Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Classical Composers and the complexity of their work

I recently read a blog by a singer/songwriter whose work I have always admired through various phases of his very creative career. I was, let's say, a tad disappointed to read his almost blanket dismissal of their entire bodies of work because a) of it's complexity - he preferred simple, and b) he seemed to focus on those composers who had used their folk music as a catalyst for some of their oeuvre. Here's what he said about Mozart "As a child I found myself listening to Mozart and, while impressed by his total grasp of the fundamentals of rhythm melody and harmony, I remained emotionally untouched. There was a pristine logic to the piano concertos but still I was unmoved. It felt closer to mathematics or architecture than to what I wanted from music. Wolfgang was tuneful, no doubt, but his tunes seemed twee, clever, polite, lacking in what I’d later call ‘soul’ or even ‘balls’ and… somewhat obvious. He sounded like a smart-ass, a know-it-all and frankly a kid I didn’t feel I wanted to bother to get to know." First of all, this singer songwriter is blessed to live in an age when, aside form printed transcriptions of his performances, one can listen to his recordings to get a feel for how he played them, tempo etc not so with Bach, Mozart and co. When I attended the Barenboim conducting workshops DB talked at length of how written music was simply a tool, an inexact science and then there's the debate about Beethoven's metronome and whether it worked properly or not.

Some years back I found myself listening a lot to the John Field Nocturnes, and being Irish I felt a sense of pride that a man from my country of birth wrote such beautiful, influential music. I soon found out that he left Dublin at a very young age to take up his position as Clementi's protegé and, oh yes, piano salesman/demonstrator :) My national pride went even further when I listened to John O'Conor and Miceál O'Rourke play these Nocturnes - I was struck by the beauty of their playing and the very different approach they both took to interpreting the music. IN simplistic terms, Field was at the end of  Beethoven's era, enjoying the benefits of the new pianofortes with pedals  while a young Chopin used the Field Nocturnes as a model for his own collection of Nocturnes. Chopin also liked to use Field's Nocturnes when teaching composition students. With this in mind, I noticed that John O'Conor, a former winner of the Beethiven Competition, interpreted the ornamentation as he would whilst playing Beethoven, and it worked beautifully. O'Rourke, on the other hand, had won the Chopin competition and he played the ornamentation, you guessed if he was playing a work by Chopin! Again, it worked so beautifully. As a young jazz musician I was used to hearing classical music being criticized for being played "the same way every time" and other lame comments like that. Nowadays I very much doubt that great artists like the two mentioned are able to play the same way twice. Barenboim, in his  Barenboim On Beethoven DVD series described how each time he returns to a Beethoven cycle, that he learned so much that was new or  found something he didn't remember from his previous go 'round. What must it have been like to hear these composers perform their own work.

Complexity? Ever notice how babies are drawn to classical music - they can follow the logic, in their own way.  My oldest son, now approaching his 4th birthday (october) - sat calmly through the weaving lines of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, performed by Glenn Gould - today, he goes from the songs on Thomas, to the Beatle's Revolver album (he has the lyrics memorized from only a few listens), Beethoven's 5th to Mozart Sonata in C Major - "Daddy, listen! - It's Baby Mozart" - he knows it from the Baby Einstein series.

AS Bob Dylan sang in The Times They Are A Changing  "Don't Criticize what you can't understand..."

End of rant, until the next time... Stay Well!