Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature
by Charles Rosen
Harvard University Press
448 pages, musical examples; $35.00 US

Once again, Charles Rosen has drawn on his talents as a pianist, scholar and essayist to produce a singularly thought-provoking collection of articles and reviews. Most were first published in the New York Review of Books — the title paper, Freedom and Art, appeared just this past May. At 85 Rosen is as brilliant as ever, if a touch more curmudgeonly than in previous collections. He has also become noticeably more nostalgic for the days when directors were not expected to “spruce up” operas to attract audiences, young composers did not feel compelled to write easily accessible music, and audiences read essays for pleasure.

Rosen’s ongoing tiffs with fellow journalist-musicologist Richard Taruskin run through these pages. In Western Music: The View from California, a detailed review of Taruskin’s six-volume Oxford History of Western Music, Rosen challenges Taruskin’s more sociologically-based approach to music history. He even goes so far as to accuse Taruskin of gearing his writing to appeal to the lucrative textbook market. In a postscript, Modernism and the Cold War, Rosen attacks Taruskin’s response to this review, in which Taruskin had written that he “regards Rosen’s literary output — all of it — as Cold War propaganda.” And so it goes. While this is all very entertaining — and edifying — the irony is that as outspoken as these two are, they are often not that far apart, especially on controversial issues like early music.

In a heartfelt tribute to Elliott Carter on his 100th birthday, Rosen writes eloquently in defence of Carter’s complex music, “Since Beethoven, it is the difficult music that has survived most easily; the originally unintelligible Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky and all the others that were so shocking are now an essential part of the concert scene.” Recalling a critical comment about a lack of emotion in Carter’s Night Fantasies after he performed this gorgeous work in Toronto 30 years ago, he adds, “Only when one understands how the music works (that is, consciously or unconsciously, feels at ease with the music) can one perceive the emotion.”

He offers plenty to argue with, such as when he dismisses composers who reject what he calls the “triumphs of modernism” and produce tonally based works with regular pulses and measurable rhythmic patterns. “All the modern tonal music I have heard,” he writes, “is loosely and simply organized, incapable of the subtle articulations and complex significance we find in Haydn or Beethoven.”

Rosen is especially attuned to nuances and outright contradictions in matters of interpretation, above all when it comes to the significance of style in understanding music. “Musical style,” he writes, “is not a passive material that can be molded at will, but a system that both resists and inspires change.” So I find it surprising that throughout this collection Rosen fails to recognize that an interpretation of musical style is fundamental to period instrument performances, and is responsible for their refined techniques, ever-expanding repertoires, and ever-increasing influence on mainstream performers and conductors. Yet Rosen writes, in Culture on the Market, “Concerts of music by Locatelli, Albinoni or Graun are bearable only for those music lovers for whom period style is more important than quality.”

The point of these essays is not to convince us, but to enhance our experiences of the music. More than anything, it’s the surprising and delightful connections, not just in music but also in related philosophy, art and literature, that make them so delightful to read. Rosen’s scope is so broad that it’s a challenge to keep up to him, especially when he writes that “the history of art can only be understood if the most extreme and eccentric phenomena can be integrated into our view of the whole picture.” What we can do is keep reading and listening — and enjoying.

 

The Mastersinger from Minsk
by Morley Torgov
Dundurn Press
264 pages; $17.99

The plot of Morley Torgov’s latest mystery novel, like his previous Murder in A-Major, revolves around real figures from the world of classical music — in this case Richard Wagner and his young wife-to-be, Cosima von Bülow, daughter of his friend Franz Liszt. Cosima’s current husband Hans van Bülow is on hand as well, since he is conducting the premiere of Wagner’s new opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Rehearsal is underway in Munich when Chief Inspector Hermann Preiss, who narrates, is called in to investigate a disturbing message Wagner has received. It says, “June 21 will be the day of your ruination.” Dead bodies keep appearing, including that of the star heldentenor Wolfgang Grilling, who had been the main suspect in the threat against Wagner. Grilling was furious because Wagner had given the lead tenor role in his new opera to an unknown singer who had shown up at auditions, and saddled Grilling with the apparently demeaning buffo role of Beckmesser. But what Torgov doesn’t seem to realize is that Grilling would undoubtedly have been especially vexed because he, a heldentenor, had been given a role written for a light baritone — a different range, colour and weight of voice altogether.

This setting allows Torgov to paint a vivid picture of Wagner rehearsing his opera. When Father Owen Lee gave one of his insightful books on Wagner the title The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, he summed up what Torgov manages to capture in his plot, which revolves around the horridness of the man and the glory of his music. To add authenticity, Torgov wisely consulted the journals that Wagner’s ballet-master Richard Fricke kept while working with the composer on the premiere of the Ring Cycle.

