Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Herbert von Karajan- one of the most influential, accomplished, controversial and contradictory musicians who ever lived.
Not too long ago, I was asked to provide introductory essays for two volumes the Warner’s news collection of EMI-era Karajan recordings. It was a fascinating challenge, but one I seriously considered not taking on simply because Karajan remains such a divisive figure, both as a person and a musician.
In the end, I took the gig. The two sets comprise an enormous amount of very diverse repertoire- it made for fascinating, if exhausting listening. Karajan’s sound concept was famously strong and consistent, but as a performer, I find him more of a risk-taker than most people think. Some things he does really take flight, others crash and burn- not only interpretively, but occasionally technically. In any case, it’s a unique body of work, and one I’ve learned a lot from over the years. He was often surprisingly good in non-Germanic repertoire, as can be seen in many of the performances included in this set.
Few of the major mid 20th. C. Austro-German conductors such as Eugen Jochum, Karl Bohm and Otto Klemperer explored much of the repertoire outside the Austro-German tradition. In this respect, Herbert von Karajan was both more international and a more modern figure than many of his contemporary colleagues. In many cases, studying Karajan’s forays into French, Russian and Eastern European repertoire can be highly illuminating in illustrating the characteristics of his approach to interpretation and orchestral training..
Debussy’s La Mer was a long-time Karajan favorourite, which he first conducted with his orchestra at Aachen in 1935. His next performances of the work took place in the more glamorous environs of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1939, programmed, as in 1935, alongside another non-Germanic Karajan staple, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. Performances in France followed in 1944, and the work remained in Karajan’s repertoire through one of his last European tours in 1985. This performance from 1977 in many ways captures the best qualities Karajan brings to French music- a flair for sonic sensuality, an ability to find fluidity in moderate tempi and a visceral delight in sheer orchestral virtuosity.
If Debussy’s greatest orchestral masterwork, La Mer, was a lifelong Karajan favourite, Ravel’s La Valse, probably that composer’s finest piece of orchestral concert music, was a work Karajan had a more complex relationship with. The Karajan archive shows early concert performances of it with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1934, in Aachen in 1936 and in Stockholm in 1938, but after this point, he seems to have not returned to the work in concert. With that in mind, Karajan’s lone recording of the work with the Orchestre de Paris in 1971 is a rather precious document, and a compelling one- again there is ample evidence Karajan’s ability to conjure impressively seductive and decadent colours from the orchestra and the work’s final plunge into oblivion is played with trademark Karajan intensity. Where Karajan is possibly less convincing in French music is in capturing a truly idiomatic sense of elegance and classicism. His recording of Le Tombeau de Couperin takes on a distinctly Germanic weight in the Menuet, but the Prelude thrives on Karajan’s obsession with legato playing. Ravel’s Spanish-infected music was quite central to Karajan’s repertoire, and he conducted the Rhapsodie espagnole often, especially in the heart of his career from the 1950’s through the 70’s. Bolero, however, was a true Karajan party piece which he performed countless times, recorded in Berlin for DG and filmed for Sony in 1985. This performance comes from near the end of his tenure as “music advisor” of the Orchestre de Paris in 1971.
Karajan’s affection for music with a Spanish flavour also comes through in his sparkling rendition of Chabrier’s beloved orchestral bonbon, Espana. Karajan had developed something of a reputation as a master of the short, light orchestral showpiece in recordings with the Philharmonia from the 1950’s, but his latter career saw him cultivating an ever more serious persona, and lighter repertoire like Espana appeared only rarely on concerts like the Berlin Philharmonic New Year’s Concert in 1979, when he conducted the work for the last time, alongside his final performance of Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite. These recorded performances come from sessions in preparation for that concert, and show Karjan and the BPO unleashing on Bizet’s modest suite a surely-unprecedented degree of sheer orchestral power.
Karajan was not by nature a completist, especially in repertoire outside the German canon, and his enthusiasm for the music of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky tended to be narrowly focused on these composers’ most famous symphonic works. The Berlin Philharmonic’s most famous and important contribution to the recorded legacy of Antonin Dvorak is the set of the complete symphonies recorded with Raphael Kubelik between 1966 and 1973. These recordings of the last two Dvorak symphonies were made by Karajan and BPO in 1977 and 1979 and are vastly different in tone and style from Kubelik’s. Karajan’s sound world is darker, the string playing more sustained and cushioned, and there is an emphasis on intensely expressive crescendi that can only be achieved at the expense of some of the remarkable sense of forward motion, rhythmic bite and clarity of articulation Kubelik had achieved only a few years earlier. Karajan’s Dvorak seems to be at its best in the moments of high tragedy and dramatic portent, notably in the Introduction to the New World and the anguished final pages of that work’s Finale, which successfully remind the listener that, for all it’s tunefulness and enduring popularity, Dvorak’s final symphony is a deeply tragic work.
If Karajan was subjective in programming the music of 19th c. Eastern European masters, he was even more selective in programming the music of his own lifetime. However, he could be an effective advocate for those works he took into his repertoire, not least because of the sheer marketing power and prestige of his associations with the BPO and his various recording partners. Karajan first conducted Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in 1953 and showed a real affinity for the piece- the mixed meters of the first movement roll forward naturally, and the second movement avoids bogging down as so many performances did before Sir Georg Solti discovered Bartók’s correct metronome marking in the 1980’s. Bartók’s super-virtuosic Finale certainly holds no terror’s for this most super-virtuosic of orchestras, but what comes across most consistently in this recording is Karajan’s consistent respect for the letter of the score (notably Bartók’s metronome markings), and the result is a performance that is remarkably idiomatic.
Karajan’s affinity for the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies was life-long. He first conducted the Fifth Symphony with Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra in 1929 at the age of twenty-one. The Pathetique came into his repertoire during his time as conductor of the very modest orchestra at Ulm in 1933, and he first conducted the Fourth, probably the most technically demanding of the three for the conductor, while Music Director in Aachen in 1937. Karajan unleashes a tremendous brass onslaught in the “Fate” fanfare which opens the Fourth- perhaps not surprising from a conductor who was known to double and even triple the trumpets in his orchestra. However, if the opening leaves one expecting a reading of extrovert virtuosity, Karajan’s approach in the main body of the first movement is surprisingly lyrical, even in the fortissimos, and in many ways, rather classical- largely eschewing extremes of tempo and rubato. This somewhat classical approach to Tchaikovsky’s dramatic language is not actually all that far away from that of Evgeny Mravinsky, one of the few conductors Karajan considered a true equal (perhaps not least because Mravinsky was one of the few conductors capable of being every bit as autocratic as Karajan is often reported to have been). If the Karajan’s reading of the symphony hints at the Fourth’s capacity to serve as a vehicle for pure orchestral display, his reading of the Finale goes more completely down that path. Karajan’s perhaps-uneasy balance of textual fidelity, classicism and orchestral virtuosity can be heard equally well in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies which complete this collection.
