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boulez

Whilst there are a few works of Boulez I find to be very mediocre (Derive, Mémoriale, (“…explosante-fixe…”), both Incises and Sur Incises, and a few others), and I’m by no means convinced that various lush re-orchestrations of earlier works constitute an improvement, nonetheless he remains one of the most significant figures of the second half of the 20th century to me, and one whose work shows a greater consistency across the breadth of his output than, say, that of Stockhausen (who spent about 35 years mostly up his own arse, slowly going mad, with just the odd decent work).

All of this is to ignore Boulez’s seminal role as conductor, apologist for not just “new music” but for Debussy’s (for instance), Messiaen’s, Alban Berg’s, and a host of others. He established perhaps the most important institute for electronic and computer music research in the world, single-handedly petitioning a thankfully enlightened French Government in the late 60s/early 70s.

He renovated the repertoire, established a benchmark in certain conducting techniques (perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but it enlivened the world of the symphony orchestra and shook up the BBCSO), released superlative recordings of some of the 20th century’s greatest music, was politically active in supporting young composers, new music more generally, educational standards and notions of musical citizenship, and worked outside the box with the likes of the genius Frank Zappa.

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Webern during the 1920’s kept refining his style into what Pierre Boulez calls “a new manner of musical being”. Webern, he says, “was the first to explore the possibilities of a dialectic of sound and silence”, with silences as integral parts of the rhythmic cells. Webern also evolved a new structure of pitches, rethinking “the very idea of polyphonic music on the basis of the principles of serial writing”.

Where Schoenberg and Berg could never discard romanticism, Webern was the one member of the so-called Second Viennese School who worked in pure tonal organization, rejecting completely the romantic rhetoric. It could be said that there was no rhetoric at all. So condensed was the writing that a piece might last only a few minutes, and every once in a while under a minute.

Boulez claims that in Webern’s mature works, between 1927 and 1934 (including the Symphony) “each sound becomes a phenomenon in itself, linked to the others … he aerates his positionings in time and space as well as in their instrumental context”. Instrumentation itself takes on a structural function.

The transition from serial music to totally organized music might have come earlier had not the Nazis and seven years of war intervened. Webern was forced to live in obscurity, doing editorial work for Universal Edition. He was accidentally shot and killed in Mittersill during the night of September 14, 1945, by a trigger-happy American soldier who was working on a black market case in which Webern’s son-in-law was involved.

(Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, Volume Two)

I don’t think liking classical music has anything to do with class, intelligence or anything like that, but how about being eccentric?

I probably qualify as eccentric; my varied collecting interests alone (which include stuff that nobody in their right mind would want) should qualify me. Beyond that, I have been known to space out and walk into walls because I have been lost in thought.

That said, although I do not consider myself an eccentric, apparently a former co-worker when I was employed by a major UK retailer (Co-operative Group) did when she called me “different.” Our conversation ran roughly like this:

She: There’s something about you – you’re just different.
Me: No, I’m the same.
She: That’s what I mean. You’re different.

I had a similar conversation when a girl asked what I was reading and I responded “It’s a biography of Alban Berg.”

I try to be polite, but to the point. I try not to be fake. If I feel like shit, I won’t have a giant smile on my face. Is that so fucking eccentric?

I think it is a fairly established view that although Schoenberg was the developer of serialism, others soon surpassed him as far as innovation goes, and Schoenberg is paradoxically one of the most influential and best known or notorious modern composers, yet his compositions are little known or played (but thoroughly analyzed scholarly). Personally I prefer his pre-serialist atonal expressionist period as in Pierrot Lunaire with the hilarious “Sprechgesang”. As far as serialism goes, I am more inclined to listen to Webern and Stravinsky, not to mention Stockhausen’s particular spatial electronic serialism and Ligeti’s micropolyphony, both somehow emerging from serialism.

Personally I think Schoenberg should have resisted the Germanic cultural impulse to systematize and bring “Ordnung” out of the Expressionist chaos.

I mean, I understand the impulse, but I remain somewhat sceptical of it. A composer of immense power like Karl Amadeus Hartmann evolved more out of the pre-dodecaphonic Schoenberg than from the “12-tone method”. So too did Alban Berg. Early Hindemith also shows the possibilities.

But allow me to contradict myself! I still like the Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto is a fun work, not to mention Moses und Aron, and I can with difficulty agree that the 12-tone method allows you to sound Expressionist, and yet allow you to show some sense behind the sound.

The deeper question is: does it matter if you can show the sense behind the sound, if the finished product is … frankly … dull?

Pierre Boulez described him as an heroic failure. There’s a lot of truth in that description and it pretty much applies to Boulez the composer, too.

Unlike Boulez, however, Schoenberg was a very great man, a bona fide genius, and did something that absolutely had to be done. It took stupendous talent, courage, and strength of mind, and because of all this his life was blighted … such a very lonely path that met with incredulity and contempt.

His output is very mixed I think (I say that humbly) but there are magnificent things of the highest order.

I am always humbled when I think that every single note of every single composer who is in our current pantheon was set on paper by himself. Though there are rare recorded exceptions (Bach to his son on his deathbed with Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit), it is in general impossible to dictate music. It has been estimated that it would take 40 years of 40-hour work weeks just to transcribe Bach, let alone think about the composition while you were going along.

