Archive for September, 2011

Saint Antoine Daniel Kyriale

September 29, 2011

Last week, as I was searching for some notated Gregorian chant online, I discovered an impressive site that I think deserves notice. It is the Saint Antoine Daniel Kyriale, named for the Canadian Jesuit martyr.

The purpose of the site is straightforward: to provide the Gregorian chant for the Latin Kyriale, including all eighteen Gregorian settings of the Mass Ordinary, plus a few other commonly used chants. It is all laid out very clearly, and deserves special praise for the sheer beauty of its presentation. I strongly encourage everyone to take a look at it.

In addition to providing the scores for the various chants, the site also streams the music itself in mp3 format, and there is a YouTube channel on which one can both see and hear the music. It is a terrific resource for choirs trying to learn the core Gregorian repertoire. And so beautiful to look at!

The site is supported by Corpus Christi Watershed, which has been behind a number of impressive initiatives in recent years.

Death of the iPod?

September 28, 2011

September is the month when Apple usually makes announcements about its new line of iPods. That hasn’t happened this year, and I am dismayed to discover that rumours about the demise of the iPod are swirling. Apparently it is possible that Apple may axe both the iPod Shuffle and the iPod Classic this year, with only the iPod Nano and the “poor man’s iPhone”, the iPod Touch, left standing.

I resisted buying an iPod for a long time, mainly because I was already listening to a lot of music, and I thought it was important to preserve certain times and places as pools of quiet. A portable music player would have made that more difficult.

Then I got married, and had kids. (Hallelujah!) These days, practically my only opportunities to listen to music are when I am out walking, or in transit somewhere. An iPod has made it possible for me to keep listening to the music I love, and I am thankful for that. I suppose that I have also grown fond of the little blighter.

Mine is an iPod Classic — 80 GB capacity, which has proved far too little for my entire collection, but adequate for an ample sample — and so is one of the models rumoured to be targeted for removal from Apple’s roster. I must register a protest. As far as I can tell, none of the other iPod models suit me. The capacity of the Nano is too little, not to mention that the screen is too small, not to mention that it has an annoying name, and not to mention that the thing can fall out of one’s pocket without one noticing — as my wife’s four sequential Nanos can well attest. The iPod Touch is a possibility, I suppose, but its capacity is again smaller than I would like, it is quite expensive, and it is cluttered up with a bunch of stuff that does not interest me.

(The demise of the iPod Shuffle, on the other hand, seems to me an occasion for quiet rejoicing. It is a monstrous device: a music player for people who don’t like music. Good riddance.)

Apple is apparently banking on people switching to the iPhone, but a phone is not really convertible with an iPod. For one thing, it is far more expensive, not only initially but month by month. And some of us do not want a cell phone, much less a smart phone. I just want a good quality portable music player. It seems, however, judging from Apple’s sales data, that mine is a minority view.

For now, my iPod is working fine, and I can continue to enjoy it. But when the time comes to replace it, my options are less attractive than they once were.

Great moments in opera: Ariadne auf Naxos

September 27, 2011

Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos has a special place in my heart: it was the first opera that I ever bought, and perhaps (I don’t quite remember) the first that I ever heard from start to finish. It was Herbert von Karajan’s well-regarded 1954 recording that I bought, with its starry cast of singers: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Rita Streich, and Irmgard Seefried. It is a recording that I treasure still.

In some respects Ariadne was an odd place to make an entry into the world of opera; it is not a work that is widely sampled on ‘Opera Hits’ collections (though it does have one truly spectacular virtuoso aria; see below). I might have been better to start with Don Giovanni or Tosca. With hindsight, though, perhaps it was not so bad a beginning after all: the work is, to borrow a useful anachronism, a tragicomical ‘mash-up’ of operatic traditions, blending elements of the opera seria and opera buffa genres, and liberally spiced with Strauss’ own voluptuous hyper-Romanticism. I wasn’t able to hear all of those elements at the time, but I can hear them now.

