Thursday, October 30, 2014

On Copland, Beyoncé, and the Question of Musical Politics

by Annegret Fauser

Seventy years ago today, Aaron Copland and Martha Graham’s ballet, Appalachian Spring, had its premiere at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. As I am currently writing a book about this fascinating work, I had planned on preparing a contribution to Musicology Now celebrating the anniversary by taking us back to the United States at the end of World War II and by exploring the ramifications of the premiere’s historical in-between moment for the reception and reading of the work.

But instead, my thoughts are circling back to my beautiful visit to Carleton College earlier this month, where I spoke about Appalachian Spring, and to the discussions following a presentation I gave there on this topic. I had framed my talk at the College within the larger question of music’s associations with politics—broadly conceived—moving from such Coplandiana as the music for Governor Rick Perry’s infamous 2011 campaign advertisement to more recent events that related music and politics, in particular Beyoncé’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 24, 2014 (cuepoint 10'20"). Here, Beyoncé added eye-catching visuals to her performance of “Flawless,” a song that samples lines from the TED talk “We Should All Be Feminists” by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and is itself remix of sorts of “Bow Down” from early 2013. “Flawless” had already garnered discussion about Beyoncé’s feminism when it was released in December last year, but neither the track nor the official music video rendered Adichie’s words as visible as the MTV/VMA performance, which projected them in huge letters above and behind the musicians.

This performance was a political act. Despite the celebratory articles in the national press, however, an underlying current of comments worried whether it was an empty gesture by a celebrity, and one out of place in an MTV performance. How appropriate was such a political claim in a musical context, and in a commercial pop-music event at that? The question of Beyoncé’s musical and performative feminism bubbled up again a month later, after Emma Watson’s beautiful United Nations speech on September 20. Within hours after Watson’s speech, her demure poise and expressive clarity were held up as an example on how to do feminism right in such tweets as “Well done, Emma Watson. THAT is feminism (watch and learn, Beyoncé),” or “That’s feminism. . . . Not a neon sign and spandex.” It seems to me that not only is this kind of patronizing comparison utterly racist by invoking cultural tropes of racialized intellectual ownership, but it also speaks to the tightly circumscribed roles we accord to musicians in our world right now. It implies that a musical performance cannot—and should not—lay claim to serious political issues in the case of a female pop star who performs race and sexuality in multiple complex ways.

Had my Carleton story stopped here, this blog would still be about Copland alone (though I will return to Appalachian Spring in a bit). But the day after my presentation and discussion with students, I went to Convocation at Carleton College’s Skinner Memorial Chapel, where the poet and feminist activist Daisy Hernandez spoke about “Feminism, Sofia Vergara, and Writing about Familia: A Talk on Media Representations.” It was a moving and engaging presentation. In the Q&A, however, one of the students who had been at my lecture asked about Beyoncé and how Hernandez would see her contribution to feminism, given the controversy over her and Watson. Nimbly sidestepping any discussion of feminism in relation to musical composition and performance, Hernandez instead celebrated as feminist achievement Beyoncé’s commercial success as a businesswoman—just as, in her presentation, Sofia Vergara’s business acumen had been framed as the reason why the actress deserved our serious attention. Given capitalism’s inherent patriarchal structure, such slippage is troubling from a feminist perspective. Feminist critique, I had hoped, would question the masculinist hegemony of capitalism rather than embrace it by handing the primacy of social empowerment over to capital while relegating cultural expression into the realm of the ineffable—a surprising strategy for a politically engaged poet who, in her presentation, had spoken so eloquently about the power of words as cultural agents. Whether intended by Hernandez or not, her answer depoliticized (and feminized) music and its performance and, instead, located political meaning and value in a neoliberal construction of masculinist economics.

Hernandez’s neoliberal framing of Beyoncé seems like a strange echo of the France Musique website dedicated to Aaron Copland, where its comments show traces of Adorno-inspired marxism. I am reading this website as a culmination of decades of Copland reception during which the composer was increasingly represented as apolitical—most famously in the United States Information Agency (USIA) documentary, Copland Portrait, in 1976—until his musical idiom could stand for “America” however conceived, whether in terms of party politics or as a stand-in for the nation abroad. The biographical note on Copland on the France Musique site casts Copland as an audience-pleaser, a familiar way to feminize an artist in the world of Western music. But it gets worse: the text implies that he did so for financial gain as well, putting him perilously close to the nadir of artistic prostitution. His ballets—the paragraph ends—left him a “multimillionaire by the time of his death.” This is a scarcely veiled indictment of America as a place where business trumps everything else, an old chestnut of French anti-Americanism.

