Monday, December 27, 2010

The Maturity of an Audience for Classical Music and Other Concerns

“I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven,
and likewise their disciples and apostles;
I believe in the Holy Spirit and the truth of the one, indivisible Art;
I believe that this Art proceeds from God,
and lives within the hearts of all illumined men;
I believe that he who once has bathed in the sublime delights of this high Art,
is consecrated to Her for ever, and never can deny Her;
I believe that through Art all men are saved.” 
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

A friend of mine from the city went to a piano recital a few weeks ago. The program was devoted to the three last piano sonatas of Beethoven. The pianist, interpreter, his name not known to me, apparently had quite a respectful following. The performances were, as expected, both technically polished and emotionally probing. But that's not the phrase that I remembered most from her description of the concert. She said that everyone in the audience probably knew the music before they entered the theatre, some knew this music very well, had decided to attend this concert because they knew these particular pieces and loved them, perhaps even a few in this audience were pianists themselves and may have had the same sonatas committed to memory and most importantly, everyone behaved reverentially toward each other, relatively quiet yet intensely joyful.

This audience's special quality included the reality of the ageing and aged as a significant percentage. And why not? Why wouldn't that be just what one should expect? There is much adverse comment about this these days, as if the perpetual pursuit of unattainable eternal youth must pervade even these precincts, and this specie of criticism really needs to be rebutted and its relevance refuted with the following points:

1) This music known under the moniker of “classical” is mature, serious, and intended to last forever. There is no other music like it, none with the distinctiveness, the uniqueness of any of its great works, intended for a serious and mature audience, not for emotional adolescents or those whose only interest in music is as to serve as a prop for other pastimes.

2) The people who originally sponsored this music were serious and had considerable resources at stake for its production and promotion. It was intended from its inception to be deployed only among a select few. This did not mean then and does not mean today, that interest in it is restricted by any overt signs suggesting that certain people may not apply. Application is available to anyone in theory. Nevertheless it is axiomatic that what this music demands of its performers and audiences alike, necessarily means that its appeal will be to the self selecting few.

3) This music is not intended to be exclusive, yet it selects those who are interested in it. Those who aren't interested today may become so in future as their emotions and outlook on life mature or perhaps they never will become interested in it. There are quite a few who just don't see the point to classical music and they have a right to their opinions. But anyway, exclusive it always was from the very beginning and such shall it likely be for the foreseeable future.

4) Classical music is a kind of “straight and narrow way” and such is why on finding it, as many describe their first recognition of this music, that it is in its unique way very like encountering a religion with its own saints, martyrs (we'll highlight one here), savants, and other people who are held in as much reverence as those men and women whom humanity have called holy. There is a sincere and unique reverence accorded classical musicians by their audiences that is really unlike that of the celebrities or the superstars of other musical genres.

5) Its concerts, even when they are the highlights of informal parties in people's homes, have many of the same almost liturgical elements as a religious service. There are traditional programs, some extensions of these for more modern works to be presented, or for “early music” which is still in the purview of what is known as “classical music”, etc. Sometimes there are intermissions dividing a concert into two parts, other times music is presented with minimum interruption. Those who attend enough concerts begin to see the patterns. It may be difficult for some of us to believe it now, but these concerts, where some of the greatest of the classics were first premièred included food and drink as integral elements, beer and sandwiches being about the most common refreshments, although we are aware of certain venues that included wine punches, cakes and pastries as well as the usual fare of sausages and pickles.

