Time and Space from Beethoven to 1913

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(Variation V m. 30 from the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, op. 111.)

In 1913, an art exhibit was mounted at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York City (around the corner from where Hunter College is now located). This exhibit, which came to be known as the Armory Show, was the first introduction to American audiences of Modernist art. One of the most notorious and vilified paintings in the show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

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The artist spreads out every moment of a motion that takes place over time —  a woman walking down stairs — on one plane.

The artist Man Ray did something similar a few years later with his painting The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself With Her Shadows.

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The painting shows every moment of a dance, flattened out on one canvas, all at once.

It has been theorized that the perception of time changed with the birth of Modernism. Certainly technology had something to do with this: the invention of the automobile and innovations in railroads made it possible for distances to be breached more quickly than anyone would have imagined even a few years earlier. 1913 was also the year that Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring had its premiere:

What does Stravinsky do with the concept of time in this ballet?

Do you think that Henry Ford’s assembly line, also rolled out in 1913, contributed to the changed idea of time? How?

Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity three years later, in 1916, in which he declared that gravitation is a principle of space and time, or spacetime. 

Nevertheless, let us think back to the year 1822, when Beethoven wrote his last piano sonata, no. 32 in C minor (op. 111). In it, Beethoven (who was by then profoundly deaf) begins to experiment with space and time, predating Einstein’s theory by decades. In a sense, it’s not even a sonata, but rather a searching meditation on time itself.

If you look at the second movement (out of only two!) in your course packet — which Beethoven calls an “Arietta” — you will see that it starts with a sixteen-bar theme in 9/16 time. Why do you think Beethoven used such an unusual time signature?

The movement takes the form of a theme and variations. Notice that, as the variations succeed one another, Beethoven is further subdividing the beat and the time signature. Notice, for instance, that by variation III, the pianist is playing 64th notes against 32nd notes. And notice that Beethoven takes the meter from 9/16 to 6/16 to 12/32 and back. 12/32! Why does he do this?

Note that tiny note values does NOT mean fast playing. What does it mean?

And it’s not just time Beethoven is playing with: it’s also space. Space on the page, and distance on the keyboard. By the time we get to variation V, there are only eight measures per page, which is necessary because of the infinitesimal divisions of the beat. And notice that in variation V, m. 30, the pianist is asked to play virtually as high as possible on the keyboard, while in variation VI, m. 8-10 the right and left hands are outlining an enormous space across the piano from high to low.

Beethoven is expanding and compressing time and space in this late work in a way that foreshadows Einstein. Why? What do you think he means?

Can A White Girl Sing Selena?

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April 16 is a state holiday in Texas: Selena Day.

Who was Selena?

Selena was, is, and, were I to guess, will remain for eternity the most beloved female of all time in the Latino community. (Second place is the Virgin Mary, if you’re looking for context.) . . . She looked like (a more attractive version of) us.

This year, a (mostly) white singer caused controversy by booking a Selena tribute gig at a Dallas club.

Singer Suzanna Choffel explains:

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Some cried foul. One Facebook commenter noted:

“Call it what you want, but the fact that you preface your video with, ‘Yes, I know I’m a white girl,’ means that the little 1/8 of you that you now (after being called out for appropriation) claim is Mexican means very little to you, and you ain’t Latina.”

Choffel was defended, on the other hand, by Rachel V. González-Martin, a professor of Mexican-American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who

[defines] cultural appropriation as what happens when [a] community with significant resources takes as its own the expressions of a community with fewer resources.

But, [González-Martin] said, cultural appropriation can be hard to identify.

“Once people are exposed to culture, it’s out there . . . That’s why cultural appropriation is so difficult. To say, ‘You’re not Latino, so you’re not allowed to like Selena’ is ridiculous, and it’s bigoted, and it’s small-minded.”

What do you think?

To put it in a certain context: this is one of the best-known songs by Flaco Jiménez, a Texas-born singer and accordionist, like Selena a master of the Tejano style.

Every year on his birthday, these two white Dutch guys make a video of themselves covering it as a tribute to Jiménez. Is it cultural appropriation? Is it cultural appreciation?

What about the Japanese group Orquesta de la Luz, considered one of the best salsa bands of the 1980s and 1990s?

Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa.

Professor González-Martin’s idea that once culture is out there, it’s out there, is not true just for the cultural expressions of historically-oppressed or underresourced groups. In recent years, for instance, Richard Wagner’s operas have been adopted as required listening by American white supremacists who probably never took Music 101. (If they had taken it with me, I like to think, they might have emerged with a little more love for their fellow man.)

For instance, the famous Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre was used as the opening theme music for a white supremacist radio show in Florida.

And at a speech at a rally in Sweden, white supremacist Lana Lokteff asserted that:

“lionesses and shield maidens and Valkyries” would inspire men to fight political battles for the future of white civilization.

