Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The rest is tonal



As the Southbank Centre works its way through the development of 20th century music along the lines of Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, I've been hearing so much to remind me that, loudly though the twelve-tone boys and their disciples may have shouted and slavishly though the acadamic establishment may have followed them, tuneful and direct serious (and, as Prokofiev put it, 'light-serious') music kept going.

My feeling that all these ways of finding new ways to say old things, properly absorbing the past - it's hardly reactionary - are just as valid as the work of the so-called pioneers, was confirmed by an interview Benjamin Britten (pictured above with Pears and Poulenc in Cannes, 1954) gave Donald Mitchell back in 1969. It's reproduced in The Britten Companion (Faber; more on the context, taking the City Lit opera class through Gloriana, anon).

Praising the emerging John Tavener - pity that promise never went further than it did - Britten said 'I think he and many of his generation are swinging far, far away now from what I call the academic avant-garde, who have rejected the past. He and many others like him adore the past and build on the past. After all, language is a matter of experience. When we're talking together, we're using symbols which have been used by the past. If we rejected the past we should be just making funny noises.'

Mitchell asks him if he is conscious of the burden of tradition. 'I'm supported by it, Donald,' comes the reply. 'I couldn't work alone. I can only work really because of the tradition that I am conscious of behind me. And not only the painting, and architecture, and countryside around me, people around me....I feel as close to Dowland, let's say...as I do to my youngest contemporary.'


Steeped in Poulenciana, and happily ploughing my way through the correspondence, I'm always aware of the sheer joy in his tradition-conscious music. He loves what he absorbs. But he also realised his limitations. He writes to a friend in 1942: 'I am well aware that I am not the kind of musician who makes harmonic inventions like Igor [Stravinsky], Ravel or Debussy [always the top names among living composers he tended to cite, along with Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, occasionally Hindemith]. But I do think there is a place for new music that is content with using other people's chords. Was that not the case with Mozart and with Schubert? And in any case, the personality of my harmonic style will become evident.'

It's been a joy to discover the Trio and the Sextet in Pascal Rogé's collaborations with marvellous French colleagues, even to hear the strange Aubade in a vintage recording where Poulenc is the pianist. In his own piano pieces, he's an interesting one: determined to capture a speedy spirit where appropriate without bothering too much about all the right notes.

As for other personal discoveries, after Tippett's Second Symphony, I found to my surprise that the First went just as deep - probably deeper in its knotty slow-movement Passacaglia variations, where there's the sort of selective scoring, in this case for three flutes above the chaconne on muted violas and cellos, which most composers can only dream of hitting on. Indebted to Graham Rickson there for digging out the old Colin Davis recordings for me.


I was heading for the second-cast Mozart Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera on Friday. But the Tuesday before, I listened to Vaughan Williams's Five Tudor Portraits to prepare the class for the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert I thought I was going to miss. I suppose I'd imagined that all five portraits were like the one I knew, the Epitaph for John Jayberd of Diss - three-minute character studies. I hadn't appreciated the brilliance of Tudor poet John Skelton's rapping doggerel and I was stunned to find not only the rollicking variety of 'The Tunning of Elinor Rumming' (a real personage depicted above handing her ale to Skelton and a priest) but above all the 20-minute requiem for Jane Scroop's sparrow Philip, slain by the convent cat Gib.


Such delicacy here, sentiment in the right sense and fresh invention just when it's needed. And this in a rather poor performance conducted by David Willcocks (sadly there's not one on YouTube as yet, though you can catch the BBCSO performance on the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer until Friday evening). I gave up my Flute ticket and went to the Barbican instead, writing about it for The Arts Desk. John Wilson and co confirmed my hunch: a masterpiece. I shed a few tears for Philip Sparrow, I can tell you, particularly in that movement's incandescent epilogue. None for York Bowen's Viola Concerto, simply because like so many second-rank works it lacks a personal identity. But that's been an exception among the 20th century surprises, which I hope just keep on coming.


More of the new-to-me now, which in this case is very much the old, or rather timeless. On Ascension Day (illustrated by Rublev, the illuminator of the Très Riches Heures and Perugino),  I found myself spoiled for choice between the four cantatas on John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage instalment. For consistency's sake, I decided to stick with my Leipzig 1725 sequence and plumped for 'Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein', BWV 128. In that context the joyous circumstance has to make a new, at long last major-key beginning with two mellow horns dictating G major as Bach weaves a glistening fantasia around the sopranos' chorale.


