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Benjamin Britten famously said that he would sometimes play “the whole of Brahms” (whatever that means) just to remind himself how bad it was. Britten was an arse bandit. Perhaps this explains Peter Pears’ strangulated voice.
I also remember a quote by Ken Russell that Brahms’ music reminded him of Victorian sepia photographs.
It’s interesting that most people associate Brahms with his chamber and orchestral works, when around three-quarters of his output includes voices. Many, many songs (countless treasures in there), numerous works for multiple solo voices and instruments, and much for choir (Brahms conducted several choirs through the course of his lifetime) and choir and orchestra.
I tend to believe that the problem with a lot of Brahms performance lies not so much with the use of vibrato, larger orchestras, modern pianos, or whatever (all of which Brahms experienced on occasion), but the approaches to phrasing and articulation – already problematic in editions appearing soon after his death (for example those of the piano music by Sauer) which tend to smooth out the many very subtle details Brahms notated, and replace his sometimes fragmentary and delicate approach to the balance between small-scale units and longer lines with a rather homogenous approach stressing maximum continuity.
The rests are very important (Brahms took immense care over them when preparing editions); many pedal markings in others’ editions of the piano music make little sense, nor do some conductors’ attempts to artificially make contrasting fragments cohere into a continuous whole, negating some of the inner tensions.
There are indeed some composers whose work is more likely than that of others to invite extreme reactions, although I would not immediately single out Brahms as a particularly notable example, for all that there are some for whom he could do no wrong and others who detest much of his work – in other words, I’m less than convinced that these extreme positions vis-à-vis Brahms are especially common. Britten’s loathing of Brahms, whilst well known, was by no means universal; he had, for example, a lot of time for the D minor piano concerto. I happen to think it’s dull.
Delius strikes me as one example of a composer whose work tends to elicit mostly very positive or very negative responses; Havergal Brian is another. Why it is that certain composers’ works more often than not tend to attract these extreme reactions is quite another matter.
Speaking personally, I love Brahms’ music.
Multiculturalism, regardless of what German Chancellor Angela “Ja! Ja! Ja! Mein Gott! Dein Schwanz in meinem Arsch!” Merkel thinks, is not an end in itself. It is rather a consequence of the simple fact that people move around the world, and this has grown exponentially as communication and transportation has become easier and cheaper. It is unlikely ever to diminish.
Where individuals move, there is a tendency for them to absorb at least some of the culture they occupy. Where groups move, the resistance is greater, such as the behaviour of the British in the former empire. Orwell’s “Burmese Days” has a brilliant image of the traditional English garden, resolutely cultivated despite the searing heat of a Myanmarese summer, and by turns either wilting away or erupting into exotic life.
So the question is really the extent to which individuals and groups should surrender their cultures when they move abroad. This however runs counter to the worldwide growth in the perceived value of localised cultures (itself a reaction to the Americanisation of the world). In the UK the most obvious manifestation of this has been the Welsh and Gaelic languages, which are now actively sponsored where before they simply lived or died on their own terms.
So rather than fretting over multiculturalism per se, do we think that it is a good thing to support diversity, or do we think the ideal would be everybody being pretty much the same, and other cultures should only be viewed as relics in a museum or mere curiosities to be mocked and distrusted?
I once got into a fistfight with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau outside the good ol’ Ratskeller in Berlin after I told him I preferred Hans Hotter’s performance of Winterreise, and that he (Fischer-Dieskau) had been in a slow decline ever since the 1950s.
Julia Fischer (no relation to Dietrich) was on the scene and was so turned on by my manliness (I kicked The Fish’s ass), we’ve been seeing each other on and off ever since.
She’s the greatest. We sit up all night long and drink White Russians and talk about phylogenetic profiling, the chromalveolate hypothesis proposed by Cavalier-Smith, Manchester City F.C. (of which we are both big fans), cricket, peonies, carrots, and so on …
Before you read this, please bear in mind that I have drink taken.
