Arvo Part, 82 Years Old Today

I’m not big on this whole wishing famous people a happy birthday thing, but Arvo Part’s birthday is a good enough excuse to reflect on why his music is so loved, and why I so love it. Robert Reilly, whose book I recently blogged about, has elsewhere written this about Part:

His work emerges from deep spiritual discipline and experience, and demands (and gives) as much in return. One will not be washed away in sonorous wafts of highly emotional music – there is no effortless epiphany here. Pärt is the most formally austere of the three [composers Reilly discusses], but is also the one with the most ontological sense – he presents a note as if it were being heard for the first time … Pärt’s music comes out of the fullness of silence. “How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?” he asks. During a rehearsal of his composition The Beatitudes, Pärt told the conductor, “The silence must be longer. This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.” The puzzled conductor asked Pärt, “Exactly how many beats? What do you do during the silence?” Pärt responded, “You don’t do anything. You wait. God does it.”

Earlier in the piece, Reilly makes the interesting point that Tavener, Gorecki and Part ‘have found the sonata principle of development that has driven music since the 18th century, and which gives music so much of its sense of forward motion, extraneous for their purpose.’ This is why Arvo Part’s music so often gets labelled as ‘relaxing’. The music hovers rather than flies. It is about sustained focus on a point rather than a journey. In his ‘dramatic’ works — the John Passion, the Stabat Mater — the music doesn’t progress with the narrative. It would be fair, instead, to call his music meditative. (Though I have not closely followed the text, his newer work, Adam’s Lament, admittedly sounds more dramatic.)

I love Part’s music for a simple and incontrovertible reason: it’s so very beautiful. Even when I was young and disdained all classical music, I surreptitiously kept a CD titled ‘The Very Best of Arvo Part’. No music was more mesmerising — indeed, there was none I treated with more reverence — than Tabula Rasa. One can see why the piece has been such ‘a vehicle of solace’, as Alex Ross has written. ‘Angel music’ is how one dying AIDS patient described the second movement, ‘Silentium’. Listen:

People want beauty. Arvo Part’s music, unlike most contemporary classical music, has found its way into the hearts of so many people. (For instance, listen to this episode of the BBC radio programme Soul Music.) In some quarters his music seems to be treated with suspicion for this reason. I certainly used to feel, in a typically middle-class way, suspicious of myself for liking it. And how foolish I was. As Jay Nordlinger wrote a while back:

Arvo Pärt is a figure to be reckoned with, the genuine article. Someone once said to me, “Who’s a good composer today, and don’t say Arvo Pärt!” I think my questioner meant that too many say Pärt. Well, I do too.


David Braid, Writing Beautiful Music

Just wanted to quickly share an interesting contemporary composer I came across, David Braid. Potted biography: born in Wales, he left school at 16, had been gifted with a love of music thanks in part to a ‘charismatic nun from Ireland’, found the classical guitar in his late teens, worked his socks off to get into The Royal College of Music, and now composes. Braid’s music is tonal and attractive. The composers who most influenced him include Sibelius and John Dowland. (He’s also a lutenist and has written music for the instrument). To get an idea of his style, here’s his advice for young composers:

I would say to a young composer – be a rebel! Write something in D major, annoy your professor, but make it so damned interesting and beautiful that he/she has nothing to say; that is the real challenge for us now.

There is another David Braid out there, a jazz pianist, and apparently both DBs are friends. Our David Braid is the one with an album of chamber music. The first piece on that album, Morning, is a wonderful introduction to his music. For soprano and string quartet, Morning shimmers and glides, with Grace Davidson, soprano, singing in such a serene vibrato-less way. (And while it may not be in D major, its key of C major is perhaps even more rebellious.) From the booklet:

[Morning] is based on a two-note falling interval of B flat to E, over a C in the bass; these three notes set the mood for the entire piece. I was moving away from an earlier, dense, modernist style (arguably now a conservative norm) and found a new route by revisiting counterpoint and how it determines harmonic motion.