Innovation appears in the bass's invocation to 'arise and with a bright sound proclaim...', accordingly replacing horns with trumpet and breaking off into recitative and arioso. Since the last of the sustained lines tell us 'not to fathom the Almighty's power', all we get in the ritornello is a brief return of the trumpet, no voice.


Alto and tenor in the ensuing aria-duet declare 'my mouth falls silent', but they instead keep on going until the lovely oboe d'amore has the final word and - unaccompanied - the last note. Even the final chorale, with its rich turn on 'Herrlichkeit', has added grace, this time in the return of the two horns, the first climbing to the heights to fill out the textures in the final gazing 'on Thy majesty for all eternity'. As Rene Jacobs, in his incarnation as one of the worst countertenors ever, is on the Leonhardt recording, let's try a newcomer, Dutch forces under Leusink.


From sacred to profane, finally, here's a plug from proud godfather for Alexander 'Betty' Lambton's sax tootling in his band Lieutenant Tango. Let's hope the irresistible danciness of  their single 'Charle Brash' brings them the fame they deserve. This old hipster-replacement here is already chanting and doofing the refrain 'Charlie Brash (doof, doof, doof)/Where's your cash? (doof, doof, doof).'

22 comments:

Joseph Streeter said...

An interesting post. I'm particularly enjoying the recent focus on Poulenc. I was, however, a bit puzzled by the claim that "finding new ways to say old things, properly absorbing the past - it's hardly reactionary - are just as valid as the work of the so-called pioneers." I suppose I'm unclear about the notion of 'validity,' which strikes me as a rather weak criterion. Presumably people like Adorno and Boulez are the implicit targets of this statement, and certainly their views on the proper shape of modern music seem too restrictive. But Britten, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Shostakovich etc are surely lesser composers than e.g. Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg (as Poulenc himself acknowledges in his remarks on Stravinsky). I like Poulenc's music very much, and find scores like Les Biches and Aubade aesthetically successful because they are expressions of a very characterful musical personality. But they're not works of the stature of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. I suppose also it's worth emphasizing that the development of the twelve tone system had a conservative motivation, and can be employed alongside more traditional forms. Stravinsky's Agon is a good example, and it seems to me one of his greatest works.

David said...

Very welcome thoughts, Joseph, and I hope they prompt more. But do you really think that Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich - I think Poulenc might, overall, slip in as a 'lesser' but nevertheless very individual figure' - are lesser than Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg? I take it that Poulenc's point means that you don't have to be a pioneer to be first-rank. His examples of Mozart and Schubert (implicitly v Beethoven the innovator) suggest as much.

No, Les Biches and Aubade aren't the equals of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. But Shostakovich's Fourth, Eighth and Tenth Symphonies, Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas 6-8 and Britten's The Turn of the Screw along with many of the other operas surely are: not in terms of breaking the rules, but for what we can get out of them spiritually and intellectually. They will surely survive the test of time just as well.

I love the progress of Agon from tonal to 12-tone, but I'm still not so sure about what came after in Stravinsky's output. Which person of heart would not rather hear Poulenc's Gloria than Stravinsky's Threni, for instance?

Adorno has already been discussed in the last batch of comments as a dogmatic dead end - I refuse to consult him any more - and I always harp back to Stephen Johnson's observation of Boulez in an Edinburgh chat responding to a question by saying 'I think we may have taken insufficiently into account the audience'.

Joseph Streeter said...

Comparing Les Biches and Aubade with Petrushka and The Rite of Spring was a bit unfair, and the comparison would have been more questionable had I chosen Romeo and Juliet.
I suppose I probably would still want to hold on to the notion that Britten, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich are lesser composers than Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, at least in the sense that Debussy et al expanded the possibilities of musical expression to an extent that it would be very difficult to write a history of 20th century classical music without paying significant attention to their work. The same does not quite hold for Britten, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, whatever its undoubted richness.
I confess, though, that I'm not sure how far I'd want to press this argument, and I would not want to deny that individual works of Britten, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich are more successful than works in the same genre by Debussy et al (I would happily accept that The Turn of the Screw is a more successful work than The Rake's Progress, for instance). Of the criteria that we use to assess musical works, formal innovation is one among several. But I'm inclined to think that it is quite an important one.

David said...

Many years ago I read essays by the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch - not Ernest the composer - who made just such distinctions between the innovators and the (in his opinion) often greater figures like Mozart who followed them. So I really do think we have to talk about importance of introducing new ideas as equalled by importance of expression. So I still wouldn't say 'lesser'.

