23 October 2015

Questionable Eras

A question posed during a masterclass on the “Wanderer” Fantasy triggered in me an internal burst of anger as unjustified as it was short-lived.
"Do we regard Schubert as a Classical or a Romantic composer?”

Even as the Master was posing his question I was silently screaming an answer; “It doesn’t matter!  Schubert is Schubert!”. 
The question, though, was rhetorical, and the Master himself supplied the answer; “It doesn’t matter", he told us all, " Schubert is Schubert!”  From that point on the Master could do no wrong in my eyes and I lapped up every word this mightily intelligent man subsequently uttered. His question, however, highlighted a serious issue; the dangerous and corrosive emphasis placed by teachers and many performing (and academic) musicians on historical eras.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, towards the end of the 19th century German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music, drew up three basic periods of history during each of which they could identify certain stylistic traits in music.  Never mind that, as German speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music, their vision was bounded by music written by composers from the German-speaking areas of Europe, they laid down pretty convincing arguments that musical style was largely dictated by the time in which a composer lived.  Thus they grouped every composer in whose music they could identify these stylistic commonalities together and then created an artificial historical period to encompass them: any composer working between 1600 and 1750 was labelled “Baroque”, between 1750 and 1820 “Classical”, and from 1820 onwards “Romantic”.  Sadly these German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music had all died before the 19th century had run its course and so never got to witness the demise of Romanticism as a consequence of the First World War.  As a result they neither provided a date for the end of the Romantic era nor a suitable label for what came next.

If those German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music had successors in German-speaking countries, they tended to keep themselves to themselves.  Having been humiliated in a World War, German thinkers probably decided that they were in no position to suggest to the world that Germany was still the pre-eminent musical culture, and it’s surely no coincidence that most German composers after the war seemed intent on distancing themselves from tradition rather than celebrating it.  Others had to take over the task of defining and labelling subsequent musical periods.

Step forward the British examination boards who, having laid down their framework of graded theory exams, had taken the concept of stylistic eras  to their collective bosom.  Not knowing quite what was going to happen to music as the 20th century progressed, they decided to label everything written after 31st December 1899 as “20th century” or “Modern”, and to this day, nobody seems to have thought to create a stylistic label for any music written during the later decades of the 20th century or the opening decades of the 21st.  So we have the ridiculous concept of Debussy and Elgar being lumped, stylistically, together with Messiaen, Stockhausen, Boulez, Glass and Arvo Pärt as “Modern”.

That in itself is daft, but neither dangerous nor corrosive. 

Bounded by the borders of the German-speaking world, the original 19th century philosophers, critics and writers on music, saw no need to include in their stylistic considerations English, French, Spanish or even Italian composers, and their descriptors of stylistic linkages referred almost exclusively to German music.  It was they, for example, who had convinced the world of the existence of a Classical Canon in which the God-like composers were Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – German-speakers to a man.  So in considering the stylistic traits common to those composers of the Baroque era, they looked only at the Germans.  To this day, there is a common belief that the greatest composers in history have all been from the German-speaking world and that composers unfortunate enough to have been born elsewhere are, almost by default, peripheral to the great march of musical history.  And that almost unthinking perception of non-German composers being peripheral to the mainstream of music continues to inform the opinions of many, much to the detriment of music itself.  This is the corrosive, destructive consequence of a view which defines musical style primarily in terms of historical era.

Why is it, do you think, that the descriptors of Baroque style are, in effect, descriptors of the music of J S Bach and others of the North German school?  What of Domenico Scarlatti, who fits neatly into the Baroque era, but is generally held to be lesser than his great contemporary because his music does not inhabit the same stylistic territory?  Virtually none of the descriptors applies to his music – although that hasn’t stopped generations of piano teachers and young pianists trying to fit his free-thinking, stylistically distinctive music into a German Baroque hat.  I read in a student’s diploma programme note that Scarlatti’s Sonatas “have none of the contrapuntal mastery of J S Bach”.  We are indoctrinated with the idea that the Fugue is the “ultimate Baroque musical genre”, and while it may have been for those living in northern Germany, it had no interest for the likes of Albinoni, Byrd, Purcell, Rameau or Alessandro Scarlatti whose collective genius lay stylistically in very different areas.