I’ve always found lots of visual satisfaction of looking at certain scores from Lully first editions to Gregorian chant to Berlioz operas to Tom Adès’ Asyla. Regardless of the music, some scores seem a lot more beautiful to me visually. Composers such as Dutilleux and Berg have always been interested in the visual aspect of the music on the page, and Dutilleux even composes sometimes in “shapes” that are visible in the page to an interesting effect musically (or sonically).

At the moment I’ve been lost in a study of Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances which is an absolutely gargantuan work that is as fun to listen to as it is to look at on the page to see his “shifting geological strata” of sound.

One composer who makes particularly striking looking scores (and of course striking sounding as well) is Pierre Boulez. His Pli selon pli, besides being one of the most sublime and wonderful compositions of the last century, is also one of the most gorgeous looking scores I’ve seen.

Of course, in the dim and distant past, music was about much more than just “the sound it makes” (Beecham) – it was about the play of proportion, the interaction of pattern and motive: it was geometry and mathematics laid out on paper, “order” with the potential to be demonstrated in sonic form, the divine geometry of the music of the spheres, etc., etc., and it was studied as a science (i.e. part of the Medieval Quadrivium, with geometry, mathematics and astronomy) rather than a rhetorical art (i.e. part of the Trivium, with grammar, logic and rhetoric). It goes against all our instincts to remember that this was so, but that’s the way it was. In this respect composers who indulge in Augenmusik are not therefore necessarily guilty of a crime against music.

Outside the music of the Second Viennese School, whose works are of course central, some other pieces are particularly special to me, though I don’t claim great things for all of them, necessarily. Here are just three of them.

Somewhere near the very top of the list come the three sets of Greek Lyrics by Dallapiccola, I think. Actually they are one of my favourite things in music full stop. Think of Webern’s concision and structural perfection and combine it with a delicate, refined Mediterranean lyricism (these are settings of ancient Greek poems). Few such exquisite pieces have come from any century and any style.

A surprise entry, really pretty obscure, is the Op. 15 Klavierstucke by Hanns Jelinek. I just love these works, though they aren’t at all barnstorming masterpieces. They were the first twelve-tone pieces I knew very well as a teenager, and are full of imagination, wit and fun. The work is divided into five books, each containing a number of pieces; Book I is four two-part inventions; Book II is five character pieces; Book III is three toccatas (including a Toccata Funebre for Berg, with some Wozzeck quotations); Book IV is three dance movements (including an utterly beautiful Sarabande, and a March clearly inspired by the Landsknecht number from Schoenberg’s male part songs) and Book V is a Suite in E major, including among other things a Bachian Prelude , a Siciliana which reminds me of Mozart a little, a jazzy Musette and an Epilogue which is an hommage to Debussy “d’un dodecaphoniste vienoise”. Each book uses the row in ever more advanced ways, until in Book V there is note repetition, free transposition and so on.

Forever linked to the Second Viennese composers in my mind will be Hugh Wood, who took a series of seminars on them when I was at Cambridge which I will never forget – truly moving occasions.

Hugh Wood is an archetypal northerner (he’s from Lancashire), bluff, down-to-earth, but he is at heart a late flourishing member of that set of post-Second Viennese composers that included Gerhard, Dallapiccola, Eisler and so on, and the eloquence and emotion with which he gave his last talk, on these three composers and their various fates, was particularly beautiful; and then he pulled out a bottle of champagne and we sat drinking, more or less, to these great musicians.

I love Wood’s three concerti, and particularly his Piano Concerto, which shows how much fun twelve-tone music can be, and is dedicated to gorgeous pouting Joanna MacGregor. It also has an admirably clear form. The first movement is springy, athletic and purely atonal. Its rhythmic vitality is infectious. The second movement, in complete contrast, is almost throughout vague, amorphous, delicate, utterly beautiful “late night” music. Gradually it takes shape, the contours and sonorities become clearer and the music is drawn ever-closer into the orbit of Sweet Lorraine, which is eventually quoted in sumptuous sound for just a few glorious seconds before a withdrawal is made. The movement is an attempt to bring together these two disparate worlds – it is for the most part a kind of twelve-tone rumba, almost, with the first movement’s vitality jazzed up a little. But there are tiny interludes, ever more magical ones, wonderfully orchestrated with soulful oboe or trumpet solos over pattering tom-toms, which although they only take up a few seconds in total, seem to contain the heart of this concerto.

He arrived in Manchester towards the end of August [1848], and was put up at the house of a German Jew called Salis Schwabe, who had settled in England thirty years before and amassed great wealth. The Schwabes were widely travelled and cultivated, and their fine mansion just outside Manchester, Crumpsall House, was often used by visiting artists.

Chopin was a little astonished to find that “in this smoky place there is the most charming music room imaginable”.

(Adam Zamoyski, Chopin: A Biography)

Depending on whether you believe official records, or the composer himself, Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born either on 22 February or 1 March, 200 years ago. He died thirty-nine years later, of tuberculosis.

I find his music rather depressing, mainly because I am painfully aware that I will never write anything for the piano half as well as he did.

This hasn’t stopped me “borrowing” some of his more chromatic passages for use in my own compositions, which are frankly atonal and dodecaphonic, although admittedly in the sense that Alban Berg’s music is atonal and dodecaphonic.

The greatest interpreter of Chopin, for me, is Horowitz, although my young friend Melissa has a soft spot for Tamás Vásáry.

I find it interesting that the world’s greatest pianist, Alfred Brendel, rarely performed Chopin’s music, possibly because it lacks humour.



Arts

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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