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vanloo sextet

In the 1970s, a few crackpot music directors attempted to play early classical music — primarily Baroque music — on the instruments that were available 250 years ago: valveless trumpets and horns, keyless oboes and violins with gut strings. Those early attempts today are hard to listen to, with scratchy fiddles and sour brass, all terribly out of tune.

Things have gotten a lot better since then.

But those pioneers were the vanguard of a burgeoning movement in the classical music world, and in the intervening years have wielded such power, they are now the mainstream of the art, even when they aren’t there.

That is, even standard symphony orchestras now attempt to play what they call “historically informed performance practice,” or HIPP. Even if they use modern instruments, they have been infected with the dogma of the original instrument cadre. It has not been to the advantage of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven.

As the HIPP movement extends its tentacles into the 19th century repertoire, it has been more than unkind to that century’s composers, it has mangled and misrepresented them.

Because, in fact, the historical performance movement is less about historical accuracy in performance technique, and more about making classical music become like the popular music of our own time: There is a decided de-emphasis on harmonic movement and structure, and a peculiar emphasis on forward movement and the beat. Always the inflexible beat. It is so relentlessly percussive, might as well be rock and roll.

I don’t know how its proponents can be so blind to their own propaganda. If you want to know what’s going on in Bach’s music, look at it. Don’t worry about a lot of dogma. How can Baroque specialists so completely misread Bach’s music? How can they break up those long, flowing lines into short choppy phrases and not understand they are butchering the score.

“Baroque music is all based on the dance,” they say. It is dance music. So, they say, it should be bouncy and rhythmic. Well, maybe. But the allemandes and courantes of Bach are only as close to their original dances as Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie is to the original Polish court dance, which is to say, very distantly. They are no longer dance music, they are musical essays on the dance. To turn them into jiggy-boom-boom is to do violence to the profound thought and imagination that have transformed them.

It’s like the way an undergrad grabs onto some small and obvious insight and thinks he has found the key to unlock the universe.

This isn’t to say that the HIPP movement hasn’t helped us hear once more a good deal of pre-Bach music that had been previously ignored or misunderstood. Certainly Handel has benefited from the rethinking of his music. We cannot now hear a Furtwangler performance of a Handel concerto grosso without feeling it is soggy and underwater. The new brightness and fleetness helps.

But that doesn’t make HIPP a kind of syrup we pour over the entire history of music.

My biggest gripe, after the loss of the Bach long line, is the enfeeblement of Beethoven.

One can see how the century has moved in this direction. An ironic 20th century didn’t know quite what to do with a 19th century that believed in such things as nobility, heroism, providence, fate and triumph. After even the First World War, these concepts seemed iffy at best. After the Second World War, they seemed downright dangerous.

So, nobility and heroism are out the window. One can understand why, but without them, Beethoven no longer seems important. He might as well be dinner music.

This ties in with Modernism’s faith in the abstract form, and so, music lost its belief in narrative, in the possibility of carrying philosophical thought.

“To some, the Eroica is about heroism,” said conductor Arturo Toscanini. “To me it is just allegro con brio.”

Arturo Toscanini

Arturo Toscanini

Or, as Igor Stravinsky put it, “Music can express nothing.”

It was a provincialism of the 20th century. It could not possibly understand what was going on in Beethoven’s most difficult music.

(I understand that the 19th century didn’t make things easy for us, by going overboard on “programs” for symphonies, and tying specific narratives to otherwise abstract music. Perhaps if those programs hadn’t been so universally mawkish and sentimental, they wouldn’t have caused such a backlash in the century that followed).

But Beethoven himself said as clearly as could be, that he put those extra-musical ideas into his music. They are meant to be there. Excising them in a kind of battlefield surgery: an amputation that only leaves the music disfigured or dead.

If you want to hear the difference, you should listen first to a modern recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. One could stack the deck and try the recording by Gunther Schuller and a studio orchestra, made in 1995 as a companion to his book, The Compleat Conductor. His argument: That a conductor should not “interpret” the music, but just present what there in the score.

Gunther Schuller

Gunther Schuller

That means, an inflexible beat, a speed based on questionable metronome markings left by the composer years after having written the music, and a complete lack of expressivity.

Or, try recordings by David Zinmann or John Eliot Gardiner, both fine conductors as far as it goes. But they both have been influenced by HIPP, and therefore play the music too fast, too metronomically and purposely suck the philosophical subtext out of the music. They simply don’t believe in it.