I rather like the dry remark of a personage - I forget whom and can't find the reference - in Prokofiev diaries who says of an innovator 'important to the history of music, but not to music'. Debussy and Stravinsky, of course, were both. Schoenberg post-Gurrelieder, I wonder. It was Berg who really maintained the expressive possibilities of dodecaphony and never quite cut it off from tonality.

Joseph Streeter said...

'Lesser' is an unfortunate term, and the Bloch distinction sounds pretty sensible. Certainly it would be strange to say that Mozart is a lesser composer than Beethoven (although, on a personal level, Beethoven's music 'speaks to me' more profoundly than does Mozart's). And there are technically innovative composers who are nevertheless relatively minor (Edgar Varese might be an example). I like the remark from the Prokofiev diaries. Personally I would be inclined to say that Schoenberg was both important to the history of music and important to music. I find some of his works of the late 1900s and early 1910s extraordinarily powerful (Pierrot Lunaire, the second string quartet, Ewartung). Whether the turn to twelve tone composition was a fruitful one is perhaps questionable in Schoenberg's case. But I think the technique can itself be quite fruitful - in Berg's music, as you say, and in Webern and some late Stravinsky.

David said...

Agreed - even with regard to Pierrot and the Second Quartet (Erwartung loses me but I love the last page...)
I've just found good old Poulenc in 1950 approving of 'young Europeans..searching for new emotions in the not yet ossified twelve-tone system' while railing against their American counterparts for 'buzzing like flies around Hindemith and Igor'. 'And believe me when I tell you that the young Europeans do not like me at all,' he adds. Though he was wrong when he wrote that 'it is out of old Europe that new ideas will come': Cage was about to happen, and bashing a way out of the dead end of Glassian minimalism was good old John Adams.

We probably also agree that it was only in its systematized version that dodecaphony became such a dead end. As an element in music, ie in Britten's Death in Venice and Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony, it certainly has its place.

So that's a happy consensus, I think.

Susan Scheid said...

Lest you think that I'm not fascinated by both this post and the ensuing discussion, I write here to say au contraire, and I shall return. Great post, not least that closing "doof, doof, doof."

David said...

Can't you just see me headbanging? Makes me almost nostalgic for my two sixth form years, the heyday of punk. Though I was more likely to be putting on a record of the Meistersinger Prelude in our assembly play-what-you-like slot than 'God Save the Queen/the Fascist regime' (or maybe it was 'White Riot'), presented by one Ian Cook-Abbott.

Susan Scheid said...

So, now, I started to write a comment on the substance of the first part of your post, and even by my track record, it became to long to possibly insert here. So, herewith, I have made the comment into a post: here. Definitely a fool wandering where angels would know better than to tread. FYI, I am only seeing the final exchange between you and Joseph Streeter now. I am certainly in agreement which much that's stated there, as I think you'll see, and particularly your points about use of serialism (dodecaphony is perhaps the more appropriate term?) as a fruitful element within music.

PS: You with the punk, me with the Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead . . .

Susan Scheid said...

I look forward to your new post, though hope you don't mind if I don't leave this enormously rich and fruitful discussion just quite yet. It won't be the first time I'll have actually saved the post and comments to print out for later reference. What particularly impresses me in the comments is the engaged and respectful quality of the conversation between you and Streeter, in which you each closely examine what the other has said and offer clarifications and adjustments based on that. It's rare to happen upon such thoughtful conversation in real life, let alone in the cybersphere. Thank you, also, and Joseph Streeter, too, for the inspiration to try and set down my own thoughts on the topics discussed here. I'm not sure when I might have settled to it without this spur, and it was an enormously gratifying and instructive exercise. (I will of course be responding to your always perceptive comments Over There "in due course.")

David said...

Well, Sue, I was certainly impressed by Joseph's willingness to respond and think again. You're right, it doesn't happen often (it always happens with you). I could wish more folk would join the debate. But the sort of 'I know best' exchanges I see on my rare glimpses of messageboards or Facebook don't seem to happen here. And I promise you, I've only ever had to moderate half a post because it was insulting to close friends, and that was many years ago...

As I wrote Over There, what more could one want from an intelligent, feeling listener than your five criteria? I'm delighted and honoured that you extended the argument. Of all your examples, the only one I still don't 'get' is Schoenberg's Variations. Unless you happen to be Berg, a twelve-tone theme is going to be so unmemorable as to throw into doubt what the variations are; and in dodecaphony, surely, everything can be derived from anything. I love that Boulez comment about how in their strictures his school ended up sounding closest to its opposite, Cage's chance operations...

