Thursday, October 31, 2013

Musicology Now at 3 Months

Today marks the 3-month anniversary of this blog, not counting the beta-testing last March. People seem to enjoy it, and we've enjoyed putting it together. Here are the numbers:
Total hits: 11,906

Current daily hits: about 250
Top 10:
Big (Bad) Data (Robert Fink, 25 August)     802
Music Lessons (Bonnie Gordon, 28 September)     410
Scandals and Scores (2013 edition) (Ryan Minor, 22 October)     290
Louise Talma in Her Youth (Kendra Preston Leonard, 16 August)     276
New Beethoven Research (David B. Levy, 16 October)      245
Beethoven IX: the App (Andrew Dell'Antonio, 7 October)      243
George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition (Mark Clague, 20 September)  216
Verdi at 200 (2) (Philip Gossett, 10 October)      149
Pedagogically Speaking (Stephen Meyer, 1 September)      144
Colin Davis in Boston (Margo Miller, 19 October)      142

Traffic comes to us largely from the AMS website and Facebook referrals.

We hope you will become involved:
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Trick or Treat

[Further advice from Dear Abbé:]
Beware of spectres tonight. You may wish to close the window before retiring.
                                                                           ABBÉ

 

Image: Victoria and Albert Museum


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dear Abbé

Professional musicologists offer answers and advice. Free.*

DEAR ABBÉ:

I was doing some genealogical research concerning my grandmother, Theodosia Harris. There was a newspaper article in the Los Angeles Herald of 3 February 1907 about the coming concert by the Ethelo Quartet (which included Miss Harris). “Miss Elsa Mattern,” it read, “is one of the vocal soloists and will play an accompaniment upon the new instrument, `The Ethelo,′ which was invented last summer.”

I have never heard of the ethelo, and didn′t find anything mention in a quick web search. Can you provide information about this instrument, and perhaps even the Ethelo Quartet?

                                                                                   HOPEFUL IN NEW HAMPSHIRE

 
DEAR HOPEFUL:

We asked our Select Committee on the ethelo (Jonathan Glixon, Basil Considine, Maribeth Clark, Michael Henry) to hit the search engines, with this result:

The ethelo was invented c. 1906 by Edward Hill Amet (1860–1948), known for his 35mm movie projector, the Anet Magniscope. His papers are in Los Angeles County Natural History Museum (see HERE), and the Lake County, Illinois, Discovery Museum maintains a webpage and a collection of artifacts related to his work

Here is a description of the instrument from the Arizona Republican, 5 June 1906:

Lake County
Discovery Museum
Mr. Amet's latest invention is that of a musical instrument known as the “Ethelo,” though he does not pretend to be a musician himself. He has merely applied his other knowledge to the production of sweet sound mechanically. The ethelo is a stringed Instrument, played exactly as a violin is played, and any violin player can play an ethelo at sight. But the ethelo must be learned the same as the violin. The difference in the appearance of the instruments is in the shape and construction of the ethelo. It does not look like a violin save that it has the strings and is played with a bow. But the real difference in the instruments is in the transmission of the tones of the strings, those in the ethelo being fuller and sweeter, a better vibration. There can be no freaks in the manufacture of the ethelo. Every instrument built true to measure and of similar material is bound to give the same result, while in the violin two instruments may look exactly alike, but there is a difference in the vibrations of the tones, due either to some slight difference in the construction, or material. or some other technical thing which sometimes cannot be accounted for at all.
The US Patent Office filing (21 January 1907; patent US893771 A granted 21 July 1908) for what is almost certainly the same invention is HERE, with diagram HERE.

Vivian Ramalingam, meanwhile, reminds us that “ethelo” is not only a Biblical term, but also the name of a decision-making software program.

We hope readers will be able, unlike ourselves, to find the instrument itself.

                                                                                                                      ABBÉ
Abbé welcomes your inquiries: e-mail musicology-now@ams-net.org. 

*With proper homage to Joseph Kerman, who had this idea first. See 19th-Century Music 7/2 (Autumn, 1983): 178-82.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Scandals and Scores (2013 edition)

by Ryan Minor

Another summer, another scandal: for opera scholars, Wagner fans, and perhaps anyone who reads newspapers, this was the summer of Frank Castorf’s bicentenary production of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth and the firestorm it unleashed. First-hand accounts gauged the boos for the director following Götterdämmerung at over ten minutes; and given some extremely negative reviews of the premiere, Anglo-American readers will be forgiven in assuming the staging was a fiasco. It wasn’t, though: there seems to have been relatively little booing after the first cycle, and many German critics were positively gushing in their assessment. Reinhard Brembeck in the Süddeutsche Zeitung implicitly compared the staging to Patrice Chéreau’s legendary 1976 production when he named it Bayreuth’s “most inspired Ring” in decades. Some English-language critics also began to voice at least partial approval, and by the end of the run even the New Yorker’s Alex Ross—hardly a friend of innovative dramaturgy—had some surprisingly kind words for the staging. What started as a vicious scandal turned into an optimistic wait-see, pending an additional year’s work on the production and another summer’s worth of evaluations.

