Saturday, May 22, 2010

The museum of imaginary musical works

The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works is the central conceit in a book of that title by philosopher Lydia Goehr. Her book is an essay on musical ontology, which tries to pinpoint exactly what constitutes a musical "work." When we talk about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, for example, we're not talking about a particular performance (because a performance could be quite different and still be considered Beethoven's Ninth). We're certainly not talking about the musical score, which is only a physical object and has a lot of accidental features (including, in the case of Beethoven's manuscripts, near-illegible handwriting) which don't seem to be essential to the musical work. Goehr suggests that when we talk about "works" in a musical context, we are effectively positing the existence of an imaginary museum containing the essence of each musical work in a static form.

All of this is very interesting, but I'm interested in a different sort of imaginary museum. Goehr's museum contains Platonic ideal constructions of pieces of music that actually exist; mine contains works that were never actually composed, and have been called into a sort of half-life by mistake.

Such works include:
  • Brahms's cello concerto
  • Pachelbel's Canon, by Vivaldi
  • The symphonies of Chopin
What usually happens is that some literary person is giving a speech, or writing a book, and they want to allude to the Grand Tradition of Human Creativity, exemplified by quintessential works of genius in several different media. So they begin constructing a list in Mad Libs style:
  • a [Name of Genre] by [Famous Person]
  • a sonnet by Shakespeare
  • a novel by Dickens
  • a painting by Monet
  • a sculpture by Michelangelo
  • a play by Ibsen
  • a piano concerto by Palestrina

The problem is that, while most educated people know that Shakespeare wasn't a novelist and that Monet wasn't an architect, a relatively small number are familiar with the generic conventions and history of Western classical music. So we musicians are left with an impressive and growing repertory of hypothetical works, the thought of which is alternately fascinating and repellent. (Based on the starchy orchestration in his piano concerti, I'll pass on hearing a Chopin symphony - but I'd be fascinated to hear a clever composer take on the task of constructing a piano concerto based on Palestrina motets. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that such a composition has already been written, probably by someone like Casella.)

For a typical example, here's Robertson Davies in an otherwise excellent book of published lectures:
Literature is an art, and reading is also an art, and unless you recognize and develop your qualities as an interpretive artist you are not getting the best from your reading. You do not play a Bach concerto for the solo cello on a musical saw, and you should not read a play of Shakespeare in the voice of an auctioneer selling tobacco.
Reading and Writing, 18.

Now, I have an immense admiration for Robertson Davies, who was a wonderful novelist and an incisive and humane literary critic; his well-conceived allusions to musical topics in his novels and his activity as an opera librettist demonstrate that his musical knowledge was far above average. But the mistake above is pretty well the most typical example possible of the phenomenon I'm describing. To a lay audience, Bach signifies the apex of musical profundity, the cello represents an Especially Profound Instrument (blame the Romantics for that one), and the concerto represents a Significant Musical Genre. It seems only natural to combine the three things, and it's a shame that Bach never actually wrote a concerto for the solo cello. A disproportionate number of imaginary compositions are cello concerti (in the last two months I have heard cello concerti attributed to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, none of whom wrote one), and a large proportion are by Bach, which confirms my suspicion that words like "Bach" and "cello" are rhetorical signifiers, and are not intended to allude to actual musical works (the kind with notes and things).

I am not just making fun. I'm genuinely fascinated by the thought of all of these hypothetical pieces - what would Beethoven's Requiem be like? Why didn't Brahms write a cello concerto?

One doesn't often encounter imaginary composers, however, and so I took particular delight in a conversation with a gentleman parishioner who expressed his skepticism to me about atonal modern music. He was particularly mistrustful of a German composer by the name of Spengler, and his even more unlistenable student, Max Weber. Of course he meant Schoenberg and Webern, but what sort of music would the author of The Decline of the West possibly compose? The mind reels.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

RIP Yvonne Loriod

Yvonne Loriod, the brilliant pianist and second wife of Composer Olivier Messiaen, has died at the age of eighty-six. For a good account of her career and life with Messiaen, see the New York Times obituary. Without the influence of Loriod, a brilliant performer with faultless technique and a seemingly limitless palette of colours, it is hard to imagine how any of his major post-war works would have taken shape.

