Monday, February 16, 2009

Franz Schubert and the "A-flatness" of Life.

I’ve neglected posting on this blog for a couple of weeks now due mostly to intensive preparations for two upcoming concerts, a Verdi Requiem with the Springfield Symphony in my hometown (Springfield, Missouri), and my first recital here in Buenos Aires in early April. The program for the latter will consist of Schubert’s Schwanengesang (a posthumous collection of some of his last and very greatest songs) and some additional Schubert lieder to round out the program and bring it to concert length. As usual in my obsessive way, I’m writing my own program notes and preparing the translations, although in this case I’m definitely relying on the aid of some native Spanish speaking friends, since the program notes will need to be translated into castellano. It’s turning into quite a little undertaking. But the whole enterprise has me thinking about and studying Schubert’s music and life anew, which is a pleasure in itself.

In preparing various groups of Schubert songs through the years, I’ve noticed how many of my personal favorites among his hundreds of lieder were composed in the key of A-flat. (Of course, they aren’t always performed in A-flat, particularly since so many modern lieder singers are baritones and mezzos who invariably and quite rightly transpose many of the songs to more comfortable keys.) In general, I regard with skepticism the idea that keys have specific characters or convey specific ideas, and Schubert’s use of A-flat, for example, would seem to bear out my doubt, for he uses this key to express both adolescent romantic confusion (Lachen und Weinen), turbulent longing passion (Auf der Bruck), death-defying boldness (Der Zürnended Diana), rapt contemplation of nature (In Abendrot), and many other emotions and images.

Yet there is a core group of “A-flat” songs, which seem to me to point to similar themes, and I’ve come to a sort of tentative conclusion that perhaps it’s not an accident that Schubert cast them all in that key. The songs I have in mind are the aforementioned Im Abendroth, Das Zugenglöcklein, Frühlingsglaube, and the 2nd of Schubert’s two settings of the Goethe poem An den Mond. What they all have in common are poems that compare the constant, regenerative power of nature with the impermanence of human life, and musical settings which seem to comment on this dichotomy with a sense of tenderness and compassion that’s hard if not impossible to describe in technical terms, (certainly beyond me, anyway!) but is palpably there when you hear the music. Of course, this quality of empathetic tenderness is a principal aspect of much of Schubert’s music, and can be found as well in works composed in other keys, both songs (Im Frühling, Nachtviolen, Die Sterne and countless others) and instrumental pieces (the Impromptu in G-flat, D. 899, no. 3, to name the first example that pops into my head), but these four songs seem to assert a kind of wondrous faith in the face of change and decay that mark them as siblings. Im Abendroth (In the Twilight Glow) is the calmest and steadiest of the four, both poetically and musically, and perhaps as a consequence, the one that stays most firmly in the home key. In this song, though the poet may recognize the transient nature of existence, he maintains utter faith in his sustenance by the source of creation. The last lines of the song are
Und dies herz, eh’es zusammenbricht,
Trinkt noch Glut un schlürft noch Licht.
(And this heart, before it breaks
Still drinks in the fire and the light.)
The poet who speaks in Frühlingsglaube (Faith in Spring) shows a similar conviction in the power of Spring to renew and transform, but here the music suggests poignantly that this longed-for renewal, though perhaps guaranteed to nature, is no sure thing for the poet, and that his assertion that “everything must change” may turn out to be true in ways he cannot anticipate. This is a wonderful example of Schubert’s ability to transcend the poetry he sets, not going against the apparent meaning of the poem, but going deeper into the complexities of emotional states behind words and images and enabling the listener to discover multiple layers of meaning, some of them enigmatic or paradoxical.

Das Zugenglöcklein (The Passing Bell), too, benefits from Schubert’s genius for rising above what, in this case, is a rather maudlin poem, full of conventionally pious sentiments about the faithful servant of God going to meet his Maker. Schubert virtually ignores the implied tone, and offers in the music only love and empathy. The title refers to the bell which according to old church tradition was rung in parish churches when one of the faithful was dying. By keeping the church bell ringing on an octave E-Flat throughout the song, Schubert makes the scene personal and immediate: the singer is hearing the bell as he walks along, and simultaneously thinking about who it might be tolling for. The music is a reflection of not only his thoughts, but the physical beauty of his surroundings as he wanders through the landscape, always accompanied by the sound of the church bell. And thus, a fairly mawkish piece of verse is transformed into a moving poetic scenario.

