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Friday Miscellanea

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Friday Miscellanea

In journalism the headline often writes a check that the article itself cannot cash. So it is with this piece from the New York Times: What Happened to One of Classical Music’s Most Popular Pieces?

Quiet, sincere and more famous in his lifetime as an organist and teacher than as a composer, Franck celebrates the bicentenary of his birth this year. But it’s unlikely that American orchestras will bring to the celebration the fervor with which they once performed his sole symphony. In one of the stranger stories in the history of the canon, the work — which from the 1920s until the ’60s was such a hit that the New York Philharmonic thought it a solid bet to fill Lewisohn Stadium on a hot summer’s night — is now all but absent from concert halls. 

And the conclusion?

And if newer music by the likes of Sibelius and Stravinsky pushed the Franck aside — although not brand-new music, which American orchestras have played less of over time — the past also struck back. The Boston Symphony has performed Dvorak three times as often in the second half of its history as in its first, according to the orchestra; Mozart’s fortunes have risen almost as dramatically.

Facts like that convey the lasting conservatism of much of the orchestra world, and they make it hard to argue too strenuously that the Franck should be resurrected. The righteous call now is to diversify what ensembles play, in all senses of the verb. Inevitably, some works will rise to prominence in the process, and some will drift away.

And if that’s the moral of the tale, it’s all right. The rise and fall of Franck’s symphony shows that the canon can change — that the canon can be changed.

Ah, so that's the answer: canons change!

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 Slipped Disc has a somewhat surprising bit of news: AN ENGLISH COMPOSER MAKES HIS VIENNA PHILHARMONIC DEBUT. The composer is Thomas Adès and it turns out that this is not the first time his music has been heard in Vienna, but the first time in a very, very long time--if ever--that an English composer has conducted the Vienna Phillies:

The composer Thomas Adès will break new ground this weekend when he conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in a subscription concert.

Who was the last British composer to earn that honour? Was there ever one.

Adès had experience of the orchestra when conducting his Shakesperean opera The Tempest at the Vienna State Opera in 2015. He says: ‘I admired the sound that the orchestra got out of my music, an understanding of my tonal language was immediately noticeable. Not only were the notes played back exactly. You heard the meaning of the phrases, understood what they were saying…. Because of this understanding, the musicians also asked very good questions.’

This weekend’s programme is Berg, Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6; Ravel, La Valse; Adès, Dance of death.

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 Answering the musical question, how many musicians actually made real money from streaming last year, the BBC tells us: Spotify paid 130 artists more than $5m last year

The streaming giant said 52,600 artists earned more than $10,000 (£7,500) from Spotify in 2021.

Of those, 130 were paid more than $5m (£3.8m) over the last 12 months.

Spotify didn't name any of the artists involved, but its most-streamed acts last year were Bad Bunny, Taylor Swift, BTS, Drake and Justin Bieber; while the most streamed-song was Olivia Rodrigo's Drivers License.

It would be interesting to see the numbers for the five highest-paid composers, wouldn't it? Though I can only imagine how depressing it would be. Back when I was a traveling guitar virtuoso I might have been one of the five most active classical guitarists in Canada--and it would be a rare year when I made $30,000. Canadian. At that time there were probably only five really successful classical guitarists in the world including Pepe Romero, Julian Bream, Manuel Barrueco, John Williams and someone else who I have forgotten. And they might have made as much as $500,000 in a year. It's a tough business.

How tough? Here are the other numbers:

Spotify says about eight million people have uploaded tracks to its service, with 60,000 new songs arriving every day. As a result, 99.3% of the artists on Spotify are generating less than $10,000 a year.

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We were talking about ideologically oriented music the other day. Here's an example: "Potato Pride": Inside the Secret World of North Korean Music

The most popular ensemble in North Korea is the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble. It’s hard to describe the keytar-loving electro-band’s work, but try to imagine a mashup between a communist Kraftwerk and an authoritarian Abba. Many of Pochonbo’s songs are developed to prop up the personality cult. (“Longing for the General” and “We Always Live Under His Love.”) Other tunes are more militaristic. (“Peace Is On Our Bayonet” and “When Our Ranks Advance.”) Meanwhile, others are more political. (“Let's Defend Socialism” and “Labor Is a Song.”)

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As one would expect, The New Yorker takes a considered look at the politics of blacklisting: Classical Music’s Iron Curtain

To discuss this issue, and the politics that have always swirled around the world of classical music, I recently spoke by phone with two musicologists. Kira Thurman, an assistant professor of history and German at the University of Michigan, is the author of “Singing like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.” Emily Richmond Pollock is an associate professor of music at M.I.T. and the author of “Opera After the Zero Hour: The Problem of Tradition and the Possibility of Renewal in Postwar West Germany.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how classical music was understood in Germany after the Second World War, the different ways that art and politics can mix, and the dangers of associating musical traditions with specific nationalities.

Probably worth reading the whole thing. I wish they had called up Richard Taruskin as I'm sure he would have had something to say.

emily richmond pollock: I think one of the things that Kira and I have noticed, because we’ve been talking about it, is that some of the discussion of these issues has fallen into some old patterns of thinking that we as musicologists are alert to, and want to warn against, which includes reacting to these kinds of bans by insisting that music is apolitical, or that there’s something fundamentally and inherently apolitical about music, which is a really problematic and untrue statement, and a knee-jerk response.

But on the other side of the coin:

But I would also say that the idea of moral complicity that we’re seeing with this and trying to make shades—this conductor supports Putin, so he’s a bad guy; this other kid just plays piano well, so he’s a victim of this—those kinds of distinctions that are being made, in terms of complicity and culpability, are also very familiar to me as a scholar of de-Nazification. So this idea that you can determine, based on some number of factors, exactly how in bed with the government someone is, and how much to hold them responsible for, is not a question without historical precedent. And what we know from de-Nazification is that it was super messy, and it didn’t make any sense. And it came across in different ways.

It's messy all right! But examining the specifics of moral agency does indeed make sense and it is in fact what we do.

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 Lots of other interesting stuff out there this week, like this one: The Political Economy of Classical Music

Over the last century, classical music has grown increasingly estranged from a mass audience or popular musical forms, retreating into an elitist silo. This is not the fault of individual musicians: the development of their art is inseparable from wider social and political trends. Capitalism first created the space in which such music could flourish, and then took it away, leaving behind a frozen, formalized tradition.

The problem with this and other approaches is that once you have completely reduced classical music to its social context then all you have left is sociology.

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On to the music! I mean, the envois.  First up, the once-popular now neglected Franck Symphony in D minor here is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.

And here is the premiere of the Thomas Adès Totentanz:

And finally, one of my favorite Bach albums on guitar, Pepe Romero playing all of the Violin Partita No. 2, not just the Chaconne, followed by the Cello Suite No. 3.

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