Dr Marc’s Blog and the State of Blogging

This is one of the best music blogs I’ve found in a long while. Contentious, eminently readable, and always insightful. It can also be outrageously funny. Take for instance these opening lines:

It never went on to the CV, especially when applying to be a cathedral organist and choirmaster, but the more I look back on it, the more I realise it was one of the significant experiences in my musical life. I played the organ in a strip club.

Intrigued? Go read the rest of the post: Music without clothes

Of those I’ve read, probably the most interesting one is his brilliant criticism of how music gets organised into historical eras. An extract:

Bounded by the borders of the German-speaking world, the original 19th century philosophers, critics and writers on music, saw no need to include in their stylistic considerations English, French, Spanish or even Italian composers, and their descriptors of stylistic linkages referred almost exclusively to German music.  It was they, for example, who had convinced the world of the existence of a Classical Canon in which the God-like composers were Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – German-speakers to a man.  So in considering the stylistic traits common to those composers of the Baroque era, they looked only at the Germans.  To this day, there is a common belief that the greatest composers in history have all been from the German-speaking world and that composers unfortunate enough to have been born elsewhere are, almost by default, peripheral to the great march of musical history.  And that almost unthinking perception of non-German composers being peripheral to the mainstream of music continues to inform the opinions of many, much to the detriment of music itself.  This is the corrosive, destructive consequence of a view which defines musical style primarily in terms of historical era.

Why is it, do you think, that the descriptors of Baroque style are, in effect, descriptors of the music of J S Bach and others of the North German school?  What of Domenico Scarlatti, who fits neatly into the Baroque era, but is generally held to be lesser than his great contemporary because his music does not inhabit the same stylistic territory?  Virtually none of the descriptors applies to his music – although that hasn’t stopped generations of piano teachers and young pianists trying to fit his free-thinking, stylistically distinctive music into a German Baroque hat.  I read in a student’s diploma programme note that Scarlatti’s Sonatas “have none of the contrapuntal mastery of J S Bach”.  We are indoctrinated with the idea that the Fugue is the “ultimate Baroque musical genre”, and while it may have been for those living in northern Germany, it had no interest for the likes of Albinoni, Byrd, Purcell, Rameau or Alessandro Scarlatti whose collective genius lay stylistically in very different areas.

Now that’s a blog post!

Some other highlights:

  • The Cult of the Unlistenable: ‘… during the last century, it became fashionable – trendy, if you like – to regard such academic experimentation not for what it was but as a substitute for the music people wanted to hear, and to present it as the only legitimate path for music to take in the name of progress.’
  • On programmes, we are treated to some delightful curmudgeonliness: ‘By all means, attract the Millennials by addressing them through their devices, but please accept that some of us are not Millennials and in our huge, dinosaurian ignorance, we prefer something rather more tangible than a small illuminated screen to help us get to grips with music.’
  • On the strangeness of the British music exam system: ‘The fact is, graded music exams have become a self-propelling machine, driving a whole industry on the engine of a system which assumes a legitimacy which few ever think to question … it is a peculiarly British thing; possibly seen by many as typifying that British eccentricity which insists on placing every conceivable thing into clearly-defined categories. German, French, Russian and Hungarian friends, all of whom are musicians, are amazed at the graded exam system which, in their eyes, is totally misguided on placing testing and assessment above delivery and appreciation of musical performance.’
  • And if, like me, you have a soft-spot for incredibly heart-warming stories about octoganarians taking Grade 8 exams, you must check out this post.

On classical music blogging… Finding blogs is no easy task. There is no centralisation, only diffuse networks and social media interaction, search engines are too imprecise, and I get the feeling that the blogosphere was once a busier place. There is, at least in Britain, ample coverage of classical music in the papers. But it consists almost entirely of reviews and the occasional interview. It comes down to Slipped Disc to churn out actual classical music news. And one would hope that it would come down to blogs to be the pits of the concert hall, the places where the most enthusiastic people go, and moreover places of contention, and of good-natured tribalism. Blogs should popularise. They should help spread ideas. They should be advocates for the overlooked, but also the most vociferous critics and the watchdogs of the new.

But most of them aren’t. I certainly enjoy reading reviews, but the inordinate focus on concert life is a bit disappointing. It is refreshing to find a new(ish) blog like Corymbus which contains long, fascinating blogs on things like the English Hymnal or Cultivating Ignorance. Unfortunately this means the output is very infrequent. Among the more conventional blogs, the long-standing blog On An Overgrown Path is pretty exemplary. Plenty of forthright opinion and fascinating miscellanea can be found in its pages.

