Sunday, September 30, 2012

Music played well, played boring

First of all- hello to everyone! You probably noticed that I am not in the FCM class this semester (or just figured that my attendance record is awful). I was in the class last year and I thought I'd drop back in for another post.

A couple weeks ago the New York Times published this article ("Rite of Spring" Cools into Rite of Passage) by musicology heavyweight Richard Taruskin.  The article, to be perfectly honest, is a bit rambling at times, one of the many "100th Anniversary of Le Sacre" articles we will see over the course of the next year or so.  However, the central point expressed in the title is an interesting example of how musical meaning can change over time.  Most of us are probably aware of the work's controversial beginnings and its current acceptance as a 20th century "masterwork," but Taruskin points out an interesting change in how the work was performed over time.  The work is, of course, very difficult to perform, and early orchestral attempts were rather rocky (Taruskin points to a 1940 New York Philharmonic recording with Stravinsky directing).  Taruskin suggests, with due credit to Matthew McDonald, that this is, in fact, the point - the rocky writing was intended to evoke the wild and primitive sacrifice.  The current polished "Olympic" performances of the work, by extension, may be missing what was important about the writing.

The idea of musical meaning changing with time and tradition is not unfamiliar to Taruskin's work.  He has similarly written about Bach's cantatas and their rabid Lutheranism, a trait which is usually underplayed in current usage, in favor of a more secular understanding of Bach.  For example, the more popular cantata selections have pastoral themes like "Sleepers Awake" or "Sheep May Safely Graze", as opposed to "Be silent, reeling reason!", in which true faith shouts down rational thought. In both his writing on Bach and Stravinsky, Taruskin's general tone suggests that we have destroyed the vitality of the classical canon by making everything very safe for everyone.  In trying to please everyone, we have made boring music that really pleases no one.  Perhaps a better future of classical music for Taruskin would involve performances that are exciting, if a bit rough around the edges, that do not shy away from the horrifying matter-of-factness of the sacrifice in "The Rite," or our modern discomfort with the death-obsessed Lutheranism of Bach's time.  Taruskin would seem to espouse a variation on Nicholas Cook's "niche" theory, which holds that classical music is far from dead, it just doesn't command universal appeal.  As far as niche music genres go, classical music is one of the more successful and lasting examples.  Taruskin would add that we shouldn't dumb things down to reach hypothetical "average" listeners.

While Taruskin's writing style doesn't dumb things down, it also involve plenty of gratuitous attacks that don't do very much to encourage anyone.  Apparently nobody really plays classical music correctly.  While early 20th century orchestras are softly chastised for their poor technique playing the Rite and Stravinsky is called a poor conductor, they come across as the winners. Current orchestras and conservatory students are criticized for participating in the "decathalon" approach to the piece; Najinksy's choreography is blasted (a little swiftly and unfairly, in my opinion); the Soviet changed-ending version comes off looking ridiculous; the Joffrey Ballet reconstruction of the original choreography injects the piece with sentimentality; Benjamin Zander and Robert Craft's piano version is dehumanized.

While Taruskin's points are well-founded, if we eliminated all performers who could not meet his standards, classical music would be reduced from a "niche" to simply "Richard Taruskin."

1 comment:

IJ said...

Thanks, Simon, for returning to our blog with your thoughtful entry. Both you and Taruskin give us opinions to ponder. Don't be a stranger: come again!