A new review of the recent Somm CD of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht and Brahms’s Serenade in D major from critic Gavin Dixon at Classical CD Reviews
“. But this group, the string trio Ensemble Epomeo with three extra players, instead strives for, and achieves, clarity of line and texture. The textures are appropriately bass heavy, and the two cellos dominate, but every line comes through with exceptional clarity. This gives the piece a new profile, with the complex but now clear counterpoint driving the music and leading the ear through the harmonic web. There is atmosphere here too, and much warmth in the ensemble’s sound, but that is never at the expense of the individual lines…The chamber version of the Serenade is similarly open in its textures and is presented with equal clarity and precision. This time round, though, there is less need for such an analytical approach. Even in its larger version, this work is all about clarity and directness of expression. Woods, who now moves from the cello desk to the podium, gives an appropriately bright and carefree account. The players interact well, and there is a clear unity of intent within the ensemble. “
[Click here to Explore the Score of the companion work on this CD- Brahms’s Serenade No. 1 in D major, Original Version for Nonet)
The Brahms-Wagner rivalry was largely an affair of the press, whipped up by critics like the Brahmsian Eduard Hanslick and his pro-Wagnerian rivals. Brahms actually professed great admiration for Wagner’s music on many occasions. Nonetheless, there was a time when the two men were perceived as embodying irreconcilable aesthetic approaches. In the end, it was Arnold Schönberg who succeeded in Verklärte Nacht and the works which followed it, in marrying the joint influences of Wagner and Brahms as no one had before.
Brahms’s music- its density, richness and rigour- had a profound influence on Arnold Schönberg’s development, and his engagement with Brahms’s music continued throughout his career. Schönberg’s writings about the music of Brahms, particularly his essay “Brahms the Progressive,” are among the most illuminating analyses of the older composer’s work, and his arrangement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor for full orchestra has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire. From Brahms, Schönberg learned the creative possibilities of the perpetual manipulation and development of tiny motivic cells, an approach that would eventually form the underpinning of the 12-tone technique. This kind of rigorously detailed approach to composition is already fully developed in Verklärte Nacht. Brahms’s favourite technique of “developing variation” (a term coined by Schönberg which refers to the constant development of small musical ideas throughout a piece) is also essential in Schönberg’s music. Brahms’s approach to most classical forms differs from that of his forerunners in that Brahms’s music is almost never simply expository nor recapitulatory: the musical material starts to develop and evolve almost as soon as the piece starts, and the process of constant change carries right through to the end.
Originally written as a string sextet (for two violins, two violas and two cellos) over just three weeks in 1899, and arranged by the composer in 1917 for large string orchestra, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) takes its title from a poem by Richard Dehmel, published in the collection Weib und Welt (Woman and World) in 1896. Modern readers might be amused to read that Dehmel was tried for obscenity and blasphemy when Weib und Welt was published. While the acknowledgment and exploration of female sexuality in Verklärte Nacht and some of Dehmel’s other poems might have raised eyebrows, the worldview expressed in them, and the association of female sexuality with shame and guilt, now seems rather conservative and paternalistic. Modern readers may find the poem’s apotheosis, in which “the man” forgives and accepts “the woman” in spite of her sexual transgressions both deeply touching and hugely condescending. Nonetheless, Schönberg’s inspired reaction to Dehmel’s poetry works its own transfiguration on its literary model, elevating and intensifying the meaning and symbolism of the original. It is hard to overstate Dehmel’s influence on Schönberg’s evolution in the late 1890’s. Schönberg had set several poems by Dehmel in 1897, and 1899 is sometimes called his “Dehmeljahr,” (“year of Dehmel”) in which he spent almost the entire year setting poems from Weib und Welt, culminating in the breakthrough that was Verklärte Nacht. Musicologist Walter Frisch says that Schönberg’s “remarkable development that year …grew directly out his search for a musical language approapriate to the poetry of Weib und welt,” inspired by Dehmel’s success in combining erotic sensuality and intensity of expression with clear formal structure.
A work like Verklärte Nacht might seem to be a huge departure from the classical forms preferred by Brahms- Webern even described it as a “free fantasia.” However, although the work is programmatic, with obvious influences of Wagner and Liszt, it is hardly free. Schönberg found in Dehmel’s poem a way to combine elements of two traditional, strict, even Brahmsian, musical forms: the fundamental structure is that of a Rondo (or A-B-A-C-A), incorporating elements of Sonata-Allegro form . The “A” sections set the tone and lay out the narrative of the work (Schönberg described them as “epic” in character), while the “B” section represents the woman’s confession of her illegitimate pregnancy and the “C” section depicts the man’s tender forgiveness and acceptance of her. It’s not only that lucid form in which Brahms’s influence can be felt, but in the way that Schönberg begins the development and transformation of his material in the work’s opening bars and continues the process throughout. The “transfiguration” of the work’s title is manifest in the way in which the “A” section changes character each time it occurs- beginning with mystery and dread, returning in anguish and desperation and completing its journey in radiant joy. The piece is tonal—beginning in D minor and ending in D major—but also shows Schönberg exploring completely new harmonic territory. In fact, the piece was originally considered unfit for performance because of Schönberg’s use of an unresolved “ninth” chord. Early listeners may also have been shocked by the intensity and density of Schönberg’s counterpoint- passionate and sensuous as the piece is, there is already a strong element of Schönberg-ian “difficulty” present in the music. What sets Verklärte Nacht apart from the works which precede it is the extent to which, as successfully as it marries Wagnerian chromaticism and narrative to Brahmsian rigour, the compositional voice is clearly the fully-formed and completely original one belonging to Arnold Schönberg.
Pianist Howard Karp (photo by Katrin Talbot)
For the last few weeks, I’ve been meaning to write a blog post titled “If you buy only one recording this year, make it this one.”
The recording in question is a new six-disc collection of live performances by the American pianist Howard Karp, released in May by Albany Records. Howard Karp died on Monday, June 30, 2014 at the age of 84 after suffering a cardiac arrest. He was surrounded by his wife Frances and his two sons Parry and Christopher. Although the set was only released last month, I’ve been listening to and thinking about it for nearly a year, ever since the Karp family paid me the enormous compliment of asking me to write the program notes for it.
It is sad that that blog post will never quite exist in the form it should have- none of us guessed we could lose him so soon. Although Howard was 84, he seemed anything but old. He had spent the last few months learning Leon Kirchner’s last two Piano Sonatas and working up some works by Liszt that he had never played. In the week of his passing he was to have played the Brahms A major Violin Sonata in a recital at the Rocky Ridge festival with his son (my teacher and dear friend), cellist Parry Karp. Together, they’ve recently recorded Parry’s transcriptions of all the Brahms violin and piano music.
Ever since Parry wrote me with the sad news of Howard’s passing, I’ve wondered what, if anything, I should say about Howard here. It’s not for me to attempt an obituary or a summing up of Howard’s legacy, so instead, let me say the following:
If you buy only one new recording this year, make it this one. Not only will these CDs give you a better sense of Howard’s artistry than anything I could write here, there’s so much one can learn from them.
It’s not just that the performances are mind-blowingly sensational. It’s what they have to teach us about the kind of musician Howard was- the kind we all ought to aspire to be.
Taken from unedited recital recordings made across Karp’s 50+year career, this collection is a wonderful overview of his gifts as a pianist and a musician. The performances are astounding even to those who knew his playing best. His wife and duo partner, pianist Frances Karp wrote to me on receiving the set from the record company “Even though I lived through the preparation of all the repertoire, I am stunned to hear the finished performances: beautiful, strong, intelligent, fantastically moving.” No amount of familiarity could make one take his artistry for granted.
