Saturday, March 29, 2008

My musical Mount Rushmore: Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, and...

A former boss at my bookstore once asked me which four composers I would carve onto my musical Mount Rushmore. If I recall correctly, his own choices were Bach, Wagner, Mahler, and Duke Ellington. Limiting myself to Western classical music, my choices were Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart (in particular for the greatest opera ever written, Le Nozze di Figaro), and...well, I couldn't quite make up my mind between Bach and Vivaldi.

My hesitation left my boss practically speechless with disbelief. As far as he was concerned, Bach and Vivaldi were hardly in the same musical cosmos. Vivaldi wrote pleasant trifles intended to allow musicians and singers to show off their virtuosity; Bach's music was both structurally complex and emotionally profound. Only my own ignorance could possibly make me hesitate in choosing between them.

Of course, I understood my boss's point of view. Bach is the composer of the suites for solo cello, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, the Goldberg Variations, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Musical Offering, the Art of the Fugue, the Passions of St. Matthew and St. John, the B-minor Mass, and several hundred church cantatas such as "Ich habe genug" and "Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen"--to name just some of his towering masterworks.

In comparison, Vivaldi is famous for a handful of works, chief among them the concertos that make up Le quattro stagioni. He wrote something like 50 operas and oratorios, but until recently they've languished in obscurity. In sacred music, Vivaldi never wrote a single coherent mass, but rather scattered settings of various liturgical texts. And while he wrote hundreds of concertos for various instruments, his very productivity is used against him (in a way it never is with Bach and his hundreds of cantatas): Stravinsky is said to have remarked that Vivaldi didn't write 500 concertos, but rather the same concerto 500 times.

It would seem to be no contest. And in fact if my house were burning down and I only had time to grab one recording I confess that it would probably be Pablo Casals' performance of Bach's cello suites.

However, I still wasn't certain which of the two composers would make the final cut. My indecision had three sources. One was that while Vivaldi's music is some of the most purely pleasurable I know--rivalling Mozart's--I find the dichotomy between Vivaldi's lightness and Bach's profundity to be a false one. Can you listen to "Et in terra pax homnibus" from Vivaldi's Gloria, or "Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum" from his Nisi Dominus, and not be moved? Or to Bach's "Coffee Cantata" and not be amused? The second is that while Bach is universally acknowledged as a great composer, many of Vivaldi's works--his Gloria (thank you Mark Morris), or Stabat Mater, or sonatas for cello and continuo--felt more like personal discoveries. There wasn't the same weight of received opinion preventing me from experiencing the music with my own ears, mind, and heart. Finally, I occasionally find Bach's Lutheranism as expressed in his cantatas to be frankly forbidding in its rejection of the world and embrace of death. In "Ich habe genug," for example, Bach set the text "Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod; Ach, hätt' er sich schon eingefunden"--"My death delights me; if only it had already come." Somehow I find the lapsed priest who lived in a menage à trois with his favorite soprano and her sister to be more sympathetic.

These thoughts were prompted by reading James R. Gaines' Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (New York: HarperCollins, 2005). It's a dual biography of Bach and Frederick the Great of Prussia, who met only once, but momentously, late in Bach's life (A Musical Offering was the result). Gaines portrays the meeting between Frederick and Bach as not only a clash of musical tastes, but as a showdown between reason and faith. To do so he has to caricature Enlightenment thinkers as having blind faith in reason, instead of supremely valuing doubt, skepticism, and empiricism. It's too bad that the book is so shallow, because it deals with a fascinating time when intellectual refugees such as Voltaire, La Mettrie (author of Man, A Machine) and the mathematician Leonhard Euler were welcomed at the Prussian court.

In addition to his superficial summaries of the intellectual currents of the time, Gaines has a prose style (honed by his onetime editorship of People magazine, no doubt) which is apparently intended to be breezy, but which is more often simply grating. On the ruling family of Prussia: "The Hohenzollerns were a funny bunch." On Frederick the Great's grandfather, Frederick I: "[He] was not Great, not even good for much, but...he seems to have been quite taken with himself, in a neurotic sort of way." On the musical differences between Bach and later musicians: "[It] was an argument about what music was to be--serious work by serious people about serious things, or light amusement for connoisseurs." To say that Gluck's or Mozart's operas are merely "light amusement" is to misunderstand them utterly.

Gaines writes of the Bach revival in the 19th century, "As a Romantic figure, Bach was in every way perfect." But in fact many Romantic figures, such as the writer E. T. A. Hoffman, looked instead to the composer of Don Giovanni as their supreme precursor. That doesn't stop Gaines from using Bach as a stick with which to beat the composers from the generation that followed him--in particular, his son C. P. E. Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. But all of those composers deeply admired Bach (even if C. P. E.'s feelings towards his difficult father were understandably mixed).

And Bach admired Vivaldi. The idea that Vivaldi's work lacks substance is refuted by Bach himself: he transcribed nine of Vivaldi's concertos for solo harpsichord or organ, and a tenth for four harpsichords with string accompaniment. Bach's English Suites draw on Vivaldi's concertos for inspiration, and several of his fugues take subjects derived from the solo parts of Vivaldi's concertos. As Michael Talbot puts it in his entry on Vivaldi in Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): "A great master in his own right, Vivaldi was perhaps the only non-German to leave a strong mark on Bach as a composer."

