Monday, June 30, 2008

This and that

A box of mini-posts for a Monday evening:
  • My letter to the editor regarding the turmoil at CBC appears in today's Globe and Mail. It says nothing that I haven't treated in exhaustive, even agonizing detail elsewhere, but if you're willing to do some sleuthing you can find it easily enough.
  • A. C. Douglas is blogging excerpts from Nicholas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, the indispensable index to negative reviews of now-canonical pieces. My copy isn't at hand at the moment, but I remember it with great fondness. Read George Bernard Shaw tearing into Brahms's German Requiem, or wince at the dreadful anti-Stravinsky doggerel that appeared in American papers after early performances of Le Sacre du Printemps. (These timeless poems, including the immortal "Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring", form a witty song cycle by Henry Cowell.)
  • Paul Jacobs is on a mission to convert the continent's leading music critics to fans of the pipe organ.
  • David Sinden is lobbying for more interesting names for the Sundays after Trinity, a mission which I fully support.
  • The Comics Curmudgeon is still blogging about comics.
  • It's Esa-Pekka Salonen's birthday! Alex Ross has details, as does Tim Mangan, but Mangan wins the prize for using the most Finnish. What a cool language.
I had intended to post this on Stravinsky's own birthday, which fell on the 17th, but completely forgot. So Salonen's birthday seems like a suitable excuse:

Now playing: Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby, op. 50, by Edmund Rubbra. So sue me - I really like twentieth-century orchestral arrangements of English Renaissance dance music!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Happiness is. . .

. . . an excuse to play BWV 565 in service.
. . . watching King Priam on DVD with a friend who claimed to actually enjoy it.
. . . entering the entire church music catalogue into the computer and then realizing that Excel will sort alphabetically by liturgical season, composer and title for me, thus saving hours of tedious work.
. . . having new ink cartridges at hand when they're needed.
. . . finding someone else to mop the kitchen.

Clueless at the CBC

I suppose that I wouldn't be a true Canadian music blogger if I didn't comment on the impending cuts to CBC's classical music programming. For those of you who haven't been following, the casualties are as follows:
  1. The 75-year old CBC radio orchestra, the only remaining radio orchestra in North America, is to be disbanded.
  2. CBC Radio 2, previously a predominantly classical music station, has announced its new schedule for the fall. Aiming to showcase Canadian performers in genres including "folk, blues, acoustic, and world music" as "adult singer-songwriters", the network has relegated the bulk of its classical music programming to weekdays during working hours, when most people will never be able to hear it.
  3. Much-loved shows with announcers such as Eric Friesen, Danielle Charbonneau, and Rick Phillips have been cancelled.
  4. Members of the Canadian classical music community have held protests, written letters, and signed petitions. The CBC has responded with patronizing form letters explaining the need for greater "diversity" in its programming.
Now none of this is exactly news - these announcements were made months ago - but the continuing protests have kept the issue at the back of everyone's mind. A couple of recent developments are worthy of note; first of all, a profile of CBC vice-president Richard Stursberg from Saturday's Globe and Mail. Any right-thinking person should feel a chill run down their spine as Stursberg explains to a reporter why it's necessary to cancel original, critically acclaimed Canadian television series, why it's necessary to replace them with the American game shows Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, and why the iconic Hockey Night in Canada theme song will disappear because he allowed the rights to lapse. (The answer in each case: the bottom line.) Here's Stursberg on why the CBC radio orchestra was shut down:
The problem is, it costs about $750,000 a year to run it. We said to ourselves, we can do that, or we could record with a bunch of other orchestras and not retain our own.
The elephant in the room here is that the CBC already records dozens, probably hundreds of orchestral concerts every year. Every other time I go to a Toronto Symphony concert, there are microphones set up and an announcement that the concert will be rebroadcast, and the same is true of most other professional orchestras, particularly new-music ensembles like the Esprit Orchestra. In order to record an additional season's worth of orchestral music, the CBC would have to start recording high school and university orchestras.

Stursberg's colleagues describe him as taking a sort of wicked pleasure in the storm of controversy that he's stirred up. When asked, he flaunts the fact that he had no TV or radio experience prior to his CBC appointment. What is this clown doing running English-language programming for our national broadcaster?