Howard was a conspicuously kind, wise, caring and sensitive human being, with a distinctively soft-edged and warm speaking voice. Something of that warmth of spirit came through in everything I ever heard Howard play across 25-plus years, particularly in his unique sound. He had one of the great piano sounds- deep, multi-layered, warm, resonant and cultured. You can hear this aspect of his artistry in Howard’s extraordinary performances of late Schubert in this set. He was a great exponent of what one might call the “poetic” piano tradition.
But there was more to Howard’s art than wisdom, sensitivity and culture. Howard was also capable of embracing and unleashing the demonic and Dyonisian forces within music like few musicians I can think of. There are moments in Howard’s performances of works like the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Schumann Concerto without Orchestra, or his earlier live recording of the Liszt B Minor Sonata that teeter, in the very best sense of the expression, right on the edge of divine madness. Howard could set such challenges for himself not only in terms of sheer tempo, but in intensity of expression, that the listener can’t helped but be gripped by a genuine sense of pure risk. Howard was one of the few pianists who ever lived with the technical tools to cope with the challenges he set himself in performances like these- again and again, he comes through performances of inspired danger completely unscathed, but one senses that even Howard never spared himself from taking big chances on stage. Success was never certain, but it was almost always the outcome.
This incredible balance of abandon and control, fire and refinement caught the ear of many critics, though he never sought their approval to the best of my knowledge. On the occasion of his Berlin debut, the notoriously tough local critic said “the American pianist Howard Karp combines the finest qualities of Rubinstein and Horowitz in a single artist.” Many artists would have broadcast such a quote to the heavens- Howard seemed to lack any instinct for self-promotion. He could hardly be persuaded to talk about himself even in the preparation of the liner notes for this set of CDs.
So, here in these six discs is evidence of one of the great pianists of his generation, captured completely live at the height of his powers. It’s a collection that should secure his place in the piano pantheon forever. In the end, however, what I find impressive about these CDs is what they don’t tell us about Howard Karp, what they can’t tell us. That’s part of why one should get to know them- to be begin to understand what of Howard lay beyond them.
These discs can’t, by themselves, tell us how he balanced his commitment to playing at the very, very highest level with his dedication to teaching. They only hint at the breadth of his repertoire. If Howard felt he had played a piece as well as he could, he moved on to other works (some of the most extraordinary performances in the set are of works he only played once or twice), and he literally never stopped learning new repertoire. And they can’t begin to do justice to his astounding work ethic- family members will tell you: nobody ever practiced the piano with more intensity or devotion than Howard Karp.
Embedded in these remarkable performances is an inspiring example for all musicians. Howard never sought the trappings of fame or the validation of the press. He chose, instead, a quieter path, developing life-long collaborations with friends and family, building an incredible legacy as a teacher and mentor and following his own curiosity in his exploration of the repertoire. Those of us lucky enough to hear him in Madison in his solo recitals, duo concerts with his wife Frances, sonata performances with his son Parry and the annual Karp Family concert in September all knew we were in the presence of something very special every time he took the stage. Even these remarkable CDs can’t capture every facet of that remarkable sound.
Howard Karp in Colorado with his two closest musical collaborators, wife, Frances and son, Parry. (photo by Katrin Talbot)
I hope you’ll spend some time listening to these performances because they’re as good testament as we have to a great artist who managed to do all the right things as a performer and teacher at the right level for the right reasons. It’s a deeply inspiring legacy.
More on Howard Karp from the Isthmus newspaper in Madison here.
Thoughts from Jake Stockinger at the Well Temprered Ear, here.
A tribute from the UW-Madison School of Music with commentary from Karp’s friend and student, Bill Lutes, here
Anthony Tomasini offers an extensive assessment of Howard’s performances in these recordings here. A sample
“Karp clearly thrived in concerts, because the performances in this collection are palpably assured. In six pieces from Liszt’s daunting, visionary suites “Années de Pélerinage” (“Years of Pilgrimage”), recorded at various universities mostly during the ’70s, Karp’s playing is technically brilliant and profoundly musical. How is it possible that a pianist who could play Liszt like this was not signed up and sent on tour by a major manager? From what I knew of him, though, Karp would not have been interested….The highlights of the set are performances of two major Schumann works: the Sonata No. 3 in F minor, in 1967, and the Fantasy, in 1972, both recorded at the University of Illinois. Schumann’s Fantasy blends Beethovenian structure with, appropriate to its title, fantastical wildness. Karp uncannily conveys both qualities at once. His account of the Sonata in F minor, subtitled Concerto Without Orchestra, is revelatory. Though this epic work has arresting qualities, it is at its core baffling, ungainly and complex music. While playing with consummate pianism, Karp conveys the strangeness in the piece, as in the seemingly chaotic stretches of development in the first movement.
An extensive review from Colin Anderson at Classical Source
“Yet, from nowhere (for me at any rate), here is Karp giving readings of these masterworks that are of the first rank, at once seriously good renditions of the chosen pieces and also acting as a ladder of enlightenment as to the interpretative and technical skills (the latter serving the former) of the now-late musician. Inevitably, given that these are recordings made at concerts and over a 45-year period (nevertheless the set is branded DDD!), the sound-quality is variable, so too the instruments that Karp had at his disposal. And while one may have some reservations about both, the authority of Karp’s playing is such that doubts are banished by his excellence.
“Rather than write in detail on the performances here, it would be more pertinent to simply say that, especially if you are new to Karp’s musicianship, for anyone who cares about the great art of playing the piano, and also about penetrating musicianship – and allying the two – then you need to hear these performances; there is much that is illuminating and rewarding, and such revelations are complemented by conductor Kenneth Woods’s extensive essay for the booklet.”
A four-star review in the June issue of BBC Music Magazine from critic Erica Jeal.
“…weaves together beautifully played solos culminating in a transcendent coda in which this orchestra seems to breathe together.”
A new, five-star review from editor-in-chief Andrew Achenbach for Bobby and Hans vol. 4 from the really wonderful classical app “Classical Ear.” Well worth subscribing too!
Gál: Symphony No 1 in D major, Op 30; Schumann: Symphony No 1 in B flat major, Op 38 (Spring)
Orchestra of the Swan / Kenneth Woods
Avie AV2233 *****
The First of Hans Gál’s four symphonies was completed in November 1927 and premiered in Düsseldorf 13 months later. It is a compact, skillfully wrought and immensely personable creation, scored with a marvelously deft touch, full of first-rate ideas and boasting a highly affecting slow movement (‘Elegie’) – small wonder it was performed frequently in Germany prior to Hitler’s rise to power (after which Gál, a Viennese-born Jew, was summarily dismissed from his post at the Mainz Conservatory and his music banned). Hats off to the indefatigable Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan for rounding off their revelatory Gál symphony cycle for Avie in such commensurate, urgently communicative fashion and bringing to Schumann’s comparably sparkling and life-enhancing ‘Spring’ Symphony such boundless vitality, scrupulous fidelity to the printed score, delicious wit and (above all) entrancing freshness of new discovery. This stylish and consistently invigorating coupling represents both an exemplary rescue act and genuine tonic to boot. Investigate without delay!
