CGF Newsletter 21: Call and Response
Will responds to a bevy of recent Listener comments
Name That Tune
This week’s Name That Tune was submitted by Listener Kevin. No hint this week, except that this is a very canonical composer’s music.
As always, your goal is to provide as much accurate analysis as possible. First try to get the nationality, year, and genre, then make educated guesses about the composer and — if possible— the piece. If you know the piece immediately, send us an email at email@example.com instead of commenting so the rest of us can have fun guessing.
Last Week’s Results
CGF Newsletter 20
Emmanuel Chabrier, Suite Pastorale
Once again, you all astound me: Listener Eric wrote in identifying this down to the movement. There was a tiny difference in nomenclature though, since he knew the title of the overall work as Pièces pittoresques rather than the Suite Pastorale, but it still counts as a full win, since that was the original title of the piano version of this work.
Listener Kevin got Chabrier well. This seemed to stump the rest of you, but at least Listener Cody made a valiant attempt with Enescu, mainly going off the clue. It’s not a bad guess though, as Enescu did study in Paris and wrote some very French-influenced things. And he was certainly a one-hit wonder.
For those wondering, Emmanuel Chabrier’s one hit is the orchestral rhapsody España (which later became the basis for Émile Waldteufel’s waltz of the same name — arguably a more popular piece than the original!)
Think you can stump your fellow Listeners? Go ahead and try!
Head to our Google Form to upload a 30-second clip of an unidentified piece of classical music for us to try to identify.
Catching Up With the Comments Section
The criticism about Klaus Mäkelä generated quite a bit of discussion. Let’s start with this particularly perspicacious comment from none other than our own Joey Vaz:
The probable elephant in the room re: Mäkelä is his identity as a (very) white male. Alex Ross wasn't choosing at random when he chose to compare directly to Xian Zhang (neither white nor male).
My two cents: Mäkelä seems to be in fine position (signed with Decca, routinely "showered with praise" as "an orchestral golden boy"). One could probably therefore cherry-pick some really good reviews of even this Sibelius cycle. Do I think Alex Ross et al. needed to go so hard on him? No – it unfortunately seems to be the typical cycle of commentary for certain people to hear that someone is being touted, and automatically listen more critically. Why couldn't he tout Xian Zhang without putting down another conductor?
This is something that I wanted to address in my writeup, but I felt I was going a bit long already. Part of the reason Alex Ross compares the two has to do with the structure of New Yorker criticism. Look, for example, at any movie review: the grand majority of the time, the critic reviews two movies and compares them (most often, it’s an arty indie release that gets 80% of the column inches, then a big budget action release gets obliterated in a paragraph.)
The book reviewers do this constantly, and so does Alex Ross on occasion. I think he’s generally better about falling into the pitfalls though. He can write about two events or artists without directly comparing them.
The problem is that he writes ten articles a year, but he’s supposed to stay abreast of the entire musical scene. I happen to think that he has terrible taste in deciding what to cover, but I recognize the severe restrictions he’s dealing with. You try to pack as much into one article as you can; if you end up with two conductors, especially if one is the golden boy and the other is neglected, you can’t help but compare them. But I agree with Joey that it’s not fair.
Also, it must be said that Ross's comparison of Zhang to Szell was under very specific auspices: he considers Zhang's career to be a happier alternative for the future of conductors than Mäkelä's, preferring music directors to put down roots with an orchestra, rather than be "itinerant maestros who draw big salaries in multiple cities." Fair enough!
My point in bringing up this particular point for rebuke isn’t that I disagree with Alex Ross that this is what a music director should aspire to – in fact, I quite agree with that point. I just don’t think Xian Zhang is a proper representation of that ideal. As far as I can tell, she’s out guest conducting nearly every week that she’s not contractually obligated to be in New Jersey.
From Listener J.S. on the same issue:
Couldn’t agree more re. Mäkelä. The fact that critics dislike his Sibelius cycle is one thing (for my part he brings out lots of interesting and thoughtful details, even if the whole picture more often than not fails to congeal). What bothers me, however, is the tone of the Mäkelä criticism rather than its substance.
Ross makes glib reference to his looks and resorts to hyperbolic exasperation (“The idea that someone in his mid-twenties could have mastered these complex and elusive scores…” is not a million miles removed from “Who does this punk kid think he is?”). Kosman is a little better, using Mäkelä’s professional achievements as a way of discussing the classical music industry’s quasi-exploitative cult of youth. Even so, his critique exhibits an underlying gatekeeping instinct that is sadly ubiquitous among both professional and amateur critics, nearly all of whom are middle-aged plus.
Yes, a 26-year-old has limited life experience on which to draw, but how much does that really matter for musical interpretation? If you were to hear two recordings of, say, Mahler 2, one by a twenty-something upstart prodigy and another by an aged eminence grise, what fraction of your annual income would you be willing to bet on your ability to tell which is which? My answer: not much at all.
I don’t have much to add here except to say that I think J.S. is right on. I’ve never quite understood what people say when they claim that interpreters should have “life experience.” I think they should have *musical experience* but that’s something people can come by at any age. I once heard someone say that nobody should conduct a Brahms symphony until they were about 40. I’d say there’s a good argument to be made that you’d get a more satisfying performance conducted by a 26-year-old who had conducted the work 3 or 4 times already than a 40-year-old doing it for the first time. But when it comes right down to it, I think J.S. is spot on: you’d be hard-pressed to identify which was which.
Listener J.S. also weighed in on the scandal roiling the Juilliard composition faculty:
I am saddened by the Juilliard news particularly because it reminds me how little things have changed since my very brief time attempting to build a career as an academic and composer. The terrible stories I heard back then of many people I had formerly respected, people who held prestigious positions and won the biggest prizes and wrote the music that everyone was talking about—some of whom I knew personally and revered—were so common that they barely ranked as happy hour gossip. I would name names but chances are, if you're reading this you yourself could probably rattle off a half dozen or so.
This behavior has been so persistent over time that institutions need dramatic and decisive gestures to start to tack in a more positive direction. Sure, give Rouse, Beaser, Corigliano, etc., due process, but if the allegations bear out it should be heads on pikes for all to see. I would even like to see the Pulitzer and Grawemeyer committees rescind awards for composers who have a demonstrated pattern of abuse. The industry writ large needs to grow a set of sharp shark teeth and give regular demonstrations of their use so that the potential consequences to this kind of behavior are felt on a visceral level.
J.S., all I can say is that I admire your clear moral stance on this issue. Alas, it’s so rarely the case that the facts bear out in so clear-cut a manner as to deliver the justice we all wish for. And even in the so-called #MeToo era, people — particularly young women just entering into a very challenging career path — are often loathe to speak out on the record for fear of their careers.
I’ve tried a couple of times to play a role in bringing the rumor mill to the halls of justice. In one case, there was a university faculty member (not at an institution I was enrolled in) who was just a real scumbag and was known for his numerous affairs with students. A student reporter came sniffing around and I mustered all the contacts I could to try and get people to corroborate their stories. In the end, there wasn’t enough to run the article.
A similar thing happened after I heard through the grapevine about appallingly bad behavior by a VERY famous conductor. This conductor lives overseas, so it took a while to engage my network to find a reporter in that country, but I eventually did, and I connected the friend who told me what she had heard with the reporter, who tried for several months to get people on the record. Nobody would talk.
In retrospect, if I had only known Sammy Sussman at the time of these events, I would have put him on the case.
Listener Jeremy responded to Joey’s essay about being a choral accompanist:
As always, love the insights into a pianist's working life. I'm curious where choral accompaniment fits into Joey's visions for that collaborative pianists utopia. Is there common ground to be found with chorally-collaborative organists?
I’ll just weigh in and say that all chorally-collaborative organists are also chorally-collaborative pianists, but not vice versa; there’s plenty of pianists who can’t play organ, but all organists can play the piano (this is probably obvious.)
You might think that all organists spend their lives accompanying church choirs, but it’s really not the case, and I’ve known some who abhor having to perform with choirs. They just want to play Buxtehude, Widor, and Reger. It’s a shame, because interacting with choir singers is their only outlet to connect to normal human beings. And the word “normal” is doing a lot of work in that statement, and it can only accomplish that because we’re grading on a curve.
Speaking of Young Joseph, let’s end where we began, with him weighing in on my story from last week:
But just wanted to say that I can't think of a more bizarre and excellent story than Will's Arizona experience. I wish exit interviews had been conducted on the symphony-loving public of Sedona.
That’s very kind of you, Joseph! And since I don’t want to leave the Martha-loving readers of the CGF Newsletter hanging, here is the slideshow video of my song cycle that I promised last week.
Easley Blackwood, Nocturne in C major, Op. 41 no. 1
Pour one out for my former teacher, Easley Blackwood, who died this past Sunday, January 22 at the age of 89.
I will write more about Easley at another time, but suffice to say, he was a fascinating figure, if not always an agreeable presence. He studied with Hindemith, Copland, Boulanger, and Messiaen, he toured Europe as a song accompanist, he co-founded the Chicago Pro Musica, sat on the board of Cedille Records, and taught classes in music composition and theory at the University of Chicago from 1958 until quite recently. (I studied with him from 2002-2008.)
Easley’s musical trajectory was singular: he began as a Shostakovich-influenced teenager who then took on some of the more strident modernism of Schoenberg and Boulez. Talented in mathematics and physics, his next phase (lasting about a decade from the mid-70s to the mid-80s) delved into the world of microtonality and tuning theory, working in electronic media.. This era has turned out to be his most lasting contribution to the musical discourse, and he has become something of a celebrity in the extremely niche online world of hardcore microtonalists, who respect his work very highly. I’m happy that these people found him and his music.
Easley’s final chapter (musically) was a return to the world of late-19th century tonality. This article, published on the eve of the premiere of his fifth symphony (his most significant statement in traditional tonal music) sums up his thinking from the last 35 years of his life:
''There is no way under the sun you can be shocking anymore. I have no idea what's next for music history, but I can say this: I am persuaded that the harmonic vocabulary associated with standard tunings has now all been discovered. There is nothing left to be done. You can either make use of the harmonic language that's already there or you can write random dissonance. You cannot discover something new.
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A very curious NTT indeed! That open-string pizzicato opening is a head scratcher, especially since it's followed by those classical cadences. The string writing sounds just a little more on the modern side of the classical era, but in the end, I think I'm going to guess Haydn, because you never go wrong ascribing weirdness to him, and he wrote so much. I feel like I know a lot of the Haydn quartets, but there are like 60-something of them, so it could easily be one I don't know.
That is, of course, assuming that it's a quartet. The textures might have been a tad thicker than that, but I would say it's nothing more than a quintet or sextet at the most. My next best guess from the style and hint would be Schubert; he has — what? — fifteen quartets? I don't know them all.
I'm stopping there. Haydn and Schubert are as much as I can come up with.
Enescu a one hit wonder?? I think I can hear the entire country of Romania protesting from New York.
Also, that's a thought-provoking, if unnuanced, quote of Blackwood's. RIP!