Listen here:

Sidelining Classical Music in Schools

A 17 year-old UK pupil at a comprehensive secondary school (that’s a public high school for US readers), has written an excellent blog post for Gramophone about the slow banishment of classical music from school life. As he’s still a pupil, he writes anonymously. (I’ll refer to him as Pupil.) These accounts of studying music at school are invaluable. Classical music has been quietly undermined in schools. The curriculum has been dumbed down, with classes given almost no importance in school life — in our school they were little more than glorified playtime. I have written a little bit about my experience here. When I was 17, there were only 3 people in our music class (the total numbers of pupils exceeded 1,000). There was no orchestra, no choir, no classical ensemble — not even a jazz ensemble. Just a load of rock bands so awful that only doting parents could tolerate listening to them.

Anyway, here’s Pupil’s account:

The illogicality was clear from when I started secondary education; lessons were focused on electronic music, rap and djembe drumming, and while this music is important, it completely overshadowed classical music on the curriculum. Bach: mentioned in one lesson. Elgar: mentioned in another. Meanwhile, the lesson on Mozart consisted of the first 20 minutes of the film Amadeus. This reluctance to discuss classical music (let alone hear it) at young ages generates the stigma against the form in later life; the labels so frequently attached to classical music as lacklustre, upper-class, and unendurable exist only because people have failed to listen to classical music in the first place.

In the relentless drive to maintain the perceived interest of young students, teachers seem increasingly to favour what they see as ‘popular’ music, which seems to be anything but classical. Whether out of fear of negative student reactions – despite the presence of classical music in a myriad of film scores – or out of a lack of knowledge on their own behalf, classical music is increasingly relegated to the side. In speaking with various Year 11 students, I found that they could name, at best, two composers: Mozart and Beethoven. Classical music, in their eyes, died in the 1700s, so there is little hope of them identifying Thomas Adès, Robin Holloway or Hugh Wood any time soon. And in GCSE Music classes, students regularly struggled to identify fundamental instruments of the orchestra, such as clarinets, trumpets and timpani. Increasingly, it seemed, classical music was becoming alien to the majority of students.

For 17, he’s remarkably articulate — the school must be doing something right. This seems to prove it:

Yet such ignorance seems largely exclusive to music. By the age of 15 the same students would have encountered several plays by Shakespeare, novels by Orwell, Steinbeck and Golding, and poetry by Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, yet not a single symphony by Beethoven. They may recognise the theorems of Pythagoras, the theories of Plato, and the work of Mendeleev (upon whom, alongside Newlands, there was an entire section in the GCSE AQA Chemistry paper). Rightly so. Yet while it is certain that many of those students could have identified Duffy as the Poet Laureate, it is doubtful they could have identified the Master of the Queen’s Music.

By the age of 15, I had not encountered Shakespeare except through the Leonardo DiCaprio film, just as his peers had only encountered Mozart through Amadeus. Neither had we read Orwell, Plato, Golding nor Mendeleev. We may have read a poem by Duffy or Armitage, I think, and we definitely suffered through Steinbeck (though again, eventually we just fell back on the film). Pupil continues:

Such contempt for classical music means that children must approach the form themselves, rather than being introduced to suitable works by enthusiastic teachers. This reliance on self-discovery – a direct result of the curriculum – means many students who could be drawn to classical music miss out. Realistically, people need to be given a guiding hand into classical music in order for it to become intelligible in many cases; otherwise, an hour-long symphony appears more as a rambling to a young person, unless they comprehend the complexities of sonata form, thematic development and the context in which it was written.

The first half is very true. But he loses me with the second half. Most classical music can be picked up by repeated listening. Studying it helps, but it’s not necessary. All you need to know is that, while you may not understand a Beethoven symphony on first listen, with each subsequent listen its logic will become more apparent and you will enjoy it more. One can intuit what is a theme, where it is developed, where it returns etc.

