Bach's Brandenburg Concertos

I have been thinking about the Brandenburgs a bit more than usual of late, not that they're ever all that far out of my mind. The Fifth Brandenburg serves as a teaching piece for my lectures at UC Berkeley and the SF Conservatory, as an example of just what can be done with ritornello form in the hands of an innovator like Bach.

No, that's not a typo: I said innovator. The old shibboleth about Bach being behind the times has long been due for a proper burial; Bach was no fuddy-duddy but a thoroughly au courant experimenter who was more than willing to stretch past the boundaries of the currently accepted idioms, styles, and forms. He may have seemed like yesterday's news to his oh-so-modern sons, but fathers inevitably seem so to their kids -- especially kids straining to establish their musical independence from such a powerful teacher-father.

The Brandenburgs offer prime evidence of Bach's resourcefulness and inventiveness. Each is a law unto itself, uniquely structured and scored. Bach never hesitated to depart from the established conventions of concerto grosso writing if he felt it necessary, even going so far as to blur the division between the tutti (full orchestra) and concertino (soloists) which traditionally informs most Baroque concertos.

beethoven and the symphony

For the past nineteen years I've taught Beethoven's C Minor Symphony (the Fifth with its signature four opening notes) to my freshman-level class at UC Berkeley. Typically at the end of the previous week's classes I advise my students to sleep well and eat their Wheaties, perhaps even invest in a suit of armor, in preparation for the journey to come. Naturally I say that mostly to get a laugh (I'm one of those professors with a penchant for larding lectures with standup comedy routines), but really I'm only half-kidding — well, at least about the suit of armor.

My aim in teaching the Fifth is for my students to get a little beat up, to tell the truth. If some are offended by the symphony (a few invariably are) then that's just great. Nobody gets to leave unscathed, if I can help it. The only reaction I'd rather not elicit is indifference. I'm unfortunately constrained sonically by having to use a smallish sound system (and out of consideration for my colleague teaching next door), but if I had my way I'd crank up the volume to rock concert levels, risk starting a tremor on the Hayward Fault, crack a few windows here and there.

That's the way to hear the Fifth: loud, blaring, practically barbaric there towards the end as Beethoven just pounds C Major chords over and over. Maybe it's joyous, maybe it's victorious, maybe it's pure bloodlust.

On occasion somebody tells me that "classical music can be so relaxing." Uh, huh. How about I take you through the Eroica, Fifth, Seventh, or Ninth on my home stereo with its B&W Nautilus speakers? Then you tell me again about that relaxation jazz — but of course, I can wait until your hands have stopped shaking.

beethoven and the piano sonata

I'll put my cards on the table right now and say that I've never considered myself much of a Beethoven pianist, even when I was still performing regularly (which I am not these days.) I got my start whacking through the Pathétique sometime around puberty; I haven't played a Beethoven sonata in public since the mid 1980s when I gave a decent rendition of Op. 28 (Pastorale). Before then, I had managed to bomb quite thoroughly with a disgracefully rushed Waldstein, while giving reasonable but thoroughly mediocre performances of various early, middle, and late sonatas. Richard Goode never had anything to fear from me.

My modest skills as a Beethoven performer do not blind me to the excellence of good Beethoven playing. I grew up listening to the legendary recordings by Artur Schnabel (pictured to the right), coming to know them well for their magnificent strengths as well as their many shortcomings. Several of my college-era teachers continued my Schnabel-ization, ensuring that I studied most of the sonatas carefully.

The Schnabel Beethoven recordings rank among the indisputable classics of the gramophone, but the performances range widely in quality. Nobody expected these recordings to stay in print from the 1930s to the present. Schnabel recorded the cycle in London during the 1930s for a small subscriber base, that being the only way one could pull off an ambitious small-market recording project in the Depression-wracked 'thirties. He was neither a big technician nor particularly inclined towards recording. As a result everybody concerned let some major gaffes slip by: the mess he made of the finale of Op. 101, for example — and let's not even talk about the finale of Op. 106.

Still, the Schnabel performances set a standard against which, for better or worse, later complete Beethoven sonata cycles have been judged — either in concert, or on record.

