Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Playing by Heart

In music school, one of the most frequently heard questions in the corridors outside the practice room is, “Have you memorized it yet?” Meaning, of course, have you memorized your music yet? Can you play your pieces without the music?

Before Franz Liszt, public concerts tended to be variety shows, often with dubious artistic merits. Liszt, by his incredible pianistic abilities as well as the sheer force of his personality, was the first pianist to have an entire concert of solo piano music. He also coined the term, the “recital”. People laughed when they first heard the word, “How does one recite at the piano,” they asked.

Liszt also started the practice of performing without the aid of the score. Before Liszt, pianists were expected to play with the music. Artists who tried to perform from memory were considered arrogant, or show off’s.

How times have changed. Anyone who plays the piano, from the child doing his or her first piano examination, to pianists competing in the most prestigious international competitions, to the artist playing at Carnegie Hall, are expected to play the music, by heart. Without having to look at the music, they say, one can be freer to express oneself. They can really focus on the music, is another argument.

It is interesting that violinists, cellists, organists and other instrumentalists, often do play solo recitals with the music. Conductors often use the music. Chamber musicians, including pianists, use the score when they play. Does it necessarily mean that these musicians are not as focused on the music? Or that they are expressing themselves less?

The thing is, having the music in front of you does not mean that you are, or have to, look at it every single minute that you are playing. In my mind, having the score in front of you frees you up more because the stress of memory lapses is minimized.

The great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter, one of the great artists and virtuosi of the 20th century, was a proponent of playing with the score. He believed that it is a more honest way of performing, and it allows the artist to not have to restrict him or herself to playing the one or two memorized recital programmes.

Don’t get me wrong. As a piano teacher, I am not expecting to see everyone using the music in performances. Sometimes, keen students would want to challenge themselves by seeing if they can memorize the piece, just for fun, just like they would choose the really difficult pieces to play. What I do feel is that memorization should be a choice, and not an expectation. Some people feel more secured with the music memorized, and using the score does not mean that a person knows the score less well. To an audience, to see a person playing without the score seem more impressive, like someone walking a tightrope blindfolded. But playing music is more than just a circus trick.

Instead of playing by heart, I would much rather be playing from the heart.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Seiji Ozawa

The New York Times reported today that conductor Seiji Ozawa, scheduled to conduct at Carnegie Hall, will only be able to conduct part of the scheduled programme. Mr. Ozawa, who has been recovering from surgery for oesophageal cancer, is now suffering from back problems stemming from the past months’ inactivity. His absence from concert activity has really left a void in the world of classical music.

It is difficult to see Seiji Ozawa as an old man. Other than his incredible musical talent, Ozawa burst on to the musical scene in the 1960's with his hippie hair style, the beads that he wore, and his hip clothing, and became the talk of wherever he was appearing. Unkind critics harped on these superficial things, and quickly labelled his music making “superficial”, and lacking in “depth”. Just as they earlier criticized Glenn Gould for singing while playing, Karajan for closing his eyes while conducting, and Bernstein for jumping too high when he conducted, critics see these superficial traits and allow them to bias their judgement on what is essential, namely, the music making.

Seiji Ozawa is a great conductor, a great musician. Leaving his native Japan upon finishing his studies, and with barely a word of a western language, he quickly made a name for himself as a musician of exceptional talent. Success followed success – assistantship to Bernstein in New York, coaching with Herbert von Karajan in Berlin, music directorship in Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, Boston, Vienna, and of course, Japan. Again, critics became suspicious – too much success too quickly, they say. Nobody can really be that good.

One of the arts’ greatest tragedies is the power and influence of the critic. They can raise an artist to the skies one day, and destroy him or her the next day. Artists, who are in the “good books” of these musical writers, can do no wrong. Others never seem to get a good review no matter what he or she does. In book stores, we find impressive volumes of the “greatest” Classical music recordings, where the authors “grade” the performances of great musicians – one star for this, three stars for something they really like – as if they were school children submitting an essay.

