Thursday, July 14, 2011

Summermusic: Listening to Old and [relatively] New

The first concert of Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic Festival 2011 - Friday, July 22nd at 8pm in Harrisburg's Market Square Church with the Fry Street String Quartet - features one of the most popular piano quintets in the repertoire (by Dvorak), a string quartet by the “Father of the Symphony” (Haydn), a major quartet by an early 20th Century giant (Bartok), and a work by a mid-century American composer you’re probably not familiar with (Alvin Etler - more on him later).

While I'll write a bit about some of the individual works on the three programs, this post is for those who might be a little skeptical about that "20th Century giant" (though 1927 might arguably be no longer "new") or who haven't really thought about how they listen to music, since this program gives you a chance to listen to three different centuries of musical style.

While we may hear less of the 20th Century in our concert-going experience compared to the 19th, I thought it might be interesting to point out a few ways people used to listen to “new music” when Haydn or Dvorak were considered “new.”

Haydn and Mozart are the two major composers of what we call the Classical Era of classical music – using the term ‘classical’ in two different meanings.

We essentially use the small-c “classical,” essentially indefinable, to refer to music of long-standing durability, music that has been around a long time and proven by the test of time (though proving what may also be indefinable) even though we can also talk about the Beatles or Elvis Presley as being “classics” since the shelf-life of popular music – usually considered the antithesis of classical music (or is it the other way around?) – is considerably shorter.

(Like most terms, this does not always create smooth sailing since one can therefore argue, in the traditional 20th Century antithetical way where there is only black or white, that classical music, the opposite of popular music, is therefore “unpopular” music. But I digress…)

In the big-c “Classical” sense, it refers to music of the second half of the 18th Century, an era in which music was regarded primarily as an abstract, intellectual craft as opposed to the emotional response that was the primary aspect of “romantic” music in the 19th Century, a dichotomy expressed in terms of the clarity of Apollo versus the… well, messiness of Dionysus. Today, this separation between logical and irrational would be defined in terms of the Left Brain versus the Right Brain, science (once again) replacing art (or religion) as a way of explaining the inexplicable.

Anyway, according to 18th Century philosophers like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, instrumental  music was “a complete and regular system [filling up] completely the whole capacity of the mind so as to leave no part of its attention vacant for thinking of anything else… The mind in reality enjoys …a very high intellectual pleasure, not unlike that which it derives from the contemplation of a great system in any other science.”

(Keep in mind, as I often point out, the ‘classical’ Greeks had no word for creativity or inspiration, using instead the word “techne” from which we get technique and technical: you get the picture.)

“Music,” Smith continued, was no mere “pleasurable pastime for the leisured.”

Here’s the last movement of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 17 No. 6 which the Fry Street String Quartet performs on the first program of Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic 2011.

(You can hear the whole quartet at the Israel Haydn Quartet's website, here.)

For Burke, now considered the “philosophical father of modern conservatism,” music can “anticipate our reasonings and hurries us on by an irresistible force” which he regarded as 'the “positive pleasure” of beauty, the result of a “mechanical” intervention of qualities evident in works of music and which included the virtues of consistency and formal balance created by resolution of contrast.’ [quoted from Leon Botstein’s essay, “The Demise of Philosophical Listening” in Haydn & His World published by Princeton in 1997).

On the Continent, Schiller’s idea of an “aesthetic education” was important to achieving a sense of beauty through music: “whatever meaning we are able to find in it is of a high order,” and is shaped by us, the listener, especially regarding the basic premise of tonality and form – the statement of ideas in a key, the digression from that key (the development section’s creating dramatic tension) and finally the resolution of that tension by returning to that key. This concept of the "sonata form" created a perfectly architectural dramatic structure that is both logical and reliant on our emotional response to comprehending that resolution.

Even though “pictorialism” – think Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beethoven’s Pastoral – existed in the Classical Era, it transcended subjectivity because it could still operate on a purely objective level (as it does in Vivaldi and Beethoven).

In the messy years following the French Revolution when the Age of Enlightenment was eventually replaced by all-things-Napoleon, this attitude was reversed: it was the emotional response that mattered more and the architectural niceties of the previous age became less evident as architectural observation points. No longer was it necessary to know whether you were in the Exposition, Development or Recapitulation of that dramatic digression-and-return that is the soul of the Classical sonata form. A great part of that tension is created by not knowing where you are, sometimes even in relation to the initial tonality (“Is that G Major?” “No, I think it’s F Major.” “What are we doing there?” “I don’t know, shut up and listen!”)

So people who raved about Berlioz’s drug-induced fantasies in his Symphony in C Major (better known as the “Symphonie fantastique”) would find Haydn rather dull. His wit – the unexpected turns that tweeked a listener’s expectations – became funny instead of intellectually engaging (the difference between being clever and being cute). Mozart, on the other hand, managed to survive but mostly in works that were less “Classical” like the D Minor Piano Concerto and Don Giovanni which exhibited darker, almost demonic qualities more suitable to Romantic susceptibilities.

As the age of the virtuoso turned music into a business as performers and composers relied on a ticket-buying public (rather than the courtly age of aristocratic patronage), surface replaced structure as the key element for a listener to respond to – the big theme, the dashing technical display, the story told through the music – which may explain why Brahms, in his day (if not beyond) was considered old-fashioned because of his interest in abstract forms (as Wagner basically said of Brahms’ Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel, “it’s a good fugue as fugues go, but who would want to write one today?”).