Leonard Bernstein and "Mass"

We also get that super-hyped, super-sized, underwhelming "Mass" of 1971. Yecch. I was a senior in high school when it premiered, and by the time I arrived at Peabody in 1972, it was already known as Mess and served as the butt of endless catty jokes.

Mess was supposed to be Lenny's valediction, the once-and-for-all magisterial statement for which everybody and his dog had been waiting, the Big Thing that was to put him back on the map as the Great American Composer, finally, after his long stint at the helm of the NY Phil where he had educated an entire generation of suburban kids like me via CBS TV.

But it flopped, and with good reason: the thing's horrid.

I tried to get through it again in this newly remastered CD of the original. I tried, really I did. Tummy got upset. Jaw started clinching. Irritation bubbled, threatened to erupt. Stereo set got turned off. Professor Foglesong whimpered Oh, sheesh, it's even worse than I remembered, then retired to the kitchen to pour himself a restorative.

The flower-child anthem "A Simple Song" has eeked out a musty living, but its treacly sincerity sits as poorly as does its stained-tie-dye-and-stinky-sandals gestalt. I can just feel my hair sprouting, granny glasses protruding from the bridge of my nose, dark lights flickering out of limbo and fluorescing long-posthumous Age of Aquarius posters, lava lamps resuming their bubbly heaving while whiffs of Shankar mingle with other, more illicit whiffs.

In short, it summons back all that crap that we stupid kids thought was cool back then. But let's tell it for what it was — just fashion, nothing more. Trends, fads and gimmicks. As of today I hear there's some hullaballo about plastic footwear. Back then it was Indian cotton. So it goes.

Ernest Bloch's "America"

Ernest Bloch's "America":Admittedly, the hour-long piece -- scored for orchestra, chorus, organ, and the kitchen sink -- makes for tough sledding nowadays. My hackles start to rise once Way Down Upon the Swanee River floats out of the muted strings. Just as I think it is safe to remove my fingers from my ears, up comes the slam-bang choral finale, fifteen minutes of hyperbole with all the subtlety of a Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster: oh, look honey! Just look at 'em tame the West, lay the Transcontinental Railroad, slaughter all those doggone natives. The purple mountains majesty float by on a cloud of organ pedal points while the stars 'n' stripes seem to wave in the sonic breeze. I'm not sure if I should applaud or salute.

But I forgive him for America. Every composer is entitled to his own private Wellington's Victory, after all.

Brahms and the concerto

One could summon up any number of adjectives to describe the music of Brahms, but "flashy" is most indubitably not one of them. Nearly alone among the late Romantics this German-born-Austrian-living master stood apart as a bulwark against the era's propensity to lay it on thick — orchestrally, instrumentally, emotionally, or just about any other -ly you'd care to name.

It's difficult to come up with another composer of the era who was quite as immune as Brahms to the siren song of flamboyant virtuosity. Most composers of the time couldn't keep their hands off the orchestra's goodies, tossing in gobs of cymbals and tinkles and bangs and boops. Some did it quite well (think Tchaikovsky) while others went sailing over the top, albeit most engagingly so (think Richard Strauss.)

About the wildest Brahms ever got was to diddle the triangles a bit in the scherzo of the Fourth Symphony.

Therefore we may safely assume that Brahms was not one for cranking out kicky, buzz-laden concertos frankly designed to give the rubes a thrill. Nothing cheap, nothing sensational, nothing flashy.

So he wound up writing four of the most fiendishly difficult concertos in the repertoire — two for solo piano, one for violin, and an autumnal duchess of a double concerto for violin and 'cello.

They don't really sound all that difficult, but ask anybody who has ever assailed one. (And get ready for a lot of whining.) Nor does Brahms offer much in the way of the usual quick-buck gratification that concertos are supposed to provide.

Edward Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius"

Gerontius's journey bodes rough sailing for many 21st-century travellers. The text is the problem. Cardinal Newman's blockbuster verse epic about death, the afterlife, and the possibility of salvation is a turgid morass of preachy platitudes bleated forth in an unintentional parody of Jacobean English. Reading it is a protracted ordeal guaranteed to confirm one's darkest suspicions about smarmy Victorian expressions of public piety.

Try this on for size:

Thou speakest mysteries; still methinks I know
To disengage the tangle of thy words:
Yet rather would I hear thy angel voice,
Than for myself be thy interpreter.


