Category: Classical

I’m happy to reignite these online thoughts by extending a big “thank you” to Jon Hofferman of Carissimi Publications for sending me a complimentary copy of the wonderful “Classical Composers Poster.”  I first stumbled on the website for the poster (which you can link to here) at some point last fall.  I was struck by the breadth and detail of the timeline:

“The Classical Composers Poster features over 950 composers from Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) to Philip Glass (1937-) and Frank Zappa (1940-1993). It shows which composers lived when, the names and dates of thousands of compositions, and key events in music history. The poster measures 40″ x 27″ and is perfect for anyone who loves – or is learning about – classical music.”

My sense was that posters of this special kind were as rare as one-line descriptors of classical music history that extend from an inspired 12th century mystic abbess to the Grand Wazoo.  Long story short: I cold-called Carissimi Publications; Jon Hofferman responded warmly, and I received the poster in three or so weeks’ time.

With a nod to Giacomo Carissimi (1604-1674), one of the lesser-known composers of the early Baroque era, Carissimi Publications’ Classical Composers Poster is a real achievement: incredibly detailed, and on high-quality art stock, the whole is sequenced chronologically and helpfully colour-coded according to the generally agreed-upon level of a composer’s significance for classical music tradition.  It’s as artful as it is useful – source of reference and labour of love alike.  It now hangs on one of my apartment walls alongside two music greats: bluesman of the Mississippi Delta, Charlie Patton, and the notorious J.S. Bach.

How best to pierce the surface of classical music?  A good many people – among them some of my greatest music-loving friends – comment on how difficult it is to get into classical music.  I have too much to say about this to get down to business here; and nothing will ever replace the experience of actually listening to music.  But the poster’s one example of a valuable point of access, a gateway to a living tradition of music that often seems to have gone underground.

It’s often difficult to approach the long history of classical music.  Some might have the sense of not knowing where to begin or of stepping into a developed story midway.  But we have certain markers that orient us: We have the setting and dawning of the centuries; and then there are signposts for the different periods (of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Twentieth Century).  And while I tend to view this framework as relatively fluid, it can be helpful.  Looking to the rich historical past sobers us up from the siren call that music is a perfect mirror of beauty, say, or the romantic notion that artistic genius is somehow independent of history.  Genius, history tells me, is a matter of influence and of education as much as it is one of creative independence and imagination.  The Classical Composers Poster reminds me of the importance of music history – of tradition and the individual talent.

It was Hegel who first recognized the history of philosophy as a valuable philosophical pursuit in its own right.  Up to his day, philosophy students were largely trained in logic, aesthetics, metaphysics and the like – but by way of primers or textbooks (essentially, “how to” manuals) on the branch of philosophy in question; but its history was silent.  It was all rather like hearing echoes without the sound – with neither a sense of origin nor of context.

Music, too, can be approached by way of its history.  I write this as someone who’s functionally illiterate in terms of music notation; I have as little formal knowledge of counterpoint as I do of harmony.  But its history has been anything but silent to me.

Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information (1974)

I hesitate to say that the Classical Composers Poster is a great source of information alone, if only because “information” is a term that’s bandied about quite thoughtlessly these days.  This isn’t just information: It’s memory, history and culture.  It’s what a largely forgotten 1974 R&B album by Shuggie Otis calls Inspiration Information.  (You can take in the title track from that brilliant album here.)  And like that album, the Classical Composers Poster stands as a reminder that the musical well may very well be bottomless.

Portrait of Rachmaninov, by Konstantin Somov, 1925. (Source: New World Encyclopedia.)

“Don’t get sentimental / It always ends up drivel” ~Radiohead, “Let Down,” OK Computer

A recent blog post on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio 2 website invites readers to consider the merits of Rachmaninov’s music.   “Shamelessly romantic or gushy sentimentality?” it asks.

It’s true that the integrity, the worth of Rachmaninov’s music has often been questioned, despite – or maybe simply because of? – its immense popularity.  In his own lifetime, Rachmaninov was persistently perceived to be out of fashion, a nostalgic throwback to the music of the 19th century.  And as in life, so in death: Rachmaninov has since had plenty of post-mortem opportunity to spin in his grave in response to the criticism that his music is lightweight, syrupy or Hollywoodesque.  And though his reputation as a composer has been revitalized in recent decades (and it would seem that performers have always championed his music) one will occasionally hear echoes of that chorus of criticism once-strong.  So here I find myself chiming in with a few words in his favour.

