’s goal.

            I mentioned in the previous discussion that I feel that new notation styles cannot really (in my mind) be talked about separately from indeterminacy. It seems to me that the scores of the American composers were far more concerned with the esthetic beauty of what was on the page rather than the sound produced. The best example of this is Earle Brown’s piece December 1952 which looks very much like a modernist picture that might hang in a museum. Morgan notes that the sound/music produced by musicians interpreting this score is really just guided by whatever they feel the page is telling them to do, but it is mostly a “free improvisation.” When this kind of what might be called “ultra-indeterminate” writing was done by the European composer Stockhausen, instead of graphic representations he used verbal. The score for Intensity consists of directions for improvisation that take the form of a poem.

These two pieces might give some insight into the differences in thinking regarding indeterminacy, the American visual versus the European poetic, but this is very difficult when citing individual works by individual composers. Morgan mentions that Cage’s manuscripts had been put on display as visual works of art, and it doesn’t appear that this is true of any of the European composers.  On the other hand, if we examine the score for the String Quartet by Lutoslawski, what we see are numerous text comments on how to interpret and perform the manuscript, so it appears that while the pitches and rhythms are displayed in the notation, the true direction comes from the words written by the composer.  There are, of course, many pieces that have a profound visual aesthetic with regards to score which were innovations of European composers, the best among these appear on page 377 and is Bussotti’s  Siciliano. Morgan notes that there are no directions for interpreting the score but that the use of numbered parts might give some indication. Pieces like this seem as though the composer was setting forth a musical puzzle and the solving of that puzzle is related to the aesthetic power of its performance, as if to say that in figuring out how to play the piece the game is won on the part of the performer.

I would like to make mention of an area with which I have a fair amount of experience, that being Hindustani music. In realizing a Raga, there are essentially musical notes that are available for improvisation (especially in the beginning of the piece) usually there is an indication of which patterns will sound the most pleasing and therefore should be repeated a number of times. There are also two “most important” notes in the Rag which the melodies should gravitate towards. The middle section of a composition tends to be more structured but there is always room for interpretation. The idea is to make a piece individual to each performer as opposed to western conceptions of the traditional score.  To me, this is a prime example of indeterminacy going back a thousand or so years. We see similar notions in the music of the Arab people (although I am not very well versed on that system of music). Morgan mentions that virtually all of the Minimalist composers studied Indian music of some kind, but it is interesting that in this aspect of performance of pieces that there was not as much interest on the part of the indeterminists. 

Thoroughly Modern Schoenberg

            An argument for Schoenberg’s serialistic style being an extension of classical tradition could be made in various ways, I don’t presume that this will be an exhaustive list; they are merely thoughts that have surfaced in my study. One possibility is regarding the mathematics involved in 12 tone composition, it is completely feasible that one would be capable of composing a piece of music without “hearing” it at all, they could simply follow the agenda for churning out “chords and melody” until the row is used a specific number of time. The same could be said of western common practice harmony where chords move through stages of stability and instability based on their tonic, subdominant, and dominant relationships. There is also the more robust influence of science on music in the classical period. Common ideas regarding music’s influence on the human state were being changed from the “affections” of the Baroque period to an emphasis on complex relationships in the classical period. Dr. Margaret Hanning (the author of Concise History of Western Music) has argued that this stems from the emphasis for empirical study and scientific reform. Again, with the technological age advancing during the lifetime of Schoenberg, it was easy to see various classical ideas creeping up in the beginning of the 20th century. From these vantage points, the music of Debussy is considerably more “modern” than that of Schoenberg.  Therefore, the music of the post WWII composers could be seen as a logical extension of the Schoenberg tradition in that there was frequently a mathematical basis for the compositional style, there seemed to also be a distancing of the general emotional state which was often attempted to be conveyed.  This is not to say the pieces were devoid of any aesthetic purpose, it’s just that the pieces represented a much more intellectual aspect than the Romantics.

            With serial-note composition being so fertile for compositional innovation, it was only a matter of time before other aspects of music was to become numbered. In the music of Messiaen and Boulez not only pitches were serialized but also rhythms, dynamics and articulations. This gave way to exciting passages full of variety in sonic possibilities but also came with a great deal of rhythmic complexity.  The music of Stockhausen was something of a departure from the strict serialism of the above mentioned composers as he began thinking in terms of “whole” sounds made up on individual parts that would become another whole, Stockhausen did offer some classical input as he often sought contrast which Morgan likened to the practice of writing antecedent and consequent phrases. Milton Babbitt was a composer who did a great deal of work with rhythmic values in serial composition, creating disjointed rhythms which added small segments to otherwise pulse-driven music, an example of this kind of complexity can be seen in the Quartet No. 3 which is pictured in the textbook on page 353. Morgan notes that this kind of hyper-serialism was somewhat short lived, but its influence would be felt for generations, especially in younger composers.

           It might be that the greatest aspect of serialism’s validity in the classical tradition was its adoption by Igor Stravinsky as a compositional tool. Morgan notes that with Schoenberg’s passing serialism belonged to the past and therefore was fair game as inspiration for the composer who always seemed to draw from folk traditions and venerated musical styles. In this respect, serialist came full circle, from being a revolutionary idea based on continuation of classical functional techniques, to being adopted and revised as a legitimate compositional method, to being studied “post-mortem” by music historians as a style that belonged to a valid past.

Gershwin, Partch and Cowell; American Masterpieces?

            I was a bit disappointed in the textbook ("Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America") for not spending more time on Gershwin, I have always regarded “Rhapsody” to be a masterpiece, however; if it is not, I would say that Porgy and Bess is. I feel that as far as tapping into a native American vernacular and making it into something artistic; Porgy is about as far as we have come (I know this is something of a sweeping statement and should you want to discuss this further, I can elaborate). But for that matter, I also feel that the musical “Show Boat” by Kern and Hammerstein is a work of considerable achievement that warrants some consideration.  This led me naturally to Marc Blitzstein (another popular music and Broadway composer) as I am very familiar with his works from both a musical theatre background and from the 1990’s film by Tim Robins (although the film was very “Hollywood” in its approach to the way the story worked out).

           Harry Partch was very interesting to me, I think something must have been in the air regarding the “old instruments” with the way both him and Varese fantasized about more and more exotic sounds. The main difference is that Partch sought to do something about it by actually creating new instruments to fulfill his needs for compositions. I viewed the documentary from the link you posted and enjoyed it very much (I wish the sound quality was better) in part 2 (also on YouTube) an ensemble plays the composition: Daphne of the Dunes, which I found to be a quite enticing and elegant piece of music. In some ways it had something in common with Gamelan music (probably the emphasis on pitched percussion and flocculating rhythms so common in that music). With regards to the Varese, his portion of the textbook left me somewhat depressed, thinking about an old man who was just borne a little too early to see the innovations in electronics that were just on the horizon. On another hand, I came to the conclusion that I would view Varese less as a composer and more as a musical philosopher (this is in fact how I view Jon Cage). I listened to Ionization but much prefer the piece Hyperism (which is available in score form in the accompanying anthology to the Morgan textbook) for it’s more pronounced use of pitched instruments and (to my ears) greater dynamic realization.