But even though this bang ended with a whimper, the entire affair—if not the production itself—was unfortunate. The general cleft between English- and German-language reviews highlighted once again the baffling and by now inexcusable inability of most Anglo-American critics to assess any kind of opera production venturing beyond naturalist acting styles and period sets, let alone engage the aesthetics of Castorf’s postdramatic theater. What’s more, the opprobrium itself became a news story that served to drown out discussion of the festival season’s other newsworthy productions (most prominently Chéreau’s Elektra for Aix-en-Provence and Stefan Herheim’s Meistersinger for Salzburg).

Another victim of the scandal: some perspective on the stakes involved. After all, Bayreuth had explicitly forbidden Castorf from introducing any changes to the text or the score, so like many allegedly radical productions Castorf’s was hamstrung from the beginning by the insistence that its ambitions be limited to stage direction. That’s of course an old complaint (or, depending on one’s understanding of Werktreue and the work concept, a familiar solace). In fact, precisely because Bayreuth’s proscription merely reflects the priorities of most opera houses, scholars and critics sympathetic to directors such as Castorf—whose work for the spoken theater is distinguished in part for his interventions on the level of the text—tend simply to throw up our hands in frustration. For while productions like Castorf’s have, for many of us, single-handedly brought a sense of intellectual, political, and theatrical vitality to the art form, they do so with one hand tied behind their back. And after many decades there’s a sense that this practice is increasingly subject to the law of diminishing returns. From every indication Castorf’s staging was ultimately another reading of the Ring cycle as a critique of global capitalism: nothing less, perhaps, but also nothing more. (I wasn’t able to get tickets to the entire cycle, so my description is dependent on reviews and colleagues’ accounts.)

Yet when opera scholars complain about the stifling and often anachronistic sanctity accorded operatic scores—pointing, among other things, to the far more flexible performance practice in the periods when most of these scores were actually composed—we tend to do so under the assumption that a) audiences are bound to revolt if the score is no longer off limits, and b) as a result the practice rarely happens. We imagine that tinkering with the score will only be accepted as a matter of quiet practicality: cutting longueurs or overly taxing passages (excisions from Tristan perhaps qualifying on both counts), or lowering the key of an aria for an aging star. Brash initiative, on the other hand (filling out Zaïde; writing a new ending to Turandot; aria substitutions), will assuredly run the risk of alienating a reactionary and uneducable public. And any number of operatic scandals in the last couple decades suggest that this assumption was, at least until recently, hardly ill-founded.

It’s in this context that another production from this summer’s festival season made a strong case for revisiting the alleged hostility of opera audiences to interventions on the level of the score—and perhaps even more importantly just how much can be accomplished by these interventions when they’re paired with a similarly rigorous mise-en-scène. The production in question, a Monteverdi cycle directed by Barrie Kosky for the Komische Oper in Berlin last fall, and reprised for their summer festival, listed both Monteverdi and Elena Kats-Chernin as composers. Kats-Chernin didn’t compose much, though, at least in a traditional sense: instead, she provided a new realization and instrumentation of the continuo part to accompany the vocal lines, which were sung in German but otherwise unchanged (the exact edition they used wasn’t specified, though it was announced as an “Urtext”). If it was largely Monteverdi’s notes that were performed, it was Kats-Chernin’s instrumentation that we heard.



Each of the operas, which Kosky staged in three vastly different styles, also had its own, vastly different continuo group. And while a few of the instruments were expected (viol and theorbo), most weren’t: accordion; bandoneon; cimbalom; djose; oud; kora; modern harp, piano, banjo, and electric guitar. At points the continuo group sounded only vaguely unfamiliar (the cimbalom’s twang emerging now and then in L’Orfeo), and at others the effect was delightful shock (some oud-kora duets in Il Ritorno, or, in the same opera, tango rhythms underwritten by a bright, steely piano). One revelation was Orfeo’s Act V aria, accompanied by a solo bandoneon player dangling his legs into the orchestra pit; an unscientific poll supported my contention that we’d just witnessed the discovery of the perfect instrument to maneuver the quicksilver turns in Monteverdi’s score. But more than timbre alone, the effect of hearing these instruments realize Monteverdi’s harmonies was nothing short of radical, especially with the vocal lines sung in German: with far less legato in either the voices or the instruments, and a much more moment-to-moment production of timbre and syllable, it just didn’t sound like Monteverdi for much of the time. It was Monteverdi’s harmonic palette we were hearing, but rendered in strangely atomized successions that simultaneously defamiliarized that palette. The performance fluctuated between an almost-familiar (if German-language) Monteverdi and a multiply-refracted Monteverdi whose unaltered vocal lines sounded all the stranger emerging from a distinctly contemporary set of timbres, rhythms, and phonemes.