–Andrew Achenbach (Classical Ear)
Sometimes I think the classical industry is a bit like a chap standing on deck of the Titanic, moaning loudly about how his feet are getting cold because they’re a little wet. Sure we have problems, but look at the world around us- when the ship is already sinking, the man with the cold feet is doing pretty well, and talking about whether now is the time to buy waterproof boots is probably beside the point. Music is one of the great tools for the righting of sinking metaphorical ships, be they nations or individual lives. Nations, of course, are ultimately collections of individuals. If you want to save a nation, save a person. If we want to warm our feet, let’s right the ship.
Look around America today, with the virulent spread of gun violence, or take a hard look at the UK and Europe, where fascism is on the rise. Racism and sexism are making a huge comeback, and politicians and pundits now seem to think it is okay to condone rape and the stoning of gay people.
The most commonly diagnosed cause of all this rage and dis-function is the lack of economic opportunity and hope since the 2007-8 economic collapse. The persistence of economic hopelessness extracts a terrible toll on any society. Hans Gál called unemployment the worst catastrophe that can happen to any society. He was speaking of inter-war Germany and Austria, and we all know how that turned out.
One of the many tragedies of our difficult age is the way in which so many individuals act against not only against the interests of their fellow human beings, but against their own. People vote for politicians whose policies will impoverish and imperil them. People embrace ideologies, such as the mass-scale rejection of basic scientific knowledge, which will ultimate damage their health and make their environment unsafe to live in. People support a gun culture that puts them and their children in mortal danger for no reason. Even at the most extreme, the jihadist who bombs a plane or the mass shooter who attacks a school are both acting in ways that harm themselves.
I strongly believe that these kinds of widespread and frightening self-destructive behaviours are indicative of not only a lack of economic health and opportunity (although the corrosive impact of economic hopelessness is hard to overstate), but of a general feeling of defeat and despondency that comes from being unable to understand and engage with the challenges facing the world.
I think some (huge) portion of the responsibility for this depth of despair and hopelessness must lie with our media and entertainment culture. Just as junk food fills the stomach but doesn’t nourish the body but instead gradually destroys it, junk culture fills the eyes and ears, but gradually rots the brain and soul. Our media culture is, overall, far more toxic than the Big Mac. News has become more of a game (a bloodsport, at that) than a public service, as broadcasters and publishers work primarily towards three goals: ratings (or distribution), profit and advancing the political and financial cause of their stakeholders. What is deeply troubling in our time is the extent to which nobody questions the validity of these three aims. Quite the opposite- public service broadcasters and publishers are under enormous pressure to show that they can measure outcomes according to the same metrics used in the for-profit sector. The notion that the success of a newspaper is measured in the truthfulness and relevance of its reporting seems pretty quaint these days.
Similarly, just as fast food is carefully engineered to manipulate the dopamine responses of those who eat it in much the same way that hard drugs do, most mass entertainment is aimed at doing two things- keeping you watching, and convincing you there is something wrong with you that can be fixed by purchasing whatever the show’s sponsors are selling. The first rule of advertising is to make the target feel like a failure so they’ll buy your product. I remember learning about advertising works when I was in seventh grade- it was pretty horrifying, but my eyes were well and truly opened. I was only twelve, but being taught about how advertising manipulates us, and how content (whether print, tv or radio) exists largely to prepare you to receive an advertiser’s message gave me a level of critical awareness with which to partially inoculate me against the soul-rotting poison TV and other media throw at us every day. These days, few schools still teach children about advertising- quite the opposite. They show commercial television in school, they welcome ads from massive corporations- they feed children the very toxic ideas they should be teaching them to protect themselves from (the school food isn’t too healthy, either), all because they’ve been forced to embrace the same goals as the junk culture- ratings or distribution (both as expressed by enrolment numbers and test scores), profit (in terms of both core funding and external support) and advancing the political cause of their stakeholders (school boards and councils in the USA and UK are among the most polarized and politicized organizations on Earth ever since a generation of religious zealots in both countries decided to take them over and shape the curriculum to suit their world view, facts be damned). Religious education, which is spreading like wildfire as a paradigm, often works using the same techniques of degradation, manipulation and reward as advertising- make people feel bad about themselves, tell them you have an answer (whether it be a bigger car, a political catchphrase, or God), then trigger their dopamine system with something. Advertisers usually offer a bit of sexual titillation, religious educators use the promise of salvation- of a solution to all our worries.
Junk food is designed to make you want, even need, to eat more junk food. Junk culture works in the same way- it’s designed to keep you consuming. I’d go so far as to say the values of junk culture have now expanded to junk education and junk religion. Epidemics of obesity, type- two diabetes and heart disease are just one manifestation of the damage done to our bodies by junk food. School shootings, fascist political movements, dangerous, wide-spread rejection of fundamental scientific facts- these are the type-two diabetes of the soul that are a manifestation of the damage to our selves by junk culture, junk education and junk religion.
That, to me, is the Titanic that the classical industry is standing on, worrying about our damp socks. Comparatively speaking, the rot of junk culture is just starting to infect our industry- we’re still, overall, a center of excellence and a powerful force for social good. Worryingly, however, many within and outside our industry are advocating that what really need to do is adopt more of the paradigm of junk culture- more manipulation, more titillation, and ultimately, more craven service to the political and financial advancement of our fiscal stakeholders. A generation ago, one could make the argument with a straight face that journalism was about the quest for the truth. With notable exceptions, the last fifteen years have made that notion look laughably quaint. Likewise, one would like to think that being a musician, or running an orchestra ought to be about making the most soul-touching, life-changing music, but fewer and fewer in and around the industry are willing to measure our success according to that metric. To many of our colleagues, it’s all about sponsors, sales and selling.
Orchestras and artists are governed as non-profits or charities for a reason. We’re not supposed to be putting money first, we’re supposed to be putting music first. But how do we stay in business? We look to the world of public-service broadcasting, and we see a gradual creep towards the values and practices of the for-profit sector. Just as the BBC and PBS feel they have to measure more and more of their outcomes in terms of money, ratings and relationships with funders, classical music presenters are trying harder and harder to emulate the business and marketing practices of the pop culture and corporate worlds. We sell concerts the way companies sell toothpaste, and build classical careers in the same way pop stars’ careers are developed- it’s about selling an image and a personality, not about developing a unique talent, building a body of work and growing an engaged audience for it.
So, how to avoid becoming part of the junk culture movement? Well, the food world has seen a massive, if incomplete, counter-movement to shake off the power of the junk food industry. It may seem odd, but when I was young, processed food was considered an emblem of progress. Practically nobody was interested in fresh produce or local sourcing. This mind-set permeated both home-cooking and the restaurant industry. It went beyond food- coffee was something that was mass-produced and came in a can from a factory. Beer was made in one of three or four giant breweries in Milwaukee or St Louis, and was uniformly horrible. The future of wine was considered to be the box-o-wine.
Now we have a large number of restaurants making a point of serving fresh, locally sourced produce. Green grocers are in, cans are out. You can buy fresh coffee beans even in remote small towns, and the micro-brew revolution has changed America from the land with the worst beer in the universe to the home of the very best. Boutique wineries have sprung up all over the country, with hardly a box-o-wine to be found among them.