For years, Richard Dyer, critic for the Boston Globe, had been raging war against Mr. Ozawa’s performances with the Boston Symphony, calling him a weak music director and an even worse conductor. Recent history of the performing arts has been full of examples of such battles between critic and artist – Harold Schonberg and Leonard Bernstein, Claudia Cassidy and Jean Martinon, and later Georg Solti in Chicago.

Early on in his career, Mr. Ozawa was criticized in Japan as being too western in his ways. In America later on, critics, perhaps running out of invectives, say that he is “too Japanese” – he cannot really have any deep understanding of our music.

Of course, no critic, no matter how powerful, can really destroy talents like Ozawa, Bernstein or Solti. We only have to look at some of his fellow musicians, among them Serkin (Rudolf and Peter), Jesse Norman, Yo Yo Ma, Kissin, Zimmerman, and Rostropovich, who love collaborating with him. Great orchestras in Berlin, London, Paris, Boston, San Francisco, and Tokyo, keep asking him back. Luck can carry a mediocre talent only so far, and certainly not for so many decades.

Among his many incredible and memorable performances, we can list Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Mozart’s Idomeneo, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Messian’s Saint Francis of Assisi, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades, all of the Mahler symphonies, many of Strauss’ tone poems, to name just a few. Ozawa has always been a tireless champion of contemporary music, performing the works of today’s composers, whether world famous or relative unknown. The aforementioned Saint Francis of Assisi by Messian, a major 20th century opera, was premiered by Mr. Ozawa. In his music making, Mr. Ozawa uses his talent and charisma to draw our attention to the beauty of the music, not to himself.

Conductor Andre Previn, who worked as a composer in Hollywood before embarking on a conducting career, had to work hard to shed his reputation as a “Hollywood composer”, said that reviews for his early concerts inevitably began with something like, “Last night, Hollywood’s Andre Previn…” Once he read those words, he said, he could almost dictate the rest of the review. Previn also added that it is perfectly fine to ignore a bad review, as long as one can ignore the good ones as well.

Bias and prejudice are powerful factors, and no one is immune from them, but coupled them with a position of power, and the results become dangerous. Now that Mr. Ozawa is an old man, perhaps the distinguished writers of the major newspaper will finally begin to see the “depth” and “conviction” in his performances, things that have been hallmarks of his music making all along.

Patrick May
December 7, 2010

Monday, December 6, 2010

Music and the Counter-Reformation

The early decades of the 16th century were fateful ones for the Roman Catholic Church. With the threat of Lutheranism in Germany and Sweden, the success of Calvinism in Switzerland, and the formation of in independent Church of England with King Henry VIII as its head, Catholic officials realized that a reform of their church was timely and necessary. After much delay, the council which aimed at a “cleansing” of the Catholic Church finally met in December, 1545, at Trent, an imperial city beyond the Italian frontier in the Tyrol. Among the many reforms which resulted from the decrees of the Council of Trent were concerned with the use of music in worship.

Although discussions on church music made up only a small portion of the work of the Council of Trent, the fact that it dealt with music at all demonstrates its importance in church life. Some of the complaints directed towards music included a neglect of the text, a disrespectful attitude of the singers, an overabundance of secular spirit, and the overuse of musical instruments in service. In actuality, even before the Council of Trent had been called, a number of conciliar and synodal decrees had already addressed some of these concerns.

Without specifying how music was to be used in worship, the final pronouncements of the Council of Trent on music recommended, in general terms, an avoidance of everything that was inconsistent with the dignity of the religious service. One of the factors that reportedly interfered with worship was the organists’ lack of “liturgical sensibility”, and too much of an eagerness in displaying their virtuosity on the instrument, so much so that the length of the playing was extended to improper duration. Contrary to myth, the Council did not prohibit the use of instruments in worship, but suggested temperance in their use.

Another problem addressed by the Council of Trent was the inappropriate manner in which some of the cathedral Canons chanted the Divine Office. The problem must have been a serious one, because the Council reached a decision that future seminarians must add to their curriculum the study of literature, chant, and fine arts. The Council also admonished the Canons that they must sing the hymns and psalms with clearness and devotion.