The best came at the end, in part because the reorchestration and the staging were essentially inseparable. Kosky’s Poppea was tremendously, and convincingly, bleak in its depiction of a scorched-earth campaign for absolute power. Neither Nero nor Poppea seemed to have a clue what they would do, much less what their relationship would be like, following the coronation. For a while they simply stood there, in modern if not contemporary clothes, sapped of the erotic charge that propelled them up to that point. The infamous duet began: not as unmediated passion but as if it had been conjured through sheer will. There was something intensely generic about the moment, emerging as a formal necessity for these two characters who were no longer sure they needed or even wanted each other any more. First, as Nero and Poppea stood looking straight forward, awkwardly, we heard a few traversals of the ground bass. Then, sheer brilliance: in joined the electric guitar, noodling around, pianissimo, while the lovers attempted to reestablish some connection through determination alone. That the duet now resembled a 70s love ballad seemed precisely the point: citational music for a citational moment. It was funny—deeply so—but also deeply moving and weirdly beautiful as well. And as a moment of operatic dramaturgy—by which I mean both mise-en-scène and music accorded equal freedom—it was exhilarating.

Presumably the Komische Oper’s audience did not anticipate hearing the Poppea duet realized by electric guitar, and it was clear that the house was girding itself for a critical response. Following each of the three Monteverdi/Kats-Chernin performances the dramaturge for the staging hosted a public discussion (this is standard during their summer festival), and during each he was clearly waiting to hear from an enraged public how Monteverdi’s scores—the birth of opera itself!—had been desecrated. He prodded, he appealed to Werktreue, he invoked the certitudes of early music performance practice, but nobody bit. And not just the audience gathered for the public discussions; critics also found little to quibble with. Somehow Monteverdi that rarely sounded like Monteverdi just wasn’t a problem.

So opera scholars may want to take note, if we can train our attention away from the annual scandal watch that accompanies the summer festival season. Obviously it’s a long distance from Monteverdi to Wagner, and from the Komische Oper (recently voted “opera house of the year” by Opernwelt) to Bayreuth. But perhaps not as long as it might seem; even Bayreuth allowed Sebastian Baumgarten, in an otherwise uninteresting Tannhäuser two years ago, to write new material for performance during the intermissions.  Regardless, though, and given the very likely possibility that Castorf’s successors in that house will operate under the same decree not to touch the text or the score, the question for those of us who think about operatic performance is whether cursing the intransigence of the operatic establishment is productive—or, given some thrilling new evidence to the contrary, even accurate.


Ryan Minor is Associate Professor of Music at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Choral Fantasies: Music, Festivity, and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and co-executive editor of The Opera Quarterly.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Colin Davis in Boston

by Margo Miller
Colin Davis died 14 April 2013 in London at the age of 85.
When Colin Davis first conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1967, he was something most players had not experienced. He was young, born 1927. Not as young as the infant Ozawa, born 1935, but light years from the conductors the older players had grown up on, Pierre Monteux and Serge Koussevitzky and Charles Munch. He looked young too, with luxuriant chestnut curls, and if not exactly hippie, a bit exotic in dress. My first glimpse of him was more sheep than man. I’d been sent by my boss, the Boston Globe music critic Michael Steinberg, to interview him after a morning rehearsal for his debut concert. He wore a raggedy sleeveless fleece down to his knees. Persian, he said, from his honeymoon in his beloved Shamsi’s homeland. So different from the “suits”—Koussevitzky, Munch, Leinsdorf.

Our Munch was Mr. Berlioz. Here was the young challenger: by the time he was named principal guest in Boston, Colin was conducting Les Troyens at Covent Garden. What was the appeal of Berlioz? I asked. There was an awful pause, I wincing at the stupid question. Then pppp—the soft voice we came to know—a torrent of reasons, “virile,” not a word I’d heard musicologists much use, and “passionate,” chief word in Colin’s lexicon.

He would come late to Mahler but toss out certain of the symphonies he felt were merely showing off or lazy. Yes, Shostakovich was loud and noisy, but so meant. One pleasure in getting old, he said, was never having to conduct music he didn’t value. Rachmaninov topped the list. He would have liked to have done one more Ring, though he detested Wagner the man.

