Posts Tagged ‘Mozart’

Emperors and Bohemians

July 16, 2017

We went to Prague, and what a trip that was. I am quite sure there is no place like that Czech city on earth; Praha is a totally unique city–a surreal blend of medieval architecture and modern chutzpah.

One reason that ancient metropolis retains so much Old World ambience is that during the big war back in the ’40’s, Prague did not suffer major bombing damage. So there are parts of the city, particularly near the Castle, in which your wandering really does take on the feeling of a stroll through the Old Europe of medieval times, except for all the tourists waving their devices around.

Such as us.

We were right there, in with all that crowd of world-travelers snapping pics, gazing quizzily at our phones, searching for signs of meaning in the domiciles of Kafka and Havel.

Although I strive to write here with some profundity, I must admit that my few days there–although thoroughly edifying and significant–qualify me for nothing more that the status of being a tourist who was in awe of the place. I truly got the feeling that no, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

So now, today, as we roll along toward Budapest, I reflect on our time in Prague, but my mind also wanders back to our all-too-brief sojourn through Vienna, which came before Prague. My analytical, touristic mind wants to make a comparison. So here it is, in all its dubious oversimplification.

Prague is bizarre, proletarian, and cutting edge.

Vienna is presumptuous, regal and Establishment.

Great cities do have, you know, an identity. Think of the difference between, say San Francisco and Washington DC. What’s going on here in central Europe is somewhat like that. Think of, say, a bunch of hippies in 1968 showing up in Washington DC.

A century and a half ago, when the Vienna-based Hapsburgs were ruling their Austro-Hungarian empire, their noblesse oblige sensibilities must have been seriously ruffled when they would encounter, from time to time, the sight of wild-eyed Bohemians who had just rolled in from the Czech outback. On the back of a turnip cart, perhaps, these unrefined immigrants from the hinterlands rolled into staid Vienna with rocking chairs on the back of their carts like Granny Clampett, while their uncouth cousins probably strutted along, coaxing untamed gypsy melodies from their fiddles like there was no tomorrow.

Of course, when the First Big War finally ground down to a halt back in 1918, there was, in fact, no tomorrow for the Hapsburg royals. The jig was up for them and for their obsequious entourage of noblesse oblige courtesans who had populated  the royal courts of Vienna for half a millennium.

But the difference between these two great cities of Europe is retained in the feeling you get while visiting each one.

Vienna, as a major tourist destination, still capitalizes upon and cultivates that royal legacy with which they were born. You can feel it, you can see it plainly in what they emphasize in their presentation to us visitors.

Here are two pics from our Vienna hotel:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compare this ambiance to  a pic I snapped from our first night in Prague:

 

You get the picture?

This morning in Hungary, I was recalling a statement that our Vienna tour guide had made when we were there last week. She was telling us about the financial patronage through which the Hapsburgs supported orchestral  Music in Vienna during the Classical Age, which was during a period  from about 1760 to 1810 or so.

Our guide spent a good while  talking about the Emperor’s favored composers, Mozart and Haydn. The music of these two composers embodies the dignified, perfectly structured character of Classical Music as it was appreciated and financed by powerful, order-cultivating imperial benefactors. Our guide Iva also mentioned that, toward the end of the Classical period, Beethoven became a recipient who benefited from  those Hapsburg pursestrings. But Beethoven’s status as a recipient of their order-cultivating, imperial patronage was somewhat questionable. His musical identity–his struggle to surpass the courtly bonds of Mozart/Haydn conventionality– was always on the edge of something terribly new and disruptive. Ludwig stood, in fact, on the dizzying precipice of a new 19th-century eruption in music. And he knew it. His opus would not turn out to be a kind of music that proceeds from the calm waters of courtly, post baroque, Classical concerts.

Ludwig’s music turned out to be expressive, emotional, even explosive. His orchestral movements were a harbinger of a newly-forming revolutionary age, a disruptive century to come. His booming symphonies resonated more with those Czech Bohemians than with his courtesan mentors Mozart and Haydn. Ludwig was a German from somewhere over there in the cauldron of  the Rhine/Ruhr, an upstart. And even though he was able to obtain support from Emperor Josef, he was never the comfortable courtesan composer like Mozart and Haydn had been.