           I would be fascinated to hear the piece for Koto and Orchestra by Cowell; I looked for a recording of the piece on but came up with nothing. I study the Guzheng (which is the parent instrument [sort of, really the Tse has a more legitimate claim as the parent] of the Koto). I also share very much Cowell’s affinity for eastern music, including that of Persia (I also study the Sitar and Dilruba, and while those instruments have become purely Hindustani over time they have some lineage from Persia – as does all Hindustani music). What I did listen to was, of course, The Banshee and the trio for harp, flute and violin. This music was actually my favorite because it resembles the kind of dreamy melodicism that appeals to my ears so much. The international aspect of his compositions is an absolute selling point for me; do you know if he included any Hindustani or Carnatic music theory in his pieces? 

Thoughts on Musical Censorship in the Soviet Union

            Society, and especially the ruling class (which to a large degree tends to speak on society’s behalf) has always had something of a dictatorial prescription when it comes to what can be created in terms of art. Plato and Aristotle’s writings on which modes should be played for young boys and the risk of feminizing men have survived through millennia (though not in regular practice anymore,) the Catholic Church (the great ghost of the Roman Empire) sought on very many occasions to limit the creativity of composers writing sacred works (the one that first comes to mind being the council of Trent) and protestant churches in the Americas sought to limit the amount of “passion” present in worship tunes (especially the “fuging” hymns so popular in colonial America). Even Haydn worked for a court where the aim was to please the aristocrat for whom he worked (still managing to produce profound works of beauty). Before recent history, on the whole, it seems that the only artists who were able to break free completely from public and ruling class sentiment were the artists who in fact members of that class of society. In this case, the censorship during the years of the Soviet Union, was not really anything new. What set it apart was on one hand, the degree to which the censorship was carried out and the other, the hypocrisy that went along with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” being ruled by a few individuals with what some might consider very selfish motives.

           We should consider though, that Lenin wrote about capitalist nations rising against a socialist state (in the pamphlet “Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder” now published by International Publishers) and the need to insulate culture as one step against such attacks. Therefore; from a soviet perspective, it is not too hard to see why some prescriptions needed to be made. If in fact, they were to produce the greatest and most efficient state the world had ever seen, they should be able to display the intellectual and artistic merit to match. Morgan talks about this in somewhat remorseful terms when discussing Prokofiev and Shostakovitch saying that the repressive nature of the communist leadership was a hindrance to their compositional output, and in fact he may be correct. I would submit that reasonable and rational limits placed on art can in many ways help the medium. For instance, we could examine 20th century music for film; film music is not a symphony, or a tone poem or any other genre associated with instrumental music, it is there to support the plot, therefore shining melodies and intricate melodies must be reserved for a time in the film where they are absolutely necessary. This in fact has helped the medium of composition by allowing composers the freedom to not be the sole pillar of the audience’s attention. In some ways social prescriptions on art can act in the same way.

            I read the article on Niezvestny which was a very compelling story. I would contend that the article was written from a stridently anti-communist perspective with something of a propagandist purpose. It isn’t to say that I believe there were any outright lies written in the piece, but the artist’s clear views on Christianity are consistent with the long held belief that a socialist state seeks to ban religion. It is worth noting that Soviet Union envisioned by Lenin, and that state that came to be under Stalin and Khrushchev were very separate things. Lenin was a fan of current art and many other avenues of intellectualism (as noted in The Life and Death of Lenin by Robert Payne) and I don’t think it stretches the imagination too much to think that there would have been some liberalization of ideas had he not died so soon after the founding of the state which he had such a hand in creating. 

Thoughts on Neo-Classicism

            The term “classical” could have many connotations, it could refer to something being timeless (as in; “that song is a classic”), something plucked from antiquity (“classical” Greek sculpture) or more specifically to the musical period lasting roughly 1750-1820. When dealing in purely musical terms it seems the most likely association would be with the last of the possible definitions. Yet Morgan himself states that the “neoclassical” music of Stravinsky was much closer to being neo-Baroque, and many of his pieces including Pulcinella and the opera: “The Progress of the Rake” used harpsichord and not piano. This aligns it much closer to the styles and sounds of Scarlatti and Vivaldi much more so than Mozart or Haydn. This point is further emphasized with Stravinsky’s use of ornate ornaments in his 1924 piano sonata which sounds a great deal like Baroque harpsichord music. With all this in mind, it appears as though the first definition tempered by the second might be the best hope of stating the idea of “neoclassicism” in a concrete way. By taking the most timeless aspects of older styles of composition and coupling them with newer compositional techniques (such as polyrhythms or bitonality) an updated version of the timeless might ensue. The ballet Pulcinella is a solid example of this idea as it was not originally written by Stravinsky but arranged, reworked and orchestrated by him. To illustrate this point Morgan writes: “Although Pulcinella has the unmistakable flavor of eighteenth century music, the original has been subtly transformed so that it takes on a new and unexpectedly Stravinskyian, character.” (Morgan p 171) In this example, we see that in some way the first two definitions have been met, the music is indeed timeless (as has been proven by its many performances) and the original material was plucked from antiquity. The piece might have met all three definitions were it not so baroque in nature.

            The other side of the “neoclassical” discussion is Morgan’s pages spent on Cocteau, Satie and Les Six. It is interesting that at this point in time, virtually none of the “classical” definitions seem to work for the music of this period of French development. The music of Satie was not considered timeless (during the period we are discussing) it was not antiquated in style or substance and Satie (the hero of the movement as ordained by Cocteau) lived into the 20th century far removed from the late 18th century. It seems as though European composers as a whole were starting to embrace a compositional style much more adverse to the musical laymen. This led to understandable concern on the part of many members of the intellectual community and caused them to call for a “simpler” and more listenable style. In this respect it is neoclassicism in the way that older music was perceived as simpler and more beautiful (the phrase “back to Bach” was quoted several times in the textbook – although there is really nothing simple about the music of Bach). So in this respect, perhaps a better title for Les Six and Satie would have been “neosimpleism” it would, however; be difficult to remove the derogatory stigma from the term “simple” music and therefore it looks like “neoclassicism” will stay.

20th Century Art Music Giants

            For the most part, my listening through chapter 6  ("Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America")  began as a review of many of the pieces I loved as a composition student. Beginning with composers such as Mahler, Debussy and Scriabin then moving on to Schoenberg and Stravinsky, of course Ravel and Satie had to be accounted for as well as Bartok and Janacek. I was delighted in reacquainting myself with this music as there was so much more available through technology such as YouTube or MP3 downloads through than there ever was 8-14 years ago. Because of this (as well as your remarks and guidance) I was able to hear a much more in depth survey of examples.

