13.12.11

Burning Ambulance 5

Just in time for Christmas!

Burning Ambulance 5 is out. In addition to the usual outstanding writing on music, film, and culture, the issue includes my "Everything at Once: A Love Story", a meditation on the experience of time in music. A taste:
In the beginning was Incident.
Incident was and is all. In the beginning, though, Incident was constricted. It had no way of playing out—no “nonspatial continuum” in which Incident could play out and have meaning. Everything was happening at once. Out of necessity, so that everything wouldn’t happen at once, as Albert Einstein would later say when there was a “later”, time was born.
Paper and e-copies of Burning Ambulance are available here.




11.12.11

EC103


Happy 103rd birthday to Elliott Carter, one of my favorite composers and an important influence on me in so many ways. My posts about Mr. Carter and his music can be found here.

15.6.11

Some Informal Research

For research purposes: What do you consider to be the most important concert music institution where you live? Define the terms any way you wish. Please provide an answer in comments, through email, on your own blog, or anywhere else you think I'll find it.

Thanks.

10.6.11

Tough Times



Tallahssee, Florida (June 19, 2011) -- The City Council of Tallahssee (FL) voted yesterday to attempt to balance the city's budget by removing the third "a" from the city's name. A council spokesperson said that there were numerous attempts to save the letter, but to no avail. Church leaders were happy, saying they had "never liked [the letter] in combination with the two letters after it". The change was effective immediately, but critics say most of the savings were spent changing of the books in local libraries.

Florda Governor Rick Scott, speaking in Tallahssee, said he was following the capital city's lead, and would ask the Legislature to return to Tallahssee for a special session to consider removing the "i" from the state's name. Citing the fact that many people don't pronounce the "i" anyway, the Governor also said that the new name would help foster the populist image the multi-millionaire former health care executive spent 70 million dollars in the campaign to build: "I'm a two-syllable kind of guy, and Florda will be a two-syllable state as long as I am Governor."


(h/t to Alex Ross)

9.6.11

Step One

I don’t know for sure that I’ve ever made it clear here what I think about public (government) sector arts funding. I might have, but like I said, I’m not sure. So, I want to make as clear a statement on the issue as I can.

I’m agnostic about public funding of the arts.

I used to be someone who would offer a full-throated defense of Public Sector Funding of the Arts (PSFA) at the slightest provocation. A powerful case can be made for PSFA, and I’ve made it before and, when confronted with certain arguments against it, I’m willing to make it again.

Back in 2007, an Op-Ed piece in the Tallahassee (FL) Democrat (for which I wrote concert music criticism at the time) railed against PSFA in terms everyone with an interest in the subject has seen innumerable times: I don’t want my tax money spent on art I find offensive; I could do some of that stuff PSFA pays for; if its any good the market will support it; we can’t afford it (more on that one later).

My response, which the Democrat printed, went along the usual lines of return-on-investment, enrichment, etc.:

A . . . direct argument for public funding of the arts might go something like this: A culture expresses and communicates what it really is, for itself and its posterity, through its art. In a market-driven society such as ours, the best-seller lists, box office receipts, and top 40 offer one version of our artistic output. Public financing of artistic work can offer another perspective, one that is not market-driven and wholly subject to the desires of the buyer.

My thinking on the subject started to change[1] when I read Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. From my review:


This triptych of chapters [covering 1933-1945], one each on music in Stalin’s Soviet Union, FDR’s America, and Hitler’s Germany, shows what can happen when politics becomes entwined with art. Ross doesn’t specifically make an argument against government funding of the arts, but these are, at the very least, cautionary tales. These chapters abound with villains, but there are no heroes.
I explored this area further in an interview with Mr. Ross in the same issue of The High Hat:


SDH (me): Right after I finished reading the central triptych concerning music under Stalin, FDR, and Hitler, a friend played a passage from Ottorino Respighi’s Feste Romane (to illustrate a point about cymbal technique). I could barely stand to listen to it — after what I had just finished reading, it sounded like fascism. I’ve gotten past that since then, and I was wondering if you had any similar experiences while you were working on this project.