Handel's "Messiah"

Messiah as winter solstice fare seems a bit odd; originally it was considered a vernal equinox piece. But winter/spring dichotomy isn't particularly uncommon; one school of thought in early Christianity celebrated the founder's birth in the spring, and to this day many Buddhist traditions are split as to the time of the Buddha's enlightenment and/or birth, placing it either winter or spring-ish.

Therefore, although it was originally a fixture of the spring season, nowadays we've winterized it.

Haydn's lIfe

Haydn's life was not particularly dramatic. His personality was solid and secure, devoid of entertaining neuroses or kinks. He was far more than the genial Papa Haydn of legend, being subject to fits of depression, and also suffering no misconceptions about his own worth or abilities. He could act on occasion with a certain peremptory pride, nor were his financial dealings always aboveboard. But his failings are those of a perfectly normal, albeit grandly gifted, human being, someone who took pains to live a good life and act in an honorable and trustworthy manner.

For thirty years he hummed away as an industrious kapellmeister to a wealthy aristocratic family, becoming a celebrated public figure only well into his sixties. Anyone approaching a Haydn biography hoping for the compelling human drama of Beethoven or the revolting fascination of Wagner is sure to be disappointed. Joseph Haydn was a musician down to the tip of his toes, astoundingly creative and tirelessly inventive, one of those rare über-creators who managed the nearly impossible task of reconciling genius with the responsibilities and rewards of everyday human life.

Mozart's Piano Concertos

The piano concertos run the full temperature range of Mozart's style -- dramatic, cheerful, depressed, insouciant, hard-edged, ingratiating, frothy, challenging. A stormy first movement, such as in the D Minor concerto, might be followed by a slow movement of such bewitching lyricism as to banish all thoughts of darkness or despair. Peppy variations movements stand shoulder-to-shoulder with expansive, almost wastefully lavish, first movements of unprecedented length and emotional scope. No two are alike and all merit any amount of time and attention.

Virgil Thomson

In a 1974 interview for Fag Rag, Gore Vidal remembered Massachusetts senator David Walsh being "caught during the war in a boy whorehouse, supposedly frequented by Nazi sympathizers, in Brooklyn, with a man who will be nameless—Virgil Thomson. Not together, but Virgil was also caught."

I've never been quite sure what to do about Virgil Thomson. Certainly I have a solid place in my heart (and listening room) for Virgil's contemporaries such as Copland, Barber, Hanson, Harris, Sessions, Piston, and the rest of the mid-century American gang, including lesser lights such as Sowerby or Siegmeister. But Thomson's music leaves me unmoved at best, annoyed at worst, and bored as a rule.

As a composer Thomson lacked Copland's range or Gershwin's vitality. As a journalist he was among the brighter lights of American music criticism.

But even in that regard I have my doubts. He certainly never let the facts get in the way of his ex cathedra pronouncements. His snappy prose could turn arrogantly snotty in a heartbeat, and despite his oft-repeated disdain for musical academics, he could come across as an insufferable, elitist -- even academic -- snob.

Certainly Thomson never took up music criticism intending to be fashionably pleasant or scrupulously fair. His debut notice of 1940 condemned the opening of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony's season: "There was little that could be called festive about the occasion. The menu was routine, the playing ditto."

That same review contained one of his most quoted lines regarding the Sibelius Second Symphony: "I found it vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description."

What an amusing statement, written by a composer whose musical output is indeed provincial beyond all description.

Wagner and Posterity

Wagner himself has toppled from the olympian position he held in the late nineteenth century; looking back from the present I find it a bit difficult to understand the mania surrounding the man and his work. Perhaps that's due to my never having been a Wagnerite; I certainly admire the Wagner operas but I consider them part of the overall tapestry of the late Romantic.

My own vote for the outstanding opera composer of the era goes to Verdi, in fact. So in my eyes Wagner adulation seems cultish, faddish, and faintly ridiculous, even in its considerably watered-down modern form, much less the frenzied veneration of a century past.

Wagner and Me

I share very little in common with Richard Wagner. Well, we're both musicians who write prose on the side. However, that's about it; I am neither anti-Semitic, megalomaniacal, nor short. (Or should I say "height impaired?") He was also a hell of a better musician than I am.