The problem, which he later addresses, is that people are unaccustomed to the kind of listening classical music demands. Music lessons that focus on popular music help to further discourage active and patient listening.

Well worth reading the whole thing.

Musicology Later, Politics Now

Considering that white nationalists can barely attract a crowd of more than a few hundred nitwits — a figure that’s hardly changed for decades — and that neo-Nazis and the KKK are so insignificant as to be a fringe movement within a fringe movement, I struggle to see how they are of any real concern. Yet musicologist Bonnie Gordon, writing over at Musicology Now, thinks it’s an urgent problem for her academic discipline. Gordon works at the University of Virginia where the ‘Unite the Right’ rally took place last month. So I can understand why she is particularly concerned, but the conclusions she draws are worrying and, alas, predictable. An excerpt:

To put this in terms of a curricular challenge, it’s relatively easy to get college students to see the grotesque potential of some of the music they love, especially if it includes sounds mobilized by the likes of Stalin and Hitler. And most undergraduates who take music classes learn about sonic performances of nationalism; it’s a box or chapter in many textbooks. But it is so much more work and so much more important to make our students hear the ways that racialized nationalism played and plays out today in our own spaces — politically and musically. We need to make sure they can deconstruct current explicit and implicit fascist movements with the same critical eye that they turn on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. In other words, if we, and our students, can’t read the signs in the current climate and can’t respond to them, then I’m not sure we are doing our jobs.

Can’t read the signs? Where does that leave the thoughtful student who, analysing the situation, concludes that the only signs are those anachronistically erected by their musicology tutor? Under a ‘progressive curriculum’, such free thinking would be punished, I suppose.

Earlier in the piece, Gordon writes of Richard Spencer, leading Alt-Right figure, ‘I want to dwell on Richard Spencer because he reminds me that a progressive curriculum alone does not defend against white supremacy’. So unless we slant the curriculum way to the left, they’ll be an endemic of white supremacy, is that it? But even this isn’t enough apparently. Neither is ‘implicit bias training, inclusive syllabi, and safe space statements’ enough either. Something more is called for. Reading the piece twice now, I can’t work out what exactly she means. And the more ambiguous and broad her statements, the more pernicious they seem. She calls for ‘a willingness to use the musical and musicological toolkit to hear the current situation and speak or sing out against [white supremacy]. This is a good time to remind everyone not only of the white supremacist traditions that undergird all of our disciplines and schools, but of the tradition of progressive faculty and student activism.’ Cleansing history of its whiteness. Doesn’t sound pernicious or anti-academic at all. And of course there will be no time left to actually study, you know, the music.

I’d like to come back to her argument that ‘We need to make sure they [students] can deconstruct current explicit and implicit fascist movements’. Ignoring the postmodern guff, I must make the point that there are simply no contemporary fascist movements. Fascism is now a term used to mean only one thing — racial superiority. This is completely ahistoric. Perhaps the only movement who it makes sense to call fascist, the Italian Fasci, were racial supremacists, but this wasn’t the most central aspect of their ideology. In fact they really didn’t have much of an ideology, and tended to simply instrumentalise ideas towards one goal: state power. (And Italian fascists only became very antisemitic when their alliance with Hitler made it necessary.) One way, for example, that the Fasci consolidated power was by making all professors pledge an oath of loyalty to Fascism. The Fascists were a modern, futurist and progressive movement, one that sought to make sure the young, whom they built a cult around, would have the politically correct ideas. In Gordon’s call for a curriculum so obviously utilised towards political ends, is she edging towards fascism?

I don’t actually think she is, but how easy it is to erect a sign that says ‘here is a fascist’. The logical end-point of this would be an academic world that spends much of its time searching for the fascist hidden round the corner. Academics would be preoccupied investigating the personal failings and hypocrisies of past thinkers, judged by our obviously unassailable 21st century standards. Academia would become an intellectual police force that exists to prevent and correct ‘bad’ ideas. Actual academic discussion would come to a halt.