Of course, the junk food industry continues to be a force, and a powerful and destructive one at that, but the new wave of food, brewing and cooking has created a viable, and highly successful alternate paradigm. One in which success is measured in terms of food’s ability to bring health and happiness- profit flows from success in those terms. To a large extent, this revolution occurred because people in the food world were prepared to set aside scale as a measure of success. In 1980, a beer company could only be considered successful if it was big enough to advertise on TV. By 1990, a local brewer could set up a successful business on a much smaller scale selling a higher quality product.
So, perhaps one of the reasons public service broadcasting and classical music have been tiptoeing (if not, in places, racing headlong) towards the business practices and mindsets of junk culture is that scale seems like an important part of what we do. An orchestra is, by nature, a large-scale institution. So is a TV station, let alone a network. There’s lots we can do more efficiently and at a smaller scale (the two most interesting concerts I did this year were for audiences of under 80 people), but I believe art needs to provide a counterbalance to junk culture. That means we need a certain amount of scale. We just need to achieve scale using a different paradigm- one in which we measure success in terms of the quality of our artistic work. The food industry can show us many examples of “new wave” business that started small but were able to upscale to a national impact while maintaining their core values (I had a very nice Lagunitas IPA last night here in Texas- they started as a micro-brewery in California). When we have a balance of scale, values and quality, I think we’ll be in a strong position to offer a more relevant alternative to junk culture, and can start giving individual listeners the kind of spiritual nutrition they need to survive in today’s difficult environment.
I’d like to encourage readers who want to see a future for music to think about how we can get away from the junk culture’s measures of success, and avoid their toxic ways of manipulating and exploiting their customers. When we chase ratings, we forget the importance of the impact we can and should have on individual listeners. Junk culture would rather reach 10 million viewers on a superficial or even toxic level than affect even 100,000 in a profoundly positive way. If art doesn’t make a profound difference in some of our audience’s lives, we’ve failed, even if a billion people see us on YouTube. Our entanglements with our funders also tend to mean that our programming is excessively cautious and we avoid directly engaging with the key social, moral and political issues of our day lest we offend the trustee of some foundation or a member of the local city council. In America, the prime accepted measure of an orchestra’s quality is its budget. I’m not sure that’s healthy. I’m totally sure it’s not true.
The values of junk culture feed on complacency. If you think you’re an unassailable center of excellence, you’re more likely to think you can flirt with the values of junk culture without believing you are doing yourself too much harm. Recent history would seem to confirm this- the New York Times (which I’ve read every day for over 20 years) compiled a truly appalling record of journalistic failings in the run up to the Iraq War. In pursuit of circulation, money and appeasement of those in power, it ran countless false stories, suppressed true ones, and utterly failed in its duty to hold power to account. In spite of that, it’s still the most important and probably the best paper in America and possibly the world. That’s why they haven’t learned any big lessons or made any profound changes since then. However, as the situation in Iraq worsens, the magnitude of that capitulation to power and profit looks more and more unforgivable. The real costs of those mistakes and falsifications will mount for many years. I’m sure their thinking was that, in a difficult and fast-changing world of publishing, they had to put profit and power first, or risk losing scale. They’ve lost scale in the ensuing ten years. In spite of their junk journalism calculations? Or because of them? Maybe, in the long run, more truth would have sold more papers? Or at least made a better world in which to sell them? Just because the New York Times is still the best paper in the country, it doesn’t automatically follow that they’re actually doing great work when it counts most.
Could the same be true in classical music? Maybe our problem is not with aging audiences, shinking donor bases or changing demographics. What if too many of our concerts are just not that great?
Today’s performers are amazing at avoiding making audible mistakes, but is that the same thing as giving a great concert? I don’t remember many typos or grammatical errors in those pro-Iraq War NYT articles. The only thing they lacked was the truth. What is our truth? Are we speaking it? Are our concerts really exciting enough, brave enough, moving enough? Do we encourage each other to take risks, to go right to the edge of the possible? To make old music sound new, and new music essential? Or do we reward conductors who facilitate mass reproducible, comfortable and familiar received renditions of classical works? I think to some extent, we do. One reason the Big Mac is so popular is because those who eat it (I confess, I’m one, but only occasionally) know exactly how its going to taste. Many conductors have had the experience of getting down to work on a standard repertoire piece with a fine orchestra only to find their colleagues’ ideas about the piece are already set in stone (see this blog post for a description of the phenomenon). Beethoven 7 to many is like the Big Mac of symphonies- everyone knows what it’s supposed to taste like. “We hired you to make Big Mac’s, maestro- not to deconstruct them!” one sometimes feels you are being told. Conductors who want a big career learn early on to become proficient at reproducing a nicely standardized performance with no horn splits or ensemble problems. Today’s conventional wisdom dictates that it’s better to adopt a fresh approach to personal grooming and styling (the age of the hipster conductor is on us, and that of the sex-symbol conductor is coming) than to try to push the artistic envelope too far. Too often, we learn to perform standard repertoire works in a safe and familiar way, and to programme only contemporary works that conform to broadly accepted norms of taste among those “in the know,” without in any way challenging the worldviews or power-bases of our funders and stakeholders.
The food world has shown us it’s possible to pursue a different paradigm and be successful. They’ve proven that one doesn’t have to be in the junk business to be in business. I think it’s important we learn from them- after all, music is way more important than food, just as the soul or the self is way more important than the body. Humanity is in desperate, desperate need of a viable alternative to junk culture. We’re the ones who can deliver it- but only if we make it our primary goal to do so.
It’s been exciting to see the strong response for this post. Thank you for reading and sharing.
One thing I don’t feel I made clear enough above is that I think one of the really horrible things about the impact of junk culture is that the people who are affected by it understand that they’re being manipulated, understand that it’s a toxic brew, but feel unable to free themselves from its influence. There’s a sense of rage at being trapped in a cynical world, and a sense of self-loathing at being unable to escape the junk culture.
‘When his time to reach for the stars had arrived, Schumann’s personal language was fully formed, and just as the subtlety of his piano style had been an immense asset for the songwriter, so the expressiveness of his vocal melody was a bridge to the ‘voices of men and angels’ he imagined he heard in the orchestra.’
Hans Gál: Schumann: Orchestral Music
Robert Schumann wrote his First Symphony in an astonishing burst of creative energy over four days in January 1841, the focal point of a process of learning, planning and revision that stretched over a decade and more.
Schumann articulated his symphonic ambitions as early as 1829 to his teacher, future father-in-law and nemesis, Friedrich Wieck in 1829. ‘If you only knew how I feel driven and spurred on, how my symphonies could already have reached opus 100 if only I had written them down, and how comfortable I feel with the orchestra…’ Within three years, he had completed the two movements of the G minor ‘Zwickau’ Symphony, which were performed in 1832–3. Throughout the rest of the 1830s, Schumann wrote only for the piano, but from 1933, he was studying scores of the Beethoven symphonies and pursuing studies in score reading and orchestration. His eventual marriage in 1840 to Wieck’s daughter Clara, against Friedrich’s strenuous objections, became the catalyst for a change of direction: this ‘year of song’ included the composition of 168 lieder and shaped Schumann’s music for the remainder of his career, throughout which the singing line would always remain paramount.