Searching for niche blogs can often be very fruitful, though even more difficult. I recently came across lute-maker Martin Shepherd’s blog and it contains some very interesting posts on the lute and lute music. Take his latest post, a curious piece which asks, was Dowland a composer of lute music?

There appears to be very few blogs of the type I write — hobbyist autodidact blogs. Perhaps this is a blessing! But one looks, for example, at the proliferation of ‘amateur’ political blogs and sees, despite the rotters undoubtedly out there, some really interesting work.

Anyway, take all of this for it is. I’m just thinking out loud — in fact, I’m just blogging. Dr. Marc mentioned Scarlatti in one of the extracts, so let’s end with his exciting Sonata in D Major (K. 119):

Politics at the Proms

Imagine that a conductor ends a concert with an ardently pro-British speech. Imagine that he speaks of the enduring constitution of this country, how it has provided such liberty and stability and such a rich common culture. He continues by telling the audience how we must educate people to better appreciate this. He remarks on the greatness of the nation-state and the long-established principle of national sovereignty. The audience is told that an impersonal international system that cannot animate the people of the nation will be ruinous. The conductor explains that it robs people of a sense of home and blurs the diversity that nation-states foster.

Of course such a speech would never happen. Instead, Daniel Barenboim made a speech at last night’s Proms concert against emerging ‘isolation tendencies’. He said that ‘if you look at the difficulties that the European continent is going through now, you can see that, why that it is, because of the lack of common education. Because in one country they do not know why they should belong to something that the other countries do.’ The audience laughed approvingly.

When someone says, in effect, educate people so that they agree with me, they are patronising their opponents and veering dangerously towards ideological certainty. You would think musicians would be humbler about doing this. After all, they have an awful track record. For the last century, and perhaps longer, they have been among the most vulnerable to utopias and idealism.

The Proms aspires to be a national festival, one that’s diverse, welcoming and open to all. It would do well, then, not to alienate the 52% of the electorate who voted leave, and those who don’t care much either way. The Proms will invariably be a hospitable place for those liberals and leftists — Barenboim’s speech was really more a sermon. Yet it’s plausible that most classical music listeners are Leavers. And Barenboim has the arrogance to accuse them of jeopardising European culture and to tell them that they are ill-educated.

Indeed, Baronboim makes the common mistake of equating the trend away from European political union with the disintegration of European culture. This is sheer short-sightedness. Just as a nation continues to exist through revolution, invasion, and so on, so will Europe survive, as it has for millennia. Moreover, there is a great cultural danger in pursuing European political union. It promotes homogeneity and discourages diversity and local autonomy. Some would say that this bland internationalism is an unfortunate feature of post-war musical culture.

People often say music and politics shouldn’t mix. I disagree, and think that they will inevitably mix. Beethoven and Napoleon, Verdi and Italian nationalism, Shostakovitch and the Soviet Union, Peter Maxwell Davies’ anti-Iraq War String Quartet, etc. But there is a substantial difference between political inspiration and political speeches. One is suitable for the concert hall, the other isn’t. A speech at a concert claims the music for one’s ideological side. It is surely wrong to be a ventriloquist for a dead composer, and arrogant to decide that music itself conforms to one’s own ideological beliefs (in Barenboim’s case, humanism and internationalism).

What If Mahler Had Premiered Charles Ives’ Third Symphony?

This is a familiar daydream for us Charles Ives fans. Mahler is supposed to have seen the score of Ives’ Third Symphony and considered conducting the premiere himself. This would have been an enormous break for Ives. Most of his music had never been performed and seldom was for decades after. The source of the story is mainly Ives himself — certainly not a dishonest man, but neither is he a reliable source. In his Memos he wrote that ‘When this [Symphony No. 3] was being copied in, I think, Tam’s [Tam’s Copying] office, Gustav Mahler saw it and asked to have a copy–he was quite interested in it.’ None of the evidence rises above this level of hear-say.

One Ives biographer fell for this daydream and made it even more fantastic. David Wooldridge was convinced that a performance, or at least a reading, of the Third Symphony took place in Munich in 1910, with Mahler conducting. This is not a claim that’s been repeated in the decades since. All other sources have the date that Mahler saw the score as 1911, and Mahler’s copy of the score is either lost or non-existent. Wooldridge’s account is almost certainly a fabrication.

But what if Mahler had premiered the work in 1911 (despite his ill health) and brought Ives to the attention of the world?

