In my previous blog, I talked about how classical music was the model for many amazing film scores. But when classical music is itself the subject of tv or cinema, it’s often in a negative light. To indicate that a character is old-fashioned, stuffy, and possibly a psychopath.
In short: the classical music lover on the small or big screen is seldomly someone with whom you’re supposed to sympathize. With one curious exception: Endeavour Morse.
To be clear, inspector Morse is not a likeable guy – at least not in a traditional way. This late version of the British gentleman detective is from a humble background. But that doesn’t stop him from looking down on just about everyone around him. He’s exceptionally mean to his faithful subordinate, Sergeant Lewis, whom he scolds for his grammar, his lack of cultural capital, and occasionally even his wife.
Nevertheless, you can’t help rooting for the old grouch. Because of his sarcastic sense of humor and anti-establishment stance. And because he’s a dog that barks but never bites. There are even some surprisingly tender moments between him and Lewis.
Through his refined tastes, Morse tries to distance himself from his unhappy childhood. He sculpted himself a persona out of poetry, museum visits, craft beers (long before those became fashionable) and – of course – classical music.
It’s no wonder that his preferences are on the conservative side. Lots of Mozart and Wagner. Scarcely something composed after 1900. The only time he stumbles into other musical worlds, he’s genuinely bewildered – like in the episode Cherubim & Seraphim, which is against the deafening backdrop of the rave scene. Hearing a familiar sample in one of the dance tracks, he shouts indignantly: “But that’s Allegri’s Miserere, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult!” – as if he’s made a crucial discovery in his investigation into the death of a young schoolgirl.
Two episodes are inspired by a piece of classical music. In Masonic Mysteries, Morse is persecuted by a nemesis who taunts him with references to Mozart’s Magic Flute. But my favorite is Twilight of The Gods, where Morse investigates the shooting of a Welsh opera singer who’s famous for performing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s ring cycle.
The episode is littered with references to the famous opera tetralogy, including a subplot where it appears that the villain of the story murdered his son – just like Wotan killed Siegmund. There are also a lot of helicopters flying around, for no other reason I can think of but as a nod to the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, set to the Ride of the Valkyries. There’s even a burning Walhalla at the end, even if it’s a scale model.
Naturally, the success of the Inspector Morse series led to a stream of soundtrack CDs that sold like hot cakes. One wonders what the character himself would have thought about these ‘greatest hits’ CD boxes for sale at supermarket checkouts. I imagine a conversation such as this one:
Morse: “Lewis, but this is the sort of music l like, only cut up into less-than-four-minute fragments. Look, that’s the immolation scene from Götterdämmerung, conducted by Furtwängler!”
Lewis: “Ay Sir, it’s from a television series me wife likes!”
Morse: “Well, she would, wouldn’t she? As Frank Lloyd Wright said, Lewis, television is chewing gum for the eyes.”
Nevertheless, it’s possible that Inspector Morse did more for the popularity of classical music than many well-meaning but predictably failing educational initiative.
For decades, classical music tried to get rid of its reputation of pretentiousness in order to appeal to the masses. And when the masses do fall for it, it’s because the greatest snob of all listens to it in his vintage Jaguar Mark 2. Go figure.
Inspector Morse theme music
Finally, you can’t write about Inspector Morse and music without mentioning one of the most lasting legacies of the series: the theme music by Barrington Pheloung. It cleverly starts with the violins rhythmically spelling out MORSE in, well, morse code.
There’s no shortage of cultural pessimists who complain about the dwindling societal status of classical music. Until the middle of the twentieth century, they say, classical music was part of popular culture. Today, it’s nothing more than a shrinking niche.
That might be true if you look at record sales and concert attendance. But dig deeper, and you notice how the classical music tradition influenced much of the culture that supposedly supplanted it. And the best example is the Hollywood blockbuster.
Wagner in space
What part of the success of movies like ET, Jurassic Park or Harry Potter would be due to their music? My guess is 60 percent. Up to 80 percent for the Star Wars movies. If they didn’t have the best soundtrack of all time, their attraction would be inexplicable.
The man responsible for the music in all those films is John Williams, a composer who brought the sound of late-romantic composers such as Wagner and early modernists such as Stravinsky and Holst to just about every cinema theatre and living room. And who – at ninety years of age – is now embraced by the classical music establishment. Both the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic welcomed him for a concert and album devoted to his work. You can’t get more canonized than that.
If you needed one, listening to the recording of The Berlin Concert is a reminder that Williams wrote some of the most exciting music since World War II. And I mean that in an almost physical way. Doubtlessly nostalgia plays a part in it, but I get goosebumps every time I hear the Flying Theme from ET or the Throne Room & Finale music from Star Wars. The Berlin Philharmonic devotes all of its considerable forces to this project. The result is both a breathtaking musical experience and an opportunity to brush up on your knowledge of all the instruments in a symphonic orchestra. Not in the least the percussion and brass sections.
There’s one thing that Williams does better than anyone else: conveying immensity in music. Immensity of emotion, like in the heartbreaking music from Schindler’s List, which is inexplicably not included on this album. Or immensity of space, like in the theme from Jurassic Park, which immediately conjures up rolling planes with grazing brontosauruses – or whatever they are (ask your local six-year-old).
His themes often combine a strong rhythmic drive (hence the percussionists working overtime) and yearning melodies that quickly reach their climax – then start over again.
That’s it, that’s the formula. Oh, and trumpets. Lots of trumpets. Williams even asked for American trumpets to be used in this Berlin concert. Because they make more noise than European trumpets, apparently. Next time someone complains to you about the uniformity of modern global culture, hit them with this trumpet factoid to shut them up.
You can’t blame Williams for sticking to his winning musical formula. As a blockbuster composer, that’s what you’re paid to do. While George Lucas asked him to write something in the style of Gustav Holst’s The Planets for Star Wars, subsequent directors requested something in the style of John Williams. And that’s what he gave them. The Superman March, Raiders March, … all great pieces. But put them on the same record and it soon gets tedious.
That’s why the more ‘atypical’ pieces on this album are such a relief. Like the opening Olympic Fanfare and Theme, which shows an affinity with the populist music of Aaron Copland. The avant-garde sounds of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Or the folk tunes of Far and Away.
But the absolute high point is the Elegy for Cello and Orchestra. Because it seems to tell a story, rather than just support one.
On second thoughts …
Who am I kidding? Yes, the elegy is a fine composition. I’ll keep that in mind for whenever I need to sound sophisticated when discussing the oeuvre of John Williams (you never know where life takes you).
But the real high point of this album comes at the end: the Imperial March from Star Wars. Not since Mozart’s Queen of the Night did evil sound so terrifying and yet so alluring. If this is what the dark side sounded like, I would have joined them in a second.
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On May 12, 1809, Vienna was under siege by the French, who would soon capture the city. One cannonball had the nerve to fall into the courtyard of Austria’s most famous composer: Joseph Haydn. But while his household was understandably scared out of their wits, the bed-ridden 77-year old exclaimed dryly (and a bit smugly):
“Children, don’t be frightened. Where Haydn is, nothing can happen to you.”
