Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Listening to music

One of my daily stops in the classical music blogosphere is On An Overgrown Path, run by the indefatigable Bob Shingleton, who blogs under his nom de blog, Pliable. I'm awed at how he's able to blog so consistently across such a wide range of subjects when I can't rouse my lazy ass to post more than occasionally.

In a typically interesting post, the topic of "dishonest music" came up in regards to Richard Strauss. Der Meister von Garmisch-Partenkirchen gets a hard time from sniffy critics who don't think he's serious enough or didn't use his talents properly or is too facile or [long list of aesthetic crimes here]; that's apart from the whole "stayed in Germany and was a Nazi functionary" thing. One of Pliable's commenter's, Pentimento, made this comment in regards to Strauss' music:
But I think that Strauss failed to use his abilities to achieve what the best music does, which is to really touch the core of humanity and bring the audience to a higher experience of it.
Oh dear, how to unpack that? After a cursory look-see at Pentimento's blog, I suspect that what she means is "Strauss' music doesn't put us in contact with The Divine", which leaves me absolutely cold, having been an atheist since I was 12. Good for Strauss, who loathed religion, I say! I replied in Pliable's comments:
It's probably just me, but if I'm told that a piece of music is "uplifting" or "touches the core of what it is to be human", I run as fast as I can from it. I look for two things from music:

1. Tickle my ear with interesting sounds
2. Engage my intellect via form, harmony etc.

On those counts, Strauss succeeds in spades. I don't listen to music as an exercise in self-improvement, but as music.
It's really the old Sibelius/Mahler conversation about the symphony, isn't it?:

Sibelius: "When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. This was the experience I had come to in composing".

Mahler: "No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything".

Sibelius 1, Mahler nil. My way of viewing music is obviously not common, as this follow up post by Pliable and this comment indicates:
Well ... yes, it is, [just you] Henry, as least as far as I'm concerned.

It strikes me as a marvelously silly and cynical conceit to dismiss a piece out of hand simply because someone has been touched by it beyond interesting sounds and technical ingenuity.

It sounds to me like a singularly cold and soulless manner in which to live. But to each his own.

Note that I'm not saying that Henry Holland is silly or cynical or soulless; I have no idea whether he is or not. I'm just saying that his comments strike me that way.
Well, I'm silly a lot of the time, absolutely cynical to the bone and reject the idea of a soul as religious hokum.'s a fair comment, I'd say!

More seriously though, I think the commenter, Scott, slightly missed my point and my intended sarcasm obviously didn't translate (I should have put a :-) in there after "I run as fast as I can").

I obviously wouldn't avoid a piece based on "someone being touched by it": in that case, I wouldn't have been blown away by the experience of hearing the Beethoven 9th in the late 60's because my Dad just had to have me hear it, so much so that he forcibly sat me in a chair and said "Listen to this!". OK, he was mainly sick of me wearing out my Beatles, Cream and Hendrix albums with overplay, but still. Needless to say, I'd have been put off Parsifal forever if that was my attitude, considering how borderline creepy some Parsifal fanatics are in terms of solemnity and The Proper Way To Attend A Performance of Wagner's last opera.

It's one of my pet peeves about the arts: they're not something to be enjoyed in various ways by individuals based on a complicated set of criteria that's unique to each person, there's that Puritanical gloss of "It's good for you, it'll make you a better person", like music is castor oil, that I detect underlying so many of those kinds of comments. Sure, I suspect that's not Scott's intent, but it's something I've heard for years, that my way of approaching music is "too intellectual", "cold", "clinical" and my favorite: "not what music is about". Sorry, we can't all be like my first boyfriend, Rob, who burst in to tears the first time he heard Phantom of the Opera.

My small apartment has scores and books like this all over the place; I really should have been a musicologist, as I'm far more interested in HOW an opera/orchestral piece came to be than WHY or how others perceive it. I mean, last night, after watching the lovely bit of fluff called Indiscreet that I'd recorded last week off of TCM, I was curious about the overall key scheme in the Nachtspiel of Schreker's fab-u-lous Der Schatzgräber because I'd listened to it the other day and was curious about the harmonic plan of that part of the score. So, I pulled out the piano/vocal score, got my #3 pencil (because it makes light marks that are easy to erase) and spent 10 minutes analyzing the score. Turns out, it pivots around D minor, with excursions in to C# and Bb. All that feeds in to my fascination with astronomy, chess, the plots of LOST and other things: what is the scaffolding upon which this thing is erected?

