Monday, September 15, 2008

A Defense of Mozart in the Form of a Scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian

. . . And what have [the Romans] ever given us in return?!
The aqueduct?
The aqueduct.
Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that's true. Yeah.
And the sanitation.
Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?
Yeah. All right. I'll grant you the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.
And the roads.
Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads--
Huh? Heh? Huh...
Yeah, yeah. All right. Fair enough.
And the wine.
Oh, yes. Yeah...
Yeah. Yeah, that's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.
Public baths.
And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.
Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it. They're the only ones who could in a place like this.
Hehh, heh. Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.
All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Brought peace.

Note: this blog entry includes musical examples that can easily be found at your local emusic store. They are in brackets.

I visited with a friend last summer and we were talking about Mozart when he stated that “all his music sounds the same.” He then expressed the opinion that he did not consider Mozart one of the truly great composers. The remark left me speechless. After some time has passed, I think a response is appropriate.

When walking down a shore covered with small rocks some may see them and maintain that “all the rocks look the same.” But even the amateur rock hound knows that the rocks are in fact very different. He inspects carefully and finds great variety. Some of the rocks turn out to be quartz, others granite, others perhaps agates. So too it is with Mozart. He wrote music that was loud and furious; he also wrote music that was soft and tender. He wrote music for solo instruments, such as the piano and violin. He wrote pieces for the human voice. He wrote pieces for string quartets, and for quintets, and octets. He wrote for the symphony orchestra. He wrote for piano and orchestra. His works reveal incredible variety.

Compare these two works. The first is the last movement of his Symphony No. 35, the “Haffner” Symphony, K. 385. The second is a trio from Così Fan Tutte, one of his last and greatest operas.

[Last movement of Haffner Symphony]

Now the trio “Soave sia il vento,” from the opera Così Fan Tutte.

[Soave sia il vento]

Those pieces are obviously quite different and sound not at all alike. The variety of Mozart’s work is amazing. He wrote concerti—pieces for orchestra and soloist—not only for the piano, but also for clarinet, oboe, French horn, bassoon, flute, and flute and harp together. But that’s not even the full extent of his variety. Marches, songs, sets of theme and variations on songs, choral music, even two pieces for the glass harmonica (an odd invention of Benjamin Franklin that mechanically creates sounds in a manner similar to circling one’s finger on a wine glass).

But it’s not just the variety that makes Mozart’s music so special; it’s the quality. To continue the rocks on the shore analogy, you are walking down the beach and you find something of seeming unpromising provenance. It’s one-fourth of one of Mozart’s thirteen serenades. Let’s bend over, pick it up, and see if it has any merit or interest.

[First Movement, Serenade No. 13, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”]

Then there is the sheer volume of work. Some 40 symphonies. 27 piano concerti. Five violin concerti. He wrote 18 masses, 20 operas and 17 piano sonatas. His musical catalog contains more than 600 works—and he lived only to 35. And the Marriage of Figaro, about 3 hours of music, like his nineteen other operas, counts as only one work.

Okay, so he’s versatile and incredibly productive, but what beyond that?

Well first of all he was a guy with a great sense of humor. One of the pieces in his catalog of works is called Ein Musikalisher Wurfelspiel—A Musical Dice Game. In this odd musical dice game/musical piece one can build their own minuet by rolling dice. Each of 16 bars has 11 possibilities based on the roll of two dice. The minuet is written so that no matter what combinations occur, the minuet fits together to make a passable piece of music. Mozart also engaged in musical parody in a piece called Ein Musikalischer Spass—“A musical joke”—by demonstrating basic compositional errors—and this was two centuries before P.D.Q. Bach.

One of the raps against classical composers is that they are not spontaneous. They write great music, but it’s stuffy and staid because their music is too calculated. But Mozart was an incredible improviser. Before he was ten someone could give him any tune and he would gladly improvise on it, sometimes at very great length. Of course there was no audio tape or film back then, so all that survives is what is written down. The closest we can come to recreating his improvisational efforts is to play some of his themes and variations. One example for solo piano was heard in the soundtrack of Out of Africa, when the Isak Dinesen character and her love interest camped on the African plain and played a record while resting by the fire.

[Piano Sonata No. 11 in A, K.331, movement 1]

But the most important thing about Mozart’s music is its beauty.

Consider these tunes and ask yourself if these could be improved on:

First another Hollywood favorite from what I felt was the key moment in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, a piece from The Marriage of Figaro: Sull’aria.

[Canzonetta sull’aria: che soave zeffiretto]

Now another movie favorite, the middle movement of a piano concerto, whose theme is now called the “Elvira Madigan theme” because it was used in a 1967 movie about Elvira Madigan, a 19th century Danish tightrope walker.

[Second movement, Adagio, from Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467]

Next two tunes from his singspiel, The Magic Flute: “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” and “Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton.”

[“Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” and “Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton]

Okay, so Mozart wrote many different kinds of music for many instruments; he was prolific; he had a sense of humor; and the music he wrote was very beautiful—but still I hear that it all sounds the same because the harmonics of the music are all based on a common musical language.

Well between 1782 and 1785 Mozart composed six string quartets for Joseph Haydn. Here’s the first movement of the last of these six string quartets. I think it is possible to agree that the first two minutes of this movement, the introduction, were written by someone who is pushing the boundaries of the Viennese classical tradition. When I first heard it I thought it might be Samuel Barber or one of his cronies.

[First movement, String Quartet in C Major K. 465, “Dissonance Quartet”]

But apart from writing music of differing styles, writing for a wide range of instruments, writing some of music’s most famous pieces, writing incredible volumes of music, having a good sense of humor, being spontaneous, writing beautiful gems, and pushing the tonal boundaries of music, what did Mozart ever do for us?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Tamarack Nature Center

Tamarack Nature Center is a small park located about 15 miles north of downtown St. Paul. In addition to being fairly small, 320 acres or so, it is bounded by an interstate highway on the west.

The constant hum of the interstate interfered with what is otherwise a very nice park. Several areas have been restored to native grasses. If you want to show your children what it was like to walk through tall native grasses, there is a great place to do this near the main interpretative center. There are varied landscapes. In addition to prairie, there are some areas dominated by mature oak forests, shallow lakes and ponds, boardwalks through dense thickets near wetlands, and conifer groves.

I enjoyed taking pictures of bees, wasps, and ants crawling on what I believe to be Solidago specisoa.

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.