This anecdote perfectly fits the popular image of good old ‘Papa’ Haydn. He might be an old bore, but at least he offers you comfort when you most need it.
But maybe there’s a more universal message to this story as well. One about the power of art withstanding the barbary of war. Which is hard to believe in – much as I do wish a Papa Haydn in the garden of everyone who falls victim to present-day Napoleons (or worse).
The military roots of classical music
Born in a continent continually ravished by armed conflict, it’s no wonder that classical music was partly shaped by the ritual of warfare. Apart from the church, royalty and nobility were the main sponsors of music. And few things get their juices flowing like the musical praise of their glorious deeds on the battlefield.
Such military music rarely excels in subtlety. What it does have in abundance are trumpets and timpani. Their typical musical gestures – drum rolls and fanfares – found their way to the standard language of classical composers. Sometimes to evoke the battlefield, sometimes just for the fun of it – like in Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.
In Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli (Mass in time of war), there’s no doubt that the drumming and tooting are meant to evoke military conflict. What’s less clear, is what Haydn was trying to say.
Haydn’s mass in time of war: pacifist or belligerent?
At least since World War One, we’re used to music echoing pacifist sentiments. Examples range from Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein to Bob Dylan. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, composers more often glorified war. When that results in awful music such as Beethoven’s Wellington’s victory or Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812, we don’t need to worry about a clash between or conscience and our good taste.
But what about Haydn’s war mass? When he wrote the work in the summer of 1796, his homeland was under attack from the French on two fronts. There’s little doubt that he was literally praying for an Austrian victory. Is his Missa in tempore belli the musical evocation of that? Or a streaming indictment of war itself?
“Can we please have peace?”
Although the whole mass is of course worth your listen, you have to wait for the military-themed part until the last movement, the Agnus Dei:
The text is important here:
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world
have pity on us
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world
dona nobis pacem
give us peace
The piece starts in an uneventful F major with three repetitions of ‘Agnus Dei’ – rising in intensity – and ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’. But then, after about one minute, there’s a soft drum roll. In his memoires, Haydn stated that this “should sound as if one heard the enemy approaching in the distance.”
The choir starts the ‘miserere’ part. At first hesitantly, but as the war drums rise in volume, the music turns to a woeful C minor. At about two minutes into the piece, the trumpets join in, and the choir sounds ever more despairing.
At about 3 minutes, everything calms down again. Against the continuing backdrop of the timpani, the choir for the first time takes up the ‘dona nobis pacem’. Although the text is an order (Give us peace!), Haydn musically turns it into a hesitant question (Can we please have peace?) – ending on the unstable chord of G7.
“Give us peace!”
The answer to the question follows immediately after that: a glorious fanfare! But then comes the true message of this Mass in time of war. Instead of joining in the triumph, the chorus overrules it by shouting at the top of its lungs (the longest note in the whole mass): we don’t want victory, we want peace!
A few bars later, the victory march comes to a halt. After a full bar of complete silence, the soloists start a – weirdly unsynchronized – chromatic descent that completely stops the momentum.
A very short fanfare kicks everything back in gear. What follows borders on an anti-war chant. The four voices mostly pound on the ‘dona nobis pacem’ in the same rhythm – as if they’re holding banners on the streets instead of scores in a concert hall. Then there’s this exhilarating moment when the tenors and basses sing the exact same note and are answered by the altos and sopranos:
The orchestra backs that up with drum rolls and trumpets. The musical language of war is being used to aggressively demand its banishment from this world.
What’s in a name?
There’s a fine line between interpretation and fabrication. Maybe I’ve just crossed it. Nevertheless, there’s one undisputed fact that points to the message that Haydn wanted to convey with this mass: the name itself.
Most of the well-known nicknames for Haydn’s works – like the Farewell and the Surprise symphonies – stem from the 19th century. But the name for this mass came from the man himself. He could have named it War mass, Victory mass, Glory of Austria mass, or whatever. After all, Haydn was a staunch patriot, who wrote the Austrian (and later German) national anthem. He played it incessantly on the piano during the siege of Vienna that this article started with.
In that light, Mass in time of war is an oddly unspecific title. It illustrates the universal aspirations typical of late Haydn – maybe the first composer who was truly aware of the fact that his legacy would outlive him. With this title, he subtly moves the focus from the conflict itself to what it means to those who must endure its consequences – who understand what it means to live in a time of war. He offers them comfort. But also a clear message: don’t settle for the lie that is victory – enduring peace is the only thing worth fighting for.
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In an earlier article, I mused about the many hours I’ve wasted watching music-related YouTube videos. This post is about the channel that stole the most of my time: Authentic Sound by Wim Winters – the closest thing the classical music universe has to a conspiracy theorist. At least if you believe some of the comments on his channel or on discussion boards such as these.
So, what vile beliefs does Winters peddle on his channel? That Mozart was the leader of a band of child molesters? That Schumann was murdered by Brahms so he could steal his wife? That Beethoven was black, or Handel was gay?
Prepare to be disappointed …
Wim Winters is the inventor and tireless evangelist of the whole-beat metronome practice or WBMP: he’s convinced that music from the 18th and 19th centuries should be played slower than it usually is. And I mean waaaaaay slower. This is what he thinks Beethoven’s fifth symphony should sound like:
To understand where that comes from, we need to talk about metronome marks.
The mystery of Beethoven’s metronome
The metronome was invented in Beethoven’s time. In fact, he was one of the first of many composers who enthusiastically embraced it. They jumped at the chance to ensure ‘faithful’ executions of their music. Just indicate the number of beats per minutes at the top of the score and that’s the tempo everyone should stick to. What could be simpler?
A lot, apparently. Because if we look at some of these metronome markings today, they seem unreasonably fast. In cases such as the marking Beethoven gave to his Hammerklavier sonata, it makes the music virtually unplayable.
It’s understandable that, for a long time, most performers pretended they didn’t see those metronome numbers and played the music considerably slower. That changed when the historically informed performance (HIP) movement picked up steam in the 1970s. True to their brand, the HIPsters dusted off those ‘authentic’ tempo indications and set out to prove they were not so absurd after all.
There’s a technical argument to back this up. Period instruments – such as baroque violins – make ‘shorter’ sounds that favor faster tempi. Pianofortes, moreover, have a lighter mechanical action than contemporary pianos, which makes them easier to play at high speeds.
And yet, that doesn’t conclusively solve the tempo problem. For one thing, the HIP performers, even if they play considerably faster, rarely reach the giga speeds that are proscribed for some works.
And it still seems strange that 19th century amateurs would have been expected to play at speeds that even present-day professionals struggle with. Consider that Chopin, who was not a show virtuoso like Liszt, would have been unable to play some of his own scores at the speeds he proscribed.
A very poor amateur pianist myself, I regularly play some of have J.S. Bach’s inventions – works that are explicitly meant for beginners. To play them at the metronome speeds mentioned in my score, is far beyond my reach. And even if I could pull it off, the result would sound ludicrous. The editor seems to be aware of this because they added a footnote:
“The metronomisations based on transition are intended for purposes of study, otherwise a more moderate time might be advisable throughout.”