Compare any of those with the wartime recording by Wilhelm Furtwangler, in which the weight of the world is felt in the music, and the hope of transcendence burns brightly in the finale. It is an emotional experience that will leave you breathless and sweaty. Beethoven’s struggle is your own struggle.

Wilhelm Furtwangler

Wilhelm Furtwangler

Many listeners today prefer the modern performances, and find the Furtwangler version overwrought. I can do nothing for them; they should listen to pop music outright and not look for a “classier” simulacrum. But they are missing the overwhelming experience classical music can give them. What they get instead is background music.

The musicians are not robots, reproducing some Platonic ideal; they are rather deeply feeling artists who use the score to express their own inner selves. To complain that Bernstein’s Beethoven is more Lenny than Ludwig is to miss the point entirely. He was doing his job, bringing the music alive from the cage of the music staff, freeing it into life. Gardiner’s Beethoven is likewise more John Eliot than Ludwig, too, but no one seems to notice.

This isn’t just a question of rubato. It is a question of how the rhetoric of performance can communicate the essence of the music. There are some conductors who speed up and slow down irrationally; that doesn’t help the music. But a great conductor will change speeds when it makes his point.

Heck, even Toscanini changes tempo constantly, although by such a small amount, some people don’t even notice it.

One problem is that the tradition has been broken.

Toscanini famously said, “Tradition is nothing but the last bad performance,” but he was wrong. Nowadays, we could turn that on its head: “HIPP is nothing but the last bad performance.”

Tradition is essential. It is the way all classical art forms, whether Indian classical music, Japanese Noh theater or Russian ballet. They are handed down elder to student over generations. Classical music is no different, except that there is a notation to help guide us. We are fooled if we think the one is a substitute for the other.

The 20th century piety is that the score is everything and faithfulness to the score is somehow a measure of the success of a performance. On the contrary, the score is only a guide. It has some information; it is a blueprint, not an edifice. But much is also missing; that missing part comes from a teacher handing down a tradition to the student. Without that tradition learned in the bone from an early age, there can be no early second beat in a Viennese waltz, no paring of dotted notes from fourths to thirds in jazz. Learning the tradition, getting it in your blood, is why American orchestras do Copland and Ives better than a German orchestra, and why, if you want to hear the Blue Danube played right, you have to go to Vienna, or hear musicians trained in the Viennese tradition.

HIPP is instant tradition, like instant tea. It is tradition not learned from elders but picked up from books and research. Book learning ain’t music.

I’ve sat in a number of master classes, taught by some of the greatest musicians of the first half, and middle of the 20th century. They learned from the old masters, and they handed over the wisdom they had learned — the musicianship — from their elders. It is a glorious thing to see: the lumpen student plays the notes, and then the teacher plays the music.

Faithfulness to the score is such a canard. Completely beside the point. All the great conductors of the past jimmied the orchestrations around when they felt it necessary to make the music communicate more directly. Even Toscanini, the poster child for the “objective” conductor, altered the scores, adding brass to the coda of the Eroica where they knew Beethoven’s valveless instrument couldn’t play the notes it was clear he would have had them play if they could.

Mahler re-orchestrated Schumann. Even Mozart re-wrote Handel’s Messiah. There is plenty of precedent for using the score as a starting point, not a prison. What you’re looking for is music, not a museum exhibit.

All of the arguments I have heard in favor of HIPP fail to persuade me. We cannot listen to 18th century music with 18th century ears. It’s an impossibility. To pretend that if we play Bach on recorders and harpsichords, with short-neck gut-string violins, we are somehow more “faithful” to the composer’s intentions is simple-minded. As someone once said, “The loudest sound Bach heard was a door slamming. If you wanted to give our listeners the experience that Bach had, you’d have to create a world without the last two centuries of history.”

Our ears are more assaulted every day. The context for an “authentic” performance cannot be had, making the performance inauthentic.

I admit to enjoying a performance or two of Mozart or Bach played on the original instruments, but it is only as an experiment, or as an approximation, for historical understanding. I no more want to hear only HIPP any more than I want to read text printed with the long “S” and ligatures. They look quaint, but they get in the way of reading.

Unexamined through all this is the basic premise that music should reflect the composer’s intent. It’s taken as an axiom. But few people are asking why.

We don’t insist that Shakespeare be performed outdoors, with boys playing the women’s parts and with the rhetorical delivery of Elizabethan actors. We don’t blanch at Richard Burton playing Hamlet in suit and tie. So why do we argue over whether Bach’s musicians played with a vibrato or not?