With the last of the four songs, we are dealing with poetry on a completely different level. Schubert set Goethe’s An den Mond (To the Moon) twice, the first time strophically (meaning that each verse repeats the same music), to a lovely and memorable if not terribly appropriate melody. A few years later he returned to the poem and set it again to music of far greater depth and understanding, capturing the stillness of the moonlit scene and the complexity of Goethe’s wide-ranging thoughts on joy, sorrow, friendship, and those things which “unknown or unconsidered by men, through the labyrinth of the heart, wander in the night.” The first two verses and the last are in A-flat, but the middle section, describing the path of a river through windy winter nights and springtime floods, wanders into C-flat and D-flat minor before returning to the home key to conclude Goethe’s philosophical thoughts. The tone that Schubert finds at the end of An den Mond, and in the other songs I’ve talked about, is one of contemplation and acceptance. The world is beautiful even though we know it only fleetingly, or perhaps because we know it fleetingly: a central theme of Schubert's poetic and artistic credo, and one we touch most closely in these songs in the same key.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

John Martyn (1948-2009)

I sadly note the passing of John Martyn, guitarist extraordinaire, madly underrated songwriter, and tortured soul, at the age of 60. I discovered Martyn's work, particularly his wonderful early 70s albums Bless the Weather and Solid Air as an outgrowth of my interest in the music of Nick Drake. Martyn was a friend of Drake's (they both recorded for Island Records) and the title track of Solid Air commemorates Martyn's love for Drake and his concern as the latter fell deeper into the numbing depression that eventually took his life.

While Nick Drake became an "overnight success" twenty years after his death, John Martyn always remained something of a cult figure. The fact that he never stayed in the same place musically didn't help his popularity, nor did his hard-living, hard-drinking lifestyle make things any easier for him. But his best music, an amalgam of folk, jazz, blues and myriad other influences, was way before its time, and has been a huge influence to several generations of musicians. The video posted above, with Martyn singing "May You Never," is from 1973. Check out an alternative version, from many years later, of the same song with Kathy Mattea, Danny Thompson and Jerry Douglas, also on You Tube, and many other great videos of Martyn. He was a treasure, and his music remains so.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bob Dylan: Genius Will Out

Bob Dylan's songs have intrigued, inspired and haunted me as long as I can remember, and after a few years in my teens when I struggled to come to terms with his unique brand of vocalism, I have held him in equally high esteem as a performer. I make that distinction because even at this late date, one often hears remarks praising him as a songwriter but dismissing or denigrating his voice and performing style. For me, Dylan is simply the most important American artist of the post-WWII era, maybe of the last century. This may seem an odd conclusion coming from someone who makes his living in the world of classical music, and who continually harps on the importance of legato and evenness of vocal emission as sacrosanct values in his own field.

But of course, Bob Dylan isn't in the same field at all, and can't be judged by the values of beauty that apply in classical music, or folk, rock, jazz or even mainstream pop music as it is currently understood and practiced. Like every really great artist, he has created from his own vision, and what he has produced must be accepted (or not) on the basis of that vision. That Dylan has been not only idolized, analyzed, and imitated but also derided, called a fake, attacked and labeled a has-been by at least three generations is nearly the central axiom of his career. Look at Martin Scorsese’s wonderful documentary No Direction Home if you want to get an idea of the intensity of the poles of worship/hatred, identification/rejection, adulation/ damnation that Dylan evoked from his listeners in the mid-60s. Nobody has been called a sell-out, nobody has been simply counted out as many times, for as many reasons. Currently, he is somewhat back in favor. His last three studio albums, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times, have been received ecstatically by press and fans alike, and a recent multi-CD set of alternate takes and unreleased studio and live material, entitled Tell Tale Signs, has also elicited much more positive reaction than such compendiums of odds and ends usually do.

