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.


Michelle said...

Ha! Funny.
And as for Robertson Davies's remark - not only did he not know all the things you pointed out, but he also didn't know that works by Bach ARE played on a musical saw :)
I have heard it in concert (the sawist was Natalia Paruz). Unfortunately I can't find any youtube videos or on-line recordings of it. If you wish, listen to the Bach/Gounod clip on - it's the only on-line musical saw playing sort of Bach I could find...

Pratik said...

You know, when I first glanced at the list of hypothetical works, before I actually read the entry, I fully expected this to be about works that were intended for some forces but instead were performed by others. Of course, that wouldn't make sense in many of the cases. Admittedly, your actual entry was both more sensible and more intriguing.

Steven said...

Brahms should have written a cello concerto...

cnb said...

It is not every day that one hears praise for Robertson Davies qua librettist. Have you read his libretto for The Golden Ass -- or even seen it staged? I was lucky, about a decade ago, to hear it at the Canadian Opera Company, and I own one of the 500 printed copies of the libretto. The music was, I found, mostly forgettable, but the libretto is a delight, as you say.

Palestrina may not have written a piano concerto, but Hildegard von Bingen wrote symphonies.

Osbert Parsley said...

Pratik and Steven: You're actually both right - Brahms's Double Concerto was supposed to be a cello concerto, but he changed his mind and added a violin. (What you'd want a violin for in a cello concerto is beyond me!) Perhaps you knew this already. I just discovered this and thought it was pretty cool.

Craig: I regret having missed The Golden Ass at the COC, especially since Canadian operas almost never receive more than one production! I've seen the libretto, though, which is impossibly witty - it's rare to find a libretto of such good literary quality that is still suitable for musical setting.

I know Davies as a librettist, though, mostly through his children's opera Doctor Canon's Cure, which was composed by Derek Holman and premiered by the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus. I was in that ensemble as a child (some years after the premiere), and we prepared bits of it for a recording. A really delightful opera, and a happy marriage of composer and librettist (they seem to have shared a similar quirky, English wit.) Davies wrote a second children's opera libretto in 1982 (Children of the Moon) which Holman thought unsuitable for musical setting; the libretto was rediscovered by Canadian composer Dean Burry (previously the composer of a children's opera on The Hobbit, who is currently at work setting it to music. It would be interesting to see it performed, although having heard The Hobbit I suspect that the music will not be particularly memorable or distinguished.

The most fascinating story of all, however, is the story of The Golden Ass, which Davies completed before approaching a composer. The first musician to display an interest was - of all people - the French organist/composer Jean Guillou, who is notorious for his wildly eccentric performances and his abtruse, highly dissonant, space-age organ compositions. (Here, for example, is his recent work La Revolte des Orgues). Guillou was and is, against all probability, an enormous fan of Davies' novels, but it was generally agreed that his music wouldn't suit the libretto. Other rejected composers included Leonard Bernstein (because he was dead) and Harry Somers (because Davies claimed not to understand his music). The eventual choice - Randolph Peters - has dropped off the radar entirely; nowadays he's based in Winnipeg and writes mostly film scores. I haven't heard his score and so can't judge it, but I'm fascinated by the idea of the opera as being set by Somers (probably one of the greatest of all Canadian composers) or by the brilliant-but-insane Guillou. Another imaginary composition for the museum, I suppose.

bgn said...

In the palmy days of in the mid-1990s, this question would come up from time to time. Usually, people would come up with a lot of unwritten piano concertos, violin concertos and cello concertos. (Sigh--as if we didn't already have tons of perfecly good piano and violin concertos that hardly anyone plays in public.) I was amazed to be the only one even to have come up with something so obvious as a Brahms clarinet concerto...

cnb said...

I did not know of those children's operas, Osbert. Very interesting.

scott davidson said...

How are we looking at the paintings of Mark Rothko these days?
Is he old hat, replaced in America by more contemporary concerns? Looking at his minimal canvases and their enticing floating squares of subdued paint live at the MOMA recently, I had to stop to wonder whether he still communicates to a modern and younger audience., the site that sells good canvas prints to order from their database of digital images, has many Rothko prints. I ordered this one, Blue and grey,, that I have now hanging in my study. I can spend a long time looking at this elusive image that takes me to some other place not in this world.