Notwithstanding the abominable translation, it’s clear they think that the proscribed tempo would sound unmusical. So they advise you to slow down for actual performances. But what could be the point of making students play Bach at speeds that are not only unattainable, but also unmusical?
When I play those inventions, I regularly land at a tempo that’s about half as fast as the metronome mark. It’s feasible, and it sounds okay. And now we’re getting there …
From broken metronomes and stupid composers to the WBMP
More interesting is the idea of a psychological effect: music goes faster in the imagination than in reality, which compels composers to exaggerate their tempo indications. Perhaps, but that’s only valid if you assume that they never assess those spontaneous markings – at the keyboard for example.
And then there’s Wim Winters’ solution: whole-beat metronome practice (WBMP). In a nutshell: the first composers who encountered the metronome didn’t measure by the ticks of the mechanism but by the swing of the pendulum. As there are two ticks for every swing, their tempo indication needs to be doubled and the music would sound half as fast. Or double as slow.
Problems with the whole-beat metronome practice
Winters’ theory is certainly intriguing, and some of the examples he (cherry)picks certainly make you wonder. I recommend his series on the Bach inventions I mentioned earlier. Agree with him or not, but after that you cannot hold up the claim that there’s nothing fishy about 19th century metronome marks.
But there are also reasons for skepticism. For instance: wouldn’t you expect at least some, or even a lot of, direct historical evidence? Remember, Winters doesn’t only apply the WBMP to Beethoven and his pupils but also to composers like Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, … even all the way up to Max Reger. Why did no one, during those almost one hundred years, feel the need to express their amazement of the fact that the whole world had been using the metronome wrong?
Another reason to doubt the WMPB is the fact that if the music was played at a little less than half the speed, concerts would have taken almost twice as long. Haydn and Mozart symphonies would have easily gone on for more than 45 minutes – Beethoven symphonies regularly close to 80 minutes, the 9th even 2 hours. Unlikely, since contemporary critics complained about the outlandish length of some of Beethoven’s symphonies because they took more than 45 minutes. Although, it must be said that it’s very hard to determine what exactly was played during 19th-century concerts. Were all the movements of a symphony always performed? And what about the repeats withing movements?
Finally, there’s the very obvious problem of some music in triple meters such as 3/8. Say that the metronome indication is 100/dotted quarter note, and you want to interpret it according to the WBMP. That means you would need to play mostly three notes against two ticks – or in constant polyrhythm with the metronome. It’s doable but far from comfortable. And it strengthens the first argument against WBMP: why did no one in the 19th century protest against such obvious (and easily avoidable) impracticalities?
So, Winters’ WMPB theory is – though highly entertaining – very suspect. Nevertheless, he has a lot of committed believers. People who think that this is what Schubert’s Fantasy in f minor should sound like:
Crazy, right? But wait a minute: is it that much crazier than this interpretation of – again – Beethoven’s Hammerklaviersonate?
Impressive, sure. But to me, that tempo choice – though in the other direction – is almost as absurd. The difference is that the person making that choice is a highly respected pianist instead of a guy with a fringe YouTube channel. By the way, that’s still not as fast as Beethoven’s ‘single beat’ metronome mark. Here’s how that would sound.
When it comes to the speed of performed music before the recording era, we will always remain in the dark. What is certain, is that tempos have varied considerably over the years, owing to nothing more than fashion.
The HIP movement was fashion posing as science. Its anti-bourgeois, back-to-the-basics attitude paired well with the post-1960s cultural climate. Its love of speedy performances was partly a spill-over from pop and rock aesthetics. And it greatly benefited from the fact that recordings help to erase the lack of volume of period instruments. There’s nothing authentic about listening to a Beethoven symphony played by a supposedly 18th century orchestra and then turning it up to eleven.
And now, the pendulum is swinging back again. Look at the success of post-classical, neoclassical, indie classical or whatever you want to call it: slow, meditative music is all the rage. Wouldn’t it be perfectly natural if that influences the way we choose to interpret Beethoven or Chopin? We don’t need Winters’ creative historical research to back that up. But we certainly also don’t need the dogmas of the authenticity school to hold it back.
The revenge of the amateurs
It’s my hope that the relative success of Winters’ channel is an early indication of another swing of the pendulum: the death of classical music as a spectator sport. And the return of the amateur musician as the true hero of musical history.
The tagline of Winters’ channel used to be ‘They wrote music for you’. Whether that’s true of all music after Beethoven is another matter. But it’s certainly a fact that the success of the classical repertoire is mostly down to the incredible market for sheet music that existed during the 19th and early 20th century. Just about every middle-class house had a piano where the works of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, … were saved from oblivion. And it’s safe to guess that wasn’t done with the technical mastery of today’s maestros who practice sixty hours a week.
Playing an instrument – alone or together – is a gloriously absorbing activity that lets you experience music in a totally different way from merely consuming it. And yet, many of us learn to play an instrument when we’re young, and then give it up when we realize that ‘competence’ is all we can strive for. We seem to believe there’s no greater embarrassment than to become an imperfect version of the standard that is the professional musician.
It should be the other way around. The amateur musician is the standard, and the flawless, breakneck-speed virtuosos served to us by the music industry are circus freaks. They’re by no means out of place in the concert hall, but live music making should not be limited to payable venues.
Saying goodbye to unattainable tempo expectations is one of the easiest ways of greatly expanding the repertoire for amateur musicians. It’s no wonder that they flock to Winters’ YouTube channel. Or as a person on this forum so eloquently puts it:
“They probably have the same problem as him: no technique but still wants to play.”
Exactly. And all the more power to them.
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Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most. Listen to this playlist for a selection of some favorite tracks.
10. Saint-Saëns (Quatuor Tchalik)
Not even the French made a big deal of the 100th anniversary of the death of Camille Saint-Saëns. But you can be sure of more exuberant festivities when his 200th birthday comes along in 2035. Because Camille’s star is rising. No longer the two-hit wonder of Carnaval des animaux and Danse macabre. No longer the old-fashioned opponent of progressives such as Debussy. But an exceptionally talented composer whose oeuvre is as bounteous as his beard.
These string quartets were written in 1899 and 1918. While the times were very much a-changin’ in the world of music, Saint-Saëns stuck to the principles he believed in: beautiful melodies, clear formal structures and neatly dosed pathos. All perfectly conveyed in this recording by Quatuor Tchalik.
9. Piazzolla Reflections (Ksenija Sidorova)
Another composer we celebrated this year is Astor Piazzolla – who was born in the year Saint-Saëns died. During Piazzolla’s lifetime, the opinions about his work diverged. For some, he betrayed the authenticity of the tango. For others, he didn’t deviate from it enough to be taken seriously as a ‘classical’ composer. As time goes by, such considerations lose more and more of their importance. Which is why Piazzolla’s star is also on the rise.