Still, most people know Dylan’s early songs best, the ones from the years 1963-1966, during which he went from being an unknown folk singer in Greenwich Village to being the most famous rock singer/songwriter in the world. (Sorry, Mick and Sir Paul, you were famous too, but in those days as members of groups.) “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” – these are part of the cultural lingua franca. But have you heard “Blind Willie McTell,” “Brownsville Girl,” “Series of Dreams,” “Ring Them Bells,” “Mississippi,” or “Standing in the Doorway?”: OK, if you’re a diehard Dylan fan, you have, but if not, then probably not. And believe me, reader, these songs are just as good as the ones you do know, maybe ever better.

All of which leads me to “Red River Shore,” Disc One, track 5 of Tell Tale Signs. The song was recorded during the January 1997 sessions for Time Out of Mind, but didn’t make it onto the album as finally released. This happens frequently with Dylan, most famously when “Blind Willie McTell” was left off the decidedly uneven 1983 album Infidels, much to the consternation of those who had heard it at the recording sessions. “Blind Willie McTell” was finally released on a compilation eight years later. With “Red River Shore,” it’s taken eleven years for the track to see the light of day. The song shares a title with an old Kingston Trio tune which the young Dylan no doubt heard in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, but the song is utterly different. Basically, it’s Schubert’s Winterreise in seven and a half minutes, a devastating statement of a life both wasted and redeemed by lost love and its remembrance. And the sound of the voice that sings it! Somebody said (I’m paraphrasing, I can’t find the quote) that if Dylan’s voice has always been like a rickety old shack, nowadays it’s like the floorboards of the shack have caved in. Phrases like “cadaverous yowl,” and “death rattle” figure prominently in recent descriptions of his vocal timbre.

The song begins, after a short guitar/bass introduction, with that sepulchral voice intoning a generalization that somehow seems uncannily personal:

Some of us turn off the lights and we live
In the moonlight shooting by.
Some of us scare ourselves to death
To be where the angels fly.

A little shiver at that, and we say yes, that’s what Dylan has always done; that’s why we listen to him. He then goes on to describe, with a nod to traditional folk music diction, the “pretty maids all in a row, lined up outside my cabin door,” but explains that he’s never wanted any of them “’cept the girl from the Red River Shore.”

As other instruments (organ, drums, accordion, dobro) join the successive verses like bystanders gathering around to hear the tale, Dylan, like Schubert and Müller, gives us the barest outlines of the relationship. When the singer professes his love, the girl advises him to “go home and lead a quiet life.” The line, as delivered by Dylan, is both heartbreaking and very funny. Their face-to-face relationship seems to end there in Verse 2 with that withering kiss-off, but the song goes on to outline a life of longing and devotion far too complex to describe as a delusional obsession. As always in his best songs, Dylan shows us every side of a contradiction. “The dream dried up a long time ago,” and yet she was “true to life, true to me.” He sings about the “thousand nights ago” when he lay in her arms, and we feel the pull of doubt. Did it ever happen? Does it matter?

Late in the song, he goes back to the place he met her, to “straighten it out.”

Everybody I talked to who’d seen us there
Said they didn’t know who I was talkin’ about.

OK, this is getting seriously weird. Did she exist at all? And then again we ask, does it matter?

The last verse cleverly hearkens back not only to Dylan the young folkie, but Dylan the born-again Christian who managed to piss off so many of his fans in the early 80s. But here the reference to Christ is both subtle and, in the context of the song, utterly natural. I have to quote this verse in full:

Now, I’ve heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife.
Whenever someone around him died and was dead

He knew how to bring ‘em on back to life.

Well, I don’t know what kind of language he used

Or if they do that kind of thing anymore.

Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all

‘Cept the girl from the Red River shore.

I’ve listened to this song now about fifty times since I purchased my copy of Tell Tale Signs and by the time this last verse rolls around, if I’m not already in tears, this manages to push me over the edge. How to bring back the dead; how to ever touch the reality of the vanished past or the ever-receding present; the absolute unknowability of each of us in this lonely world: these things have rarely been touched on more simply or more eloquently. Of the music that accompanies these poetic musings I can only say that it is equally simple and eloquent but even more impossible to do justice to in a prose summary.