AR: I have a difficult time listening to one recording in my collection — a performance of Richard Strauss’s Friedenstag in Vienna that Hitler actually attended. It’s one of Strauss’s least inspired works; you can  sense him trying to find his place in Nazi culture. It’s also hard to deal with the music that Shostakovich wrote for the scene “Stalin’s Garden” in The Fall of Berlin. But in general I don’t believe that music is “stained” by the events that surrounded its creation. It can always be reshaped in listeners’ minds — bent toward good or ill or back toward good again.

SDH: Another thing that struck me after reading that middle section and for the rest of the book is what seems to be an incredible irony that continues to haunt us today. The Soviets, especially, demanded that their composers produce music that was close to the people, music that was accessible. This was also the case in other totalitarian countries, in the East and the West. The irony comes with the fact that music that is produced in response to the desires of the audience, or more ominously, in response to the market, similar in style and stance to that required by totalitarian governments. Do you agree with this? If so, what, if anything, do you think it means?

AR: This is more or less true, and it’s a haunting fact, but I don’t read too much into it. Totalitarian dictatorships are those that submit to the will of one ruler, and if the ruler’s taste is that of an ordinary music-lover, then naturally the music he demands from talented composers will appeal to ordinary music-lovers everywhere. However, I think it’s a mistake to believe, as many advocates of modernist music have suggested over the years, that there is something deeply amiss with the kind of mural-like populist composition pursued by Copland, Shostakovich and others during the 30s and 40s simply because totalitarian regimes appropriated that aesthetic. Again it’s that logic of the “taint” or “stain” that I reject.[2]

At the beginning of the Public Broadcasting System’s (PBS) recent telecast of the Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams’ Nixon in China[3], during the recitation of the funders, the slogan of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was read:

A great nation deserves great art.

This slogan crystallized my current thinking about PSFA. It, PSFA, is always beneficial to the nation/state/county/city doing the funding. Always. Period. In purely economic terms the return on investment is impressive—most analyses show that for every dollar spent on PSFA between 6 and 18 dollars of economic activity are generated.[4] PSFA (even on a minimal level, which is all we’ve ever done) allows TV slogan readers to say things like “A great nation”, etc., with a minimally straight face.

The problems with PSFA for the arts themselves are well-known, if not always exactly agreed upon:

  • Projects funded are too high-profile or too big or too well-known—how many regional opera companies (for example) could mount productions with the money the NEA provides the Met?
  • Projects funded are too low-profile or obscure—shouldn’t funding go to events more people will see?
  • There is too much emphasis on re-creation (performance, etc.)/dissemination of existing works, not enough on creation of new works.
  • There is too much emphasis on giving money to individual artists to create art, not enough to bringing art to audiences through performance or dissemination.
  • Too much money goes to people with connections or to prominent institutions.
  • Not enough money goes to people with connections—I voted for this so my husband could get funded.
  • The imprimatur conferred by government funding stamps the work as the art of the establishment—a tool of the Man.
  • Too much money goes to artists who question the foundations of our system.
  • The art produced isn’t worthy because it wasn’t subject to the rigors of the marketplace.[5]
  • Well, I could have done that.[6]

Again, all of these issues are problems for the art world, not for the funding entity. The funders still benefit from the funding, regardless of which of the above factors come into play. These factors can, however, be serious problems for art, calling into question, at least for me, the value to art of PSFA.[7] There are benefits to the arts in all of this, without a doubt, but are they worth it? I really don’t know.

