Thursday, January 30, 2014

Interviews with Artists

As we wind up our month discussing controversial stories throughout music history, I thought it would be fun to ask a few musical celebrities their opinions on what may be debatable musical moments to add to our list.

Did anyone get to see pianist Hélène Grimaud perform the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra earlier this month? While Ms. Grimaud was in town, she stopped by the WGUC studio to visit and I decided to ask her a few questions for my blog. When asked to name a controversial moment in music history, Brahms immediately came to Hélène’s mind. Performing his piece just a few hours after our chat, it made sense that her thoughts would go in that direction. She told me that his piano concerto she was performing with the CSO was not well received following its premiere. Brahms wrote in a way that the piano was one of the orchestra instruments. To audiences, it sounded like a symphony with piano obbligato rather than a piano concerto and that did not go over well.

Ms. Grimaud also mentioned that, as a pianist, Liszt is a major pillar in the musical world, changing the “universe” of piano performance with his avant garde work. She mentioned that, in her opinion, we wouldn’t have Wagner if we didn’t have Liszt.

I also again had the opportunity to talk with Cincinnati’s wonderful Maestro, Louis Langrée. When asked the same question as Ms. Grimaud, he quickly responded with a discussion on John Cage’s 4’33’’. Are you familiar with this piece? Cage’s composition presents silence as music causing audiences to wonder, “what really is music?” Maestro Langrée said that it is this type of “music” that “forces you to think” and “provokes” a reaction.

Here is a link to a performance of 4’33”. What does this “music” provoke you to think? Is it indeed music?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Controversy in 18th-century Opera

The last few weeks our discussions have centered on musical controversies within 20th-century music. This week, let’s take a step further back in time to 18th-century France and explore a dispute over Italian and French opera that lasted two years.

 During the 18th century, operas with both serious and comic plots grew in popularity. While those with serious plots had similar characteristics across borders, comic operas differed depending on the country in which they originated. Librettists always wrote the texts in their native tongue and included national traits. A librettist is the author of the text of the opera, as opposed to the composer, who writes the music. Italian comic operas, for instance, contained melodic arias (expressive solo sections) alternated with recitatives (style of singing that resembles speech), while many other countries included spoken dialogue throughout.

In 1752 the performance of La serva padrona, Pergolesi’s Italian intermezzo (a short, comic opera inserted between the acts of a serious opera) sparked a pamphlet dispute amongst literary intellects in Paris. Known as the Querelle des bouffons (“Quarrel of the comic actors”), this “war” between supporters of Italian opera tradition (opera buffa) and French opera tradition (opera comique) involved well-known voices including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Melchior Grimm. While many people wanted to stand firm for their native style of opera, others noticed the way Italian composers created memorable and expressive melodies.

Did the Querelle des bouffons ever resolve? Yes, it did resolve in 1754 when the Bouffons left Paris. It may sound like a silly controversy but to the people of that time, they believed they should support national styles in music. As a result, this led to the formation of various national traditions prevalent during the following century.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony: A Response

Following the denunciation of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth in 1936, the composer set to work on what historians consider to be a response to the Pravda’s remarks, calling his Fifth Symphony “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” While the work followed the rules set by socialist realism using the standard four-movement format and accessible tonal structure, Symphony No. 5 also exhibits a sense of sadness possibly felt by the composer following his opera controversy. The slow movement, for example, portrays the sounds of Russian funeral music, creating sorrowful sentiments for audiences. This symphony brought Shostakovich back under good terms with the government while still allowing him to secretly display his emotions.  

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is tonight’s 6 o’clock symphony. Tune in to 90.9 WGUC and then let me know how it moves your “affections” (or emotions). After hearing Shostakovich’s story, do you share his sentiments?

What ever happened to Lady Macbeth? Well, the opera remained untouched until 1956 when Shostakovich revised and renamed it Katerina Izmaylova. It is still performed in opera houses today.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Chaos Instead of Music"

On Monday we discussed the initial success of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth that quickly turned into a controversy. Following Stalin’s attendance of a performance in 1936, the work was denounced in an article published in Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, calling it “chaos instead of music.” The government accused the opera saying it contained modernist elements and an obscene portrayal of sexual and violent circumstances. Here is an excerpt from the article:  

“From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sounds. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this ‘music’ is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.”