Part of the reason that Rachmaninov is singled out when this topic arises is that he was considered something of an anachronism in his day.  His music was defiantly non-experimental; he wasn’t part of any progressive wave or current in the musical culture of the early decades of the twentieth century.  This is to say that Rachmaninov was not “modern” in the academic sense of the term: modernity as a reaction to the 19th century, as the conscious attempt to rethink or to disintegrate the aesthetic values of the past.  Listen to the famous Adagio from his Second Symphony: The apparent “problem” is that his music happens to be conventionally beautiful.  And so taste-makers have often been critical of Rachmaninov or have chosen to pass over him in silence when considering classical music of the last century.

To bring up but one example: In his enormous Music in Western Civilization Paul Henry Lang mentions Rachmaninov only once – and even then, he does so disparagingly and in passing, casting him as a mere imitator of a bygone age, unable “to derive from Chopin’s heritage more than ephemeral compositions, dated at the time of their creation.” I suppose the sting is lessened slightly by the consistency of Lang’s lack of judgment in this case: he lumps in Rachmaninov with Scriabin as a composer of supposedly derivative music.  It is an instance of someone who is staggeringly knowledgeable about music lacking in foresight, in distance.

The Grove Incident

You can find one of the more entertaining sparring sessions in New Yorker critic, Harold Schonberg’s Lives of the Great Composers.  Schonberg stands squarely in Rachmaninov’s corner and cites the following passage from the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians as an example of the wrongheadedness with which history has sometimes judged Rachmaninov:

As a pianist Rachmaninoff was one of the finest artists of his time; as a composer he can hardly be said to have belonged to his time at all. . . .  His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes. . . .  The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor.  The third pianoforte Concerto was on the whole liked by the public only because of its close resemblance to the second, while the fourth, which attempted something life a new departure, was a failure from the start.  The only later work that has attracted large concert audiences was the Rhapsody (variations) on a Theme by Paganini. . . .

The stilted tone aside, there’s something mildly strange happening here: On the one hand, the Grove Dictionary points to the popular success of certain Rachmaninov works as a sign of their apparent lack of substance.  On the other hand, it suggests that the general lack of popular success of other Rachmaninov works testifies to their artistic shortcomings.  Frothing at the mouth, Harold Schonberg greets the Grove verdict head-on, and characterizes it as  “one of the most outrageously snobbish and even stupid statements ever to be found in a work that is supposed to be an objective reference.”

Snobbery or Stupidity?

I appreciate that Schonberg delivers a much-needed bop on the nose of the Grove team, but is it really a plain matter of snobbery or stupidity? Let’s bring things a little closer to home – Rachmaninov’s first home, Russia.

It’s unfortunate that circumstance alone should have it that Rachmaninov be compared with his contemporary and compatriot, Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev, whose music is more dissonant and progressive in spirit, is generally considered the more “modern” of the two.  Prokofiev’s own dislike for Rachmaninov echoes loud in the grapevine, and Rachmaninov, so it goes, was kind enough to reciprocate. But why compare, why the animosity?  Perhaps Prokofiev himself felt the circumstantial pull of competition? In Bruno Monsaingeon’s 1998 biographical documentary on Sviatoslav Richter, Richter: The Enigma, the pianist chalks up Prokofiev’s hostility to “jealousy.”  Whatever the case, there’s a light that cuts through the fog: Prokofiev’s stunning and sympathetic 1920 interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor.

The Benefit of Hindsight

It is true that Rachmaninov didn’t fit neatly into the trends of early 20th century classical music.  But we now have the advantage of hindsight: And to my ears, his music has settled well.  If Rachmaninov’s musical meditations were once untimely, if his thoughts were once out of season, they have since found their place in the flow of recent history.

It’s no longer a matter of having to choose, as silly as it sounds, between Rachmaninov and the 20th century.

“Rachmaninov or Prokofiev?” “The Beatles or the Stones?” Much in the way that I choose to see the latter question as meaningless when posed by anyone other than schoolchildren on the playgrounds of the 1960s, I also hope that the former can be safely relegated to a bygone age of music criticism.

Editors of more recent editions of the Grove Dictionary have sobered up, and now remember Rachmaninov as “the last great representative of Russian late Romanticism.”  They even suggest that, “at its most inspired, Rachmaninoff’s lyrical inspiration is matchless.”