On the other hand, there is one area where PSFA is absolutely essential: Education. On every level. Students, from pre-K through (at least) undergraduate should receive meaningful training in the arts.[8] I’m not an educator, by any means, so I don’t have clear ideas about how this should be done, but there are people who do, and we should give them the resources to figure it out, test, and implement their findings.[9]

Florida State University has one of the leading, strongest set of arts programs in the United States. The problems and possibilities listed above are all in play there. Every year, the University sponsors an arts festival that, for me, embodies the problems with PSFA—the roster consists largely of middlebrow acts designed to appeal to an affluent middlebrow audience, and to meet them in their comfort zone.[10]

On a day-to-day basis during the academic year, and to a lesser extent during the summer, FSU and dozens of other institutions like it provide a thorough, ongoing festival of art in all its variety. Hundreds of performances, countless lectures and presentations, and numerous exhibitions (and, on the FSU campus at least, an impressive collection of sculpture around the campus)[11] make these institutions ready loci of arts education. Let’s find a way to use them, to systematically extend the art making into the rest of the community, region, state, and nation. This will take funding, to figure out exactly what is to be done, how to do it, and to get it done.

I was tempted to end the previous paragraph with: “And do it we must.” But we know that in today’s environment, we aren't compelled. We can’t afford it, we’re told about everything except war and upward redistribution of wealth through the tax code. We’re in a “budget crisis”. Well, that’s just a lie. It isn’t true. The money is there. In fact, the money is there for anything we as a nation want to do. It just so happens that right now we want to fight unending wars and shovel money to those with money already. On the one side we have politicians who cut arts funding during a made up budget crisis, knowing the cuts won’t make a difference in the budget (because the amount is so small), but being too cowardly to make the cuts they want to make during more clearly flush times. And on the other we have a feckless opposition, who bend to the first because they want to be seen as “serious” by an out-of-touch corporate media.

John Adams, the President, not the guy who composed an opera about a President, wrote his wife, Abigail:


I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

Looking at this as a blueprint for America’s future is sad, because it’s difficult not to conclude that we are still on step one, and that we are there by choice. We’re in a struggle for what we are to be as a nation, and I’m finding that there really are no agnostics in foxholes. “A great nation deserves great art”? Maybe, but that seems inadequate at this point in history—a great nation needs great art.



[1] Though I still agree with everything I wrote in the Op-Ed piece.
[2] I think Alex dismisses the relationship between the financial/political circumstances of the creation of art and the created art a little too easily, but that’s a huge subject, best left for another post.
[3] I’m still not the world’s biggest John Adams fan, but Nixon had some terrific stuff in it. For example and off the top of my head, the characterization of Richard Nixon (both as written and as performed by James Maddalena) is rich, complex, and nuanced, and the banquet scene at the end of Act I is musically exciting and theatrically effective. Also, it was moving to me to see an American composer take the podium at the Met to conduct his own opera.
[4] Most analyses land in the upper end of this range.
[5] If you don’t laugh (or at least smile knowingly) when you read the phrase “rigors of the marketplace”, having seen the products, cultural and otherwise, of markets, you just aren’t having enough fun.
[6] No, you couldn’t. Really. You couldn’t. Just. Shut. Up.
[7] Private funding of the arts presents its own set of problems, but there’s far more room for navigation there, at least in my experience.
[8] I promised an answer to the “we can’t afford it” argument. It’s coming. Trust me on this one.
[9] I can hear it now—why just throw money at the problem? The public schools don’t do their job as it is! Well, if the Pentagon performed like the public schools we’d triple their budget, not reduce it.
[10] Even so, one recent President of FSU, who clearly saw his position as being CEO of a minor-league football team, derided the festival thusly: “My idea of an arts festival is a John Wayne double feature and a box of popcorn.” This is offered as proof of what academia is really like, in contrast to the idea of the groves of it being a haven for liberal elitists. At any rate, anybody who knows me knows how much I love The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, but with all due respect, Fuck you, sir, and the horse you watched the Duke ride in on.
[11] The same President mentioned earlier was known to have contemplated getting rid of the sculpture collection. See the end of footnote 10.