Following the publication of this article, Shostakovich feared for his life as the government often times banished or executed people they felt produced work not in line with socialist realism.

How did Shostakovich respond to this criticism? By writing more music, of course! Join me tomorrow as I discuss the follow-up to this denunciation.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Controversy Behind Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth...

This week marks the 80th anniversary of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District premiere. In light of this, I thought it would be fun to tie the controversy surrounding this opera into our “Controversy in Music” discussion this month.

Dmitry Shostakovich lived in the Soviet Union during a time when the state enforced socialist realism, a government-approved system demanding that artists create in a clearly-defined style that portrays an idealized lifestyle within their nation. Under this system, many artists felt restricted and unable to fully display their creativity.

During this time, Shostakovich wrote his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District that premiered on January 22, 1934 in Leningrad and on January 24, 1934 in Moscow. For a full synopsis of this work, check out this description from the MET.
At first, the opera experienced great success with performances occurring internationally. Critics considered Lady Macbeth a major achievement, one only a Soviet composer could successfully produce. Two years following its premiere, however, Shostakovich’s success took a turn for the worse. Stalin attended a performance and controversy ensued. Read more about what followed when I post on Wednesday!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Ironic is it not?

Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder is filled with irony. The first song begins with the phrase “Now will the sun so brightly rise again.” Though a positive text, the soloist sings in a sad manner. You can find a performance of Matthias Goerne singing at the BBC Proms here.
How does this piece make you feel? Does it move your “affections” (or emotions) in a certain way? Do you think this piece is indeed ironic or do you think that Mahler clearly conveys the depth of emotion experienced by a parent after losing a child?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

An Eerie Episode in the Mahler Family...

On Monday we began the story of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. How is this work controversial? After his marriage to Alma in 1902, Mahler took another two years to complete his orchestral song cycle. Though Alma believed it was understandable that her husband began the work as a single man in 1901, she insisted that he was tempting fate by continuing a composition related to dying children now that he was a husband and father. Three years following the completion of his song cycle, Mahler’s daughter died of diphtheria and scarlet fever. Was Alma right? Did Mahler tempt fate by insisting upon completing his Kindertotenlieder?

This past week I had the pleasure of chatting with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Music Director Louis Langree in the WGUC studio. When asked whether or not Mahler tempted fate by completing Kindertotenlieder, the Maestro immediately responded with a fascinating story. At one point in his past, he had agreed to conduct this very piece for an orchestra several years in advance. Before the concert date arrived, however, the birth of his daughter caused him to reconsider. Though certainly not one to cancel appointments, Langree said he felt “scared” of the Mahler “curse” and felt that he would be taking a real “gamble” if he followed through with the commitment. He confirmed that he is not typically the superstitious type but still could not bring himself to conduct this fateful piece of music.

Did Mahler tempt fate? What would you have done in Maestro Langree’s situation? Let me know your thoughts!


Monday, January 13, 2014

Flirting with Fate: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder

Controversy surrounds the music of Gustav Mahler, with one great example being his Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”). Mahler first began work on this orchestral song cycle in 1901. An orchestral song cycle is a group of songs meant for performance as a unit and accompanied by an orchestra. The texts that Mahler chose for his song cycle were taken from poems by Friedrich Rueckert, who originally wrote these poems along with many others as a form of mourning the death of his children. Mahler felt a special connection to the poetry as one of Rueckert’s children (Ernst) shared a name with his deceased brother.                                                          

 Not long after he began work on Kindertotenlieder, Mahler met the woman who would become his wife the following year. His marriage to Alma Mahler and the birth of two daughters fairly quickly would change the circumstances surrounding his song cycle, resulting in a strong difference in opinion between the composer and his new bride and a haunting story for the Mahler family.

Join me on Wednesday for more on the eerie tale surrounding Kindertotenlieder.

Friday, January 10, 2014

What was Wrong with the Rite?