The story, to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, concerns the staging of after-dinner entertainments for a wealthy patron. Both a tragedy (an opera seria on the tale of Ariadne stranded on the isle of Naxos) and a comedy (a song-and-dance burlesque) are planned, but at the last minute the performers are instructed that, due to time constraints, they must perform simultaneously. Hence the mash-up. The backstage preparations are portrayed in a prologue, with some spoken sections, and then the performance — an opera within an opera — follows.

The music of Ariadne, as befits the story, is a mixture of styles, ranging from stately and elegant to jaunty and raucous. For this post I have selected two sections, one from the tragedy and one from the comedy. First up is Ariadne, singing “Es gibt ein Reich” (“There is a realm”). She has been stranded on Naxos by Theseus, and in this section she longs for death to deliver her from her endless torment. It is sung in this clip by Jessye Norman, in a production from the Metropolitan Opera. I don’t know about you, but Jessye Norman scares me: it doesn’t seem right that one human body should be able to produce that much sound. It is only slightly reassuring to see that she is working pretty hard here: watch her sweat. English subtitles included.

In response to Ariadne’s lament, Zerbinetta, a comic actress, bounces in with some advice: the best way to get over a man, she says, is to get another. It’s a darkly humorous clash of worlds: the passionate death-wish of a tortured soul answered by the sassy quips of a glamour girl. Zerbinetta’s aria, “Großmächtige Prinzessin“, lasts nearly 12 minutes and is one of the most difficult in the entire operatic literature: it is a taxing tour de force that defeats all but the greatest singers. My Kobbe’s Complete Opera Guide notes, rather dryly, that “the vocal writing parts company with what is normally considered advisable to write for a singer”. I’ll say. It is sung here by Kathleen Battle. The audience gives her a tremendous ovation at the end, as well they should. No subtitles, but you’ll get the idea.

Is that not amazing?

As an addendum, you might enjoy watching some short rehearsal clips from the same Met production. I have sometimes thought that James Levine, being the head of one of the world’s busiest opera companies, must be a figurehead, showing up for performances, but leaving the detail work to others. If these clips are any indication, that is wrong: he is working personally with his stars (Norman and Battle, as above), preparing the orchestra, and directing action on the stage as well. Impressive, and fascinating too.

A neutrino joke

September 26, 2011

Sent to me by a friend:

The barman said: “Sorry, we don’t serve neutrinos.” A neutrino goes into a bar.

Schonberg: The Great Pianists

September 23, 2011

The Great Pianists
From Mozart to the Present
Harold C. Schonberg
(Simon & Schuster, 2006) [1987]
525 p.

I tend to think of the piano as the most firmly established of instruments, the one which, because of its versatility, most people with a serious interest in music will study, the one which will most often be found in the homes of ordinary families, and the one which will last as long as music-making does. Harold Schonberg’s fascinating history of piano-playing offers, among many pleasures, a sobering reminder that, while it may be true that the piano will be with us for a long time to come, its golden age is very likely already past.

The piano (or piano-forte, as it was known in the early days), was an instrument that developed from earlier keyboard instruments like the harpsichord and clavichord. It was only in the late eighteenth century that it began to be produced, and not until roughly the 1830s had it become more or less the instrument we know today. Mozart was one of the earliest virtuosos to adopt it, and Beethoven belonged to the first generation to grow up with it. Through most of the nineteenth century and, arguably, into the first few decades of the twentieth, the piano was at the center of Western music, with many of our greatest composers (Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt) lavishing the instrument with their finest inspirations, and many towering virtuosos devoting themselves to playing it. Especially in the nineteenth century it was via the piano that much music — even orchestral music — was heard by a great many people, and the piano became part of the standard furnishing of a reasonably comfortable European home. In the post-war period, the centrality of the piano declined, and though today it is of course fairly common to study the piano, it is not as common as it once was. More importantly, the guitar has unequivocally displaced the piano as the principal instrument in popular music.