Our Vienna guide, Iva, mentioned this. She explained that the the imperial support for that unpredictable young German was of a different nature. The times they were a-changing.  Ludvig von Beethoven wasn’t the mere conveyor of those raucous new symphonic strains; he was an (if not the) originator of the  new romanticism in music. When Iva concluded her spiel on the great  music that had come out of imperial Vienna, I felt that there was something she had left out.

(Excuse me) “What about Strauss?” I asked.

Her answer surprised me.

She said that the Strauss music–the waltzes, the Blue Danube, et al which came later in the 19th-century–were considered by the  Vienna Establishment to be “pop music.” They were equivalent to the “Dirty Dancing” of that time.

Strauss waltzes, the “Dirty dancing!” ?? of that day?

Duh! ????

She said that Strauss went to Chicago and did a concert for a hundred thousand people.

But that did not impress the Establishment in Vienna.  As far as they were concerned, Johann Strauss Jr and his thumping waltzes were in the same league with . . . dirty dancing.

I suppose the royals and their courtesans always preferred their little, intimate venues like this one in Vienna, a space where, as our Vienna guide explained, Mozart had done one of his last concerts.

I will never get a handle on how all this human art and music plays out.

Glass Chimera 

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No Time for Melody

March 20, 2016

Symphony

These moments in a grand concert hall before the orchestra performs are like no other. Onstage, a half-hundred or more musicians dutifully make last minute preparations while the assembling listeners anticipate the unveiling of their symphonic presentation.

There are, it seems to this viewer, as many ways of making musical preparation for such orchestral events as there are musicians. Violinists are fine-tuning their instruments; many of them dance their fingers rapidly across wooden neck boards, rehearsing that difficult passage in the allegro or that five-measure solo transition in the andante. Beneath bright stage lights, brass-blowers sit together in the back row busily manipulating key-stops on gleaming metal; in the middle of this instrumental world oboes, clarinetists and bassoonists blow into their various tubed configurations with steadily progressing precision. Over in the back corner, percussionists tap, turn and tinker on this, that or the other big drum or little sound-making something-or-other. Polished wooden basso fiddle bodies shine under the lights; soldierly stand-up stringists stand beside them thumping and thinking very hard about that bottom line in the booming rondo or overture that is yet to come. The flutists’ silvery cylinders glint with theatrical brilliance as their masters breathe virtuosity into them. A lovely harpist plucks perfectly strung-up sounds.

Observed all at thece same time, the assembling orchestra appears to be a cacophony of disparate confusion. But as the moment of musical inception draws near, a subtle decreasing of the noise begins to take hold; the senseless soundings wane. A violinist stands, setting his bow to the instrument; then from somewhere inside the collection of sound-contraptions, a solitary musical oboe tone rises above it all, commanding the vacant air with a single, sustained A note. Immediately, as if they were waiting for some specific sound leadership, all the other members respond with their uniquely-voiced A-notes. As the volume of their first unison builds, harmonic thirds, fifths and octaves high and low emerge through the thick air of audience anticipation.

For only a brief moment this preparatory approach to harmony is heard. Then silence.

From behind the side-curtain, the bringer of Symphony walks into the midst of what had been quasi-musical confusion.

He is smiling. So are most of the audience. The thousand-or-so seated congregants express, with applause,  their approval of what is about to happen, implying also with their enthused ovation polite appreciation of what has happened in this large hall many times before.

A symphony. Tonight. March, 2016.

A moment later, in the midst of breathless silence, the Conductor raises his arms, lifting the baton high. Then abruptly he lowers them. And the chaos of sounds that had dominated the stage only a few minutes before has been instantaneously transformed into music, coordinated and arranged in order to express thoughts or feelings about the world.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the music composed for such an event as this was not the same as it is today. Mozart’s skill, for instance, plucked melodies out of thin genius-air and worked them into intricately woven musical masterpieces that beat through the air with perfect precision, like a clock on a Vienna tower.