Be that as it may, I think all that tangoing can get a bit tedious – especially for a whole album. That’s why it’s nice that Sidorova pairs Piazzolla’s compositions with works from other composers that are often a bit more adventurous. And that she gives plenty of room for musicians from different backgrounds (jazz, world music) to shine.
But the absolute highlight is an exhilarating performance of Piazzolla’s Concerto for bandoneon and chamber orchestra. Inevitably, this is one of those compositions where he veers more to the ‘classical’ side of his musical persona. But then comes the build-up to the big climax at the end of the third movement: a shy shuffle gradually turns into an outburst of pure passion. And you immediately grasp the unique position this man occupies 20th century music – and far beyond.
8. Verklärte Nacht – German Orchestral Songs (Edward Gardner, BBC Symphony Orchestra)
A woman and a man take a stroll through a dark forest. She confesses the child she’s carrying is not his. He says that’s fine. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Verklärte Nacht (transfigured night), a poem by Richard Dehmel.
Verklärte Nacht was famously translated into music (for string sextet – no voice) by Arnold Schoenberg before he turned atonal on us. This recording pairs that version with another one (with mezzo-soprano, tenor and orchestra) by Oskar Fried. They’re both beautiful examples of late German romanticism – pulling out all the stops regarding orchestration and daring post-Wagnerian harmony. You can easily understand why Schoenberg thought there was nowhere left to go – even if you don’t like his solution. The songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that round off this album demonstrate there were different roads to take.
But the big surprise on this record is Fieber by Franz Léhar. Yes, the Franz Léhar who wrote operettas like Die lustige witwe and was Hitler’s favorite composer (Adolf claimed it was Wagner, but Léhar was what he actually listened to).
Léhar’s contribution might be less sophisticated than those of Fried, Schoenberg and Korngold. It’s essentially a tearjerker about a dying soldier during the first world war (written in 1915). But that ending – “Herr Stabarzt, der Kadett vom Bette acht is tot” – sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it. I know I’m being emotionally manipulated but can’t resist reveling in it.
7. Otaka: Piano Concerto & Symphony “Au-delà du temps” (Live) (Junichi Hirokami, Japan Philarmonic Orchestra)
Atsutada Otaka died 100 years after the death of Saint-Saens and the birth of Piazzolla. If you’ve been paying attention, you realize that means he passed away this year.
Just like Saint-Saëns and Piazzolla, he studied in Paris. And that’s about all I can tell you – since the non-Japanese part of the internet I rely on for my musicological research doesn’t have a lot to say about him.
Luckily, his music speaks loud and clear. Especially the piano concerto is a tremendous example of the rhythmic vitality that characterizes so much of the best 20th and 21st century music. It mainly reminds me of Stravinsky, Gershwin and Glass. But that might be because I don’t know enough about Japanese music. This recording powerfully demonstrates why fixing that should be one of my new year’s resolutions.
performed by one of the greatest pianists of our time …
who also turns out be a wonderful conductor.
And that’s all I have to (need to) say about it.
5. En Albion: Medieval Polyphony in England (Paul Van Nevel, Huelgas Ensemble)
2021 was also the year of The Beatles: Get Back – a valuable addition to the already mythic story about four British lads who changed the history of music. A similar thing happened about 600 years earlier, when the works of – largely unnamed – English composers became all the rage on the continent and catalyzed the transition from the musical Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
Commentators from that time praised English music for its ‘sweet sound’. British composers achieved it through an increased used of sixths and thirds instead of fifths and octaves. And by taking care that simultaneous notes always sounded good together – in contrast to medieval composers who concentrated on nice chords on the beginnings and endings of phrases and didn’t much care about what happened in between.
This panconsonant style was then picked up on the continent by the first generation of Renaissance composers and would be of fundamental importance for the development of Western music – from Beethoven to, yes, The Beatles. But especially during the Renaissance, the ever-greater insistence on frictionless harmony meant that music also became a lot more boring. It lost all the edge that medieval music had.
From that respect, this collection of 14th century English music represents a unique balance between medieval edginess and Renaissance sophistication. It’s performed by the Huelgas ensemble, one of the pioneering and still most respected ensembles of early music. I generally find them a bit too tame and reverent when performing renaissance music. But in this recording, Paul Van Nevel takes a looser approach – playing around with voice arrangements to build dynamic structures and adding some unusual embellishments.
4. And Love Said… (Jodie Devos, Nicolas Krüger)
Did the English produce any other music of merit between the 1300s and the 1960s? Some might argue that they didn’t, especially since their one ‘big name’ was a German import. They would, of course be wrong – as Jodie Devos demonstrates through this collection of wonderful songs by – mainly – English composers from the early twentieth century such as Ivor Gurney, Benjamin Britten and William Walton.
Most of all, this record distinguishes itself by containing the most beautiful note of 2021. It’s at 2:13 of track 12 – Let the florid music praise by Benjamin Britten. On ‘hour’, Devos produces a tone (I think it’s a blue note) that threatens to snap all your heartstrings at once.
Extra points for the cover of Freddie Mercury’s You take my breath away. It proves that pop interpretations by classical musicians don’t need to be cringeworthy.
3. Schütz: Musicalische Exequien. German funeral music of the 17th century (Johannes Strobl, Voces Suaves)
One of the things we all know about J.S. Bach is that he made a synthesis of all the music that preceded him. Maybe that’s why I never paid much attention to 17th century music, thinking I could just as well listen exclusively to Bach instead.
Boy, was I wrong. Since I dived into the works of people like Purcell, Rameau, Biber, Schütz and Schmelzer, I realized there’s yet another treasure trove of music that I will never be able to fully unpack. This collection of German funeral music is full of the harmonic eccentricities that were ironed out by the time Bach and Handel wrote their choral masterpieces.
Schütz is the biggest name here, but I was especially blown away by the first track: Ich will schweigen by Johann Hermann Schein. It’s extraordinary to think that such a masterpiece was ‘Gebrauchsmusik’ – meant to be played only once and then, well, taken to the grave.
2. Summertime (Isata Kenneh-Mason)
2021 was the year when identity politics – or wokeism if you like – fully entered the world of classical music. That leads to toxic debates such as the imaginary cancellation of Beethoven. But also to a long overdue reevaluation of composers from disadvantaged groups such as women and people of color.
From that last category, I especially like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a turn-of-the-century English composer who was actually quite popular during his lifetime – mostly for his oratorio Song of Hiawatha. Maybe his ‘fall from grace’ has more to do with his musical style than the color of his skin. He composed in the tradition of Dvorak and Brahms, without advancing it very much. But isn’t ‘progressism’ another noxious ideology that the classical music world should leave behind?
Some of Coleridge-Taylor’s biggest fans came from the African-American community. When he learned of the sorrows of his brothers and sisters across the ocean – and discovered their music – he was extremely touched. His version of the spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, so soulfully performed by Kenneh-Mason, is a heartbreaking testament to that.
That track alone would be enough to put this record in my top ten. What launches it to the second spot is the inclusion of an equally impressive – yet completely different – work: Samuel Barber’s piano sonata. This is an extremely complex work that even uses – yikes! – some 12-tone rows. And nevertheless I was completely sold after no more than two listens. Remarkable!