He was once asked by the Boston press to compare the BSO to his other orchestras. As principal guest, 1972–84, and frequent guest 2003–10, he was of course at the mercy of a standing orchestra. The Boston players he particularly admired were principal bassoonist Sherman Walt and principal clarinetist Harold (Buddy) Wright, and timpanist Everett (Vic) Firth, who advised his students to listen to the violins. His tactful answer to the question was he thought the London orchestras were without peer, but even they would concede the special quality of the Boston strings.

By the time Colin returned to Boston in 2003 the old generation of orchestra trustees and management had passed. When Henry Lee Higginson founded the BSO in 1881, thanks to lucky investments in Michigan copper mines, he ran it pretty much himself, choosing the conductors, paying the bills, commissioning Symphony Hall as its new home. In Boston, “Friday Symphony” was a ritual, packed with society ladies and music teachers and speckled with lawyers and judges and book publishers, though by Colin’s day the line of limos waiting for their ladies had gone.

But the tradition prevailed into the 1960s that the trustees ran things in the plain Higginson style. Colin was twice offered the job of music director by BSO trustee president Henry B. Cabot. Quintessentially Boston, spruce, spare, with steel-rimmed glasses and a trim mustache, Cabot was taciturn but music loving (his favorite composer he pronounced Mo-ZART) and in the Boston way wore tennis shoes with his blue summer seersucker suit. In his mind there was no higher calling than to lead the orchestra, and he tracked Colin to the Edinburgh Festival and, in the frugal Boston manner, wooed him over breakfast porridge.

Victorians like Higginson thought big, and Victorian Boston had a large idea of itself: the Athens of America, the Hub of the Universe, but it was tiny, and still is, 600,000 people, a tenth of London, and it lacked the good theater and opera and food that Colin loved. “I’m a man of the theater,” he told me once. So Boston’s loss was Covent Garden’s gain, and thanks also to his years in Munich and Dresden we certainly got a greater Colin back for his millennium years in Boston. But the early years were full of good things, the sense of theater and occasion already there. This made his Stravinsky special, ditto the Haydn that Michael Steinberg loved for the “energy, grace, lyricism, [Colin’s] delighted response to the winged play of Haydn’s mind, a touch of something like swagger.” Till Colin, Messiah in Boston was solemn and slow, what George Bernard Shaw had likened elsewhere to the “lumbering family coach.” Colin’s astonished for its lithe passion. He liked Ravel and Debussy. He restored Sibelius to the BSO repertoire, the atmospheres of inner life still palpable in those early LPs.

And he did The Dream of Gerontius twice, in 1982 and 2008. The BSO knew little English music, and religious music meant the usual Haydn and Beethoven Masses as well as the Bach Passions, Protestant Munch’s territory (he’d been concertmaster of the great Leipzig Gewandhaus under Furtwängler but did not like his Bach). Players still remember Colin’s tender projection of this Elgar as a world of belief they had never imagined. He had worried the howl of the tormented Soul would not go over. Quoting a line from the text, he joshed that the audience might “use well the interval” and flee the hall. For some Boston WASPs this Elgar might have been too confessional, too Catholic. But, no! And I remember a Jewish violinist beside himself in wonder at what he had just played that afternoon. The Angel of the 1982 performances was Jessye Norman.

He liked our comestibles, American bacon, our lima beans, and our drink, our whiskey, “Uncle Jack,’ as he called our Tennessee sour mash. He added to the hilarity of BSO dinner tables. For a man who tended his own arboretum in Suffolk, England, the only possible 65th birthday gift from players and friends was planting a sweetgum on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall to give him roots in Suffolk County, Boston.

He was always reading. Knowing that Colin also read “crimmies” I sent him a draft of my first novel, Murdering Tosca: An Opera Shocker. (The cast dies in the order and manner.) Did I really think Tosca was a great opera? he asked (he had conducted and recorded it). “Effective,” I said. He was helpful about correcting the musical mistakes. Then, as a man of the theater, he put me right: “No opera stage I know anything about has that number of trap doors.” I protested they were needed for my plot. He softened. “Just remember for the torture scene to make the trap big enough—poor Pavarotti.”

Margo Miller wrote for the Boston Globe, 1962–1999. As a Boston Symphony summer staffer at Tanglewood, she heard her first Berlioz in 1954 and 1955, when Charles Munch continued the 150th birthday celebration begun in Symphony Hall. She lives in Major Higginson’s house on Commonwealth, and she, too, has an honorary tree in the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.
Extracted from the Colin Davis memorial issue of the Berlioz Society Bulletin, no. 190 (June 2013), ed. David Cairns, pp. 46–50.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New Beethoven Research

by David B. Levy

With the Spring 2007 issue of Beethoven Forum (vol. 14, no. 2), the journal which had started with such promise in 1992, came to an end. Did this mean that research on the music and life of Ludwig van Beethoven was no longer fashionable? Was there nothing new left to be said about his famous compositions or discovered regarding his biography? Had sketchbook studies reached a dead end?