Two composers who were associated with church music at the time of the Council of Trent were Jacobus de Kerle and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Their roles in the deliberations of the Council can be the subject of another article.

Despite its eventual and long-term significance in changing the use of music in the Catholic Church, the decrees of the Council of Trent did not have an immediate impact throughout the European continent. In order to carry out the reforms envisioned by the Council, Pope Pius IV formed a congregation of eight cardinals in 1564 to be in charge of implementing the decrees of the Council. Even so, not all church communities at the time reacted with equal enthusiasm toward the reforms of Trent. Many church communities at the time carried on their practice of music in worship as if the Counter-Reformation never occurred. Nevertheless, the Council of Trent did have a profound influence upon church music in succeeding generations. Decisions made by the Council gave the use of music in religious worship a new meaning and a spiritual infusion, as well as marking out a path for future development of church music.

Patrick May
December 6, 2010

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Motets of William Byrd - Songs of Prayers and Protestations

The problems faced by Catholics in Elizabethan England were similar to those which members of various Christian denominations had to deal with at one time or another, namely that their religious faith differs from that of the ruling power.

In 1553, the death of young Edward VI led to the succession of Henry VIII’s elder daughter Mary. During Mary’s reign, she and her cousin Cardinal Pole took upon themselves the task of restoring Roman Catholicism. Their efforts ended with Mary’s death in 1559 and the ascension to the throne of Mary’s younger sister Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth I was brought up a Protestant, and her coming into power resulted in the suppression and persecution of Roman Catholics for a second time in England.

The Catholic composer William Byrd was active as a musician at a time when being Catholic in England was, to say the least, not encouraged. The first parliament of Elizabeth’s reign made illegal the celebration of Mass, and required all subjects to attend the services of the established church – the Church of England – on Sundays and holy days. The fine of missing church services was twelvepence for every absence. The parliament of 1562 – 1563 added penalties for upholding the Pope’s authority. Any person committing such an offense twice would be accused of treason.

William Byrd thrived professionally in spite of his Catholicism, chiefly because his genius was appreciated by people in positions of authority, and also because he was apparently highly gifted in interpersonal skills. In 1570, he was sworn in as gentleman of the Chapel Royal, where he associated himself with important and powerful figures, most but not all of whom were Catholics. In 1575, Byrd secured a joint monopoly from the Queen for the printing and marketing of music and music paper. In 1577, the composer received the lease of the Manor of Longney in Gloucestershire, which entailed another source of income.

Scholars have pointed out that Byrd’s career up to 1575 – 1577 had been more of a worldly one, without very many signs of Catholic leanings. But it was also around this time that the composer became serious in his commitment to the Catholic faith. In 1577, Byrd’s wife, and Byrd himself in 1585, were starting to be cited for recusancy – the refusal to attend Church of England services. In 1581, Henry Walpole, a young poet, witnessed the execution of the Jesuit Edmund Campion and wrote a long and anguished poem called Why do I use my paper, ink and pen? Byrd set this poem to music, hardly a move designed to further his career. The composer was also one of a small group assembled to welcome Fathers Southwell and Henry Garnet, two notable Jesuits, to England in 1586 – a sign that he must have been an active member of the Elizabethan Catholic community.

Towards Byrd’s later years, he moved away from London to Stondon Massey, where he was close to the comparatively secure Roman Catholic community headed by his friend and patron, Sir John Petre. While there, he was often accused of having “seduced” servants and neighbours away from the Anglican Church. In spite of all these activities, Byrd suffered little molestation from the authorities, and his musical work was little disturbed. Perhaps his tremendous talents as a composer protected him from severe persecution. After his move away from London, he continued to compose, but gradually distanced himself from London, the centre of musical activities, and more towards the community of his own faith.

In Byrd’s last years, he occupied himself with a scheme to provide music specifically for Catholic services, the efforts of which can be seen in his Gradualia of 1605, with 63 motets and related pieces for liturgical use.