Also in the Globe and Mail, columnist Russell Smith devotes another of his columns to debunking the CBC's PR-speak. Here's the punchline:
Let's be clear: Nobody is against a diversity of music on the radio. It is precisely because we desire a mix of freely available music that we want there to be one - just one! - national radio station that broadcasts music composed before the 20th century, and music from an intellectual tradition from that century and this. Without such a station, there will be no mix. Without a public broadcaster supporting this crucial but unpopular art form, there will be no choice.
At last, someone's talking sense! Yet Smith's arguments haven't gotten through to enough people, and Andrew at The Transcontinental has figured out why:
One of the amazing things about this whole debacle is the success of CBC's communications strategy. Whether we like it or not, there is a deep dislike of anything that smacks of elitism in this country, no matter how padded with straw, and the CBC has very successfully manipulated this feature of Canadian life to their advantage.
. . .
No one, and I mean no one, wants to be seen as somehow "repressing" voices, especially in a forum where public money is involved. But that's exactly what's happening here, and it's happening because classical music is seen as some kind of white male upper crust bastion. In other words, getting rid of classical music is about getting rid of "The Man".
And here's one of the least endearing traits of contemporary North American culture exposed for what it really is: the tendency to dumb down literally everything in society in the name of "non-elitism". If there's one thing I rant about on this blog more than anything, it's this boneheaded, misguided trend, in all of its manifold guises:
  • Canadians won't appreciate thought-provoking, domestically-written dramas. Let's license American game shows!
  • Canadians won't appreciate classical music. Let's play Joni Mitchell instead!
  • Audiences at choir concerts won't appreciate traditional repertoire. Let's program John Rutter pieces and arrangements of show tunes instead!
  • Congregations won't appreciate traditional choral and organ music. Let's program K. Lee Scott and Natalie Sleeth instead!
And so on. It's the same trend that has allowed standards in high school and university to slip for years, because education "needs to be accessible to everyone" - with the result that a student can enter a program in science without more than the faintest inkling of calculus, pass a survey course in music history without ever listening to an entire Beethoven symphony, or get an English degree without seriously studying Chaucer, Spenser, or Milton. That all of this is done in the name of NON-elitism is horrifying, for this attitude is possibly the most elitist of all. Those of us who appreciate Beethoven, or Shakespeare, or T. S. Eliot, or Herbert Howells, are labelled elitists for wanting to share our interests with a broad audience. And if you pursue this path long enough, one of the self-styled populists will call you into his office and explain that while you and he might appreciate all of these things, the common rabble will never understand them. So can you offer something lighter? There's a lovely piece I've heard of called "On Eagle's Wings".

Here's hoping that this Bizarro World situation, where smug elitists masquerade as defenders of the people and wealthy middle-aged men tell artists what will appeal to today's youth, will turn around soon.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Summer pastimes

What is summer for if not watching outdoor productions of Shakespeare on folding chairs while swatting away mosquitoes? Reasoning thus, I found myself at a student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream yesterday evening.

Everyone reads Dream in high school, and I've seen the play performed a couple times since then, but I'd forgotten what a gem of a play it was. I was three hours in those folding chairs, but it felt like much less. Totally elegant, concise Elizabethan language, spoken by actors who (for the most part) knew how to declaim it properly. The rhyming couplets, which seem so quaint on the page, suddenly click when you hear them spoken. And this play has one of the highest ratios of memorable lines to square inch in all of Shakespeare.

There were occasional blips. The female actors (particularly the two lovers) had trouble projecting - particularly when the occasional bus or helicopter passed by - and as they tried to increase their volume to compensate, their voices became shriller and even harder to hear. (Osbert's First Rule of Everyday Acoustics: Lower frequencies project farther.) The actor who portrayed Theseus/Oberon, having done an admirable job for the first four acts, started making up his lines during the famous "The lunatic, the lover and the poet" speech, one of my favourites in all of Shakespeare. And the play-within-a-play put on by the "rude mechanicals", hilarious as it is, was taken just a bit too far: after about two minutes of watching Thisbe die, you start to wonder what time it is. But it was well worth my $7.00.

