Tag Archives: Composers

If it’s Mozart, it’s a masterpiece!

mozart-shades

Since the mid–19th-century discovery of the sinfonia concertante for four winds sometimes labeled K.297b, the work has been considered authentic by some and dubious by others, and its reception has paralleled these critical vicissitudes.

In 1778 Mozart wrote to his father that he had just written a “sinfonie concertante” for four winds and orchestra that was scheduled for performance in Paris; but it was not performed after all, and the score was presumed lost until a work scored for similar forces—unattributed and not in Mozart’s own hand, but labeled concertante—surfaced in the collection of Mozart’s biographer Otto Jahn after Jahn’s death in 1869.

Despite some discrepancies between the Jahn MS and the composition Mozart had described, it was generally accepted as the missing work and published as such in 1886. For about the first 50 years of its public career it remained a peripheral work in the Mozart canon, seldom performed and little-known.

The work began to attract more attention in the 1920s, as eminent Mozart scholars described it as “magnificent” and praised its “brilliance, breadth, and expansiveness”. Experts agreed that it was an important work, a significant step in Mozart’s development as a composer, and a beautiful and worthwhile piece of music. Certified and buoyed by such enthusiasm, it was increasingly programmed and recorded from the 1940s through the 1960s.

The sinfonia concertante’s fall from grace began when it was dropped from the main body of the Köchel catalogue in 1964 with a terse remark that its arrangement could not have come from Mozart. Expert statements refuting the overall authenticity of the work on stylistic grounds soon followed, and efforts to reclaim it for Mozart failed to stem its fall from scholarly favor. Audience interest diminished accordingly, and the work appears to have been programmed less often since the mid-1970s.

An examination of 168 texts discussing this composition reveals—perhaps not surprisingly— that the authors’ reactions to the work are closely bound to their opinions on who wrote it.

For example, writers who believed that the work was by Mozart described it as strong, sturdy, and solid, while those that did not called it flimsy, arbitrary, illogical, and incomprehensible; those crediting Mozart rated the work highest level and a masterpiece, while those who considered it spurious rated it not first class; and the Mozart designators considered it delightful, celestial, and enchanting, while the non-Mozart camp described it as tasteless, inept, and cheap.

This according to “Musical attribution and critical judgment: The rise and fall of the sinfonia concertante for winds, K.297b” by John Spitzer (The journal of musicology V/3 [summer 1987] pp. 319–56; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1988-3046).

Below, we invite you to form your own opinion.

More articles about Mozart are here.

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Filed under Classic era, Reception

Ligeti and Africa

György Ligeti freely acknowledged the influence of African music on his work—an influence that is seldom readily obvious, though it can be teased out by analysis.

After he listened to recordings of African drumming, Ligeti began exploring the use of various rhythms through multiplication of the basic pulse, a concept that resonated with the additive rhythms of the traditional music that he grew up with in Hungary.

In one of his few passages involving the use of an African-sounding instrument, the third movement of his piano concerto includes an Africanesque pattern played on bongos. He marked the part to be played very quietly, so rather than being foregrounded it serves almost subliminally to reinforce patterns being played simultaneously on other instruments. Unlike most African drumming, this bongo pattern evolves over time, so that its end is quite different from its beginning.

Ligeti’s works from the 1960s onward were distinguished by a palette of musical motives and ideas that he half-ironically referred to as Ligeti signals. Starting in the 1980s, he expanded this palette to include African devices along with others that share an extraordinary openness to external ideas and influences. He avoided copying these influences wholesale, instead working on a higher conceptual level. This abstraction implied an objective respect for the powerful ideas he was working with, as well as indicating a strong personality able to hold its own with them.

This according to “Ligeti, Africa, and polyrhythm” by Stephen Andrew Taylor (The world of music XLV/2 [2003] pp. 83–94; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2003-4435).

Today is Ligeti’s 100th birthday! Below, Mihkel Poll performs the concerto movement discussed above.

BONUS: RILM is a sponsor of the Ligeti Festival Transylvania celebrating György Ligeti’s 100th birthday! More information is here.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Africa, Curiosities

Wagner and Buddhism

Scholars have long known that Wagner had a deep and lasting interest in Buddhism; less known are the specific insights garnered from Buddhism that are manifested in Parsifal. The key to understanding this connection is the enigmatic figure of Kundry.

Contrary to the common interpretation of Kundry as the incarnation of the will, and in light of Wagner’s admiration for Schopenhauer, she may be seen as the personification of desire. Desiring, which is different from wanting, is a fundamental aspect of Buddhism. As Buddha explained in his very first sermon, desire is the cause of suffering (dukkha). Buddhist teaching holds that suffering can only be overcome when desire is vanquished.

Kundry appears in three forms in Parsifal; these correspond to the three forms of desire in Buddhism. This interpretation aligns the work’s Christian, pagan, and Buddhist symbolism as an expression of the inner way that is shared by all who tread the path of religious mysticism. Through extensive study of Buddhism, Wagner came to understand the deeper side of all religions, a universal truth that all mediators of religious traditions come to understand.