As its title indicates, however, Schonberg’s book is not so much a history of the piano as a history of those who have played it exceedingly well. Any study of great pianists of the past immediately runs up against a major problem, of course, insofar as many of them were already dead or past their prime before recording technology was invented. We can learn about their lives, and (in the case of composer-pianists) we can hear their music played by modern pianists, but we can never hear them play with our own ears. This, especially in the case of certain renowned pianists (I think of Chopin or Liszt) is a great pity. Instead, we must rely on the testimony of contemporaries, much of it well-informed, who wrote about the playing of the most celebrated pianists of their day. Accordingly, Schonberg has dug up surviving descriptions, culled from letters, reviews, newspapers, and treatises, and integrated them into a coherent narrative.

One might think that having a musical score, and hearing a modern pianist play it, is an adequate substitute for not having recordings of nineteenth-century pianists, but one would be mistaken. There is plenty of evidence not only that piano playing at that time differed in certain respects from modern playing, but that the ethos of piano-playing and concertizing was different. Pianists in the heydey of romanticism, much like singers in the same period, took considerable liberties — or what we, at any rate, would today consider liberties — with the score, adding embellishments, inserting improvisations, stretching rhythms, and so forth. Such playing was not only tolerated, but expected, and was viewed not (as it would be today) as a daring imposition of the player’s personality on the composer’s wishes, but simply as an aspect of the art of music-making.

This approach to piano music began to change in the early part of the twentieth century. One of the first major talents to advocate for a stricter fidelity to the printed score as a criterion of good taste was Josef Hofmann, who, writing in around 1925, wrote:

The true interpretation of a piece of music results from a correct understanding of it, and this, in turn, depends solely upon scrupulously exact reading… A purposed, blatant parading of the player’s dear self through wilful additions of nuances, shadings, effects, and what not, is tantamount to a falsification; at best it is ‘playing to the galleries,’ charlatanism. The player should always feel convinced that he plays only what is written.

This way of thinking has a firm grip on almost all modern classical pianism (and indeed on classical music generally). In baroque music one will sometimes find that, in accordance with period practice, players add minor decorations when a section of music is repeated, but in music of later periods this happens rarely, if at all. Fidelity to the score is paramount. As a result, what has emerged in our time is what might be called an international school of pianism, in which there is relatively little variation from one pianist to another, and they tend to sound more or less the same.

That this passion for faithfulness to the composer’s intentions has established itself in our age is not without paradox. It is essentially an argument from authority, and that it should thrive in a culture reflexively hostile to authority, and devoted to self-expression, is peculiar, to say the least. It is at odds, too, with the artistic, and financial, viability of classical music, for the fact that 53 recordings of any given piece are readily available surely provides an incentive for a pianist to distinguish his reading in some way, but the authority of the score makes it very difficult for him to do so. I will not be surprised if, in time, the sheer weight of the ever-growing heap of strict interpretations provokes some pianists to experiment with creative departures from the written score, reviving something closer to romantic performance practice. Ironically, doing so might actually be more faithful to the composer’s expectations for the performance of his music.

Schonberg draws attention to an interesting aspect of the history of pianism: many of the greatest players have also been the greatest composers for the instrument. This is perhaps not surprising in itself, but it is sharply different from the state of things today. Today a concert pianist is a pianist and not (except for rare exceptions) a composer, and a major composer (if any of our contemporary composers can be said to be major in historical perspective) is a composer and not a concertizing pianist. The situation was quite different in the nineteenth century; think of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt, to name only the top-tier composer-painists. (Men such as Godowsky and Busoni would make a slightly longer list.) Reasonably enough, the creativity of their piano music was related to their own virtuosity at the keyboard. I wonder whether the current bifurcation between composers and pianists is a result of the displacement of the piano from the center of music-making, or is due to the general trend toward specialization in our culture, or (on a related note) is simply a response to the expectations of the audience? It seems that a contemporary pianist who wants to also compose faces an uphill credibility battle (though it has been done, and with good results).