You, too, should support outdoor amateur theatre in your place of residence! Bring insect repellent.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hooray for the Internet

This wonderful list of critics' most-hated books is one of the more interesting pieces of journalistic writing I've read lately. Somehow, the vast majority of critics are ten times more interesting when they get to unleash the full force of their invective on a hated artist than when they're enthusing about a personal favourite. There are only a handful of books on the list I've even heard of, but I devoured the list with glee, whereas if it were a list of critic's favourite picks from 2007, with reasons why they loved them, my eyes would have glazed over and I'd be looking for funny videos on YouTube or something.

And, the wonders of the Internet! I would never in a million years have found that article by myself; it only came to my attention because Tim Mangan linked to it in a post about his least favourite piece of music (Carmina Burana, apparently), and because A. C. Douglas in turn wrote a post taking him to task for attacking Orff's score. (And it goes even farther back than that: Mangan linked to it from About Last Night, which linked to it from Lit Saloon.) Fifteen years ago, I'd have to read a dozen newspapers to find out about these cool articles.

For what it's worth, I only really know Orff as an educational composer; there's some terrific music in the Schulwerk, and some of his beginning piano pieces are as good as the equivalent pieces in Bartok's Mikrokosmos. So I can't claim great familiarity with Carmina Burana. I've heard it a couple of times without paying much attention, and haven't been motivated to listen again - there are too many other choral pieces that interest me more. But I think Mangan's off-base in some of his criticisms of the piece. Its "overly sentimental and tragic" worldview, for example, is part and parcel of medieval writing; you can't get through Chaucer, or Boethius's Consolation, without coming to terms with their obsession with fate and their fondness for long-winded laments. From our point of view, this just seems like maladjusted whining, but it's not Orff's fault that not all of us are medievalists.

The part that really bothers me, though, is the tossed-off comment that "the Nazis loved it, too". This sort of criticism - used against people like Orff, Strauss, Kabalevsky and, until recently, Shostakovich - turns music criticism into a popularity contest. If the Bad Guys liked it, it must be musically suspect somehow. No-one ever seems to propose the reverse, which logically should follow - that people of high moral character like Nelson Mandela are necessarily better judges of music, and that the music they like is of higher quality. (Full disclosure: I have no idea what kind of music Mr. Mandela prefers to listen to.) Totalitarian regimes like the Nazis or Stalinists tended to prefer musical works with the classic per aspera ad astra trajectory, rising from mysterious beginnings through turmoil to a triumphant conclusion - but works like these can just as well represent the hopes and aspirations of the oppressed. Think of Sibelius's works becoming the standard-bearer for Finnish nationalism, or of prisoners in the concentration camps forming orchestras to perform the same Austro-German symphonic repertoire that their captors listened to in the theatres. That's why it doesn't matter if Orff was a Nazi or not, or whether Richard Strauss cooperated with the Third Reich voluntarily or under duress, or whether Shostakovich's symphonies represent his subtle criticism of the Soviet regime or his collaboration with the government's requests. If the music succeeds, it will fit either interpretation while transcending them both.

Note that I'm not taking a position on the actual merits of Carmina, which I hardly know. It may well be a terrible piece of music, but music critics, like T. S. Eliot's Thomas Becket, ought to resist the temptation to "do the right thing for the wrong reason."

(And speaking of the miraculous serendipity of the Internet - Googling that quotation from Murder in the Cathedral yields a poll from 2006 which named St. Thomas the second-worst Briton of the past ten centuries, behind Jack the Ripper but beating out King John and Fascist leader Oswald Moseley. Frankly, I think this bizarre and inexplicable result is clear proof, if any were needed, of the out-of-control capriciousness of Internet polls.)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Osbert's Theory of Opera

There are no good opera libretti. All libretti fail either as text for musical setting, as drama, or as literature.

The Vision of St. Augustine

More Tippett-blogging? Yes, I know. I'm sorry.

Ever since I started listening to Tippett's music, the one work I absolutely couldn't crack was The Vision of St. Augustine, and I've expressed a certain frustration with the work's apparent diffuseness and lack of musical coherence. But today I gave it one last try, following along in a miniature score, and for the first time the piece sounded like music. The formal structure of the score became visible, if only in the broadest of outlines, and I started to remember motives from the beginning of the piece and see how they are recalled and transformed later on. The texture of the piece is as thick as pea soup, and I will probably always find it a bit diffuse - but Tippett is too good an orchestrator for this to be a mere accident. Rather, the overwhelming business of the texture seems to symbolize Augustine's difficult journey of mystical experience, which few people will be able to follow.