Beethoven at the time of the "Eroica"
(detail)
Joseph Willibrord Mähler
The answer to these questions was, of course, “no.” Important contributions continue to appear in the Beethoven Journal published by the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, though its focus on a broader audience tends to preclude complex analytical perspectives. And recently, the publications issued by the Beethovenhaus, Bonn, have begun to include English-language submissions.

But as Lewis Lockwood and I sat down over coffee at the American Musicological Society's Indianapolis meeting (2010), we lamented the death of the Forum and speculated on how Beethoven scholars could communicate their ongoing research with one another and with the musical world at large. Lockwood challenged Beethoven scholars to issue a clarion call for solutions, and I responded by building an email list designed to carry on our conversation in a more public forum. Among the first to answer the call was William Meredith, executive director of the Ira F. Brilliant Center at San Jose State University, who offered to host a New Beethoven Research (NBR) conference there prior to the AMS Annual Meeting in San Francisco (2011). Joanna Biermann (University of Alabama) and William Kinderman (University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign) then came on board and NBR began to take shape.

Encouraged by our initial success, which included participation from scholars at the Beethoven Archive, Bonn, we decided to continue with NBR2, originally to have been held at the University of Alabama prior to the AMS meeting in New Orleans (2012). Logistics and expenses involved proved insuperable, so we appealed, successfully, to the AMS executive to help us work something out for the New Orleans meeting. Once again we were pleased not only with the high level of interest, but the quality of submissions as well. Attendance was excellent, despite the intervention of  Superstorm Sandy. A steering committee of Biermann, Kinderman, Levy, and Meredith agreed that NBR3 would be scheduled in Pittsburgh leading up to the AMS Meeting.

By this time, two major developments had taken place. Dr. Bernhard Appel and his colleagues at the Beethoven Archive were sufficiently taken with the project and its international scope that an offer was tended to host NBR4 in Bonn, an event that will take place in September 2014, with special emphasis on the bicentennial of the Congress of Vienna. The second development was the publication of a double volume of the Journal of Musicological Research (vol. 32, nos. 2-3) under the expert guidance and editorship of William Kinderman, wherein several papers read at NBR2 as well as two read in San Jose have been published.

Stay tuned for further developments.

David B. Levy is Professor of Music at Wake Forest University, where he also serves as Associate Dean of the College for Faculty Governance.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Verdi at 200 (2)

by Philip Gossett

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of posts commemorating Verdi's bicentennial. Roger Parker's piece is available here.

And so, we celebrate this year the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth. Why does it matter? Because Verdi is a composer whose work still dominates opera houses throughout the world and whose music is beloved by people across the globe, and the effect of these operas shows no sign of diminishing, even as Western classical music is heard less and less in Europe and America. They are beloved because the stories Verdi tells by means of his music and librettos have implications that touch all our lives. When he says in countless letters that most of his librettists were simply “versifiers” and not creators of the dramas he sets to music, he is right.

We don’t have to know the details of Rigoletto’s story to understand the deep love and incomprehension between a father and his daughter, nor must we know the details of Il trovatore to grasp the underlying truth of Manrico’s feeling for the woman he believes to be his mother, We do not need to know that Violetta was a prostitute to understand Alfredo Germont’s love for this woman nor Giorgio Germont’s concerns for the happiness of both his children. In pieces such as I Lombardi alla prima crociata and Aida, Verdi explores feelings of racism and religious intolerance that are still with us today, and when Giselda sings “Dio non lo vuole” as the crusaders kill the Muslims she is speaking directly to those of us who lived through September 11. We can share the thoughts that King Philip expresses about the conflicts between the church and the state  We must accept Falstaff’s final fugue, “Tutto nel mondo è burla,” not as a statement about Falstaff, but as a statement about the human condition more generally. Yes, much of the composer’s final opera is derived from a play by another genius, Shakespeare, and in this case Verdi had a great librettist in Arrigo Boito, but it is Verdi’s music that we come back to again and again.