How I listen to rock and jazz is different, as it's simpler to grasp, but when I first listen to an opera or orchestral piece, I'm taking in as much information about the sound and form as I can, to make sense of the musical argument; I'm not thinking "Wow, this makes me think of God!" or "That depicts a bird flying through the air!". A perfect example is a recent discovery: D'Albert's Die Toten Augen. This obscure opera was mentioned as a throaway remark by a favorite opera blogger, Maury D'Annato, in this post. I listened to a few soundclips at Amazon and ordered it. As usual, I planted myself between the speakers of my computer, popped the first CD in to the D: drive and, with libretto in hand, listened to see if the opera was worth a second listen. What I listened to was purely technical things, based on what little I knew of D'Albert's music and the time frame the opera was written in (my criteria would be different if it was written in 1982, say): does the music support the text, are the vocal lines grateful to sing, are the tunes any good, the orchestration interesting? Yes, mostly, yes, definitely. I've since listened to the opera two more times and would love to see a production of it.

So, how is that a less valid way to experience music?

Two other examples of orthodoxy that grind my molars:

* Joseph Kerman's sniffily pompous description of Puccini's fabulous Tosca as a "shabby little shocker". I adore Puccini's operas, Edgar excepted, and find the continuing disdain that they engender from professional critics hilarious. Via the wonderful La Cieca at Parterre Box is this amazing set of videos (you can watch the other parts after clicking on the link La Cieca provides): Tosca as done in Legos. That the piece, truncated as it is, still works as theatre, that's what I need to know, not whether the opera is spiritually elevating or tells me anything about the world.

* The continued veneration of the music of Shostakovich, based almost entirely on his biography, not the intrinsic worth (or: worthlessness) of the actual music. From that interesting article (which I have problems with, by the way) at the link, musical bomb thrower par excellence Pierre Boulez could be speaking for me:

"Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time… It's like olive oil, you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third pressing of Mahler. …with Shostakovich, people are influenced by the autobiographical dimension of his music"

Ouch. As Monty Python might say, "Cruel, but fair". It was interesting that Esa-Pekka Salonen, to much fanfare, initiated a Shostakovich festival about 6-7 years ago, because a) he was Music Director of a symphony who b) had never really conducted Shostakovitch's music, so here was his chance. There were to be three symphonies performed each year, with the numerically corresponding string quartets played in the public areas beforehand. I think that Mr. Salonen lasted one season (alas, Google is no help and I've long gotten rid of the programme) before he bowed out (the first of the three was the Fourth, I think; I still remember the second concert in the series, containing the absolutely ghastly 2nd and 3rd symphonies). I believe his comment when it was quietly announced that he wouldn't be continuing the project he initiated was "Well, his music is interesting" in that way where "interesting" = "is really bad".

If the critical consensus was to be believed, I'm supposed to turn my nose up at Puccini's glorious operas because they're allegedly treacly, sentimental and manipulative "low art" and revel in Shostakovich, who wrote music That Is About Very Important Things.

I'll pass.

A small irony: I type this on the day I'm attending the Disney Hall concert of the sublime Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (the pit band at the Netherlands Opera, where I heard them play the hell of out Schreker's Die Gezeichneten last June). The program: the Mahler 5th and...ta da! Strauss' Don Juan.


Scott said...

Henry, thanks for the additional comments.

Now that we've gone back and forth, I suspect we're in violent agreement after all.

Glad to see your blog ... perhaps we can disagree on something else in the near future. :-)

Will said...

I remember many years ago a commentator for a performance of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto described the second movement as "one of those intimate conversations with The Creator in which Beethoven regularly engaged."

This blatant sentimentalization, bringing a conventional Christian context into play was blown out of the water by an intermission interview with the pianist. He discussed his latest research into the composition of the concerto and his discovery that Beethoven planned the whole thing on the Orpheus myth as treated by Ovid in the Metamorphosis.

Henry Holland said...


Hahaha. I still haven't gotten the hang of this damn blogging thing, both in terms of writing stuff and in checking for comments.


Thanks for the anecdote. It's fascinating to me to read writing about classical music from, say, pre-WWII eras because so much of it is, to me, really flowery and layers on stuff that has no business being there, that the composer never intended, as you note.

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