Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Thursday, May 02, 2013

Oh Doctor!

My vacation took me far away from the first couple weeks of the latest installment of music director mania. The third week had some underplayed gems on the program - Mendelssohn Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Beethoven Consecration of the House, Schumann Rhenish. (Mozart, Piano Concerto no. 21 with Pollini rounded out the show.)
Legitimately a masterpiece, the Schumann is also the least underplayed of the of the three. Nevertheless, I would gladly trade in a few extraneous repetitions of Bruckner 4, Beethoven 3, (and while in the key of E flat, throw in Ein Heldenleben) for a couple more performances of the Rhenish over the years. Consecration of the House might fall under the rubric of 'forgettable' works by great composers, and even butt of the (hilarious) observation that there are no undiscovered masterpieces. (Then again, there is no bit of received wisdom that can't be shoehorned into a tired old saying by some wag in the musicians' lounge either.) And even so, this 'Wellington's Victory for arts administrators' might have some deeper, hidden meaning, maybe a wry comment on banality by the great composer, who knows. It is hard to get to the bottom of a piece if you never hear it. I would trade at least a couple of the hundred or so 7th symphonies to play it once or twice a decade. Finally, while no Midsummer Night's Dream, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is not without charm of its own, but hasn't been played here since the (Fritz) Reiner era. (Maybe the programmers promised to get around to it in the Carl Reiner era.) Heck, we've played "Bear Down {redacted} Bears" more times than that since then, and if we had a better football team, the programming imbalance would be even more lopsided.
Recently, the subject of programming came up in a discussion with a friend of mine, who I'll call Dr X. The Doctor, who has attended scores of concerts over the span of about 20 years, admitted to me the woeful inadequacy of his musical training as a schoolboy, and later, as a college student. He went on to confess further that he relied on the orchestra as his main source of musical education, assuming that attending as many concerts as possible would lead to his developing a well rounded knowledge of the classical genre. He also admitted to being something of a homebody whose exposure to concerts came almost exclusively from the {redacted}SO.
This immediately piqued my interest, as I am of the opinion that organizations dedicated to the so-called 'high arts' have a duty to enlighten as well as entertain. The Doctor, who has continued to renew his subscription year after year, has undoubtedly been entertained, but I was keenly interested to know what sort of education he had obtained merely by attending our concerts over the span of many years. After a considerable amount of cajoling, I persuaded the good Doctor to put his knowledge into writing.

The Doctor asked that I beg the readers' indulgence, as he claims to have written nothing more than prescriptions since his student days and is a little shy about his prose. He also asked me to state that he often arrives at concerts dead tired after a long day at the clinic, which might have lead to him nodding off a few times over the years; and of course, he had no idea there would be a test at the end.
What I learned at the Symphony
by Dr X
The father of so-called classical music is Bach. Unfortunately, as his music is best handled by specialists, it is rarely heard in the concert hall today.
The first of the great symphonists was Haydn. A simple man, he was practically innumerate, writing about 6 or 7 symphonies but giving them numbers like 96, 104, and so on. In spite of its high quality and universal appeal, his music is rarely played.
Mozart wrote a great many piano concertos, three Italian operas, and parts of a requiem mass. As a symphonist, his output was slightly greater than that of Haydn. Sharing Haydn's innumeracy he gave his symphonies evocative titles such as Jupiter, Haffner, Prague, and Thirty-nine.
The first composer to complete a well-ordered set of nine symphonies was Beethoven. The even numbered were evidently 'practice symphonies' written between the more serious compositions and are rarely performed any longer.
Schubert, mainly the composer of about a thousand songs, took enough time off to write either one, or two-and-a-half symphonies. Sensing his own early demise, he numbered them 8 and 9.
Berlioz wrote one Fantastic Symphony. Mendelssohn and Schumann were also composers, but their symphonies have been mostly forgotten, or are apparently of interest to academics only.
The most important composer of the 19th century, Richard Wagner didn't write any symphonies at all, in fact, he might have loathed instrumentalists. He is best known for the Ring cycle and for inventing a chord progression which he expanded into a 5-hour long opera, Tristan and Isolde. The harmonic ambiguity of Tristan and Isolde permeated all music that came after, and miraculously, even some that came before.
Wagner's chief disciple was Anton Bruckner, who wrote the same symphony 11 times, elevating the idea of chord progressions as music to its highest level.
Brahms completed 3 symphonies that end loudly, and one which is no longer played.
Tchaikovsky finished 3 symphonies before effecting his own demise. His Pathétique symphony, oddly given the designation as 'number 6' is chiefly known for ending softly yet still remaining part of the repertoire.
No one knows how many symphonies Dvorak wrote. One or two of them (numbered 8 and 9, of course) remain in the repertoire to this day.
Mahler raced against his own mortality to finish a complete set of 9 symphonies. Depending on who you ask, Mahler had enough ideas in his head to write about 25 symphonies, or maybe 4 really good ones.
Richard Strauss came from a musical family. He showed great promise in his early 'tone poems' but gave it all up to write operas.
Stravinsky was another composer of the early 20th century who showed great promise before retreating into neoclassicism.
The great French composers were Debussy and Ravel. The former wrote La Mer, the latter, a bunch of 'Spanish' music.
Schoenberg was the most important composer of the 20th century although he wrote almost no music. Taking Wagner's ambiguous chord progression from Tristan, he essentially posed the question "What if everybody behaved like that?" and in answer came up with the 12-tone system. The result was the end of tonality and the beginning of the 2nd Viennese school. The greatest accomplishments of the 2nd Viennese school were intimidating composers like Stravinsky, Strauss and a few others.
Shostakovitch and Stalin spent a lifetime thumbing their noses at each other; the resulting gift to us is a fine set of about twelve symphonies.
The two greatest composers alive at the end of the 20th century were Elliot Carter and Pierre Boulez. At the turn of the 21st century, one of them was still composing music, but no one knows who.