The Latin motet is a musical form uniquely associated with Roman Catholicism, and was a popular musical form with composers of the Renaissance. A motet is a piece of unaccompanied choral music set to words from the Bible or the Office books of the church. Remarkably, composition of the Latin motet continued into Elizabethan times, when all the arts of the Roman Catholic liturgy were at the mercy of practitioners of the new religion.

William Byrd composed motets in various stages of his compositional career. At the time when he was beginning to make a serious commitment to his Catholic faith, his motets also changed not only in musical style, but in the selection of the texts. Scholars have pointed out that many of Byrd’s motets were written at this time to extend comfort and support to the Elizabethan Catholic community, and to offer prayers and lamentations on their behalf. The use of seemingly apolitical Biblical verses would have been a relatively safe way to express one’s views. Certainly many of Byrd’s compositions can be open to such an interpretation.

In Byrd’s 1589 motet Ne irascaris Domine, he set to music to the text, “Your holy cities have become a desert, Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a waste. Our holy and glorious temple in which our fathers praised you has been burned with fire; All that was dear to us is laid waste.” Byrd’s references to “your holy cities,” “Zion”, and “Jerusalem” might have been masked references to the Elizabethan Catholic community. He might also have been referring to the exile of a number of English after 1559, including a substantial numbers of academics, particularly from Oxford. The “burning” of the “holy and glorious temple” might also be referring to Elizabeth’s efforts to eliminate Catholicism from England, or to the forced conversion of all the Catholic churches into Anglican ones. “All that was dear to us” could include the celebration of Mass and other Catholic rites.

In another motet, Haec dicit Dominus, also from 1589, Byrd set to music the words, “There is hope for your future, says the Lord; Your sons shall return to their own borders.” It seems quite clear that the composer was thinking of all the exiled Catholics being able to return to their own land to worship in the open. The composer’s mind must have been with these exiled Catholics when he composed Circumspice Jerusalem, “Here come your sons whom you once let go, gathering in from the east and from the west.”

In 1581, Father Edmund Campion and two other Jesuits were hanged, disembowelled, and quartered at Tyburn Hill. Byrd’s 1589 motet Deus venerunt gentes might have been referring to this particular event, “They have given the corpses of your servants as food to the birds of heaven, the flesh of your faithful ones to the beasts of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water round about Jerusalem, and there is no one to bury them.”

Furthermore, Byrd’s setting to music of Henry Walpole’s An Epitaph of the Life and Death of the most famous clerk and virtuous priest Edmund Campion, or his composition Crowned with flowers and lilies, an elegy on the death of Queen Mary. Some thought that the latter was written in 1606, when King James I raised a monument to Elizabeth but not to Mary, whose tomb she shared.

The use of hidden meanings within musical texts was not a concept new to composers. On a practical side, the composer Josquin set the psalm Memor esto verbi tui servo tuo to remind the French kind to pay him!

When the texts of Byrd’s motets are examined individually, it is perhaps difficult to make a case for any veiled reference or political connotations. It is when we examine the texts as a whole, that the pattern becomes clear, that Byrd was using his music to voice prayers, exhortations, and protests on behalf of the English Roman Catholic community. It is almost as if Byrd was systematically choosing texts that would be suited to his political and religious views. Similar pro-Catholic sentiments can also be found in some of the composer’s English songs.

It is inspiring to read about a composer whose faith so enveloped his musical creation. William Byrd did exceedingly well in spite of his Catholic faith. Perhaps his genius was too great to have been ignored by those in power. Had Byrd converted to become an Anglican, his career might have gone even further - certainly his life would have been much easier. One could only think of Anton Bruckner as another composer whose faith so dictated his creativity.

To William Byrd’s fellow Catholics, the music, specifically his motets, must have given them a voice – a voice for their hopes, their dreams and their aspirations – a voice that expresses these sentiments much more powerfully and eloquently than they could ever have done themselves.

December 5, 2010
Patrick May