            The first listening was intended for setting up a context for the music of the 20th century primarily as experimenting with sounds either prohibited or unavailable to earlier composers. When we look through the more experimental music of Mozart or Liszt, it is easy to see that both the Classical and Romantic periods had their share of writing dissonances. Indeed, if we search back further back to the music of Don Carlo Gesualdo or very early counterpoint of the Middle Ages we see that dissonance is really nothing new but rather something that has been examined by every generation in one way or another. What seems to have happened with the music of Mahler, Debussy and Scriabin (as well as many others) was that the late Romantic notion of challenging “traditional” tonalism was finally the norm rather than the exception. What is so interesting is that music from this period is still particularly popular. Whenever I have an adult student wanting to learn the piano the goal is often to play some sort of late Romantic piece or often Satie and Debussy (the Gymnopodies and Clare de Lune are common goals) very rarely does someone come in and request learning Alberto Ginistera’s Twelve American Preludes or Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces.

           Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was a piece that was especially moving, not only did the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky break many norms in dance, the whole concept of the through composed music moving through lush beautiful themes seemed very liberating. I tend to think of things in a very compositional mindset and I am the personality type who easily gets bogged down in considerations such as form or modulation (I am actually a pretty traditional writer in many respects) and the idea of being able to justify movement in a piece based on the music telling a story seems like a large weight off the shoulders of the composer.

            Debussy’s “Prelude” naturally led me to listen to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe which I have always felt was a monument of orchestration. The use of choir achieved a sense of the outer-worldliness that seemed very natural yet foreign. Again, this was program music but tempered by the fact that it was meant to accompany dancers (as much of this very forward looking music was). The orchestra itself was employed in a way where the fluttering flutes and largely voiced strings worked to achieve what many must think of as the height of “romantic” music composition. I found your comment very interesting about La Valse being a “slap in the face to the Viennese who had just lost the war. I have listened to that piece more times than I could possibly recollect and have never thought of it in that context. I wonder if it were possible for you to expand on that point as I always thought that Ravel had not expressed any sincere hatred toward the German people and even went so far as to not participate in the signing of a German music boycott (this I read in the Ravel biography Man and Musician by Arbie Orenstein published by Dover 1991). I would be very interested if Ravel had any political leanings to cause him to mock the German waltz.
          Moving on to the Schoenberg and Webern pieces, the character of the listening experience changed drastically. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony was not only “so tonal it hurts” but to be honest, the disconnected phrases just “hurt” in general. It is very difficult for me to come out against a composition by an individual so beloved by many of my colleagues, in many ways Schoenberg has become a very mythical figure for many musicians and to criticize his works is to almost blatantly label yourself as an unsophisticated music lover. In considering the music of Schoenberg (in general) I considered the notion that perhaps my friends and fellow music students were able to hear something in his pieces that I was not able to hear, a special beauty available only to those with some heightened intelligence or ability in music which, alas, was lacking in me. I have given this period of Schoenberg’s output repeated opportunities to move me and it has not, I must therefore reconcile myself that I will never find works such as the Chamber Symphony beautiful or moving. I would have appreciated this music very much with some kind of visual stimulus though, I believe as a film score or ballet, this could be very effective at drawing an audience in, but as it is, it is completely forgettable (for me). I did find the very pointalistic approach of Agamemnon somewhat more captivating to my ears, somehow when the abstract melodic lines are freed from the constant clusters of sound they are much easily more appreciated. The brevity of Webern’s music in general makes it much more palatable as it is able to be experienced and left behind in a relatively short period of time.

           The main Schoenberg piece for which I have always made an exception to my previous criticisms has been Pierrot Lunare. This was a piece which I admired so much I often listened to it on long drives out of town. This leads me to an interesting point regarding the use of the human voice. Once a piece of music that would otherwise be a very challenging listen is codified with use of a singer, it all of a sudden takes on a different context. The addition of the singspiel in Lunare was probably the most brilliant aspect of its creation, fusing poetry with the new surrealistic sound was a way of tapping into the commonly held interest in psychology and Freud that would have been lost on an audience in a purely instrumental work.

            I don’t think that it is too far of a stretch to say that Stravinsky is best known for The Rite of Spring (on YouTube there is an excellent rendering of the ballet with the original Nijinsky choreography), as an orchestration it is an incredible achievement in the way he manages the almost obscene complexity of many of the portions. I very much enjoyed the ER analogy for the way his musical “phrases” are set up, it is probably the best one I have heard. I always tried to liken it to a flip book of related photos, all of the photos make up the one “book” but they are also individual ideas all their own. I like the television show idea better though. In terms of pieces by Stravinsky other than The Rite of Spring, the other ballets stand out as very good examples of his orchestral voice. Petrushka as well as the Firebird are standards for students of orchestration. The Firebird is especially memorable for its Lullaby and Finale as themes that are very effective and repetitive; it is not difficult to hear an audience humming the final fanfare upon leaving a performance of that piece. As far as Stravinsky’s non orchestral music, one section of his compositions with which I was not familiar was his works for piano. I was unable to locate the piece that was discovered after his death but I did spend some time listening to the 1924 sonata as well as a handful of others. I found them to by varying degrees of interesting, especially the dramatic and forceful use of ornaments which sounded very Baroque to me (as noted in the Morgan text, the term neo-classical could very well have been called neo-baroque).

           This final listening for this portion of the reading dealt with the composers Bartok and Janacek and their contributions to both the string quartet form and opera. The Bartok String Quartet in C# minor sounded (as was noted by both you and the video) very similar to the contrapuntal style of Beethoven. This is not so surprising to me, as the legacy of Beethoven is something that seems quite inescapable (we only have to consider that the textbook; Concise History of Western Music By Dr. Margaret Hanning devotes a full chapter to Beethoven while other great composers such as Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart and Haydn must share chapters with each other).  Therefore any comparison to Beethoven, I imagined worked in Bartok’s favor. On the subject of Janacek, I found the Opera Jenufa to be very moving and the lyrical speech-like patterns in the soprano voice were very enjoyable to hear. The Morgan text did not include any mention of the murder of Janacek’s classmate and the possible psychological effects it had on him or his compositions, it would have been interesting if this event were noted in the textbook to give a more complete picture to this composer’s life and works. The Cunning Little Vixen cartoon was absolutely fascinating and I did a little research on the project and turned out to have a few really good write-ups in the order section for the DVD.  I read that it originally aired on the BBC to relatively high acclaim and itself was based off of a 1920’s cartoon strip. This stylization was very evident in the clip on YouTube and I think I might order the video as I have many young students who might benefit from seeing this kind of accessible art especially since it only last for about an hour.
         It goes without saying that many pieces had to be omitted from this discussion paper. I tried to stay with the works that sparked the most thoughts from me and would therefore make the most interesting points. I feel as though the repertoire that I have heard thus far will enable to make very detailed comparisons with the music in the next 6 chapters including thoughts and reflections on political circumstances and how they affect composers and their craft. It is very interesting to me though, that when we consider music of the 20th century many CD compilations what feature that title stop with the composers mentioned above. It is perhaps due to the fact that it appears we are moving farther and farther away from what many would consider “listenable” music. It could also be symptomatic of the intrusion of “popular” music into the art music world. It would also be foolish to think that these two circumstances (among many others) were unrelated. 