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Someone else used Wagner’s music as a sonic pun in an endless loop of alt-right spokesman Richard Spencer getting punched at Trump’s inauguration:

As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in 1916:

I made my song a coat 
Covered with embroideries 
Out of old mythologies 
From heel to throat; 
But the fools caught it, 
Wore it in the world’s eyes 
As though they’d wrought it. 
Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise 
In walking naked.

Whose Music Is It?

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The great American contralto Marian Anderson in 1928.

Music scholar and historian Kira Thurman discusses the exodus of African-American classical musicians to the German-speaking lands in the late nineteenth century, and their reception once they arrived.

For more on Dr. Thurman’s work, go here.

What About Yellowface?

We’ve talked a little about the longstanding practice in opera of white singers “blacking up” to play characters of color. This practice has only begun to be thought of as controversial in our own century.

And, for now, it seems to only apply to white singers playing black roles. So while this is now considered in poor taste at best:

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This is still, at best, ignored.

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(These are Mao Zedong’s three secretaries in one of my favorite operas, Nixon in China by John Adams. Hint: while the characters are Chinese; the singers playing them are white.)

Is this okay?

There is a growing number of world-class Asian opera singers on the scene, many of them from South Korea. Sometimes a company staging a production of an opera set in Asia will have the good fortune of engaging one of them. The Metropolitan Opera, for instance, in its 2011 production of Nixon in China, hired the Korean soprano Kathleen Kim to sing the role of Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao), and Kim was a force of nature in the role:

In this disturbing scene, Madame Mao disrupts the performance of a ballet put on for the Nixons, The Red Detachment of Women, to glorify her own power and her part in China’s Cultural Revolution. A riot ensues over Madame Mao’s new interpretation of the revolution: who is revolutionary, and who is counter-revolutionary? The scene ends with a confrontation between Madame Mao and her longtime political rival, Chou En-lai. You will notice that Chou is played by . . . a white dude (Canadian baritone Russell Braun, to be precise). As are most of the members of the chorus (though the Met was fortunate enough to cast the ballet with Asian dancers).

Is this okay?

Could a purist quibble that Kathleen Kim is Korean, and Madame Mao was Chinese, so even the Asian-to-Asian casting is not okay?

What about this: African-American soprano Martina Arroyo playing the title role — a Japanese woman —  in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly?

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In 2015, the Boston Museum of Fine Art exhibited a painting by the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet of his wife in Japanese costume.

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In order to attract more visitors, the museum started “Kimono Wednesdays,” making a replica of Madame Monet’s kimono available to try on, and encouraging people to post selfies on social media.

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This resulted in protests by Asian-American activists:

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kimonowednesday_04There were also counter-protests.

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In fact, Jiro Usui, the Deputy Consul General of Japan stationed in Boston, remarked:

We actually do not quite understand what their point of protest is . . . We tried to listen to those people who are protesting, but we think together with the MFA [Museum of Fine Arts] we should encourage that Japanese culture be appreciated in a positive way.

Is this similar to the hoop earrings controversy? As one Latinx writer puts it:

Hoops exist across many minority groups as symbols of resistance, strength and identity . . . the way I dress and accessorise is a way for me to connect with that mixed heritage identity. As for many women of colour before me, hoops play a large role in my self preservation and expression.

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Here, the great African-American bass-baritone Eric Owens plays General Leslie Groves in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic:

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This is what General Groves looked like in real life:

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As you can see, it’s complicated.

Ask yourself the following questions:

What is permissible in art? What is permissible in everyday life? Should art be a place where our cultural ideas of race — ideas which some people believe are totally constructed — are lain aside? Should art be a place where people get to try on new identities? Should opera casting be “racially accurate” or color-blind? Is art a meritocracy? Is art a place where anything is possible?

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Do you agree?

Variations on a Theme

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(Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann.)

Robert Schumann, no. 4 of Bunte Blätter (Colored Leaves), op. 99.

In 1853, his wife, Clara (Wieck) Schumann, wrote a set of variations on this piece.

The following year, Schumann was confined to the insane asylum at Endenich. Clara, who gave birth to their seventh child that May, was forbidden to visit him, as his doctors believed it would worsen his condition. Brahms, who moved in with Clara and her children, wrote his own variations on the same theme from Bunte Blätter to console her, and as a tribute to the man they both loved.

Music professor Robert Greenberg muses:

What is it about older women? A cynic might claim that a young man’s attraction to an older woman reflects nothing but an Oedipal desire to sleep with his mother and a longing to be babied. But we are not cynics. We understand that Clara, as a professional musician, saw past Brahms’ childish appearance the moment she heard him play his own music at the piano. We understand that this beautiful, smart, experienced woman treated Brahms like a man and as an equal, not like a little boy . . . 