The development of music will always force us to appeal the initial verdicts of history.  If Rachmaninov was once reviled in some circles, it was due to a presumed belief in the necessary direction of classical music, the self-conscious attempt to break once and for all with the past.  But that’s all a chasing of the wind: For in the end, there can be no necessary principle of development in music.  And because there is no principle of necessity of historical development, there is no need to choose between, say, tonality and atonality: Each is an entirely valid, challenging and rewarding idiom.  The development of music will always remain, like Rachmaninov’s own, organic.

Listen to this sampling from the Vespers, one of Rachmaninov’s greatest achievements. 

It’s clear that, once the dust settles, there’s beauty to be found in an otherwise very ugly century.[Note: In saying “ugly,” here, I’m not referring to the music of the 20th century.]


Books I quote above:

  • Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1941).
  • Harold Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970).
  • The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (online access via Oxford Music Online).

The “past is inside the present” tag in the title of this piece comes from the beginning of “Music is Math,” a track by Scottish electronic duo, Boards of Canada.  You can listen to it here (from the album Geogaddi; Warp Records, 2002).

In 1944 Nat King Cole recorded Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor with his Los Angeles-based piano trio.  What’s special about the moment is that it represents a meaningful meeting of classical and jazz, a convergence of the twain: music of worlds so-called “Old” and “New.”

While branded in the popular imagination for the great “Unforgettable,” it has at times fallen into forgetfulness that Cole was a pianist of prodigious skill.  In fact, in an age of the swinging jazz bands, his early trio of the 1930s was something of a rarity – the very first of its kind, even.  If piano greats Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson were instrumental in establishing the trio as a standard ensemble of jazz performance, then they did so following in Cole’s footsteps.  The vocal works for which he’s most often remembered were produced largely due to popular demand.  Those cuts sold; the market demanded them.

Listen to the trio’s recording of George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”  The interplay of piano, bass and guitar (not, as would later become the standard, drums) is the stuff of magic.  Lest we forget: In the history of jazz, Nat King Cole was also instrumental as an instrumentalist.

There is so much great jazz to be discovered in the King Cole Trio’s output, but I’d like to bang even harder on the doors of forgetting.  For it’s really with his performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor that we’re invited to consider a side of Cole that’s largely fallen on deaf ears.

What’s especially cool to hear in this performance is the weight of the Russian soul reconceived by the freer, improvisatory spirit of jazz.  (Just listen to Oscar Moore’s guitar solo!)  There are inumerable great classically-oriented performances of the prelude.  (You can listen to Rachmaninov himself perform it here, in three separate recordings from 1919, 1923 and 1928.)  But that there are so many strong performances in the classical tradition of interpretation gives all the more resonance to this particular King Cole Trio session.  If unorthodox, I consider it as viable an interpretation as any other, but one of many legitimate ways of interpreting Rachmaninov.  Though not entirely faithful to the letter of the score, there’s no question to my ear that he’s true to the spirit of Rachmaninov’s music.

Let me push a bit more and say that Rachmaninov himself would agree.

To get concrete: Rachmaninov emigrated to the United States in 1918 and lived there intermittently until his death in 1943.  In those years he tirelessly toured America’s cities.  In a recent article by James Bash of the Oregon Music News, it’s said that Rachmaninov performed in Portland, Oregon, no fewer than five times between 1923 and 1933.

I mention Portland in this case because it was in a 1931 issue of its newspaper, The Spectator, that Rachmaninov spoke to the subject of the interpretation of his music:

‘To be quite honest, no,’ he replied.  ‘You see when it comes to the average pianist, I am perfectly willing to let him play my pieces just as he chooses – especially if I am not there to hear him.  As for a master pianist, he is justified in finding his own interpretations and in putting his own personality into the rendering of the composition.  I indicate my own feeling about tempo, phrasing, and dynamic shading in the music itself, and this is the outline of my own conception.  But some great pianist may play my piano pieces with many differences of detail, with nuances and shadings I might not use myself; and yet his conception of the piece as a whole will never be wrong because his own good taste and musical instinct would guard against it.

‘It is certainly most interesting, at times, to see how some other pianist will give a piece you have written yourself an entirely different musical color, or present it from quite another angle of interpretation than your own.’” (*See below for source information.)