This according to “Kundry: The personification of the role of desire in the holy life” by Pandit Bhikkhu (Cittasamvaro) (Wagnerspectrum III/2 [2007] pp. 97–114; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2007-20593).

Today is Wagner’s 210th birthday! Above, Christa Ludwig as Kundry; below, Waltraud Meier in the role.

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Filed under Curiosities, Opera

James Brown’s Deleuzian idiocy

James Brown had an uncanny ability to synthesize the talents of musicians from disparate musical fields into a cohesive ensemble. Still, many of his peers had little regard for his own musical abilities.

“He has no real musical skills…yet he could hold his own onstage with any jazz virtuoso—because of his guts” one of his former bandleaders explained. Indeed, many of Brown’s own players dreamed of eventually moving from pop to jazz, where their individual abilities would shine more brightly.

There is a certain irony in the fact that someone maligned by his colleagues for his apparent musical ineptitude would end up influencing the very musicians that they looked up to: Miles Davis, for example, changed the bebop world when he took the radical step of incorporating Brown’s rhythmic innovations into his music. Further, Brown’s influence is explicitly acknowledged by rap musicians, spawning developments in popular music that continue to reverberate around the world.

A compelling valorization of Brown’s approach is suggested by Gilles Deleuze’s account, in Différence et répétition, of the Idiot as the pedant’s polar opposite. As a musical Idiot, Brown’s naive immunity to conceptual rules or institutionally dominant forms of thinking—his capacity for thought without presupposition—enabled modes of conceptual originality that evaded the musically trained.

Funk was not a project” he explained. “It happened as part of my ongoing thing…I wasn’t going for some known sound, I was aimin’ for what I could hear.”

Brown’s bravado and innovations were necessary because he lacked the musical and cultural capital of his peers. Deleuze’s Idiot is self-assured because he is not bothered with any image of thought that cannot see him; for Brown, reason yielded to experimentation because his poverty-stricken childhood had demonstrated that abstractions were useless for solving the immanent problems at hand.

Brown had a superlative ability to forge new connections, to make music work regardless of its orthodoxy. This is what Deleuze attributed to the great artist—one who could make new and unforeseen connections.

This according to “James Brown: The illogic of innovation” by John Scannell (New formations: A journal of culture/theory/politics 66 [spring 2009] pp. 118–133; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-17662).

Today would have been Brown’s 90th birthday! Below, the Godfather of Soul defies logic in his heyday.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music

Max Reger’s Würstiade

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The Bavarian composer Max Reger was famous for his appetite. According to his biographer Fritz Stein, he was capable of consuming up to 30 little Bavarian weißwürste or up to 12 Regensburger würste at one sitting. Such meals needed to be washed down with up to ten liters of beer, but after giving up alcohol while he was living in Meiningen (as conductor of the Hoforchester of Duke Georg II, from 1911 to 1915), he kept up with the sausage habit.

Thus, from a letter to the Duke of 27 May 1912: “Yesterday afternoon we took another walk to the Helenenhöhe, where I sampled the Thuringian Rostbratwürste for the first time, and immediately devoured ten of them, to my wife’s disgust. But they agreed with me extremely well; I worked until ten o’clock last night, woke up fit as a fiddle, and feel fine, although everybody warned me that the bratwurst was too greasy. They were revolted by my drinking cold milk with the ten sausages. I thus brilliantly disproved the old myth that says one has to have alcohol with greasy foods, in the form of schnapps.”

The Duke replied “In the name of God, don’t repeat that Würstiade very often, if you don’t want to get popped underground or into the crematorium soon. Mass-produced sausages often contain nasty things.”

This according to Über die Lebensgewohnheiten eines Genies by Hans-Joachim Marks (Mitteilungen der Internationalen Max-Reger-Gesellschaft XXI [2012] pp. 23-27).

Today is Reger’s 150th birthday! Below, Hans-Dieter Bauer performs Reger’s Humoresque for the left hand alone—presumably composed so he could continue to eat würste with his right hand.

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Filed under Curiosities, Food, Romantic era

Verdi and Falstaff

On 27 November 1890 Milan’s Corriere della sera broke the news that Giuseppi Verdi, then 77 years old, had already composed more than half of a comic opera drawn from Shakespeare, to be called Falstaff. The revelation took Italy by storm, and newspapers throughout the country immediately amplified the story.

“[Verdi] said that Boito’s libretto is beautiful,” La perseveranza gushed, “so comic that even while composing it he has to break off work from time to time to burst into laughter.”

This was amazing news, since Verdi’s name was universally linked with a brilliant succession of tragic operas over a span of more than 40 years, and it was widely assumed that his serious temperament was unsuited to comedy.

Verdi and Boito worked together closely, modifying Shakespeare’s work to make it more suitable for operatic treatment. They were particularly concerned about focusing the dramatic interest of the third act, and Verdi suggested several specific lines and passages from Shakespeare as promising anchors for musical treatment.

