Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Blind spots

Charles Shere writes about Copland's The Tender Land, here.  I think Shere's characterization of the piece as "hokey and pretentious" is right on the money: the opera's music is thin and both libretto and score are unable, dramatically, to make anything particularly engaging out of its most potent theme, forbidden sexuality (which ought to work and which Copland handles so astonishingly well in Appalachian Spring, showing that the problem is compositional and not a direct function of either the materials or the style.) 

Shere also writes that:

I've always thought of Copland, Britten, and Shostakovich as an interesting triad. Each was immensely gifted and intelligent; caught in an uneasy relationship to the prevailing Modernism-Reactionism duality of the early 20th century; apparently self-assigned to a position of National Spokesman for his art. Each composed masterpieces, particularly early masterpieces, then went on to an uneven output often troubled by indecision as to whether to be Popular or Principled (with respect to personal musical style).

It is, indeed, interesting how these three became "national spokesmen", as none of three came equipped with the biography or personality which could be described as a cookie cutter for such a role and the part of the local political and musical institutions in assigning these identities was perhaps more critical than their own contributions.  While each lived through real political difficulties, on balance each showed a talent for adaption to their local systems.

Besides being the unavoidable composers during their lifetimes (as a kid, these were the three reliable exceptions to the rule of not-programming contemporary music on local radio and concerts), the members of this triad have received substantial attention of late from music historians with both scholarly (Taruskin) and more popular (Ross) projects.  I'll have to admit to having large blind spots (deaf spots?  why are we so persistently forced to use visual metaphors when talking about sound?) for the music of all three and this, collaterally, has made reading these histories a real chore.  In Copland's case, for example, the music which lasts for me are the most "difficult" early and late pieces, The Organ Symphony or even the much-maligned Inscape, for example, with Appalachian Spring being the elegant exception that proves the rule for his "mainstream" pieces.  With Britten, whose music I have really heard far too much of, the Church Parables remains impressive, and with Shostakovich, I have absolutely no patience left and now publicly pledge not to let myself get hauled once again to a new production of The Nose or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk under the promise that "this time, you'll really like it".  No I won't. 

This is music which fails to renew the musical imagination.  But then again, maybe, the official, mainstream status of these men and the stuff they made simply precludes any such ambition.   It would have been best if we could've grouped the three into a Poe/Silliman category of a Musical School of Quietude, and let it all fade away.  But it is in the nature of such boat-not-rockers that they continue to dominate concert programs and have a decisive influence on the young quietist and careerist composers of our time.  And, unfortunately, in music, as opposed to poetry, our quietists are not restricted to the piano end of the dynamic range.  There is one, small and slightly evil joy I can take, though: these are the three 20th century composers whose names are most likely to get mispelled on undergraduate music appreciation tests. Take your small pleasures wherever you can find them, I say.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Not sure if you saw my comments on The Tender Land in particular and Copland in general, but boy howdy, do I agree with you on him and on it.

Britten and Shostakovich strike me rather differently. I never get a hint of that hokiness that I hear in the popular Copland - though I've gotta say, listening to a lot of Britten recently I was surprised at the resemblance between some of his musical language and some of Copland's. Still, Copland could never, ever write an opera as great as the best of Britten's, not in a thousand years of trying.

Anonymous said...

It’s amazing that tastes ARE different!!!

Shostakovich is my favorite XX century composer, his fifteenth symphony and alto sonata -favorite works (opera – less so).

I like his wit, dry humor and depth.

His work is often interpreted in a very linear way: “he tried to parody Stalin and Stalin tried to get Shostakovich to glorify the Soviet Union.”

Well, first of all: fuck Stalin.

TRUE, Shostakovich’s somber (but never hopeless) view of the world has its roots in the not very cheerful circumstances he lived in.

BUT, because he IS, IMHO, a great composer, his music is about anticipating the future, more than anything else.

I think Shostakovich’s artistic intuition foresaw the coming grotesque and, in many ways, meaningless world we now live in (see Ray Bradbury's "451").

It IS a combination of circus, dwarfs, giants, low taste, lack of proportion and direction.

So, I think the music is not about Stalin, it’s about foreseeing the future, through the abstract medium of music.

I am less familiar with Copeland and Britten, but I liked the works that I heard.


Joe Barron said...

There's a story that Groucho Marx once attended a Hollywood performance of one of Copland's spikier chamber pieces. The music perplexed him, since he knew Copland only through through his populist film scores for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and he expressed his surprise to the composer after the concert.

"I have a split personality," Copland explained.

And Groucho replied, "Well, as long as you split it with Mr. Goldwyn."

Paul A. Epstein said...

As an undergraduate at Brandeis, I sang in the chorus when Copland conducted a concert version of Tender Land, and although at the time he was a hero of mine, I hated the piece - still do. Yet aside from those "difficult" pieces, I still love - among others - the Clarinet Concerto. And Copland must be honored for his generosity of spirit. He was truly a good citizen of the compositional community.

As for Shostakovich, I only recently began to hear the late string quartets, and they contain some extraordinary, often heart-breakingly bleak music.

Britten's operas run the gamut from some of my least favorite 20th century works (Midsummer Night's Dream for one) to most favorite (Grimes, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw.) At the very least he is to my mind one of the four great prosodists of the English language along with Purcell, Dowland, and Stravinsky.

PMG said...

I completely agree--I have no great problem with any of these three, but have never quite understood the prominence they have achieved in histories of twentieth-century music recently, except that they do each conveniently stand in for important issues having to do with nationalism in music. But with each of them, that nationalist focus has made us lose sight of other issues. I think "boat not-rockers" is the perfect description for them.

I look forward to your thoughts on the Taruskin!

Lisa Hirsch said...

I believe they are prominent in recent histories of 20th c. music not because of nationalism in music, but because of the social and political issues that can be examined through the lens of their lives: in Shostakovich's case, life under a totalitarian regime and the artist's response to such a life; in Britten's, gay history and the resurgence of music in Great Britain; in Copland's, gay/Jewish/leftist, the New Deal era, etc.