It is with an eye to the composer’s open view of artistry and musical interpretation that I think he would have approved of Nat King Cole’s playful take on his work.  Cole’s is a freer approach to this music, of course; but that freedom is the spirit of jazz itself.  It is the very voice of the New World.

The King Cole Trio’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor is both a place for the jazz fan to encounter the riches of the classical tradition, and an occasion for the classical devotee to think more freely about jazz.

Given that Rachmaninov and Cole both lived in Los Angeles, I wonder if each had heard the other in concert.  Could they have met? (Readers please jump in!)

The Trio’s Rachmaninov session dates from January 1944, ten months after the composer’s death.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to see Cole’s recording of the Prelude in C-sharp minor as his small way of remembering, of paying homage to Rachmaninov.  That’s just one more way of remembering this forgotten side of Cole.


Recommended Recording:

  • The King Cole Trio: That’s What (1943-47) (Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120826; originally recorded for Capitol Records)

Personel: Nat King Cole, piano, vocals; Oscar Moore, guitar; Johnny Miller, bass

*The Rachmaninov quote from the 1931 Portland Spectator is taken from James Bash’s “When Bartok, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff came to Portland,” (The Oregon Observer, July 12, 2010).

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Van Cliburn - Life Magazine, 1958The idea of formal competition has become an established part of the classical music industry.  Freely, competitions give a great many musicians the opportunity to showcase their talents on the national and international stages.  And there is something to be said for their role in the advancement of young players on the pathway to professional careers in music.  (Exposure in music magazines, record deals will often follow.)  But I see a darkness in it all: the general flattening, rather than the development, of the creative landscape.

But let me warm up by bringing up three of the more momentous moments that come to mind when I think of the history of classical competition.


FIRST: Russian pianist, Tatiana Nikolayeva, took first prize in the Leipzig Bach Competition in 1950.  Oral history sometimes has it that she played both books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier – which is to say all 48 Preludes and Fugues!  Hmmm … Given that the competition only called for a single Prelude & Fugue as part of a contestant’s program, it’s unlikely that there’s much accuracy in that version of the story.  But there’s an echo of truth in it: Another – more likely – account goes like this: Nikolayeva was prepared to play anything from the Well-Tempered Clavier and offered to play whichever Prelude & Fugue the jury requested.  So impressed was Shostakovich (one of the panel judges) with her performance that he composed his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues – and dedicated them to her.  Whatever the details of the 1950 Leipzig Bach competition in 1950, the result is some of my favourite music of the 20th century.  Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues linger on; they are more important than the competition – than any competition.  (You can listen to her play Bach’s great Prelude & Fugue in C-sharp Minor here.  And also be sure to check out her rendition of Shostakovich’s dark Prelude & Fugue in E minor.)

History is like a piano: It resonates long after the notes are struck.  And, sometimes, its notes will blur.

SECOND: American pianist Van Cliburn was famously awarded first place at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.  That the year was 1958, at the height of the so-called cold “war,” only added to the resonance of the event.  I may be tripping on my own self-spun legend here, but I think it was my grandmother who told me that Russian pianist Emil Gilels – who was heading the competition jury – personally awarded the Texan with a score of 100 (on a scale of 1 to 10!) in order to guarantee Cliburn’s victory.

Do we find ourselves here, again, amidst the mist of myth?

One thing we do have is the Cliburn’s own account: that Gilels – after walking the American onto the stage to take his bow before a standing audience, beside itself with enthusiasm – kissed him on the cheek as sign of his admiration for the American’s performance.  It’s a wonderful story, and a tribute to the cultural promise of music.  For it’s now 2010, and who has won?  The McCarthyites or Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto?  A quick listen to the opening notes of that masterpiece – from the infamous 1958 competition itself! – clearly answers the question.

Sometimes music can help to temper the illusions, to dampen the delusions, of a time.

THIRD: The year is 1980, and Yugoslavian (Serbian) pianist Ivo Pogorelich is eliminated from the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.  Argentinean pianist Martha Argerich walks away from her position on the jury, and famously declares Pogorelich “a genius.”  So sharp is the controversy that Pogorelich is asked to give a last recital at the end of the competition (a privilege usually only reserved for the competition winner!).  You can here take in the dizzying levels of artistry and technique that Pogorelich brought to that very performance.