Perhaps we will see a decline in the importance of universities as this silliness continues. Having a formal education, and the credential that comes with it, just won’t have the same social and cultural weight. There is precedent for this. Michael Faraday was basically innumerate, yet he was one of the most important scientists. Samuel Johnson did not have a degree. Edmund Burke’s Catholicism meant he did not have one. David Hume did not graduate. Will the greatest minds of the 21st century come from outside academia?

Claire Lehmann, founder of the site Quillette, was recently interviewed at Psychology Today, and said this:

I was also pursuing graduate studies at the time in forensic psychology and was becoming increasingly cynical about the university system. I was reading Peter Thiel, and was struck by his iconoclastic views on education; in particular his claim that the higher education system is like the Vatican on the eve of the reformation. So in mid-to-late 2015, I wrote an article for the Herald about universities in Australia being a road to nowhere, dropped out of my course, and two weeks later started Quillette.

Quillette also has an excellent and highly relevant piece up at the moment by Ben Sixsmith: Defending Western History from Political Propaganda. A sample:

Classics are the foundation of Western civilisation. No amount of scare quotes will obscure Aristotle’s impact on science and philosophy; the Homeric influence on literature; the Athenian origins of republicanism and the Roman promotion of Christianity. The belief that this is true does not make one a white supremacist. The Chinese think Confucius, Laozi and Sun Tzu built the foundations of their culture but this need not make them Chinese supremacists.

In truth, there is little Nazis like about Western civilisation. Enlightenment values are clearly verboten. Christianity is suspect, as a universal faith, not the preserve of whites. Classical societies are uninspiring, as they dwell far more on civic virtues than blood and soil. This is why Nazis have drawn on ancient pagans, aristocratic esotericists and other such eccentrics. Their racialism – that is, their idea of one European spirit (embodied, according to the historian Francis Parker Yockey, by Adolf Hitler) is ahistorical.

Surprised by Beauty

It is an astonishing fact that the most popular modern classical music is religious. Arvo Part is the most performed living composer (James MacMillan also makes the top 10) and three of his works are included in the ten most performed contemporary works. The 1993 recording of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is the best-selling contemporary classical album of all time, and even made it into the popular charts. John Tavener’s works are exceptionally popular, particularly The Protecting Veil and Song for Athene.

When I came to classical music two years ago, I was first attracted by the beauty of twentieth century music. I was far too innocent to know that this was in any way unusual. My first classical music loves were, among others, Arvo Part, James MacMillan, Penderecki, Messiaen, Sofia Gubaidulina, and of course Charles Ives, after whose song this blog is named. These are (or were) all composers of gorgeous music whose faith is central to their work. My younger self, obsessed with extreme metal and resolutely atheist, would doubtless be incredulous at my older self’s love of beautiful religious music.

Enter Surprised by Beauty. This book by Robert Reilly (now expanded with the help of Jens F. Laurson) sets out to promote the many twentieth century composers who continued to write beautiful music despite an often hostile environment. Reilly sees the twentieth century as a period of crisis, particularly spiritual crisis, to which music was by no means immune. ‘The death of God’, he writes, ‘is as much a problem for music as it is for philosophy. Tonality, as the preexisting principle of order in the world of sound, goes the same way as the objective moral order.’ The ordering of music became arbitrary, and gave way to purely technical compositional techniques, notably serialism. Such a radical change was built on the ideological premise that tonality is a finite resource, thus making a new musical language a historical necessity — what Schoenberg famously called the ’emancipation of dissonance’. But then there was a counter-rebellion of sorts, giving way to (some) tonality and beauty. Many composers have been returning to the natural order of sound, and this book is a celebration of their work.

The list is impressive — I’m unfamiliar with about two-thirds of the names. I don’t imagine I’ll ever finish this book. Each chapter explores the life and work of one composer, and finishes with a list of recommend recordings, giving you weeks of material to listen to.

