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I was recently involved in two concerts. A piano quartet I coach at the New England Conservatory Preparatory School did a concert for a group in Worcester, Ma., called Music Soiree. The played the Schumann Quartet, the first piano quartet by Gerald Barry, and pieces by students of mine, Jeremiah Klarman (13) and Stephen Feigenbaum (15). They played really well and they were a hit. The reason for mentioning it (again) is that I was really struck this time by the fact that they were not only playing new music, but they were playing pieces by their peers. It was really impressive, inspirational even, to see the seriousness and care that the players took to play pieces by people who were their age and to get them right. I’m glad to be part of giving them that message.

In my role as a non-resident music tutor at Pforzheimer House at Harvard I just organized a concert which included the Bach A major piano concert, the two fiddle concerto, the bass aria from Cantata #, and a bunch of my favorite Cage pieces: Six Melodies for violin and keyboard, Suite for toy piano, soliloguy and In a Landscape, both for piano, and Imaginary Landscape #4 for twelve radios. I thought the combination was good. The playing, mainly by students in the house, but with some other Harvard students, was really quite good. It went over well.

A while ago, as part of the discussion about orchestration text books on the Sequenza 21 Composers Forum, I wrote (inadvertently anonymously) that Virgil Thomson swore by an orchestration book by D’Indy. I got to looking for it and discovered that I’d misremembered it’s authorship. It was by Widor. I’ve just been recently looking at it with Jeremiah Klarman. It has all kinds of useful bits of information like all the possible multiple stops on the string instruments, and all the good (and bad) tremolos on the flute. I had actually seen the Widor before. I also mentioned that Max Davies said he used one by Koechlin. I’m sure I’m remembering that correctly (I tend to remember anything anybody says about Koechlin) but I haven’t been able to locate it.

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The mini-discussion about Copland spurred me to move the topic to the–as it were–front page, with some rambling thoughts. It is an interesting question, exactly what was it about twelve-tone music and why did, if not everybody, then an awful lot of them, decide to dabble with it in the 50’s and 60’s. The predominant narrative seems to be the twelve-tone-music-is-just-like-the-Soviet-Union-Evil-Empire one, which has it that all the terrible mean old people in the music schools terrorized their poor little students into writing it.

I don’t buy that. I was around for some of the end of that period, and I simply didn’t get that from some people who were supposed to be extremely doctrinaire about it–Donald Martino, Gunther Schuller, and Arthur Berger, for instance. I don’t doubt that some of that went on and that some teachers did bully their students, but it just doesn’t seem to me to be enough of an explanation for what was so widespread. (And never having been a particularly good student myself, I’ve never had much time for good students who do what their teachers tell them to do. I have a feeling that peer pressure was probably a lot more effective that teacher pressure, anyway.)

Taruskin offers some of that idea and adds to that the theories that for Copland it was a means of using abstraction to escape from his political traumas and for Stravinsky it was just a matter of always remaining new, progressive, and, above all, chic (that’s maybe a little simplified–but not much). Most of the current explanations take as their starting point the conviction that nobody could possibly like anything that sounds like that, so there must be some reason other than its being what anybody might have wanted to hear.

If one considers that the general idea of what twelve-tone music was, how it operated, and why anybody might want to do it was as crude and dumb as Bernstein’s explanation of it in The Joy of Music, I suppose one might be tempted to agree with them. (That’s ignoring the fact that “twelve-tone” music covers musics as different as Dallapiccola, Babbitt, Boulez, Martino, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Webern.) Although I suppose if somebody thinks all that music sounds alike, they could find just about any justification for it plausible). I think it’s important to keep in mind that for a bunch of people the sound of the music and the ability of “the system” to help them arrive at what they wanted to write anyway was important.

My sense is that although none of those reasons are completely wrong, exactly, none of them by itself is it. I’m sure that many people were dazzled by Babbitt’s brilliance and personal charm (both of which are considerable) and influenced by it, and I’m sure that there’s some way in which it seemed smart and intellectual and fitted into an increased association of “serious” music with academe. But I think it’s a matter of what might be called a kind of group hysteria. As far as I can see it just began to seem to everybody to be the thing to do, and just about everybody felt obligated to go for it, whether they like the idea or not. So that in the US, whereas a sort of neo-classicism was they thing before the second world war, all of a sudden twelve-tone seemed to be the thing.

It’s striking to me that just about everybody fooled around with it, or something like it, including Virgil Thomson (whose idea really had to do with using twelve-note chords, and collections of triads that made up aggregates–in, for instance, the Three Pictures for Orchestra, A Solemn Music, some of the ‘cello concerto, the prelude to the dream sequence in The Mother of Us All, and some of the Requiem), Bernstein (in The Age of Axiety), and Britten (who used “twelve-tone rows” in The Turn of the Screw, Cantata Academica, and parts of Death In Venice–probably some other pieces as well).

Apparently Copland at Tangelwood in the 50’s was eager to point to the Piano Variations as proof that he had, earlier on, been interested in serialism. Etc., Etc., Everybody seemed fascinated by it; some were also repulsed, but still they struggled manfully on. There were some people who completely ran aground on it, though–the most noticeable to me being Harold Shapero. I think Irving Fine had just about taken it in stride, but then he died, so who knows what he might have done.

It’s very striking to me that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of them that they didn’t have to do it if they didn’t want to. That’s maybe a function of the fact that it was a much more unitary culture which assumed that all serious music fitted into a fairly narrow stylistic range, so that when the style changed for some reason, everybody needed to change with it. The kind of pluralism which I guess is more the order the present day (although just try to find a twelve-toner nowadays) coincides with a greater availibilty of musics from all kinds of times and places, so it’s harder to even conceive of a unified culture, much less try to impose it. (I sometimes think, though, that the anti-modernist are making pretty good go at it–much more than the nasty old twelve-tone modernists ever did in their heyday. )

So, my idea of what happened can be summed up in a statement by Virgil (about something else): “There’s no question of anybody influencing anybody. We all sat in the same draft and we all caught the same cold.”

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Today’s Independent described yesterday’s article on Condoleezza Rice’s chamber music playing by Tony Tommasini in the NYTimes as fawning–accurately, it seems to me. Putting aside the question which occupied the writer of the Independent, which is why all of a sudden such pains are being taken to make the Secretary’s warm and human side so obvious these days–good luck– (the work of Karen Hughes, maybe), and on a tiny bit of reflection, I wonder how long those people have been at it. There aren’t all that many piano quintets, really and they don’t seem to have much scratched the surface of the literature yet, since the three pieces they seem to be playing are the best known ones for that combination. Maybe they could look into some others. At the top of my list would be the Faure Quintets, especially the second, which is my favorite Faure chamber piece–except maybe for the trio. Maybe close to that the Elgar. There’s also the Dohnanyi which would be right up Condi’s alley, being an adolescent rip-off of Brahms. The Piston Piano Quintet is one of his best pieces, I think. All of that would be kind of non-threatening. Now let’s see…is there a Feldman Quintet, late or otherwise. Something like that could keep them busy for a while….

I suppose it’s too much to expect that they might start commissioning new piano quintets. (Just think of that…)

But if she’s really into quality and/or Brahms, why not just get rid of one of the violinists (although I suppose that might display a nasty inhuman side) and do the Schumann Piano Quartet (I like it a lot better than the Quintet) and the Brahms Quartets (her favorite, after all–just think what she could do with the last movement of the G minor)–there are three of them, as opposed to only one Quintet.

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It’s been a busy few days, so I haven’t had a chance to react to two thing that caught my eye actually only last week (it seems like years ago). Jerry Bowles on the Sequenza front page mentioned a review in the NYTimes, which I had also noticed, in which Bernard Holland commenting on music in a Kronos Quartet concert cited the appeal of the Quartet to “people who like their art with social consciousness, ethnic relevance and a few surprises” and warned that “Twelve-toners and intelectual provacteurs beward: this is not the music for you.” A few days later, on An Overgrown Path, Bob Shingleton, quoted a an article in the Guardian about the music of Morton Lauridsen which end with the observation of Stephen Lawton of Polyphony that ” I do think there might be a shift going on in that people who are serious interested in music don’t always feel that they have to listen to Birtwistle.” One’s (my) immediate reactions are, to the first, to wonder what is that makes the category of twelve-tones and people who like their art with social consciousness, suprises, and, even, ethnic relevance mutually exclusive categories?, and, to the second, when was this time when people who were serious about music felt that they couldn’t listen to anything other than Birtwistle? (I suppose one might be tempted also to ask when such people ever did feel that they had to listen to Birtwistle, necessarily, but I’m at least glad that Mr. Lawton seems to be willing to ascribe serious interest in music to people who want to listen to Birtwistle–and, presumably, to Birtwistle himself).

All this bashing, even indirectly, of modernism and twelve-toners (and incidentally how many twelve-toners are there out there anymore, anyway? Taking pot shots at twelve tone composers these days is like people in Poland in the present day blaming everything that they think’s going wrong with their country on the–practically nonexistent–present day Polish Jews) is pretty much like another recent event in the news, the Fundamentalist Christian Convention recently in Washington which was decrying the War on Christianity. The need for people advocating the predominant style and majority taste to insist on their victimhood at the hands of the evil academic twelve tone composers continually amazes and iritates me.

I don’t have any trouble with people not liking modernism or twelve-tone music, but it bothers me when they have to claim that nobody could possibly like it, or that they’re being somehow oppressed by it.

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Sunday morning a recent piece of mine, called On Prayer and Praying, got its first performance at the 11:15 Mass at the Church of the Advent in Boston by the excellent–very excellent, in fact–countertenor (and composer) Martin Near and the also very excellent organist Ross Wood. Since it was in the middle of a quite long church service, there didn’t seem to be any good reason to let anybody who wasn’t going to be there anyway know about it beforehand. Edith Ho, the music director at the Advent, has been, and continues to be, very good to me. She’s done two or three pieces of mine with the choir (which is absolutely top-notch) for years now, and will also schedule other pieces, like this one, periodically. This particularly service also included the Josquin L’homme Arme voces musicale Mass and pieces by Philippe de Monte and Contanzo Porta (both from the 1500’s, neither of who I’ve ever heard of).

The piece was a sort of “political” statement, albeit pretty lame as agitprop: I get tired of hearing on radio and tv from Fundamentalists that there should be prayer in school and prayer before ball games and prayer during graduations and prayer where ever else (There is an old joke: As long as there are math test there’ll be prayer in school), so I decided to set the words of Jesus on the matter (Matthew 6:5-13), which forbids praying in public. (Well, “forbids” isn’t exactly the right word, but he certainly didn’t endorse it. He actually says that praying in public is its own reward.) Anyway, Martin and Ross did a great performance. I thought it sounded great.

Later in the day I worked with a chamber music group, a piano quartet, I coach at the NEC Prep School who are playing a house concert next week. They’re playing pieces by students Jeremiah Klarman (13) and Stephen Feigenbaum (17) and the Schumann Piano Quartet, along with the first Piano Quartet by Gerald Barry. I have to say that the Barry, which I think is a really really good piece, is one of the strangest ones I’ve ever encountered: unremittingly diatonic, with folky tunes, sometimes agressively imitative to the point of inpenitribility, having a straight-line, but very highly disjunct continuity, absolutely non-developmental, relying completely on the repetition and juxtaposition of the same material. It’s extreme, rollicking, brutal, and a little mistifying; I think it’s probably best described as sounding like a rough and rowdy night down at the pub or maybe Grainger with heavy boots and explosives. We’ve been working on it for about eight months now, and it doesn’t get any less strange (and sort of disturbing) with greater acquaintance. I like it a lot.

The Schumann is also really great, and very beautiful.

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It can’t be said too much:

“Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself. From Christ to Freud we have believed that, if we know the truth, the truth will set us free: art is indispensable because so much of this truth can be learned through works of art and through works of art alone—for which of us could have learned for himself what Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke, Shakespeare and Homer learned for us? and in what other way could they have made us see the truths which seem nevertheless, to the mind which contains them, in some sense a single truth? And all these things, by their very nature, demand to be shared; if we are satisfied to know these things ourselves, and to look with superiority or indifference at those who do not have that knowledge, we have made a refusal that corrupts us as surely as anything can. If while most of our people (the descendants of those who, ordinarily, listened to Grimm’s Tales and the ballads and the Bible; who, exceptionally, listened to Aeschylus and Shakespeare) listen not to simple or naive art, but to an elaborate and sophisticated substitute for art, an immediate and infallible synthetic as effective and terrifying as advertisements or the speeches of Hitler–if knowing all this, we say: Art has always been a matter of a few, we are using a truism to hide a disaster. One of the oldest, deepest, and most nearly conclusive attractions of democracy is manifested in our feeling that through it not only material but also spiritual goods can be shared: that in democracy bread and justice, education and art, will be accessible to everybody. If a democracy should offer its citizens a show of education, a sham art, a literacy more dangerous than their old illiteracy, then we should have to say that it is not a democracy at all, but one more variant of those ‘People’s Deocracies’ which share with any true democracy little more than the name. Goethe said: The only way in which we can come to terms with the great superiority of another person is love. But we can also come to terms with superiority, with true Excellence, by denying that such a thing as Excellence can exist; and, in doing, so we help to destroy it and ourselves.”

—-Randall Jarrell (from The Obscurity of the Poet)

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