You can hear Loriod in action in this performance of Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung; the pianist plays rapid birdsong interpolations above a background of lush chords in the strings. (Warning: this recording is very quiet. Turn your speakers up before listening - but, more importantly, turn them down afterwards.)
And for a lighter side of the couple, here they are in a film discussing the composer's use of birdsong. Loriod plays excerpts from her husband's piano music; Messiaen talks very rapidly and makes loud bird noises. Loriod's indulgent smile at 0:56 says it all.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On the art of super-poetry

W. H. Auden pithily defined poetry as "memorable speech," and a great part of the joy of reading poetry seems to be in the remembering - that once you've read a really good poem, bits of it will rattle around in your head forever. When you least expect it, some half-forgotten line of verse will emerge from the shadows and hit you over the head, insinuating itself into your daily routine and becoming a permanent part of your mental landscape. For me, Middle English poetry occupies a particularly prominent place in my memory; written for oral recitation, it has an incantatory, musical quality that makes it lodge in my memory. Which is true as much for the liquid elegance of Chaucer as it is for the hammer-blows of the Pearl-Poet. I suppose it says something about me that my favourite couplet in English verse is this, from the opening of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight":
Siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye
þe borʒ brittened and brent to brondez and askez

The poem seems to ask to be recited aloud - and enthusiastically, with spittle flying everywhere and exaggerated rolled r's on "brittened," "brent," and so on. It's delightful.

(I suppose this is as good a place as any to apologize to anyone who has had the misfortune to meet me at some party and be subjected to my extempore recitations of "Sir Gawain" or the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.)

This musical quality persists, albeit considerably altered, in modern poetry, and so along with Chaucer and co. I find myself recollecting bits of Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Eliot, and so on. The problem, though, is that in reconstructing the texts of these poems in my memory I conflate quite unrelated bits of verse from different periods. Thus, in attempting to remember Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" I invariably produce the following novel variant:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high.
At this point I usually realize that something is amiss and stop.

(For the benefit of my non-Canadian readers, the poem that interrupts after the fourth line is John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields," a poem written by a Canadian doctor during World War I. It is probably the only Canadian poem that everyone in the country stands a good chance of knowing, having heard it read on Remembrance Day every year since time immemorial. To be truly authentic, the poem must be read by a sweaty ten-year-old in an undifferentiated monotone, pausing at the end of each line for a sharp intake of breath; at the back of the gymnasium, a harried teacher should be shushing a restless grade two class.)

It is perhaps understandable that I should conflate Frost's poem with McCrae's: they both have the same slightly pedestrian tetrameter rhythm (ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump), and use repeating rhyme schemes to similar effect. The transition from the one poem to the other is made seamless by a coincidence in their two rhyme schemes ("snow" with "foe"). One can even imagine a shared narrative in which the two poems' meanings are reconciled. Why does Frost's narrator resist his morbid fascination with the snowy woods? Because he has obligations to fulfill ("promises to keep"). Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that his "promises" were made to the dead soldiers in the fields of Flanders ("Take up our quarrel with the foe") - and that by honourably fulfilling their charge the traveller and the soldiers can finally reach the rest they yearn for? (Compare Frost's "miles to go before I sleep" with McCrae's "If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep") Nunc dimittis servum tuum, indeed!

I may perhaps be excused for taking some aesthetic satisfaction in the combination of the two poems above, although I leave it to future scholars to decide whether it is preferable to the original as poetry. I am rather less proud of my other contribution to English literature, a mutant hybrid of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and Shakespeare's Sonnet 116:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
I would welcome suggestions on what these two poems could possibly have to do with each other, or - more pertinently - on how I can separate them again.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A forgotten composer

The problem with music is that there's a lot of it. As the developed countries have increased in affluence, a broader and broader cross-section of the world's population has been able to gain access to musical training - meaning that more and more composers are writing music. It's simply impossible to keep track of it all, which means that most composers fall through the cracks.

Like the composer Harald Genzmer (1909-2007), a German follower of Paul Hindemith. Many listeners are wary of the German neoclassical school, imagining arid contrapuntal exercises full of bare fifths and fourths, but Genzmer's work stands out for its warmth and lyricism. His catalogue includes a wide array of music in all genres except opera - including a prolific output for organ that I am just beginning to explore. The closest thing he has to a hit seems to be his Sinfonietta for string orchestra, composed in 1955, which can stand up to any of the more frequently performed works by Vaughan Williams, Tippett and company.

Unfortunately, Genzmer's music is poorly represented online at the moment, and I urge you not to listen to any of the performances of his orchestral music on YouTube; the performers mean well but are painfully out of tune. Instead, try this trio for flute, viola and harp, which is not particularly characteristic of his style but at least pleasant:
Part II:Part III:Part IV:Samples from his other works are available on the Harald Genzmer Foundation page. It is well worth looking for the complete 10-CD boxset of his music on Thorofon - it seems not to have sold well, as copies occasionally surface at online retailers for fire-sale prices. If the bustling neoclassicism of Hindemith and middle-period Stravinsky is your thing, then you have hours of discovery ahead of you in Genzmer's music. If it's not, well, that's tough.