Nevertheless, there are some surprising omissions. Yes, I know that with this kind of book everyone will have some favourites they feel should have been included. But the number of well-known composers who are missing is rather perplexing. No Messiaen, Penderecki, Gorecki, Part, Tavener, MacMillan or Gubaidulina. These are some of the great contemporary religious composers. It’s not as if the authors are averse to having ‘big names’ in the book — Shostakovich and Sibelius both make the cut. Some of these omissions are obviously personal — ‘I simply have never fathomed Messiaen’s music’, Reilly writes at one point, which is fair enough. I also wonder whether the authors considered including some of the Spanish twentieth century composers, whose music was often more tonal. Villa-lobos is included, but he is an exception. One might have also included Brouwer, Rodrigo and Ponce.

Another omission is a personal favourite, Charles Ives. I wouldn’t have mentioned it had Reilly not left this flippant comment: ‘Charles Ives (1874–1954) is surely the single most overrated American composer’. In this blogger’s opinion, Ives was one of the twentieth century’s great defenders of beauty. He was also a deeply religious composer. For an example of both, listen to his incredible setting of Psalm 90:

There are certain composers, however, who I was delighted to see included. Take Charles Koechlin (1867-1950). He was a great French composer who is much under-appreciated. One of his fascinations was with films, and I first heard his work when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave a rare performance of his Seven Stars Symphony, broadcast on Radio 3 a year ago. Each movement is based on a film star, and it was some of the most visual, open music I’d ever heard. Reilly describes it extraordinarily well:

The music can often seem to drift—not aimlessly—but as in a dream, with an extremely spacious sense of time. Koechlin is not afraid to keep the music barely above the level of audibility, as if it were a haze settling upon you, or to engage in raucous outbursts of Mahlerian proportions.

… some of Koechlin’s works can sound like the aural equivalent of a Verascope photo without the stereoscope to see it through. This is because of his employment of techniques that are polytonal—using more than one tonal center or key alongside, and sometimes against, another—polyrhythmic, and even polystylistic. This can get confusing. It can produce a huge sonic welter, a veritable jungle of sound. However, because of it, it is all the more breathtaking when all of a sudden, stereoscopically, things are snapped into focus, resolving themselves in a magnificent, arching melody.

Here’s the Seven Stars Symphony:

Speaking of Hollywood films, another excellent inclusion is Erich Korngold. Among his other works, he wrote one of the best symphonies of the twentieth century, and a very fine violin concerto. It is a pleasure to see George Tsontaki in the list, too, who also wrote a quite brilliant violin concerto (the No. 2, which won a Grawemeyer award). Reilly describes Tsonatki’s music thus: ‘The music is certainly highly allusive—sometimes like floating islands of melody on a sea of sounds (sometimes it is hard to make out the melody from the welter of sounds) or dream music that only makes sense in a dream.’

I could go on. A composer I discovered from the book is Morten Lauridsen. Granted, I think I may have heard the name before, but had never been introduced to his music. Reilly describes his music as ‘in style … inspired by Renaissance master Josquin des Prez. He not only draws upon Renaissance forms, he remains true to them, albeit with some modern harmonies.’ Reilly later quotes Lauridsen, who says, ‘There are too many things out there that are away from goodness. We need to focus on those things that ennoble us, that enrich us.’ Wonderfully said.

I had a meagre little paragraph of my own about Lauridsen’s music, but whoever uploaded this video gives a far more effective testimony:

Probably the best and most moving piece of music I have ever heard. I was lucky enough to be able to watch this on “Carols from Kings” on Christmas Eve 2009 and it left me in tears. The beauty of the harmonies and the control of Kings College Choir transcends all words and I was left in a state of shock quivering and speechless. I have never heard anything like this in all my life! I never want it to end!

Here’s the video:

It is shockingly beautiful. I think I’ll end here. (Oh, yes, and it is well worth getting your hands on the book!)