6.6.11

Burning Ambulance 4

The fourth issue of Burning Ambulance magazine has just been published. It includes my article on concert music in 1968. Here's a taste:

. . . the events of May had a lingering effect on life in France and throughout the West[3], in terms of attitudes towards youth, the relationship of the State to its citizens, and the very nature of cultural life in democratic society. Never again[4] would cultural values—including means and modes of expression, artistic, sexual, and otherwise—be handed down from on high.

To read the whole thing, including the thrilling footnotes, click here.


 

25.5.11

New Recordings

Phil Freeman has posted recordings of two of my pieces from the Western Illinois Festival at Burning Ambulance. Look for a new issue of Burning Ambulance soon.

18.5.11

Connection

Kenneth Woods wrote a marvelous post on certain passages in Gustav Mahler that don’t seem to “advance the plot”, giving some listeners the idea that Mahler may have needed an editor. Woods’ chief example is the march music (ca. six minutes long) that separates the two songs that make up “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).

In purely musical terms, we are in the same place at the end of this march as at the beginning. It starts in a minor then quickly moves to c minor, which in Mahler’s style isn’t a distant movement. When the march has ended and the second part of the movement begins, we get the same low, soft tam-tam note we got at the beginning of the movement. We haven’t gone anywhere! But, as Woods points out so eloquently, “some profound transformations have occurred. We feel changed by what we have experienced. If I could articulate what that change is, we wouldn’t need Mahler.”

Woods discusses this kind of discursive music as just one of Mahler’s many narrative strategies, but it put me in mind of a very different kind of music, one that uses this transformative discursion/stasis as its very essence.

As an undergraduate I fell under the spell of what was then the very new and quickly developing world of minimalism. My first exposure to contemporary classical music had been the experimental music of composers like Stockhausen, Cage, and Lucas Foss (I heard his For 24 Winds at a concert in the summer of 1971 and was immediately hooked on the soundworld of the piece, which I haven’t heard since). A few years later I heard the famous first recording of Terry Riley’s In C and was immediately hooked. I loved the way it sounded and the way it moved, or didn’t move. It’s a soundworld thoroughly imagined, realized, and inhabited, and what more can we want from music?

I soon got my ears on all the minimalism I could find, which was quite a bit, and was most taken with Steve Reich, in particular his music up through Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. This music embodies the Mahlerian discursions Woods writes so tellingly about, with its delicate balance between process (the setting in motion of ideas and allowing them to play out) and discovery (the in-performance highlighting of the “resulting patterns” that occur as the phasing and other processes play out).

At the end of such pieces (as at the end of the march in “Der Abschied”) we find we haven’y gone anywhere in the strictest musical sense, but we have been moved and changed.

17.5.11

Mahler

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler.  

It should be no surprise to regular readers that Mahler is one of my favorite composers. In a post called “Tightrope”, I recounted a performance of the Second Symphony in which the brass section (during the chorale early in the last movement) was able to get louder and louder, with the sound quality never suffering. The post goes on to liken this thrilling aspect of performance to tightrope walking—the level of the risk/stakes involved can be an important aspect of the performance.

I’m drawn to art and artists whose work/life involves risks and high stakes. Mahler’s life and music embody the tightrope effect—the stakes are high, something is risked. As Director of the Vienna State Opera, Mahler put his stamp on all aspects of a production, ensuring he would get blamed for failures as well as being credited for successes.

His music is full of risk. Its demands on performer and audience alike are well-known, and those demands alone raise the stakes—if your more-than-hour-long symphony fails, the chances of connecting with the next one (especially if it, too, is demanding) are seriously curtailed.

But beyond the audacious length of his symphonies, Mahler’s music is risky in its content as well. He frequently juxtaposed transcendent, other-worldly passages with stretches of quotidian vulgarity, and didn’t privilege the transcendent over the vulgar. His music creates a narrative of life as it is lived, both in everyday existence, and in the life of the mind.