Robert Schumann- Composer, writer, ladies man, hard drinker and inventor of “Klangfarbenmelodie”
Crucial to his emergence as a symphonist was Schumann’s chance discovery, on a visit to Vienna in 1838, of the score of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C Major Symphony: ‘It opened up to me all the ideals of my life. It is the greatest instrumental work to have been written since Beethoven…. It spurred me on again to attempt a symphony…’. He duly pressed the symphony on to his friend Mendelssohn (then director of the Gewandhaus in Leipzig), who gave the belated premiere in March 1839.
In 1842 Schumann advised the conductor Wilhelm Taubert: ‘Try to infuse some longing for spring into the playing of your orchestra; this is what I felt when I wrote it…’ For Schumann, perennially susceptible to literary inspiration, that longing found voice in a poem by Adolf Böttger, and particularly its last stanza:
O wende, wende deinen Lauf—
Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf!
O turn, O turn and change your course—
In the valley spring blooms forth!
Böttger’s poem unleashed Schumann’s symphonic imagination, and in those famous four days of ‘symphonic fire… sleepless nights,’ what he achieved is awe-inspiring. On 26 January he wrote in the Household Book ‘Hurrah! Symphony completed!’. He orchestrated the symphony in February and made further revisions having gone through the score with Mendelssohn, who conducted the first performance with the Gewandhaus orchestra on 31 March to critical enthusiasm: the Allgemeine Musikaische Zeitung praised the ‘intellectual and technical sureness and skill with which it was conceived and… tasteful and frequently felicitous and effective orchestration…’
By the time Breitkopf published the full score over ten years later in January 1853, Schumann had made various further revisions, mainly in matters of tempo (there exist four sets of metronome markings- see post script) and orchestration, less radical than his work on the D minor Symphony which he had written immediately after the ‘Spring’ but is now known in its final version as the Fourth. It is remarkable that these two works, both written in 1941 and revised in 1851–2, would later, wrongly, become prime pieces of evidence in the case against Schumann’s orchestration in his later years. Gál felt that the final orchestration of the D minor ‘is hardly a success, thickening the texture by over-generous doublings…the most drastic illustration of Schumann’s problematic experience as a conductor.’ On the other hand, the ‘Spring’ Symphony, the orchestration of which reached its final form only after the D minor (see post script below), is hailed by Gál as ‘the most fortunate of Schumann’s symphonies in the first impression it makes…the most successful use of orchestral colour that Schumann ever succeeded in obtaining.’ Gál would have had few chances to hear either work performed by a group of similar size and cohesion to the 45-member Gewandhaus Orchester of Schumann’s day. Heard in a similar setting (we’ve used an orchestra of near-identical size and layout), the two works reveal a similar mastery of colour and transparency of texture.
The musicians of Spira Mirabilis sing the opening of Schumann’s First Symphony to the text which inspired it.
The symphony’s opening brass fanfare is an instrumental setting of the last line of Bottger’s poem, from which much of the symphony will develop.
Böttger’s poem begins not with the joys of spring but with a depiction of winter storm clouds, and so it is for much of the Introduction, which contains the most radical music in the symphony.
Du Geist der Wolke, trüb und schwer
Fliegst drohend über Land und Meer
Dein grauer Schleier deckt im Nu
Des Himmels klares Auge zu,
You spirit of the clouds, grey and heavy
Looming over land and sea
Your obscure veil obscures in a frozen moment
The clear eye of heaven
This primitive music would later serve as inspiration for Mahler’s own depiction of spring’s awakening in his Third Symphony.
Spring Marches In, with epic directorial choices by someone at Dutch TV
Music may not often precisely mirror its composer’s state of mind, but surely it is no accident that the Allegro of this first movement, possibly Schumann’s most joyful span of music, comes from the happiest time of his life- settled in a new and happy marriage, in good health and finally writing the symphonic music he had long aspired to. The main theme, which we hear throughout the movement as both melody and ostinato, is basically the opening fanfare sped up:
The final third of the movement has a shortened recapitulation and a coda with two notable features- a new tempo and a new theme. At the beginning of the coda, Schumann marks “Animato- poco a poco stringendo.” Literally- “animated, and little-by-little getting faster.” But how long to increase the speed for, and to what final speed?
The meno mosso that isn’t really there
Then there is the new theme. One of Schumann’s signature touches as a composer is his habit of introducing a new theme right before the end of a movement or even a piece- a sort of “breakthrough” or “apotheosis” theme. In the case of the the Spring Symphony, the breakthrough theme (one of his most stunning) is almost always played slower than not only the Animato tempo, but slower than the whole rest of the Allegro. It’s such a well-established tradition that I was more-than-a-little surprised when I first saw a score that no such tempo change was marked. Over the years, my skepticism about this unmarked tempo change grew and grew, although Schumann is not a composer who offers much safety in the simplistic world of pure literalism. As with good cooking, you should understand and follow the recipe given, but must taste what you’re making as you go. Similar breakthrough themes in other Schumann pieces generally don’t get slowed down, and in this case, the prevailing rhythm already shifts from eighth notes to quarter notes. On the other hand, plenty of great conductors (nearly all) and orchestras do the traditional slow down, and find their own paths to a final (faster) tempo for the movement. In fact I don’t think I ever heard a performance without the meno mosso until we recorded the piece (although I’m sure we’re not the first ones to omit it- I’ve only heard a small number of the many dozens of recordings of the piece).
Sawalisch, whose Dresden set is the classic large-orchestra Schumann cycle, slows very little, but is generally in a much slower tempo overall.
The flute accelerando or ritardando that needn’t be?
Maestro Nezet-Seguin takes a little rit into the breakthough theme, slows down just before the end of the section, then has the solo flute lead a little accel into the final restatement of the fanfare
Maestro Zinman does comparatively little Animato, and makes less of a gear change at the breakthrough theme, but does quite a big rit before the final fanfare, which is in the tempo of the main movement rather than in an Animato tempo
Maestro Leonard Bernstein does a fairly extreme tempo buildup over the Animato, and huge rit to the breakthrough theme, which is less than half the speed of the rest of the movement, before a second rit leading into the clarinet tag and a third rit in the solo flute bars. The return of the fanfare is a tempo, and he drives through to the end
The conductor-less orchestra, Spira Mirabilis, do quite a zippy accel in the first 20 or so bars of the Animato, before putting the breaks on pretty hard at the breakthrough theme, with a rit from the last few bars of the clarinet tag and the flute solo before a final a tempo, which lands somewhere between the main tempo of the movement and the highpoint of the Animato tempo
Maestro Paavo Jarvi with the Israel Phil- starts more or less in the Animato tempo, but slows down quite a bit as it goes on
The a tempo that isn’t there
In the end, I chose to read the “Animato: poco poco stringendo” as a gradual increase in tempo, and went to some trouble to try to make that increase carry on until the breakthrough theme. That, to me, marks the end of the accel. At that point, I also switch from conducting “in two” to “in one.” It’s important to note (confess) that although I’m not inserting two or three extra tempo changes in this reading, I’m also not being strictly literal, either. A totally literal reading would accel gradually to the end of the movement (as if he’d written Animando sempre al fine). In the end, however, I feel like this was the the reading that most seemed to suit the music for us. The change of pulse from” in two” to”in one” creates a sense of space and even ecstasy for the breakthrough theme without creating the problem of find one’s way back to the fast temp for the end (which we do “in two”.