However the economic success of a musician might be constructed in a particular discourse network—positively by Hernandez for her American audience, and negatively by France Musique for its French readers—there seems to be a curious transnational agreement that music pleasing its audiences, or worse, targeting a particular market, is suspect when it lays claim also to a radical political message. There is no need for Jed Perls’s New Republic piece that crows “Liberals Are Killing Art,” and for whom true art is “unfettered metaphor and mystery and magic” transcending politics through its beauty. This kind of depoliticization of music is deeply engrained in our culture—even where liberals are concerned—when art does not follow the rather narrow ideology of what is allowed to be political, and what not. On the seventieth birthday of Appalachian Spring—a profoundly political piece, whose entanglement within historical and political contexts has been shown by colleagues ranging from Howard Pollack and Elizabeth Crist to Nadine Hubbs, Emily Abrams Ansari, and Alex Ross—it is perhaps useful to reflect on why we, as a listening collective, still refuse to take music seriously as a self-conscious expression of politics when it does not conform to what we consider political art. Appalachian Spring ensounded, and ensounds, concerns about war, nation, and personal identities. Likewise, a glitteringly spandex-clad and sexually affirmative performer can be, and is, a powerful musical voice for feminism. I would like to think that Copland, a musician invested in musical politics in all its ramifications, would have applauded Beyoncé’s performance and forgive me for transforming a birthday post on Appalachian Spring into a call to celebrate the potentially empowering politics of audience-pleasing music not despite its mainstream appeal but because of it.

Annegret Fauser is Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Music and Adjunct Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is a past editor of the Journal of the American Musicological Society, and the most recent of her several books is Sounds of War: Music in the United States during World War II (Oxford UP, 2013). Website and video HERE.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Rebirth of the Charles Ives House

by Michael Accinno

Preservationists rush to save Charles Ives’s endangered Connecticut house.

Over the past two years, the familiar rallying cry that has surrounded the sale of Charles Ives’s residence in Redding has given way to a happy resolution of sorts. The new owners have pledged to safeguard the house owing to its historic significance; In an equally exciting development, the Academy of Arts and Letters opened Ives’s Redding studio as a permanent exhibition at its headquarters in New York City (NY Times review HERE). Scholars, preservationists, and music lovers should congratulate themselves for their vigorous (and successful) public advocacy on behalf of Ives and his music. But they would do well to remember there was—and still is—another embattled Charles Ives house in dire need of preservation.

I’m talking about the Charles Ives birthplace in Danbury, owned and maintained by the Danbury Museum and Historical Society. On a recent autumn day, with expectations tempered, I drove up bucolic, tree-lined Route 7 in Connecticut to visit the house. Marked with a faded sign, it is easy to miss—I drove by at least three times before finally pulling into the empty driveway. The interior of the house has been closed for several years (author’s email to the Danbury Museum, June 22, 2011; In 2012, the blog Connecticut Museum Quest described the museum as “defunct”) and from the looks of it, the exterior of the house has not fared much better. The white paint is cracked and fading; the shutters are dilapidated; a large section of its deteriorating roof is covered by a blue tarp. Despite this litany of problems, there are signs of change in the wind. Several museum-quality posters have been installed around the perimeter, giving visitors a brief biography of Ives’s life and descriptions of his music (but oughtn't visitors also hear Ives’s music?). The house also connects to the Charles Ives Nature Trail, a twenty-mile path meandering through several towns in Fairfield County. But I left the property—added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976—far from certain of a happy outcome.

Ives himself struggled to reconcile his visits to Danbury with the memories of his childhood. In Vivian Perlis’s Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History (University of Illinois Press, 2002), his nephew Bigelow Ives says:
I remember very late in his life . . . Uncle Charlie spent the night there and wandered through the old house and spoke very feelingly about the north parlor, and recalled how changed it all was. I went out walking with him late that evening, and we went up as far as the Civil War monument in the City Hall Square. That was only about half a block from the old house. He actually moaned aloud when he got up there and saw how it had all changed from his recollection of it. There were no longer any elms, and there were strange new buildings not very compatible with his vision of the old town. He leaned up against a sandbox which was on the corner by the curb, and he buried his hands and moaned. “I’m going back,” he said, “You can’t recall the past.” And he turned around and went back to the old house and said he was sorry he had gone out at all. From that I had an inkling of how deep his love was for a bygone way of life that he apparently had nurtured ever since having left Danbury as a boy (pp. 81-82).
Reviving Ives’s “old house” is an expensive proposition, but saving such a vital connection to the past is surely an undertaking worth the financial and emotional investment. So it is good to know that a plan to rehabilitate the Charles Ives House is currently being formulated by the Danbury Museum and Historical Society. Through an announcement on its website, the Society has announced its intention to “begin the process of making the Charles Ives Birthplace whole again.” Please take a minute to preserve Charles Ives’s other embattled house by sending a letter of support for the project to Paypal donations are currently being accepted through the Society’s website.