1. Eilífur (Viktor Orri Árnason)
If you care about making classical music less white, Iceland probably isn’t the best place to look. But it’s undeniable that there’s something in the water of this volcano-ridden Viking hide-out that inspires musicians who effortlessly skate between pop, post-classical and avant-garde.
Not all of that music is to my taste. I love Björk, but never understood the attraction of Sigur Rós or Jóhann Jóhannsson. ‘Atmospheric’ is the word that’s most often used to describe their music. And while that makes for a perfect aural backdrop during sauna sessions, my attention quickly starts to drift away from the music. Which – I know – is probably exactly the point.
But once Árnason grabbed my attention, he never let go. He constantly plays around with his imaginary orchestra (different instrumental groups and voices were recorded during different sessions) to mix up the texture. Neoromantic strings and winds – sounding like Bruckner from under 15 meters of ice – are combined with an eerie avant-garde choir. In The thread a solo viola plays the saddest motif you can imagine. In The vision an ensemble of woodwinds weaves a brittle contrapuntal structure. There are ominous drones, syrupy fragments, impressive crescendos and sudden silences … Always something happening and yet beneath it all is a constant all-pervasive quality, a … – what should I call it – atmosphere!
Its booklet reveals that Eilífur – which means eternal – is a concept album. It conveys what life would be like if (when?) we all live forever. To me, it sounds like a state of limbo where we oscillate between hope and fear. A fitting tribute to 2021.
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Beethoven’s tenth is not ‘unfinished’, it simply doesn’t exist
While music history’s most famous unfinished symphony – Schubert’s eighth – is pretty much complete, Beethoven’s tenth was never begun. Even though the promo text of the AI project subtly tries to convince you otherwise:
“All he left behind were some musical sketches. Ever since then, Beethoven fans and musicologists have puzzled and lamented over what could have been. His notes teased at some magnificent reward, albeit one that seemed forever out of reach.”
No, Beethoven fans and musicologists have not been madly pulling out their hair about what could have been. Most of them couldn’t care less. One of them already claimed to ‘finish’ the tenth more than thirty years ago. Which is to say: he wrote a symphony in Beethoven’s style using that handful of melodies. Because that’s all you can reasonably do. Unless, apparently, you can “harness the power of AI”.
The contribution of AI to the ‘finishing’ of the ninth is probably minimal
That aforementioned promo text is extremely vague about how they used AI to ‘complete’ Beethoven’s tenth symphony. So all I can do is make an educated guess – and I’m not an educated data scientist. Fortunately, this guy is, and he does a nice job of explaining how it works for Bach chorales, so I’ll start from there.
Up until now, those AI-generated Bach chorales are the most famous examples of computer compositions. They’re impressive, but the project is also a bit of a scam. The name ‘Bach’ inflates the implied accomplishment, while the key word is actually ‘chorale’.
A chorale is a four-voice setting of a Lutheran hymn. Here’s a classic example:
Beautiful. Yet also, in many ways, simple:
The main melody (usually in the top voice) is a given so doesn’t need to be composed.
All voices have a more or less equal number of notes to sing and move together in the same rhythm.
It lasts no longer than a few minutes.
When you look at it from the standpoint of a computer, those are many fewer variables that it needs to worry about then when it’s asked to compose a, well, let’s say, … Beethoven symphony.
Nevertheless, the AI-composed chorales are extraordinary. How does it work? Not by music-savvy programmers – or IT-savvy musicologists – who write all the rules, that would take decades. It’s achieved by a process called deep learning where the computer kind of writes its own code. It works like this:
The computer is given an input, such as a few notes of a melody of a chorale.
The computer is asked to guess certain parameters, such as what the next note will be or what the underlying voices are.
If the computer is ‘right’ – makes the same choice as Bach – the algorithm is slightly adjusted accordingly.
After many, many trials and errors, the algorithm becomes so refined that it always guesses right or at least almost right.
You can now use it to write new stuff in the style of Bach.
Number 4 is important here: you need a lot of input to train a deep learning system. In this case, there are about 350 Bach chorales, which our data scientist source calls “an extremely small dataset”.
Compare that to a measly nine Beethoven symphonies and you’ll probably agree that something’s not right here. The promo text of the project mentions that they used “completed compositions from Beethoven’s entire body of work”, but that’s not very impressive when you realize that a lot of that isn’t even orchestral, and that Beethoven significantly changed important aspects of his style during his lifetime. Is the AI offering us the tenth symphony as it would have been composed by the 1827 Beethoven or by the ‘average’ Beethoven?
For all those reasons, I find it hard to believe that this tenth symphony was completed by artificial intelligence. I suspect that a lot of work was done by the composers and musicologists involved. So much that they could have done it faster and cheaper on their own. But then of course, they wouldn’t have made the news.
Why is that idea so easy to sell? Why do we instinctively believe that artificial intelligence can do a better job of imitating Beethoven than a 21st-century composer? This quote from the CEO of Playform AI, the company that did the AI part of this project, speaks volumes:
“At every point, Beethoven’s genius loomed, challenging us to do better.”
For a man who probably uniwheels to work and says ‘engaging in ideation’ when he means ‘thinking’, that’s a statement with surprising 19th century overtones. Didn’t we put behind us this idea of ‘great men’ who lived in a ‘golden age’ and now hover like demigods over us mere mortals? Apparently not. A lot of us still believe that present-day composers (F/M) are no match for Beethoven. And that only our new deity can come to the rescue: the Almighty Algorithm.
AI and music: servant rather than master
All this doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for using AI in music making. In the end, artificial intelligence is no different than a harpsichord, a synthesizer or a laptop – a tool that can also inspire.
Instead of using AI to come up with music that we can just as well imagine ourselves, why not take advantage of its ability to make connections that we would never come up with, to think of completely weird, but sometimes oddly beautiful sounds? Please decide for yourself whether this piece of music falls under that definition:
Although it was of course mostly awful, the coronavirus lockdown also brought a gift – the gift of time. Finally, there was a chance to get that body into shape, master a new skill, reconnect with close friends and family, …
Me, I seem to have spent it all watching YouTube.
That’s not a complete waste of time. There’s a lot of good stuff on there, not least for music nerds. People such as Adam Neely, David Bruce, David Bennet and 12tone manage to make music theory and analysis accessible, even fun. Quite an accomplishment.
And then, I bumped into this one:
I know that title is deliberately crude and silly. It’s supposed to make me mad so I would click on it and – even better – leave a comment. That’s how YouTube works. Well, how the internet works, really.
The movie is a lot more nuanced than you would expect from its title. Its point is not that Beethoven sucks at music. Just that his status as the greatest composer in history is not – and cannot be – based on any objective truth. Because there’s no way to measure musical quality.
So why do we accept Beethoven’s greatness – or Mozart’s, or Bach’s, but never Chevalier de Saint George’s or Florence Price’s? The answer is that the canon of classical music was first compiled by late-19th century Germans who naturally favored the big names of German music.