Was Clara a cougar, a Mrs. Robinson-type BABE out looking for a naïve but energized (*wink*wink*) young man with whom she could partay heartay?

Answer: Um, no.

How are the Clara Schumann and Brahms variations different? In what ways are they faithful to the original theme by Robert Schumann, and in what ways do they differ from it? Do you believe that the variations enlarge, expand, and (perhaps) even improve upon the original theme by Robert Schumann? How so?

 

Clair de lune

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Nuit du carnaval (Henri Rousseau, 1886).

In an art song, there are many layers of meaning.

There is the meaning of the sounds of the music.

There is the meaning of the words of the text.

There is also the meaning of the sounds of the words themselves.

Listen to the sounds of the text read in French.

Another reading, with a poetic translation into English in the subtitles.

“Clair de lune” (Paul Verlaine, 1869)

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

In translation:

Your soul is a delicate landscape
Where roam charming masks and bergamasques*
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.
While singing in a minor key
Of victorious love and easy life
They don’t seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the sad and beautiful moonlight,
Which makes the birds in the trees dream
And sob with ecstasy the water streams,
The great slim water streams among the marbles.

*Masks = masked players; bergamasques = dancers of a rustic peasant dance called the bergamasque or bergamask, supposedly derived from Bergamo in northern Italy (you can see here a reference to the migration of commedia dell’arte from Italy to France). The bergamasque is supposed to be an awkward, clumsy, buffoonish dance.

Debussy’s first version of the song, written in 1882.

A live performance by South African soprano Pretty Yende.

Debussy’s second version, written in 1891.

Debussy also wrote a piano piece called “Clair de lune” as part of his Suite bergamasque (bergamasques again!) in 1891 (he revised it for publication in 1905).

The piece has been orchestrated many times. This version was cut from Disney’s classic 1940 film Fantasia.

Here is Gabriel Fauré’s setting of the Verlaine poem, written in 1887, in between Debussy’s two versions.

“Au clair de la lune” is an old French folk song in which the protagonist takes advantage of an opportunity that presents itself unexpectedly (talk about “la vie opportune”!)

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“By the light of the moon,
My friend Pierrot,
Lend me your quill
To write a word.
My candle is dead,
I have no light left.
Open your door for me
For the love of God.”

By the light of the moon,
Pierrot replied:
“I don’t have any pens,
I am in my bed
Go to the neighbor’s,
I think she’s there
Because in her kitchen
Someone is lighting the fire.”

By the light of the moon
Likeable Lubin
Knocks on the brunette’s door.
She suddenly responds:
– Who’s knocking like that?
He then replies:
– Open your door
for the God of Love!

By the light of the moon
One could barely see.
The pen was looked for,
The light was looked for.
With all that looking
I don’t know what was found,
But I do know that the door
Shut itself on them.

Debussy quotes the melody throughout his 1881 song “Pierrot”:

The text is a poem by Theodore de Banville.

In translation:

The good Pierrot, whom the crowd watches,
Having finished at Harlequin’s wedding,
Wanders as in a dream along the Boulevard du Temple.
A young girl in a flimsy blouse
In vain entices him with her scamp’s eye;
And meanwhile, mysterious and shiny
Making him its dearest delight,
The white moon with horns of a bull
Casts a glance offstage
At his friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.

 

Is Absolute Music Possible?

Or does music always have an invisible program?

Consider Johannes Brahms, the ostensible champion of absolute music.

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Brahms as an old man, the way he’s most often pictured.

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Brahms in 1853, the year he met the Schumanns. The night of their first meeting, Robert Schumann wrote in his diary: “Visit from Brahms (a genius).” Soon afterwards, he would write an essay in the journal he had founded, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, called “New Paths,” in which he predicted that the young Brahms would chart the path for German music.

I thought . . .  there should and must suddenly appear one that were called to give voice to the highest expression of the times in an ideal way, one who would bring us mastery not in gradual developments, but rather, like Minerva, should spring fully armored from the forehead of Zeus. And he is come, a young blood, over whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. He is called Johannes Brahms, came from Hamburg, creating there in dark tranquility . . .  He bore, as well in his outward appearance, every sign that would announce to us: this is a chosen one. . . . His comrades greet him upon his first journey through the world, where wounds perhaps await him, but also laurels and palms; we welcome a strong champion in him.

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Brahms as a teenager.

