Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Return of Classical Wednesdays III

The Romantic Era

The Return of Classical Wednesdays series has been stuck in time for months. Months! I only gave you two of the four episodes! Well, you can relax, I'm not going to do a Schubert on you. [classical music fans: chuckle here. newbs: see below.] Today, you get episode three, which dishes out some additional listening suggestions from the romantic era. The final episode, with more 20th-Century listening suggestions, will follow.... sometime.

Listening Suggestions

Sibelius: Symphony #2 -- The associations that you make with any given piece of music are never going to be the same as those of the person next to you. To me, Sibelius' 2nd Symphony has always been an evocation of a harsh arctic landscape, sometimes frozen and still, sometimes swirling with storms of snow and ice, but always white, cold, and desolate. Read about it in liner notes, though, and you're likely to learn that it is "among the sunniest of Sibelius' works," showing a clear influence of his having lived in Italy for a few years.

Well, whatever. Either way, Sibelius is not the composer for someone who wants to follow a simple melodic line. He's all about texture and harmonies, and on those occasions when a tune does break out, it will only keep its momentum for a few moments before it starts to dissolve, fall apart, and wander off in unexpected directions. His Second and best symphony may take a while to assimilate in your brain -- this is the music I was driving my parents crazy with in junior high while my better-adjusted peers were grooving to, I don't know, Journey and the J. Geils Band -- but it richly repays repeated listening. One of my favorite pieces of music of any kind.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade -- There's no denying that Scheherazade is a guilty pleasure. It is big and colorful and unsubtle, and when I gave a copy to a friend as a gift and she later thanked me for "that incredibly bombastic piece of crap," I couldn't hold it against her. But I love it. Rimsky-Korsakov wasn't a great composer, frankly, but he was a great orchestrator, and the sounds and textures he pulls out of the instruments turns a collection of sweet, simple themes into a lavish, easily digestible feast for the ears.

Scheherazade purports to be a retelling in music of stories from The Arabian Nights. Music that is intended to create a specific impression or tell a specific story is called "program music," and there used to be a great deal of kurfuffle about the differences between program music and non-program music, and which was "better." This was all very silly, really, for the reason I mentioned above -- no two people are naturally going to draw the same associations from a given piece of music. You can listen to Scheherazade with an ear to what passages designate the Sultan speaking, and try to follow what Sinbad is up to, and so on -- but really, you'd be better off just spacing out and making of it what you will. It's yummy like dessert.

Schubert: Symphony #8 -- This is the famous "Unfinished" Symphony. Why Schubert abandoned this piece after writing only two movements and sketching out a third -- it would have been four movements long if completed -- is hard to imagine, because the parts he DID get down are Gold, baby! GOLD! Lovely, mysterious, sad, and dignified, the Unfinished Symphony has some of the richest symphonic textures in all of music. It is anything but static, though, with strong pulses in triple time underlying stirring and memorable melodies. It's a must-listen for any newbie to classical music. Schubert's 9th, the "Great," is damn good too, even though it's finished.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony #5 -- OK, here's the deal with Tchaikovsky: Classical music intellectuals did, and sometimes still do, regard him with great contempt because his music does not conform to the structural models of Vienese classicism. This was particularly annoying to the intellectuals in that Tchaikovsky's music really WORKS a lot of the time, raising the terrifying, career-threatening spectre that those structural models might be unnecessary. He was a fabulous melodist and orchestrator, and he is unrivaled in using the orchestra to express feelings and sentiment, which in his case tend towards the despairing. This introduces one very valid criticism of Tchaikovsky, which is that he can wallow around in the maudlin more than he really needs to. And to be fair to the intellectuals, his transitions are often awkward and he can be known to beat a theme to death. Also, he wrote the Nutcracker, that beloved holiday favorite that is in many parts twee enough to gag on, and the 1812 Overture, that incredibly bombastic piece of crap. (And to be fair to Tchaikovsky, he understood that the 1812 Overture was crap. He just needed some quick cash.)

The Symphony #5 rotates around a single theme that runs from its very beginning to its very end. It begins with the theme being played on a solo clarinet, and a more desolate opening you will not hear anywhere. After four movements of emotional highs and lows, the symphony ends with a grand restatement of the theme in a upbeat, triumphant, joyful spirit by the whole orchestra -- but this being Tchaikovsky, you can tell that he doesn't really mean it. If you like the fifth, you'll probably like all six of the Tchaikovsky's symphonies. His flaws as a composer are most on display in the first two, but they are still very pleasant listens.

Mendelssohn: Symphony #4 ("Italian") -- It's pretty! And charming! You'll like it.

Paine: Symphony #2 -- Ever wonder where all the American 19th Century composers are? I mean, you could listen to classical music for decades before learning that there were ever composers in the United States before Aaron Copland and that reclusive New England oddball, Charles Ives. But of course there were. You just never hear their music, because the classical music intellectuals distain it for being too much in thrall to German compositional models -- you know, the same way they distain Tchaikovsky for being too little in thrall to German compositional models.

John K. Paine is the most famous of the 19th Century Americans, and was once a genuinely well-known figure. Nowadays, he is only known as the mule they drag out to whip at lectures about Ives or Copland, playing a few bars and then tut-tutting over how stale and lifeless American music was before the Great Geniuses came along. Now, I admit that neither of Paine's two symphonies would make my desert island list, but the Second in particular is perfectly pleasant and competant classical music, very much in the vein of Schumann. I urge my UnitedStatesian readers to run out to your local music store and buy his music as a patriotic gesture to our overlooked musical past. Except, you'll probably have to make a special order.


Elizabeth said...

I have never heard of Paine. But I'm posting something by the reclusive oddball today, if anyone wants to take a listen. I heard it last night played by the accompanist at the Dawn Upshaw recital - she sang some Ives, and he played a movement from the Piano Sonata #2.

Re: Scheherazade - woot! Love that piece. And Tchaikovsky is lush and overstuffed, like a nice big sofa that you can curl up in with chocolates and a trashy novel.

Ben said...

I agree with Elizabeth. I love Sheherazade (so did the makers of Civilization 4). That and the Tchaikovsky 5 have great trumpet parts...

MJ said...

i think Schubert didn't finish that symphony because anything he wrote would be dissapointing after the first two movements. just a theory
i had never heard of Paine, thank you! now i have to spend some minutes checking the wikipedia.

Michael5000 said...

I was so pleased to see that Rimsky-Korsakov can get a w00t after all these years! And like Ben, I loves me a good scoring in the brasses; T5 has plenty of those, T6 probably has even more, and T4 is a real brassfest.

@MJ: That would make sense to me if he had then said "OK, this is perfect, I will not publish it and have it performed and make some money from it." But instead, he gave it to a pal and it was never even played until 37 years after Schubert died. It's weird to think about one of the great masterpieces of the musical literature sitting there gathering dust all that time.

DrSchnell said...

First time I ever played Rimsky-Korsakov - Russian Easter, followed soon by Scheherazade - in an orchestra, it sent chills up and down my spine, and both of those pieces still do that to me. It was the first piece I ever played that showed me that orchestras could kick ass too, thank you very much, and not just be background music for parties where everyone wears powdered wigs. Big, bombastic, over-emotive (see also: Tchaikowsky). What the hell is wrong with that?

There truly are few things in this world more useless than a classical music intellectual looking down their nose at a composer because of anything as wanky as a structural model. Unless, of course, it is an intellectual from any other discipline looking down their noses at somebody because of something as wanky as a structural model from their own discipline.

Unknown said...

dorktastic admission of the month? when i was a sophomore in high school, we played a rimsky-korsakov themed show for marching band. i know we didn't play anything from scheherazade. the russian easter overture was included, but i'm not sure i remember what else. was there a capriccio espagnole? maybe. anyhoo, it was really "great."