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Guides to Music

A few weeks ago, I was looking for a book but couldn't find it. I ended up emptying the bookshelf and restacking the books in better order. I also decided to get rid of about twenty books. Of these, there were two that I wanted to talk about first. Warn about, to be more precise. If my writing seems hasty or ill-considered, it's because I still very much want to get rid of these books. Once I've made up my mind, it's heave-ho.

(I never knew what 'heave-ho' meant until I saw Laurel & Hardy's The Music Box for the first time, last spring.)

The books are guides to classical music. Actually, there are three. I haven't made up my mind about the third, which is Ethan Mordden's A Guide To Orchestral Music: A Handbook for Non-Musicians (Oxford, 1980). It's a good book, and I recommend it, but I never consult it. The focus on "orchestral" music seems pointless to me, because anyone who wants to understand more about the music played at orchestra concerts will undoubtedly find detailed notes in the program. Otherwise, there is no reason to regard orchestral music as categorically different from chamber music or piano music. I know that there are people who dislike vocal music - and people who won't listen to anything else - but a book that wants to talk seriously about Beethoven's symphonies ought to address his string quartets and sonatas as well. Mr Mordden covers the work of over a hundred composers; it would have been better to cut back this number so as to make room for discussions of the major composers' major works. Surely it is time to retire the idea that works become 'major' by requiring lots of performers. Mozart may have believed that his most important compositions were his operas, but we are not so dazzled by commissions, and I doubt that anyone would choose La finta giardiniera over the G-Minor Quintet.

Aside from the limitations of its rubric, however, this Guide is very good - which is why the rubric is regrettable. Mr Mordden is a well-known and highly-esteemed writer. In addition to his fiction, he has produced a robust shelf of books about music, musical theatre, and the movies. (His The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies (Random House, 1988) remains an indispensable guide to the Golden Age of Hollywood production.) What he has to say about the music that fits his category makes one wish to hear what he would have to say about the rest. Here he is on Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat for Violin and Viola, K. 364:

An early masterpiece of the "double concerto," K. 364 is one of those rare works that seems to exploit everything a composer has assimilated in the preceding period - a showpiece for the play as much as for the players. The young composer (twenty-three at the time) had got down structure, orchestration, balance; this is a kind of celebration of technique. For example, in the first movement there is a solo for two horns, echoed by two oboes - this is matched by a similar moment for horns and oboes in the third movement.

Though the violin and viola are the nominal soloists, there is some elaborate spotlighting of other instruments as well; this is, after all, what "concertoish symphony" is all about. Note also Mozart's adoption, at several points in the first movement, of the famous "Mannheim crescendo." Mozart had recently been to Mannheim to hear its celebrated orchestra, celebrated especially for the players' ensemble discipline. It seems they were so deft in their sense of balance that they could work up gradations of volume previously unheard of in the semi-amateur European orchestra, and gloried in their diminuendo (growing softer) and crescendo (growing louder).

For much of the work, Mozart has his violin and viola soloists playing in leap-frog. The rich first movement, Allegro maestoso (lively and grand), acts as a collaborative gala for all concerned, with the two soloists presiding from their entrance to their duo-cadenza at the end. The slow [second] movement, however, is so elegiacally songful that one notices the line of melody more than any one instrument. The joyous rondo finale [third mvt] plays the ear out with tunes in lively procession.

My first objection to this is the summary, in three sentences, of three movements. Such abbreviation is appropriate in reviews of concerts, but not, I think, in guides to the music itself. The comment need not be musical; I have never forgotten reading somewhere that the second movement of the Sinfonia Concertante smolders with suppressed rage inspired by the composer's unsympathetic new patron, Cardinal Archbishop Colloredo. Maynard Solomon groups this movement with others in "a pervasive slow-movement model" that is "derived from opera seria, using copious dramatic gestures and recitativelike interjections to impart a somewhat objectified sense of the tragic or pathetic." (Mozart, p. 207) These are useful descriptions that will enrich a thoughtful listener's experience of the music over time. Because Mr Mordden is expressly writing for 'non-musicians,' he can certainly be forgiven for omitting quotations, but perhaps we ought to have given us more information about his feelings. These come through only indirectly, in somewhat vacant talk of things coming together for Mozart and the Sinfonia's being a 'celebration of technique.' There is nothing here like the unforgettable description of K. 364 that occurs in William Styron's Sophie's Choice. The definition of the Mannheim crescendo is very good, but the adjective 'famous' ought to have been dropped. There is a good reason why the crescendo isn't famous anymore, and why Mr Mordden has to describe it: the coordination that it requires has long been standard equipment among symphony orchestras. Mr Mordden might have pointed out that his twenty-three year-old composer was revving up a new and improved kind of engine. Mozart was a great composer (all right, the greatest), but let's face it: he loved to show off.