When he was 13, he was sent by his cash-needy father to the bawdy houses by the waterfront, where he entertained the rough element with gypsy songs, quadrilles, and sailor’s ballads.[Biographer Jan] Swafford places great stress on this experience (which lasted less than a year), arguing that it accounted for “shadows” on Brahms’s consciousness and his complicated relations with women. He writes, in one of his typical psychoanalytic flights, “As with the poetry [books that the young Brahms propped up on the music desk of]  the whorehouse piano, [Brahms] needed to create refuges in his mind. So he withdrew into a hall of mirrors where he could refract his identity.”Swafford also dwells — obsessively, lasciviously — on Brahms’s looks, his “sheer attractiveness.” Over and over, he describes him as “a slight, girlish boy, . . . . fair and pretty as a girl,” with “maidenly features, . . . . forget-me-not eyes,” and “long blond hair” framing a face that was “girlishly pretty — virginal and innocent.” He suggests, with no basis whatever, that men in the taverns may have taken liberties with him.
Did Brahms “compose” his life experiences? He often used triple and compound meters, which could perhaps be interpreted as a reference to his boyhood on the North Sea.
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When the most comprehensive biography of Brahms to date, by Jan Swafford, was published in 1997, it raised some controversy. Reviewing it in The New York Review of Books, the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen took the author to task for suggesting that during his time playing in waterfront brothels, the young Brahms was sexually abused both by the “St. Pauli girls” and the sailors who frequented them.
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In my book I take Brahms at his word: he played in sleazy waterfront bars [in Hamburg] as a teenager, was sexually abused by prostitutes there, and the experience traumatized him. It was because of the depth of trauma he spoke of that I added a speculation:  . . .  perhaps Brahms was abused by sailors as well. Mr. Rosen and another critic have tacitly accused me of adding that detail for sensational effect. . . . [But] I . . . left it there for two reasons. First, there is the trauma Brahms spoke of, the “deep shadow on his mind.” This heartfelt statement is hard to understand if he were abused only by prostitutes, because Brahms frequented brothels from his teens on. Why would the ordinary activities of the places remain so terrible in his memory? (Brahms was, in fact, tough as nails.) Second, the bars were frequented by sailors fresh off the sea. What was to stop the worst of them from abusing a beautiful boy who was entirely at their mercy?
Rosen wrote back:
I will be very interested if Professor Swafford’s forthcoming article presents real evidence that little Brahms was molested by prostitutes. Even if the challenged opinion that the cafés he played in as a child were brothels is accepted, the rest is speculation. The secondhand evidence is that he said he “saw things and received impressions.” Any port city like Hamburg may present scenes that might shock a child. Swafford leaps from this to an assertion that what Brahms saw was things being done to him, the impressions received were prostitutes’ hands on his young private parts. This is how he takes Brahms at his word. He makes a further leap and assumes that being the object of sweet dalliance by prostitutes as a pubescent child will cause a man to be incapable later of a relationship with a respectable woman. Of course, this could be the result of having found the attentions of prostitutes rather agreeable so that the elderly Brahms preferred frequenting brothels to marriage, but this is not horrid enough for a modern biographer. We need a further speculative leap: How about sexual abuse by sailors?
Whatever the case, perhaps all of Brahms’s music is biographical — is actually, in a sense, program music. He said of his solo piano Intermezzi op. 117 (1892) that they were the “cradle-songs of my sorrows.”
What do you think?

Going Home

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The second movement of Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”). What is the instrument that plays the poignant solo?

Dvorak Largo theme

It was thought that Dvorak took this melody from an African-American spiritual that his student, the composer Harry T. Burleigh, sang for him.

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(For more on Harry T. Burleigh, this is an excellent resource.)

However, Dvorak’s melody, though it may have been influenced by spirituals, was original. The melody was transcribed, set to text, and published as “Goin’ Home” by Dvorak’s pupil William Arms Fisher, who wrote in the preface to the published sheet music (using the typical language of the time):

The Largo, with its haunting English horn solo, is the outpouring of Dvorak’s own home-longing, with something of the loneliness of far-off prairie horizons, the faint memory of the red-man’s bygone days, and a sense of the tragedy of the black-man as it sings in his “spirituals.” Deeper still it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel. That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words ‘Goin’ home, goin’ home’ is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a Negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony.

“Goin’ Home” sung by the great American bass and Renaissance man Paul Robeson.

In the 1948 film “The Snake Pit,” which takes place in a psychiatric hospital; a band comes to play as entertainment for the inmates.

Sung by the Georgia Boy Choir:

Alex Boyé with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

Abigail Washburn, with the Silk Road Ensemble, which plays a mix of western and Asian instruments, singing it in Mandarin.

Classical Music Can Save Your Life

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It saved this violist’s life during the Great Depression.

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Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen told the great African-American mezzo-soprano Barbara Conrad in the 1970s that her singing might make the difference between life and death for someone in the audience.

Miss Conrad was one of the students who broke the color barrier at the University of Texas. 

I can believe her singing might make that difference.