Pogorelich - "The Genius" (DG)THE VERDICT

But how would Pogorelich’s career have progressed had Argerich not resigned in protest?  What if the other members of the jury – the supposed arbiters of “truth” – had had their way?  My questions are speculative, I admit, but I write them here to trigger a bit of discussion about the state of competition culture as it exists in our day.  And if my questions seem speculative, I certainly don’t think they’re any more so than the pretense of a jury that supposes to offer an “objective” gauge of a musician’s performance.

To my mind, objectivity is impossible to the point that the very thought of it is boring; and I fear that music culture is dulled by structures that discourage the flowering of an artist’s personal (and, yes, subjective) vision.  I’m reminded of the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the young Stephen Dedalus takes on his role as an artist in the world, and sets out to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”  In the world of music, what competitions do is impose limits on the artist by pushing for a standardized measure of what constitutes proper performance, and in this sense limit the reach, the creative potential, the variety of views and interpretations of music.

The present and future of music are compromised by the conservative idea of “proper” performance.  Think of the blandness of American Idol.  (Sure, “America’s Got Talent,” but what’s talent without vision?)  Think of the merciless number of songs that are given the auto-tune treatment.

It hurts.  Even Beethoven’s ears are bleeding.

I don’t think that competitions should be done away with.  But I don’t need to state their merits here: You don’t have to put your finger to the wind to learn that their merits are everywhere assumed.  I only hope that people who are part of the industry begin to think of alternative ways of furthering music, of writing about it, of poking holes in the surface of what is blindly accepted.

Ultimately, it will continue to be up to the artists to forge the uncharted horizons of music.  Gone are the days – so to speak, because I doubt there ever were such days – when the interests of the industry coincided with the interests of artistry.

The basic issue is that there is a general acceptance of the way things are rather than a push to explore how things could be.  The first is a question of the music industry, and the second, a question of classical music culture, a matter of artistry.

And while industry doesn’t necessarily exclude artistry, it doesn’t always encourage it.  So if I see something of a darkness in it, then maybe it’s that the idea of classical competition misses the mark, misses the point of artistic development.  And if it can be said to see the truth at all, then I really think it can only do so as through a glass, darkly.

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Claudio Arrau plays Beethoven's opus 111.







Opus 111 is the publication number given to Beethoven’s last piano sonata (no. 32 in C minor).  Outwardly, the sonata is unique in that it’s in two-movements: Beethoven had begun sketches for a third, concluding movement, but eventually scratched convention and left us with a searching sonata in two parts.  A music professor in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus suggests that this signals the end of the sonata form itself.  And my impression is that Debussy said something similar some thirty-plus years before Mann’s novel.

The sonata’s first movement is a restless pronouncement; it urges forward in darkness.  The gorgeous second movement, the Arietta, changes course: a set of variations that take us per aspera ad astra, from darkness to the stars, from struggle into light.

Now I don’t want to romanticize the sonata.  Musicians and critics of the nineteenth century did enough of that: Slaves as they sometimes were to a general state of aesthetic heat, it didn’t take much to set them reeling in fits of poetic adulation.  But it would be a mistake to see the sonata as incomplete, or to take away from its mysterious quality.  If it lacks a third movement, if the feeling is sometimes one of open-endedness, it is only because the sonata searches, probes mysterious regions often left uncharted in music.  I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s comment that mysteries, unlike puzzles, are deepened, not solved.

There’s a moment towards the end of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting where the author speaks about Beethoven’s late music.  He suggests that while Beethoven’s symphonies represent an epic journey outward, the variation movements of the late sonatas draw us inward.  They mark a progressive unfolding of the inner life, the search after the elusive goal of the creative process.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to stress the searching quality of Opus 111’s variations.  The Arietta is an instance of music that is meditative rather than heroic, reflective rather than epic.  As the variations unfold, they give way to increasingly unexpected and inventive music.  It is a case of Beethoven, within the apparent confines of a traditional classical time signature, pushing the rhythmic pulse of this music to something that hints at jazz of the next century.   (You can hear for yourselves here.)

Even Stravinsky heard in this music the emergence of the “boogie woogie.”  And though the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff might protest such a view in this insightful clip (which I highly recommend checking out) there is something compelling in the idea – again recalling Mann’s Doctor Faustus – that “there are already movements of a rhythmic freedom foreshadowing things to come.”

In the second half of the variations movement, where radiance ultimately counters the darkness of the first movement, we have one of the many meditative moments of Beethoven’s late period.  This is music that can capture the imagination.