In the course of his survey, Schonberg discusses dozens of pianists. Some of the most important names in his narrative, such as Thalberg, Tausig, and Leschetizky (who was an important piano pedagogue) were entirely new to me. In many cases I knew a name but not much more, and the book was very informative in those cases. The most important historical figures are discussed in some detail, but in the final chapters he pans out for a more high-level overview of the current landscape of pianism, discussing in brief compass many of the pianists whose names are familiar from browsing record store shelves. Unless I am mistaken, only one Canadian pianist is mentioned in the book: Glenn Gould, to whom an entire chapter is devoted.

Since most of the great pianists have played more or less the same repertoire (focused especially on romantic music), and given the priorities of modern performance practice that I mentioned above, and considering the very high performance standards of our day, discussions of the relative merits and special qualities of modern pianists tend to focus on subtle points of interpretation. Not everyone enjoys the drawing of such fine distinctions, which can seem to lean too heavily on debatable, subjective appraisals. I myself have relatively little patience with very close comparisons of how one player differs from another — and yet, I cannot deny that there are some pianists who appeal to me more than others. My personal favourites include Arthur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, Marc-André Hamelin, and Alexei Lubimov, for instance, not all of whom are considered major figures by general consensus, but whose playing speaks to me in a special way (and examples of whose playing are sprinkled through this post). Other pianists, such as Artur Schnabel, Maurizio Pollini, Vladimir Horowitz, Alfred Brendel, and (yes) Glenn Gould, who are widely acclaimed, leave me cool. Trying to put into words why this is so is difficult, and I cannot succeed to my own satisfaction. Chalk it up to the magic of music-making.

After finishing this book, I find myself pondering the future of the piano. It is evident that it is not as important to our music now as it was in the past, but, at the same time, I believe that its niche is fairly secure. Children are still probably more likely to study piano than any other instrument; I hope that my children will have the opportunity to learn to play. That said, the great pianists of the future may come from an unexpected quarter: China, where an estimated 30 million youngsters are studying the instrument, and which has already begun to produce pianists of some acclaim. We’ll see. In the meantime, I think that I will lie on the floor and listen to the Goldberg Variations (Murray Perahia, piano).

Happy birthday, Leonard Cohen

September 21, 2011

At Light on Dark Water Maclin Horton points out that today is Leonard Cohen’s birthday. I had entirely forgotten — it’s almost enough to get my citizenship revoked! Here is my favourite of his many wonderful songs, in a live performance from a recent concert. He is 77 years old today.

Thoughts on music and the forthcoming Missal

September 20, 2011

It is time, once again, for me to climb atop one of my favourite hobby-horses. Bear with me.

Sacrosanctum concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from Vatican II, is the most authoritative recent statement on the Church’s liturgy that we have. As has often been noted, it states:

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

It goes on to say that, in certain circumstances, allowance may be made for other music, such as polyphony or the music native to a particular region, but, nonetheless, a clear ideal has been presented. Gregorian chant is the music of the Latin rite; it has no other reason to exist.

In practice, we almost never hear Gregorian chant during the liturgy. The reasons are many, but, arguably, at least part of the blame may be assigned to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, the authoritative practical guide to the celebration of the liturgy. The version in force in the United States, for instance (most recently revised in 2002), says, in reference to the Introit, or Entrance Chant:

In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from The Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop. [my emphasis]

Analogous guidelines are given for the other Mass Propers. Note that little word “song”, which has provided a justification for those who wished to ditch the chant in favour of something else. Something with guitar accompaniment. And drums. Something with an ethos quite different from that proper to the Latin rite. “Song” became a weasel word.

The forthcoming new translation of the Mass (due in parishes this Advent) has been an occasion for hope to those of us who love the Church’s liturgy and her heritage of liturgical chant. Because the new translation will affect even the Mass Ordinary, much of the sub-standard music that has been composed since Vatican II may be joyfully tossed out the Church’s open windows, and we have, in a real sense, an opportunity to try again to faithfully implement the intentions of the Council Fathers, as least insofar as the music of the liturgy is concerned. As stated in Sacrosanctum concilium, the basic objective should be: more chant, sung competently and prayerfully. We should do our best to restore the resounding glory of our worship, using the music that the Church herself gives us.

Furthermore, the new translation of the liturgical texts is being accompanied by a new translation of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, and in the new translation the weasel word “song” has been replaced by the clarificatory “chant” (see, for instance, Paragraph 48 of the linked document), thus, one would think, removing that one slender reed that has supported so many ill-advised liturgical experiments.

So far, so good.

Enter the Canadian Bishops’ Conference (and I will focus now on the Canadian situation, since that is where I am). If one searches their site for resources related to the forthcoming new translation, one finds that they are publishing a book called Celebrate in Song intended for the pews of parish churches in order to promote “a seamless transition to the new translation of the Roman Missal in your community!” Celebrate in Song includes something called “ICEL Chants”, plus three new musical settings of the Mass Ordinary. Audio of the new settings can be streamed from the same site. Listen if you dare. Two of the three settings are essentially pop music; the third is not quite as bad, being somewhat closer to a sacred music aesthetic, but it is (and without wishing to impugn the motives of the composer in any way) still pretty mediocre to my ears. This is distressing.

And what of those cryptically named “ICEL Chants” packaged with them? Here things begin to brighten again: the ICEL Chants, it turns out, are English-language chants from the Roman Missal, very much in the style of Gregorian chant! They include music for the Mass Ordinary, Prefaces for the feasts, Eucharistic prayers, some hymns, blessings, and much else. The Mass Propers are apparently missing, but that lacuna could be conveniently filled with the Simple English Propers. Together these two sources would provide, I believe, a complete, simplified, English-language chant for the celebration of Mass in the new translation.

In some cases the music of the “ICEL chants” is clearly based directly on the Gregorian models: compare the Sanctus for Eucharistic Prayer IV to the Gregorian Sanctus XVIII “Deus Genitor alme”, for instance.

As is evident, in this case the music is actually the same. In other cases, the English-language chant has been streamlined and simplified relative to its Gregorian counterpart, but it is clearly cut from the same cloth. This is tremendous.

Why these Missal chants have been saddled with an alienating bureaucratic title — “ICEL” stands for International Commision on English in the Liturgy, which is the body responsible for the new Missal translation — I have no idea, and it is rather unfortunate, but their inclusion in Celebrate in Song can only be an occasion for rejoicing.

What shall we make of this situation? I am of two minds about it. On the one hand, I fear that many parishes will ignore the quasi-Gregorian Missal chants and adopt one of the pop music settings, either from Celebrate in Song or from some other source. On the other hand, it is barely possible that our Catholic Bishops are cunning in their tactics: perhaps the Missal chants have been bundled with mediocre alternatives in the expectation that the chant will thereby appear all the more alluring? If that were the case, however, why include the pop music at all? It does seem to be tempting fate.

I do not know how our situation in Canada compares to that in the United States and in other English-speaking countries. We are all getting the new translation, but how it will fall out is not clear. It is probably going to be a rough ride all around, but I do think we have a good opportunity here to bring the manner in which we celebrate the Mass into closer congruity with the intentions and wishes of the Council Fathers, and into greater continuity with our own tradition. It appears that in Canada, at least, our resources for doing so are only equivocally suitable for the purpose. We can but do our best.

Great moments in opera: La Fanciulla del West

September 19, 2011

It is not one of Puccini’s best-known operas, and I had never heard La Fanciulla del West until I sat down with a DVD performance this week. It was written mid-career, following a string of almost unbelievably sure-footed successes — Manon Lescaut, La boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Its 1910 premiere was, appropriately, in America.