Politics and Ideology in England's Art Music

            Socialism is an easy term to use as an all encompassing descriptive for the global left. In Great Britain there were strong calls for improved labor conditions and worker rights and a very easy argument could be made that the Communist Party would not have had the strength to become a world ideology were it not for contribution made by the English in the 19th century. Thus, the Labor Party became the popular party of the British Isles (it’s a drastic oversimplification, I know, but I have to remind myself that this isn’t a political science class). But the “socialism” of England was always tempered by a fantastical obsession with the traditions of the Monarchy which still exists in that country. We can see this contradiction in the music of both Benjamin Brittan and Michael Tippett, in many ways these composers were able to bring out through their music very liberal ideologies (fair treatment of humans and the working class) while working in a very tonal medium and in many cases continuing the traditions of Vaughan Williams, Holst and Elgar to incorporate aspects of their native music.

           Peter Grimes, the opera by Benjamin Brittan with libretto by Montagu Slater tells the story of a violent unstable fisherman who has had one apprentice die (but is somewhat vindicated from any wrongdoing) and takes on another who meets the same fate. In some ways this can be read as an attack on the conditions of the poor as it seems the characters are somewhat doomed from the outset of the piece. In subject matter, the work is quite modern; this point is emphasized by Morgan: “the somber, pessimistic subject matter, presenting a sadistic title character combining characteristics of a romantic ‘outsider’ and a psychotic social misfit, is decidedly modern in flavor.” (Morgan p 276) The arrangement of the prologue and acts also has the influence of Alban Berg’s operas. There are, however; many aspects of Peter Grimes which are both vernacular and traditional with the inclusion of a drinking song and church hymns says something about the appreciation for music that might not fall strictly insider the modern art music repertoire. From this vantage point Peter Grimes is a prime example of the new living alongside the most cherished aspects of the past.

            Michael Tippett’s oratorio: A Child of Our Time is full of social commentary, as Morgan writes: “…in content an impassioned statement of man’s inhumanity to man, set within the context of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.” (Morgan p. 279) Once again we see a very modern viewpoint of international fraternity and minority class rights (although the argument could easily be made that the Enlightenment era was concerned with human fraternity, this notion very rarely manifested itself in terms of works of art with an outright political message [perhaps with the exception of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony). Another way this work is novel is that the composer and librettist are the same individual, few other composers delve into the lyric writing (the first exception I can think of was Roger Quilter). Morgan writes that A Child of Our Time owes much to the Bach Passions but when I listened to the example you recommended I really heard George Fredric Handel more than J.S. Bach. This would seem to make more sense to me as Handel has had an enduring reputation in Great Brittan.  

Folk and "Exotic" Sounds in European Art Music

                In response to the questions posed as to which individuals and their compositional methods are varying degrees of traditional or contemporary, I found myself with the same answer for each, and that was dependant on the use of folk music.  In many ways, folk music represents the most traditional of all genres of music and yet it existed largely unappreciated in the concert halls for a long period of history. As mentioned earlier, Mozart’s Turkish Rondo, Haydn’s “Gypsy” Trio, Beethoven’s arrangements of Russian songs for pedagogical purposes and pieces like that did include both folk music and exotic elements, but it seems as though this was (in the Classical/Romantic period) as a quaint ornament to otherwise strict Germanic compositional styles. It seems, however; that the boldness of Stravinsky, Bartok, Kodaly, Janacek and others to outright say “folk music was my inspiration for this melody” or to write in a folk music style was to bring traditional national cultural music into popular perception. It is interesting that similar experiments in recording and cataloging music of the Native American’s were happening around the same time that Bartok was doing his research (according to the text An Introduction to America’s Music by Richard Crawford).

                In the sense that concert hall music is traditional, to me, no figure stands out more than Rachmaninoff. Here is an individual that lived well into the 20th century, enjoyed a great deal of success and is still regularly performed today (the Van Cliburn competition which wrapped up recently featured many pianists playing the 2nd and 3rd piano concerto to a very enthusiastic audience).  The concertos are indeed beautiful expressions of grand writing for the piano and orchestra, as are the Variations on a Theme by Paganini. These pieces are often melodically lyrical, moody with sections that tend to tap into that part of an audience that is looking for a rush. The greatest example of Rachmaninoff’s writing that shows his traditional, yet contemporary side is the very well known Prelude in C Sharp Minor. In many ways the harmonies of this piece are very Romantic recalling remnants of Chopin’s Prelude in C minor. On the other hand, the piece seems to have a clear ABA form with much more variation than many classical preludes tended to have (admittedly, many Romantic preludes do though, again, Chopin comes to mind in the way his “Raindrops” prelude changes as well as several others). In the end, it seems as though Rachmaninoff’s most novel aspect was the fact that he maintained what was becoming seen by his contemporaries as an “antiquated” style. However, the pieces’ enduring popularity against his contemporizes perhaps means that Rachmaninoff was (and still is) in line with popular trends.

                The final figure, for this discussion, is Ravel. In the interest of full disclosure, growing up as a young music student, Ravel was my favorite composer and I worked very hard trying to imitate his style (eventually my composition teacher began to scold me for doing this).  Ravel was hardly the only composer to write music for the left hand alone, however; the Concerto for left hand stands out as a remarkable achievement, especially when pitted against the massive chord voicing in Rachmaninoff. In a very profound way though, this is an incredibly traditional method as many of the first keyboard instruments (such as the portative organ) were often played with only one hand.  Ravel was also very novel in his use of Jazz aspects in his pieces, however; the aspects of Jazz which were incorporated into his works (such as the sliding and saxophone use in Bolero were in practice and common in the 19th century in the Americas. The piano concerto in G has a great deal of bitonality and incredible virtuosity but it remains a Classical Concerto that follows a fast-slow-fast format. This is probably the biggest point above all the others; regardless of the use of dissonance, or dissonant sounds, odd meters or any of the exploited techniques used by composers of the 20th century, often these individuals were still writing titles such as “symphony” “concerto” and “prelude.”  To be fair, there were some free-formed pieces being written, but it would have been impossible for the new composers to completely sever ties with the previous 3 centuries.

