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Friday Miscellanea

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Friday Miscellanea

Europe is being ravaged by the pandemic and in response Salzburg is canceling its Mozart Week, held every year since 1956.

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An economist weighs in on Herbert von Karajan and explains why he was so able to dominate musical life then and why that would not likely be possible now.

1. In that time the central European classical music canon was far more dominant than it is today (later this month the NSO is doing Beethoven with William Grant Still, for instance).  That made the dominance of a few figures such as von Karajan and Klemperer, who specialized in that repertoire, far more possible.  In America, Germanic culture was more influential as well.

2. There was overall less conducting talent around at the time.  Yes, I know the beloved status of your few favorites from back then, and their unique styles, but conductor #30 today, in terms of quality, is far better than before.  Today it is harder for anyone to stand out.

3. The authoritarian and possibly abusive management style of von Karajan was far more acceptable back then.  Without that style, he could not have honed such a unique sound.

4. Back then conductors actually could sell classical LPs and bring in revenue.  This helped enable many of von Karajan’s projects, including costly operas and symphonic cycles.  Whether he would have done as well on YouTube, or other more contemporary media, is very much an open question, but probably not.  He was very much a “whole package” sort of musical star.

4b. Radio really mattered too.  His distant and forbidding but legendary personal style worked well in that medium, and the “always forward impetus whiplash” sonics cut through the poor sound quality.

5. I grew up with von Karajan’s recordings in so many parts of the repertoire, but how many really have held up?  His Bruckner’s 8th and Mahler’s 9th are incredible.  His Cosi is amazing, though too rigidly controlled for my taste.  His Verdi Aida.  A big thumbs up to his Mozart #40 and #41.  But the Wagner I don’t listen to any more.  Never loved his Beethoven cycle.  Rarely is he the conductor in my favorite concerti performances, as he tended to blunt the styles of his accompanying soloists.  Would I ever prefer him for Haydn, or for French music?  No.  Definitely some Strauss (the conductor most suited to him?), or perhaps his Tristan?  I feel I could get 85% of his value with maybe five recordings?  In a way that is quite impressive, but it does put matters in perspective.

6. He was a Nazi, and perhaps that would go over differently today.

7. In short, that was then, this is now.

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The category of "someone obscure actually wrote music attributed to a famous composer" is a venerable one amongst musicologists looking for some publicity: ACADEMIC CLAIMS MOZART STOLE CONCERTOS FROM HIS SISTER

A retired professor in Darwin, Australia, claims he has proof that Mozart stole music from his sister Nannerl in two of his violin concertos.

The former conductor of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra told the national broadcaster ABC that the handwriting is quite different on two concertos out of the five.

Less excitable voices suggest that Nannerl might have copied out the scores for her brother.

There is no other surviving evidence that she was capable of composing at this level.

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And I have another link to a post by the music-loving economist Tyler Cowen: Why has classical music declined? Is this a trick question? Actually it is a response to a comment by one of his readers:

In general perception, why are there no achievements in classical music that rival a Mozart, Bach, Beethoven etc. that were created in say the last 50 years?

Is it an exhaustion of what’s possible? Are all great motifs already discovered?

Or will we in another 50 or 100 years admire a 1900’s composer at the same level as a Mozart or Beethoven?

Or was it something unique in that era ( say 1800’s) which was conducive to the discovery of great compositions? Patronage? Lack of distraction?

Before looking at Tyler Cowen's response, here is what I would say: why do you think classical music has declined? As far as I can tell there are lots of composers that are of the first rank, creatively. It is hard to tell who they are in the last couple of decades because we don't have enough distance. But if we go back fifty to a hundred years I have no hesitation in saying that composers like Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartok are certainly composers as great as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. Now for Mr. Cowen's response:

1. The advent of musical recording favored musical forms that allow for the direct communication of personality.  Mozart is mediated by sheet music, but the Rolling Stones are on record and the radio and now streaming.  You actually get “Mick Jagger,” and most listeners prefer this to a bunch of quarter notes.  So a lot of energy left the forms of music that are communicated through more abstract means, such as musical notation, and leapt into personality-specific musics.

1b. Eras have aesthetic centers of gravity.  So pushing a lot of talent in one direction does discourage some other directions from developing fully.  Dylan didn’t just pull people into folk, he pulled them away from trying to be the next Pat Boone.

2. Electrification favored a variety of musical styles that are not “classical” or even “contemporary classical,” with apologies to Glenn Branca.

3. The two World Wars ripped out the birthplaces of so much wonderful European culture.  It is not only classical music that suffered, but also European science, letters, entrepreneurship, and much more.

4. It is tough to top Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc., so eventually creators struck out in new directions.  And precisely because of the less abstract, more personality-laden nature of popular music, it is harder to have a very long career and attain the status of a true titan.  The Rolling Stones ran out of steam forty (?) years ago, but Bach could have kept on writing fugues, had he lived longer.  More recent musical times thus have many creators who are smaller in overall stature, even though the total of wonderful music has stayed very high.

5. Contemporary classical music (NB: not the best term, for one thing much of it is no longer contemporary) is much better than most people realize.  Much of it is designed for peers, and intended to be experienced live.  In the last decade I saw performances of Glass’s Satyagraha, Golijov’s St. Marc Passion, Boulez’s Le Marteau (at IRCAM), and Stockhausen’s Mantra, and it was all pretty amazing.  I doubt if those same pieces are very effective on streaming.  It may be unfortunate, but due to incentives emanating from peers, most non-peer listeners do not have the proper dimensionality of listening experience to proper appreciate those compositions.  To be clear, for the most part I don’t either, not living down here in northern Virginia, but at times I can overcome this (mostly through travel) and in any case I am aware of the phenomenon.  For these same reasons, it is wrong to think those works will have significantly higher reputations 50 or 100 years from now — some of them are already fairly old!

Okaaay, well that was certainly a more complicated answer.

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Here's a real cri de coeurThis is why I ended my career in classical music

Despite his locally renowned reputation, [my first music teacher's] teaching style didn’t work well for me. I’ll never forget one thing that he said to me incessantly: “If you can imagine yourself doing anything else besides clarinet, do that instead.” He was speaking of how to make a decision about my career path, and I found his perspective deeply disturbing.

Yeah, that can mess you up!

I once attended a summer music institute in high school and befriended a fellow clarinetist who told me on more than one occasion, “I make it as a professional musician or my life is over.” He might sound melodramatic, but I always felt his statement captured exactly how high the stakes felt.

It would have been better if someone had just run the odds for him.

To fellow musicians considering a career change—you are not alone. It’s okay to move on, even if you’re a great musician. Find a friend who will talk this through with you. Trust that the people who love you want you to be happy, no matter what. It’s not easy, and people will question you, but it’s possible to find a happier and more fulfilled version of you on the other side of a career in classical music.

Ok, but I want you all to know that I didn't quit music, I just went on strike as a performing musician. I'm holding out for higher pay and better working conditions.

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Let's find some suitable envois. How about Karajan's Bruckner Symphony No. 8:


And Hilary Hahn playing the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3:



Finally, Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, a piece that neither Mozart nor Bach nor Beethoven could have written:





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