Whether because of faltering inspiration, or because Puccini, riding the popular acclaim of his earlier operas, was ready to experiment with something a little less immediately accessible, I am not prepared to say, but La Fanciulla is not built around big, memorable arias, and its charms, which are considerable, are subtler and slighter than is usual with this composer. The singing has at times a conversational quality, and is quite closely integrated into the drama. The orchestration is supple and atmospheric, and does not sound like American country music at all.

The story is set in the American West, during the California goldrush, and takes place in and around an Old West saloon. The central character is Minnie — the only woman in the cast — who presides over the place like a guardian angel, being something of a mother and something of a sweetheart to the rough, discouraged, and lonely men who pass through. She falls in love with an outlaw, Dick Johnson, but their romance hits the rocks when he is discovered by the sheriff — who, not incidentally, is also in love with Minnie. The closing Act of the opera is a dramatic confrontation between a mob, intent on hanging Johnson for his crimes, and Minnie, pleading for mercy and a chance to start again. Remarkably (for Puccini) the opera has a happy ending.

I will add that there is something intrinsically amusing about an opera set in the American West and sung in Italian.

Here is a nice little scene from Act I: the saloon has emptied out and Johnson returns, looking for valuables to steal. He is interrupted by Minnie, who suspects nothing. She explains how content she is with her life on the frontier, but he suggests that perhaps something is missing, the implication being that perhaps he is missing from her life. They creep up to a declaration of love before being interrupted. I like this scene because it builds gently, and it is a good example of the pacing and texture of the opera as a whole. Placido Domingo is Johnson and Barbara Daniels is Minnie, from a Metropolitan Opera production. A dual language libretto is here; this excerpt begins on page 45.

The biggest number in this opera is an Act III aria called “Ch’ella mi creda”. Dick Johnson has been captured and stands at the scaffold preparing for his death. Minnie is, as yet, unaware of his capture, and he begs the crowd never to tell her of his death, but to pretend instead that he escaped. It is a short but passionate aria, splendidly sung here by Placido Domingo:

La Fanciulla del West has a lovely finale, but unfortunately I cannot find a good quality excerpt of it. I’m afraid you’ll just have to go see the whole thing.

Academic Earth

September 15, 2011

Last week, in response to a post about the Great Courses company, Janet pointed out Academic Earth, a site that is new to me. It streams full academic courses from some of the best universities in the United States, all completely free of charge.

There is some very nice material there. Some of their subject areas are thinly populated — only one course on Art & Architecture, for instance, and very little on Religion (sorry, “Religious Studies”) — but there is plenty of selection in subjects like Economics or Computer Science. The courses are not all at an introductory level: a full semester of modern physics with Leonard Susskind would be no laughing matter, I assure you (but how tempting!). If one had the time and energy to follow the lectures, do the readings, and complete the assignments (some of which are provided), one could potentially learn a great deal. From that point of view, it is a pretty amazing resource, and bound to get better.

A problem that I have with video lectures is that I simply don’t have time to sit down and watch them; I prefer audio, to which I can listen in the car, sitting in traffic. Granted, I don’t get as much out of the lectures when I only give them half my attention, but I figure it’s better than nothing. On the other hand, if I were a university student again, with a fair bit of leisure time for study, I can imagine that I would be all over Academic Earth.

Another potential resource of this type is Apple’s awkwardly-named iTunes U. I haven’t spent any time with it, but my impression is that it is based on much the same idea: academic lectures, presentations, etc. for download. Whether it is free or not, I do not know.

I expect that by the time my children are ready for university, we’re going to be drowning in this stuff.

Antarctica: the gift that keeps on giving

September 15, 2011

Back in February I did a month-long blog-a-thon about Antarctica. To my surprise, those posts have continued to pull in quite a few readers, even through the hot, hot summer months. Today, for instance, I notice that this blog’s ‘Top Posts Today’ ticker-tape, which tracks hits during the past 24 hours, is dominated by Antarctic themes:

That’s four of five about Antarctica. It gives me the chills.