His risks are the same risks we take in putting ourselves out in the world. He takes these risks, our risks, leading us out onto the wire, and makes them art.

17.3.11

Asbestos

The great Barbara O'Brien has asked me to post a link to a blog she writes on asbestos litigation, which I'm haapy to do. The link is located in the "Links and Resources" section to the left. Some time soon, Barbara will post here about the relationship between these issues and the arts. I look forward to being able to share that with you.

12.3.11

Festival Days

Most new music festivals hosted by colleges and universities follow (roughly) this format. A call for scores is issued, usually listing an "honored guest composer" and/or a featured guest ensemble. A committee sorts through the scores sent in by composers and builds a program. The styles represented will most likely reflect the biases of the committee members (this can be avoided, but that's for another post), and composers will self-deselect if those biases are well-known.

The pieces chosen by the selection committe are then parceled out to faculty and student performers for preparation. At a festival at a major school, there can be as many as eight concerts in as few as three days. In situations like this, the performers feel harried and put-upon, and it shows in their performances. The audience can't pay attention the way they normally would; it's just too much in too little time. The composers are not well-served, either, because they may not get quite the performance they thought they would, and they find it difficult to make connections with like-minded composers because the music is so hard to hear, because of the forced-march schedule.

The organizers of this year's New Music Festival at Western Illinois University, located in Macomb, took a different approach to festival programming. In the past (this was WIU's 24th annual Festival), the Festival was programmed with a Call and a guest composer. One crucial difference is that it was much smaller, with three concerts in two days, so fatigue was not an issue. This year, however, each WIU faculty composer (James Caldwell, Paul Paccione, and James Romig) invited a colleague (Benjamin Broening, Jeff Herriott, and myself) to attend.

In addition to having at least one piece performed on each of two evening concerts, each visiting composer gave a talk on his music to expnaded classes. Finally, an afternoon concert of student compositions was followed by a discussion of these pieces amongst all of the composers. I found the format of the Festival to be extremely interesting, as I got to hear two works by composers whose music was new to me or whose music I had not heard in concert before. Two pieces instead of one was definitely multiplication instead of addition.

I must also comment on the very high level of performances, by both faculty and WIU students. My pieces (premieres of The River Flowing Through Me [Istvan Szab¤î, viola], American Song [John Mindeman, trombone], and Night Music [Michael Ericson, oboe]) were given fiercely committed, sympathetic, and expressive performances. I really don't know how they could have been better.

This was a very valuable experience for me, and I urge festival organizers around the musical world to consider the WIU model for their events.

19.2.11

On Criticism

My friend Leonard Pierce has written a thoughtful post on what it means to be a critic and why criticism has value, even in an age of thumbing ratings and aggregated scores. An excerpt:
Criticism can and should sometimes be a painful thing, in the same way that pain calls attention to something amiss in the body.  But it should never be about robbing people of the joy of art.  The role of the critic is to examine art closely, to see what it’s made of whether wondrous, fraudulent, or nothing at all.  Critics should never judge people by how they react to art. 
Please read the whole thing here.

1.2.11

On Babbitt

I never met Milton Babbitt, who died this past Saturday at 94, nor have I heard many of his works in concert,but his impact on my work was direct nonetheless.

Bill Hibbard, my teacher at Iowa, was a fan of Babbitt's music and had studied it extensively. When looking over a passage in a piece I was working on at the time (I don't remember what it was, what it was scored for, or even if I ever finished it), Dr. Hibbard seemed to sense that I was trying to do something with register (the high/low placement of notes in musical space) that I didn't have the experience or means of doing. Over the course of that lesson (which ran long) he decribed in extraordinary detail how Babbitt had dealt with registral issues in a few measure of Composition for Four Instruments (1948).

Part of the beauty of Hibbard's teaching was that he did not require or even expect me to use the specific techniques he or Babbitt or any other composer used. He wanted me to see how it's possible to use any aspect of sound to create expressive music. It's clear to me that he himself had learned that from his study of Babbitt's music.

