Weirdos and fanatics in Classical music

18 January, 2007

Sometimes it seems that the classical music world consists entirely of cranks. Consider, for instance, this quote from a review of ‘Elgar’s Enigma Variations’ (DVD): “… and as for the modern ‘with-it’ imagery of a quartet of coloured people on roller skates illustrating the grace of the ‘Dorabella’ Variation, this is surely taking political correctness too far?”

Showing “coloured people” in a documentary about Elgar is taking political correctness too far? Was the reviewer born in 1900, or is he just an idiot?

Of course, MusicWeb-International is generally a fine site, but on the other hand they also reproduce bizarre “essays” by Dr. David CF Wright. Apparently Wright is a mature man with an academic position, but from his essays you’d think he was still in high school. Strange opinions, juvenile asides, and awkward structure are all characteristics of his writing. I could quote many examples, but will settle for this one from his profile of Brahms:

Next to Beethoven, Brahms is the greatest composer. In some ways Brahms is preferable since his music has a greater polish and a more fluid style than Beethoven. While the form and structure of most of Beethoven’s work is admirable Brahms added a new dimension. He is classical but he is also romantic. And it must be remembered that romantic has nothing to do with sexual interest between people but the word means imaginative and much more!

Now, according to the piece, “this article was first given as an illustrated talk in Scottish universities”, but the first sentence sounds like something you might say to a group of school children. The second sentence is oddly prescriptive, and seems to assume its audience is unfamiliar with either composer.

Then Wright tells us that “Brahms added a new dimension” because “he is classical but he is also romantic”. Apparently Wright has not heard of Mendelssohn or Schumann, to name the most obvious composers to mix Classical and Romantic elements before Brahms.

Finally, there is his “humorous” aside explaining what “Romantic” means. No, actually he doesn’t explain what it means, and never even uses the word again, making the utterance redundant.

On further consideration, I find I am unable to resist quoting further from the same piece…

It has been said that Brahms did not write any love music or erotic music but that is another story perpetuated by those who are out to discredit this fine composer.

For those unfamiliar with the world of classical music, I will just say that it is very difficult to discredit a composer by saying he didn’t write erotic music.

His teacher having trained for the ministry meant that he was a disciplinarian.

Liszt was the greatest pianist of all time. He took Brahms’ “Scherzo in E flat minor ,Op. 4” and played it at sight. On the other hand when Brahms heard Liszt play his own Sonata in B minor Brahms was allegedly not impressed. One wonders why. It is the finest piano sonata ever written. But Brahms was welcomed into Liszt society and met fellow composers including Raff whose talent has yet to be recognised. But Johannes was not comfortable. The Liszt society was not exclusively German.

1. Liszt had a reputation as the greatest pianist of all time, due in great part to his ability to whip up his audience into hysteria; we know that he must have been able to play the music he wrote, which is highly virtuosic. But, lacking any recording of his performances, his greatness in this area cannot be confirmed.
2. Liszt’s sonata is almost certainly not the greatest ever written; that title probably belongs to one of Beethoven’s works.
3. “Johannes was not comfortable. The Liszt society was not exclusively German.” Actually, Brahms was chiefly discomfited by the fact that Liszt was an egomaniac who had surrounded himself with sycophants.

He composed a dreadful piece entitled “Hymn to the Veneration of the great Joachim”, as nauseating a piece in content and purpose as Elgar’s Second Symphony, dedicated to the memory King Edward VII.

A peculiar aside, in which he assumes that a symphony given an official dedication to a sovereign, must naturally be a hymn of praise to same. In fact, the symphony, like most of Elgar’s work, is personal and emotional in the extreme. Brahms’s piece was, given its title, certainly meant to be humorous.

And finally:

But Robert Schumann could be adolescent in his exaggerated comments such as his opinion of Chopin in those absurd words which he made about him, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” Clearly this was a rebuff against Liszt who was a genius. Chopin, for all his qualities, was not in the same league.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Liszt’s pretentious symphonic poems go largely unperformed today. His piano works appeal mostly for their virtuosic dazzle, rather than for any profound element of content. His best known works are his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 4 for orchestra (AKA Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 for piano), which is an arrangement of a folk dance, and Liebestraum – which sounds like it was written by Chopin. And after Liszt’s rebuff, it was Schumann who recognised Brahms’s genius.

Having got that out of my system, I should mention another problem in classical music culture – not individual idiots, but reactionary group-think. Once a tradition has been set, classical fans will viciously defend it as an article of faith. The various archaic concert-going traditions, for instance: the conductor wearing a tux, the audience not clapping between movements, soloists having to be on stage all through a work, even if they are only contributing to the last five minutes of an hour-long symphony.

More serious are attitudes that directly affect what music may be performed. I’m thinking particularly of the issues surrounding the completions of Bruckner’s 9th symphony and Mahler’s 10th.

Bruckner wrote four movements of his final symphony, but the final movement, having not been compiled into a single manuscript, was lost after his death, after it was distributed as souvenirs to his friends. Most of this material has since been recovered, and several experts have spent years of their lives assembling the pieces into the correct order and adding orchestration where none survives. The result is that the 4th movement now exists in a faithful performing version.

In the meantime, however, the three movements of the symphony that survived Bruckner’s death have been performed as “Bruckner’s 9th”, and the work has become much loved in its incomplete form. Unfortunately, many of those people who claim to love Bruckner are opposed to the performance of the work as Bruckner intended. These same critics are usually the ones who lambast conductors for rearranging inner movements, or altering orchestration to take into account the properties of modern instruments. The irony escapes them.

They say that ending with the third movement is perfect, and playing the fourth would only spoil it, but how would they know, when they refuse to listen? They claim to respect Bruckner’s legacy, but, in the last days of his life, Bruckner was on his knees praying to God for sufficient days to complete the symphony he had dedicated to Him. His prayer was answered by God, but denied by his self-proclaimed protectors.

Admittedly, the recorded performances of the 4th movement have so far been mediocre. After the hushed ending of the adagio, conductors begin the finale much too loudly, when even my untutored ear can tell it should begin very softly, and pizzicato, with the same feeling of suspense as the opening of the 2nd movement. But I hope better conductors will take on the work, and build a tradition in which the composer’s last wishes are respected.

Mahler’s 10th is a less controversial example. It simply peeves me that, if critics deign to accept a completed version at all, they still refuse to consider any completion except the first one, by Cooke. Surely if one version is good, another could be better.

Finally, the parochialism of the scene annoys me. I’m thinking in particular of the treatment conductor Leonard Slatkin received during and after his tenure at the BBC Symphony Orchestra. His resistance to programs and musicians imposed by administrators lead to (a) natural lack of enthusiasm in performances of works he didn’t want to play, and (b) the creation of factions dedicated to sniping and undermining him. And because the classical music scene is rather small and cultish, this attitude spread to the music critics, who did their best to destroy his reputation. This kind of political game-playing at the expense of music-making is unfortunately not a rare thing.

In sum, this represents a very negative view of the classical music scene. You’ll notice, I hope, that it is mostly non-musicians who are responsible for this. A few musicians also embarrass themselves and demean their calling when they open their mouths, but most of them wisely choose to shut up and play*. Now if only the critics would just shut up and listen.

(* Or I may be wrong.)

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