Thursday Miscellany

– I was sad to see that Frank Music has closed. I’ve not experienced any combination of internet resources that can compare with going into a shop, leafing through every page of a score, comparing it with another edition of the same piece, consulting with a knowledgeable salesperson about options, and fortuitously finding items that you didn’t know you needed, beyond anything an Amazonian algorithm can offer.

– an all-Davidovsky concert with ICE is coming tomorrow, March 13, at the Americas Society in NYC, including the premiere of a new piece.

– go here for a podcast in which Charles Rosen talks about Chopin, illustrating his points at the piano.

Walker, Messiaen, Rosen

I’ve been concentrating on getting the score of Sacred Songs and Meditations ready for the recording sessions and concert in July at the National Cathedral. (The concert isn’t showing up on their schedule of events just yet – it is set for Monday, July 8.) But you can’t copy edit all day, (well, you can, but the deadline isn’t quite here yet) so I have been doing a little reading.

I picked up George Walker’s memoirs, on the advice of Do the Math, and I agree with Ethan Iverson that the book is fascinating. Few artists of any kind are sufficiently valued, and the appreciation gap is especially large for composers. With an African-American composer like Walker you begin with that baseline lack of appreciation, but you have to add on the racism of America in general and that of the world of American classical music in particular. Walker has a right to be a good deal more angry than his courtly, measured prose conveys. The catalog of slights is endless – unsupportive teachers, performers who don’t follow up –  but there is no full-fledged rage here. On the other hand, he is quick to be critical, even dismissive of big names, startlingly so at times – Iverson speaks of the “forest of barbs”.

There are times when the book reminded me of George Rochberg’s memoir, because in neither book is there much discussion of peers or influences, but in the interview on Do the Math, Walker does cite a number of pieces that he finds attractive. There are no surprises here, but also no unqualified enthusiasms. As Walker says in the interview in reference to a list of famous pianists, “I am not a devotee of any of them.”

I had not been aware of Walker’s stature as a pianist, that Serkin took him on as a student, for example. Here are two passages I’ve been quoting to my students:

In my first meeting with Serkin at Curtis, he asked me to prepare for my lesson the following week the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Les Adieux Sonata of Beethoven, and three Chopin études: C-sharp minor, op. 10, F minor; and D-flat major, op. 25.

and

I had memorized all of the assigned work for my first lesson.

Now, it is unlikely that this music was totally new to Walker, but still, that’s a pretty good week’s work.

I need to get to know Walker’s music better. My sense in reading through the piano sonatas is, unsurprisingly, that this is the work of someone who really knows his way around the piano. I was struck, in the 4th Sonata, at how Walker carefully deploys contrasting registers of the piano, sometimes using octave doublings, sometimes what you might call “inexact doublings”, a term associated with the sevenths and ninths that dominate some of Messiaen’s birdsong textures, though in Walker’s piece the dissonances are part of a more orchestral type of piano texture.

Speaking of Messiaen, also on my current reading list is Messiaen’s Final Works by Christopher Dingle. I certainly know a good bit more about Messiaen’s harmony than I did before opening this book. Previously, my superficial understanding was simply that it was in some undefined way derived from the composer’s “modes of limited transposition”, but there are specific chords that recur much more than I realized. Much of the book is devoted to an analysis of Messiaen’s last completed work, Éclairs sur l’Au-Dela. It is odd to read about the premiere of this piece as an historical event, given that I was present for the premiere in November, 1992 with the New York Philharmonic. But I guess I have become an historical event myself…

I have also been recently re-reading parts of The Classical Style in honor of its recently deceased author, Charles Rosen. Could such a book be published in this way today, packed with specially prepared and nicely engraved musical examples throughout? That is the case with the Dingle book, but consider from several years ago the ineptly engraved examples for the second edition of David Schiff’s book on Carter*, or compare Joseph Kerman’s Concerto Conversations, where the musical examples have been hidden in the back of the book, along with the notes – I shouldn’t have to use three bookmarks to get around a book. Supposedly the score excerpts are off-putting to the non-scholarly reader, though why you can’t just skip over them is inexplicable to me. I also wonder, with so much technical discussion, could The Classical Style win a National Book Award today?

Okay, enough, I better get back to work, especially since I plan to go to NYC for the Albany Symphony this coming Tuesday. Will report on that later this week.

* This is an odd case – Schiff’s actual writing is a tremendous contribution, but not only are some of the musical examples badly engraved, there are in some copies photographs mentioned on the dust jacket as being included in the book that are missing, and the headings over the descriptions of individual works are inconsistently edited. Was the book rushed into print for Carter’s 90th birthday?

Late Advent Miscellany

Some random links to be visited by the light of the Advent Wreath, and after considering these meditations on the O Antiphons:

Jeremy Denk on Charles Rosen.

– a fascinating online collection of early Chopin editions.

– here’s a serious procrastination aid: the National Jukebox at the Library of Congress. (via George Blood.)

– I’ve been thinking more about my Carter/jazz musician post. Though I still think it is true that you could assemble a quite decent jazz combo from among the members of most American symphony orchestras, it is even more likely that the folks capable of Carter’s solo and chamber music will have some sort of jazz literacy. Consider this post by Davy Rakowski where he describes confirming that Amy Briggs knows the changes to the interlude of Night in Tunisia. In the other direction, surely Uri Caine could nail a Carter piano piece. His album where he performs with the Arditti Quartet (known as Carter advocates) will make you think more about the intersections among Carter, high modernism in general, and jazz.

 

Getting Sentimental with Charles Rosen

I just finished Charles Rosen’s recent Music and Sentiment. It is a slim volume, at least compared to some of his earlier books, like The Romantic Generation.  But even though this short book may not probe as deeply as some of his others, he remains masterful. Rosen knows an awful lot about an awful lot, though not without his limitations – see below.

Here his concern is the play of affect in musical phrases. He is intrigued by the way the Viennese classics juxtapose elements expressing contrasting sentiments, something earlier and later musics avoid. A good deal of the book is therefore a celebration of a relatively elementary concept, the contrasting period. Theory I students learn that successive musical phrases can either be parallel or contrasting, and something like the opening of the Jupiter Symphony – an imperious call to attention followed by a more lyrical phrase – embodies such contrasts (although there the contrast is within the phrase, rather than the period). Rosen points out that the Romantics tended to prefer that phrases continue with the same affect, only more so, a tendency reflected in the title of his last chapter, “Obessions”. He is weakest on 20th century style, talking a bit about Debussy and Ravel, but having nothing to say about, for example, how the jump cuts in Stravinsky compare with earlier expressive juxtapositions. I wish he had commented on the modernist music that he plays – Carter in particular certainly relies on rapidly contrasting sentiments, even if not always at the level of the phrase. Rosen seems entirely too content with the fact that he knows nothing about styles after Carter and Boulez and how those styles treat affect. He simply lists a variety of journalistic labels applied to various relatively recent musics and says how the second half of the 20th century still seems “chaotic” in its array of styles. The one thing he thinks he knows is that 20th century forms of harmonic practice are inferior to classical tonality because they lack precision in their delineation of the tonal landscape. Does he really think Bartok’s harmonic structures are flabby? Would he say the same if he knew something about Perle, Harbison, or Martino; Rakowski, Currier, or Melinda Wagner?