Schoenberg, Beethoven and Bach

            It is difficult to say exactly what parallels Morgan could draw between Schoenberg and Beethoven (or Brahms, Mozart etc.) In some respects the author goes to some length to demonstrate the transpositional characteristics seen in the music of Scriabin and that kind of motivic development could be seen as making “every note count.” The best example of this being Das Buth der Hangenden Garten, No 7 on p. 70 which shows the same voice leading of an augmented chord to an essentially quartal chord (with one augmented fourth present. To me, what makes Beethoven Beethoven was his ability to “emancipate” the motive and free it from the confines of a melody. The 5th symphony is a fantastic example of this practice, in the whole piece there is virtually no melody to speak of, only groups of four notes brilliantly arranged. To our modern ears, this practice is quite tame, but for an audience that was used to the eight bar antecedent and consequent phrases this was revolutionary. Therefore, if the motif could be liberated from the melody, then it is not too far a stretch to say that tone could be liberated from key, thus we have Schoenberg’s famous quite about the “emancipation of dissonance” (which appears on p. 67 of the Morgan textbook).

            In the documentary on the famous 20th century pianist; Glen Gould titled The Alchemist Mr. Gould goes out of his was to describe the relationship between Bach and Schoenberg. Mr. Gould stated that “both were puzzles that needed to be figured out.” It is both amazing and understandable to me how idealized Bach is in the theory world as his music represents an unmatched architectural complexity but still stands up to be beautiful. Schoenberg’s music and study of theory (not to mention his writings on the subject and influence on his pupils) deal, to a great extent, with that same architectural standard, there is a high degree of craftsmanship but the popularity seems (like Bach) to not have arose in the same way enjoyed by his contemporaries.

            Schoenberg’s writings on the subject of music theory and practice could by themselves warrant a comparison with the Romantic masters. As mentioned in the text, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms and Berlioz all wrote on the subject of music and many of them published texts on the philosophy of music (or in Strauss’s case the Treatise on Instrumentation revised by Berlioz, I own the Dover publication edition of this text). In many ways we can see this aspect of Schoenberg’s personality and output as a natural extension from the 19th century’s emphasis on the written word and philosophy of all things that have to do with existing as a human. The only major difference in the circumstances between this period of Schoenberg’s output and his earlier counterparts was that Schoenberg lived in an age of established industrialization and urbanization which was still somewhat novel in 19th century. Other comparisons could be made, but these stand out as the most prominent to me. 

Debussy in the Transition to Our Modernity

            Out of the transitional composers listed in the Morgan text, ("Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America") the two that have been featured the most in concert halls and NPR play would probably be Mahler and Debussy. Out of these two, it seems that Debussy is still the most popular especially for works such as Clare De Lune and many of the other tonal piano pieces. While reading the opening chapters of the textbook, I found it interesting that so many composers left their native home and found refuge in distant countries (Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg and Stravinsky to name a few). These composers seemed to always think back to (and draw inspiration from) native music of their homeland, in contrast to Claude Debussy, who lived his life in France, seemed to look everywhere but his home (although it should be noted that the nuances of Gregorian chant do have history in the all of the countries of Europe, including France, also the influence of older contemporaries such as Faure and others should also be included).  The most popular pieces of Debussy seem mostly to be tonal modern interpretations of either ancient or some kind of “exotic” music.

            In a way, I get the impression that Robert Morgan seems to make an association between dissonance and modernity (I write this while keeping in mind the statement made by many theorists about the 12 tone system of music not being dissonant because dissonance ceases to exist). In truth, there is a great history in music with close and chromatic intervals, the world over, only the perception of “pleasing” versus “unpleasing” sounds seems to change. If we examine the Japanese court traditional music Gagaku, what we hear is a cacophony of piercing flutes reed tone clusters and slow pulsating rhythms of seemingly un-tuned drums; this is music that goes back hundreds of years. I mention this because we know from the Morgan text that Debussy had an interest in eastern music, both Gamelan and Japanese sounds had a profound influence on his compositions (and indeed the greater artistic community such as Van Gogh pulled a great deal of inspiration for his painting from traditional Japanese artwork and writings on “the floating world.”) This fact is corroborated in the book Rediscovering the Orient by Andrew Gerstle, which goes into great detail about eastern influences in European arts. Gerstle states that Debussy’s interpretation of Japanese music was very a misunderstood one.

Either Debussy’s interpretation of Japanese music was misunderstood or the composer was putting an individual “take” on the music, either way it is too hard to tell. The fact still remains that innovations in travel, opening of trade and Europe’s prominence in the world was leading to increased communication with other cultures which by itself is a symptom of modernity.  History shows us that art and cultures tend to be very pliable things and interaction of any kind often results in some new hybrid not belonging immediately to either. This is the case with the “eastern” influences in Debussy’s music, the pieces bear influences of pentatonic scales and eastern melodies but they are not themselves renditions of music from those cultures. It is much more the case, as Morgan puts it, that “Debussy favored a more generalized poetic evocation of moods, impressions, and atmospheric landscapes.” And it is fair to say that some of those landscapes included exotic places. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Opera in England

            England’s relationship with opera has existed at angular intervals in history. The first major star being Henry Purcell with his Dido and Aeneas, followed by a gap, and later George F. Handel followed by a longer, more significant gap. Of course, it should be mentioned that music in the theatre did not disappear as there was the incredibly successful “Beggar’s Opera” which spawned many adaptations and revisions as well as international tours. But as far as works for the stage that were continuously sung on which one composer was responsible, this did not fully return to Great Britain until the composers Ralph Vaughn Williams, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett all of which lived and worked almost entirely in the 20th century.

            Both Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst produced a hand full of pieces, Vaughan Williams winning out with a total of 5 operas whereas for Holst the situation is difficult due to the fact that he wrote several works for stage, but many of them are incredibly short pieces.  The most successful of the Vaughan Williams operas (or the one that is written on the most in historical websites) seem to be The Pilgrims’’ Progress (1951) an allegorical story about a pious Pilgrim who encounters sinful situations he must fix. As far as Gustav Holst is concerned; his only full-length opera is; Sita, which is a retelling of the epic poem The Ramayana from classical Carnatic mythology.  This might go some way to being a precursor to Michael Tippett’s interest in Indian music and Hindustani music theory.