So the final answer to the question of who will be the fourth composer on my musical Mount Rushmore is that I think I'm going to leave that spot perpetually unfilled. It will be a reminder not to let facile musical judgments prevent me from keeping my ears open.


  1. First, when I think of Mount Rushmore, I think of Cary Grant precipitously dangling from a thread of a rope on a massive nose...

    Then I think of the Presidents themselves: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln I can understand, but Teddy Roosevelt?!?!...

    And then, I reflect that this massive monument looms over the landscape of the Black Hills of South Dakota, that is to say, Nowhere.

    So given the connections between Nowhere and Utopia, a mishmash of "Great Presidents" who really have nothing in common to unite them, and the helplessness, paltriness of myself in relation to such a massive presence...

    My Musical Mount Rushmore: Machaut, Monteverdi, Debussy, Stravinsky.

    Why? Well, first of all, I nearly detest the musical canon, particularly the Germanic one, from the Baroque through the Late-Romantic period. That is, the vast majority of the repertoire that I play as a cellist in my community symphony. And why is that? Because I find the entire notion of a “canon” the failed human attempt to establish some kind of “universal aesthetic” to replace “God’s cosmos.” Since neither exist, it strikes me as a rather futile project. Sure, I can admire the achievements of the symphonic canon and get swept up in its emotional fervor, but so what.

    What is unavoidable for me is the massive presence of modernity: living in the world we have made and continually transform, a world both “against nature” and against tradition. I also have cultural love/hate relationship between popular and elite cultures. What this means is that I have a predilection for cultural hybridity, in this case for modernist music with roots in popular sources. So...

    1. Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377): I love Medieval and Renaissance music, much of which is anonymous or credited to obscure and elusive figures. For me, Machaut expresses that late-Medieval-into-Renaissance modernity where individual composers become important. Drawing upon both liturgical sources (“Messe de Notre Dame”) and the trouvère tradition (the CD collection “Dreams in the Pleasure Garden”), Machaut was an early modernist in the sense that he did not engage in “word painting” (where the music gives expression to the form or meaning of the words), but treated words as merely another textual element, whose cadence, rhythm, or sonority constituted its its own beauty and meaning (like Symbolist poetry).

    2. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643): Gets us from the Renaissance to the Baroque, without sacrificing the polyphonic heroism of the former for the system of the latter. That is, I start with the motets, and love them. Actually, I like Gesualdo’s motets better. But Gesualdo expresses the end of an era (the motet pushed to the limits as monstrosity), whereas Monteverdi uses the multi-lineal vocals to create a new form: opera. Check them out: L'Orfeo, L'incoronazione di Poppea, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria are all totally amazing, better than any bombastic stuff you’ll hear on the FM dial.

    Aside: Pessimisissimo has amply supplied me with both Machaut and Monteverdi recordings, for which I am eternally indebted to him.

    3. Claude Debussy (1862-1918: I realize that I couldn't discount the nineteenth century altogether, and Debussy is who I settled upon. Not surprising: he admired the Symbolist poetry Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, as well as Charles Baudelaire, setting music to poems by each of them. He was a cosmopolitan, enthralled by “exotic” gamelan music, and revived the “primitive” pentatonic scale, loved composing popular tunes (“Claire de la lune”) and children’s music, as well as producing some of the most avant-garde ballets and operas of the era (learning from, and then poking fun of, Wagnerian pomposity). I can’t believe that I don’t own a single recording featuring him.

    4. Igor Stravinsky (1881-1981): One of Time magazine’s “Top 100 People of the Twentieth Century” -- how can you get more simultaneously pop and elite culture than that? OK, I'm already getting bored with myself... Suffice to say, I was a nerd as a teenager, and loved the “Firebird Suite” opening to Yes concerts. Then, I actually heard Pierre Boulez’s glorious recording of the Firebird, and never listened to Yes again. Instead, I discovered Petrushka, Rite of Spring, and my favorite opera, The Rake’s Progress. Folk songs, multitonality, jarring modernism, it’s all here.

    I dangle from Stravinsky’s massive nose, in a monument in the middle of Nowhere.

  2. Such an idiot am I... I mean “madrigals” where I write “motets.” I am a sick bunny, a spiteful bunny... I think there is something wrong with my liver.

  3. M. Lapin, you have indeed put your finger on the diseased liver of this exercise, which is its (Dostoevskian?) absurdity. The idea of selecting just four composers (whatever one's criteria) out of the thousands that have existed is even more problematic than choosing four presidents out of 28 (that is, all the ones before Coolidge, who was in office when Mount Rushmore was planned). At least we only have to carve their faces on the mountain mentally--Vivaldi's nose rivals Stravinsky's in its grandeur!

    But granting the absurdity of the exercise and its real-life model, your choices--which span something like 650 years--also point up the shameful narrowness of my own, which span a mere 200.

    On the madrigals/motets question, you're right both times: Machaut wrote motets, which typically involve two or three voices, while Monteverdi (and Gesualdo) wrote madrigals, which generally involve four or five voices. What the other features are that distinguish the two forms, I'll only be able to say once I look them up in the New Harvard Dictionary of Music.

    A final note: I don't think that Cary Grant dangles by a rope from Washington's nose, but by his fingertips from Washington's lapel--a less compelling image, indeed. (The number of Hitchock films where someone dangles from a height is truly extraordinary. Off the top of my head: Murder, Young & Innocent, Sabotage, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest...and I'm sure I've missed some.)