I’ve never made a secret of disliking vibrato, or excessive amounts of it, in the human voice as an art form. One of the reasons Pavarotti was so esteemed was because his voice and high C’s were clear and direct, little warbling (if any) in most cases.
In the female soprano, or mezzo, it amazes me how many warblers there are. My point is, I would like to hear sopranos or mezzos with more of a crystal clear and direct timbre, a kind of sky blue clear Nordic sound, rather than flaunt the limitations and imperfections of their considerable throats.
However, I do find that with French opera I do like more vibrato than I do with other nationalities (of opera). Odd that, but then they did have some different traditions with regard to vibrato. But the use of vibrato is still somewhat controversial anyway. I would prefer less myself, though good singing is good singing.
The problem is worsened when some sopranos age too, so that whilst they may have been tolerable when young, their voice creates a beat or worse when they get older.
I know some blame often gets laid on Wagner’s doorstep, too, for writing parts that only one-in-a-million singers, like Birgit Nilsson or Kirsten Flagstad, can pull off without injuring the audience’s eardrums. I’m no singer or vocal coach, but that whole modern operatic method of vocal production (sort of like fluidly bellowing in key) strikes me as so unnatural that I’m amazed when singers do nail it.
(Interestingly, it’s been adopted rather successfully by some rock singers, like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, who ironically have no need to project like that since they’re amplified.)
Kontra-punkte, one of Stockhausen’s less crazy compositions, dates from 1953, the golden age of total serialism.
The abstract painting is by Eva Ryn Johannissen.
Camille Saint-Saëns, someone said, was “The greatest composer who was not a genius.”
I’m not sure who said it, but I know that (from an early age) Saint-Saëns could do amazing things like play any of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas from memory. That became his party trick. He was a child prodigy, and the great white hope of French music. I am not a huge fan of Saint-Saëns, I saw his Organ Symphony as a teenager and thought it was awesome, but now I think it’s boring. Tastes change (this says more about me than the composer). I think he wrote some pretty enjoyable music (like the fine piano concertos), and even some light and witty (very French) stuff like Carnival of the Animals. Early on, he was associated with progressive tendencies and was a good friend of Liszt, but later he became very conservative, booing at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Edgard Varèse was a student of his, and they had a pretty uneasy relationship.
I’ve also heard that he simply walked out once he heard the opening bassoon line of Le Sacre du Printemps. Who knows what is apocryphal and what isn’t?
Its clear to me that genius is always applied to a particular creative quality (even a counterfeit one, such as the case of Andy Warhol, the charlatan who conned others into believing he was a genius) or personal force rather than a mere superior form of intellect, the latter being the contemporary definition.
Some people are polymaths, or Renaissance people, and do a number of things well. This does not make them geniuses. A genius in art: creates exceptionally beautiful and/or deeply meaningful works; and often changes the history of their art by the sheer power of their work and its making plain ideas which are floating unarticulated in the collective culture of the time. (Some other geniuses like Bach and Rembrandt bring up the rear, summing up the art of their time better than anyone else and may be completely out of fashion by their middle or old age.) Their ability to do arithmetic or trigonometry, negotiate a contract, fly a glider, make love, cook, garden, lead a political movement or whatever else, has nothing whatsoever to with their artistic genius. If a physicist were good at all the things I mentioned but only mildly important in his original work in the field of physics, would that rank him with Einstein as a genius in physics? Would all the other physicists and scientifically aware people who are looking or waiting for ways out of the conundrums that physics now finds itself in, care in the least about this guy’s ability to fly a glider or cook fucking pasta? If Beethoven could have done multiplication, would more orchestras play his symphonies than do now?
Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath, but is considered a genius not because he was a polymath but because he painted great paintings, on the level of genius, and changed art history. Without that quality he might be considered a very prescient inventor and a pioneering anatomist and geologist, but would probably not be considered a genius. The fact that he only completed less than a dozen or so paintings underlines the fact of his genius because it is unmistakable even from these few examples. It may also show that his polymathism – he could never keep his wandering mind on one thing for long, even a paid commission – actually possibly undermined his genius.