In the 1700’s Mozart wrote music for an emperor. Emperors and empires imposed a certain kind of order on the world. Mozart’s music expressed that order in an exquisite way. His music was precision and perfection manifested in orchestral form.

A few decades later, Beethoven came along and rearranged all that preposterous musical order, catapulting thunderous innovations into it. Orchestral music, having found intricate construction in the hands of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel and others, had found its fullest precision under Mozart’s imaginative mastery.

But when the European world was shaken to its roots by the American revolution, French revolution, Napoleonic bluster and God-only-knows what other political and military juggernauts that were rolling like thunder across the civilized world at that time, a new kind of music was called for. A music that expressed not order, but disruption and passion.

And so there was Beethoven. The first eight explosive notes of his 5th symphony blew a hole in the old order and proclaimed a jousting field of new ideas, new forms of government, and new music. It was a revolutionary age. Even Mozart could get lost in the cataclysm.

Great Music captures the spirit of the times in which it is composed; it captures that spirit and interprets it as  audible, lyrical art.

Last night, we were in Charlotte listening to the Charlotte Symphony perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor. This interesting piece of music was, to my ear, a musical experiment. While a few of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos are widely acknowledged as masterful expressions of his musical romanticism, this third symphony communicates a timely, profound disturbance, more-so, I think, than compositional perfection. Sergei Rachmaninoff the early-20th century Russian composed in it 1936.

I call it an experiment because it seems to be a series of dynamic, instrumentally dissonant thrusts; they mount up in rhythmically disparate crescendos, but never  fully resolve in a way that I can thematically identify. In my ear,  it is a tensioned symphony in search of a theme. In search of, perhaps, a melody.

So I was trying to explain to my wife as we left why there’s no way Rachmaninoff could have absolved his musical angst in 1936 by resolving it inappropriately with a catchy melody.

He was living, for crying out loud, in Stalinist Russia; and not only that, half a continent away Hitler’s Third Reich was assembling, under the radar of the Versailles treaty, a massive wehrmacht war machine. In a few years the whole damn world, or half of it anyway, would erupt up in full-blown war. The only order that was emerging in 1936 was the construction of destructive war machines.

It was no time to celebrate an inharmonious world with pleasantries such as harmony and melody.

Here’s a YouTube of the Russian Novosibirsk Philharmonic performing the piece:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h44ZGVe4zCQ

Perhaps my cynical assessment of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 is shaded by my own artful projections. A few years ago, I wrote and published a novel, Smoke, which is all about the year 1937. That writing project was also an experiment, albeit a literary one, in telling the story about a young American who might have sojourned through Europe during that same time of imminent disaster foreshadowing World War II.

Smoke

A World in Harmony, or Not

January 29, 2015

AcropVwTheatre

This morning I am watching the sky over Athens, Greece, as a new day brightens this fascinating city.

Yesterday, Pat and I toured the Acropolis, a mountaintop collection of ancient Greek temples. Greeks of 2500 years ago believed in a multiplicity of gods who were contending with each other for power.

I woke up thinking about their pantheon of many gods, and how different that belief is from my Christian faith in One God.

Believing in one God means the world is in divine harmony, because God made the world the way it is supposed to be. This belief enables me to reconcile the obvious contradictions of good and evil in this world.

The pagan religion, it seems to me, does not enable a believer to adequately find true harmony in this world, because all the “gods” or forces of nature or spiritual forces, are contending with each other. Therefore there is no ultimate reconciliation of good vs. evil.

Is the universe in harmony with itself, or not?

So this morning I am considering this idea of harmony, or not-harmony. Is the world humming along in a harmony that was coded into it by a Creator? Or is it just a bunch of god-wannabe forces working against each other?

Just looking around in the world as it presently exists, it seems more like the latter.

Being a musician, I began to consider musical harmony. Think about the perfection that Mozart manifested in his symphonies and sonatas. Lots of harmony and perfect precision there. It’s nice to listen to, and very impressive. But I prefer the dynamic, existential dissonance of Beethoven’s music. Why is that?