Previously we discussed Stravinsky’s famous The Rite of Spring. We know that this piece quickly became one of the most well-known works of the early 20th century. But why so controversial? At the premiere of the ballet in 1913, a riot began amongst members of the audience. Historians believe that it was the choreography created by dancer Vaclav Nijinsky that provoked the majority of controversy rather than Stravinsky’s score. Years following this scandalous premiere, here is what Stravinsky had to say about the experience:
“That the first performance of The Rite of Spring was attended by a scandal must be known to everybody. Strange as it may seem, however, I was unprepared for the explosion myself…                                               

Mild protests against the music could be heard from the very beginning of the performance. Then, when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke. Cries of “Shut up!” came from behind me. I heard Florent Schmitt shout “Be quiet, you bitches of the sixteenth”; the “bitches” of the sixteenth arrondissement were, of course, the most elegant ladies in Paris. The uproar continued, however, and a few minutes later I left the hall in a rage; I was sitting on the right near the orchestra, and I remember slamming the door. I have never again been that angry. The music was so familiar to me; I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance. I arrived in a fury backstage, where I saw Diaghilev flicking the house lights in a last effort to quiet the hall. For the rest of the performance I stood in the wings behind Nijinsky holding the tails of his frac, while he stood on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers, like a coxswain.”

The Rite of Spring is featured as tonight’s 6 o’clock symphony. Give it a listen and let me know if you can understand why it was controversial in 1913. Also, does the piece move your “affections” (emotions) in any particular way? If so, how? Did your enjoyment of the piece change now that you know the story behind the music?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Controversy in Music: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring

Controversy in music? How could I resist the temptation to begin my music blog with an intriguing, head-turning topic? Many would be surprised at how often controversial circumstances surrounded the music and composers we enjoy most. This month, join me as I discuss four fascinating examples found in prominent works throughout history.

You may be familiar with Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the work’s premiere on May 29th of this past year. A Russian nationalist composer at the start of his career, Stravinsky had his first great success with The Firebird in 1910. The work was written as a ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario for the Ballets Russes based in Paris. Shortly after this, Stravinsky began work on The Rite of Spring, a ballet based on prehistoric Russia and primitivism. The plot revolves around a young girl who is chosen as a sacrifice and forced to dance until she dies.

Stravinsky used The Rite of Spring as a means to develop his unique voice in the classical music world. Known for its irregular meter, frequent alternations of notes and rests, and use of dissonant scales, Stravinsky’s composition is a powerful display of his avant-garde capabilities.

To those accustomed to 18th and 19th-century repertoire, this ballet may have crude subject matter and include unusual compositional techniques. But why do we consider it to be one of the controversial pieces in music history? Find out on Friday when I blog about what Stravinsky had to say following the premiere of his work.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Welcome to Clef Notes!

Welcome to the 90.9 WGUC music blog: Clef Notes. My name is Jessica Lorey and I am the Classical Music Director at WGUC. Allow me to be your guide as you follow our new blog through the wonderful world of music.  

How does the music you listen to move your emotions? Whether it creates joy in your heart, stirs a somber mood, or brings back a memory from days past, every piece that you listen to conjures up some sort of deeper feeling within. The musical term for this type of emotion is “affection.” The word “affection” is used within the music world to describe an emotion created while listening to any given composition. The word originated during the Baroque era (period of music ranging from ca. 1600–1750) as an aesthetic theory known as the Doctrine of Affections. At the time, composers believed that only one type of “affection” (or emotion) could be moved at a time, and for this reason they would compose entire movements that would remain consistent in rhythm, texture, melody, and harmony. It was not until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that composers realized that they could play around with their listeners’ emotions by adding contrast and colors to their work. Use the word “affection” at your next social gathering and I guarantee you will sound impressive!

So tell me, how does music “affect” you? The purpose of this blog is to open up the world of music and discover how it enriches our lives. We’ll discuss major musical events, pieces, musical gossip, and how all of these matters “affect” us. I welcome your comments related to your own experiences listening to music. I hope this blog will be your connection to a community of music lovers and we can all discuss our discoveries within the music we love.