In seeing style as the almost exclusive consequence of historical period, there is also the grave danger of overlooking technology.  Throughout the 18th century keyboard instruments varied dramatically from country to country; even from city to city.  Bach famously went to Berlin to try out harpsichords which were generally thought to be of an entirely different quality to those in Weimar, Cöthen or Leipzig.  As the piano evolved, instruments made in France were quite different from those in London, Florence or Vienna and prompted different styles of piano writing from local composers.  But none of this is anything to the huge, fundamental differences between organs in different European states.  Even if Handel had wanted to write wonderful organ fugues, he was prevented from doing so by the basic technological character of English organs where the Voluntary was a much more suitable vehicle for the split keyboards and tiny pedalboards characteristic of the English organs of the 18th century.  I have heard otherwise sensible people say that John Stanley was not as good as Bach because he did not write such powerful Preludes and Fugues.  We would surely laugh out of court anyone who suggested that Bach was not as good as Stanley because he could not write a decent Cornet Voluntary. 

If our understanding of music in the 17th and early 18th centuries is distorted by this focus on historical eras, how much more it obscures our view of the later 18th century.  Indeed, so persuasive were those German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music, that to this day, even for quite musically alert people, the “Classical” period ONLY comprised Haydn and Mozart, whose music was so elevated that we now use the term “Classical Music” to define a whole swathe of musical activity.  In an experiment I challenged third year conservatory students to come up with 10 composers of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras.  They struggled to find 10 Baroque men, but did it in the end, produced the names of almost three dozen Romantic composers before I managed to shut them up, but when it came to Classical it was Haydn, Mozart and…Errrrm?  True, one wag did suggest Leopold Mozart and Michael Haydn as alternatives, but I dismissed that as cheating as he didn’t know a single work either had written.  What of Boyce, Arne, Clementi, Balbastre, Cannabich, Dusek, Boccherini, Cimarosa, Vanhal, need I continue? 

Then, with the focus on individual expression which came after the French Revolution, to lump every composer as “Romantic” is just plain daft.  How can we find stylistic linkage between John Field and Franz Liszt, between Hector Berlioz and Johannes Brahms, between Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner?

To return to the original question, if we regard Schubert as being “Romantic” we must interpret him as if he is Wagner or Liszt, whereas if we regard him as “Classical” we approach him as we do Mozart or C P E Bach.  Yet to do so seriously diminishes our appreciation of his true individuality as a composer, and so colours our musical judgement as to obscure it completely.  Yet there are innumerable piano teachers who devote hours to agonizing over just such pointless questions.
And why?

Because, for so many conditioned by the belief that music can ONLY be understood in relation to historical eras, it seems vitally important.  In my examining days I despaired at the countless piano teachers who had told their pupils that when a diploma syllabus asked for a “balanced” programme, that balance was purely and wholly era-based.  Thus the innumerable dreary recitals in which candidates presented no musical or stylistic comprehension in their playing, happy to believe that because they had chosen composers from different historical eras, they were presenting a properly balanced programme.  They did not think to listen to the music; they did not consider varying tonalities, tempi, moods, characters or even nationalities; just look at the dates and that’s enough.  I had no end of recitals stuck firmly in D major and, occasionally, B minor, full of fast and loud music, which varied only when you looked at the composers’ dates and read in the (usually) appalling programme notes that “Bach was a Baroque Composer. Mozart was a Classical Composer.  Chopin was a Romantic composer.  Debussy was a Modern composer”.

A good composer is one whose music stands out from the crowd, who writes in a style which is distinct from that of their contemporaries, and whose music transcends issues of time, place and technology.  Almost by definition, a composer cannot be good if the music simply conforms to the norms of the age.  If we have to judge a composer purely in terms of yardsticks laid down by a bunch of German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music who decided amongst themselves what sort of music belonged to their randomly chosen artificial historical eras, then we may as well abandon all ideas of valued judgements and join the ranks of those piano teachers for whom historical era is the sole consideration in all interpretative issues.   For them, whether Schubert was a Classical or a Romantic composer really is a vital question.

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