I also have my doubts about Saariaho. For me, she raises another question I've mulled over since walking Offa's Dyke with Stephen Johnson and him positing the idea that too many new pieces are all process and no 'hook'. In her case it's a beautiful soundworld, but that word, too, I'm suspicious of, implying as it does lack of actual substance. The soundworld is important and, very rarely, in parts of Ravel and key Ligeti pieces, of primary significance, but usually it's not enough by itself. But maybe I open yet another can of (ear)worms there.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I don't "get" the Schoenberg piece, either, BTW. I wanted to include one from the 12-tone period, and, consistent with my overall difficulty in listening to those works, I find it's always a sort of random pick, a la Boulez (isn't that a great quote?). Verklärte Nacht, now, that's another matter, but it's pre-12-tone, so there you are! I've not listened to too much Saariaho--partly because my few attempts haven't incited me to go back. I think your comment may well go right to the heart of why. I'm still listening to see if the piece endures, but, for whatever reason, Laterna Magica got past my initial threshold. We shall see.

David said...

More wonderful insights from Poulenc on the twelve tone industry in the late 1950s: in spite of being funny about the 'dodecaca of Darmstadt', he takes it seriously and listens to a lot. At RAI he hears 'a lot of electronic and serial music. Very beautiful sonata for flute and piano by Boulez, although a little too long. Compared with that, what a lot of twelve-tone old hat from so many young musicians!!!! There is already so much cliched stereotype in the genre. The instrumentation of Puccini's Manon Lescaut last night was more rich in surprises.'

Know how he feels. The musicians who visited the BBCSO class on Tuesday had an interesting point about Webern's brevity: he understood that listening to dodecaphony for too long is wearing - I just switch off and it becomes wallpaper music - so his elliptical utterances are all the more welcome. And they do anticipate Cage by making you value silence or near silence.

David Damant said...

I venture with care on this sophisticated discussion but on the point about innovation and the past I remember from my youth the wonderful description of the wine of Malescot St. Exupery - "Known by its predestined lovers as combining in itself that innovation within the tradition which is the hallmark of achievement in literature, life and wine". One might add music.

Joseph Streeter said...

I had meant to come back to this earlier, but with one thing or another was not able to until now. Essentially I agree with everything David said in his response to my last comment. One moral I take from the discussion is that the criteria we use to judge a work or oeuvre only ever apply more or less well. Innovation is one criterion, but placing too much emphasis on it can lead to some peculiar judgements (e.g. on the relative significance of Mozart and Beethoven). One interesting problem is how far the criteria governing aesthetic success change over time, but that's probably a debate for another time...
On a different note, I wanted to say how nice it is to be able to engage in a civilized conversation on themes like these. Keep the posts coming!

David said...

Amen to that (the civilized debate), Joseph. I wish folk would join it, though perhaps I'm being greedy. Not for attention, I hope, but just to enrich the argument and see other sides of the question.

David - the blurb for the wine is typical of the advertising excess you excoriate, methinks...That would be enough to turn me into a second Boulez.

Susan Scheid said...

David and Joseph: My own thinking has been immensely enriched by this discussion, for which I thank you both. The discussion continues and widens, I'm happy to note. Here is a contribution I thought worthwhile to bring to your attention, from Mark Kerstetter, an exceedingly thoughtful and always civilized contributor from whom I have learned a great deal on a number of fronts: here.

David said...

Yes, he's absolutely right, Babbitt's criteria are out of touch. Much more needs to be written on the nature of what kind of audience the composer addresses. The Scylla and Charybdis are the elitists and the lazy listener who says 'I know what I like, and that's not music'.

Susan Scheid said...

Scylla and Charybdis indeed! I just finished writing one magnum opus comment in response to Angela on my blog and another on Mark's in support of what Mark wrote, and love the fact that, over here, you've said it all in far fewer words. Still, it was fun to revisit a few choice Taruskin essays I haven't looked at in a while. And, as always, John Adams's perspective shines as both intelligent and humane. Now, I look forward to getting on to all my spring flower photographs, so it's not summer before I post some of those!

Laurent Beaulieu said...

David, the book on Poulenc you recommend is unfortunately not available for a reasonable price. On Amazon the price is $770. far to rich for me. I wonder do you know a book dealer in London who might have a good clean copy for a much cheaper price?

David said...

Ma foi! Well, surely no-one pays that sort of money. I did see a copy in even better nick down in my favourite Lewes bookshop for next to nothing (£9, I think). If I can find the name of the shop, I'll ring up - though it was almost as long ago as this blogpost. Will also try Travis and Emery.

Laurent said...

Thank you David.