“I’m amusing myself by writing fugues!” Verdi wrote to him at one point. “Yes, sir; a fugue…and a comic fugue, which would be in place in Falstaff!” He may well have been referring to the opera’s finale—meaning that he composed its music before he received its text!

For the work’s premiere (pictured above), La Scala’s ticket prices were 30 times higher than usual, and royalty, aristocracy, and critics from around the world attended. The performance was hugely successful; numbers were encored, and at the end the applause for the composer and the cast lasted an hour.

This according to Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff by James A. Hepokoski (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1983-2848).

Today is the 130th anniversary of Falstaff’s premiere!

Below, the celebrated fugal finale.

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Filed under Humor, Opera

Esoteric orchestration

Gérard Encausee (Papus)

Aligned with the Symbolists, Camille Mauclair considered the orchestra a transposed symbol of the emotions in nature and cited Wagner’s music as an outstanding realization of this concept.

Although he was a staunch Positivist who attacked the Symbolists, Ange-Marie Auzende described the symbolic qualities of instruments and considered the orchestra a mirror of the soul. Ernestine-André van Hasselt wrote for popular audiences, characterizing instruments as expressing or even embodying various personalities and psychological states.

In the 1894 pamphlet Anatomie et physiologie de l’orchestre, co-authored by the popular occult writer Gérard Encausee (writing under his esoteric pseudonym Papus) and the young Frederick Delius, the four instrumental groups—strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion—were associated respectively with God, the head, and the nervous system; man, the chest, and the arterial system; woman, the chest, and the venous system; and nature, the abdomen, and the lymphatic system.

Further subdivisions and associations were outlined in preparation for a larger prescriptive work for composers that never materialized.

This according to “Sound as symbol: Fin de siècle perceptions of the orchestra” by Eric Frederick Jensen (The music review LV/3 [August 1994] pp. 227–240; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-16688).

Above, Papus in the back room of the Librairie du Merveilleux ca. 1890; below, the opening of Delius’s Appalachia from 1896, perhaps an example of his application of such theories.

Related article: F, the keynote of nature

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Filed under Curiosities, Romantic era

Uncracking the Nutcracker

Photo from the original 1892 production of “Nutcracker” showing Varvara Nikitina as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Pavel Gerdt as the Cavalier.

Although the place of Ŝelkunčik (Nutcracker) in the hearts of today’s audiences is secure, its genesis hardly seemed auspicious.

Čajkovskij repeatedly sought to abandon work on the project, and complained bitterly about it to the Director of Imperial Theaters; the reasons why he begged to be released from it, or why he ultimately persevered, remain unknown.

The problems probably involved the libretto, which the fastidious composer may well have found vexing. Parts of it lack any rationale, the balance of mime and dance is lopsided, and the overall arc of the story is incoherent, with several essential plot elements entirely missing.

These issues can be resolved by rendering most of the ballet as Drosselmayer’s thoughts rather than Clara’s dream. One can easily imagine the composer taking delight in this solution.

This according to “On meaning in Nutcracker” by Roland John Wiley (Dance research III/1 (fall 1984) 3–28; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1984-12142).

Today is the 130th anniversary of Nutcracker‘s premiere!

Below, part I of Mark Morris’s approach, which he called The hard nut.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Romantic era

Paganini and Marfan syndrome

Since the 1950s scientists have increasingly agreed that Paganini was probably a victim of Marfan syndrome—although beneficiary seems a more appropriate word than victim.

The typical characteristics of this pathological condition—a tall, thin body and particularly long, thin arms and hands—are perfectly in keeping with the virtuoso’s somatic characteristics, noted by all who described him and confirmed by the concert sketch by the writer and painter Johann Peter Lyser, the only artist known to have reproduced the violinist’s exact physiology (above; click to enlarge).

There can be no doubt that Paganini’s abnormal ligaments—together, of course, with his extraordinary musical talent—were a definite advantage in his chosen career.

This according to “Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840)” by G. Sperati and D. Felisati (Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica XXV/2 [April 2005] pp. 125–128; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-51589).

Today is Paganini’s 240th birthday! Below, Jascha Heifetz plays the composer’s Caprice, op. 1, no. 24.

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Filed under Performers, Romantic era, Science

Citizen Kane and the Isle of the Dead

Die_Toteninsel

A five-note motive in Rahmaninov’s Ostrov mërtvyh (The isle of the dead, op. 29), which evokes the opening of the Dies irae melody used by Berlioz and Liszt, is strikingly similar to what Bernard Herrmann referred to as the motive of power or fate in his score for Citizen Kane.

Rahmaninov’s work was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Toteninsel (above; click to enlarge), and Herrmann’s statements about his creative process suggest that the opening images of the film might have unconsciously reminded him of the painting, which in turn could have aroused an association with Rahmaninov’s work.

This according to “The Dies irae in Citizen Kane: Musical hermeneutics applied to film music” by William H. Rosar, an essay included in Film music: Critical approaches (New York: Continuum, 2001, pp. 103–116). Below, the first minutes of Citizen Kane, followed by Rahmaninov’s symphonic poem.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Film music, Visual art