Raw Material: Schoenberg

(This is the first in a series of short posts, each of which will encapsulate a single observation that will, at some future time, be assembled with others into larger and more complex arguments. To paraphrase Thurber, if you keep going long enough, it turns into a book.)

Schoenberg's contemporaries did not concern themselves with his technique but with his aesthetics. These are of course independent; we will have much more to say on that point! By the time he invented the 12-note technique, Schoenberg was already well into his own reorientation towards his own kind of neo-Classicism. Cause and effect may be impossible to separate, but a 12-tone Erwartung is unthinkable: it would have been too much trouble.

Berg asks "Why is Schoenberg's music so difficult to understand?" and takes many pages and many examples to give the simple answer: because it moves too fast. The rest is trying to make a virtue out of a defect; and the argument does not necessarily transfer to any other work besides the one that Berg was looking at. The point is that music may be either too legible or not legible enough. The badness of the first has been obvious since the Middle Ages; the badness of the second had, unfortunately, to be discovered over and over again.

Martinů's Symphonies

(revised 27 March 2024)

...are worth a listen. There are six of them. The first five were written in successive years between 1942 and 1946; the sixth came later, in 1953. The first five are also in many respects much alike; Martinů ranks poorly on the how-many-different-kinds-of-symphony test, but the symphonies are more differentiated than some of his concerti, which regrettably bring to mind the old crack about Vivaldi having written the same concerto 500 times.

All six employ progressive tonality; the second, which we will take a closer look at, begins and ends in D but it does not just stay there in the manner of the Classical unity of tonality: it gets there.

Martinů's second symphony is also his shortest, and, in some sense, "clearest"; and it contains classic examples of the Martinů tropes, so it is a good place to start. Here is a score video (from the publishers themselves, no less!):

Martinů's orchestral sound is unique. You hear one flavor of it right at the beginning: D minor in the winds, plus fuzz in the harp and the piano. But there are two different kinds of heterophony (the technical term for fuzz). This way he gets a very complex texture, but everything is dead easy, except for the piano part. On one level, the idea comes from Le Sacre du Printemps, but the implementation and the effect are new.

Then look at how the tune is split between the first and second violins -- and the violas are not merely accompanying. Notice the characteristic rhythms within 6/8, and the subtle placement of the B-flats and E-flats. All of these things gradually intensify on the next two pages as the music moves into G minor. In 20th (and 21st) Century tonality, the first move away from home can be a very significant foreshadowing. In this case, the move from D minor to G minor might be expected to set up a general leaning to the flat side, or specifically some kind of triangulation between D, G, and a third key. The most obvious choice would be B-flat -- and sure enough, this movement ends in B-flat!

At this rate, a couple of dozen pages of detailed analysis could be written about this symphony; we are not going to do that, but the point is that the things that we have pointed out, which are so easy to hear and see, are what make the style sound the way it does.

The ordering of the two inner movements does not conform to the principle of maximizing contrast, particularly of tempo. From that standpoint, the scherzo ought to have come second. The slow movement (which is lighter, really an intermezzo) does come second, and it moves from C minor to F. The scherzo begins and ends in C, so the overall tonal path of the symphony would have worked either way.

The scherzo (page 46) begins in C minor/major with a spiky, almost Shostakovian tune, but by page 50 it has resolved into a characteristic Martinů out-of-doors march in B-flat. Note the offbeat rhythms ("syncopated" is not quite the right word), which suppress the pulse just enough to enable the metric modulation into 3/8 on the bottom of page 50. Tonality and meter are both somewhat oblique in this music: comparably oblique, even though the comparison must be qualitative rather than quantitative. There are no throwaway gestures, either on the surface or in the structure: everything has a purpose and an effect.

If the game is to get back to D -- we know that it is, because we have looked ahead, but we should probably pretend that we do not know that -- then we need sharpness. The simplest approach would be to start the finale on A, and so he does. The final arrival (back?) on D, at page 106, is reached by a process (spread over the preceding seven pages) whose workings do not leap to the eye; close analysis would be required to understand exactly what is going on. But it works -- for me, at any rate.

