Flights of crazy fancy

Now my fourth — and next to last — post on changing the conservatory curriculum. I’ve linked the others at the end.

Remember that I’m offering free consulting sessions! Originally I’d thought they’d be about changing the curriculum, but in fact the gratifying response has also come from people who wanted help with other things. Especially career development. Which I’m happy to help with, just as I’m happy to talk about anything in your work that might need an outside eye, and some advice. Of course one reason I’m doing this is to get paid clients. But if in a free session I can give you concrete help, I’ll gladly do it. Contact me, and we’ll set up a time.

So this post is about how we teach — and how we should teach — classical music history. Which, under the old ideas of classical music supremacy, was called simply music history. But let’s not belabor that point right now. And this may surprise some readers, but I’m not going to insist here that conservatory students should learn the history of other kinds of music.

I think they should, but save that for another time. Because if students are going to study classical music, then of course they should know its history. And there are issues right there — with no thought of any other musical history — that need to be aired.

History of what?

So what is the history of classical music? Traditionally it’s taught as the history of composition. Bach used these forms and harmonies, Mozart these, and then what he (and his contemporaries) did evolved into what Beethoven did. And onward. Starting deep in the past, with Gregorian chant. And focused — always and just about exclusively — on the great composers.

But this is only one part of the history of music. The great composers, for one thing, weren’t the only ones writing. Mozart wasn’t, not by miles, the leading composer in Vienna in his day. Shouldn’t we learn who was, what that person’s music was like, and, rather crucially, why he was popular and Mozart wasn’t?

We can’t simplistically assume that the popular composer was a shallow crowd-pleaser, and that Mozart was too good to be popular. Handel and Haydn (toward the end of his life), Rossini, Verdi, and even Brahms (in some of his works) were very popular. Wagner swept the world, after the controversy over his music faded away. We need to learn how popularity works, how popular composers can easily be good, and, above all, what musical life in past centuries really was like.

Which means we also need to know about the audience. Who were they? How did they listen?

And What did they make of the music they heard? To take only the simplest aspect of this, we often hear about masterworks — the Rite of Spring! Carmen — that failed at first hearing. But what does this mean? Other masterworks, like Haydn’s London symphonies, were immediate triumphs.

And we’re much less likely to talk about works, even by the great composers, that were popular once, but now aren’t much played. Like Beethoven’s early Quintet for Piano and Winds. Why, in their day, did these pieces succeed more reaily than the ones we now revere?

I could make a long list of things we don’t talk about, in music history courses. And one crucial point would be finances. How did musicians in centuries past make a living?

What we miss

By not talking (or not talking very much) about the subjevts I’ve mentioned, we miss a lot. In fact, we miss the entire texture — the real-life existence, as part of the larger world — of music in the past. Which then means we don’t really know how even the great composers lived and worked.

In the 18th century (and often in the 19th) audiences talked during the music. And applauded, while the music still was playing, when they heard something they liked.

old audience blogRichard Taruskin (in his amazing five-volume solo performance, The Oxford History of Western Music), compares the scene in a box at a Baroque opera performance to a family in our time, watching a TV show at home together. Making comments freely and having other conversations while the show proceeds. (Though in the Baroque era there could also be shouted conversations between the audience and the singers on stage.)

Does knowing all this, about the audience, change our understanding of the music? I’d think it does. When I watched the DVD of the Met Opera’s production of Rossin’s Armida, I came — through not liking all the music very much — to a new understanding of Rossini. He wrote his operas knowing full well that if people didn’t like an aria or duet, they simply wouldn’t listen. Which then made it his job to get their attention, in whatever way he could. (In L’Italiana in Algerí, there’s secco recitative. Long ago I noticed that when the recitatives end, the aria, duet, or ensemble that follows is almost always announced with two loud chords from the orchestra. Why? Probably to let people know that now came something they might want to hear.)

Likewise Baroque opera. It’s hard to pretend that Handel or Vivaldi wrote masterworks only — as sometimes we like to pretend — with only drama uppermost in mind. Their first job (especially Handel’s, since he owned two of the opera companies that performed his works in London), was to make sure the people in their audience had a good time, so they’d come back and buy tickets again.

And so Handel improvised at the keyboard, with such élan that his playing became an attraction in itself. Vivaldi played — as high and fast as possible — flights of crazy fancy on his violin.

The players in the orchestra also improvised. And to understand what the singers did, first we have to rid ourselves of any thought that the da capo aria — the standard form in 18th century opera, which permeates almost every piece you’re likely to hear — is rigid. Or that its purpose was in any way to suit some conception of serious drama.

Yes, there’s always an opening seciton, then something that contrasts, and then a repeat of the opening. Seems very formal, but not to the 18th century singers or audience! The singers improvised, changing the music at will, especially during the opening section’s repeat, where they’d unleash such a torrent of crazy fast singing that the composer’s melody might disappear.

Audiences lived for that. And also for spectacular sets and scenic effects. And for gossip! They gossiped about what the female singers wore, and certainly about the scandalous sex lives of the castratos (castrated men who sang leading roles, and whose castration left them infertile, but not impotent; some were gay, some were straight, and the straight ones quite wonderfully couldn’t get an aristocratic female lover pregnant).

And such scandal about Vivaldi! Who in his later life traveled through Italy, producing his operas, openly living with two much younger women who’d been his pupils at the girls’ school in Venice where he so famously taught. Don’t think that people in the 18th century didn’t draw the same conclusions from this living arrangement that we might. Plus — adding such spice to the scandal — Vivaldi was a priest! Who (more scandal) hadn’t said mass in decades.

Coming to a temporary close

I’ll stop here for now, and say more in my next post. But one last thought. Maybe some people think that, well, fine, all the things I’ve talked about really did happen, but the great composers disapproved, and put up with it reluctantly.

There’s no evidence for that. Mozart wrote a famous letter, telling his father how he’d composed his Paris symphony, structuring the piece to make the audience applaud. (In the middle of the music.) He doesn’t sound reluctant. If anything, he sounds gleeful, and happily proud of how well his plans worked.

Vivaldi, as I’ve said, made sure to entertain his audience. Would he have gone to such lengths if he disapproved?

When Handel made his London debut as a composer with his opera Rinaldo, he had dragons flying through the air breathing fire. And to give extra appeal to a garden scene, he released birds into the theater. Something he hardly needed to do, since his music, featuring sopranino recorder as the song of the birds, is delicious all by itself.

But release birds he did, though it didn’t work out very well. The birds wouldn’t leave, and did what birds will do, right on the heads of the audience.

If all these things went on — and I’ve only given a few snapshots; there’s much, much more — then don’t our music history courses give little idea of what music in the past really was like?

So then we don’t know where our masterworks really came from. And we don’t know what classical music really is. Which makes it harder for us to make changes in what we do now.

Original Source: Flights of crazy fancy

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