Michael Accinno is the outgoing assistant editor of Musicology Now.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Jordi Savall Phenomenon

by Charles T. Downey

The giants of the early music movement of the 1970s have reached their golden years, a fact brought home in the last couple years by the passing of  Gustav Leonhardt and Christopher Hogwood. One of them, viola da gambist and conductor Jordi Savall, 73, shows no signs of slowing down. His discography, already burgeoning with over 100 recordings by his various ensembles and other combinations, continues to grow apace each year. Savall is not only a musical luminary, though. Many of his concert programs attempt to foster peace and mutual understanding in conflicts between national and religious enemies. His example of humanist pacifism, which goes beyond mere words into actions, is an inspiration to many around the world.

That includes in his native Catalonia, where he continues to be a calm but steady voice for the movement toward independence from Spain. This month he joined with Josep Carreras (the Catalonian opera singer who used to style his first name as José) and four other public figures to issue a public call to allow an independence referendum in Catalonia to proceed on November 9, which the Spanish government declared illegal at the end of September. In gratitude for all he has done for his homeland, the Generalitat of Catalonia recognized Savall with its highest honor, la Medalla de Oro, earlier this week.

The recorded legacy of Jordi Savall dates back to the 1970s, in albums he made with La Petite Band and the Ricercare-Ensemble für Alte Musik of Zurich. In the same decade, he started his own small early music ensemble, Hespèrion XX (the number now increased by a century change to XXI), to be complemented in the late 1980s by a choral ensemble called La Capella Reial de Catalunya and a Baroque orchestra called Le Concert des Nations. With these groups, Savall has made reference recordings of major works of music history, including Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine and opera L’Orfeo; J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites, Brandenburg concertos, Art of Fugue, Musical Offering, and B-Minor Mass; Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks; Purcell’s Fairy Queen; and Mozart’s Requiem Mass.

As good as some of those recordings were, the many smaller recordings, bringing together wisps and strands of forgotten repertories, are perhaps more memorable and deserving of praise. My research for this appreciation of Savall’s work began with gathering together all of the recordings I had purchased, received, and written about over the years. It formed an impressive pile, but I was hardly surprised, upon further examination, that I had barely scratched the surface. From medieval chant and troubadour songs to Renaissance polyphony and villancicos, from courtly European dance music to folk song from France and Turkey and the Balkans, from Vivaldi’s operas Teuzzone and Farnace to Haydn’s Seven Last Words (recorded in the church of Santa Cueva in Cádiz, where the score was premiered) and even Beethoven, Savall has recorded it.

Fortunately, for the listener who wants to get a more complete idea of what Savall has accomplished on record, Savall made the savvy decision to start his own record label, Alia Vox, which keeps all of the titles, past and more recent, in circulation. Savall and his musicians were not the first to take the matter of distributing their recordings into their own hands, an honor that falls to the Tallis Scholars, who established their Gimell label in 1980. Even so, they were early implementers in the self-publishing boom, inaugurating Alia Vox before Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain Music, the London Symphony Orchestra's self-titled label, and John Eliot Gardiner’s Soli Deo Gloria. Alia Vox was a family affair, undertaken with his creative muse and wife, Montserrat Figueras, who died in 2011. The goal was to spread the music, rather than make a profit, but from its founding in 1998 until 2005, according to the company's Web site, it sold more than two million discs.

Rather than focusing on the work of single composers, which would make it easier for me to file his recordings in my collection, Savall has long favored historical mélanges. A Savall disc uses music to illustrate history, bringing together works that can be associated with a single influential ruler (Isabella I of Spain, Emperor Charles V, Alfonso the Magnanimous, Louis XV), a city or region (Istanbul, Jerusalem, the Balkans, the Mediterranean), or musical form (ostinato bass, villancico).

For his most significant research projects, Savall has turned to a new type of record packaging, the CD-Book, where extensive background information is marshaled into a hardbound book format, with the CDs tucked into pockets under the covers. (These books are usually in fiendishly tiny print, because all of the texts are translated into several languages, with Catalonian, pointedly but diplomatically, alongside Castilian, what most of the world would call Spanish.) Some of my favorites include the CD-Book dedicated to Erasmus and his book In Praise of Folly; a chronological tracing of music associated with members of the Borgia family; music for and about the life of Joan of Arc; and an exploration of the “forgotten kingdom” of the Cathars, wiped out by the Albigensian Crusade.