Now for the giveaways.

Ted Libbey's The NPR Guide To Building A Classical CD Collection appeared in 1994 (Workman), and there is no doubt that the list of recommended CDs would be changed. CDs come and go more quickly than most commodities. That is one reason for not giving them in the first place: lists date. Second, they're very personal. Rather than pick one recording of Aida and two of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, a guide to classical recordings ought to outline helpful parameters. CDs issued by the three Polygram labels (Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and Decca) are, for example, usually very good, and often among the best. Certain conductors are known to excel with certain composers, and orchestras have discernible characteristics and affinities. A guide ought to be able to tell me what I need to know when I have to decide between Chopin played by Rubinstein and Chopin played by Ashkenazy. Operas are obviously somewhat more complicated, but there's no harm in recommending Verdi sung by Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi, or Birgit Nilsson, and Puccini sung by Mirella Freni or Kiri te Kanawa. (One might even quote Spike Hughes notorious ukase against Italians singing the Contessa d'Almaviva.) Recommendations of specific recordings do not belong between the covers of a book.

Now let us examine Mr Libbey's approach to the music itself. It is exactly what I would not want Mr Mordden's guide to look like if he were to follow my suggestions. For reasons that I can only assume to have come from the music appreciation courses of sixty years ago, the NPR Guide divides music into six categories: Orchestral Works, Concertos, Chamber Music, Solo Keyboard Works, Sacred and Choral Music, and Opera. Once again, I can understand the last two divisions. But the rest is sheer foolishness. Does the ordinary listener think, Oh, I must listen to something orchestral? something for piano solo? I don't think so. When they decide that they want to hear a Beethoven Symphony or some Chopin Nocturnes, listeners are probably not thinking at the same time of Strauss tone poems or Haydn sonatas. If music must be classified, there are at least two superior paradigms. First, the historical. What we call "classical music" is incandescently historical, governed at first by highly mutable courtly fashions and later by Hegelian ideas of progress. Most music is as easy to date as antique clothing. To the simply historical divisions, however - baroque, classical, romantic, modern - I prefer stylistic divisions. These parallel the historical divisions up to the time of Beethoven, at which point they ramify. What's often overlooked in the 'progress' view of music is the impact of what came to be called 'neoclassical' ideas. These were really the fruit of composers' increasing familiarity, over time, with music of the past. When Bach died, his music was utterly out of fashion, and it stayed there until almost 1830. By that time, however, composers, beginning with Mozart, had learned to draw inspiration from his scores. Beethoven was hugely influenced by Bach, and the monumental solidity of his larger works, together with Brahms's adulation of both Bach and Beethoven, is the reason for speaking of 'The Three B's.' Before writing any of his symphonies, Brahms produced two 'serenades' that, while they don't sound anything like Mozart's, will come to strike the experienced listener as breathing the same air. But I am not the one writing a guide to music - not today, anyway. Mr Libbey is.

The fustiness of his chapter headings pervades his choice of the music worth talking about. As a quick example, take Handel. Mr Libbey covers exactly three works by Handel, a grotesque shortchanging. They are, predictably, Messiah, Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Assuming that only three works could be chosen, then certainly the Concerti Grossi, Opus 6, better merit attention (even as one work) than the Royal Fireworks. The concertos are vastly more important, particularly as examples of the quality that Handel and his English friends prized far more than we think: taste. It would also seem that Messiah needs no promotion; no one unaware of it is likely to look at a guide to classical music. Throughout the NPR Guide, the works chosen are the ones that were regarded as serious a long time ago. I seriously doubt, however, that a newcomer to Bach will get more out of the music for unaccompanied violin than out of the flute sonatas or even The Musical Offering. Recommending the sonatas and the partitas seems a fine way of keeping novices at a distance.

Here is Mr Libbey on K. 364:

As used in the latter part of the 18th century, the term sinfonia concertante meant any concerto-like work with more than one solo instrument. Mozart's Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola dates from 1779, a miraculous time of turning in the composer's life. He had recently completed his ear-opening 16-month journey to Mannheim and Paris, where the concertante genre was popular. Even though this concerto was conceived for the smaller forces available in Salzburg, its polished orchestral writing reflects the cosmopolitan influence and suggests that he had reached a new height of stylistic and technical assurance.