Because this story is set in 1868 Torgov gets away with referring to Preiss as “the only policeman in Europe who takes an interest in opera.” Books featuring opera-loving detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse and Kurt Wallander may have been written earlier, but they all take place later.

With his imaginative plotting, Torgov has found an effective way to present the complicated questions surrounding Wagner’s — and Cosima’s — deep-seated anti-Semitism. Whether Wagner intended Beckmesser to be the anti-Semitic figure of fun that Torgov paints him is open to debate. In any case, Torgov deftly conveys the transcendent power of Wagner’s music through his novel, if far-fetched, twist to the convoluted plot. It’s worthy of Hitchcock in the way it uses the interpretation of a song as a plot device — rather like Die Meistersinger itself, for that matter.

But it’s the characters, fictional like Preiss, real like Wagner, that kept me reading so eagerly. Torgov is at his best creating characters, and Preiss is at his most sardonic and colourful describing them. Preiss seems to be aware of this, since part way through the case he comments, “I was a curator, not of a collection of tangible evidence, but of a collection of people — living curiosities, flesh and blood to the eye yet unfathomable, untrustworthy, conniving, everyone seemingly filing onto my stage carrying his or her own bundle of plots and lies, and at the centre of the stage, Richard Wagner himself, principal plotter and liar.” 

59_berlin-cover_frontThe Reich’s Orchestra:
The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–45
by Misha Aster
Mosaic Press
286 pages, photos; $27.95

In 1944 British warplanes bombed the Berlin Philharmonic’s home, destroying instruments, archives and music along with their beautiful concert hall. But still they managed to keep performing and even touring — right up until the day when, as Misha Aster writes, “The Third Reich’s demise cut the 1944–1945 Philharmonische Konzerte series drastically short.”

There were many factors involved in the orchestra’s remarkable survival under the Third Reich, not least the determination of the musicians themselves. But in this study of the orchestra during that period Aster pinpoints the main reason right in his title — it became the Reich’s orchestra.

With his exhaustive research in archives and obscure private collections, Aster traces how the orchestra, facing bankruptcy in 1933, went from being a self-governing, independent collective to a symbol of the Nazi regime. It was clearly a matter of compromise rather than political commitment. Its principal conductor at the time of the deal, the celebrated Wilhelm Furtwängler, never joined the Nazi party (unlike their long-serving post-war chief conductor, Herbert von Karajan). But once it was run directly by the Nazis, with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, as boss, it now functioned as an “instrument of cultural propaganda.” Duties included performing for Hitler’s birthday celebrations.

Soon enough, the orchestra was purged of Jewish performers, including its prized concertmaster Szymon Goldberg. Jewish patrons were prohibited from attending concerts, and Jewish composers like Mendelssohn and Mahler were removed from the repertoire. But Furtwängler’s indignant resignation from the orchestra in 1934 — temporary, as it turned out — was sparked by the Nazis’ political interference in artistic affairs, in this case a choice of repertoire, rather than direct opposition to their policies.

Aster is a Canadian historian living in Berlin. His book was originally published in German, and too many traces of that still remain. Terms and concepts are left in their original German, and translated only on their initial mention, if at all. Nor are they included in the sparse index, or provided with a separate glossary. Similarly with the numerous acronyms — I couldn’t keep them straight. And many passages quoted in the text and the comprehensive footnotes are left untranslated from their original German and French.

But Aster’s thorough, systematic research pays off again and again throughout this book. His straightforward style proves ideal for uncovering the ambiguities of the orchestra’s situation, especially when, in the final chapter, he analyzes how it all adds up. After the war, the orchestra had to answer for its recent past and redesign itself. It did so by building on its strongest assets, “its collective combative spirit and the group’s shrewd political judgement.” These were the very qualities that had ensured its survival during the Third Reich, as Aster shows so well.

Concert Note (for 2012/13 season): The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, made up of members of the Berlin Philharmonic, performs at the St. Lawrence Centre on October 11, 2012, at 8pm, for Music Toronto.

59_blow_your_horn_-_frontblow your OWN horn –
horn heresies: an anti horn-method method
by Fergus McWilliam
Mosaic Press
172 pages, illustrations; $21.95

Fergus McWilliam has played French horn with the Berlin Philharmonic for 27 years. It’s a wealth of experience he shares here in what he calls his “anti-horn method.” Right near the beginning he issues a warning, “If you believe that one first needs to acquire sufficient technique before attempting to make music, then this is not for you. Yours is still a flat earth.” The point he continually makes is that technique should not be separated from making music. “It is musical playing which fosters, nourishes and ultimately builds good technique. Musical playing not only requires, but actually encourages and improves technique.” Presumably that’s one of the “horn heresies” he refers to in his title.