Verdi’s genius lay in his extraordinary ability to speak to the human condition. It may be that, as scholars, we want to know exactly how his treatment of Ernani differs from the play by Victor Hugo. We want to know the history of Giovanna d’Arco and La forza del destino, we want to understand what Spanish Romanticism was like, and we care about the differences between various states of Un ballo in maschera, but the public really doesn’t care whether they had masked balls in Puritan Boston or not. As Verdi himself said, what mattered to him was the truth of the situations and the characters he sought to present, not exactly where a story was located.  We may be concerned about questions of the words being sung and just how the censors tried to devastate his operas, without success, but we know that our queries do not affect most opera lovers. We want to know what he wrote, when he wrote it, and in what language he wrote it, even though we know that most lovers of the operas couldn’t care less. That is as it should be. We cannot assume that the questions that occupy the attention of musicologists will be of universal concern, but we know that the operas of this composer are universal in the best possible sense.

There are very few artists indeed who have this level of importance for the world. It is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner, and Verdi knew that Wagner’s operas had a special place in the theatrical world, indeed in the whole history of art. And yet, for all we may seek to generalize Wagner’s importance, he remains a very different kind of composer from Verdi. Of course he mattered, but in a different,  perhaps less human way than Verdi. We are astonished at the quality of Wagner’s invention and there are scenes we will always treasure, like Wotan’s farewell to his daughter, but we are moved by Verdi’s operatic invention and know that he kept at it from the late 1830s through 1893, a long period by anyone’s reckoning.

I write this from New York, where the American Institute of Verdi Studies is holding a conference in honor of Verdi’s birthday. It is clear that the kind of questions that occupied scholars of my generation are not particularly relevant to scholars of today. They are more interested in learning how today’s stage directors and film directors approach Verdi’s music, and that too is as it should be. Each generation will identify different questions to explore, but the operas maintain themselves no matter how we interrogate them. And Verdi was important also for patriotic reasons: Italy, which could not hope to compete in the world arena for its military prowess or its economic strength, has proven itself a center for the arts. A country that could produce Dante, Machievelli, Monteverdi, Manzoni, and, yes, Verdi, is a country that matters in the world and will continue to matter as long as there are people who care about matters pertaining to the soul. I trust that in another hundred years we will be celebrating the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth with as much enthusiasm as we experience today.

Philip Gossett is Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor of Music, emeritus, at the University of Chicago and a former president of the American Musicological Society. He is general editor of the critical editions of both Verdi and Rossini.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Beethoven IX : the App

by Andrew Dell'Antonio



There’s something about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that inspires complex engagement. Long before the current Beethoven’s 9th Symphony app (TouchPress/Deutsche Grammophon, iOS only, free to try—then $5.99 for iPhone, $13.99 for iPad), even (can we remember that far?) before the explosion of the Internet, musicologist Robert Winter collaborated with programmer/designer Peter Bogdanoff to publish The CD Companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Voyager Company in 1989—the first commercial interactive electronic publication, a CD-ROM controlled by Apple’s HyperCard program on the then-newish Macintosh platform. The venture was a resounding success; Bill Gates is reputed to have said, “We've finally seen what CD-ROM was made for.”  Winter’s Hyperstack was the product of a master teacher, and this was evident throughout the program, not least in the final quiz/“game,” which anticipated the current trend toward pedagogical “gamifying” by more than two decades.

The new Ninth Symphony app is less didactic, but no less impressive. On the iPhone, if the user feels sufficiently tantalized by the free excerpt from the third movement to pay $5.99, this yields four significant recordings of the Ninth from the deep Deutsche Grammophon stable that are perfectly synchronized with a score (the recent Bärenreiter edition by Jonathan Del Mar, which boasts careful Urtext status, drawing on sources close to Beethoven to strip away “accretions” from almost two centuries of tradition) as well as a visual-map indication of what instruments are playing in the orchestral layout and a concise description of the musical action by pianist and broadcaster David Owen Norris.

$8.00 more, only on the iPad, will yield not just more “real estate” to view the above and the option to view more than one of the synchronized resources at once (which is certainly more satisfying) but also more viewing options: the user can choose between a full score, a reduced score highlighting instruments featured in the passage, a facsimile of the manuscript Beethoven prepared for the London premiere, or a graphic reduction. The iPad version also has two levels of  running commentary by Norris—one tersely evocative (in the brief version, which is interestingly the one feature of the app that cannot be toggled off) the other precise, detailed, nuanced (in the expanded version, which the user can choose to view instead of the stylized orchestra map). Handy buttons allow replay or skipping of “passages” (presumably as defined by Norris).

The iPad version also offers extended video commentary on the Ninth by a distinguished and fairly diverse group of musicians and critics, whose takes on the work are clearly designed to build on themes of universality (the teaser for the app makes this especially clear), but who provide interesting glimpses of the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in the global reception of an iconic work representing a specific dominant cultural aesthetic. The listener may need to “listen between the lines” to grasp this, but the variety of voices is a welcome factor.