And now we’re stuck with a classical music culture that’s biased against women, people of color, and all the other folks that 19th century Germans weren’t so keen on. It’s time for change. Let’s take Beethoven of the programs for a few years and give the stage to some unheard voices – as was suggested in this excellent, similarly themed podcast.
All this could have been the perfect intro to a good old rant about ‘woke madness’. But that’s not what I have in mind. In fact, a lot of these reevaluations of our classical canon make perfect sense. They’re also not nearly as new some people think. They’re just finally making it into the mainstream. Which is about time.
But I find it hard to believe that the canon, as 12tone puts it, “has nothing to do with musical quality.” Beethoven’s place on top of the musical Olympus is down to more than him being “in the right place at the right time”. Just consider that …
1. Not all attempts at shaping the canon are successful.
It’s true: the idea of the divide between serious/visionary versus popular/derivative composers is deeply connected to German nationalism. This official version of the musical 19th century can be summarized as follows:
All of music culminated in and started again with Beethoven.
The ‘progressives’ such as Liszt and Wagner explored Beethoven’s adventurous side.
The ‘classicists’ such as Schumann and Brahms devoted themselves to guarding Beethoven’s classical legacy.
These two factions were united by Arnold Schoenberg, who was deeply rooted in tradition and showed the way forward – in other words, a new Beethoven.
You might notice that there are a lot of people who don’t fit into that picture. Chopin, for example who didn’t even like Beethoven’s music very much. And indeed, there was a time when this Polish Frenchman was looked down upon in serious music circles. Not only because of his Polish Frenchness, but because his music didn’t quite fit the ‘logical’ progression that would culminate in Schoenberg.
Speaking about Schoenberg, does anybody still believe that he’ll be remembered as the greatest composer of the twentieth century? That he’ll be as popular as Beethoven once people ‘get over’ the unfamiliar harmonies and lack of singable tunes? On the contrary, the popularity of ‘reactionary’, ‘neoromantic’ near-contemporaries such as Vaughan-Williams and Copland seems continuously on the rise.
There definitely was – still is and always will be – an attempt at shaping the canon top-down. But it doesn’t always work. In time, an essential run-down of the top musical names of the last two centuries will include Chopin rather than Schumann, Elgar rather than Richard Strauss and Lennon-McCartney rather than Stockhausen.
That’s because …
2. The opinion of the masses does matter
“Liking Beethoven is seen as a sign of class and taste”, says 12tone in his video. That’s only true up to a point. I dare you to introduce yourself to a group of pretentious classical music lovers with the confident declaration that you love Für Elise, the Fifth Symphony and the Ode to Joy. You will be greeted with chilly silence and smug smirks. Perhaps someone will ask you if you also like Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812. If so, please don’t answer. It’s sarcasm at your expense.
If you really want to impress that imaginary group of snobs, clearly state your appreciation for:
Beethoven’s late string quartets, not the Mondschein sonata
Verdi’s Falstaff, not Aida
Bach’s Kunst der Fuge, not his Air
The list goes on and on.
There’s an unwritten rule among classical elitists that ‘great’ composers are great despite their popular appeal. In other words: if the masses also happen to like them, they do it for the wrong reasons.
When someone states that the elite imposed the canon based on their own aesthetic principles, they’re buying into this myth that the elite entertains about its own power. A lot of times, canonizing is just adding intellectual veneer to a choice that has already been made in the court of popular opinion.
This doesn’t mean that the canon is no more than a long-term hit parade. If that were true, Rossini would be considered the greatest composer of all time. Professional arbiters of taste – such as journalists, academics and musicians – can influence rankings by leveraging their standing in society. But catapulting a nobody with merely ‘interesting’ music to the musical pantheon? Never happened.
What works best is to encourage people to listen more closely to music they already like. Tell them to which deeper layers they should listen and there’s a good chance they will enthusiastically agree. If only because they don’t want to be thought of as unsophisticated. And sometimes because they truly enjoy the music on a deeper level. The chance of that happening is seldom greater than with Beethoven. That’s because …
3. Beethoven and his contemporaries hit a sweet spot that’s difficult to match
In his famous work on the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – The Classical Style – Charles Rosen writes:
“The procedures of Haydn and Mozart must be understood in a larger context, that of the creation of a popular style which abandons none of the pretensions of high art. Their achievement is perhaps unique in Western music. […] Only for one brief historical period in the operas of Mozart, the symphonies of Haydn and some of the Schubert songs, has the utmost sophistication and complexity of musical technique existed alongside – or better, fused with – the virtues of the street song.”
Rosen doesn’t include Beethoven in this list, except for the final movement of the Ninth. That’s because he seems to consider only recognizable (pseudo-)folk tunes as popular melodies. But isn’t something like the opening theme of the Fifth Symphony one of the greatest ‘hooks’ in the history of music?
The whole art of this first Viennese school was to build sophisticated structures with simple elements. And maybe this is the reason why their music remains the best gateway into the pleasure that a complex piece of music can bring. The irresistible and instantly memorable tunes not only draw you in, but also help you to understand, experience and enjoy the larger form.
Once you’re into that listening habit, you can start enjoying music which is pure abstraction, foregoing those catchy tunes and other pleasing elements altogether. Although, quite frankly, why should you have to?
4. Beethoven is a rock star
Stop your eye-roll, I’m not claiming that Beethoven was the rock star of his times. I’m saying that he is one right now. Wait, didn’t Chuck Berry roll him over? But that’s the point. Chuck chose Beethoven – even though he didn’t even fit his rhyme scheme – because Beethoven is an idol. That’s also why 12tone chose him, and why we’re all supposed to get super mad because they’re trying to erase him from our history. Trust me, if Chuck Berry couldn’t cancel Beethoven, neither can a bunch of underpaid woke scholars in musicology. If they wanted to. Which they don’t.
Beethoven is not a darling of the elite foisted upon us, he’s a part of our global popular culture. That’s because of his literal image – the bushy hair, the shabby clothes. And because of his supposed unconformity and disdain for social conventions which aligns perfectly with how a lot of people like to see themselves – especially when they’re young.
The bottom line is: Beethoven is cool. And apart from his afro and his attitude, I think there are a number of musical reasons for why he’s such a good fit with our popular music culture:
His repertoire is mainly instrumental, which helps because the handling of the voice is what puts a lot of people off classical music.
His music has a rhythmic drive that combines a regular beat with plenty of syncopation, just like a lot of jazz and popular music.
His harmonic language is tonal – not too chromatic and complex but not too bland either, with plenty of major/minor shifts. From the classical/romantic composers, only Schubert was closer to pop music harmony in this respect.
Most importantly, but hardest to describe, Beethoven’s music – at least that from his ‘heroic’ middle period – has an emotional charge that resonates well with how a lot of people still define ‘depth’ in music. It’s sad but not schmaltzy, sarcastic but not funny, noble but not arrogant, … You get my point – or not. It’s why today we value acts like Nick Cave or The National. It’s not only about the notes, it’s also about the attitude.