But McWilliam is equally impatient with players who call themselves musicians first, hornists (as he refers to French horn players) second. This is not, it turns out, a contradiction of his emphasis on dealing with technical issues within the context of the music — rather, it seems to be a declaration of his passion for the sound of his instrument, “unique and idiosyncratic” as it is. “Which musical instrument,” he asks, “can rival the horn’s sound for sheer sonic impact?” He tells about first falling in love with the sound of the horn as a kid. And so he issues another warning, “We imperil ourselves if we fail to produce a viscerally exciting sound, irrespective of how wonderful our phrasing may be.” To prove the instrument’s “nearly unmatched potential for emotionally expressive power,” he mentions the horn’s single note that opens the final movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Though McWilliam was born in Scotland, he grew up in Canada and graduated from the University of Toronto’s music faculty. Canada is where he began his performing and teaching career. In fact, it was McWilliam who arranged for the Canadian Opera Company to obtain its set of Wagner tubas for its Ring cycle. How odd then that the biography of McWilliam in this book mentions nothing about his relationship to Canada — even though it is published in Canada.

Even for those who have no intentions whatsoever of ever trying to play what McWilliam lovingly calls this “famously difficult instrument,” this book is rewarding on many levels. McWilliam offers insights not just into horn-playing, but into all aspects of performing (and by extension, listening to) an instrument. Enough of McWilliam’s engaging personality comes through to make me hope his next will be a memoir.

60_book_coverThe Trumpet
By John Wallace and Alexander McGrattan
Yale University Press
ISBN 978-0-300-11230-6
$40.00 hardcover, 360 pages
Publication Date: May 15, 2012

“What mouthpiece do you use?” is the usual conversation opener, one trumpet player to another. So now we have another opener: “Have you read The Trumpet by John Wallace and Alexander McGrattan?” This book is a most welcomed addition to the libraries of seasoned professional trumpeters (like me), a “must-have” for any aspiring trumpet student or for anyone wishing to follow the evolution and vibrant history of one of the world’s oldest instruments.

The Trumpet follows a broadly chronological pattern, starting by highlighting the prehistory through civilizations of the ancient world. Summaries of developments in the instrument and its playing techniques follow, setting the stage for more in-depth investigations of these topics in subsequent chapters. The Trumpet then chronicles a period of more than a thousand years, from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century through to the end of the 16th century. Wonderful inclusion of articles by Don Smithers and Peter Downey provoke fresh interest and controversy regarding this relatively neglected period in the history of the trumpet.

Further chapters explore the trumpet in the 17th and 18th centuries, often referred to as “the golden age” of the natural trumpet. I find particular interest in the attention to detail regarding sophisticated performance conventions and the virtuosic repertoire of the Baroque, including detailed studies of the trumpet parts in the works of Bach and Handel. Exploration of the new-found chromatic possibilities toward the end of this period leads beautifully to a detailed analysis of the concerti for the keyed trumpet by Haydn and Hummel. As these are staple audition, examination and performance repertoire, so the insights shared here by master teachers Wallace and McGrattan are invaluable.

Commentary outlines 19th and early 20th century development of valved instruments which redefined the possibilities of the trumpet and the ways in which it was understood by players, composers  and audiences. The charting of detailed and useful technical developments and focus on the implications of these innovations for performance is followed by discussions of the often complex relationships between natural and valved instruments, trumpet and cornet, as well as the development and use of the piccolo trumpet in solo and orchestral contexts.

In discussion of the development of the trumpet as an orchestral and a solo instrument since the early 20th century, homage is given to Maurice André who significantly extended the solo trumpet repertoire by commissioning new works and by performing transcriptions of baroque music. From the 1960s, collaborations between trumpeters and avant-garde composers led to an expansion of classical solo repertoire; a very useful appendix of 20th-century solo works is included as well as numerous orchestral excerpts to provide further clarity.

The role of the trumpet in jazz is a principal theme in the final chapter, with analysis of the early recordings of Louis Armstrong, a fascinating discussion of the more mainstream fields of popular music, brass chamber music and the use of the trumpet in scores for television and the motion picture industry. A welcomed inclusion is the consideration of the image of the trumpet player, exploring, among other things, the significant role of female trumpeters in jazz and classical music. Finally, the future direction of jazz is considered through the prominence of Wynton Marsalis and other influential jazz trumpeters, inspiring the re-emergence of the trumpet as a solo instrument in music today.

Author John Wallace was for nearly two decades principal trumpet of the Philharmonia Orchestra, London, and is principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Alexander McGrattan is on faculty at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, is a freelance trumpeter, and a leading exponent of the natural trumpet.

Perhaps worth consideration is the British (er, Scottish) perspective inherent within this work. While for some, this gives it a special appeal, for others, it may result in references which are less immediately accessible. It has been suggested that this is the first major book devoted to the trumpet in more than 20 years. In this reviewer’s perspective, and as a trumpeter, I would have to agree.

Trumpeter Garry Page, The WholeNote’s recently appointed director of marketing, is “subbing” for regular BookShelf columnist Pamela Margles who will return next month.

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