I live for moments like that. I would throw a party to celebrate, but then I'd want to play Tippett for the guests and they'd all leave. So I'll just have to blog about it.

By the way, I think one of the main barriers to understanding the piece is the extreme difficulty of the music. The Colin Davis recording (with the LSO and soloist John Shirley-Quirk) is the only one I've ever heard and, as far as I can tell, the only one available, and the singers seem to be pushing the edges of their abilities. Certainly the soloist and choir members miss a lot of notes; as I follow the score, the singers are a semitone or a full tone away from the correct pitch on several occasions. I can't help but wonder if today's professional choirs could do a better job; a new recording could do a lot for the reception of a difficult piece like this one.

On the other hand, it's possible that this piece will always be on the edge of what's humanly possible. Even if I had a choir full of superhuman singers with perfect ears and inerrant pitch memory, I would think twice about programming the piece: the sopranos spend at least half their time above a high G! On my recording, it sounds physically painful, and I'd be worried about being mobbed by infuriated singers after every rehearsal.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Pianistic dabbling

It was a real pleasure to move to the piano keyboard yesterday to accompany a (mostly) flute recital: Prokofiev's wonderful Sonata (link is to a complete performance by Boston flautist Fenwick Smith), Bach's B-minor sonata (a masterpiece of counterpoint that should be much better known), the Sicilienne et Burlesque by Italian neoclassicist Alfredo Casella, and Karg-Elert's Jugend-Musik for flute, clarinet, French horn and piano. (The unusual instrumentation of this last is explained by the fact that all the musicians were members of my family - it took us literally years to find an original piece that we could play together.)

Organists usually abandon piano playing except in cases of dire necessity; once you've begun studying the organ, the appeal of the piano tends to disappear. Even if you wanted to play the piano, other organists would discourage you; the techniques of the two instruments are felt to be incompatible. Which is certainly true as far as it goes; it's too late for me to ever become a truly great pianist. But somehow I'd miss the piano if I had to give it up entirely; it's been a part of my life for too long to completely cut myself off from it. Most of all, however, I'd miss the wide repertoire of the instrument, particularly its chamber music. Much as I love the Brahms organ works, there's nothing he wrote for us that gives me the same satisfaction as the piano trios and quartets. (This is true of many composers: I'd give up Variations on America in an instant for an Ives organ work of the statue of the Concord Sonata, or Shostakovich's Passacaglia for a piece of the caliber of the piano Preludes and Fugues.) And playing the piano is the only way to encounter many wonderful composers; my life would be a lot sadder without Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Haydn, or Prokofiev. So while I played that recital yesterday I was reminded of how different that chamber music experience was from any repertoire I have access to as an organist.

The other advantage pianists have is the highly developed heritage of systematic technical exercises and studies. Organists have studies to address specifically organistic problems (trios and pedal studies, in other words), but I've never seen a book of studies that address manual technique for the organ. And when, in a moment of boredom, I picked up Hanon's The Virtuoso Pianist and played through a few pages, I was once again astonished at how systematically it addressed every combination of finger movements, and at how much my piano technique has slipped since I studied that book one summer. (Readers who worked through Hanon under duress as small children have my sympathy, but I came to it after I stopped formally studying piano, and so am able to look at it with fresh eyes.) I think I could do with another run through the book; the finger independence it develops is crucial, and works like these are our only standby until someone develops a book tailored to the organ keyboard.

I really tried not to use this post to complain about my train trip back home, but my self-control is at a low ebb. My train was expected to arrive at 2:20; instead, it stopped at a station in Brantford at around 1:30, where the train staff announced that the entire staff of engineers had left the train and that a replacement crew was expected in 20 minutes. The same announcement was made at twenty-minute intervals until no-one believed it anymore. To placate the passengers, VIA staff offered us free cans of pop. By the time the new engineers arrived (they were "stuck in traffic"), we had been waiting for over two hours; it was almost 5:00 by the time I got off the train.