To conclude: Beethoven is not the greatest composer of all time, but he is the greatest classical composer forour time. That’s not because his music is objectively the best. But it’s also not because we’re collectively brainwashed by a white supremacist elite. It’s because his music like no other from the classical tradition combines accessibility with what we perceive as emotional depth. And it’s because of his hair.
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From Vivaldi and Haydn to Stravinsky and The Beatles, the joy that comes with the return of spring has inspired great pieces of music. And if you wouldn’t know any better, you’d think Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is one of them.
It starts with a clarinet and flute that timidly play three notes that could – or could not – be the beginning of a melody. Like snowdrops that bud in what could – or could not – be the last of snow. And after some back-and-forths between extasy and doubt, the piece ends with five variations on a glorious Shaker melody – Simple Gifts, which was later also picked up by The Kelly Family for their Lord of The Dance. In the context of Appalachian Spring, it sounds like Copland’s version of an Ode to Joy. Summer is definitely on its way!
But as much as that interpretation makes sense, it’s not how Appalachian Spring was intended. In fact, the work could have been called Autumn in Arkansas and sounded more or less the same.
Copland’s Appalachian Spring started as a score for a ballet that was commissioned in 1942. The story was written by choreographer Martha Graham, and it too had nothing to do with spring. Its recounts the day of two newlyweds in pioneer country. And contains a few interesting sidekicks such as a preacher and his congregation.
In the original version, all these fun and games were interrupted by the arrival of a fugitive slave. But that part was eventually changed to a dance solo by the possessed preacher. The end result is more a loose string of tableaux than an actual plot.
And the name? Martha Graham came up with it when the music and choreography were already finished. She took it from a poem by Hart Crane – simply because she liked the sound of it. Moreover, the poem refers to a natural water source, not the season of new beginnings.
Capturing the American soul
Maybe it’s because of its flimsy story, but Appalachian Spring – first performed in 1944 – immediately became widely popular as a sort of parable for the post-war American spirit of renewal. Copland’s pleasant and seemingly uncomplicated musical language was the perfect complement to the cast of rural characters eagerly displaying their moral fortitude. Appalachian spring was exactly the kind of artwork that could inspire a nation destined to become the leader of the free world.
In a way, this was what drove Copland throughout his career: defining an American form of art music – sometimes derived from popular and folk idioms such as jazz or Shaker hymns. It’s a bit of a nationalist agenda, from an era when nationalism was not exclusively linked to the political right. As an active communist, Copland wrote his ‘populist’ music as a tribute to the dignity and authenticity of the common man, in opposition to the soulless cultural products of the capitalist mass media. You could say he was a highbrow Woody Guthrie.
Wholesome orchestral suite
But in post-war America, there was no need for left-wing populism, or left-wing anything for that matter. As a Jewish homosexual communist, Copland ticked all the boxes to be summoned to the McCarthy hearings. He managed to talk himself out of serious sanctions, but wisely kept a low political profile for the rest of his career.
Meanwhile, his orchestral suite based on the ballet score of Appalachian Springs soared in popularity. Far from an incitement to class warfare, it was considered a wholesome piece of Americana. Copland had indeed defined the American sound, but it was now used as musical shorthand for the shiny city on the hill where anyone could make it through hard work. Just listen to the music in this iconic Ronald Reagan commercial:
Versions of Appalachian Spring
For the intellectual classes of the United States, and especially post-war Europe, everything with mass appeal conjured up the trauma of what masses were capable of when they fell into the hands of a ruthless leader. They pretended to listen to Boulez and Stockhausen and had no time for ‘commercial’, even ‘regressive’ music such as Appalachian Springs. It’s only since accessible music came back into fashion that the work is universally considered to be one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.
And yet, there are some who feel that Appalachian Springs – the orchestral suite – doesn’t have enough depth. Or that it lacks authenticity. They have two solutions for this:
Put the music back in that Copland removed when he turned the ballet music into a suite. The logic being that this fragment – originally meant to accompany the fugitive slave – is a dark interlude that adds much-needed drama to the musical development. Michael Tilson Thomas is a big proponent of this idea. Christopher Hogwood embraced it is as well. I’m not a fan. The reinstated music is indeed dark(ish), but also kind of boring. And it breaks the wonderful flow of the Simple Gifts variations.
The ultimate version
In the end, it doesn’t matter which version they choose to perform. The definitive recording was made almost 60 years ago. No, it’s not directed by the man himself. In his recordings of Appalachian Spring, I feel Copland goes too much out of his way to demonstrate how sophisticated this deceivingly simple music is – making sure you don’t miss any of the individual threads that make up the dense musical fabric.
Copland’s good friend Leonard Bernstein, on the other hand, just wants to make as much of an emotional impact as he can. Contrapuntal subtleties be damned, his recording with the New York Philharmonic simply blows you away. Literally, because the sound of the brass is especially exhilarating. The audio quality of this recording is astounding, especially for that time.
Bernstein pulls no punches. The slow parts crawl by and sound lusciously romantic, while he accelerates to warp speed when he needs to. What Bernstein understood better than Copland – and many other directors – is how to breath life into the dance rhythms that characterize large portions of the work. They’re supposed to evoke square dancing, but Copland doesn’t so much seem to channel the pioneer time as the Brooklyn melting pot that he grew up in. This is truly American music, after all.
Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most:
10. The Leipzig Circle, Vol 2. (London Bridge Trio)
If I were making a list of silliest sentences in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “[the first movement of the featured Felix Mendelssohn trio] has both firmness and determination that immediately declare it to be a strong and masculine conception.”
Luckily, the performance is a lot better than the commentary. It demonstrates that Clara Schumann’s feminine conceptions didn’t stop her from writing music that was on a par with Mendelssohn’s. And that Robert Schumann surpassed them both. In imagination, not testosterone.
9. Miroir (Alexandre Collard, Jean Daufresne and Mathilde Nguyen)
If I were making a list of understatements in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “Rarely, in the history of music, have composers written for horn, saxhorn and piano.”
In fact, only one work on this album was originally written for that combination – after a special request from the performers. In any case, it sounds amazing. Moreover, this record brings to light some unfamiliar and underrated repertoire from Belgian and French composers from the 19th through 21st centuries.
8. Debussy – Rameau (Vikingur Ólafsson)
This one will feature on many ‘best of 2020’ lists. And if the Icelandic pianist releases another record in 2021, it will probably end up on that year’s lists as well. Because he’s as good as the hype that surrounds him.
This record would have ended up higher on my list if Ólafsson wouldn’t have made the misguided decision of combining Rameau with Debussy. Not because they make a bad couple. But because I don’t like Debussy’s piano music. Or the unacceptable way he wears a hat.
7. Anna Clyne: DANCE – Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto (Inbal Segev, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Marin Alsop)
Now here’s someone who knows how to wear a hat:
No melodies moved me more last year than the sentimental, folk-influenced themes that form the basis of the four dances – excuse me, DANCES – by Anna Clyne.
The expressive style of cellist Inbal Segev serves them well. Although it steals too much of the spotlight from the orchestra. That’s especially true in the Elgar concerto. If you’re a fan of that work – and who isn’t? – the 2020 recording by Sheku Kanneh-Mason is probably a better choice.