6) The survival of this music is certainly not guaranteed, but it will not survive being watered down by “crossovers” from music that is other than itself, of different intent, for a different audience, not intended to be the focus of conscious attention but merely as … props for other pastimes. Its devotees can examine, in some ways similar to the ways people describe theological or moral ideas in their churches or synagogues, the various ways classical music has succeeded and where it has failed. Our analysis cannot fail but to acknowledge that classical music owes much to its ties with academic institutions, particularly its conservatories. One of the ways this music survives is by its being taught to future generations: basic musical pedagogy is and always has been crucial. In this regard it is unfortunate that classical music had to rely on state sponsorship through public schools because in that regard its practitioners became lazy and did not seek out sponsorship from the interested themselves. And it can be argued with considerable evidence, that the greatest composers may not have been produced through these schools of music or systems of pedagogy. Some of the greatest composers had little formal musical education and seem to have grown into their art as if by a primary natural means, Mozart and Chopin among them. Discussions should concern as much why certain musical talent was allowed to suffer and even languish in obscurity only to be recognized by future musicologists, as Mendelssohn is credited having rescued Bach from obscurity for future generations.

This same friend recommended a certain documentary to me, After the Storm, The American Exile of Béla Bartók. It is a very sad story, one which demonstrated somewhat as Richard Wagner is known to have said to some of his potential sponsors, that he held them and society in general responsible for ignoring Mozart and others of supreme musical talent and letting them die in obscurity, those who intended their creation to last forever and were fated to live amidst the inattentiveness of their fellows. Yet in order for anything to last, it not only must be kept in someone's memory and passed along to the next generation, it must be LOVED and cherished, held in esteem in a place by itself, a hallowed place in the human heart, a place accessible to each individual and yet a place as universal as to encompass all of humanity, to be truly universal in its message and appeal. In order for this to happen, a music must say something about the reality of the human condition, its highs, its lows, its poignancy, the contributions made by nature all around us, and even more things than can ever be described by mere words alone.

Such was my reaction upon seeing this documentary on the last years of Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Yes, we can say that in 1881, the fateful year that Brahms premièred his magnificent second piano concerto or the year after that great symphony of Hans Rott appeared, the world was blessed by the birth of Béla Bartók, arguably Hungary's greatest composer and one of the greatest of the 20th century. But what of composers? No, So What of Composers?  The New York City of the 1940's which offered Bartók a refuge and even more the sumptuousness for this particular and peculiar man to have access to the great folk music collections at Columbia University, nevertheless never really understood him. How could two so very different beings possibly get along: the sickly Hungarian composer who was a kind of austere ascetic anyway, and the spirit of the huge humdrum city of a still young nation, full of noise, full of its own common cares, without a consciousness of any culture or excuses for such niceties as fine art music?

It can always be said that were it not for what was offered Bartók, the commission which produced the Concerto for Orchestra (1942-1945), for which the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, wasn't even willing to take the composer's directions seriously, we might not have had the Third Piano Concerto (1945) or the Viola Concerto (1945) and Bartók might even have died earlier as he was a sick man anyway. We are also indebted to Bartók's disciple, Tibor Serly, who like Mozart's disciple Hummel, never equaled his master.  We will probably never know what the crucible of life required of Bartók to create what he did.  We are lucky to have these last works as they are among his very best.

Whether you decide to get this documentary and view it yourself or not, we can ask ourselves what of other Bartóks out there waiting to be discovered?  They wont be the same as he was nor will their music be like his.  What if their natural gifts are smothered by too much teaching, what if their lives are made too easy by too much fawning recognition received too easily?  What portion of the crucible of life is required to produce the pearls of a creative genius like Bartók?  We don't even begin to know the right formulas for any of this. Mostly we're probably too timid to be asking. And how much does it cost, how much should it be worth, etc.?  Are we any better at pricing the value of the invaluable today than we might have been able to in 1945?  Was the Concerto for Orchestra worth a mere $1,000 in 1940's money, which the composer was reluctant to take anyway as he wasn't sure he'd live long enough to complete the assignment?  In an earlier posting, I brought the case of that unfortunate young man Hans Rott to attention. Today I bring that of Béla Bartók to similar attention.  But as I said above, the numbers of those who could and would possibly care have always been small and maybe that's the way it must be, “the straight and narrow way which leads to salvation” in the deepest sense of finding meaning in life that few people ever find anywhere else.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Making Ever New Discoveries in Old Classical Music

Over the next several weeks, I will be considering various aspects of the music that we usually refer to as “classical” which distinguishes it from other kinds of music. One of the first things to notice is just how much classical music is out there, a veritable ocean, as an area of exploration to provide one the deepest possible rewards in human existence.  There is so much of this music that it becomes a usual practice for the interested to discover for themselves new pieces of old music by known or unknown composers and make it their own; part of their own lives, their shared memories, their additional concert repertoire.