The lyrical Larghetto, which Schumann left almost untouched during the process of revision, is the offspring of his ‘year of song.’ It’s the only movement in the Symphony for which Schumann never adjusted or amended his metronome marking of quaver=66
On the final page of the Larghetto, the trombones, who have not played since the first movement, enter pianissimo with an eerie foreshadowing of the theme of the upcoming Scherzo. Moments like this and the famous (insanely high and exposed) chorale at the beginning of the fourth movement of his E-flat Major Symphony (often referred to wrongly as the Rhenish) would seem to indicate the Schumann had at is disposal a trombone section with nerves and chops of steel. Luckily, we had a similarly gifted team in Stratford for these sessions.
The Scherzo returns to the wilder world of D minor hinted at in the symphony’s Introduction.
The first of two witty trios is in duple meter-
Schumann omitted a metronome mark for the second trio, which poses a conundrum for the conductor: played at the same, brisk speed as the first trio, it creates a rather Mendelssohnian effect. Mendelssohn worked closely with Schumann on the Spring and conducted the premier. To me, the relatively slow harmonic rhythm and symmetrical phrase structure argue strongly for that approach. Here’s how we did it on the CD:
At the tempo of the main Scherzo, it can sound more rustic.
Maestro David Zinman takes the slower of two possible tempi in the third movement of Schumann’s Spring Symphony
Having begun in such a furious mood, the Scherzo ends with a a whimsical look back at the music of the first trio: a flirtatious flitter of syncopations, crowned with a musical kiss.
Schumann told later told Wilhelm Taubert that ‘About the last movement, I can tell you that I envisage spring’s farewell and hope that it is not taken too lightly.’ Certainly, nobody would be tempted to take the opening gesture too lightly- it storms in on the music which ends the Scherzo like an angry father catching his daughter getting into mischief with her boyfriend. Or maybe it’s just a triumphalist fanfare? You decide:
The main theme of the Finale is a quirky and virtuosic scamper:
While the second theme is based on that opening gesture (fanfare or tirade, you decide).
It’s also a quote from the final section of Schumann’s earlier piano piece, Kreisleriana:
Schumann sets himself a serious challenge with this Finale- how is one to surpass the thrilling energy of the end of the first movement so that the end of the symphony doesn’t feel like an anti-climax? Schumann’s solution is both simple and inspired- repeat the same formula, a Coda section built around a long accelerando, but up the stakes even further. It takes huge concentration and commitment to mange this long buildup without running out of gas. The version you hear at the end of the CD is taken whole from the concert which marked not only the end of the sessions not only for this disc, but for the entire four-year Bobby and Hans project How funny that we finished the cycle with the movement Schumann called “Spring’s Farewell.” It documents a very special and poignant moment in our shared journey as colleagues. If you want to hear the final few bars, please buy the CD.
C Kenneth Woods, 2014
An additional note on the revisions of these first two Schumann Symphonies might be of interest. I find it baffling that the revision of the Spring (done after that of the D minor) is almost completely unknown, but they revision of the D minor remains so controversial among those who don’t understand Schumann’s music or orchestration. It has been fashionable for some years to perform the original 1841 version of the D minor in spite of Schumann’s clear preference for the original. There have been attempts to recreate the original version of the Spring using the parts made for the premier (which still exist), but it’s never caught on. I detect a double standard!
With thanks to Allan Stephenson, here is a listing of all the existing metronome markings for Schumann’s Spring Symphony which we can attribute to the composer:
The Piano duet (1842):
I. Andante crotchet =76 Allegro crotchet =152
II. Larghetto quaver=-66
III. Molto vivace dotted mimin =138 Trio 1 minim =144 and no marking forTrio II
(N.B. the scherzo 138 is way too fast but as is usual with RS’s writing could be 108)
IV. Allegro animato e grazioso minim =116
The manuscript full score in the British Museum:
I. Andante crotchet = 76, Allegro crotchet =152,
II. Larghetto quaver= 66,
III. Molto vivace dotted minim=138 Trio I Minim=144, Trio II none
IV. Allegro animato e grazioso minim= 116.
The manus. full score in the Archive der Musikfreunde, Vienna has
I. Andante crotchet =76, Allegro crotchet =132,
II. Larghetto quaver= 66
III. Molto vivace dotted minim= 138, Trio 1= 144, Trio 2= none
IV. Allegro animato e grazioso minim=116
The full score of 1853 has
Mvt I Andante crotchet = 66, Allegro molto vivace crotchet=120
Mvt II Larghetto crotchet= 66
Mvt III Molto vivace dotted minim=88,Trio 1, minim=108, Trio= none
Mvt IV Allegro animato e grazioso minim= 100
A review from Colin Anderson, editor of Classical Source, for Bobby and Hans vol. 3 Read the whole thing here. A short excerpt follows
Buy your copy from Amazon here:
Buy your copy from Amazon here:
Gál’s Second Symphony (1943) opens solemnly with a chorale-like idea (English ears might find a stylistic correspondence to Gerald Finzi). This soulful ‘Introduction: Andante – Adagio’ not only establishes a deeply inviting invitation to listen but also the fine playing and vivid (if sometimes too bright) recording quality. Gal 2, leanly scored if with numerous attractive timbres, at once suggests the tension of wartime, and a wish to escape from it, which the rather perky scherzo-like second movement attempts to, conjuring the Vienna of Der Rosenkavalier, through neoclassical high spirits and contrasted with writing that is beguilingly pastoral.
The heart of the Symphony is an extended (here 15-minute) Adagio, deeply felt and with a Brucknerian breadth, and given at a spacious tempo that Woods judges ideally, music of consolation written by a man of a generously lyrical spirit, himself Viennese and steeped in the music of his Austro-German forbears – not least Schumann – hence Woods’s apposite couplings. This ineffably beautiful slow movement is followed by an equally lengthy finale, which opens in tense terms, suggesting sinister rumblings, the advancing of a foe…. I suggest that anyone who admires the output of Franz Schmidt, and who generally welcomes song, dance, deepness of human feeling and clarity in their music will find much to entrance and enlighten here. It is certainly good to have a choice of recordings for Gál 2, to compare and contrast, but Woods’s version is the place to start.
And anyway, who would want to miss his Schumann cycle. These wonderful works have done really well in the recording studio over the decades, and Woods has stiff contemporary competition from such as Heinz Holliger and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. However, this is music of assorted delights and possibilities, and Woods’s view makes for good listening in its quick-footed approach that doesn’t negate song elements and which allows for exciting quickening; the coda to the first movement is electrifying. Less quirky than its 1841 predecessor, Schumann’s 10-year-later revision is tightly organised, something that Woods seizes upon, with splendid playing, but without overlooking those measures that require flexibility, a sense of fantasy, some tender loving care and, cueing the finale, a Wagnerian grandeur. In short, this thoughtfully considered account belongs in the Schumann 4 collection alongside Boult, Celibidache, Sawallisch (Dresden) and Szell … and it doesn’t stop there!