Less satisfying is Norris’s background on Beethoven and the Ninth behind a link called “The Story.” Musical description—whether terse or florid—is clearly Norris’s forte; and as a music historian, I completely accept the absence of my own tribe in the “talking head” videos, which are designed to speak to the multiple meanings of the Ninth for musicians and audiences in the present (though I do think there are cultural historians of music who could have provided useful and lively counterpoint). But Norris's musical storytelling nuance does not extend to history: his account of Beethoven's life and compositional process is hamfisted, reiterating outdated truisms about the composer and his place within early nineteenth-century society—and the role of Mozart and Haydn in his life—that could easily have been made more subtle even by consulting a cutting edge reference source like Oxford Music Online ... or might have been delegated to a music historian, to reach the same level of expert knowledge that is evident elsewhere in the app. In this respect, Winter’s earlier take on the Ninth was clearly superior. (Winter’s bio on the UCLA web site suggests he is working on an updated version of his pioneering Hyperstack, and it will be most interesting to see what form that takes.)

The “Story” section, focused as it is on Beethoven as exceptional genius, does resonate with one troubling aspect of this otherwise superbly designed app: it is a closed system. While the user can listen and view the symphony in many combinations—thereby gaining both knowledge of and appreciation for the complexity, beauty, and even multivalence of the work—this is silent and reverential interaction, recreating in spirit if not in full the sacralized atmosphere of the concert hall. It might be too much to ask for the opportunity for the user to “remix” Beethoven—to copy and paste portions of different recordings in order to customize a new interpretation, to change instrumentation of passages so as to hear how that might modify the effect, to modify a cadence to dwell on the significance of harmonic choice. But it would likely have been feasible to add the capability for users to bookmark (and perhaps compare) favorite passages or even add comments/annotations (as folks can do with software such as SoundCloud) and share those comments with other users of the app. This kind of social networking around music is a feature of several apps (for example the various music-making/manipulating apps published by Smule) and would have given Deutsche Grammophon the opportunity to emphasize the relevance of the Ninth beyond its distinguished talking heads (plus the chance to build and market to a captive social network).

In an age when “interactivity” is almost a given, the designers of this app had their work cut out for them. The result is impressive, but the interaction a bit one-sided. Fans of Beethoven and the Ninth will welcome the wealth of resources for close exploration—but it is a lonely journey.

Andrew Dell’Antonio is Distinguished Teaching Professor and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.  His foremost research interest is the process of listening—how it has been characterized and fostered from the 1600s to the present. His edited collection Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing (2004) and his monograph Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy (2011) are both published by the University of California Press.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Verdi at 200 (1)

by Roger Parker
Ed. note: Verdi's 200th birthday is Wednesday, 9 October. Or maybe Thursday.
Photo Panser Born
Wikimedia Commons
A first question might be: does Verdi need a birthday? His operas are, after all, permanently in revival around the world; multiple recordings exist of all of them; we remember him as often as we wish. In some senses, the best celebration of this, his 200th anniversary, might be to try to forget him for a time: try, that is, to create artificially a hiatus, a pause in our memory, a way of somehow recreating the sense of newness his works once possessed. Perhaps that very thought has been lurking in other people’s minds: certainly the 2013 Verdian celebrations in theatres and concert halls seem to have been modest in comparison with 2001 (the hundredth anniversary of his death); they have also been modest in comparison with those dedicated to Wagner, around whom excess and publicity collects more easily.

What about the tiny world of musicology? Might we also detect an absence of celebratory zeal? True, NYU is hosting a conference (there’s very little activity in cash-strapped Italy); the critical edition rolls on, slowly; a huge Verdi Encyclopedia is about to emerge from Cambridge University Press. But, for the most part, the musicological caravanserai now houses different travellers. In the 1970s or early 1980s, to take on Verdi was unorthodox, even a bit daring; a generation and more later, he is a monument or—perhaps better—a lieu de mémoire: a subject-heading often deemed conservative by dint of being “composer-based” (an old, worn object within an old, worn category). Should such disciplinary shifts be a cause for lamentation, for the rending of garments and the gnashing of teeth? Surely not. Those professionally invested may, of course, drop some natural tears. But the fact that musicology moves ever onward tells us that it is alive and well; its places in the sun are always (should always be) temporary. What’s more, the discipline’s new enthusiasms can sometimes reflect welcome light on those of its past. One of my favourite Verdi articles of the last several years (I have several, among a small burst of stimulating new voices recently emerged) is Gavin Williams’s Cambridge Opera Journal piece about Verdi’s funeral; it brings media theory to bear on the Great Man’s last journey through noisy, tram-infested, riot-prone Milan.

