The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are we hearing more Brahms? If so, why?

October 7, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear got to thinking about concerts, recordings and Wisconsin Public Radio programs over the past year and the ones coming up this season.

And it seems like there was a lot of music by Johannes Brahms (below), often given multiple performances – the “German” Requiem, the symphonies and concertos, the solo piano music, the string quintets and sextets, and the piano trios and other chamber music with piano.

This season alone, in Madison we will hear three performances of the famous Piano Quintet. Two of them will be in the usual version at the Wisconsin Union Theater (the Takacs Quartet with pianist Garrick Ohlsson) and at Farley’s House of Pianos (the Pro Arte Quartet with pianist Alon Goldstein), and, recently, the earlier two-piano version at Farley’s by Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro. (You can hear the gorgeous slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Now it is true that Brahms is one of the standard composers who never really go out of fashion, especially for the way he combined the craft and polyphony of Classicism with a Romantic sensibility. Not for nothing was he lumped in with Bach and Beethoven.

Also true is that Brahms is often described as “autumnal” and fits the concert season.

But not everyone loves Brahms. The British composer Benjamin Britten hated his music and the American crime writer James Ellroy also can’t stand Brahms.

Still, it seems to The Ear that we are hearing more than the usual amount of Brahms.

And if that is true, he wonders, why is it the case? Why does Brahms appeal so?

Is there something in Brahms that matches the times we live in?

Or perhaps something that reassures and consoles us about the times we live in?

Anyway, do you think we are hearing more Brahms?

And if you do, what do you think explains it?

Finally, if you like Brahms what is your favorite piece by Brahms?

Tell us in COMMENTS and provide a link to an audio or video clip is possible

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Which well-known composers or works can’t you stand and consider overrated?

August 5, 2017
21 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

We all have them: Composers and well-known works we just don’t like and consider highly overrated.

Composers whose musical works are deemed masterpieces by some but just don’t speak to others.

The Ear recently saw a blog post on the Internet in which a musically sophisticated British listener ranted against Johannes Brahms (below) – the epitome for so many of carefully crafted, soulful late Romanticism — and about how unlistenable and overwritten Brahms’ music is.

The Ear also knows several people who think that the music of the Classical pioneer Franz Joseph Haydn (below) is boring beyond bearable, that his music is thoroughly second-rate or forgettable – even though the great contemporary American composer John Harbison calls Haydn the most undervalued and underplayed of the great composers.

The 12-tone, serial and atonal composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alan Berg – also come in for more than their fair share of dismissal.

For The Ear, one of those composers who divide the world in two – into those who love him and those who hate him – is Alexander Scriabin (below), the late Russian Romantic (1872-1915).

Oh, some of the early piano preludes and etudes are OK, largely thanks to the obvious influence of Chopin.

But even though Scriabin died young, he developed his own mature style, including the use of a mystical chord and a taste for apocalyptic and visionary frenzy .

To The Ear, those late works seem way too over-the-top and out-of-control, lacking in discernible structure and significance.

Not long ago, Wisconsin Public Radio played Scriabin’s symphonic tone poem “The Poem of Ecstasy.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Is The Ear the only person who finds it more like “The Poem of Agony”?

And then there are the late, virtuosic and pretentious piano sonatas called “White Mass” and “Black Mass” – favorites of the great Russian piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below) who, as a child played for Scriabin.

When it comes to the Russian school, The Ear far prefers the emotion in the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and even Peter Tchaikovsky.

Well, what can you do? Such is taste.

So today, The Ear wants to know: Are there famous composers or famous works that you just can’t stand and consider highly overrated?

Leave the name and the reason you hate it so much in the COMMENT section.

Here’s hoping for some interesting and surprising responses.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Was composer Igor Stravinsky gay or bisexual, as a new book by Robert Craft claims? And if he was, how much does it matter? Did it affect his music? Were New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe and other writers even-handed and fair in exploring the “issue”?

July 28, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

With the rising social and political acceptance of marriage equality, or same-sex marriage, it is hard not to imagine that there will also be even more interest in gay history and whether great and important figures from the past will be “outed” as gay, lesbian and bisexual.

That is especially true of the pioneering 20th-century Russian modernist composer Igor Stravinsky (1881-1972, below top) -– 2013 is the centennial of his landmark ballet score “Rite of Spring” – who has been “outed” in the new book “Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories” by 90-year-old Robert Craft (below bottom, on the right with Stravinsky on the left), who was the composer’s longtime friend and assistant.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

Robert Craft (right) with Igor Stravinsky

Specifically, Craft says, Stravinsky – who was married to women three times and was said to have been proud or even boastful of his heterosexuality  — had affairs with Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov (below top), the oldest son of Stravinsky’s teacher, the famous Russian composer and orchestrator  Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov; with French composer Maurice Ravel (below middle, with Ravel on the left and Stravinsky on the right); and with Belgian composer Maurice Delage (below bottom).

andrey rimsky-korsakov

ravel and stravinsky

maurice delage

Perhaps the most comprehensive and careful or even conservative treatment of the questions raised by Craft and his book (below), which was published by the thriving Naxos Records, came in The New York Times through the treatment by reporter and critic Zachary Woolfe.

Robert Craft old w book NAXOS

Here is a link to that story by Zachary Woolfe (below):

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/arts/music/doubts-greet-claims-about-stravinskys-sexuality.html?_r=0

zachary woolfe ny times critic

Other writers and media outlets also covered the controversial story, which was bound to get attention, given the “virility” of Stravinsky’s most famous scores and the wide influence he had on modern music. Be sure to read the Comments sections, since you will there find many other points of view and debate from the “consumers.”

Here is a link to an excellent story on the radio website for the New York City radio station WQXR-FM. Be sure to read the many reader comments:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2013/jun/25/was-stravinsky-bisexual-if-he-was-so-what/

Here is another fine story from the Los Angeles Times:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-stravinksy-craft-20130721,0,6906602.story

And here is how famed critic Norman Lebrecht (below) first treated the matter:

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2013/06/was-stravinsky-ambisexual-while-writing-rite-of-spring.html

And then here is how Lebrecht later got pretty dour about Woolfe and the Times as well other critics  or questioners of Craft’s claims:

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2013/07/the-new-york-times-gets-sniffy-about-stravinskys-retrosexuality.html

norman_lebrecht

One thing is for sure: Craft’s contentions and the validity of his proof as well as the effect of the claim will surely be analyzed and talked about a lot at the special Stravinsky festival in August at Bard College near New York City.

What do you think of the claim? True or false?

And if true, how much do you think it matters?

The Ear — who thinks almost all great art and great artists involve a real or symbolic transgression of sexual taboos — wants to hear.

So check out the sheer transgressive sensuality and even sexuality of the music and dance, with choreography by the famed PIna Bausch, and the dancers’ bodies in the YouTube video below:


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