Perhaps no Savall project quite incarnates his cross-disciplinary leanings as much as the CD-Book Don Quijote de la Mancha: Romances y Músicas. Recorded in 2005, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, this set attempted to provide a musical soundtrack for the book, interspersed with readings from the novel. Every time that Cervantes mentions music being performed, which is quite often, Savall found the actual piece referenced by Cervantes or, when that was not possible, something from the period that was appropriate for what is described in the novel. The result enriches readers of the novel and listeners of the music alike.

Savall has even larger aims for his work, as he told Bertrand Dermoncourt in an interview for L'Express in 2011. He spoke about a recording project that brought together Israeli and Palestinian musicians (my translation): "Conflicts remain and we felt them during our projects reuniting musicians from different backgrounds, from countries that politics divided. Tension was palpable in the first rehearsals. Then we were surprised by Israelis and Palestinians having fun singing the same songs together during breaks. Nothing and no one made them do it. It was the power of music: it can bring peace because it forces you to converse and respect one another."

Charles T. Downey runs a thriving blog (est. 2003), freelances for the Washington Post, and teaches music and art history at St. Anselm's Abbey School. He holds the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in musicology from the Catholic University of America. Downey's “Meet the Moderator” page is HERE.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Life with Friends

by Ellen T. Harris

In my book George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends (W. W. Norton, 2014), I look at Handel’s music and life in relation to the lives of six identifiable friends: Joseph Goupy and James Hunter, who are described by Sir John Hawkins as Handel’s closest friends; Elizabeth Mayne, Elizabeth Palmer, and Anne Donnellan, who like Hunter, were recipients of bequests from Handel; and Mary Delany, whose correspondence details a close friendship. In the following excerpt from the first chapter, “Introductions,” I discuss some of the commonalities among these friends and suggest the kinds of associations they had with various themes in Handel’s music.

Goupy, Hunter, Delany, Donnellan, Mayne, and Palmer were among Handel’s closest acquaintances, and, together with Handel, they are the co-protagonists of this book. That is not to say that they represent a group of friends. Delany and Donnellan were intimate, but otherwise there is no evidence that any of the others were close. Rather, each of the friends had an independent relationship with Handel. Except for Goupy, who is identified as an intimate friend in the eighteenth century, and Delany, whose correspondence details their close association, these individuals appear in Handel’s will as recipients of friendship bequests, standing apart from the family legacies and the gifts Handel made in gratitude for service—such as those bequests given to John Christopher Smith, his librettists, medical and legal advisers, and servants.

The affinities among these six friends paint a striking picture, further distinguishing them from other legatees and known associates or patrons. Most lived close by in the neighborhood of St. George’s, Hanover Square. With the exception of Hunter, their homes form a circle with a radius of less than a quarter of a mile. Not surprisingly, all six friends possessed deep musical interest and talent, something that does not appear to be the case for other legatees who were also neighbors, such as James Smyth, Benjamin Martyn, and John Gowland, whose wills make no reference to music books or instruments. Most can be considered independent in terms of religion, few of them adhering literally to the normative creed of the Church of England but rather ranging in belief from Catholicism through dissenting protestant sects to heretical versions of Anglican doctrine, reflecting Handel’s strong belief in religious tolerance. They also stand apart from the norm in terms of marital status. Only Mrs. Mayne had children. The others who married, including Delany, Hunter, and Palmer, made matches strongly disapproved of by their families, resulting in various degrees of disinheritance. None of these marriages resulted in children. The others, not only including Handel, Goupy, and Donnellan but also, among a wider circle of acquaintance, Bernard Granville, Christopher Batt, and Benjamin Martyn, remained unmarried; James Smyth, who did marry, was childless. Like Handel (but unlike Granville, Batt, Martyn, or Smyth), all six friends experienced serious financial problems in the 1730s or 1740s, and many, as a result, were engaged in litigation or bankruptcy. Nevertheless, all, like Handel, were extremely generous and charitable with what they had.

The documentary evidence about the private lives of these friends, in some cases much more abundant than the surviving information on Handel, derives from multiple sources, including letters, diaries, personal accounts, legal cases, property deeds, and insurance records, and offers an intimate picture of London life during the first half of the eighteenth century. The lack of such sources for Handel means that his biographers have hardly any testimony from the composer himself. By examining the sources concerning his friends, one can glimpse Handel’s personal interactions and posit motivations and threads of action. Although these conclusions often appear shorn of the cautionary “probably,” thereby avoiding the constant repetition of this word, they are educated guesses based on extensive research. One of the most rewarding aspects of exploring these relationships has been the light it sheds on Handel’s compositions. Put simply, the lives of his friends illustrate how Handel’s music intersected with eighteenth-century London.