(For those who turn up their collective noses at the mob-orientation of this Age of the Virtuoso, when, compared to Beethoven and Brahms and certainly Bach, we describe it as “vapid” or consider virtuosity for its own sake shallow – after all, how much Kalkbrenner or Moscheles or even Hummel do we hear in our concert halls today? – consider these days who the best performers are on TV (the winners of American Idol or America’s Got Talent) and which are considered the best movies (those with the biggest box office take)? But I digress…)

What do we respond to in Tchaikovsky symphonies? Not their structural clarity or his skill with counterpoint but the emotional appeal of his melodies, the tension of his climaxes and the nature of his symphonic drama ("here comes that Fate Theme again").

Along came Gustav Mahler at the end of the century, trying to write “abstract” symphonies (at the time Brahms and Tchaikovsky were writing their last works) but supplying detailed descriptions of the music in terms of a program or story either before (as in his 3rd) or after the fact (as in his 1st), essentially so the listener would have an idea what's going on in this intensely dramatic and increasingly longer pieces - then trying to remove these 'srtoies' later when he changed his mind.

By the time the 20th Century began, Arnold Schoenberg had taken Wagner’s chromatic digression from easily comprehensible concepts of tonality beyond what could be considered “tonal.” Music became either so chromatic, the listener had no idea where they were in terms of “a home key” (which is what essentially defines tonality at its simplest) or whether they were in “any” key or, if it moved too quickly from one to another, perhaps in “no” key at all (though still using traditional chords). From there, it wasn't far to go before composers started using chords other than those traditional, familiar chords that moved in familiar and expected (therefore comforting) ways.

Listeners lost this ease of being able to figure out where they are when listening to a new piece of new music because they’re unfamiliar with what’s behind the musical surface. In some cases, I think many composers might be unfamiliar with that as well: some enjoy writing dissonant music for dissonance’s sake and others understand how tension-and-release operate to be able to use that sense of dissonance to be able to create a flow that draws the listener along in much the same way a harmonic progression did two hundred years ago.

(Is it necessary to point out how a bad performance of Beethoven will be blamed on the performer but a bad performance of a new composer you've never heard of before is always the composer's fault?)

So, after hearing Haydn and his clean, clear “Classical” sensibilities and while you’re anticipating the lush tunes and dance-rhythms of a familiar work by Antonin Dvorak, there’s Bartok’s 3rd String Quartet which may sound (to some unfamiliar with it) a bit… well, messy. It’s nominally in C-sharp not that the typical listener would ever hear that, but the idea that there is a tonal center is something for the composer to latch on to in creating something to digress from and resolve to, whether the listener comprehends it or not (just as you might not comprehend every nuance of a poem on a single hearing).

The fact that chords are different, that there are a lot of “dissonant” sounds shouldn’t become the focus of what you’re listening for – like Haydn, there are elements of contrast (changes of mood, different tempos, types of texture) which Bartok handles in similar ways that would never be confused with what Haydn was doing but yet achieve the same kind of response: an intellectual response to structure (notice how many times some rising figure is mirrored by a descending figure, often at the same time) or how “melodic” ideas recur (figures might seem similar in shape or design when they recur elsewhere in the piece). But how does he go about building tension? Listen to those long, slow slides and what they ‘resolve’ to, often exploding into something rhythmic that can be hair-raising as it continues building toward a point of resolution.

If you’re not familiar with Bartok’s musical style, let me suggest listening to this clip, first. It’s from his 2nd String Quartet, written nine years earlier than the 3rd. It might be more recognizable, based on folk dances and song patterns of his native Hungary – but not the same music that inspired Brahms and Liszt in their Hungarian dances and rhapsodies (that was gypsy music and the equivalent of pop music or jazz in 19th Century Vienna). Listen to the players’ intensity (as I joked on Facebook, “you could grill hamburgers on this performance”) but also to the regularity of the phrases, the types of contrast, how one accompanies another, but above all to the rhythmic drive (and anything that interrupts it).

Now, here’s the same ensemble’s performance of Bartok’s 3rd quartet – the one the Fry Street Quartet will play at their first concert next week (and knowing them, with a name like “Fry Street,” I fully expect them to cook, as well).

By this time, Bartok has absorbed the essence of Hungarian folk music to create what is often described as “imaginary folk music” which often infuses his original (and abstract) works with the sounds we identify as, nationalistically, Hungarian.

Though you might think it’s dissonant all the way through, listen to how “relative dissonance” creates tension between sections that are more “dissonant” and less “dissonant.” Eventually, dissonance becomes a relative term.

Even though you might not sense a tonal center, the way he drives you to the piece’s climaxes are no different than what Beethoven did in his own quartets and you’re probably no worse the wear for not knowing whether you’re in G Major or B-Flat Major.

Here is the conclusion of the quartet – pardon the overlap, but it’s very difficult to chop one clip off and start the next one cold. The work is in one continuous movement divided into parts defined by senses of tempo and rhythmic drive.

But once it reaches the conclusion of this very intense 15 minutes – it’s the shortest and most concentrated of Bartok’s six quartets – you’ll probably agree that… well, at least there are things to listen for rather than just sitting there waiting for intermission.

And if you’ve already figured that out, you’ll realize it can be an exciting ride along the way, however you choose to listen.

- Dick Strawser

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