The music, after all, no longer belongs to Bach. It belongs to us.

Academy of the Overrated

In Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Mary (Diane Keaton) and Yale (Michael Murphy) devise what they call the “Academy of the Overrated” for such notables as Gustav Mahler, Scott Fitzgerald, Isak Dinesen and Carl Jung.

“Lenny Bruce, Can’t forget him, can we?”

“How about Norman Mailer?”

“I think those people are all terrific,” Woody argues back.

They go on to name Heinrich Boll, Vincent Van Gogh and Ingmar Bergman.

“Gee, what about Mozart?” says Woody. “You guys don’t wanna leave out Mozart.”

Suffice it to say, none of these artists is overrated. Reputations come and go, and sometimes an artist lauded in one generation is ignored in the next. But real work by real artists, sweating blood, can never be simply “overrated.”

Some may be overexposed, however. There is a problem in hearing a piece of music too often, or seeing a painting or a play too many times, so that familiarity breeds contempt.

Take Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Can anyone actually hear it anymore? It has been so overplayed for the past 200 years, that it no longer astonishes us, but rather fits into the comfortable, velvet-lined depression we have made for it in the jewel case of classical music. It is too well known to be heard.

Or Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. How many angels support the Creator in his cloud of flowing robes? Without checking, you don’t know, because the picture has been largely reduced to our recognition of the electric spark that invisibly pops between the two mated fingers at the center of the scene. The picture as a whole doesn’t much count: The only thing that we think about is the punchline.

Michelangelo Creaton of adam

Or maybe the snigger we pretend not to snig at the tiny peanut between Adam’s immense, muscular thighs.

These things are not “overrated” any more than their creators are. They are simply overexposed.

Of course, the symphony a great piece of music – one of the greatest – but heard so often, we cannot absorb it anymore. It is nothing but “dah-dah-dah-DUMB” now.

It is a problem many things face in life: Too much of a good thing and we become vaccinated against it.

Pachelbel’s Canon, Ravel’s Bolero, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. They are all overexposed.

The Nutcracker is a fine ballet, with great music, but when it’s performed 23 times every December, it wears out its welcome for the dance aficionado. It becomes Muzak.

The eye-rolling is a response that many things get, and not just in opera and classical music.

— In pop music, Led Zeppelin’s anthem, Stairway to Heaven, is now a joke, and ripe for snarky parody. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. has been ground into the dust by overuse, and usually for reasons at odds with the song’s actual content.

— The TV show, M*A*S*H, has been in reruns for so long, that the thought of another 30 minutes with Alan Alda can drive us to emigrate to Siberia – where they probably run it dubbed into Russian or Yakut.

— Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken, or Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening are turned into one-dimensional parodies of their author. Both are subtle poems with equivocal readings, but not in the popular mind.

There are others:

— Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

— The Seagram’s Building in Manhattan. It has come to stand for all the bland steel-and-glass International Style architecture that followed, but there’s elegance, proportion and detail there.

seagram's building

The Beethoven’s Fifth dilemma even extends to typefaces. Everyone’s computer comes with the Helvetica font installed. It’s everywhere, to the point one designer always calls it the “dread Helvetica.”

But it is an exceptionally well designed typeface, which is exactly why it is so miserably overused.

And more:

— Ahi tuna.

— The New York Yankees.

— The Mona Lisa.

— The Grand Canyon.

The problem is that it isn’t just that familiarity breeds contempt, but that it breeds invisibility. Overexposure itself wouldn’t be a big problem – we could just refrain from programming such things for a while – but something else happens: Wide dispersal of anything in popular culture transmutes it from an experience to a reference. All you have to do is refer to the Hallelujah Chorus and your audience “gets it.”And so, God’s creation of Adam turns into a potato chip ad.

Creation potato chips

It keeps us skimming along the surface of things.

You have to pay attention, to react deeply enough to get the most out of a poem. Otherwise it becomes possible that The Road Not Taken, or Sylvia Plath’s Daddy become completely so decontextualized that we can refer to a phenomenon without registering the emotions, or understanding its complexity.

Another way of putting it is that the familiar work becomes a shorthand. When we want sad, we go to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, when we want momentous, we go to Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Never mind that the originals are complex and layered.

They become a shorthand for “funny music,” or “dramatic music,” or “ironic music.”