            Michael Tippett was born in London but spent most of his childhood in Suffolk. In many ways he was fortunate that his parents lived abroad in France and Corsica due to the fact that he could visit them and thus gave the young Michael a very worldly view very early on in life.  Tippett was a graduate of the Royal College of Music and also studied counterpoint under R. O. Morris. His first major success in terms of music for the theatre was his oratorio A Child of Our Time which was first performed in 1944 (the text was written by the composer, an important trend since the time of Wagner).  As far as “pure” opera is concerned, the most important work of Tippett’s output was The Midsummer Marriage (1955). Midsummer tells the story of two couples, one royal and one common (much in the way of Die Zauberflote), the challenge in the piece is what characters have to go through before their union is complete, the author of chapter 9 in the Oxford text, Paul Griffiths writes: “The Midsummer Marriage concerns a pair of lovers, each of whom has to achieve a psychical completeness before their union is possible, she has to learn earthliness, he spirituality…” The work relies heavily on dance in order to get across the process to the characters. There are a few notable things regarding the composition of Midsummer, first that it was written/composed one act at a time and second that Tippett, in the libretto did not shy away from the fantastical nor use of contemporary slang in language.

           Benjamin Britten was one of those composers who showed an immense talent for music at a young age. In his youth he studied piano and viola as well as composing as early as age 5.  Like Tippett, he enrolled at the Royal College of Music but found success hard to come by as a composer in an academic setting. Where Britten did find substantial success was in the film industry, first scoring documentaries and later motion pictures. He would take the dramatic side of his film compositions into other corners of his compositional output including opera. It should be noted that Benjamin Britten was a homosexual who spent a fair amount of his life with his partner the singer Peter Pears. Many older history texts shy away from this fact, as an example, the “Dictionary of Composers” published 1977 refers to Pears simply as “friend.” This is important due to the fact that not only did Britten frequently write for, and with Pears’ voice in mind it also adds clarity to the notion of persecution present in so many of Britten’s works for stage, especially Peter Grimes (1945). Peter Grimes was a landmark piece, it was a British opera that was significant internationally (really the first to be so since G.F. Handel). It is a largely tonal opera that tells the story of a fisherman who is under constant suspicion from his fellow townsfolk. The piece is a tragedy and used large orchestral color and even polytonality to aurally describe the stage scenario. Of course, Peter Grimes was not the only opera of Britten. He would go on to compose The Rape of Lucretia (1946) which is a story of a faithful woman who is raped by the prince of Rome and later kills herself for fear that she will never recover from the ordeal. A fascinating subject matter for the 20th century, especially when one considers the taboo nature of the subject of rape happening to live characters on stage (although it was not graphically shown in its production), and when we think of the censorship of the film industry going on at the same time in the United States it is a wonder that this piece was staged at all. Britten also wrote the comic piece Albert Herring (1947) which is a thankfully less repulsive tale revolving around a May-day celebration and townsfolk involved in tame debauchery.  Britten through his compositions of not only opera but also works for film, orchestra and chamber ensembles was able to aid in the reestablishment of Great Britain as a cultural center for innovation in music, especially that of music for the theatre. 

Opera in Russia

            According to the Oxford text, Russian courts hosted opera as far back as the innovations of Opera Buffa in the 18th century.  Domenico Cimerosa composed Il Matrimonio Segreto for a Russian court and was very well received during its lifetime. This was, to be sure, not native opera; in fact, the first libretto in the Russian language was written in 1755 but was also written by an Italian imported composer to the region. Rather, the subjects were set in Italian language as they were in a great deal of Europe during the 1700’s, but it does provide a lineage to the more native styles that would emerge later in the 19th century with the likes of Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and later Shostakovich and Prokofiev.  The reasons for non-indigenous opera in the Slovak countries seems a simple enough problem to solve, after all, it was an Italian import into the rest of Europe, but it wasn’t until after the adoption of European culture and style (particularly French and German) under Peter the Great, that Russia began to emerge as a cultural center partially out of assimilation (as in Tchaikovsky) and partly out of Rebellion (Mussorgsky).

            The first opera that was sung continually in Russian was A Life for the Tsar (1836) by Mikhail Glinka. The story is a relatively simple one, essentially it is the tale of a young married couple, the Juvenile is charged with leading invading Poles away from the newly elected Romanoff sovereign. The young man is successful but because of his deception he is killed.  Glinka went on to write another great opera in the piece Ruslan and Lyudmila (1837-1842) which was very Russian in its origins of being adapted from a poem of Pushkin, but bears a great deal of relationship to the fantasy operas of Romantic Germany as it contains wizards, fairies and other sorts of magical characters and prophecy.  While Glinka held fast to many Italian styles of opera including the recitative/aria format, he did generate certain validity for opera in the Russian language on Russian subjects that would be inherited by younger composers.

            The Later developments in Russian opera that unfolded in the 19th century were linked to Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.  Rimsky-Korsakov was the most prolific of the three, composing a total of 15 operas, however; his is best known for The Golden Cockerel (1909) which was another fairly tale opera that contains within it the famous “Flight of the Bumblebee.” As far as Tchaikovsky is concerned, he is seen as something sort of backwards from the history of opera in Russia, whereas the beginning of the genre had to do with foreign styles influencing native stories, Tchaikovsky looked elsewhere for settings for his stage-works.  Many of his operas take place outside of Slovak countries and even his most well known work Evgeny Ongen is only partially set in Russia and was successful for its more profound examination of character relationships.  John Tyrrell writes; “In the latter two operas [The Enchantress and Evgeny] the Russian element penetrates no further than Act 1, but where the Enchantress, like so many of Tchaikovsky’s operas, fails, and where Onegin triumphantly succeeds, is in the level of personal engagement.”  Finally the discussion in the Oxford text turns to the issue of realism in Russian opera, the principal figure here is Modest Mussorgsky who believed very strongly in speech-rhythms being represented in song.  Mussorgsky had a terrible time completing operas as he attempted several but was only able to finish one; Boris Godunov (1874) which is notable for its prose settings of text that avoids too much in terms of song-structure in the original, (later in a revised version solo songs and duets were added).

            The 20th century would see many changes to the Russian landscape, the Soviet Revolution had deposed the royal family of Russia and now a new “dictatorship of the proletariat” was established. Originally under the direction of V.I. Lenin the fledgling nation of the USSR would seek to relegate art to artists and intellectuals, art was also a low priority with the government due to the bloody civil war that was sweeping the nation. It wasn’t until the death of Lenin that the ineptly educated Joseph Stalin ascended to total power over the country. Stalin’s narrow idea of artistic ability lay with only precision in realism and during that period both the visual and performing arts would enter a much prescribed scenario.  The two major composers writing at this time were Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Shostakovich is known best (in terms of opera) for his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934) musically very successful but mostly infamous for the ban of its performance directed by Stalin after seeing a production of the piece.  Lady Macbeth did challenge conventions on moral grounds as well as the role of women in society (being married to man when she is in love with another) but it is the work’s central place in the history of censorship that makes it so notable from an historical perspective.  Sergey Prokofiev was the composer of a handful of operas including The Fiery Angel, the Gambler and Semyon Kotko. The Oxford text notes; The Love for Three Oranges for the fact that it “unlooses the ostinatos from any psychological purpose, and instead has them spinning the wheels of a comic fantasy.”

            It should be noted that during any discussion of the Soviet Union, there is sometimes a tendency to lump the Lenin/Stalin legacy together when it comes not only to art but also to political policy. According to the biography by Robert Payne, Lenin was willing to leave artistic matters to the artists and rather wanted to focus on overall education, Lenin himself was an avid fan of Beethoven’s music as well as many other classics. This in some ways is to be expected as in his youth, the young Vladimir had a very liberal education and was a practicing lawyer (in-between his revolutionary activities). Stalin, by contrast, did not receive the same kind of liberal education; he was a staunchly conservative man who was notoriously rude. This is not meant to oversimplify the situation in the USSR, this is simply to point out that there was a great difference in the visions of the two men for what the Soviet Union was to become. 

Czech Opera

            Turmoil in countries can have many effects on the output of art. Sometimes wars of national liberation can be an amazing catalyst for the development or validation of national styles. By the same token, political unrest, cultural repression (especially in language) and of course uncertain economy can have a very retardant effect on the arts.  The Czech-speaking people have lived under several rulers since the late Renaissance. While they were included in the Hapsburg Empire, their native culture was to be tempered by more Germanic elements including language, music and dance.  This issue was coupled with the fact that there was no Czech aristocracy who would normally be responsible for the funding and patronage of the arts, particularly opera.  Therefore; it is not surprising that Czech opera is seen as a “late-comer” to the theatrical world, with its true beginnings in the establishment of the ‘Provisional Theatre’ with a handful of works by Skroup, reaching maturity with Smetana and achieving world wide notoriety with Janacek.

            It should not be thought that opera was absent from Czech-speaking lands. An Italian opera company occupied the Estates Theatre for some time before it was disbanded in 1807. Even then opera did not disappear, as a German company came in to replace the scattered Italians, in fact; the composer Skroup served as the second music director for the Estates in 1827.  But aside from the composer; Skroup and a few of his contemporaries, Czech language opera was largely displaced by the works of Mozart’s Italian pieces as well as later Wagnerian operas and musical dramas.  It was to eventually be the Czech middle class theatre-goers who “held sentimentality for rural life” that would seek to bring out genuinely Czech culture both as a means of preserving national identity and aligning themselves with their national proletariat.

            Internet information on the composer Frantisek Skroup is frustratingly limited. Most of the reputable biographical cites are written in Czech and Google’s language tools are still not sufficient enough to render an intelligible narrative.  The parts of the biography that are readable do seem to corroborate the Wikipedia article that contained two paragraphs on the composer as well as a listing of his works by genre. Skroup is most well known for composing the piece “Where is My Home” which is now used as the Czech national anthem. He was born in Osice and educated in Prague where he earned a living as a choir-boy and flautist while studying music with the choirmaster Franz Volkert.  He was the composer of several Singspiels as well as a handful of operas, many of them in German. Skroup did write opera on Czech themes, the piece Libusin Snatek (Libuse’s Marriage, a subject very popular in Europe which inspired many works) is cited as an early vernacular piece to achieve some acclaim, but as the author John Tyrrell points out: “The early history of vernacular opera tens to centre not on quality but on claims for primacy.” Therefore; Skroup is notable for his role in the musical development of the Czech speaking lands, but as far as a nationalistic style is concerned; he was far too submerged in the Wagnerian revolution to produce anything truly native.

            The composer Bedrich Smetana would be the composer to really occupy history’s notion as the first nationalistic composer of the Czech-speaking territories. His first opera Branibori v Cechach (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia) is ripe with political messages to the middle class. The piece is set in the Middle Ages and tells the story of a rioting mob that expels the foreign Burghers from the land. While the political message was well received it did not establish a national style, this was accomplished with his next and most well known piece The Bartered Bride.  The Bartered Bride is notable for its ease of hearing on the part of the listener, using uncomplicated counterpoint and mostly singable tunes easily digested by the “unsophisticated listener.” The opera has a heavy reliance on popular dances, namely the polka and slow waltz. Smetana opposed the use of directly quoting folk-songs for his opera (although there are a few instances of this) but he did use folk-style melodies during his pieces. Though Smetana went a long-way to the development of a national style, at his heart he still possessed a German education (which was evidence by the number of Fairy Tale operas he composed) and his journey to the composition of Czech works was a long one. It is in the composer; Janacek that we see a fully developed Czech-style.

            Leos Janacek was born in 1854, and although he received most of his musical education from a monastery, he also pursued his musical education through Prague as well as Vienna (in the hopes of bettering himself as an educator for his own music college).  Like other nationalist/ethnomusicologists such as Bartok and Kodaly, he was an ardent student of folk music. He composed a great deal before turning to opera, but it was not until his most well known piece; Jenufa that he became such a dominating figure in the canon of Czech composers.  Jenufa is a gruesome story about lovers, a woman’s disfigurement and the murder of an infant. It originally appeared in a censored version that seemed to appeal to the audiences, who heard it, later it was performed in its original form.  Through the international success of Jenufa, Janacek emerged from being seen as just an ethnomusicologist to a legitimate composer on the level of Sibelius, Mussorgsky and Bartok.  Janacek would go on to write some very successful operas such as Osud (1904), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924, which was featured in the Robert Morgan text on 20th century music) and From the House of the Dead (1927).  It is very interesting that opera, with essentially Italian origins, could be used as such an instrument of national pride for countries all over Europe.  Of course, this is a theatrical style that had to be tempered with the regional folk song and studies of rural music. Still, the success of composers like Janacek and his ilk is a testament to the power of indigenous style. 

Lesser Known Cornelius and Wolf

            Wagner cast a considerable shadow over the German composers of the 19th century, in fact; it could be said that he cast a considerable shadow over the whole of the Romantic Era. Younger composers such as Peter Cornelius and Hugo Wolf were in some ways charged with displaying individuality and independence from Wagnerian style in the same ways that composers of the early 19th century tried to assimilate Beethoven’s style while creating an individual name for themselves. It is a curious thing that the text notes these composers working so hard to separate their works from Wagner, after all, Wagner displayed a heavy influence from Berlioz, Liszt and Beethoven (as well as others), the question must be asked, why was it so important?

            Peter Cornelius is not a particularly well known composer, trying to find any biographical information on him was somewhat difficult. Only a devoted Wikipedia article showed up on Google and my “Dictionary of Composers” was little help. From what I read, he played violin, wrote prolifically on the subject of art (like many Romantic composers) and composed Lieder early in life. As far as the text is concerned, he was a composer of some ability but felt swamped by Wagner and therefore decided to try and separate himself through means of writing comic opera. This was a short lived solution as eventually Cornelius became an assistant of Wagner and also began writing fantastical German opera sometimes based on Norse legend. All of this was to no avail, however; because he was constantly pushed aside in favor of operas such as Tristan and Parsifal.  Cornelius did in 1874 at age 50.