And so my special plea: go to your neighborhood record store (if you can still find one…) or go to your computer and look for the song on iTunes. Whatever, just listen to it. I guarantee it’s one of those “songs you should hear before you die.”

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Start 2009 right with some damn good Mozart!

In my previous post, I bemoaned the scarcity of excellent recordings of the mature Mozart symphonies, using my favorite, K. 543 in E-flat, as primary example. This prompted my friend Randy Stewart, Fine Arts Producer at KSMU Radio in Springfield, Missouri, to ask me in an email: "...are there any Mozart 39ths out there that manage both to get the tempi right and not drown the listener in a sea of unnecessary repeats?"

Very few, I'm afraid. In addition to the failings of every single recording I've heard from the 78 and LP eras (funereal tempos in the introduction of the first movement, Andante con moto, and Menuetto) and the current literalist preoccupation with observing every repeat (so that, among other idiocies, the symphony ends twice) I didn't even mention the extremely variable quality of the playing in many of the more recent recordings, particularly the current mania for senza vibrato string playing. To those who assert that non-vibrato playing was prevalent in Mozart's time, I have two responses: A. So were high rates of infant mortality, systemic absence of personal hygiene and incurable syphilis, and they're no fun either; and B. How the hell would you know?

In the end, I've found very few cherishable recordings. Of the older ones, Thomas Beecham's London Philharmonic version (1940) wins by default, because even with tempos far too slow, Beecham somehow manages to make the music smile and glow, and the second movement is almost fast enough to count as andante, albeit senza moto. Of recordings from the CD era, my two favorite are Jukka-Pekka Saraste leading the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on a late 80s Virgin disc, and a "historically informed performance" by the Anima Eterna Orchestra under Jos van Immerseel that avoids the astringency of most "original instrument" renditions. (The strings play with little vibrato, but at least they're in tune!) This, along with the final two symphonies and the Concerto for Bassoon, K. 191, is on the expensive and hard to find Zig Zag label.

Luckily, one of the finest performances I have ever heard is available for free on YouTube. Lothar Zagrosek, best known for his recordings of 20th-Century music, leads NHK Symphony Orchestra in a delightful reading of lovely, singing grace that never goes wrong. I might prefer a still slightly faster Menuetto, but Zagrosek has the tempo in a sort of magic spot right between "in 1" and "in 3." It definitely works, and has the added benefit that the trio section feels sufficiently relaxed with no additional slowing of the basic pulse. This is Mozart with the stodginess excised, and it's beautiful.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Saving Mozart from his Devotees

This morning I had a yen to explore my favorite Mozart symphony (#39 in E-flat, K. 543) and took a few CDs off the shelf to do a little "comparative listening." As usual with performances of this and the other mature Mozart symphonies, pleasure was soon tempered with annoyance: why, of all the major composers' symphonic works, are Mozart's consistently the most misconstrued? Listen to almost any recording of K. 543 from the 1970s or earlier, and to many of more recent vintage: you will hear the opening  Adagio (marked in common time, four beats to the bar) distorted with a grandiose, funereal pace: a dismal snooze-fest with 8 long, draggy beats per insufferable measure. Wouldn't even a cursory glance at the score suggest that the 32nd-note figure that makes its first appearance in measure 2 should be related to the same figure that appears in 16th notes throughout the main body of the movement, including at the very end? Well apparently, that never occurred to such "great" Mozart conductors as Beecham, Walter, Klemperer, Böhm, Colin Davis, and could I go on! Or take the second movement (please!) if you're going to conduct it in a lethargic four beats per measure when Mozart clearly marks it  andante con moto in two. By the way, it sounds lovely in two, but when did you ever hear it done that way before the advent of the "period instrument movement?" (Wait, they'll get theirs later!) Let's not even talk about the minuet, most always at a tempo that the Gramophone Magazine would describe as "elephantine," thus unfairly defaming elephants everywhere. The finale typically went better in older performances, usually at an idiomatic tempo, occasionally a bit too fast. 

I can hear some of my fellow old-timers protest, "But surely whatever disagreements you have about the tempos in these well-loved historic performances, you can't deny the patrician elegance of Beecham, the humanity and warmth of Walter, the monumentality of Klemperer." Uh, actually, I can: I think all three of those estimable conductors got Mozart dead wrong, at least in the late symphonies, and got him wrong in a way that is a much more dramatic betrayal of the composer's conception than similar lugubrious tempos in mainstream performances of Haydn and Beethoven from the same decades. 

Whether unwittingly or not, the kinds of performances I am describing (the ones that all Mozart lovers over the age of 45 grew up with) reinforced the ingrained concept of Mozart the angelic Raphael of composers, divorced from the baser passions of humanity. Even after Peter Shaffer's badly written and eye-rollingly didactic  Amadeus introduced into the popular imagination the suspicion that maybe Mozart was a filthy little degenerate in his personal life, the music-loving public swallowed hard and decided that this only made the contrast to the unearthly perfection of his music more of a wonder. From my earliest exposure to Mozart, I found these caricatures of his supposed social and musical personalities a shrieking bore; gradually I came to see that they formed an elaborate myth. Or, if you prefer, a big lie: one that served to neuter his music and render it decorative and harmless, and therefore more easily consumed by audiences who want to appreciate and applaud nothing more challenging than their own concepts of good taste.

In the late 1970s and early 80s the "original instrument" brigade, tiring of their erstwhile diet of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, decided that their quest for musical lebensraum found its logical next step in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. First Christopher Hogwood, then in quick succession Roger Norrington, Franz Brüggen, John Eliot Gardiner, Nicolaus Harnoncourt and many others began recording and performing late 18th century music with an eye towards recreating the sound and style of the works as they were originally performed. I don't care to go into the whole debate about whether they succeeded, or whether such goals are even attainable. (Read Richard Taruskin's Text & Act to immerse yourself in that kerfuffle.) To me, all of these performances were a basic step in the right direction, if solely on the basis of a relative respect for tempos that bore some resemblance to Mozart's markings and an honest directness of phrasing that escaped the portentious, fart-sniffing turgidity of the older generation. Or to put it more simply, suddenly the Andante con moto of the 39th didn't suck: one heard the equivalent of a lithe and supple young woman moving at an elegant yet purposeful gait, not some arthritic dowager toddling around a croquet field. Suddenly, minuets whirled and danced with one elegant pulse per measure instead of three mincing galumphs. Suddenly, measure 2 of the first movement of K. 543 bore some relation to the identical scalar passage that closes the movement. "Aha!" one exclaimed.

But the "earlier-than-thou" crusaders couldn't leave well enough alone, and along with the bathwater of lugubrious tempi, they managed to jettison the baby in the form of common sense about a completely different aspect: repeats. There's always been a lot of debate about those sections of symphonic works which composers enclose in repeat marks. Are the repeats optional or mandatory? Were they practical devices to aid the audience in its first hearing of a piece, or are they essential structural components which must be observed in any cogent realization? I've never bought the argument that repeats are no longer necessary because we know the works at hand so much better. In the case of a masterpiece like Haydn's Symphony #52 in C minor, it's probably not true that most of us know it well, so we'd better hear that exposition repeat in the first movement. And even if we're talking about one of the last three Mozart symphonies, well, somebody in the audience is hearing it for the first time: it's as new to that person as it was to people at the premiere.

I take a militantly pragmatic attitude towards repeats: if the performance is compelling, I want to hear the repeatable passages again; if it's a bore, better to skip them and get it over with. (This is a variation on the Or-Better-Still-Silence-Principle, as originally coined by my friend Will Crutchfield.) Like most listeners, I was familiar with the repeat debate principally as it applied to first-movement (and sometimes last-movement) exposition sections, and certain sectional repeats in middle movements. But the authenticists managed to assert their absolutism about repeats and apply it where one had traditionally (and, I shall argue, with good reason) never heard it before: to the development and recapitulation sections of finales. 