When referencing or quoting these things, it’s not about the original anymore, but about a new meaning that’s been given to it. Some of these things – which we may only know as a catch-phrase, joke or a snatch of music – are never considered on their own terms and we forget the quality of the original.

The Godfather, a sprawling multi-part epic, gets reduced to Marlon Brando mumbling. And the image of Marlon Brando mumbling now means something else – a cultural stereotype of the Italian Mafia or the promise and perils of method acting.

So, Beethoven’s Fifth becomes a shorthand of: 1. Classical (i.e. “longhair”) music in general; 2. “Fate knocking at the door;” 3. The granitic monumentality of “Great Art” (and conversely, its ponderousness, compared with pop culture); 4. the triumph of the finale over the hardships of the beginning movement, and a template for symphonies to come for the next hundred years; 5. The morse-code ensign for Victory in WWII (to the point that it even becomes, in altered form, the wartime fanfare at the beginning of Fox films).

It is also the theme song to OCD. (In the seven or so minutes of the symphony’s first movement, you hear the four-note rhythm 382 times.)

So, can we actually hear the damn thing anymore? It takes a concerted effort of will to listen to it “again for the first time.”

But to hear, or see, how good something it is, it has to be more than a tic in the cultural compost pile. You have to actively pay attention. You have to engage. Art is not a warm bath.

Certainly, this is one of the wellsprings of any contemporary art: the need to make art new, fresh and meaningful, to break through the cliches that the older art has become. We need to keep making it new.

Sometimes, that comes in the form of a new performance practice for the older music, as when a Roger Norrington or John Eliot Gardiner takes up the Beethoven Fifth and plays it at race-course speed, glossing over the speed bumps that its composer put there. It gives us a fresh take on an golden oldie.

But is that enough? Perhaps Gardiner misses something essential from the original by tossing out the 200 years of tradition behind it.

There will come a day when the new, zippier performances of 19th-century classics becomes so old hat, a new generation will discover the depth in performances by Wilhelm Furtwangler or Willem Mengelberg. And what now seems old will be fresh once again.

beer creation

TOP 10 BEETHOVEN FIFTHS

Beethoven’s Fifth – A number of Fifth Symphonies could make this list: Tchaikovsky’s, Sibelius’s, even Mahler’s – at least the Adagietto. But Beethoven’s is the champ, so familiar it is almost impossible to hear anymore.

‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ – The opening “Sunrise” section has become the de facto theme song of any momentous introduction, most famously in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also for former professional wrestler Ric Flair’s entry into the ring.

‘Nessun Dorma’ – This tenor showpiece from Puccini’s Turandot shows up everywhere from car commercials to the theme song of the 1990 FIFA World Soccer Cup and in so many films: The Killing Fields, and Bend It Like Beckham. Aretha Franklin even sang it for the Grammies.

Pachelbel’s Canon – The bane of classical music radio stations everywhere. When satirist Peter Schickele made up his mock radio station for his PDQ Bach series, he called it WTWP – “Wall-to-Wall Pachelbel.”

‘O Fortuna’ from ‘Carmina Burana’ – The powerful choral piece once expressed Medieval violence in movies such as Excalibur, and the torments of drug addiction in Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Now it sells Gatorade and Old Spice after-shave. It’s everywhere.

Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ – There are 220 CDs available currently: Everyone with a fiddle has recorded it, and there’s even a version for Japanese kotos and another for pennywhistle. Dude, he wrote 600 other concertos. They’re good, too.

Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor – Bach wrote this improvisatory organ work to test new organs; now it tests our patience. It shows up anytime you need “spooky” music in a haunted house, and it is also the “inspiration” for much of the faux-organ music in Phantom of the Opera.

Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ – The most demoniacal offender: Not only has Bolero been repeated endlessly in movies, TV commercials and ice-dancing routines, it repeats endlessly in any performance: The one tune over and over till it drives you nuts. The New York Times suggests Ravel was in early stages of frontotemporal dementia when he wrote it. We give it a “10.”

Hallelujah Chorus – Another movie cliché: When the hero or heroine finally understands, or opens the door to discover something unexpected, cue the Hallelujah Chorus.

‘Adagio for Strings’ – Once voted the “saddest classical” work ever, it has become the movie cliché of all times, giving emotional weight to Platoon, The Elephant Man, Amelie, Lorenzo’s Oil, S1m0ne, and even Michael Moore’s Sicko. The Internet Movie Database lists its use 26 times.