Music


(Short comment after a friend’s blog mentioned Steve Reich’s music possibly Different Trains, Electric Counterpoint.)

I’m afraid that I have a pretty strong prejudice against modern music. Most of them sound like Hollywood movie soundtrack. I listened to the fragments on Amazon, and they sound pretty much like Philip Glass’ stuff–Wikipedia says Reich started this whole electronic repetitive thing. Seems to me it’s indication of lack of creativity: find a good motif isn’t that hard, stretching it to a 15-minute piece isn’t either with the help of computers.

(Now an excerpt from an email.)

I generally dislike 20th century music, as lots of it sounds like movie soundtrack: dramatic, episodic, repetitive. The 3rd trait is particularly vexing. It’s like modern composers love to just stick to something they like, after abandoning classical structures like fugue’s contrapunctual themes and sonata’s exposition-development-recapitulation. It might have originated from Ravel’s Bolero, which is a wonderful piece. Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (“Leningrad”) has the 22-bar “invasion march” repeated 12 times. Barber’s Adagio for Strings (again, beautiful). “O Fortuna” (the first and most famous segment) in Orff’s Carmina Burana (Xiaolei mentioned the piece, but I really don’t like it, and am not surprised by its popularity in Nazi Germany). Most segments in Holst’s Planets. And don’t even think of those “minimalists” like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. I would get bored after hearing a Chopin Waltz 10 times, but I would be totally insane about mid way through the 2nd time you play me a Steve Reich piece.

(And more self-plagiarism: I blasted Phillip Glass at the end of a piece more than 10 years old.)

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(I think I started this piece when I was talking with some friends about classical music pieces with titles at least 3 years ago.)

Program music is obviously more accessible than abstract music since they direct your imagination to some extent. My friends and I were talking about some popular titles of Beethoven’s, such as Moonlight and Für Elise. Beethoven have quite a few pieces with names, but few (Eroica, Pathetique, Lebewohl) came from the composer himself. “Moonlight” was dubbed by a German poet after Beethoven’s death, and I found some spotty references on the legend that Beethoven composed it for a blind girl, which was in our textbook (I think). “Für Elise” may be a mistranscription, but Beethoven did give the piece a name (dedication) himself. It’s really funny that it’s used by garbage trucks–I’ve got to confirm that from a Taiwanese. If you know anyone from Iran, please ask him/her about it as well. Beethoven would be fuming in his coffin if he knew that!

Two program pieces in particular that I loved as a kid, and still do today: Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of Animals and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Together with Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, these are sometimes found on the same recording as great materials for introducing children to classical music.

Everybody knows the “The Dying Swan” ballet, based on one of the few non-satirical pieces in the Carnival. I kind of remember that my mum played the “Pianist” piece when I was reluctant to practice the piano, saying something like “see? Even the boring scale is used in a composition, so you should be happy practicing”. I was too dumb to find out the nature of the Carnival pieces, and it may not be a glorious thing to be paraded along with other “lowly” animals like donkey and tortoises…

Peter and the Wolf is a much more coherent piece, and I have an LP of Bernstein/NY Philharmonic with wonderful narration from Bernstein. Some disparage Bernstein as a showman without true musical merit (EMI’s Great Conductors of the 20th Century series doesn’t even include him). I haven’t done enough listening to distinguish different conductors and orchestras, but I think Bernstein’s influence and popularity was great for classical music, especially in the US, being one of the few great American-born conductors.

The melodies and instrumentation and rhythms are truly great in the piece. Each instrument and its corresponding character reinforce each other so perfectly that I would actually not recommend playing this to a child as the first classical piece s/he hears: the impression and association would be too strong. The theme for Peter is so gleeful and uplifting that it should be a universal anthem for 10-year-old boys–I can so see Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn whistling the tune while skipping around.

When it got to mid Romaticism, more pieces have titles than not, so I’ll only mention some pieces that I’m more or less familiar with (I think I intended to comment on each piece, but that would take 30 years). Note that none is opera, vocal (solo and choral), or ballet music, because they have specific designation by definition.

  • Vivaldi: Four Seasons
  • Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
  • Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. (The original composition is for piano only, and Ravel orchestrated it later.)
  • Richard Strauss’s tone poems
  • Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 From the New World
  • Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
  • Debussy: La Mer; Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
  • Mahler: symphonies (none of the names for his symphonies came from him); The Song of the Earth

cover

I learned about the book from this NY Time article. I pretty much skipped through all but the first chapter, since it’s mostly way too detailed musicology, but it’s really fun knowing about the tremendous changes in piano performance since 1800’s. The author must have done a huge amount of research into concert programs, reviews, personal correspondence, besides standard musicology materials. Very respectable.