But what of Verdi’s place in our own sound-drenched cities, in physical and virtual spaces unimaginable ca. 1901? What, to take one example, does Verdi mean to Italians today? When a reverent group of notables descended into the crypt of the Casa di Riposo in 1951, there were those who, peering at the screen embedded in Verdi’s coffin at face level, thought (or at least wrote) that they saw a face miraculously undamaged by the ravages of time. This was surely symbolic; in spite of the uses “Verdi and the (heroic) Risorgimento” had had for Mussolini’s regime, the postwar composer and his works remained somehow untainted, a still-triumphant symbol of a recently-disastrous nationalism. Today, though, there are signs that the situation has changed fundamentally. When La Scala showcased Wagner more prominently than Verdi during the 2013 celebrations of both composers, there were of course some chauvinistic outcries; but not as many as one might like (from the outside) to imagine. Indeed, some in the country found deeply offensive the fact that the foreign press, ever ready to foster easy stereotypes, strove to exaggerate this querelle and portray it as an exotic tale of operatic passion.

In this context, I am reminded of two circumstances. One is that, each time I report to colleagues that I’m off to Italy for a meeting or to do research, the invariable reply is some version of “God, you’re lucky,” or “Nice life you have.” Why oh why is Italy—increasingly disfunctional politically, its economy in seemingly terminal decline, its infrastructure crumbling, its youth unemployment ever more crippling—still characterized in the academy as a land of plenty and enjoyment? The second circumstance is a bon mot reported by an Italian acquaintance. Pavarotti had just died. On hearing the news, one of the acquaintance’s friends responded: “So now all we have left is pizza.” Instead of “pizza” this melancholy joker might have said “Va pensiero:” an object that continues to provide us with a way of celebrating nationalism, of forgetting its awful heritage.

To put this another, final way: there are many good things, many wonderful things, about Verdi and his legacy, many continuing reasons to love his operas and learn from them; but there are also bad things, dangerous habits of mind, and one of the worst is that, for some—even for some musicologists, who ought to know better—Verdi’s image helps to keep Italy ever passionate, ever sunny, ever exotic.
  • See also Gavin Williams, “Orating Verdi: Death and the Media c. 1901,”
    Cambridge Opera Journal, 23/3 (November 2011): 119-43.
Roger Parker is Professor of Music at King’s College London, having previously taught at Cornell, Oxford, and Cambridge. He is General Editor (with Gabriele Dotto) of the Donizetti critical edition, published by Ricordi. His most recent books are Remaking the Song: Operatic Visions and Revisions from Handel to Berio (University of California Press, 2006) and A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years (Allen Lane / Norton, 2012), written jointly with Carolyn Abbate. He is director of the ERC-funded project “Music in London, 1800-1851,” which will continue for the next five years. His current project is a book about London, musical and otherwise, in the 1830s.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

JMHP : from the editor

by C. Matthew Balensuela

As the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Music History Pedagogy I am pleased to announce that the new issue (vol. 4, no. 1) is now available HERE. Perhaps “pleased” is not the mot juste. I am, in turns: relieved, anxious, proud, terrified ... you name it. As a scholar interested in fourteenth-century music theory, editing a journal on teaching and learning has been an improbable turn of events for me. Mostly, I’m grateful.

I’m grateful to my colleagues. Editing the JMHP has been a daily reminder that nothing good gets done without cooperation. There would be no journal without the contributors, external readers, board members, and editors who freely give their time, energy, and patience to the idea that good teaching is something that can be studied, developed, and objectively discussed. Everyone on the project has been remarkably patient, as I have grappled to learn skills of editing a journal. While many in musicology lament the lack of pedagogy classes in PhD programs, I wish I would have had the “How to Edit a Journal” course.

I’m grateful to the readers. The biggest question I had when we started the JMHP was, “I wonder if anyone will read this thing?” Thanks to using the Open Journal Systems [blog ed.'s note: this is really cool: check it out] to deliver the JMHP, we know that it is normal to have a thousand views of articles within six months of publication. So a big “Thank you!” to everyone who reads the JMHP.

I’m grateful it will soon be over, at least for me. Healthy journals have a regular rotation of leaders, and the next Editor-in-Chief (Stephen Meyer, Syracuse University) will take over in 2015—the blink of an eye in “journal time.” I have honestly loved every minute of being the editor these past years, but I would have appreciated having a few more minutes to prepare each issue

And I’d be even more grateful if you would take a moment to click over to see the new issue for yourself.

C. Matthew Balensuela is Professor of Music at DePauw University and the co-author with David Russell Williams of Music Theory from Boethius to Zarlino (Pendragon, 2007).