Mozart's abilities as violinist and violist are evident in the challenging yet idiomatic writing for the solo instruments. And he shows his knowledge of the tricks of the trade in his clever instruction to tune the viola a half-step sharp to help the softer-toned instrument achieve a balance with the solo violin.

In the long first movement, the march topic predominates, and the influence of Mannheim is apparent in the richness and warmth of the scoring and the prominent use of the "Mannheim steamroller" crescendo. Mozart has the two solo instruments trading off with one another and weaving their way in and out of the orchestral fabric with supreme ease. The written-out cadenza provides one of the best examples of how a Classical cadenza should be constructed, using motifs and passagework rather than complete themes.

The aria-like second movement is a somber C minor Andante tinged with poignant dissonances. An ornamented melody is taken up in responsory fashion by the two violinists, then duetted. Following a brief transition, there is a buildup to a radiantly scored climax in the major, which rounds out the first part of the aria. When the opening material returns toward the end of the movement, Mozart does not allow it to escape the grip of the minor mode.

Festive spirits return in the finale, a giddily animated rondo that offers plenty of opportunity for plain old virtuoso fiddling. In his treatment of the material, Mozart shows much variety and freshness, as well as that remarkable, seamless sense of connection between ideas he alone seemed to possess. The climax comes as the soloists rocket up to a pair of show-off high E flats - first the viola, then the violin - to close the piece with a last surge of voltage.

This reads well, but it doesn't actually say much. It does not, for example, describe the Mannheim crescendo, or suggest why it was remarkable at one time. It does not say how, musically, the 'orchestral writing reflects the cosmopolitan influence,' nor does give any reason for caring. The tuning detail has no place in a book of this kind. Ethan Mordden describes the interplay of the solo parts far more economically, and the remark about cadenzas sounds more meaningful than it is. The rest of the description is incense, particularly the remark about Mozart's command of seamless construction. There are very few concertos for violins, double or otherwise, which do not end with rocketing and showing off. Anyone familiar with the Sinfonia concertante will see that everything that Mr Libbey writes is true and correct. The problem is that it hasn't much to offer a likely purchaser of the NPR Guide. I may very well be wrong; listeners with experience, but not with so much experience that they don't crave to have their opinions validated in print, may well be the target audience for this book.

Such, I think, is the aim of the third book in my pile, David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music (North Point Press, 2001). I am certainly guilty of buying it to find out if Mr Dubal and I shared a conception of the canon. David Dubal was for years and years the music director at WNCN, once the greatest classical music outlet in town, and I know that he knows music. The problem is that he's even more gifted than Mr Libbey is when it comes to writing fine-sounding nothings. Now, pay close attention.

Mozart's consummate use of string tone is unparalleled. Here he used a string orchestra supported merely by horns and oboes. The violin and viola are integrated in dialogues of profound beauty. The Sinfonia concertante suggests both concerto and symphony at once and is a bold formal experiment, completed in the early autumn of 1779. It is a sublime example of Mozart's unique sensitivity to sound in general and to these instruments in particular. No other composer has quite captured his ability to shift mood from gaiety to sadness with no obvious preparation, with an abruptness so startling that the listener is left behind.

Does anybody else hear the voice of Eddie Haskell here? There is only one (1) positive statement about the music, meaning that there is only one statement that could be wrong. That is the remark about 'dialogues.' (The bits about the scoring and the date of composition don't count; they might both appear in a program's full title.) Conceivably, Mozart could have written a work in which the two soloists played entirely different themes. It's extremely unlikely, so as a guess the remark would be a good one, but it remains the only detail in this paragraph that says something about the music. The sentence about 'bold formal experiment' is almost hilariously funny, a superb example of the padded prose that articulate but lazy high school students crank out by the ream. Once again we hear about seamless shifting among moods, but this is a point that cannot be made intelligible without quoting the score. And Mozart never leaves listeners behind. On the contrary: he flatters them into imagining that they know what he's up to.

The Essential Canon consists of biographical sketches of the famous composers (and some not so famous), followed by descriptions, such as the one above, of several principal works, with a list of 'Other Principal Works' at the end. The book is essentially a decorated list. It is very handsome, with lots of white space, and it's drenched in a cologne of 'serious reference work.' The cologne is unaccompanied, however, by any serious reference work. There's very little in the book that can't be found, with greater precision, in The Columbia Encyclopedia. (That's a one-volume general encyclopedia, by the way.) The Essential Canon would not be much less imposing or useful if it were simply a dust jacket glued to a block of wood. (July 2004)

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