Now, late VIA trains are not exactly news; train commuters learn to expect delays of between ten minutes and half an hour as a matter of course even on trips of two hours or less. But this sort of thing is maddening, especially as the circumstances were so bizarre (why did the train's crew decide to get off at Brantford? were they on strike?). I ride on trains because I'm a true believer; I cling to the romantic mystique of train travel even though my actual train trips tend to be full of irritating hassles. But if I were a normal person, I could see myself being frustrated and making the commute on the highway or by air instead. Which, from an environmental standpoint, is bad news.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Inspired by my recent revelation of self-knowledge, I decided it was time to actually read Joyce's Ulysses. After all, I loved Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and I've had the book sitting around for an embarrassingly long time. I figured Monday (yesterday) would be a good time to start reading, since I had two hours to kill on a train ride.

Why is this uncanny? Because yesterday was June 16th, or Bloomsday - the popular celebration of all things Joyce, and the day on which the events of Ulysses take place. And because I had no idea whatsoever of that celebration until I read about it in today's newspaper.

Needless to say, all my doors are locked and bolted.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Mozart and Salieri

Can you tell Mozart's music from Salieri's?

I scored a slightly embarrassing 60% on the quiz: the excerpts are a mix of opera arias and piano concerto movements by both composers. Two of the Mozart excerpts I knew already, but for the other questions I had to guess based on my knowledge of the composers. My theory was that the Mozart excerpts were going to be less predictable, with more unexpected harmonic shifts and asymmetrical phrase lengths, and the Salieri excerpts would be more old-fashioned and foursquare-sounding, but the results did not bear this out. (In my defense, one of the Salieri excerpts I missed was written in 1795, four years after Mozart died, and one of the Mozart excerpts I missed was from a rarely-performed early concerto, written when he was in his twenties. So it would make sense that the late Salieri work would sound more like the mature Mozart, and that the early Mozart work would sound more like the conservative Salieri.)

The Reverent Entertainment site contains many quizzes such as these - one which asks you to tell the difference between MIDI performances and performances by virtuosi (yawn), another which asks you to distinguish between abstract art masterworks and fakes made in Paint (pretty easy), and another which asks you to distinguish between prose passages by Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton (surprisingly difficult). Good for an hour's entertainment, but what's this guy's angle? Turns out that he's gathering results for statistical articles, with titles like "Scientific Evaluation of Charles Dickens":
Are the very famous writers different from the obscure ones?

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is the worst writer in history of letters. An annual wretched writing contest was established in his honor. In contrast, Charles Dickens is one of the best writers ever. Can one tell the difference between their prose? To check this I wrote the Great prose or not? quiz. It consists of a dozen of representative literary passages, written either by Bulwer-Lytton or by Dickens, and the takers are to choose the author of each quote.

The distribution of the scores received by over three thousands quiz-takers is shown in Figure 1.The average score is 5.74 or 48% correct. Due to the large number of quiz-takers the standard error of this average is small: 0.035 or 0.3%. . .

On average, a quote from Bulwer-Litton was selected as Dickens (or great prose) by 52% of quiz-takers, while a quote from Dickens was selected as Dickens by only 48%. Does this mean that Bulwer-Lytton is a better writer than Dickens? Probably not. Table 1 shows for every quote the fraction of people who attributed it to Dickens. This fraction varies between the quotes with the lowest being 36% (No. 9) and the highest 74% (No. 12). This suggests that a different selection of quotes could lead to a different average score. For example, if we remove the most Dickensian Bulwer (No. 12) and the most Bulwerian Dickens (No. 10), and recalculate the scores based on 10 remaining questions, - the average score becomes 51%. . .

The results of the quiz show that people can’t appreciate great prose when the name of a great writer is detached from it. The answer to the question, we started with, is: Yes, they have more readers.
Very interesting, but I can't help wondering if this statistician realizes the flaws in his methodology. In each of the quizzes I've looked at, the questions are designed in such a way to make the "genuine article" and the "fake" look as much like each other as possible. Mozart and Salieri are both represented by 15-second clips from extended works, when everyone knows that to take the measure of an extended work requires you to hear the complete piece in context. (The similarity of the two composers' styles is also a problem: a person who's studied eighteenth-century music well enough to tell the two composers apart has probably heard at least some of the Mozart excerpts before, which invalidates the survey.) In the Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton quiz, both writers are represented by long and rather purple descriptive passages in a nineteenth-century style that most readers will find foreign to any prose they are likely to encounter today. And again, anyone with a wide enough experience of Victorian literature to distinguish between two stylists is likely to have read the Dickens novels involved. The Modern Art quiz is the most flawed, because each of the "fakes" in the quiz is obviously designed to look like an authentic Kandinsky, Mondrian or Rothko. To identify the difference between the real and fake paintings, therefore, requires you either to have seen the paintings before or to recognize the difference in image quality between the canvas paintings and the computer-generated forgeries.