The NYT article touches on many aspects of the changes. In a word, a 19th-century “classical music” (it was contemporary back then) concert was as much entertainment as a 21th-century rock concert. It’s not too long, noisy (“Concertgoers, Please Clap, Talk or Shout at Any Time” as the title of the NYT article), mostly variety (all kinds of instruments and pieces), improvisational (with prelude, cadenza, and all sorts of things), and sometimes with only selected movements of a “long” and “severe” piece such as a Beethoven sonata. And wrong note? What wrong note? From the NYT article:

My favorite music criticism is from a German on Brahms’s playing his own B flat Piano Concerto. “Brahms did not play the right notes,” he wrote, “but he played like a man who knew what the right notes were.”

I think the ultimate goal of music, or art in general, is to connect with and move audience. So it really doesn’t matter how it is presented. I don’t mind the modern concert ritual (described as “funeral procession” by Hamilton) since I’m used to it, but the book certainly opens up my views and confirms some of my secret doubts, such as whether all the movements in a piece are really inherently cohesive, and if classical music popularizers like Lang Lang should be lauded. I wouldn’t necessarily call those people who condemn Lang Lang snobs, but I’ve always thought there’s nothing wrong in popularizing classical music. Hey, Super Girls can be popular, why can’t Chopin and Rachmaninoff?

Back to the book, one of the more interesting thing is the custom of playing prelude. I never thought preludes were meant to be, er, preludes: short pieces leading up to the main program. The book gave several reasons for the then-ubiquitous and now-unimaginable practice:

  • It sets up the right mood for the main piece. So it’s usually in a related (if not the same) key with related melody and rhythm. It may even introduce some themes in the main piece so audience can be more familiar with them.
  • It quiets down the audience, let people know that performance has begun so they can take their seats and stop socializing.
  • The most fun (and important) of all, it tests the piano’s quality and timbre so the pianist can adjust the playing accordingly. That was the age before modern piano mechanism and production, so every piano can be quite different and powerful pianists (Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, et al) are known to break pianos during performances.

(UPDATE 6/30)

I forgot to mention that Hamilton attributes the dramatic changes in piano performances mostly to recordings. I think while that’s a major influence, it’s not the only one, or the most important one.

To me, it’s the collective conscious and unconscious “ivory towering” by the professionals (composers, performers, critics, publishers, etc.) and audience that make classical music performance serious and somber to the brink of hypocrisy. The professionals want to distance and elevate themselves above pop music–jazz at first, then rock, so that they can carry on the great and noble “dead white male” traditions. Improvisation? Leave it to blind black piano player at the street corner. Crowd pleaser? Those long hair druggies with twisting hips will do. We are the safeguard of the sacred and pure classics for future generations!

And the audience take that all in smugly as a ritual, to the extent that it feels like kitsch. I’m not saying it’s kitsch for classical music to invoke sacred and pure feelings, but it’s definitely kitsch if you get the “second tear” listening to, say, Swan Lake (I don’t mean to pick on Tchaikovsky, but some of his stuff sounds just a little bit too teary).

Jazz can be sacred and pure. So does rock. Any music is transcendental by definition: it abstracts and transcends the everyday experience of sound. Anybody can, and should be moved by any kind of music. It doesn’t matter where, or how.

Met my old lover in the grocery store
The snow was falling Christmas eve

… …

And as I turned to make my way back home
The snow turned into rain

I first heard the song years ago in China and liked it a lot for its folksy tune and reference to Auld Lang Syne. My English was too poor to figure out all the lyrics, and I wouldn’t have any idea what a corner grocery store looks like anyway. I did recognize the last sentence (like that is hard), and used it as song title in my catalog.

Over here you can’t avoid it if you listen to any radio during any December. It’s a bit weird to hear it between Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Feliz Navidad since it’s so melancholy, but I guess people don’t really pay attention to the lyrics once they hear “snow”, “Christmas eve”, and of course, Auld Lang Syne.

I never knew who’s the singer, though, and finally remembered to look it up. Sadly, Fogelberg passed away shortly before last Christmas, may he rest in peace. He grew up in Peoria, Illinois, less than 100 miles from Champaign (J took her CPA exams there), and he dropped out from UIUC’s college of arts to pursue his music career.

The Peoria Journal Star ran a nice obituary piece after his death, and a few days later the same columnist wrote a wonderful story as the true identity of the “old lover” was revealed.

And how about this heart warming/wrenching countrapoint:

She says she had kept publicly mum because Fogelberg was such a private person.

“It wasn’t about me. It was about Dan. It was Dan’s song,” Jill says.

Further, though she and Fogelberg only rarely had communicated over the past quarter-century, she feared that her talking about the song somehow might cause trouble in his marriage.

The heart of the song hangs on its most chilling line: “She would have liked to say she loved the man, but she didn’t like to lie.”

Still, even decades later, she declines to discuss that line of the tune.

“I think that’s probably too personal,” she says.

But the song had no impact on her marriage. By the time of its release, she had divorced.

“Somebody said he waited until I was divorced to release the song, but I don’t know if that’s true,” Jill says.

If you read 不许联想 you know what it is.

If not, here’s a hint: over the weekend I heard Tony Bennett singing an old standard on radio, which starts with this:

Someday when I’m awfully low
When the world is cold
I will feel a glow
Just thinking of you

The song stuck in my head for the last few days, and I remembered 王大福吐奶 just now. I think my version is more literal and Beijinger, but less meaningful.