 The music of Handel offers a tapestry of eighteenth-century culture and society. Woven with tremendous skill and imbued with vibrant colors, the images on its surface may tell of shepherds and shepherdesses, chivalrous knights, kings and queens, and biblical heroes, but the threads that make up the warp and weft derive from the interests, concerns, and desires of the world in which Handel lived. While it is hardly surprising to say that art is a product of its time and place, the relationship between Handel’s music and its milieu goes deeper than most. In order to gain a full understanding of the extent of this relationship in both public and private contexts, it is not enough to touch on contemporary issues in a general way or to focus in depth on a single cultural issue, although both approaches can enhance (and have significantly altered) our understanding. Nor does an examination of the few surviving records of Handel’s personal life offer satisfactory insight into his compositional and professional choices. Rather, in order to appreciate how deeply his musical scores resonated with his audience, one needs to look at the lives of individuals in that audience, lives in which Handel participated. Knowing about his friends, and in particular the friends to whom he left bequests in his will, extends our knowledge of Handel in his world and furthers our understanding of his music in the society for which it was written. Marriage, friendship, medicine, law, commerce, public relations, finance, religion, and politics all play a part.

This is not to say that Handel depicted his friends in his music, only that they offer an example of the public for whom Handel composed, and as such also served at times as a private sounding board for his new compositions. Handel’s operas set in the Middle East (Rinaldo, Tamerlano), for example, would not have seemed remote to James Hunter, who was an international trader and later in life worked directly with the British East India Company. The tension between a forced marriage and true love (Floridante, Imeneo) was not limited to exotic or fantastical climes but common to many: Mary Delany had both experiences. False accusations and legal problems (Solomon, Susanna) plagued Delany and her husband, while Hunter and Goupy both endured long court battles. Issues of religious toleration (Esther, Judas Maccabaeus, Theodora) touched them all.

Ellen T. Harris is professor emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and incoming president of the American Musicological Society. Her previous book, Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas (Harvard UP, 2001), was awarded the 2002 Otto Kindeldey Award from the American Musicological Society and the 2002-03 Louis Gottschalk Prize from the Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Those EuroStagings: Opera at Will

by Laurenz Lütteken

This post originally appeared, in German, in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 24 September 2014, in print and digital formats, under the title “Oper der Beliebigkeiten.” We are grateful to Professor Lütteken and the NZZ for permission to publish this adaptation in English, by DKH after a translation by Katja Herges. 

Sad but true: the new opera season promises few encounters with new works, but rather “new readings,” “unusual perspectives,” or “radical re-interpretations.” So far we are spared the Liebestod  in C minor, harps only, and the Falstaff fugue for marimba and vuvuzela. But what is very much at issue, at least for the moment, is the ongoing destabilization of production values, whose borders, after just over a generation, have largely eroded away.

Of the many Rheingold productions to be viewed today on Gerrman-speaking stages, you can wander from the oil fields of California (Bayreuth) to environmental catastrophe and piles of rubbish (Nürnberg) to multimedia video, clowning, and haunted houses (Mannheim). Figaro plays in a large cellar room in Augsburg (adorned with signs that say “Bully-Free Zone,” “No Means No,” “No Sexual Harassment in the Workplace”); Carmen, in the time of global migration through Hannover, Barbiere at a Mafia godfather’s in Osnabrück, Manon at the airport in Graz. It is tantalizing, grotesque, endless. And the scores are at risk of similar treatment. Already in Zurich there is a Fidelio with a rearranged sequence of numbers; shortly, in Berlin, there will be an Ariadne with a female chamberlain.

Instructions for Use

Experiments of this kind, whose roots date back to the 1970s, belong to the brazen quotidian life of the modern stage. So they are no longer experiments, but rather simple convention and confection. Nevertheless, the published justifications in the program books go on and on in their largely unchallenged attempt to claim meaning and necessity for their particular approach. They no longer seek to offer a path to understanding the work, but rather instructions for use—why the junkie Tristan injects himself with the love potion, why Lulu shows pornographic movies in an eccentric sex club. Accordingly, for the last while, media attention has tended toward weighty interpretation of these increasingly wild stagings. You're grateful to get past matters of Otello's musical embodiment and on to the tenor's biographical note.

The printed program, indeed, has become a coloring-book of indulgent self-expression, claiming a cornucopia of associations with film, image, and text. And inevitably this passes to the next generation. The Trossingen Conservatory recently announced, in all seriousness, that it would transfer Mozart’s Figaro to the “world of fashion shows” with a countertenor as Cherubino—and a barrel organ.

All this is disconcerting, at the very least—for one thing, because of its arbitrariness: Rigoletto on the Planet of the Apes, Rinaldo at a hotel bar, the Magic Flute in a dementia ward. All this has happened already; and the situations are not only interchangeable but inevitably miss the dramatic point. You would think the notion of staging a piece in the general conditions of its date of origin to be harmless enough. Hardly. Since at least Calixto Bieito's productions (2001ff.), nudity, bloodlust, and body fluids of every sort have, apparently permanently, established themselves in the vocabulary of the music theater. And that is disconcerting, too, since the correctives are held to be non-viable.