Well, Ives was an awful professional musician. He was not merely forced to become a musical recluse but also partly chose that life. In 1899 his work The Celestial Country was premiered. It is an unremarkable cantata, and obviously a student work, a fact the reviews used as faint-ish praise. It wasn’t in any way a maverick work and Ives could have quite easily continued down this staid professional path. But he chose not to, expressing his contempt by scrawling ‘damn rot and worse’ across one of the favourable reviews. It is probable that he both couldn’t stand the critics — Ives was throughout his life remarkably sensitive to criticism of all kinds — and that he was ashamed to have written such a insipid concession to the ‘old ladies of both sexes’ who made up the American musical establishment. From then on, he lost all ambition to become a professional musician and instead ended up running a remarkably successful life insurance company. This was suited well to Ives: it fulfilled his sense of Christian duty and was in line with his individualist philosophy. He retired a very rich man.

Even though his work was seldom played, he still occasionally received criticism and it could severely disorientate him. In 1914 Ives got a world-class violinist to test out his Second Violin Sonata. He didn’t even make it through the first page. According to Ives, the ‘professor’, as Ives referred to him, put his hands over his ears and said, ‘When you get awfully indigestible food in your stomach that distresses you, you can get rid of it, but I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears’! Ives submerged himself in doubt. It was when reflecting on this moment that Ives came out with one of his famous lines: ‘Are my ears on wrong? No one else seems to hear it the same way…’ The next violin sonata he wrote, the Third, was a musical compromise which he very much regretted. ‘The themes are well enough, but there is an attempt to please the soft-ears and be good. The sonata on the whole is a weak sister. But these depressions didn’t last long, I’m glad to say. I began more and more, after séances with nice musicians, that, if I wanted to write music that, to me, seemed worth while, I must keep away from musicians.’

Now imagine how Ives would have reacted to the unprecedented scrutiny of a Mahler-conducted premiere? Moreover, the premiere would have occurred during the most fruitful periods of his composing life, beginning round about 1907-1908 with his first series of heart-attacks and, a year later, his marriage to Harmony Twitchell. This creative outburst lasted about a decade. The Mahler premiere would have been right in the centre of this — a very disruptive turn of events. Much of the Fourth Symphony had yet to be composed, ditto the Concord Sonata and Three Places in New England — the works Ives is best known for. Who knows if these would still have been written? Time-travel fantasies always have a way of screwing everything up.

Ives finally got major premieres later in life, long after he had stopped composing new works. Oddly, the symphonies were premiered in the wrong order: 3 (1946), 2 (1951), 1 (1953), and 4 (1965). (The Holidays Symphony, chronologically his fifth, was premiered in 1954.) A year after the premiere of his Third Symphony, it won the Pulitzer Prize for musical composition. He dismissed the prize, as he always did composition prizes. Yet he nevertheless hung the certificate on his wall. Quietly, he was very proud.

On the 1952 premiere of his Second Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, we have no certain idea what he thought. Ives was not fond of the radio (he didn’t attend the premiere, and had to go to his neighbour’s house to hear the broadcast) and his hearing had become quite awful, this being two years before his death. Still, he probably came away happy. Ives biographer Jan Swafford tells the story:

He was dragged next door to the Ryders’ [Ives’ neighbours] to hear the broadcast and, unlike similar occasions, sat quietly through the whole thing. It was one of his soft pieces, as he called them; it was also perhaps the warmest audience reception of his whole life. As cheers broke out at the end everybody in the room looked his way. Ives got up, spat in the fireplace, and walked into the kitchen without a word. Nobody could figure out if he was too disgusted or too moved to talk. Likely it was the latter.

The Third Symphony is an Ives piece unlike any other, a waypoint between the oddball but quite traditional Second Symphony and the ambitious, celestial Fourth Symphony. In many ways it’s the Ives symphony for people who don’t like Ives. Enjoy:

21st Century Theorbo Music

Matthew Wadsworth is a pretty amazing guy. Although blind, he’s nevertheless become a first-class lutenist, and even studied under Nigel North. There’s clearly a stubbornly ambitious streak in him. In addition to his lute playing, he’s trying to break the record for blind motorcycle jumping. An excellent little documentary was made of the whole process.

I saw him perform a couple of weeks ago — lute, that is. He is without a doubt a fine player with a profound understanding of the music he plays. I will say that there were a few wrongs notes and instances of string buzzes — enough to make one slightly uncomfortable. I found myself comparing him to the lutenist Thomas Dunford, who I also saw recently. Dunford can whizz through the fastest passages in a fairly carefree way. Wadsworth doesn’t even try to play that fast; he’s a more contemplative player, whether by choice or not. This actually made him very convincing on something like Robert Johnson’s Pavan in C Minor, which is a less florid and more intense piece. I wish he would do a whole album of Johnson because that and the two Almaynes were just superb — dare I say, they were even better than the versions Nigel North has recorded.

