Robert Shaw, on the arts

If you believe that creativity is still going on, and there is purpose in all of human life, then the arts express that which is beautiful and intelligent and noble about being human.
— Robert Shaw

As told by Bob Woods, President of Telarc Records, in the liner notes to the 1999 recording of Brahms's German Requiem. Shaw died three weeks before he was to record his New English adaptation of the work with the Utah Symphony and Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

I think that when things get to a certain extreme, you can’t push them farther in that direction. There has to be some kind of coming together. And, obviously, Mr. Trump didn’t win everything; his margins are so slender, and the country is, in some sense, of course, deeply divided. So how do all of us work across the divide? Again, without demonizing the people on the other side. How deeply can we listen and realize that we’re all singing an ensemble, not a solo aria?

That’s the courage and beauty of what Mozart was trying to do at a moment in history where again, there were no examples of democracy for Mozart to point to in Europe. So he had to put it onstage and use a musical language that would allow people to actually listen to each other and realize that they have to sing together in harmony. Harmony is made of not people parroting or repeating each other’s notes, but the opposite: The blend of very different notes creates the chord. And so it’s not just singing in unison; it’s singing in harmony, with everyone’s diversity intact.

-Peter Sellars, during a post-election interview with Michael Cooper of the New York Times. Sellars famously staged Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" in Trump Tower back in the late 80's.


Verdi, in a letter to Cesare De Sanctis

Ah, so you like my Traviata - that poor sinner who was so unfortunate in Venice. One day I’m going to make the world do her honour. But not at Naples where your priests would be terrified of seeing on stage the sort of things they do themselves at night on the quiet.

- dated February 16th, 1853. As found in Carteggi Verdiani, I. p. 23-4.

Berlioz, writing to his sister about his work on the Requiem

I found it hard to get on top of my subject; to begin with, I was so wildly intoxicated by the poetry of the Prose des morts that my brain could form no clear ideas, my head was boiling and I was giffy. Today the eruption is under control, the lava has formed its bed and, with God’s help, all will be well. It’s a grand affair. No doubt I shall once more bring upon myself the reproach of innovation, because it has been my wish to recall this area of the art to the truth from which Mozart and Cherubini seem to me too often to have strayed. Then there are some startling combinations which, I’m glad to say, have never been tried before and which, I think, I’m the first to consider.

-written April 17th, 1837. Translated by Roger Nichols

Ernest Newman, on accuracy in Berlioz's "Memoires"

It is more than doubtful whether any such incident took place, however. There is no mention of it in any of the newspaper accounts of the performance, nor does Berlioz refer to it in his letter of the 17th to Humbert Ferrand: he merely says that “The Requiem was done well.” He is equally silent as to the snuff-box crime in his letter of the same day to his mother.

Did Berlioz, I often wonder, in the later years when he was eaten away with disappointments of every kind, dream things under the influence of the opium he had to take to dull his pains, and then, in waking hours, transfer his dream to the past as reality?

-in relation to the "Snuff Box Incident" during the first performance of Berlioz's Requiem. According to Berlioz, the conductor François-Antoine Habeneck set down his baton during the attaca between the Dies irae and the Tuba mirum to take a pinch of snuff. Berlioz claims to have jumped from his front row seat, pushed him off the podium, and took over conducting, saving his performance from certain ruin, even speculating this had been a conspiracy instigated by the Director of Fine Arts and Cherubini, both whom he quarreled with regularly. From a footnote in Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, 1932 printing annotated by Newman. p 210n1.

Charles Rosen, on Berlioz's "frequent failures"

It is, of course, impossible single-handedly to invent an entirely new musical language, and we can understand Berlioz’s frequent failures. … Perhaps most disconcerting of all are moments when Berlioz has a genuinely original inspiration but does not know what to do with it. The wonderful contrast of soft high flutes and soft low trombones in the “Hostias” of the Requiem is an example: having invented this impressive juxtaposition, Berlioz can thick of nothing better than simply repeating it many times - after the third time, it loses its novelty and becomes merely bizarre. This section, however, should not prevent one from appreciating the magnificence of the opening pages of the Requiem, and of the “Lacrymosa.” I have finished by dwelling briefly on Berlioz’s failures because an uncritical attempt to justify the totality of his work prevents one from appreciating the magnitude and the nature of his successes.

From The Romantic Generation, 568. (1995).

long overdue & upcoming

So, it has been around a year and a half since I have written anything of interest here. Life has been busy. Between grad school and an average of thirty-five hours a week of part time retail work, I seem to live in a perpetual state of exhaustion. That's not to say nothing good has happened, it most certainly has! I am in the last semester of my Masters degree work, and I have sent out PhD applications with reasonable hope that I will be accepted somewhere. I have finished some incredible courses, read some very insightful books, and completed some very interesting, and hopefully original, research. I have finally solidified my mélange of interests into a condensed description, should I ever run into any of my academic role-models in an elevator at future conferences:

Language of mortality in music: representations of death, dying, and mourning the dead in music, with specific interest in settings of the Requiem mass. Chamber music of the late 18th, and 19th centuries, particularly those works composed by Dvořák and Brahms. Musical aesthetics and cognitive theory of musical meaning.

Cheerful stuff, no? The kind of thing when you bring it up in conversations with non-music specialists usually gets them desperately searching the room for someone else they can talk to. My Masters thesis will be about the early polyphonic Missa pro defunctus (proto-Requiems, if you will, since the precise style and form had yet to be codified), though I haven't decided whether to focus on one in depth or contrast several. I should have a better idea of that by this time next week, but for now, why I'm writing again...

One of my friends and colleagues, curator of the Tumblr Classic Music, is beginning a year long project #composersmonthly, exploring different aspects of one composer a month for the whole of 2015. Berlioz was on the docket for January, and he asked if I would be interested in writing something about his 1837 Grande messe des morts. I rather foolishly agreed, perpetuating my habit of biting off more than I can chew at one time, and have been putting it off since early January (read: playing Dragon Age: Inquisition). Now there are only two weeks left in the month, but I will try none the less. Since I have never spent any real time with the work previously aside from listening to it once or twice, it is unclear how this will shape up, but we shall see what happens. Maybe this will be the jump-start I need to resume this full time. Maybe...

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, on giving concerts

"I have to use all my will-power to play or conduct an orchestra in public, not of course without injury to my nature. It always struck me as horrible that if you write something, there's no other way of hearing it than in a concert. It's like telling a policeman all your most secret inner impulses. I feel morally defiled after every such public act."

-as printed in Stephen Walsh's "Musorgsky and His Circle", originally found in one of Balakirev's letters to Vladimir Stasov. Clearly we can see what I'm re-reading before I meet Walsh this week!

Peter Kivy, on the paradox of musical description

Music critics may not have a patent on nonsense; but they have been mighty busy during the last two hundred years churning out more than their share of it. And the present day musician, music theorist, and musicologist feel an immense sense of relief when they can escape from this emotive flapdoodle into the healthy atmosphere of amphibrachs and enhanced dominant relationships.

But as enticing as this is to the musically learned, it leaves a large and worthy musical community completely out in the cold. Music, after all, is not just for musicians and musical scholars, any more than painting is just for art historians, or poetry for poets. It seems to me both surprising and intolerable that while one can read with profit the great critics of the visual and literary arts without being a professor of English or the history of art, the musically untrained but humanistically educated seem to face a choice between descriptions of music too technical for them to understand, or else decried as nonsense by the authorities their education has taught them to respect. Either description of music can be respectable, “scientific” analysis, at the familiar cost of losing all humanistic connections; or it lapses into its familiar emotive stance at the cost of becoming, according to the musically learned, meaningless subjective maundering.

The resolution of this musical paradox is not, obviously, to denigrate technical description. It has its virtues, and I am, by training and inclination, by no means blind to them. What needs doing, rather than to take cheap shots at technical language, is to make emotive description once again respectable in the eyes of the learned, so that it can stand alongside of technical description as a valid analytic tool.
— Sound Sentiment: An Essay on the Musical Emotions. Including the complete text of The Corded Shell (1989), 8-9.

Can we all just agree that "flapdoodle" is an awesome word that needs to appear more frequently in everyday life?

Charles Rosen, on whether composers know best

"This raises the question--does the composer know how his piece is to sound?

       The problem is a delicate one, and it lies at the heart of our conception of music. If music is not a mere notation on paper, then its realization in sound is crucial. We assume generally that the ideal performance is the real piece, and that this imagined ideal performance is the real piece, not the notes on paper or the wrong notes of an actual performance. But this assumption is flimsy and fails to stand up under examination. And none of these--not the imagined or the actual performance or the schematic representation on paper--can be simply equated with a work of music.

       Let us put this in the simplest possible terms. When a conductor in 1790 conducted from the keyboard, we know from contemporary testimony that he often stopped playing to raise his hands. There is no way of knowing when he did this, but he did not play throughout. When Haydn imagined the sound of one of his symphonies, he must indeed have expected a certain amount of piano or harpsichord sonority as being likely here or there, but there is no place in the music where he implied this as necessary or even desirable except for the little joke in the Symphony no. 98.

       This means that a composer's idea of his work is both precise and slightly fuzzy: this is as it should be. There is nothing more exactly defined than a Haydn symphony, its contours well outlined, its details clear and all audible. Yet when Haydn wrote a note for the clarinet, that does not indicate a specific sound--there are lots of clarinets and clarinetists, and they all sound very different--but a large range of sound within very well-defined limits. The act of composing is the act of fixing those limits within which the performer may move freely. But the performer's freedom is bound--or should be--in another way. The limits set by the composer belong to a system which is in many respects like a language: it has an order, a syntax, and a meaning. The performer brings out that meaning, makes its significance not only clear but almost palpable. And there is no reason to assume that the composer or his contemporaries always knew with any certainty how best to make the listener aware of that significance.

       New ways of composing precede new ways of playing and singing, and it often takes as long as ten to twenty years for performers to learn how to change their own styles and to adapt themselves. The use of the continuo in the piano concerto was, by 1775, a vestige of the past that was to be completely abolished by the music itself, and we have every reason to believe that the figured bass was already nothing more than a conventional notation which provided the soloists and the conductor with a substitute for a score during performance, or, at most, a way of keeping an orchestra together which had no longer any musical significance. The occasional indignation about its omission either from performance or edition is historically unwarranted and musically unjustifiable.

       In 1767, Rousseau complained that the conductor at the Paris opera made so much noise beating a rolled-up sheet of music paper on the desk to keep the orchestra in time that one's pleasure in the music was spoilt. The audible use of a keyboard instrument during a symphony or the orchestral section of a concerto written after 1775 is no doubt less irritating, but its authenticity and its musical value are the same.

-after a discussion of continuo's role in Mozart's piano concerti. From Rosen's 1997 Expanded Edition of The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, p. 195-6.

a question fielded from my tumblr inbox

What are your thoughts on elitism in the culture surrounding classical music today? And do you think you could be considered an elitist?

Personally, I find it amusing. Anyone with an internet connection and/or a public library card has access to so much music-related paraphernalia; in the form of sheet music with sources like IMSLP, audio like Spotify and public radio, or history and essays in books. The many descendants of the classical tradition saturate our lives through jingles in commercials, television and film scores and even pop songs. It has never in recorded history been more accessible and less “elitist” (something innate to the super wealthy/powerful within the current socioeconomic system) than it is today. Tomorrow will be more so, and then the day after that. Ultimately, I believe this view is sustained by those on both sides of the isle because it is easier than change. Any musicologist can tell you how historically conservative music has been as a field of study/understanding…it will just take time.  Which means you get to decide whether you will be that system at rest or be the external force that acts upon it and affects change…or at the very least a course correction. I suppose that is the ultimate goal of this blog…to help bring attention to the great resources that are out there for classical music and remind people that you don’t need an advanced degree to find happiness in it.

Ironically, classical music doesn’t inherently reward “elitism”. You can’t buy understanding or personal enrichment. It does however pay in spades for insightful, focused and informed research, which I suppose does count as a form of elitism since it is a highly specialized field with its own language and practices.

As to your second question, I can’t say it is something I’ve ever thought about. I do my best to focus on being direct, honest and a good listener. The rest is out of my control.

(P.S. Given your question, you might look into Lawrence Kramer’s 2007 book “Why Classical Music Still Matters”. This isn’t an endorsement of his argument…just something that might bring up new things to think about.)



Gioseffo Zarlino

"Let us seek above all to avoid a common error and be certain that our counterpoint is so varied that the same passage or harmonic progression is not repeated exactly, with the same consonances, rhythms and tones. For while such counterpoints if well written will be free from anything discordant or unpleasant to the ear, nevertheless to repeat them does not produce the pleasure that springs from variety. Besides, the composer would be thought by connoisseurs of the art to have a meagre store of ideas. For it would seem to them that be uses the same passage again because he cannot devise another counterpoint."

-from his 1558 Le Istitutioni harmoniche, Part III : The Art of Counterpoint 

Richard Taruskin

"Ever since opera opened its doors to a paying public - a public that had to be lured - it has been a prima-donna circus with a lively transsexual sideshow, associated from the very beginning with the carnival season and its roaring tourist trade. Uncanny, nature-defying vocalism easily compensated for the courtly accoutrements - the sumptuous sets, the intricate choruses and ballets, the rich orchestra - that the early commercial opera theaters could not afford. Never mind the noble union of all the arts: what the great Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin called 'educated screaming' is the only bait that public opera ever really needed, and its attraction has never waned."

-discussing the divergence of commercial opera from the court spectacles (which considered virtuosity in music tawdry) of Monteverdi's era. Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. 2 . pg. 16 

Basically, this is my new favorite quote about opera. 

the closest i've heard to performance practice being compared to calculus

"Classical pieces have no "original" form. They cannot be represented by the event of any single performance. They are, as I said, ideal objects, approximately realized through repeated performances that may vary widely in some respects but must still respect the limits imposted by the score...In a perfectly literally sense, a classical composition is one that we can listen to repeatedly but never actually hear."

-Lawrence Kramer, from  Why Classical Music Still Matters, pg. 23. 


This sound like a Riemann sum to anyone else?  Maybe I need to stop reading for the day...I could certainly be going crazy...hahahaha.


cartellieri's clarinet quartets

Do you like Mozart's chamber music? What about the clarinet? If you answered yes to both (or either), these clarinet quartets are for you. Antonio Casimir Cartellieri (1772-1807) overlapped both Mozart's final years and Beethoven's rise to fame. In fact, as a violinist he performed at the premieres of both Beethoven's Eroica  and Triple Concerto . However, he also wrote some chamber music that is widely unknown. It certainly isn't ground-breaking but it would be worth adding to your casual listening playlist. The clarinet has quite a prominent role, similar to what the first violin would normally have in a typical string quartet. Brew some coffee, put this on in the background and read the newspaper/make some pancakes/take a long bath/whatever you do on a Sunday'll be glad you did.

CARTELLIERI : Clarinet Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major : I : Allegro moderato

Dieter Klöcker (clarinet) and Consortium Classicum


Get the recording featured in this post: 

There are three albums in this set done by Consortium Classicum. Clarinet Quartets, Vol. 1 has quartets 1, 2 and 4; Clarinet Quartets, Vol. 2 has quartet 3, an un-numbered quartet in D major as well as the divertimento for winds and strings; and Wind Sextets has all three Parthias for wind sextet.  They are all quite enjoyable...and rather perky; only one movement (the second adagio from Parthia No. 2) is in a minor key.

Clarinet Quartets
By A.C. Cartellieri

Richard Taruskin

 "None of this should imply that musicians a thousand years ago, and the people who heard them, could not enjoy their work sensuously. Indeed, Saint Augustine admits to just such an enjoyment of liturgical singing in his Confessions . And yet although he admits to  it, he does not admit it. Recognizing that 'there are particular modes in song and in the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two,' he maintains a special guard 'not to allow my mind to be paralyzed by the gratification of my senses, which often leads it astray.' That ambivalence  expressed by Saint Augustine in the fourth century, has remained a characteristic of Western religious thinking about music."

-from the Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 1 : Music from the Earliest Notations fo the Sixteenth Century. pg. 66. 

a new piece to add to your playlist of piano music

Josef Suk (1874-1935) composed a set of six piano pieces between 1891 and 1893 which have come to be seen as a "virtual lover's diary" of his courtship with Antonín Dvorák's daughter, Otilka. This is the first of the six pieces, entitled "Písen lásky" ('Love Song') and is a supreme delight to listen to. Performed here by Margaret Fingerhut, I strongly encourage seeking the rest of the five movements most can be found on Youtube.

SUK : 6 Piano Pieces, Op. 7 : No. 1 - Song of Love

Margaret Fingerhut, piano

Get the recording mentioned in this post:

This recording is rather prohibitively expensive on Amazon, but you can download it from ClassicsOnline in lossless quality by clicking the picture of the album artwork at right. Also, university students should be able to access it on Naxos streaming via their institution's library.

Beethoven's big "F-U" to Haydn


Beethoven's first set of works he published in Vienna were the three piano trios that make up his Op. 1 (No. 1 in E-flat major, No. 2 in G major and No. 3 in C minor). While he had published several small pieces prior to this, his Op. 1 was intended to be a big event and a premiere party of sorts was thrown by Prince Lichnowsky, whom the Opus was dedicated to.

Beethoven was a 'student' of Haydn at the time, though the term student is used rather loosely because Beethoven himself felt that Haydn was a poor teacher* and wasn't giving him the best musical education, even hiring other teachers he studied with in secret when Haydn traveled back and forth to London.

As the story goes, Haydn was present at the premiere party and advised Beethoven against publishing the third trio in C minor, believing the public wouldn't understand him and it would be poorly received. While looking back on the dates it is more likely Haydn first heard them AFTER returning from London (at which point they were already published), Haydn did make it clear he thought publishing the C minor trio was a mistake.

With his frustrations towards Haydn in mind, Beethoven decided to ignore his advice and the C minor trio ultimately became the most successful of the Op. 1 trios. Beethoven suspected some degree of sabotage from Haydn for trying to get him to pull what became the most successful of the three, and many techniques that debuted in the work would later become hallmark of Beethoven's "C-minor mood." In fact, he included rather sophisticated C minor works in almost every opus set he published in his early Vienna years. Discounting his Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, WoO 87, his was his first C minor work that set up the long string of famous works as listed below (all in C minor) :

Piano Trio, Op. 1/3

String Trio, Op. 9/3

Piano Sonata Op. 10/1

Piano Sonata 'Pathétique', Op. 13

Piano Concerto No. 3

String Quartet, Op. 18/4

Violin Sonata Op. 30/2

Symphony No. 3 'Eroica' in E-flat major, Op. 55 (movement two, the groundbreaking funeral march, is in C minor)

32 Variations on an Original Theme for piano, WoO 80

Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Symphony No. 5, Op. 67 (likely the most famous of all of them)

Choral Fantasy, for piano, choir and orchestra, Op. 80

Piano Sonata Op. 111 (his last piano sonata)

Likely all the aspects of this C minor piano trio Haydn objected to were eventually the very things that continued to evolve into central aspects of his compositional style. So listen to the trio and imagine Beethoven thumbing his nose at Haydn, because he certainly was.

*In fact, while Beethoven's Op. 2 (a set of three piano sonatas) are dedicated to Haydn, Beethoven refused to add the phrase 'pupil of Haydn' after his name on the cover of the publication (as was customary at the time), saying that although he had taken several lessons with Haydn, he never learned a thing from him. Ouch.

Get the recording mentioned in this post:

Below is both the recording from the video in this post as well as another by Beaux Arts Trio, which is the one I have in my library.