If, then, the media response is particularly cruel, it is merely because the piece "doesn’t play" in Duisburg-Ruhr, in Syria, or on the moon. And if no paradigm or model can be identifed, then the production is “on target,” as Thomas Bernhard would say, or “without alternative,” as political buzz-speak has it.

Lulu / Basel 2009

In the arts, arguments of “lack of alternative” must be viewed with alarm. The widespread claim that you cannot do an opera “that way” anymore is not only teleological flim-flam, but also unfair. In opera houses, an unchallenged canon reigns, more concrete even than it was fifty years ago. There are thus no valid reasons for avoiding all-new operas. But it is more than dubious to “modernize” the old works with ever-new imagery, precisely because it just tends to solidify the canon anyway. Furthermore, the term “modernity” as used in this context—to mean “disturbing,” “provocative,” and “disconcerting”—is so rusty that we can confidently relegate it to past history.

Historical responsibility

Treating texts of the past historically is neither indispensable nor—as often argued—old-fashioned and philological (even if musicology seldom argues that particular point). But what is the purpose of a critical edition of Don Giovanni if the setting talks about sex and crime of pop stars without further ado (like in Linz)? Texts, scores of the past, require a particular sensibility. It is only if we succeed in tracing the present in the past (instead of merely imposing the present on the past) that a work of art, a staged piece of music, can prove its value.

The autonomy of the theater is held to trump such sensibilities. But there must be strict limits. The  twentieth century is so rich in cases of  text abuses that it is not simply frivolous, but arrogant, to ignore the warnings. The 1928 Leningrad performance of Fidelio was interrupted because the liberation by a class enemy, a minister of the king, was deemed inadequate for a revolutionary society; in 1943 the banner of the SS Panzer division Wiking was marched through the Bayreuth festival grounds during Meistersinger (as staged by Wieland Wagner), thus turning the production into a Nazi festival. Even if nobody explicitly claims such ideas as “director’s theatre,” there is no fundamental difference between these and the Forza del destino in Guantánamo or Tannhäuser in the bio-gas plant. Historical texts are sensitive structures, which should not achieve autonomy at their own expense, in particular after the experiences of the last hundred years. Of course it's possible to stage tales of Californian oil fields or about Guantánamo. But why not do it with new texts and music?


An old hermeneutic principle insists on generalizability. An interpretation is justified if it can claim meaning through the reading of the text and thereby open itself to a third person. But this is the polar opposite of a wide-ranging plenitude of associations which are, themselves, continuously in need of explanation in order to be considered as “communicable.” So abandoning the principle of generalizability not only compromises the dignity and autonomy of texts, it also reduces the spectator to a distant figure in an ever-more fantastic landscape, and thus ultimately threatens the very business that it pretends to support. If in the past singers “embodied” their roles—a challenge that can hardly be overestimated in case of a Tristan, a Scarpia, or a Wozzeck—nowadays the flood of scenic extravaganza so overshadows the development of the musical argument that the overall performance is wounded and too often fails. The consequence is already apparent: note the increasing number of operas in concert. While these violate the very essence of the opera, they nevertheless liberate musicians and the audience from an increasingly heavy burden of picture worlds coming from out of the blue. 


The merits of these practices are argued, from time to time, in episodes that revolve around such concepts as “faithful readings of texts” and “director’s theater.” Yet it’s not about “faithfulness” but rather about respect for the text, particularly in view of 20th-century experience. Objections to the dogma according to which the interpreter is above the interpreted are all too rare—and are merely swept nowadays into the ethically doubtful aesthetic offered up by the lawyers of  “stage direction.” Opera of course occurs in the moment: that was a commonplace even before the boom of the dreaded word “performative.” But that doesn’t commit opera to alleged sensation: rather to the connection of vicinity and distance, of respect, historical depth, and presence. Maybe there is hope for a countercurrent to Opera at Will. But at the beginning of this new season, I don't see much room for optimism.

Laurenz Lütteken is Professor and Chair of Musicology at the University of Zurich (web biography HERE). After his 1991 dissertation on Guillaume Dufay he was appointed acting director of the Institute for Musicology at the University of Heidelberg in 1995, then full professor at the University of Marburg in 1996, moving in 2001 to Zurich.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Schenker Correspondence

by William Drabkin

Heinrich Schenker: Selected Correspondence, ed. Ian Bent, David Bretherton, and Willliam Drabkin (Boydell Press, 2014), is the product of a long-established Schenker documentation project and comprises an extensively annotated selection of letters written by or to Schenker, with linking passages from his diaries.