6. Blessed Art Thou Among Women (PaTRAM Institute Singers)
One of the greatest pleasures in life is listening to the sound of oktavists, the ultra-low bass singers that feature in Russian music. They’re abundantly present on this record, rumbling their way through four centuries of enchanting orthodox choral music.
If, God forbid, 2021 turns out to be another year in which we need extra comfort, this album is guaranteed to provide it. Just let the sounds of those amazing human didgeridoos gently vibrate your worries away.
5. Bohemian Tales (Augustin Hadelich)
Some stuff that you know, some stuff that you don’t. That remains the perfect mix for a classical concert or album. Often, the unfamiliar work that you dreaded makes more of an impression than the well-known piece that you came for.
That was certainly the case with this recording of Bohemian violin music. I was lured in by Dvořák and Janáček, but it was the Op. 17 by Josef Suk that blew me away – less ‘romantic’ than Dvořák, more ‘popular’ than Janáček and with a unique approach to musical form.
Intrigued, I decided to seek out more music by Suk, especially his orchestral works. And I quickly decided that it wasn’t worth another second of my time. But it could have been the beginning of an exciting journey of musical discovery, is what I’m saying.
4. Beethoven: Songs & Folksongs (Ian Bostridge, Antonio Pappano)
For obvious reasons, 2020 will not be remembered as ‘the year we celebrated the 250th birthday of Beethoven’. But it was an excellent year to explore Beethoven with a small b. Confined to my home, an album full of ‘domestic’ compositions was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Apart from the visionary An die ferne Geliebte cycle, the Beethoven songs are generally considered of little importance. And that’s even more true of his settings of Irish, British, Scottish and Welsh folk songs that he purely made – gasp! – for money. It’s to Bostridge’s credit that he applies his otherworldly talent to these supposedly mundane compositions – and reveals that they are anything but that.
3. Proving Up (Missy Mazzoli)
2020 was also the year in which we witnessed how the American democracy nearly drove itself off a cliff.
There are a lot of reasons for what happened during the last four years. One of them is the destructive idea behind the American dream. Missy Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek turned that into a wonderful opera. And I’m not going to repeat what I already wrote about it.
2. Not Our First Goat Rodeo (Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile)
Wait, is this a classical album?
Well, on the one hand, it’s labelled by the record company as such. It includes Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. And in what other category would you put a track like Not For Lack of Trying?
On the other hand, who cares? I don’t trust jazz or bluegrass fans enough to feel confident that they will include this record in their end-of-year lists. And this joyous display of musicianship and collaboration cannot get enough praise from every corner.
1. Adès Conducts Adès (Boston Symphony Orchestra)
Of the contemporary composers on this list, Thomas Adès is probably the most ‘difficult’ one. And yet, if you listen to some connoisseurs, you’d think he’s one cowbell removed from becoming André Rieu.
That’s probably because Adès’ music packs an emotional punch that resonates with a lot of people. Which makes it suspect in the ears of some.
Yet you only need to listen to the second movement of his piano concerto to realize that this guy is something special. There are echoes from many traditions, but the language is unique. And underneath is a musical progression that you don’t need to fully understand to be overwhelmed by it. That’s something that only comes around, well, every 250 years or so.
Did I just imply that Adès is the new Beethoven? Must be the champagne talking. All I wanted to say is: some things that came out of 2020, are worth remembering. Happy New Year!
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Many years ago, I shared a house with a friend who’s a fan of Richard Wagner. As proof of his devotion, he owned a box of all the Meister‘s recordings. The thing took up half a shelf in a CD cabinet that had to be shared by four music enthusiasts. As I recall, none of those music dramas was ever played.
And they never would be. With each move, that friend takes his Wagner box off the shelf and brings it to its new home. Never opening it – as if it’s the urn with his grandmother’s ashes.
Opera recordings: why bother?
Of course, my friend is by no means an exception. Nor is this phenomenon limited to Wagner CDs. We think complete opera recordings are essential to our collection, but how often do we really play them?
After all, we didn’t need Wagner to know that opera is a gesamtkunstwerk – an indivisible union of music, stage design and acting. That means only listening to the recording is missing out on 66.66 % of the fun.
So usually I’m not bouncing with enthusiasm whenever a new opera recording hits the shelves. But recently, I was proven wrong. By Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up.
Short and clear
With 80 minutes for the whole thing, Proving Up is shorter than the first act of Parsifal. And that’s the first thing I like about this opera: its brevity. Is that shallow of me? So be it. I really wouldn’t know where to fit in multiple listening sessions of five-hour dramas. So it’s nice to be able to hear a full story unfold while doing the laundry or riding the train.
The second amazing thing about this recording is its sound quality. That sets it apart from another contemporary opera recording that I highly anticipated: Prisoner of the State by David Lang. Being a Lang fan, I loved the music. But the awful live recording was a big disappointment. Live opera recordings are the worst: the sound of slamming doors and creaking floorboards that ruin your listening experience and remind you of the visual spectacle you’re missing out on.
Missy Mazzoli writes contemporary music of the accessible variety. But don’t count on skipping the recitatives and going straight to the arias and choruses. Proving Up is the real-deal through-composed opera stuff, where the music is not allowed to follow its own logic but must align on its course with the text and the action.
The action, remember, that you can’t see. So why didn’t I miss it while listening to this recording? I think it’s because of how Mazzoli’s music strikes the right balance between painting a general mood, so it sounds like a pleasing whole, and differentiating the consecutive events, so you don’t fall asleep.
Proving Up is a ghost story set in the age of the American pioneers. Everything revolves around the Zender family desperate to ‘prove up’: acquire the ownership of the land they’re living on. Just like Copland before her, Missy Mazzoli conjures the plains of the Midwest by using lots of open, wide-spaced chords. The many augmented and diminished intervals express the hardships of the characters and/or the horror that threatens their existence.
Against that solid background, every one of the characters gets a distinctive voice that borrows from a different musical style. My favorite one is the somewhat naive son Miles who sounds like he’d rather be in a Broadway musical. He serenates the pigs and his horse, and the moment when he passionately sings the line “What a beautiful day for a window delivery.” is without a doubt the funniest and most heartbreaking thing I’ve heard in a long time – at least in a contemporary opera.
Miles comes to his untimely end when he meets the sodbuster – a ghost who condemns him in a wonderful scene that reminded me of the parts with the ghost of Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Just like in Don Giovanni, the closing scene that follows it feels like a bit of an anticlimax. That’s despite its beautiful music, this time dominated by the figure of the family’s mother who fittingly sings like the quintessential dramatic opera diva. The most clairvoyant figure in the piece, she mourns the passing of her children, and of the American dream.
Even better than the real thing?
It’s the succession of vivid, musically distinct scenes that kept me hooked to this recording. If I never missed the action, it’s because I had no trouble imagining it. I’m now so pleased with Proving Up’s staging in my head that I have almost no desire to see the real thing. Even though it does look wonderful: