Listen to this, listen to that

I am almost finished reading Alex Ross’s new book, Listen to This. It is great to have his larger New Yorker pieces between hard covers, as well as the new material. He is our most important public intellectual for music, and because of his importance everyone who reads his work is dismayed that Alex’s interests do not precisely correspond with his or her own. After all, my interests are smack in the middle of the mainstream, right? “Too USA-centric!” “Why would he spend a whole chapter on Dylan?” (Well, yes, why would he?) “Not enough about _____ (fill in country/style/composer of choice).”

My own complaint is that Alex seems insufficiently interested in that broad range of musics that  I suppose one could call “midtown” – John Harbison and Steven Stucky, Stephen Hartke and Melinda Wagner; Augusta Read Thomas and Eric Chasalow; Steve Mackey and Chris Rouse… (one could cite many more names – check “composers” under “links” above as just a start.) It’s the composers I have elsewhere called the “merely excellent” – there is nothing newsworthy about them, no catchy journalistic label (“midtown” is nearly meaningless) – just compelling music.

Nevertheless, you have to be grateful for the remarkable breadth that Alex’s writing does encompass.

Don’t forget to check out the supplemental material for the book here.

Learning this cursed role

Two footnotes to Alex Ross’s post about a chord progression accompanying operatic curses in Wagner and Strauss:

– to me, the rising arpeggiation of both examples cited by Ross recalls the similar gesture in the fourth scene of Rheingold when Alberich puts a curse on the ring – though in that example the melody falls at the end of the phrase.

– Ross points toward an online archive with images of the parts for Die Feen, Wagner’s first opera. See an example here. What startled me about this was that the singers learned their parts not from a vocal score as we would understand it – an arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment for piano – but just a bass line along with their own vocal line. But for the lack of figures, it looks like a baroque aria. I don’t know Die Feen, but I doubt that the harmony is as tricky throughout as it is in the passage Ross cites. Still, it can’t have been easy for a singer to learn his or her part without knowing the details of what was going on harmonically in the accompaniment. Maybe scholars have already worked on this, but it seems to me this is an area of performance practice that merits further investigation. Can you imagine learning Tristan or Gurnemanz with only a bass line as reference? (Perhaps another reason the first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr (I love that name) dropped dead shortly after the premiere.) On the other hand, while I assume there were piano rehearsals with a fuller accompaniment, can you imagine hand-copying the piano accompaniment for a Wagner opera for each soloist? Were there engraved performance materials for the first performances of the later Wagner operas?