But surely the most interesting thing he played was a newly-written piece for the theorbo. It’s based on The Miller’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and written for Wadsworth by Welsh guitarist and composer Stephen Goss. The piece is structured sort of like a Baroque suite, but with a prologue and epilogue. Each movement is supposed to represent a character from the tale. Here’s Wadsworth performing the estampie; the character represented is John:

Wadsworth has since released an albumLate Night Lute, so I’ve had the chance to listen to give The Miller’s Tale another few listens today, now the novelty’s worn off. I’ve never read Chaucer, and my attempt to do so today ended in impatience with the Middle English language, I have to admit. But the music nonetheless appeals to me. It makes great use of those signature bass strings of the theorbo, and also quite interesting use of harmonics. The theorbo is a weirdly tuned instrument, so you have an unusual palette to paint with, and paint Goss does. The arpeggiated harmonics in the toccata are a good example of this, creating a truly unique effect, especially with those powerful bass strings. It does sound kind of otherwordly. In fact, much of the piece does, like something old but alien. The estampie above is perhaps a bit different, being more of a lively, rhythmic movement. But the rest are quite meditative, very much playing to Wadsworth’s apparent strengths. I wish we had more composers writing for this rich instrument. As far as I know, the only other example is James MacMillan, whose Since it was the day of preparation… begins with a beautiful theorbo solo.

Anyway. Very much recommend checking out Wadsworth’s new release, available on Spotify, Amazon, and all that. To sign off, here’s Wadsworth performing Robert Johnson’s Care Charming Sleep. It’s a very nice performance, but I’m starting to suspect that he might actually be more comfortable on the theorbo.

Boosting Classical Music

We should have classical music that’s more like pop: compressed and bass heavy. Wait, hear me out! Here’s the oft-stated problem:

  • Classical music has an enormous dynamic range and lacks the punch of pop music.
  • This is a practical downside. Most of it can’t really be listened to in your car, or walking on the street, or many other spaces in our noise-polluted world.
  • Without that extra oomph, classical music just seems very unexciting; people want visceral music.

Now, I was building myself up for a rant on this, how the modern world is so bad and unfair and ugly and yada yada yada… But then I began asking myself, if people are accustomed to heavier music — music with a powerful bottom end — why shouldn’t there be more classical music written with this in mind? We’re not talking about digitally altering recordings or introducing amplification into the concert hall. This could be done by composers deciding to write music that is more bottom heavy, and/or orchestras restructuring themselves for this purpose.

Similarly, why not deliberately compress the music? Again, no technology is needed. We use a chasm-wide range of dynamics now, but centuries ago there was much less dynamic variation. When there was, it was used more for textural reasons than sheer volume change. There’s no reason why this stylistic trait can’t re-emerge. Composers could simply write music without having the liberty of specifying dynamics. That would go a long way.

All this could surely be a fruitful compromise with popular tastes. Good music is a product of borders, of deliberate limitations. So why not introduce a new style that takes as its borders these two traits of popular music, at the very least? And perhaps more controversially, why not use these traits as a way to reinterpret past works? Some compressed bottom-heavy classical music might just be what the 21st century needs.

It would only be appropriate to end this post with a pop song. I have come to reluctantly believe that there is but one great pop song — just one that perfectly encapsulates the absurdity, the gaudiness, the fun, the addictiveness, the danceability and the memorability of pop music. Yes, I’m awfully sorry to say, It’s Raining Men:

The Orpharion

I was listening to the lutenist Paul O’Dette play John Dowland’s Mrs Winter’s Jump and thought, Well chop off my legs and call me shorty, that sounds like a virginal! Listen for yourself:

Turns out it’s an orpharion. Typical of the Renaissance, the name ‘orpharion’ is derived from Orpheus and Arion. It was invented in England at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, and became a fairly common alternative to the lute. It’s tuned the same way as a lute, and various contemporary books list it as an alternative to the lute, but there seems to have been very few books written specifically for the instrument.

While the lute was clearly the more esteemed instrument, the orpharion may well have been equally popular in the home: in 32 examples between 1565 and 1648 of household inventories which mention musical instruments of any kind, the bandora (its larger sibling) and orpharion occur as frequently as the lute.