Opus 111 is by no means a work of jazz, but it does manage to create the illusion of jazz.

Its journey hints at the shape of music to come.  And I will sometimes catch myself thinking of it as the first birth of the cool.


Recommended Recordings:

  • Claudio Arrau – Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (recorded in the 60s, Phillips; reissued in 2001)
  • Anton Kuerti – Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas (I am in love with this 1974-75 set, reissued on Analekta in 2006.  It has since been discontinued, though Kuerti has recently rerecorded the last five piano sonatas for the same label.)
  • Maurizio Pollini – Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (recorded in the late 70s, Deutsche Grammophon; reissued in 1997)
  • Mitsuko Uchida – Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op. 109, 110 & 111 (Phillips, 2006)

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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler’s second symphony (the “Resurrection”) ends with a beautiful choral movement that’s based in part on a poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.  Mahler once wrote that it was his intention to capture the idea of a life beyond death: “The last movement of my Second Symphony really obliged me to search through the whole of world literature, including the Bible, in order to find the liberating word… .”  There’s nothing new in the yearning for life after death, but what I’m wondering is whether there’s such a thing as the “liberating word”? 

Does music need words?  Can words, lyrics, liberate music?

The most famous instance of an orchestral work culminating in a choral finale is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which ends with the “Ode to Joy,” that grand statement of faith in the universal brotherhood of humanity.  The Ninth looms large over music history, and many composers have been conscious of its shadow.  Even Mahler worried that people would perceive his Resurrection Symphony as a “superficial imitation of Beethoven.” 

To push the idea a little further: Wagner saw Beethoven’s Ninth as the culmination and end, the death of orchestral music pure and simple.  The entrance of the voice in the finale signalled the eclipse of the orchestral era and, with it, the dawn of a new age: that of the Gesammtkunstwerk, the “total work of art.” Wagner felt that this supposedly higher form of art would successfully integrate music, drama and poetry.  The way I read him, Wagner thinks that the written word was needed in order to free music from the tomb of tradition and to elevate it to the symbolic realm of art and myth.  “Where music can go no farther, there comes the word,” he says.

Now, I disagree with just about everything Wagner ever wrote (and this is no exception), but I’d like to rein things in before they get needlessly heavy.

I realize that words can help to give symbolic power to music, but I’m not sold on the idea that the written word is “greater” than music itself.  I’m reminded of a small 1927 miracle: Delta bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a gripping three-minutes of wordless moaning over a solitary slide guitar.  Ry Cooder considers it the “most soulful, transcendent piece of American music recorded in the 20th century.”  Part of this so-called “transcendent” quality comes from the very fact that there are no words.  If the song is religious, there is no theological baggage to weigh it down; if it is a cry from the American Delta, there is no English to restrict its reach.  The only language here is music, and there is nothing to limit its communicative power.

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945)In some ways, music can be limited by words.  They can tie it down.  I don’t say this to suggest that the word has to die if music is to find new life.  I simply don’t think that Wagner is right in suggesting that the age of purely instrumental music has died. 

Music does not die.  And if there is no death, then there is no need for the dream of a resurrection.  


Short Note:

The ideas are all my own, but I should point out that I drew the Mahler quote from Kurt Blaukopf’s critical biography Mahler.  The Wagner quotation comes from Maynard Solomon’s Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination

Recommended Recordings of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony:

  • Otto Klemperer / Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra (recorded 1962; released on EMI Classics in 2000) 
  • Pierre Boulez / Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon, 2006)

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The Young Prokofiev (1915)While Sergei Prokofiev’s third piano concerto may be his most well-known, I want to reach still further back.  I essentially see his first two explorations with the form as better gateways to his music.  They are doubly worth hearing together because they present us with two entirely individual expressions of a young composer in the burgeoning stages of creativity.  The years are 1912-1913, and Prokofiev is in his early twenties: The first two concertos represent the attempts of a student-come-composer to find a place in his art for the comic and the tragic.

The first concerto in D-flat major, Op. 10, is a short single-movement piece.  It was written by Prokofiev at the end of his stint at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he was considered the resident “enfant terrible” and mischief-maker.  While at school, Prokofiev sought to develop his own musical voice, unimpeded by the disapproval of the conservatory’s more conservative faculty members.  The piece is rarely longer in performance than a quarter of an hour – making it perhaps the most accessible of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos.  A full concerto in miniature, it consists of a slow and distinctively Russian middle mini-movement, bookended by sections that are full of rhythmic fun and playful detachment.  There is comic lightness in Prokofiev’s step here.  In the dance of the piano part, is the young composer poking fun at his less adventurous teachers? 

