Saturday, June 19, 2010

Second Interview - The Anti-Romantic?

"What is Classical is healthy: what is Romantic is sick"
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

It seems you have come up against a particular and peculiar problem; not being able to explain your dissatisfaction with the usual pigeon-holes into which all the musical world wants to enshrine certain musical treasures.  Here's the link:

This link is to the top of the thread.  The whole discussion was interesting. So what do you have to say?

Yes, I guess that's right.  I was apparently unable to express myself with sufficient clarity on the subject. 

Well, it's difficult to go up against accepted terms.  I'm sure a lot of people thought you were uneducated concerning them, etc.

It's so bad that when you try examining any terms for their real meaning they think you're arrogant. 

You have no problem with that do you?  Most of your friends that I am aware of are arrogant to some degree.

Yes, it's what happens when you really try and want to know things.  When you do manage to get to know a lot about a great many things and can express yourself concerning them, most tend to regard you as arrogant, which word doesn't have a flattering connotation.  I was reminded of this very problem today in a conversation with a good friend who everyone thinks is arrogant.

OK, so getting back to romanticism and your objection to the term, can you try and explain it?

It has to do with the precise meaning of the word and its misapplications to music.  The root of the word "romantic" refers to works of fiction which may be "romances" or heroic tales, where emotions, adventures, etc. are usually exaggerated; specifically to novels.  Most romances involve a hero who usually dies tragically.  For example Wagner's Ring Cycle I regard as one huge tragedy that is essentially romantic.  Anything that uses a fictional text must be "romantic" in the exact sense of the word.

And the word "classical" isn't good either?

It's better, but certainly not perfect.  Anything "classical" must really refer to ancient Greece and Rome, not more modern subjects.  We tend to think of "classical" in terms of antiquity and while many Americans might consider the late eighteenth century to be ancient history, certainly most Europeans and Asians would think of that time as just yesterday. 

So what are you really trying to tell people out there about music that everyone else labels as romantic (and for that matter classical), is that the terms are misapplied and even misleading.  So what?  Why make such a big deal about it?

Because I'm serious about it and I would like others to become more serious about it too.  I'm applying a critique of both terms but particularly the concept of what is and isn't "romantic" as applied to art, letters, music, and especially love.  The use of the term in fact cheapens anything applied to it since it is defining the object as in some sense unreal, fanciful, essentially an escape,  and therefore of less value.  Remember for any who have been paying attention, that I regard pianism (the practice and study of the piano and its music) as my religion; something I profess and do every day.  I have even noticed that some of my associates have indicated that pianism is their religion on Facebook.

So what then is religion, or are you going to reinterpret that word too?

I am in fact going to do so.  It should be refreshing when someone dares draw the curtains away from a misconception.  But usually, perhaps by a base human instinct, the usual response is to attack the person who does the revealing.  I'm far too old to care much about this anymore and have grown a particularly thick skin.  If you disagree with me, in fact if the entire academic world disagrees with me, too damn bad.

Yeah, that's arrogant. (laughs)

OK, so we usually think of "religion" as having something to do with worshiping God.  But that arena of human practice is actually politics by other means, since the tenets and terms of most religions are set by a specific group of people who accept their beliefs on faith and attempt to pass them along with some coercive sanctions.  Any force used, including manipulations of the mind or emotions, the uses of guilt, etc. are indications that most religions are merely means of political control.

You said this blog was not going to be about religion or politics.
All right, getting back to romanticism ...
The usual associations with anything "romantic" are of a lot of tear jerking emotions, sappy love stories, bad movies, pop fiction romances etc.

You have trouble handling strong emotions?

No, not at all.

Then, what's your problem?

Romantic portrayals of emotions per se are often fake, all dramatics are too; they pretend.  But the music usually labeled as romantic is often expressing genuine emotions that are not fake at all.

Oh, come on!  You can't tell what's fake and what's not and neither can anyone else.  All anyone wants to hear is some nice sounding music that maybe they can hum along to.  So where is this discussion going to take us?

It could take us on a discussion of why certain kinds of people have been interested in "classical music" too, but I'm not going there, at least not now.

So how about the wider dimensions of the romantic and what they infer?

Let's start with the usual conceptions of romantic love.  A few days ago, a friend stopped by and I said I was playing nothing but romantic music and she asked if I was "in love."  You see how easy it is? 


And not long ago someone asked me if in my present single life, whether I missed romantic love.

So, do you?

I'm not sure I have experienced it since I was in my twenties.  I certainly wouldn't consider my married life to have had anything to do with romantic love.

What?  Didn't you love your wife?

Yes, I certainly did.  In fact we were happily married.

So you were romantically involved.

You have deliberately caught me in the popular misconception.  The use of the word makes certain assumptions unavoidable.  People do get "romantically involved" all the time, but it wasn't the same as my love for my wife or hers for me.

Your love life sounds boring to me.

Only because you prefer fantasy to reality.  Look, let's say you are unattached and interested in meeting a woman for ... romantic love.

OK, what do you mean by romantic love then?

You might be looking for an affair, for casual sex, for companionship.  And then somewhere in your usual travels you meet someone and maybe you strike up a conversation.  Perhaps even at the first meeting you are struck by something about her, something you can't dislodge easily from your mind.

Sure, that's that thing called love.  Yes, go on.

And maybe on her part too, she is constructing a picture of someone to love in advance out of what she has seen and heard from you.

You too have constructed such a picture of her?

Yes, but neither picture, mine of her or hers of me, is really the truth.  These pictures are idealizations of real people that cannot be squared with reality.  We meet someone and "fall in love" with them, but the person we've fallen for isn't the real person, just a picture of them we've concocted in our mind, usually with a lot of expectations and other baggage tacked on that are certain to be dashed to pieces as soon as we discover that they are real people with their own set of personal faults which do not match the picture in our minds.

I see, then romantic love is invariably tragic? 

Usually.  It almost has to be by definition as it's built on figments of our imagination, not a clear assessment of reality.  We don't really get to know other people as people, but play around with pictures of them in our minds.  Whole cultures can be built on such fantasies, but they aren't real and sooner or later must fail, usually with tragic consequences; we call those emotions by many names, usually affecting our heart.

But then what is so great about knowing the reality of someone's faults, that's not romantic, it isn't that much fun either.

It could be fun, and could be even more rewarding, especially after many years.  Think of the intensity of a real partnership with real purpose and shared interests.  There's nothing as vigorous as reality.  If many people don't like it or can't experience it, well that's another matter.

Look, I want to keep the discussion on track, not only the word romantic as it refers to music but classical.

OK, I said that what we think of as "classical" music, late eighteenth century music written by the composers of "the first Vienna school" as having occurred a long time ago (and there really was no such "school" either, that's just another arbitrary construct for convenience).  But that music wasn't written that long ago.  Let me illustrate with direct reference to myself just how short a time ago this music was written (and there are a lot of people calling themselves "song writers" who have never written a note which is disgraceful and disgusting too, but that's another discussion).  When I say, as I do, that I can trace my musical teaching lineage all the way back to Beethoven and even to Bach, I can state the following:
My musical pedagogical genealogy

David Burton (1951 - )
Robert Soder (1928 - 1998) jazz and composition
Darius Milhaud (1892 - 1974)
Vincent d"indy (1851 - 1931)
Cesar Franck (1822 - 1890)
Anton Reicha (1770 - 1836)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)     WA Mozart (1756 - 1791)
JC Bach (1732 - 1795)          CPE Bach (1714 - 1788)
JS Bach (1685 - 1750)

You were Soder's student, he was Milhaud's student, who was in turn d'Indy's student and so on?

Yes, exactly so, and most everyone involved in serious music have similar pedigrees.

A lot you've done with it. (laughs)

Yeah, I know, but we're in a different world now where music itself has lost its importance, except to those who have decided to make it their religion; something they practice and do every day.

And so how's that Chopin coming?

It's coming along, slowly. (more laughs)

So if we get rid of these terms, what do you put in their place?

Well you can definitely say that all opera, even really old opera, must be romantic, since it relies on supporting a story line and text and since opera composers aren't writing music to sing the latest news to, or some scientific dissertation, etc.  We have actually two variants of romantic, tragic and comic.  There may even be heroic historical operas, purportedly about some real historical figures, but compared to say Shakespeare, they must be rather few.  I don't know opera that well.  I didn't say I didn't like opera, I just don't know it as well as other musical forms.

So everything else?

The nature of reality is always ambiguous, but you have to use some categories to explain differences between styles and periods of music.  I prefer terms that refer to the musical instruments used first and then consider the styles and periods within the broader categories of "antique" and "modern".  While the harpsichord can and is used in some modern music, for its particular texture, harpsichords and other "period" instruments are usually only used to play music by those who composed for them.  This music, which sounds best on these period instruments, I call "antique music" including anything pre-baroque, baroque and rococo.  Even as some who have made "period instrument" productions and recordings of even early nineteenth century music have demonstrated, these antique instruments produce sounds that seem unfamiliar to us, though not diminishing the quality of the music on which they are played.

So "antique music" is pretty much anything before Bach and including Bach?

Well Bach, JS Bach, is sort of the natural overlap as his music sounds perfectly well on modern instruments as does anything after him.

It is ambiguous.

Isn't life itself?

So then what do you call the styles of the various periods after Bach?

The "First Vienna School" is sufficient for composers who wrote music similar to or including Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert.  All the forms established by these composers were models for composers who came after them, even as their music changed.  Not only forms but the system of cataloging music according to opus numbers, after Beethoven used them, became standard as composers employed them to keep track of their works.  Beethoven was not the first to use opus numbers, but many composers followed this practice after him.

So the symphony, concerto, sonata, etc. are associated with this "school"?

Yes, even though these forms have their roots before the period of this "school" and as time goes by and instruments become more "modern" due to advances in technology, the forms are transformed.  In fact this is a real and honest use of a word I usually shun; evolution.

Music evolved through the nineteenth century but only that which was attached to support text was "romantic"?  How about some symphonies with names?

It's ambiguous, but let's take some examples which anyone can check out on their own.  Here are a list of symphonies, most of which are considered "romantic":

Beethoven's Symphony #9 Op 125 "Choral Symphony" (the final movement, Ode to Joy, to a poem by Schiller)

Schubert's Symphony #8 "Unfinished" D759 (Schubert's works are usually cataloged using a D system developed by Otto Deutsch instead of opus numbers)

Mendelssohn's Symphony #1 Op 11

Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique Op 14 'Episode de la vie d'un Artiste...en cinq parties'  (episode in the life of an artist in five movements)

Schumann's Symphony #3 Op 97 "Rhenish" (this too has five movements whereas most symphonies have only four)

Brahms' Symphony #1 Op. 68

Franck's Symphony in D minor (no opus number)

Tchaikovsky's Symphony #6 Op 74 "Pathétique"

Saint-Saëns' Symphony #3 Op 78 "Organ Symphony" (this work was dedicated to Franz Liszt who died the year it came out)

d'Indy's Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français Op 25 (Symphony on a French Mountain Air)

Bruckner's Symphony #9 Op Posthumous "dem lieben Gott" (this was an unfinished symphony at the composer's death and therefore the opus is given as "posthumous")

Rachmaninoff's Symphony #2 Op 27  

Mahler's Symphony #10 (this work was largely complete at his death)

Shostakovich's Symphony #5 Op 47

Prokofiev's Symphony #5 Op 100

There are many others to trace the evolution of the "romantic" symphony within and extending its "classical" roots in symphonies by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Mozart that are not called "romantic."  All of these I would prefer to consider as modern works therefore eliminating as much distance between them and us in the process.

So in conclusion, tentative since we didn't get into the various styles ...

Well, some are unique to each composer, which is how we can often identify a composition we haven't heard as being by a particular master.

... your criticism is that people who regard this music as "romantic" are mistaken in labeling them as fantasy and fiction and instead their music contains realism?

I'm saying that all this music, right back to and beyond Beethoven, was in the scheme of things, written almost yesterday by historical standards and therefore is as emotionally realistic, MODERN and relevant and in fact more so, than that which has been written since, much of which relies on rather tacky references to "romantic" notions deliberately promoted in popular culture for use and disposal about on a par with "fast food" or "bad romance" and that the terms "classical" and particularly "romantic" are a disservice to the music, almost an insult to it.

I doubt many will see it your way.

I could care less.  Those that do will benefit from encountering reality rather than accepting illusions, musical, emotional, intellectual or otherwise.