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.
Peter Kivy, describing the paradox of musical description. As appears in 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?
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.
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. In fact, the only thing holding classical music back from the public at this point is the public itself. 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.)
I believe there is a 95% chance the person who submitted this idea is in the same class on Berg’s “Lulu” as me.
by the request of ginandjudy, here is my syllabus for the Handel class. my scanner wasn’t working and in my post-dinner pesto-induced bliss, I didn’t want to ruin that by walking to the library. hahaha. the class is taught by Sean Gallagher of NEC, who is chair for the “Beyond ‘Isorhythm’” panel at AMS Pittsburgh 2013. it is probably my favorite class this semester…and if you aren’t seduced by the Mahler panel during the same timeslot, I can’t recommend anything he is involved with highly enough.
In terms of “texts”, we are reading Christopher Hogwood’s Handel, Ellen Harris’ Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, andWinton Dean and John Merrill Knapp’s Handel’s Operas: 1706-1726. We also read a selection of John Mainwaring’s Memoirs of the life of the late George Frederic Handel, to which is added a catalogue of his works and observations about them. As for other readings, they are not on the syllabus and we won’t know until they are assigned.
Handel In Italy and England: Genre, Style and Audience
2) Hamburg and Florence: Almira, Rodrigo
3) Rome and Scarlatti: Dixit Dominus; Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) Dixit Dominus
4) Roman cantatas: Tu fedel? tu costante?; Tra la fiamme
5) Italian finale: Agrippina
6) Bringing Italy to England: Rinaldo
7) Early “Royal” music: Birthday Ode for Queen Anne; Water Music; Henry Purcell (1659-95), Come ye sons of Art, away
8) Masque and the beginnings of the oratorio; instrumental music. Acis and Galatea; Esther (1718 version); Suite in G, Oboe Sonata in F
9) Royal Academy Music in the 1720s; Giulio Cesare
10) Heroic opera; Tamerlano
11) Saul; Concerto grosso, Op. 6/4; L’Allegro e il pensiero
Ok, enough procrastinating. Back to George Perle and annotating my Lulu score.