With the second concerto in G minor, Op. 16, we find ourselves on bleak, wintry terrain.  And as with all great tragedy, there is nothing superficial, no skating on the surface.

Sorrow found Prokofiev when he was young: first with the death of his father, and shortly thereafter with the suicide of his dear friend and conservatory classmate, Maximilian (to whom the concerto is dedicated).  The second concerto begins with the quiet rumblings of an unaccompanied piano.  And I see significance in the soliloquy: For while the orchestra plays a major part in adding to the tragic texture of the music, I think that it’s really with the piano that Prokofiev gives voice to the memory of a friend.    

This would explain the monster of a piano part, a cadenza that takes up nearly half of the first movement.  It’s an ode to dejection, a dark coming to terms with the death of a loved one – marked by a melancholic mood more commonly associated with Rachmaninov than with Prokofiev.  The build is defiant, and the climax – with the return of the orchestra – is one of the darkest moments in all of Prokofiev.  The cadenza is essential listening. 

On his website, Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky speaks of Prokofiev as “a symbol of light, of rhythm and of life.”  Perhaps it is that the comic and the tragic are part of the same rhythm, the same dance.  Perhaps it is that these two works of the young Prokofiev show that comedy and tragedy are less forces of youth than they are functions of art.


Recommended Recordings:

  • Prokofiev: The Five Piano Concertos – Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Andre Previn / London SO (Decca, 1997 CD release; 1970s recording)
  • Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 1, 3 & 4 – Kun Wai Pak, with Antoni With / Polish National Radio SO (Naxos 8.550566; 1992)
  • Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 2 & 3 – Evgeny Kissin, with Vladimir Ashkenazy / London SO (EMI, 2009)

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Nathan MilsteinNathan Milstein’s performances of Bach’s music for solo violin are of a special kind.  There is a rare intensity, rare focus in his playing.  You can actually hear the concentration – both in the emotive power and in the architectural design that he draws from the music.  This is as true of his 1950s recordings on EMI as it is of his 1970s versions on Deutsche Grammophon, and you can take in a wildly good 1968 television performance of the work here.

Bach was thirty-five years-old and living in Cöthen when the Chaconne was published in 1720 as part of the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin.  It was conceived as the last movement of the Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, and stands as the culmination of Bach’s chamber music output.  Structurally speaking, the Chaconne consists of 27 variations built over a simple bass figuration.  Deeper still, it is a flight full of struggle and of eventual reconciliation, a journey that everywhere pushes.  It pushes the practical limits of the violin, the technical limits of the interpreter, and the conventional limits of the musical imagination.

Milstein’s vision of the Chaconne is full of white light, of white heat.  I have other favourite performances of Bach’s music for solo violin, but I hear in Milstein’s a measured intensity that I don’t find elsewhere.  It overwhelms.  Milstein’s interpretations were the first to make me realize just how emotionally searching this music can be.  His were the recordings that made me ask: How can we begin to approach this music?

Musicians have gone about it in different ways.  Among the more notorious, it was none other than Johannes Brahms who expressed his bafflement at the scope of the work, and responded by writing a now-neglected piano transcription for the left-hand.  Italian virtuoso Feruccio Busoni’s controversial piano transcription (and rewriting!) of the Chaconne has now become an accepted  part of concert programs.  And then there’s Stokowski’s sonorous take, his transcription of the piece for full orchestra.  There are others still; and while purists may disapprove of the “liberties” taken by such creative efforts, I view them as invitations to see the Chaconne in a new light. 

As I see it, the views of purists can be stale right out of the gate.  But Bach has no best before date.

Moving deeper still: In 1994 German music professor, Helga Thoene, suggested that Bach had built the Chaconne on motifs from his choral works – and that the texts of these quoted pieces suggest that Bach conceived the Chaconne as a hidden memorial to his wife, who had died earlier in the year that it was composed.  A recent project by violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble attempts to sound out Thoene’s theory.  And while the idea that the Chaconne has a secret or esoteric meaning is a speculative one – a groping for something that might not be there – it stands, again, as a reminder that there is still so much to be found in this music.  (You can decide for yourselves here.)