Unfortunately, this interesting site appears to be a front for someone with a cynical Agenda, which is revealed by some of the other quiz titles: Faulkner or Babelfish Translation (ouch!), Jackson Pollock painting or Bird Droppings (double ouch!), and by a tutorial on how to create abstract art in five minutes using Microsoft Word. In other hands, quizzes like these could show that even the Salieris of this world are capable of writing with grace and charm in the style of their time; instead, they're being used to uphold someone's nihilistic conviction that art is bunk and that the great masterpieces of our culture are worthless.


Friday, June 13, 2008

The secrets of national identity

When you become a high school social studies teacher anywhere in this country, the first thing they tell you is this: if you don't know what to do with your students, set an essay on what it means to be Canadian. Or lead them in a class discussion. Or something.

The twisted genius behind this suggestion is that no-one will ever be able to come up with a satisfactory definition of the Canadian identity. If you ran into the Canadian identity on the street, it would apologize hurriedly and run away - possibly after dropping its umbrella - and five minutes later you would forget having ever seen it. And so millions of children across the world will forever be forced to re-enact this ritual, first defining their identity by negatives (well, we're not American!) and then by picture-postcard cultural symbols (hockey! beavers! maple syrup! musical masterpieces!) without actually accomplishing anything of value.

The cynic goes away from all of this with the idea that national identity is bunk, but the musician knows otherwise. You could switch the labels on these two cans, but as soon as you open them you'll realize which one has French music inside and which English:

These pieces have nothing in particular to do with each other except that they were both written in 1907. The history books, however, are unlikely to dwell for long on the young George Dyson, writing a rather Wagnerian set of canticles while in Europe on a Mendelssohn scholarship, or even on Debussy writing a second set of Images; after all, 1907 was the year that Schoenberg began writing his second string quartet.

To even make the chronological connection between these three pieces almost invites snide remarks. Dyson, one of the Bright Young Things of English music, was still writing in a late-Romantic, Wagnerian style that was popular decades ago; Debussy, one of the leading French composers, was reacting against Wagner with his impressionistic style, essentially a continuation of Romanticism, but Schoenberg was far beyond either of them, writing in an atonal style for the first time in history. In the Grand Race To The Future, Schoenberg seems to be winning. The German composer is writing advanced, innovative music; the Frenchman is writing slightly more provincial, less advanced music, and the English musician doesn't have a clue what's going on.

I've written before on my dissatisfaction with the sort of mediocre elitism that places Germanic music on a pedestal, at the expense of all other artistic traditions. Prior to the eighteenth century, this Teutonic hegemony was unheard of; Baroque and Renaissance composers flourished in England, France, Iberia, the Low Countries, Italy, and anywhere else that a rich upper class could support professional musicians. Today, the musical scene is more international than ever; off the top of my head, I can think of three contemporary Finnish composers of note (Rautavaara, Saariaho and Lindberg) and only two Germans (Henze and Lachenmann). Germany's predominance comes from having two of the most important composers of the High Baroque (Bach and Handel), the three most important Classical symphonists (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) and a whole host of wonderful Romantic composers. During the same time period, many other countries had their cultural activities disrupted (the French Revolution) or co-opted by foreign musicians (the English vogue for Handel and then Mendelssohn). It so happens, unfortunately, that the historical periods where Germany dominated the musical world are the ones which now dominate the standard repertoire.

Since our entire training as classical musicians is focused on interpreting an Austro-German repertoire from approximately 1710-1900, isn't it natural that we should assume that Schoenberg is better than Rubbra, or Stockhausen better than Holmboe? Myself, I find the idea of comparing them too much for my abilities - thinking about Schoenberg's atonal music pushes any thought of Rubbra's conservative writing out of my head, and vice versa. Yet I still meet otherwise well-trained musicians wrinkling their noses at the mention of English music, as though all British composers marched in lock-step to The Lark Ascending - or pronouncing judgment on the "superficiality" of French music, as though Jean Francaix was the musical template for all of his musical countrymen. (I'll look forward to the blast of invective when Pierre Boulez gets that memo.) This is pure ignorance, the musical equivalent of your elderly acquaintance who tells you that all Southeast Asian people look the same.

