Saturday, February 2, 2019

The War of the Romantics Is On

Robert Schumann in 1839,
the year before is marriage to Clara.

Robert Schumann wrote his sprawling Fantasy for Piano Op. 17 in 1836 out of longing Clara Wieck, whose father, Friedrich, furiously opposed his intentions, no matter how honorable they might have been. Robert was 26 that year. Clara was 17.

What some guys won’t do to get laid.

The message must have gotten through, however, because despite an enforced separation that included several concert tours, Clara married Robert in 1840 (at the respectable age of 21) and bore him half a dozen children.

The Fantasy, performed with passion and steely control by Rollin Wilbur, was just one of many rich pleasures to be had at last weekend’s dramatico-musical presentation by the Fine Art Music Company. Titled “War of the Romantics ― Part 1,” the program focused on the first generation that musical  movement ― the Schumanns, Liszt, Chopin ― with Beethoven included as their spiritual precursor and Brahms given the last word as their successor.  

The issue at stake in the war was the legitimacy ― even the possibility ― of program music, with Liszt on one side, Schumann and Brahms on the other, and Chopin somewhere uncomfortably in the middle, sneaking messages into his music that he then kept to himself. If the dispute seems pointless today, it was no more so than the one that led to, say, the First World War, and it destroyed far fewer lives.

It also left us with some extraordinary music.

Kasia Salwinski was riveting in Chopin’s B-flat Scherzo Op. 31 and Liszt’s Valee d’Obermann (whose program, I must confess, added nothing to my enjoyment of understanding of the score.) She was more physically involved with the music than I ever remember seeing her, and in a way that has nothing to do with a performer’s trick of “selling” a piece. It seemed to take possession of her, although, being a perfectionist and a wholly modest person, she told me afterward she wasn’t fully satisfied with her outing in the Chopin.

Adelya Shagadulina brought an ethereal touch to the first movement of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata (for violin) and Robert Schumann’s Fantasiest├╝ck (for viola). We were also treated to Brahms’s own arrangement for piano four hands, of the third movement of his Third Symphony and the second movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2. The latter is a favorite of mine, with one special moment I always listen for.

I could have done with less of Robert Edwin, who narrated the proceedings (reading from a script by playwright Ella Remmings) as a fictitious critic named Gerhard Denhoff. He was especially intrusive in the first half, when he repeatedly interrupted the music to make some point, then browbeat the musicians into starting over.

On the other hand, my companion for the afternoon, who hearing much of the music for the first time, told me she was grateful for the context ― and gossip ― he provided.

He was also a pleasant surprise as a singer in Robert Schumann’s brief “Dedication.”  In a clever turn, the piece was repeated twice in arrangements for piano solo (by Liszt) and for violin and piano (by Leopold Auer).

The program was presented Jan. 26 at Ivy Hall in Philadelphia and repeated Jan. 27 at the Ethical Society Jan. 27. I saw it at the Ethical Society, sitting in the largest crowd I have ever seen attend a Fine Arts Music program. Congratulations all around.

The next program in the series will be held at the end of March.


Anonymous said...


Music is an art which has developed over the ages into a subtle and complex instrument to communicate emotional states and nuances.... In truly expressive and great music, the gestures of the textures relate to the order of the notes in a way which creates the strong impression of energy going from note to note; also in quiet episodes, the notes relate to each other to form a network of connections, creating a ‘virtual space’ within the musical work, which defines its own context. In such music, all notes relate to a central tone, present or hinted at, like the lines in a figurative painting refer to the vanishing point of the perspective system, similarly creating a ‘virtual space’. The perspective created on a flat surface of a painting is something we can see ‘into’ the surface; we see with imagination, recognizing the signals as given by the artist’s imagination. In the same way, we hear ‘into’ the material surface of pure sound the tonal perspective of the inner space of music.

In the work of people like Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, Xenakis et al, in spite of occasional tone groupings where the notes suggest, for an isolated moment, a slight relation to each other, the composer has done everything to avoid the appearance of this inner, tonal space, through over-complexity, irregular rhythms and metrum, extremes of sound and colour, absence of narrative and closure, etc. etc. and especially the avoidance of audible relations between notes. What remains is the material surface of sound, and however ingenious this surface may be organized, a whole dimension is absent. But only in this dimension of inner space, the experience of ‘expression’ – in a musical sense – is possible. Any ‘expression’ mentioned in relation to Carter’s work, stops at the flat surface of sound. Mere gestures on the sonic level are different from the intrinsic quality of musical expression, and it is this what audiences, developed on music with an inner space, miss in this atonal music. The capacity to create an inner space which is part of the listening experience, i.e. which is directly audible, is the fundament of Western music, present from its earliest beginnings. It can be argued that music, which does not want to create this inner space, is another art form altogether: sonic art. This art form requires a fundamentally different listening attitude (one should not expect musical expression) and a different cultural context (one should relate sonic art to the imagery of 20C utopia).
Audiences’ incomprehension of music like Carter’s and Boulez’ can thus be interpreted as not being ‘conservative’ but as an objection to the intrusion by another art form into the context of a music performance. For anybody with some intelligence and musical experience this should be obvious.

Gestures with unrelated notes are comparable to the gestures of throwing confetti at weddings. They are imitations of musical gestures which are related to the inner connections of the intervals. Carter – who wanted to celebrate what he considered ‘modern life’ (Manhattan at rush hour?) – belonged to postwar utopian ideology, when sonic art was born.

Let it not be confused with musical culture.

Joe Barron said...

I'm not sure where all this is coming from or what it has to to with the romantics, but in any event, as obsessively thought out as your sentiments may be, they are, at bottom, just a variation on the old saw that music we don't like isn't real music. Through the years I've heard similar, though less elaborate, remarks about everything from the Beatles to rap to George Crumb. Back in the 19th century, Rossini told Wagner that the expression of psychological states through sound would spell the death of musical form. And yet music survived. Its definition simply expanded.

So OK, fine, have it your way: what Carter and Boulez wrote isn't music. Whatever it is, though, it kicks ass.

Hope you feel better.

Joe Barron said...

I can't help but think of Bob and Ray bit about Stuffy Hodgkins: "Whatever happened to the songs that Kate Smith and Pat Boone sang? Those guys sang real songs."

Unknown said...

actually see the point in the comment by Anonymous and I applaud the depth to which the writer went to explain his point of view. But, of course, we cannot say that music of the 20th century is not music anymore because it stopped being expressive in the romantic sense, same as we cannot say that Pollock didn't create art because his expressive tools were so different. However, wide audiences learned to accept the new idioms of expression in arts but not in the musical avant-garde of the 20th century - perhaps because the musical expression (understood as expression of human feelings) was not at the forefront of musical discourse, while it (almost) always was a creative force in other arts.