Morimum: Christoph Poppen & The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series, 2001)Interpretations of this kind take risks.  And they should: because this music takes risks; it has reach.  Isn’t it best to explore it and to hear it in a spirit similar to that in which it was conceived – one of openness, invention and discovery?  Renewal is what I hear when Milstein begins the meditative middle section of the Chaconne.  It is the breaking of a new day. 

I’m reminded of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and I know that there are at least as many ways of seeing the Chaconne.  


Recommended Recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin:

  • Nathan Milstein (Deutsche Grammophon, 1973)
  • Itzhak Perlman  (EMI, 1995)
  • Henryk Szeryng (Deutsche Grammophon, 1968)

Also Recommended:

  • Morimur: Christoph Poppen & the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series, 2001)

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Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, was born one hundred and sixty-seven years ago today.  Many people will be familiar with his works, even if unknowingly.  His incidental music for Peer Gynt has successfully permeated popular culture. 

But I am reminded of a story that gives still more colour to the day.  In 2007 Leif Ove Andsnes decided to mark the centenary of his fellow countryman’s death by having a piano helicoptered to the top of a mountain, where he performed Grieg’s Ballade for piano, with no one but mother nature (and a conveniently placed film crew) to hear.  The footage and commentary are fascinating. 

This is not Andsnes’ only, shall we say, creative attempt to give voice to the music he loves.  A 2002 disc finds him performing some of Grieg’s lyric pieces on the composer’s piano at his very own villa outside of Bergen.  (Mikhail Pletnev did something similar, wanting to pay homage to his compatriot, Rachmaninov.)  More recently, Andsnes “reframed” Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, performing the remarkable work in a multimedia setting, surrounded by video screens that displayed visuals by artist Robin Rhodes.  The details of that fascinating project have also been captured on film.  These are the attempts of a world-class musician to see if classical music is capable of transcending itself, of broadening its horizons.

Some of you will remember the story of violinist Joshua Bell busking incognito – and going virtually unnoticed – in a Washington D.C. subway station.  Stunts, experiments of this kind are small ways of sounding out the place of classical music in our day-to-day lives.  And as Bell’s experience shows, it does seem that classical music has gone underground.

Scenes such as these lead us to consider the place of classical music in popular culture.  Does classical music need the help of Disney, a Fantasia?  What of so-called “crossover” albums?  Whatever the case, musicians as thoughtful as Andsnes help to give it life. 

I don’t think that this is just a case of trees falling in the forest.  For the music – mountain-high, river-low – waits for us to hear and discover.

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Bruckner’s Motets

Anton BrucknerAnton Bruckner is often figured as a country bumpkin, a devout Roman Catholic peasant from the hills of northern Austria who found it difficult to make his way in the cosmopolitan world of 19th century Vienna.  At other times he’s spoken of as a slave to insecurity, a composer with so little confidence in his creative abilities that he would revise his music at the sight of a fly, at the rolling of an esteemed colleague’s questioning eye.  But Bruckner’s music is much more than that of an insecure urban peasant. 

Bruckner is mainly remembered as a composer of orchestral music, of symphonies so massive that they are often spoken of as “cathedrals of sound.”  Even his major choral works – the three masses of the 1860s (in D minor, E minor and F minor) and the piece which Bruckner himself held most dear, the D minor Te Deum – are symphonic by design and epic in proportion.  Yet some of his most memorable and accessible music can be found in miniature, in his short pieces for a cappella choir.

It’s unfortunate that Bruckner’s Motets have largely fallen through the cracks.  For though they’ve been overshadowed by his symphonic output, the motets glow:  You need only listen to Ave Maria or Os Justi to see that their light, while not blinding, is warm and inviting.  The motets may be smaller expressions of Bruckner’s Roman Catholic faith, but they reveal a beauty unlike that of his other music.  You can hear in them a union of the meditative modes of medieval chant and the harmonic textures of Romanticism.

Bruckner is an acknowledged master of symphonic form, a grand architect of cathedrals in sound. 

His motets show that he could also be a god of small things.


Recommended recordings:

  • Anton Bruckner: Motets – Choir of St. Bride’s Church / Robert Jones (Naxos 8.550956)
  • Anton Bruckner: Motets  – Corydon Singers / Matthew Best (Hyperion CDA66052)

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