Month: July 2007

Iberian Steps

Operatic revisions. On Verdi’s Don Carlos.
Boston Globe, July 22, 2007.

I realized it in time to fix it online, but I made a goof in the print version, where I inadvertently imply that the scene of Carlos’s trial appears in all the revisions; of course, it was eliminated in the 1884 and 1886 versions. (This may have been a Freudian slip on my part—the inclusion of the trial is, perhaps, the only aspect in which I prefer the original, as it frames the ending so it’s less did-you-get-the-number-of-that-truck abrupt.)

Quote of the Day

As the new art form of the 20th century, cinema has had an effect on opera. The audience for opera has shrunk, like the audience for all classical music. But don’t blame that on the movies. It’s because of a breakdown in education that is scandalous and disgraceful. And it’s because America’s leaders take orders from corporations that believe culture need play only a small role, just enough to give their workers something to do.

Tobias Picker, 2005

And only last year, everything seemed so sure

La Cieca passes on the news that Jerry Hadley has been taken off life support following his suicide attempt last week, so now it’s just a matter of time. I have nothing intelligent to say about this sad, sad story, but I do believe that deaths should be opportunities to celebrate lives—so I’d just like to mention two Hadley albums that have given me much joy over the years. His duet album with Thomas Hampson has long held honored status in various official Soho the Dog automobiles; their rendition of “Venti scudi” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore never fails to have me laughing out loud. Also hunt around for Hadley’s apparently-out-of-print 1994 Broadway album In the Real World, which might just be the only “crossover” album I’ve ever liked; a collection of distinctly moody songs sung with direct emotion rather than surface stylisms. It was the record that introduced me to the hilarious Kander and Ebb song “I Don’t Remember Christmas,” and Hadley’s delicately melancholic version of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” as well as his full-out operatic rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” are singularly memorable. Condolences to all his family and friends.

Another One Sights the Dust

Forget So or Empty Glass or Radio K.A.O.S.—my new favorite solo follow-up project belongs to ex-Queen guitarist Brian May, who just finished his thesis for the PhD in astrophysics he abandoned in 1974 to pursue international rock stardom. May’s work concerns interplanetary dust clouds—you can find some of his pre-“Fat Bottomed Girls” research here—and, according to the Times, his thesis demonstrates, for the first time, that dust clouds in our own solar system move in the same direction as the planets. Gaudeamus igitur juvenes dum sumus!

By the way, Brian’s blog is a lot of fun.

Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame that burns your change

What happens when that illusory arrow of progress takes a bit of a u-turn?

Today’s exhibit in the zig-zag of music history is Dieterich Buxtehude, who most people only remember as a precursor of Bach, and that Johann Sebastian once hiked 200 miles to hear him play. But that organist’s holiday should tell you something—Buxtehude was pretty famous in his time. He was the organist for the church at Lübeck, and judging by his published compositions, Sundays in Lübeck must have been something. His preludes whip through promiscuous numbers of textures and moods. He thinks nothing of turning a simple chorale prelude into a full-fledged multi-movement dance suite (“Auf meinen lieben Gott,” BuxWV 179—score here). His imitative works are built on unusually angular and ruminative themes. Here’s a particular example: the Fugue in C major, BuxWV 174 (score here). Go on—show this subject to your 18th-Century Counterpoint instructor and see if you pass.


Break out the red pen—too long, too jumpy, too harmonically ambiguous (eight notes in, and he’s making the tonic sound like the dominant). But it’s the final cadence that’s really far out: Buxtehude just hangs on to that tonic triad in the face of all kinds of diatonic dissonance from the bass.


Now Bach certainly had his wild moments, but I can’t think of anything near that crazy. In just about every one of his organ works, in fact, Buxtehude tosses off some musical inspiration—a melodic turn, a clash of harmonies, an unprepared jump-cut to an entirely new texture and tempo—that Bach would have at least thought twice about.

The point here is not to somehow demonstrate that Buxtehude was a better composer than Bach, or that one or the other of them made some sort of “wrong turn,” to borrow that awful phrase so beloved of prescriptivist music historians. The point is that those composers we remember as particularly important, or influential, or innovatory—that’s as much a fortuitous accident of time and place as it is the force of individual creativity. Bach had an unparalleled talent for assimilating disparate influences into an architecturally harmonious whole at a time when an unprecedented number of disparate influences—Renaissance polyphony, Lutheran chorale, Italian monody, French dance music, you name it—was ripe for assimilation. If Bach’s personal style evolved in a more conservative direction than Buxtehude’s ever did, that evolution intersected with the musical current of the time such that it became a river feeding countless tributaries over the next centuries. And so Bach is remembered as the singular genius, the navigator that charted the way for everyone who came after him, while Buxtehude is just the guy back in port who encouraged him to buy a boat. (It’s interesting to consider what part local preference played in both careers as well. Buxtehude’s avant-garde ways—in addition to his organ-playing, he was a pioneer in large-scale sacred dramatic works—apparently went over well in Lübeck: he kept his post for nearly forty years, ending only with his death in 1707. Bach, on the other hand, returned from his trip to hear Buxtehude to find local officials in Arnstadt complaining about, among other things, the over-elaborate nature of his chorale accompaniments.)

In other words, even if Buxtehude was more adventurous, more innovatory than Bach, Bach became the more important composer because he was lucky enough to live at a time uniquely suited to his formidable genius. Buxtehude is rather like Winston Churchill in 1912 or so—obviously talented, impatiently forward-looking, but lacking access to a stage on which his talents can fully flourish. Bach is like Churchill in 1940: the exact person at the exact moment in history.

Buxtehude is one of those radical composers who always seem to flourish just before a historical consolidation—think of C.P.E. Bach, or Carl Maria von Weber, or George Antheil. Would they rank higher in the Pantheon if they had come along fifty years later? Fifty years earlier? It’s hard to say. But then again, what if Bach had been a contemporary of Mozart? What if Beethoven had been born in France in 1860? Contrafactuals like those always carry a whiff of the ridiculous, but they point up how, maybe even more than sheer talent, it’s how that talent interacts—or doesn’t interact—with the time and place it’s launched into that determines the historical standing of the bearer. If I end up rating only a cursory mention in the 2200 edition of the New Grove, I may be able to claim the same excuse as Brian Wilson: I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.

I got to thinking about this after Adam and Daniel were talking last week about musical innovation.