[Editor's note: Schenker Documents Online, phase 2, was awarded the Society for Music Theory's Citation of Special Merit in November 2013.]

The cast of characters includes household names from the world of musicology (Guido Adler, Otto Erich Deutsch, Alfred Einstein, Anthony van Hoboken), as well as publishers, performers (e.g., Eugen d'Albert, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Paul von Klenau), composers (Busoni, Schoenberg, Hindemith), educators (J. P. Dunn), pupils (Hans Weisse, F.-E. von Cube), and friends. Many of the letters have not yet appeared in Schenker Documents Online; they reveal further aspects of Schenker's multi-faceted career, his place in the Viennese musical world, and the influence he exerted in his lifetime in Austria, Germany, and further afield.

The 450 letters offered here, an extension of the scholarship that has gone into SDO, are published in English; they have been translated and annotated by a team of twelve scholars based in the UK, the USA, Austria, and Germany. They are presented by topic and theme, in a broadly chronological arrangement, with a substantial historical preface and introduction.

The volume is thoroughly indexed by name and subject. Its 544 pages of text are supplemented by 16 pages of plates, which give sample images of handwriting, drawings and photographs of correspondents, cartoons, and a title-page from one of Schenker¹s published compositions. The book will be on display at the joint annual meetings of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory in Milwaukee in November. A book launch in London is also envisaged.

William Drabkin is Professor of Music, emeritus, at the University of Southampton. Webpage HERE.

Friday, October 10, 2014

@ Museum of Musical Instruments, Brussels

by Christopher Brent Murray

Two hundred years ago this November, Antoine-Joseph Sax, called Adolphe, was born in Dinant. Today, the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels, or MIM,<1> has devoted an entire floor of its complex to celebrating his bicentennial in an exhibition titled “SAX200.”

Adolphe Sax, 1844
after an engraving by Charles Baugniet
MIM, Brussels

Although Sax lived in Belgium from its foundation in 1830 until relocating to Paris in 1843, defining his nationality is a refreshingly delicate task, given that we was born during the Congress of Vienna. His case was briefly debated on the MusiSorbonne listserv (the Francophone equivalent of AMS-L) at the time of the call for papers for the international Sax conference held at the MIM in July 2014. Nicolas Meeùs offered the comfortable conclusion that Sax’s confusingly stateless status is, in fact, typically Belgian. (Claims of belgitude, are a sort of local sport, with past musical targets ranging from Josquin to Beethoven to Franck.) A part of Sax’s vast personal collection of musical instruments ended up in Belgium following an auction of his effects that resulted from his declaring bankruptcy. They form an important part of the MIM collection and have been supplemented here by numerous loans from outside institutions.

Sax is of course best remembered for creating the saxophone. Simply put, this was achieved (around 1840) by transforming the clarinet, with its wooden cylindrical bore, into a new instrument with a conical brass bore. Sax’s first great success, however, was the saxhorn, an instrument that changed the face of nineteenth-century military and amateur brass ensembles, and caused Sax no small amount of worry from jealous competitors. SAX200 crafts the portrait of an restlessly inventive man, a sort of musical Edison, difficult to imagine existing outside of the nineteenth century with its increasingly efficient factories, industrial exhibitions, and international patents aimed at protecting intellectual property.

Trombone with six valves
and seven bells, 1876
MIM, Brussels, 1288
Visitors to the exhibition are equipped with headsets (included with admission) that allow them to hear descriptions of the presented objects and iconography in a range of languages. Most interesting are the musical excerpts performed and recorded on a selection of the some 200 instruments on display, including exotic creations for use on stage in operas like Aïda and Sigurd. It is a pity that more of these were not, I suppose, in good enough condition to be played, because such recordings truly bring the display case to life. My personal favorite was the bizarre Swanee-Sax, a 1927 creation crossing the slide whistle and the saxophone. The instrument, with its timbre situated somewhere between that of a kazoo and a theremin, immediately transports the listener to a jazz-age nightclub.

The SAX200 exhibition runs until January 11, 2015, and is well “worth the detour” as the Michelin guide would say, especially as it is only a short train ride for those who might find themselves in Paris, London, or Amsterdam in the coming months. The museum’s entrance is housed in an art nouveau monument, the extravagant shell of the former “Old England” department store. Built in 1898, its vegetal filigree ornaments a forward-thinking iron-and-glass structure that makes the most of its view from the Mont des Arts. A rooftop restaurant-café makes for pleasant contemplation of the city below.

Museum of Musical Instruments, Brussels

Christopher Brent Murray is a postdoctoral chargé de recherches with the FRS-FNRS (Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique) at the Université libre de Bruxelles, where he is also in charge of undegraduate analysis instruction.