I’ve always wanted to see Li Yundi live, but when I saw this in the NJPAC season brochure I wasn’t sure if it’s worthwhile: Liszt’s Concerto No. 1, with Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, because I don’t care for Liszt too much, nor for R. Strauss. Then a week before the concert NJPAC ran a promotion of buy 1 get 1 free. Cheap as I am, I bought the tickets right away, and turned out it’s indeed a very good bargain.

The Gewandhaus has gotta be the weirdest name for an orchestra. It’s the assembly hall of the cloth traders, i.e. the “Garment House”, as the first concert hall the orchestra played in. After our one-day trip to Leipzig in 2003, we felt it’s a run-down East Germany city with few faint shimmers of its glorious past. I was a bit skeptical about the orchestra, since virtually all descriptions I’ve seen start with “one of the oldest orchestras in the world” and “Mendelssohn was one of its early directors”–sounds like the Chinese boasting about our 5K-year history, doesn’t it. You don’t need such description, or any description, when you mention Berlin Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Ricardo Chailly is no stranger to operatic sounds and emotions, so he’s quite fit for R. Strauss’ flamboyant tone. I heard Don Juan once or twice, but never Ein Heldenleben. I wish I were more familiar with Strauss’ stuff, which would make it more fun to pick them out from Ein Heldenleben–I could only recognize Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegels. Speaking of T.E., I just figured out a great translation: 田伯君正传–how about that?

The highlight of the concert is of course Li Yundi. He’s definitely grown up from his Chopin-winning age, and possesses some superstar quality–even more than Lang Lang, who sometimes seems more like an entertainer than a great pianist. I’m not saying that a great pianist has to be austere, and entertaining the crowd is always important, but just don’t overdo it.

(I just watched a PBS program on Barenboim, at the end giving master classes to young pianists, the first being Lang Lang. An interview precedes the class, in which Lang Lang told how he grew up to be a pianist. He mentioned Liszt’s Hungary Rhapsody No. 2 played by Tom & Jerry and Bugs Bunny. I had thought about them but didn’t want to expose my naivety, but hey, even Lang Lang loves them!)

I’m not familiar with the piece enough to judge the performance. Liszt, and even more so Schumann, often have their emotions oozing all over their compositions. That’s typical of high Romanticism, but they never have long-lasting effects in me as Bach, Mozart, or Chopin.

This has got to be the biggest CD release ever. I can’t find any info from Philips Classics website, so this could be the official site, with very complete information on each CD and track.

Later, EMI has a Great Conductors of the 20th Century series, originally planned to have 60+ 2-CD volumes, each for one conductor, but ended up with only 40 so far. This page has an easy-to-read list, missing only Adrian Boult.

Amazon used to sell it for about $2000. It’s pretty ridiculous to get the whole set–I certainly don’t have room for it. I bought the 2-CD sampler from eBay, though, which is a very good introduction with short bio for all pianists. And for the full series? Pray that your local library has it, and if you happen to be local to NYC, your prayer is answered! I think the first volume I got (Gyorgy Cziffra) was actually from the library in Elizabeth, NJ.

Some facts and stats:

  • There are 100 2-CD volumes. Total running time is over 250 hours.
  • 72 pianists are covered:
    1. 45 have single volumes.
    2. 16 have double.
    3. 7 have triple: Arrau, Brendel, Gilels, Horowitz, Kempff, Richter, and Rubinstein.
    4. 2 couples each share one volume.
  • The pianists come from 23 nations. Russia has the most (10), followed by USA (9), then Ukraine (8). In terms of region, Europe has the overwhelming majority of almost 80% (West Europe 20, old USSR 19, East Europe 17). Asia only has one (内田光子).
  • Among the 41 deseased, 80% lived past 60. 2 died in their 30s: Kapel 31, Lipatti 33. 2 in their 40s: Katchen 43, Francois 46. At the other end, 3 lived to 90s: Rubinstein 95, Kempff and Rosina Lhevinne to 96.
  • Competition winners
    • Chopin: Pollini@60, Argerich@65, Zimerman@75 won 1st prize. Ashkenazy@55, Uchida@70 won 2nd.
    • Tchaikovsky: Cliburn@58, Ashkenazy@62, Ogdon@62, Gavrilov@74, and Pletnev@78 won 1st.
    • Leeds: Lupu@69 and Perahia@72 won 1st. Uchida@75 won another 2nd.
    • Rubinstein: Anton, not Artur. It was setup by Anton Rubinstein himself and went from 1890 to 1910. I got to know about it from the notes on Backhaus, and amazingly Wikipedia didn’t have an entry. I did some googling and here is my first Wikipedia creation. Josef Lhévinne@1895, Backhaus@1905, Sofronitsky, and Yudina were winners.

I won’t say anything about the music and pianists until I’ve listened and compared enough to say anything not obviously stupid. Before that, you can kill a day reading this very detailed review.

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