            While Cornelius might be somewhat obscure, Hugo Wolf is a well known individual to anyone who has studied classical voice. Wolf was a prolific composer of Leider, possibly the most well known since Franz Schubert.  Wolf was able to combine the best aspects of reoccurring motif as well as the melodic development present in Wagner but distilled into a more palatable song-form.  Hugo Wolf did in fact compose an opera close to the end of the 19th century; the piece was titled Der Corregidor (finished in 1896) and was based off the “light hearted libretto” by Rosa Mayreder. Barry Millington detracts from the piece based on its flawed text stating that “Act 4 has an excessive amount of recapitulation of preceding events.” This was somewhat amusing to me as we need look no further for excessive recapitulation and unnecessary declamation than that of Wagner. In fact, the passing comment about Anna Russell prompted me to look up her videos where one of the big punch lines is her poking fun at Wagner’s bombastic nature. 

Reflections on “The Staging of Opera”

            I am relatively confident that this section of the Oxford text could be re-titled “The Staging of Theatre, in General” as many of the aspects discussed (often jokingly) could easily be applied to any production.  In order to really understand staging, I think it is important to understand a decisive moment in the history of theatre; that being the stepping away of Thespis from the Greek chorus (this could also be seen as an overall metaphor for the development of stagecraft). Prior to Thespis asserting himself as an “actor” the chorus was little more than an amplified story-telling group. In this respect there is little difference between the classical Greek chorus and listening around a campfire. With Thespis stepping away, there is a far different demand on the audience, no longer are we hearing a story we are witness to it. From that standpoint, nothing is more important than maintaining the illusion of seeing a reality happen, in real time, on stage and everything that cast, crew, director and stage manager must do to maintain that illusion.

           The author of chapter 10 in the Oxford text, Robert Savage, cites a number of dramaturgical works in order to explain the science of effective staging, focusing primarily on the directions for Othello and Dafne. These two operas span over 200 years between them and therefore a directional look at both of them provides some notion of the evolution of the art form.  These documents include ingenious means of getting around problems that might arise in the course of a production, such as a battle scene that is followed by an aria, where the singer might be out of breath. This could be solved by having an extra actor for the battle where the singer can wait patiently in the wings. Another example is given for the murder scene in Othello, the dramaturges recommends that Desdemona powder her face while the pillow hides her from the audience so that she can appear ghost-white when Othello retracts the suffocating device.  There are also illustrations of minor suggestions for getting an onstage choir to be able to act together and not obstruct the principal characters and for scenery to be set up and painted with continuity and realism. Of course some of these aspects change as theatre evolves, for instance, in the 20th century avant-garde pieces, the issue of realism is not what it is for an opera such as Othello, however; I think it is safe to say that for the majority of opera’s history, the emphasis has been consistently representational of an identifiable world on stage.
          Perhaps the most amusing aspect of this chapter was the section that cited Benedetto Marcello, who was “a Venetian Lawyer, administrator, poet and composer who felt he was a cut above the personnel of most of the companies.” Savage quotes him at length giving ironic advice to various members of a production stating such things as:  allowing actors to gesture and make entrances wherever and whenever they like, that painters should arrange the stage with no idea of perspective or horizon, singers should sing with their mouths half-closed and muffled, and that divas should be concerned with their outfits and looking pleasing rather than acting and singing well.  Of course this is a “what not to do” type tirade, however; I myself have been to a number of productions where I could cite at least one of these theatrical fallacies.

            I believe I mentioned this a long time ago, but I grew up doing community theatre which involved mostly musicals. Except for the music director (who was also my private piano teacher) all the cast and crew were volunteers, some were students hoping to learn necessary skills for a professional career after graduation, others were working adults who enjoyed acting/singing as a way of spending their free time and all manner of  people in-between these two extremes. I was particularly amused while reading this chapter because I tended to flash back to all of the back-stage antics and ill-prepared performers, the set that wasn’t completed until 3 hours before dress rehearsal, the director who shouted constantly and the number late-entrances, forgotten lyrics and out-of-tune orchestral cues.  I started to think to myself that I am so glad there were no on-stage fires (the type of which discussed in the text) because I can’t say for certain that the whole theatre wouldn’t have burned down. What’s amazing, is that through all of its potential faults, involving stage and crew, that incredible performances can and frequently do happen on stage, which I suppose wraps back around to my initial point about Thespis, things do go wrong in the staging of theatre, but those are not the things the audience is privy to, what the audience sees is a real-time story, and when it works, it is an incredible thing to see.   

Wagner's Politics and Polemics

            The Romantic Era saw many individuals who were not only of music, but also wrote a great deal on the subject of music and sometimes general philosophy. This was true of Berlioz, Liszt and of course Richard Wagner. Wagner, the composer who is known infamously as the author of the anti-Semitic tirade; Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewish Influence in Music) written in 1850, also wrote several other, more tame polemical works including; Die Kunst und die Revolution (Art and Revolution), Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (Art of the Future) and Oper und Drama (Opera and Drama). All of these essays provide a textural foundation for understanding what Richard Wagner was hoping to accomplish.

            While it might be considered to be an overly-discussed topic in the subject of Wagner’s legacy, his essay ‘Jewishness in Music’ has come to be part and parcel to his historical identity. In the essay, Wagner not only attacks Jewish composers but also those who are simply citizens, Wagner writes “Although the peculiarities of the Jewish mode of speaking and singing come out the most glaringly in the commoner class of Jew, who has remained faithful to his fathers' stock, and though the cultured son of Jewry takes untold pains to strip them off, nevertheless they shew an impertinent obstinacy in cleaving to him.” (Quote as it appears on Wikipedia) Statements like these form the foundation for the unofficial ban on Wagner’s music in the state of Israel and fuel the debate between academics and conservatives on the appropriateness of playing works by Wagner.

            It is very interesting that in the essay ‘Art and Revolution’ that Wagner has joined the 19th century bandwagon on labeling capitalism something of a social retardant. Barry Millington writes: “[it was written] in the wake of the Dresden uprising of 1848-1849, Wagner insisted that art be taken out of the realm of capitalist speculation and profit making.” Millington goes on to note that Wagner, like so many of his predecessors looked to the idealized, lost Eden of ancient Greece for artistic integrity. Wagner proposed bringing back this integrity by uniting all aspects of arts into a single work for stage.

            Wagner later elaborated on the idea of artistic unification in his later essays; ‘Art of the Future’ and ‘Opera and Drama.’ This is where we see, for the first time the term Gesamtkunstwert (a total work of art), Millington writes; “…combining music, poetry and dance on a basis of equality, and simultaneously allowing architecture, sculpture, and painting to regain their authentic classical status.” It was in these writings that the stage was set for Wagner to attempt something like The Ring, to compose a “musical drama” which was a term coined by the composer and later rejected.