I don't have room in this already overlong post to go into the history of sonata form and how it grew out of simple binary form, but there are plenty of good discussions of the subject to be found in music history textbooks and on the internet. The point is that by the time we reach Mozart's late masterpieces, the final movement of a symphony had become a fully-worked through sonata allegro structure, usually briefer than that of the first movement, with fewer subsidiary theme groups and a shorter development section, but a sonata allegro nonetheless. Yes, Mozart places repeat marks around the second halves of these final movements, but I would argue that this is merely a structural vestige of the finale's original binary form. To observe these repeats in performance is to commit an act of not only musical but emotional redundancy, and anyone (including the composer) who wants to hear a development and recapitulation repeated is usually onto a bad idea. 

Here's why: compare a sonata allegro movement to a joke: in many jokes, the setup is something that happens twice in one way, and then is varied the third time to achieve an unexpected payoff. (These three guys walk into a bar...these three nuns die and go to heaven...a rabbi, a minister and a priest are on a sinking ship...that last one's my favorite!) The setup of the joke depends on the regularity established in the first two events, and these are analogous to the repeated exposition in music. The elaboration of the third event and the outcome (punch-line) are similarly analogous to the development/recapitulation section. If you repeat the development and recapitulation you are in effect repeating the last episode of the joke. People who tell jokes and repeat the punch-lines, either because they think their listeners didn't get it, or because they crave the few extra seconds of attention, are generally considered tiresome. Conductors who insist on these written but unnecessary repeats invariably produce performances that, whatever their other virtues, end on a similarly tiresome note.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Argument

That is to say, "argument" in the sense of "summary," "gist," "précis," "synopsis". OK, first of all, why "Whole Note Rest?" I spent more than a few hours searching for the perfect title for my blog, and discovered, they've all been taken. I thought of a few titles that sounded variously: bossy ("Try Listening"); literary ("Brandy of the Damned" -- Shaw's definition of music in "Man and Superman"); self-aggrandizing ("Tharp on Music"); paradoxical ("The Listening Voice"); overly personal and in-jokey ("Or Better Still, Silence"); and excessively whimsical ("Wake Up and Smell the Music"). Alright, there are probably worse blog titles out there. But still...

I needed a title that would suggest the perspectives of both a performer and a listener, since I am emphatically both, and both points of view inform my outlook on music. "Whole Note Rest" came to me, like many of what seem (at least at the time) to be my best ideas, while I was running around the lake in the Parque 3 de Febrero near my home in the Palermo neighborhood in Buenos Aires.

At the simplest level, "Whole Note Rest" encapsulates a situation in which a singer does some of his most intense listening: during the introduction to a song or aria, or during the orchestral interludes and vocal interjections or arias of one's fellow artists in an opera or oratorio. Well, one hopes that we listen, rather than just waiting to sing! Many of my colleagues claim not to have much interest in music apart from their performing activities, but I was a music nut long before I became a singer, and I've managed to keep my love of listening alive during my career. So "Whole Note Rest" is that place for me that encompasses both doing and listening, or the alternation of the two.

A rest may also come in the form of a gran pausa, a silence that follows the music and is part of it, as it is part of the music that follows. So the title also suggests that place of silence, still part of the process of music, which gives punctuation and contrast to the notes and phrases sounded: it may fill us with awe or make us nervous, it may provoke annoying/amusing situations if someone in the audience starts to applaud in the "wrong place" or if a performer (usually a trombone or a tenor) doesn't cut off, or it may stand for the silence out of which all music emerges and to which all sound returns. Maybe that's a good starting place for thinking about music, even if putting it into words is still a slippery endeavor. (Steve Martin: "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.")

Hey,"Dancing About Architecture" -- what a great title for a blog. Rats, already taken, several times! Anyway, welcome to my blog. For my British friends, a whole note rest is what you call a "semibreve rest," but I'm not going there! And for any fastidious types out there who prefer "whole rest" and find the phrase redundant with that extra word "note," I send you a big raspberry! Merry Christmas!