Is there something about the dis-harmony, or dissonance, that is more appropriate, or more true, than appreciating a harmony that doesn’t really exist?

But let me go back a little further in musical time that Mozart and Beethoven.

Harmony and dissonance in music go back further than those two geniuses.

A half a century or so before them were Bach and Vivaldi.

Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi were able to appropriate old modes and melodies that had been floating around since ancient (Greek, Indo-European, etc) times, and weave them into intricately constructed masterpieces of musical construction.

Bach was a pioneer in this; he was a genius. He experimented with the ancient Greek modes, blending them with tuneful elements of his own Germanic heritage to produce new inventions of musical expression that had never been heard, or even dreamed of, before. In fact, a series of his compositions are called “inventions.” They are carefully constructed, in almost the same sense that the later sound-generating machines of Edison, Bell, or Marconi came to be known, in the late 1800s, as “inventions.”

While Bach was the master inventor of the new (what we call baroque) music, Antonio Vivaldi was, during that same period, the grand master of musical passion. His universally popular “Four Seasons” (my all-time favorite) violin concertos express a level of instrumental virtuosity that surpass, by their emotional intensity, Bach’s work, which is more cerebral or scientific.

Of course Bach had his emotions going hard-at-it too, but in a very different–what we might call a “German”–way. While Vivaldi was. . . from Venice.  And. . . well, you know how Italians are, very expressive. (This all goes back, metaphorically, to the Greeks and Romans.)

Bach and Vivaldi were analogous to the Bill Gates and  Steve Jobs of their age.

Just as Bach had propelled the world into totally new forms of music in the 1700s, Bill Gates, working in the late 1900s, wove computer software into a whole new world of innovative technology.

Just as Vivaldi had propelled the violin, oboe and other instruments into unprecedented explorations of emotional catharsis, so did Steve Jobs, by his unpredictable innovations make computers “sing.”

While Bach was carefully constructing, on his keyboards, inventions of technical music wonder, Vivaldi was making the world ring, and sing, with creative passion.

There were others, of course, of that age: Telemann, Corelli, Pachelbel. Many great musicians during the baroque.

Then along came a prodigy: Mozart. He cranked out one masterpiece after another, and made it seem as simple as breathing. In Amadeus, music found its highest possible level of precise perfection.

Even so, listening to a meticulously perfect Mozart symphony or sonata does not pack the dynamic crescendo that would soon arrive under the masterful musical poetry of Ludwig von Beethoven.

What Bach did with the keyboard was raw creative genius, honed into exquisite constructions of sound. It is similar to what Gates did with software.

What Vivaldi did with instruments–violin, oboe–was pure passionate profundity, similar to what Jobs did with (what used to be called the computer) Apple.

Now, how did I, watching the day dawn in Athens,  arrive at all this rumination about Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Gates and Jobs?

I don’t know. How irresponsible of me.

I began this inharmonic quest about two hours ago with intentions that were totally different from what this essay has become. While watching a new day brighten the sky over Athens, I had an idea about the difference between paganism–belief in multiple gods or forces of nature that are contending with each other–and Christianity, which eventually dominated Greek (and European) culture. Having toured the Acropolis yesterday, I was considering all the huge architectural structures that the ancients had constructed here in Athens.

Those Greeks, and later the Romans, of ancient times seem to have been highly motivated with memorializing their devotion to a pantheon of many gods, mostly Athena and Zeus. They did so by building very large structures of architectural precision and grandiosity. I’m quite amazed, but there’s something missing here.

Then a Hebrew teacher named Paul came to Athens. He saw all their temples and memorials devoted to the gods, and promptly proclaimed to them otherwise:

This pantheon, or multiplicity, of forces you are  worshipping– I have to break it to ya– are not

truly gods. Rather, those entities are merely elemental forces in nature, and all of them subservient in power to One God:

YWHW, who sent his son to show us how to live and die.

What an innovator that Paul was. What followed is history, as Christian Europe would attest for the next 1900 years or so.

However, methinks some consequence, yet hanging in the world, shall bitterly begin with this year’s contentions.

Glass Chimera