As the father of a four-year-old and a six-year-old, birthday parties are suddenly a big part of my life. Scarcely a week goes by without a summons for one or both of the kids to attend two hours of fun, sugar and silliness in celebration of someone’s birthday.
So, what makes a good party? Families differ. We’ve hosted modest little parties for both our kids here at the house for their closest 6-8 friends with a bit of cake, and a round of “pass the parcel.” Other families like to paint on a larger canvass- renting the local leisure centres for more space, and I’m sure some have been known to rent the odd stadium, or even, perhaps, a small island. Likewise, people have varying ideas about what they think constitutes “fun.” As a parent, one feels bound to cultivate an extremely broad definition of “fun” in order to help your child make and maintain friendships, and to support your fellow parents, who go to enormous effort and expense to try to make birthdays a special occasion for their kids and yours.
Scholars now believe Beethoven lost his hearing at his nephew, Karl’s 6th birthday party
Imagine, then, that for one of our kids’ next birthday party, we invite all their little friends for “an afternoon’s entertainment that will, with remorseless certainty, lead to sight loss and possible blindness.” Would you take your kids to such a party?
I doubt it.
And yet, I’m frequently shocked by how many activities “for kids-” parties, plays, djs, dances and get-togethers- take place at dangerously high decibel levels. Levels that will, with remorseless certainty, lead to hearing loss and possible deafness. A few weeks ago, I went to an otherwise lovely party of six-year-olds, marred only by the fact it was being MC’d by a DJ who had his PA system turned up so loud I downloaded a decibel meter to my iPhone just to see what I was exposing myself, and my darlings, to. For our mandatory two hours, the needle hardly dropped below 100 db, and peaked around 120. This was in an enclosed space with a ceiling about the height of a normal living room. The level at which sustained exposure causes hearing damage is 90db.
Two days later, we rolled up at a “soft play centre” for another party. Comparatively less music was played, but in a large, open space, boxed in by acoustically reflective surfaces on floor, ceiling and all four walls. Young kids do like to shriek when they’re playing, and with all those hard surfaces everywhere, those squeals of excitement were packing the same db punch as an un-muffled Harley (again, checked on a db meter). (More restaurants and bars should think about what they can do to increase sound absorption too) The loudest events of the afternoon, however, were the announcements on the PA system. I find it amazing that in such a “health and safety” culture, that staff are not trained in how to use a PA system safely, and that there aren’t some limits on how loud it can be. It’s just as capable of hurting children as any bit of play equipment, and the damage doesn’t heel the way a scrape or a sprain does.
One persistent problem with PA systems occurs almost every time I go to a school play- that of the sudden volume spike. Speaking lines are dished out evenly to all the kids in the class, who take turns talking into a hand-held wireless microphone. It’s all very cute until after three or for mumbling kids have had their turn, one cheeky little boy will yell as loud as he can into a microphone that’s been turned up and up and up while his classmates mumbled. Painful as those moments are for old fogies like me, they’re genuinely dangerous for kids, whose ears are still maturing at that age. There should be a limiter on school PA systems to protect against sudden volume spikes.
The world of children’s entertainment generally takes place at higher sound pressures than that of their parents. My kids, who are total movie fans, have told us they don’t want to go back to two of the local cinemas because the sound hurts their ears. The last time we went to a panto (American readers will have to look up what a British panto is- it’s nothing to do with Marcel Marceau), the sound system started fine, but the technicians seemed to think it was a good idea to turn it up constantly throughout the night, as the show gets more “fun,” until the last act had us in actual pain. An actor shouting something into a microphone can, without warning, push the already-high volume level up by a good 20+ db, and this happened again and again at this show. There are gizmos and software (limiters and compressors) that would prevent those kind of spikes- it’s not expensive, but apparently, most theatres are happy to let those spikes happen at every performance of a Christmas panto that usually runs for weeks.
And few institutions are as generally inept as running PA systems as orchestras (although the sound technician at the Cincinnati Symphony was amazingly good), who generally only use them for family concerts, pops and outdoor gigs. You think Mahler 6 is loud? Come along to your local Lolipops concert: younger audience=louder gig. These days, many family concerts are a mix of short classical works, film scores and the odd new touchy-feely song or play-along with a local band. That means that for much of the night, the orchestra is playing along at normal (loud!) levels, until suddenly, a PA system is unleashed on an unsuspecting audience that creates sound pressures which could make Metallica weep. It’s not just the audience, and the musicians, who are often caught unprepared- the sound guy has probably been out in the parking lot having a smoke. When he comes in to turn on the PA for the grand finale, he’s not really well placed to judge how much louder it is that the previous 90 minutes of music have been. He’s also probably deaf by now, anyway.
I suppose all of this makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but hearing loss is serious business. Most of my rock-era budies have some tinnitus or hearing loss, as do a worrying percentage of orchestral musicians. After my last summer in Aspen, when we spent nine weeks sight reading Tchaikovsky symphonies with full brass in a space better suited to string quintets than Mozart Divertimenti, my ears rang for two months. I really worried I’d permanently damaged myself. The ringing stopped, eventually, but the bad thing about hearing loss is that I may not know until my fifties, sixties or seventies just how much damage I did that summer- in spite of the fact that many of the players begged for something to be done about the volume level in that space.
What’s particularly worrying about what I see around my children is a culture that associates high volume with fun. It’s an incredibly dangerous signal to send to kids, and yet it’s one we seem to reinforce all the time. Loud=fun. It’s your birthday- let’s make it incredibly loud! Let’s to the theatre and see a panto- it’s the perfect holiday entertainment for kids. Guess what, it’s also louder than my rock band ever played at club dates! Okay- we’ll go to the movies. Mind you don’t sit too close to the subwoofers, or the surround speakers! Actually- do sit there! It’s MORE FUN. Fine- we’ll go to the symphony. They’re doing a special concert for kids, and to make it extra fun, they’re borrowing the PA system The Who used in 1976. Well, at least they’re safe at school- until one of their classmates yells into the microphone during an otherwise delightful school play. (As an aside, I’m horrified by the rise of amplification by classroom teachers in American public schools- it just encourages kids to be noisy and normalizes extremely high volume levels even further).
Again and again, we’re telling little kids, really little kids, that having fun means making it loud. We know that as they grow up, they’ll go to rock concerts and clubs and risk their hearing, but in my generation, we knew the dangers, and realized that one needed to use earplugs and good sense. In my children’s generation, they’re so used to 110+db noise by the age of eight, that I doubt most of them will recognize the risks they’re taking when they turn 21 and go to a nightclub or a rock concert. They will have been raised to assume such levels are safe, normal and fun. Worse yet, by the age of 18, they may have already done such massive damage to their hearing that there’s nothing more to fear from a few years of college-age recklessness.
Call me old fashioned, but even as times may change, the anatomy of the ear doesn’t, and parents need to remember that your little darling is going to need those ears for the next eighty years or so, and their ears are even more vulnerable to damage than yours are.
I’ve only written two letters of complaint in my life- one to a soft play center and one to the theatre hosting the panto referenced above. In both cases, I never received a reply. I think that tells me all I need to know about how seriously they take the safety of young people’s hearing. The odd letter from a cranky old musician isn’t going to cut it. Please speak up for your child’s hearing, and tell purveyors of fun to turn it down.
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