If classical music is to rebuild an audience, I'm convinced that performers will need to adopt a more open-minded approach to programming; the supply of blue-haired orchestra subscribers who only like Mozart is not endless. And so it's in our best interests to take a less blinkered approach to selecting music. In the end, the only test of a good piece of music is whether it continues to provide enjoyment on its own terms after you live with it for years - a test passed with flying colours by Rubbra's symphonies and failed by that pre-eminent example of German music, Pachelbel's Canon.

Ask a Canadian musician what countries have produced the greatest proportion of great composers, and he'll rattle off dozens of names before he gets to Canada. If instead you start the conversation by telling your musician friend that Canadian music is mediocre and all sounds the same, however, he'll hurry to our defense with counterexamples: Healey Willan! Harry Somers! R. Murray Schafer! And perhaps this contradiction could be used as a starting point to uncovering the Canadian identity. Then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Separated at birth?

Anyone following this blog is by now used to extended periods of blogger truancy, followed by apologies of dubious sincerity, so I feel less and less of a need to comment on my absence from this medium. Nothing of enormous importance has happened to me since the beginning of the month; I am still a Canadian male organist who likes semicolons. And I still like Michael Tippett's music.


I've gathered recently that Tippett's music is a fairly unpopular enthusiasm. Certainly when Soho the Dog posted a quiz asking you to choose either Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett, there were precious few respondents that showed any hesitancy over picking Britten. A Google search for the composer's name turns up this essay by Dr. David Wright, who gives a few sentences to every Tippett score, dismissing all of them as failures except for the early hits - the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the Second Symphony, the second string quartet and A Child of Our Time. (Wright on another writer's assessment of a Tippett piano sonata: "That statement is as annoying as the sonata itself.")

Then there's Norman Lebrecht's charmingly titled "Michael Tippett: A composer to forget". Originally composed in December 2004 as a "warning" to audience members to stay away from the Tippett centenary celebrations, Lebrecht paints Tippett as an "inglorious exemplar of English amateurism". Further down the page, he cites "[h]ighly trained German musicians, exiled [!] in Britain" as "aghast at the sloppiness of his structure". And they would know, wouldn't they? Because, after all, they're German. (More on this in a moment). As an example of Tippett's compositional inadequacy, Lebrecht smugly recounts the breakdown of the premiere performance of his Second Symphony. This is almost unbelievably disingenuous - the symphony broke down because of its enormous technical difficulty and rhythmical complexity, combined with the fact that the concertmaster rebowed all the orchestral string parts before the performance without telling anyone. To suggest, as Lebrecht does, that the disastrous premiere of the symphony had anything to do with its formal craftsmanship seems to me deliberately perverse.

All of the above, of course, was necessary only for the two people in the blogosphere who still take Norman Lebrecht seriously, but it does indicate the attitude many people have towards his music. And at least Lebrecht has heard his music; I've read articles which illustrate such bizarre, contradictory views of his compositions that they can't have been based on any actual contact with the music. One North American author dismissively lumped him in with "English pastoralists" like Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, while another named him as one of the terrors of the 1960's avant-garde along with Stockhausen, Boulez and John Cage.

Let's face it: Tippett's awful libretti bring a lot of criticism upon themselves. In the opera New Year, for example, the action centres around a trainee children's doctor named Jo-Ann who wants to work with victims of urban conflict in nearby Terrortown, but is too afraid to venture our of the apartment where she lives with her Rastafarian foster brother, Donny. Luckily for her, a spaceship touches down outside her apartment and a romance with the space pilot helps her to gain the strength to face up to her responsibilities. (Osbert's Rules of Opera, No. 1: Once you've penned the line "then the spaceship lands" in an opera libretto, it's time to start again.) My favourite Tippett howler is from The Ice Break, where a young man expresses discontent that his girlfriend is flirting with another man and she responds "What's bugging you, man? / Cool and jivey once / Now touchy and tight."

But all of this got me thinking: is Tippett so unique as a composer that there isn't some other figure to whom you can compare him? And I realized that he's very similar in some ways to Olivier Messiaen, a similarly inimitable, iconoclastic composer. (There are differences, of course: Messiaen was a compositional prodigy, Tippett a late bloomer.)