And part of the beauty of Babbitt's music (and his writings and his work with young composers of many stylistic stripes), for this then-young composer anyway, was how it seemed to show that there are many paths to an individual musical voice.

*     *     *     *     *

Phil Freeman, proprietor of Burning Ambulance, asked me to respond to a quote from Babbitt's most notorious article. My response is here.

13.1.11

Top 10 Fever

Lisa Hirsch has called New York Times concert music critic Anthony Tommasini’s Top 10 Greatest Composers of (Almost) All Time project a “fool’s errand”. I’m inclined to agree, especially when I remember that the Fool is often the wisest character in the drama. The internet was invented just so that people could make lists like this; the more impossible, the more foolish, the better.

I think there can be a good deal of value to this particular exercise, as long as one keeps it in perspective, as I think Mr. Tommasini is doing. The value comes in having the conversation—after all, getting concert music back in the cultural conversation is one of the reasons many of us blog in the first place. The comments sections under each of the entries in the series are lively and engaging. People are talking.

Mr. Tommasini’s posts are (I can say “are” with confidence, because he has said as much himself) designed to expose people to composers they may not be familiar with, to try to explain why certain composers are held in the esteem they are (and the limits of that esteem), and to get listeners to think about why they enjoy the music they do. It’s this last that’s inspired me to make my own list—a list of the ten most-cited reasons for declaring a composer “great”. My criteria for making this meta-list are simple: they are criteria I’ve read or heard and one I’ve thought of myself. The rationale behind the ranking of the criteria is simple. The ones that interest me more are higher than the ones that don’t mean much to me. Here they are, in ascending order, to heighten the suspense:

10. Popularity. Just because a lot of people like a composer, it doesn’t mean they are really good. Of course, they might like the composer because the music is good, but they might also like the music because it reminds them of something that happened to them once, or it may just make them feel good about themselves.

9. Personal Preference. The best composers are the ones I like the most. Duh. Naturally, this whole process involves a certain (ok, large) amount of subjectivity, but this criterion is totally subjective, and shows an inability on the part of the list-maker to get outside himself, and if the list-maker cannot name his or her criteria, this is probably it (combined in #7).

8. Durability. The Test of Time! My problem with this one is that it decisively privileges the past over the present. I understand why Mr. Tommasini held living composers out of the running for his list, what with the need for critical distance and everything, but it really does perpetuate the idea that the past is always better. Come on, T-Dog, give it a shot! You’ve heard a tremendous amount of new music. Tell us what you think might make it. (The flip side of this [privileging the relatively recent past over the more distant past by making Late Baroque the earliest music allowed] is just as bad. Monteverdi rules!)

7. Received Wisdom/Consensus. This is really just a more educated version of popularity, isn’t it? The peer pressure that exists in elite opinion-making and scholarship is very powerful, and I think that comes into play when writers say “Well of course, X, Y, and Z are the top three. The discussion is about who comes next.”

6. Influence. Now we’re getting close to talking about music. I think using influence as a criteria for greatness appeals more to composers than to others. It’s an important factor in discussing a composer, and goes a long way towards making someone a “composer’s composer”, but it’s still a bit outside of “purely” musical considerations.

5. Variety. This is about how many different “voices” a composer has over the course of his or her career. Not necessarily style changes, but they certainly count. Some listeners (I’m including everybody in the music’s community of interest in this) will value how consistent a composer remains throughout the career, of course, but others admire a composer who changes manner or style more than once over the course of a creative life, yet the individual voice of that composer still comes through.

4. Innovation/Originality. This one can be slippery, as some listeners love a composer whose work seems to change the wider musical world with new techniques, new textures, new harmonies, forms, etc. Others like composers whose work brings to fulfillment all of the ideas in the air during the composer’s career. Originality for its own sake (this gets mentioned a lot, but I don’t know of any examples) would seem empty, but it’s hard to overrate hearing something we’ve never heard before.

3. Masterwork Critical Mass (M/C/M). When a composer has x number of works in the conversation for the best example of y number of genres, they are probably pretty great. In other words, if you’ve written (for instance) two string quartets that are at the top of the list, a symphony or two with the same reputation, an opera, songcycle, etc., you’re doing very well for yourself.

1. Tie! Breadth and Depth. By breadth I mean a mastery of a wide variety of media and genre, This goes beyond M/C/M in that the composer under discussion has important/major/great works in a fairly large number of genres. Depth appears when a composer has created an important body of works in a single genre, and if they’ve done that in more than one genre, they’re on a fast track to greatness.

Bonus Track: My favorite note is the F natural above middle C. My love for this sublime frequency (349.2Hz, midi key 65, F4, f’) may have grown from its being the first note I could really make sound good on trombone. So, anybody who can hit that note hard, really rock that shit, is aces in my book.

6.1.11

Falling, Gently

Listen to This, by Alex Ross. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2010. 364 pages.

BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas (Complete). Stefan Jackiw, violin; Max Levinson, piano. Sony S70397C/88697637692. 71 minutes.

There’s a brief passage near the end of the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ Third Sonata for Violin and Piano (d minor, Op. 108, 1887) that crystallizes for me why I’m drawn to his music.

Brahms’ melodies frequently are made of short, sharply-characterized motives that are pregnant with developmental possibilities. In this passage, the violin focuses on a short motive that, in its first appearance (Figure 1), emphasizes the two most important pitches in a piece in D (major or minor)—D itself (the home, or “tonic” pitch) and A (the “dominant” to D, the pitch that most supports the “D”-ness of a piece in D).


Figure 1

This motive (and melodic lines derived from it or related to it) characterizes the entire movement, through repetition, development, and by implication, in both the violin and piano parts. At the end of the movement, (beginning in the fifth measure of Figure 2) the violin plays the motive in three different octaves, each time lower than the previous one. Because the repetitions overlap (see for example the first measure of the second system in Figure 2) the impression is of a falling, a slow motion tumble, towards the conclusion of the movement, which ends with the violin on its lowest A natural.


Figure 2

This kind of gentle falling is an important aspect of Brahms’ art. So is the clever technique involved in the tumbling, with the overlapping playing of the motive in different octaves. This particular combination of expression and technique, almost a tension between the two, is central to the art of concert music.

In the concluding essay of Listen to This (“Blessed Are the Sad”), Alex Ross argues that this melancholy (which is not limited to the composer’s late works, which are often celebrated for their autumnal atmosphere) is an identifying characteristic of Brahms’ music, and it seems to me that he is on to something. Brahms believed he was at the end of a line of concert music (Ross relates an anecdote about Mahler refuting this idea in a conversation with Brahms) and his music has a summing-up quality, and the melancholy cast to so much of his music is in line with this feeling.

Not so incidentally, the motive discussed above has a good bit in common with the bass line Ross devotes an entire essay to in Listen to This ("Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues"). This lamento bass line informs, as Ross richly illustrates, an astonishing variety of music throughout history. While the motive is not used as a bass line in this Sonata, it does fill in the musical space between D and the A below it, as does the lamento bass. And it surely does fall.

Stefan Jankiw’s debut CD (with pianist Max Levinson) is a recording of all three Brahms Sonatas. He and Levinson have very clearly studied and lived with these pieces for a long time—their reading of these mature, searching pieces (all three sonatas are relatively late works) is assured and expressive. The recording evinces a thorough understanding of Brahms’ particular sadness (what the novelist Walker Percy once referred to as a “sweet, rinsing sadness”) and an ability to transmit that understanding through performance.

One could do much worse of a midwinter’s evening than spend it with Ross’ book and Jankiv’s and Levinson’s Brahms.