As a demonstration, today I'm showcasing an excellent performance of a seldom heard work by an oft neglected master of classical music; the Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), pictured above. He wrote it at the age of 13. It appears to be without opus number. Opus numbers were by tradition given published works at the time as a means to catalogue them. The manuscript for this work only turned up around 1951 and was originally premièred by Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), who it is said purchased the rights to the piece as if it was brand new at the time, from relatives of Mendelssohn then living in Switzerland. We are certainly grateful to have this piece and such a brilliant performance of it on You Tube by Arthur Grumiaux with Jan Krenz leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The clarity and power of this performance reveal the gifted and accomplished French violinist with a crack British orchestra.  This concerto is in the traditional three movements:

1st Movement: Allegro

We begin in territory firmly staked out by Mozart and Haydn. But Mendelssohn is extending the form, while at the same time making references to music that's even older than the two aforementioned grand masters. Grumiaux is technically spot on, defining the lines creating the landscapes between soloist and ensemble. We will hear all of this somewhere else, and that isn't even really the point. Mendelssohn's role was more conservative in the true sense. He was arguably the father of all we recognize today as classical music; the careful recreation of the music of long passed composers. And yet with all this, note the often unexpected glimpses into more emotionally charged territory, anticipation of even operatic elements, all still grounded in the stylistic framework of Mozart and Haydn.

2nd Movement: Andante

You'd think this was again Mozart or Haydn, but wait. It was 1822 when this was written. Haydn had died the year young Felix was born and Mozart had been dead 30 years. Beethoven, though at the peak of his powers, had a mere five years to live. Already, Mendelssohn is stretching the violin concerto as it had been known into some clearly unprecedented territories, the use in this movement of repetition of a theme (really only a phrase) of ascendency and yearning, including a cadenza, and then something like a dramatic departure just prior to the conclusion, yet all kept within the bounds of strict classical form. I frankly marvel, as I have for some time with much of Mendelssohn's work, at the breadth of musical knowledge, prescient and deliberate craftsmanship and sheer discipline required to create it.

3rd Movement: Allegro

Here's the standard four step rondeau with much influence from Mendelssohn's ethnic roots, a masterful combination, plus some startlingly brilliant counterpoint, operatic interludes almost comparable to a Paganini light. There's much “fun” going on here, but none of it, and I mean exactly none of it, is going to come off without tremendous technical effort, which is also, ladies and gentlemen, quite simply a key part of the spirit and soul of all classical music.

One cannot attempt this music without a degree of discipline and serious intent. Nothing else will do and this distinguishes it from all other music. We all know of lack lustre performances that we wish we'd never heard or been part of. But they are not what we strive for. We are not merely recreating the old, this is not a museum art form as some might like to suggest, we are releasing the spirit of the music itself, with every performance, and for most of us who actually play this music ourselves, this includes those performances we play while practising, away from the stages and other probably more critical ears than our own.

As the next year is rapidly upon us, I wish to extend my best wishes to all my fellow classical musicians and aficionados of this art form, for peace, prosperity, happiness and continuing to network among ourselves and find each other throughout the world, mindful that what we are about is preserving the jewels of our civilization for ourselves and for future generations. Here's for extending the reach and growth of the cultural tribe that visionaries like Felix Mendelssohn helped begin.

Of some interest, the entire Op. 19 Songs Without Words (first book of them) also by Felix Mendelssohn, is one of my goals at this time, as I strive to extend my potential concert repertoire. I have found this music both challenging and emotionally mature beyond the years of the composer who wrote it and highly recommend it to others. It is not only old music one hears as new that classical music offers us, but the same is true for those who play a musical instrument as well.