<1>MIM (pronounced “meme”) results from the happy possibility of a common acronym in both French and Flemish: Musée des instruments de musique or Muziekinstrumentenmuseum.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Perchance to Stream

Almost every day in the right hand column of this blog, under the heading The Blogosphere, you will see a link to the latest post by Charles T. Downey in his blog Ionarts (“Something Other than Politics in Washington, D.C.”). The recurring Sunday feature, Perchance to Stream, is an always-dandy “selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by.”

This week's selection was particularly fine, with some ravishing Monteverdi and very clever Rameau, as well as the inaugural concert on October 2 from the new Rosey Concert Hall in Switzerland.
  • Perchance to Stream, 5 October 2014 HERE
  • Alex Ross reflects on streaming vs. hoarding CDs HERE
Musicology Now will publish an original post by Downey in the near future.

Charles T. Downey runs a thriving blog (est. 2003), freelances for the Washington Post, and teaches music and art history at St. Anselm's Abbey School. He holds the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in musicology from the Catholic University of America. Downey's “Meet the Moderator” page is HERE.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hildegard's Cosmic Egg

by Margot Fassler and Christian Jara

NOTE: Margot Fassler, Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, will present the second annual President's Endowed Plenary Lecture at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in November. Fassler's topic is “Hildegard’s Cosmos and Its Music: Making a Digital Model for the Modern Planetarium.” The lecture takes place Thursday, November 6, 2014, from 5:30 to 6:30 pm in the Crystal Ballroom of the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, 509 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The public is invited.

After this I saw a vast instrument, round and shadowed, in the shape of an egg. ...
(Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias I.iii)

The egg that appears in a vision to Hildegard of Bingen is a post-Lapsarian, post-Incarnational model of the cosmos, but foundational to it are astronomical understandings Hildegard would have found in contemporary treatises, charts, and wind diagrams. This digital model of the creation and cosmos is being made by Christian Jara and Margot Fassler at the University of Notre Dame. It unfolds in two acts, the first of which will be previewed at the Milwaukee national meeting of the American Musicological Society in the course of Fassler's plenary lecture. This act depicts the dramatic events of creation—a big bang in slow motion—including the separation of light from darkness and the calling to life of the angelic hosts, and the formation of the earth. This introduction will be followed by act II, a moving three-dimensional model of the cosmos, with zoomable features. Both acts are accompanied by music composed by Hildegard, and sung by students from the Program in Sacred Music at Notre Dame, conducted by Professor Carmen-Helena Tellez. The nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard, Eibingen (Rüdesheim, Germany), have generously made available the high resolution images used in creating the model, and animated versions of some of them will be featured in the talk.

The complete model with music will be unveiled in Notre Dame's Digital Visualization Theater on March 12, 2015, at the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America.

Scivias II.i and Scivias are the images underlying the presentation in Milwaukee, and both are copies made in the 1920s by the nuns of Eibigen from the now-lost original, Wiesbaden 1. The software we use at Notre Dame allows us to work together, scholar and digital modeler, to turn flat images into moving three-dimensional displays, and to add the music that Hildegard composed as she thought about the stages of creation under discussion. Scivias  is a depiction of the heavenly hosts, the nine ranks of angels.

We will move the image into the dome of the planetarium and spin the ranks in one by one, to the music of Hildegard's antiphon for the angels, "O Gloriossimi."

According to Hildegard's understanding of Genesis I, the angels were created first as they are pure light. The light that surrounds the cosmos makes it appear like a fiery globe, and we will make it permeable to the entire structure can be zoomed into, revealing its features, and allowing for deeper understanding of the cosmos to a twelfth-century theologian, scientist, and composer—and Hildegard was all three.

We are now creating various test models of the fiery shell of the universe, and you  will see some at the AMS lecture, with appropriate music. The image of the cosmic egg from Scivias I.iii circulates widely on the internet. But because we have the high-resolution photographs, lent by the nuns of Eibingen, who retain the rights to them and who own the original manuscript, we are able to incorporate details that would otherwise not be available. The images below are, first, from the internet, and, second, a blowup of the edge of the image in high resolution.

 All rights reserved, Abbey of St. Hildegard, Eibingen.

Preparing sounding, digital images from medieval manuscripts and studying the music that relates provides the researcher with ideas based on new evidence. We think we know how the images were made, and the degree to which Hildegard thought through and with them as she composed her music and her liturgical poetry.

When available, Musicology Now will co-publish with the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame a video trailer with moving images.

Margot Fassler's faculty webpage at Notre Dame is HERE. Christian Jara is a digital artist affiliated with Notre Dame's Center for Creative Computing.