Musical Morality

June 12, 2017 at 2:08 pm

When I was a wee lad, my father gave me a CD of Bach’s harpsichord concertos as a birthday present. Yes, I was a nerd.

Fast-forward 25+ years to my middle-aged self, over-educated, and packed with esoteric tidbits of musical knowledge. I pull out the aforementioned CD for a birthday listen. Only there is something quite wrong about what I hear.

… this harpsichord is playing with sensitive dynamics!

You might have heard that the piano used to be called the pianoforte – literally, “soft-loud.” This is because before the piano’s keyboard predecessors (the organ and harpsichord) didn’t have velocity-sensitive keys (to oversimplify the matter). No matter how hard you hit the key, the resulting note will always be the same volume.

Now, those of us who play the harpsichord are used to creating the illusion of dynamics by altering our articulation and shortening/elongating notes, among other things. But this recording is not an illusion … there is some witchcraft here! If you listen carefully at 6:40-6:55, you can hear the harpsichord get gradually softer – it sounds as if someone is silently closing the lid of the instrument, muffling the sound. Or, perhaps the recording engineer just turned down a volume know to make the upcoming crescendo more effective.

 

The big question is, is this morally right? Ok, so this is not exactly a life-and-death situation here, but it does make you think. Possible arguments (in no particular order):

  1. Historic Authenticity: Bach certainly didn’t have a volume knob to turn down, and it’s unlikely he had someone standing next to the harpsichord to slowly close the lid in order to create a decrescendo. So this performance is “wrong”?
  2. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity: If Bach could have turned a volume knob, he would have. This performance sounds better with the added dynamics. So this performance is “right”?
  3. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity, part 2: If Bach had access to a 13-foot Steinway, this would be a piano concerto instead. So it is equally “right” and arguably better to play this on the piano?
  4. There are hundreds of factors that go into every performance according to the resources available and needs of the performers/audience, blurring the lines of “right” and “wrong” into a big smeary gray area.
  5. Who gives a care anyway?

As for me, I’m with #4. I’m not sure a pure historically authentic performance (#1) can be achieved because we cannot help but look at the past through our present selves. Assuming a dead composer would agree with our ideals (#2 & #3) is dangerous, pretentious, and stupid. And as for #5 – I do in fact give a care!

 

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Music for the Apocalypse

February 6, 2017 at 4:28 pm

Thanks to current events and to a certain person who has recently come to power, the Doomsday Clock has been set forward thirty seconds. What will you do when the end comes? And more importantly, what tracks do you have on your phone for the occasion?

The idea of the world ending is certainly not new; there are loads of artwork devoted to the idea, from ancient through modern times. We’ve all thought about “what if” at some point in our lives. I hadn’t really connected the end of the world and music until very recently – the inspiration for this post came to me in the middle of a video game: Fallout 4. To oversimplify, it’s a game where you shoot baddies in post-apocalyptic setting.

What happened was this: I had turned on a radio in the game to the “classical music station”, when I was attacked by a horde of zombies. As I exterminated this crowd of undead enemies, I laughed because the radio was playing the dulcet tones of Edward Elgar‘s “Salut d’Amour“. The juxtaposition of murdering horrific humanoid mutations and sweet, lovely music was perfect irony, and completely opposite of the typical battle music of video games.

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this sort of irony. The most glorious moment in the 1989 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V comes when Henry (who by this point is barking mad) orders all his soldiers to sing a Te Deum and a Non Nobis in praise of God, who helped them slaughter the French in a bloody battle. The magnificent music plays during a single, four minute long shot of the battlefield, covered with mangled bodies and limbs: Not unto us, Lord, but to thy name be glory.

But let’s be realistic, we can accept the beautiful music coupled with bloody scenes because we’re removed from the situation. To have to face these horrors in real life is very unsettling. A more appropriate response would be the music in the 2011 film, Melancholia. To sum it up: people live screwed up lives, but it doesn’t matter in the end because a giant planet crashes into earth and destroys everything. This sort of despair is perfect for accompaniment by Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde (tragically, edited to fit the footage.)

Why so serious? If the world is going to end in flames, you may as well have fun while doing it, like in Dr. Strangelove! Don’t just drop that atomic bomb, ride it like a cowboy!

Did you know there’s an opera about the atomic bomb? Check it out!

So, nuclear war might end the world. If it did, would humanity descend into tribal warfare, fighting over food, water, and fuel? Brian May‘s killer soundtrack to Mad Max 2 will help you prepare for that.

But it turns out nuclear war is only one of many possible doomsday scenarios that threaten us. Climate change could turn our planet into a Waterworld.

Did you know there is a symphony about climate change? Check it out!

So, what are we to do? Well, on one hand, we could go into a panicked frenzy of despair:

or, we can stand up and do something about it:

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when you didn’t actually write your most famous composition

October 18, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Misleading title – the jury is still out on who wrote Dracula‘s favorite Halloween piece, the Toccata and Fugue in d minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. An amazing amount of research has been done trying to solve the great mystery of its composer.

To sum up the debate:

  • The work’s style is … strange. The toccata is very free-form, similar to the earliest immature works of the young master, and nothing at all like his mature works. The fugue is in four voices, but most of the time, only three sound (uncharacteristic of Bach.) It plays more like a violin piece than an organ work.
  • The earliest copy of this piece was written around 1740, by an unimportant organist named Ringk. (Most music at this time was copied by hand, so it’s not so strange that a work by Bach would have been hand-copied by another musician.) People have deeply studied Ringk’s handwriting in order to pin down the approximate date of this single copy.
  • It would be possible that Bach wrote the piece as a young man, and Ringk copied it when Bach was old, but then the question is, why did he choose this piece to copy? Why not something else, something better?
  • Could Bach have copied this piece into his own library, only to have Ringk later copy it from him, falsely attributing the work to the great master?

Whatever the history, and whoever wrote it, this work has become Halloween staple. A gothic organ sound playing its twisted, dark harmony can chill your soul; the opening motif catches your attention immediately. No wonder hearing this piece brings up images of Dracula, or maybe the Phantom of the Opera. Its appeal has helped it overcome its compositional flaws; it has been arranged for all sorts of solo instruments (most famously for piano, but also violin and guitar) and ensembles (most famously for orchestra, but also saxophone choir (because, why not)).

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