The other Martinů symphonies are all worth your time. The first has a particularly impressive slow movement. The fourth perhaps came closest, when it was new, to gaining a toehold in the standard repertory; its scherzo is Martinů's best-known orchestral movement, and would be recognized by many people who could not necessarily name its origin. The sixth is one of those symphonies (like Sibelius 7 or the Schumann D-minor) that was originally meant to be titled a "symphonic fantasy"; it contains a fascinating passage in which Martinů strips down the orchestral texture and shows us how its components fit together.

When I said above that this is the clearest of Martinů's symphonies, I was pointing to things like the proportionality between the handling of tonality and meter, and the almost pedagogical simplicity of the global tonal scheme. The style is legible and self-explanatory as well as economical; none of these things come free by themselves and still less in combination. But the range of contrast could be wider; and if one were to binge-listen the first five symphonies, they might begin to dedifferentiate. He has a bag of tricks, and very fetching and distinctive tricks they are, but ultimately he does not rank high by the criterion of don't-repeat-self.

Some Slavic Piano Sonatas

Yesterday's listening included three piano sonatas by Slavic composers: Prokofyev's 8th (1944), Paderewski's only (1903), and Medtner's 8th (1914).

Most of Prokofyev's music is not legible to me. Where it is not, it is not fitting, in conscience, for me to speak of it at all. Then there are works such as the fifth symphony, which is legible but which I do not like; I could explain what I do not like about it, but, axiomatically, no one cares, or should. Of his nine piano sonatas, the only one that I both understand and like is the seventh, and it is puzzling to find it in such close proximity to the eighth, which I find perfectly opaque.

Paderewski's music is too little known. If he never wrote anything else as fine as his piano concerto, still his other large works (a symphony, a piano sonata, a violin sonata, and two big sets of variations) are serious, well- crafted, and -- after a few hearings -- show an individual voice. What more would we be entitled to ask? The piano sonata is modelled upon the Schumann sonatas; it begins with a motive built from two pairs of ascending minor seconds, which is a Paderewski fingerprint: the main theme of the first movement of his symphony does a similar thing. The middle section of the finale is a fugue whose subject is again based on the two pairs of seconds, but paralleled in sixths and thirds; this intrinsically unpromising subject is worked out fully and correctly, and it is not a mere stunt, but the overall impression left by the sonata is of almost self-conscious thoroughness and correctness.

The finest of these three works is the Medtner. Formally it is richer and more original, and its material is more memorable. The ending of the first movement doesn't quite work: it cannot be F-sharp major, because that would make the first movement sound self-sufficient by itself, but F-sharp minor sounds like a reverse Picardy third and, at that, inadequately prepared. But any other key would require the whole structure of the work to be rethought. The problem is the rhetoric: this ending is too emphatic.

Medtner is an interesting case study in reception and reputation. Prokofyev was never in any danger of neglect; only a small fraction of the people who remember Paderewski as a performer are even aware that he composed. Would we know Medtner today if (of anyone) the Maharaja of Mysore had not taken an interest in his work and subsidized a set of professional recordings? Here is Medtner himself playing the eighth sonata in one of those sessions:

[Repost] Rhythm

I have only just realized that music is much more about time than about sound.

It is impossible to think that I will have time to fully internalize and act upon this insight, but it is bound to condition my future work, in some ways, to some degree.

I have Padraic Colum (Irish author, 1881-1972) to thank for kicking off this train of thought. In an introduction to a 1944 English Grimm, he writes:

In the place where the storyteller was, the coming of night was marked
as it was not in towns, nor in modern houses.  It was so marked that it
created in the mind a different rhythm.  There had been a rhythm of the
day, and now there was a rhythm of the night.

The storyteller, seated on a roughly-made chair on a clay floor, did
not look unusually intelligent or sensitive.  He certainly did not look
histrionic.  What was in his face showed that he was ready to respond
to, and make articulate, the rhythm of the night.  He was a storyteller
because he was attuned to this rhythm and had, in his memory, the often-
repeated incidents that would fit it....

A rhythm that was compulsive, fitted to daily tasks, waned, and a
rhythm that was acquiescent, fitted to wishes, took its place.  But when
the distinction between day and night could be passed over, as it could
be in towns and in modern houses, the change of rhythm that came with
the passing of day into night ceased to be marked.  This happened when
light was prolonged until it was time to turn to sleep.

The prolongation of light meant the cessation of traditional stories in
cottages....Then came lamps with full and steady light, lamps that gave
real illumination.  Told under this illumination, the traditional
stories ceased to be appropriate, because the rhythm that gave them
meaning was weakened.

Colum’s next following paragraph is succinctly, completely, and devastatingly explanatory of modern politics, but we are talking about music, and so is he: the organization of time.

To us who live and breathe "serious" or "art" music, the human craving for any music, even bad music – sometimes specifically for bad music – is a whole territory of bafflement, distasteful if not horrifying (except right along its nearer edge).

But listen to what Colum says. We humans are absolutely confined to a timelike geodesic, a line from which we cannot turn right or left, along which we can neither slow down or speed up. What we can, and therefore must, do with this merciless, intractable thing is to measure it – specifically, to measure it on a hierarchy of scales, from milliseconds to millenia. (Colum does not engage that last point; his rhythm, in the quoted passage, is on one scale only, the circadian. He is talking about the practice and the experience of storytelling; elsewhere he deals with the longer time scales of the content of the stories.) It is just as important for us to be able to orient ourselves in time as in space, perhaps more so.

Suppose we could not? If we did not measure time, if we could not locate ourselves within it, we might be able to form memories, but we could not use them, share them, learn from them. Time is always pressing its featureless opacity on us, tempting us to be lazy; we must work, constantly, to keep ourselves oriented in time, on whatever scale.

Hence the insatiable human craving for music, where "music" includes everything from the ticking of a clock, to the nested cycles of history (collective or personal), to the music of the spheres. The first mathematical imperatives were calendrical; the first technology, the clock. Silence brings disorientation; true silence, the kind that few of us ever experience in practice, not just the absence of air vibrations but of every kind of periodic stimuli, would bring total disorientation.

The Cello, Late and Soon

There is an anecdote of Brahms hearing Paderewski's violin sonata and telling its composer that it was not chamber music, but a "concert sonata". The distinction is an intriguing one; which of Brahms's own sonatas did he think fell on each side of that line?

This all came to mind the other day upon hearing Richard Strauss's cello sonata, which is emphatically a "concert sonata". As it is in the same key (F major) as Brahms's second cello sonata, which is also a concert sonata, and both works begin by giving the listener a hearty slap on the back, I thought that Strauss must have modelled his work on the Brahms, but then I began to wonder about the dates, inasmuch as Strauss was a bit of a prodigy, most of whose juvenilia are only played because of the celebrity that he attained later in life. The cello sonata is his Op. 6 and was composed in 1882; Brahms's sonata was written four years later, in 1886. Strauss was just beginning to stretch himself and to find his voice; Brahms, by comparison, was coasting. The immaturity of Strauss's work manifests in its repetitions, which work (if, for you, they do work) because the figures that he repeats are beginning to be characteristic and he is touchingly proud of them; whereas Brahms has reached a point where he can hardly be troubled to follow through on his excellent beginnings. We remember the very start, because it takes five or six bars before we can tell what the meter is; and we remember the start of the finale because of the play between E-flat and E natural; but neither of these ideas, each powerful enough to really stretch and grow the style, is fully exploited. Brahms's first cello sonata (1865) is a much more adventurous work, formally and rhetorically; we could wish that Saint-Saëns had known its middle movement, else he would not have dared the stupid preciosity of the minuet in his first cello concerto, written seven years later.

[REPOST] Arnold and Edmund and Ralph

...and William and Edward and Gustav and Ernest (aka "Old Raspberry" from his habit of, quite literally, falling down drunk).

Who, what now? British symphonists of the 1930s.

For whatever reasons, possibly not totally unrelated to the treesful of fireflies that eventually learn to flash in unison, there was a sudden renaissance of the symphony in England from about 1929. It is convenient (if doubtless not quite right) to date this from the premiere of Bax’s 3d. (Walton is reported to have bragged that his 1st (1933-35) would put Bax in the shade.)

The first half of the 1930s brought forth a rash of works, of which Vaughan Williams’s 4th is probably the most familiar. Holst and Elgar began symphonies in 1933-34 that they did not live to complete (Holst got through one movement; Anthony Payne’s partly-conjectural realization of Elgar’s sketches is a unique triumph of musical insight).

This grouping of works might be taken to end (again, with more neatness than plausibility) with E(rnest) J. Moeran’s Symphony of 1937.

There is a certain edginess that each of these symphonies partakes of, in its own way. Their respective composers’ styles are all quite distinct, but these works have a sound -- one had almost said, a message -- in common.

Many of them are considered breakthrough or transgressive works. The notorious violence of RVW’s F-minor symphony would not have been a complete surprise to anyone who was listening to the Benedicite or the Piano Concerto, let alone Job. Elgar’s disillusionment with the Jazz Age finds expression in music that is much more defiant than nostalgic; whereas Walton critiques his environment by picking out [what he sees as] the best bits and distilling them to biting acid. Holst’s isolated Scherzo

is well within the stylistic trajectory of his last decade, but finds a point of contact with Walton in its fast pace, short motives, and abrupt textural contrasts.

Moeran’s work is a little less aggressive than some of these others, but is certainly not foreseeable from his pastoral chamber music or such a winningly lovely work as his Violin Concerto. Moeran is better at beginnings than endings, but at least two of his beginnings in the Symphony (first movement and scherzo) are magnificently memorable. Listen to the line drawing in the first few phrases:

That leaves Bax, the success of whose Third does seem to have been a stimulus to the others, but the work itself may actually have been less of a model than his First (1921-22), which was received, at its premiere, as seriously transgressive. Bax’s 2d attracted less attention; it is very tempting to imagine that its first performance must have been gravely inadequate, as it is a very difficult work.

…and that leaves what is much the least familiar of these symphonies, the First of Edmund Rubbra (1937). Refresh your memory of RVW clashing flat 6 against 5 at the start of his Fourth:

then listen to the beginning of Rubbra’s First:

At first it may seem like a crib, but it is much more: not only does it add sharp 4 into the mix; not only is it a mirror instead of a canon; but the top voice is working with the same idea in diminution. Then Rubbra and RVW have completely different ways of solving the puzzle and showing us where we really are in the tonal universe.

Can you think of any other eight-year spasms of creation like this? Of course it is entirely inconceivable that it could happen today. I will go so far as to say that Tippett’s Fourth, the work that drew a merciful line under the whole postwar postwarriousishness, deserved a spate of imitators, some of which might have gone it better; but it did not happen, or, if it did, the works were not played – which, I suppose, is plausible.

Welcome To...

...the new Broadheath Music. Third time lucky? This incarnation is self- hosted (thanks for nothing, T---lr) and not based on W---P----, so perhaps there is hope.

The blog is now primary; this right here is a "sticky" post, which I will leave pinned to the top for a little while but not forever. See the menu, above, for links to my music. Blog posts (except an occasional few, including this one) will have comments, and so will the music pages. The comments are hosted by IntenseDebate, who we must hope will live up to their rather boastful name, but you do not need to have an account with them -- you may if you wish, or already do, or not.

There will be a few reposts from the old blogs -- not everything, but there is at least one repost that I have specifically promised, so it will go up in a minute here. Mostly I will just talk about whatever musical topics come to mind, often using them as springboards for wider speculation. Much of this will be whatever is provoked by the day's radio listening. I am also going to try to do more long reads (see, they have a menu entry of their own), but who knows how well that will go.