Dates: Approximately contemporary: Messiaen (1908-1992) and Tippett (1905-1998)
Unifying Ideology: Catholic Christianity (Messiaen) and atheistic Jungian psychology (Tippett). Both are frequently accused of heavyhandedness by those who find their ideologies unappealling.
Part of a school? No.
Libretti: Both write their own texts, which are considered to be of dubious literary quality. To native speakers, they are obviously imitations of the French surrealists (Messiaen) and T. S. Eliot (Tippett).
Early period: Both wrote works which display an individual voice within their respective traditions (French impressionism for Messiaen; for Tippett; the music of the Vaughan Williams generation and of Tudor composers). This is best seen in works like Messiaen's Preludes, which are clearly inspired by Debussy's cycle, and Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra, which is part of a long line of great English string works.
Formative WWII experience: Messiaen famously served in the French army and was captured and imprisoned by the Germans. Tippett, equally famously, refused to serve in the war as a pacifist and was imprisoned by his government as a war resister, despite the efforts of composers like Vaughan Williams to have him released. Both composed famous works to commemorate the war: Quatuor pour le fin de temps and A Child of Our Time (both completed 1941).
Middle Period: Both suddenly broke with their popular early style in favour of a harsher sound world. Messiaen flirted with serialism in the famous Mode de valeur et d'intensites, and based his Livre d'Orgue on strange numerical constructions. Tippett shocked audiences with the disjunct and dissonant lines in his opera King Priam, and many of his admirers accused him of arbitrarily changing his style to ally himself with the avant-garde.
Late Period: Both composers wrote late works in an eclectic style, combining the more appealing sounds of their early period with the harsher style of their middle period.
Work Habits: Both wrote a relatively small number of works, struggling over each one.
Accusations of Amateurism: Messiaen was accused of "juxtaposing instead of composing" for his habit of alternating between unrelated musical sections at the expense of organic development. Tippett was dismissed as an amateur throughout his career, despite his conservatory training.
Unique Fashion Sense: Tippett was frequently criticized for dressing like an aging hippie, while Messiaen could be spotted at a substantial distance by his loud Hawaiian shirts.
Reception: Both are trapped between the conventional concert audience, which enjoys some of the early works but finds the late ones too dissonant, and the contemporary music community, which enjoys some of the late works but considers the early ones to be in poor taste.

So why is Messiaen's music accepted but not Tippett's? One would think that if you have the patience to crack an individual idiom like Messiaen's, you'd be willing to have a go at Tippett. I think that a lot of it has to do with the residual snobbery of classical music audiences. If it's German, it's good (no-one mention Wellington's Victory or Pachelbel's Canon!); if it's from any other national tradition, it's to some degree inferior or provincial. France and Italy are more or less accepted as having distinct traditions worthy of a secondary place, with Russia and the Czech nations holding a slightly lower rung on the ladder. England is practically beneath notice except for a few Britten works. America might get there someday. Canada is entirely off the radar. All other nations are of interest only for exotic colour. This system is infallible, and demonstrates that the world's greatest composer must obviously be Hans Werner Henze.

And the farther away from this continental European tradition you are, the more you revere it. The Lebrecht article I linked to shows us the unpleasant spectacle of a British journalist writing an article which links the word "German" with "well-trained musicians" and the word "English" with "amateur" and "eccentric". Here in Canada, I have colleagues who consider the entire British musical tradition beneath them, even though they're English speakers whose cultural education is otherwise entirely based in British tradition.

This matter of national snobbery really deserves a post to itself, but I've written far too much already. (The first question on the book quiz was "Are you verbose, or concise?")


You're Ulysses!

by James Joyce

Most people are convinced that you don't make any sense, but compared to what else you could say, what you're saying now makes tons of sense. What people do understand about you is your vulgarity, which has convinced people that you are at once brilliant and repugnant. Meanwhile you are content to wander around aimlessly, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. What you see is vast, almost limitless, and brings you additional fame. When no one is looking, you dream of being a Greek folk hero.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

(thanks to Christine for the link)

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Further to yesterday's post, I submit to you that I went out this morning without an umbrella, having read that there was only a 10% chance of precipitation. And, by golly, it started raining within five minutes.