An orpharion built by Francis Palmer in 1617 (see more photos here)

The orpharion differs with the lute quite significantly in terms of its shape, most notably the flat back. But the more important difference is its use of wire strings instead of gut. The subsequent brighter, metallic sound, and the more limited timbre and dynamic range it presents, are no doubt why I nearly mistook it for a virginal. Harpsichords, unlike the piano which uses hammer-action, are plucked instruments just like the lute and orpharion, so the method of attack is also similar.

Right-hand technique, however, differed between the orpharion and the lute because of the wire strings. William Barley published the first collection of music specifically for orpharion in 1596, and in it he wrote that

whereas the Lute is strong with gut stringes, the Orpharion is strong with wire stringes, by reason of which manner of stringing, the Orpharion doth necessarilie require a more gentle and drawing stroke than the Lute, I mean the fingers of the right hand must be easilie drawen over the stringes, and not suddenly griped, or sharpelie stroken as the Lute is: for if yee should doo so, then the wire stringer would clash or jarre together the one against the other

Here’s an orpharion being played. There seems to be very few videos on YouTube of the instrument — and half of them are by this guy:

Music Streaming and Classical Music

Classical music is really lagging behind when it comes to music streaming. Which is historically odd, considering that the length of classical music, for instance, was a crucial reason for the CD. Some readers might recall Norio Ohga, the president of Sony, who specified that the compact disc should be able to hold 75 minutes of music. Why this length? So he could listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony without flipping the record over. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t a desire to hear Bruckner’s symphonies in their uninterrupted totality that launched the idea of music streaming.

Naxos Music Library (NML) was launched in 2003, a few years after Napster, but it hasn’t moved on much since. It’s the most extensive classical music streaming service, but at £261.60 annually, it’s no match for other streaming services, whose classical music selection is abundant enough to satisfy almost everyone. Spotify, in comparison, works out at £119.88 annually at the very most.

While mainstream streaming services demonstrate all the slick ease-of-use that has come to characterise this technology, the interface for NML can only boast Soviet-like clunkiness with a Windows 2000-era aesthetic. Even to just play an album you have to select the tracks, then open a pop-up player. Its only advantage is the inclusion of PDF booklets, which are themselves a less-than-perfect format for online use. A GIF of me browsing on the site:NML.gif

Plus, NML offers inferior audio quality in every way. Mainstream streaming services once preferenced pop, whose music is little harmed by compression and lower bitrates compared to classical music. But now Spotify etc. all stream in excellent quality for really low prices (NML does not). Spotify even has gapless tracks (NML does not), essential for a lot of classical music. In 2017, music streaming can be technologically indistinguishable to CDs.

Music streaming isn’t a complete blessing, I admit. Easy access to music recordings can inspire a kind of apathy. Why do I need to play musical instruments and think about music creation when my smartphone does it all for me? And it can inspire superficiality, such that no recording is listened to in any particular depth.

But there’s also a problem with recordings in general. I was very much intrigued by tenor Mark Padmore’s argument in a fairy recent Guardian article that recordings corrupt the way we listen to music:

… we are led to believe that because we know how a piece goes, we actually know the piece. I would argue that there is always more to learn, more to discover and because music unfolds over time we can only ever hold an impression of a piece in our mind. The second danger is that we start to hear live performance passively, as if it were an aide-memoire to the unfolding of the familiar. We probably notice if something goes wrong but otherwise we can essentially allow a performance to remind us of what we think we know already. We hear, but we don’t listen.

The third danger is that our reliance on recordings encourages a strange connoisseurship whereby they are judged against one another. There is a misguided search for the definitive performance – as if there could be one single ideal interpretation. People pull out obscure vintage recordings in the way that someone might show with a vintage wine. This is where the record collection resembles the stamp collection – music becomes a possession rather than a process. The point is, we are in danger of losing touch with the greatest strength of classical music – its liveness. The unrepeatable, unpredictable nature of great music performed in the moment for that moment only.

I certainly know I’ve been guilty of all three of those. I sometimes wonder if it would be better if I knew just a few dozen great pieces in exceptional detail than knowing, as I do, several hundred recordings, most of which in very little detail. It’s telling that the only times in which I have studied pieces in any great depth was when learning them on guitar. And when playing a piece, you quickly realise how many interpretations — all quite valid — that are available to you. You’re not trying to perfect your performance necessarily, but to understand what the score makes possible. It’s quite a depressing thought that any one of those possibilities could becoming permanent and unchanging.

How did I get through this post without mentioning the top-dog of streaming services, YouTube? And why not use it to play the recordings of Glenn Gould, who by the end of his career had retreated entirely into the recording studio: