Thursday, November 10, 2011

Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective and some stuff that wasn't covered

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2009/02/great_composers_lousy_reviews.single.html
... Meanwhile, Slonimsky's Lexicon encouraged composers in their delusion that scabrous reviews are a badge of honor, that if you aren't denounced you aren't any good. When all is said and done, I'd wager that through history the majority of lousy reviews have been bestowed on lousy pieces, but nobody collects the notices of forgotten composers.

A basic oversight on the part of Slonimsky's still very enjoyable book has only dawned on me slowly over the last ten years.  The timeline works from Beethoven through to Schoenberg and other moderns.  Some reference is made to Mozart and criticism of Mozart's work (criticisms that, frankly, I can actually agree with at times).  But it's Romantic and modernist to focus on Beethoven as the beginning of ticking off musical establishments.  Historically musical controversies and objections to a creative approach obviously did not begin with Beethoven, even in the realm of concert music. 

In fact I might suggest here that it can be easy to overlook criticisms of Haydn during his career that anticipated some of the complaints about Beethoven.  Beethoven was complained about by critics who thought he was searching for dissonances and over-heated passion and rambling on and on ... and on ... and on ... and on and on. 

Haydn, however, was subject to ire for different reasons.  There were those, particularly earlier in Haydn's career, who still subscribed to the northern German school of thought and to a lot of Baroque concepts about form, affect, and aesthetics.  In the book Haydn & his world (1997 Princeton University Press) Elaine Sisman points out that the northern German critics and music theorists were unhappy with Haydn's penchant for drastically changing moods within movements.  Haydn was found wanting for breaking rules of decorum and for doubling octaves and using parallelism that in Baroque and Renaissance music was considered very bad.  It is important to stress here how indebted musical theory and practice in earlier epochs of Western theory derived from the limitations and exigencies of choral music.  The development of a purely instrumental concert music idiom didn't develop overnight, it didn't even develop in the ways we're used to in even one generation but throughout a couple of generations with some major innovations happening in each generation.

And if you compare a movement from a Bach violin sonata or partita to a string quartet by Haydn or a piano sonata you'll begin to see that this shift happened, this development of changing moods within a movement.  Haydn wasn't the only composer to introduce mood changes but he was better at introducing abrupt mood changes within movements than others.  Part of his genius at musical comedy is his ability to set up an expectation and subvert that expectation entirely within a musical work.  As the members of the Emerson string quartet may have put it years ago, Mozart was able to be witty but Haydn was able to be genuinely funny. 

A lot of northern German music fans and theorists were like Batman to Haydn's Joker, they got that Haydn sure thought it was funny ... but they weren't laughing.  And they didn't like that the rest of the German-speaking world thought the jokes were funny, too.  It seemed to diminish the seriousness of musical art to watch and hear Haydn cranking out symphonies and chamber works that were basically massive situation comedies like he was some sausage-making factory. 

Yet for centuries Haydn has not only not been seen as some iconoclastic punk messing with the bounds of great art and decorum, he is considered staid, parochial and boring because everyone knows he wrote fun music and it has no seriousness.  As Leon Botstein posed the point in Haydn and his world, Haydn had been revered and lionized into a paradoxically respectable irrelevance among theorists, composers, and performers.  Or in a rare moment of framing a gag well Gallagher once opined that you know you're getting old when you hear "Stairway to Heaven" on easy listening stations. 

Slonimsky did us a service collection critical vitriol against now-celebrated composers but he could have done us a bit more of a service by exploring how critical vitriol derives not merely from reactions to musical works as musical works but musical works as landmarks or boundary indicators of cultural, religious, ethnic, racial, economic, and other forms of social identity.

Now as I have been blogging I think that Haydn's work offers a touchstone for musicians and composers who are interested in exploring how to synthesize apparently contrasting musical styles and concepts.  Bach, and other Baroque composers, worked in a milleu in which there was the "old style" and the "new style".  When we moderns attempt to consider how many musical styles there are and how many regional variations there are in music this is not really that new.  What is new for our time period is that we have recordings and writings and musical examples of nearly every kind of musical culture from every region within the last century and a half, maybe two centuries.  And we have been able to coin phrases like "world music".  Yet this concept is not so new, either.  When J. S. Bach assimilate Italian and French music and Polish folk music into his work as a German composer he was still engaged in what, then, could be considered "world music" now.  And in a perhaps "lesser" but still important way the same could be said about Haydn.

Haydn worked in a period in which there was a kind of stylistic consolidation.  Western music was steadily transitioning out of the dance based, opera-derived, and liturgically-based idioms of the Baroque period into a new and more purely instrumental conception of music thought that benefited from equal temperament and new approaches to musical form.  Certain melodic intervals that were prohibitted (and impractical) in earlier centuries of music were becoming more practical and attainable thanks to newer approaches to temperament and harmonic development.  A great deal was accomplished by the time Haydn was established but Haydn was, in some ways like J. S. Bach, able to employ an encyclopedic awareness of musical possibilities form his time and working with them in a way that became a template for later work.  In Haydn's case he was also able to recognize and encourage people with more raw talent and capability than himself and thus he ended up being a formative influence on both Mozart and Beethoven.

I submit that if we fail to appreciate the ways in which Haydn was revolutionary in his own time we may fail to appreciate that there is more to be learned from Haydn's work than mere as a foundation upon which Beethoven and Mozart built their own masterpieces.  We need to consider what Haydn's proteges learned from their master and how we may learn from that in our time.

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