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INTRODUCTION TO MUSICAL LISTENING, Parts III-VII


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#1 Roger Bissell

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Posted 21 September 2006 - 09:42 AM

Yesterday I finished inputting the five installments on orchestral music from Books for Libertarians and Libertarian Review, and Dr. Hospers is now giving them his final inspection before OK'ing them for posting here on OL. Look for this wonderful series to pop up by the weekend!

Best to all,
REB
Objectivism, properly used, is a tool for living, not a weapon with which to bash those one disagrees with.

#2 Roger Bissell

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Posted 21 September 2006 - 10:45 PM

INTRODUCTION TO MUSICAL LISTENING:
A GUIDE TO RECORDED CLASSICAL MUSIC

B. Orchestral Music


By John Hospers



[Here is the announcement accompanying installment #3 of Dr. Hospers' series in Books for Libertarians, Vol. III, No. 9, September 1974:

In the course of his research for this series, Professor Hospers discovered more fine recorded classical music than he dreamed existed before he set to work. In order to give you the full benefit of Professor Hospers’ insights, BFL is more than doubling the length of the series—to 13 installments. We will, of course, continue to offer you a “cream-of-the-crop” selection of the records recommended by Professor Hospers. Good reading and good listening!

As is true for the recordings mentioned in Part 1 of this introduction, the recordings mentioned here were all on phonograph records in the 1970s. Searching out used copies of those recordings may be worthwhile to a true audiophile, but most listeners will instead probably just seek out the best available recordings on compact disc or DVD....reb]


PART III: ORCHESTRAL MUSIC TO BACH
(first published in Books for Libertarians, Volume III, Number 9, September 1974)

The history of vocal music in the Western world goes back several centuries further than that of instrumental music. But if you want to know how the earliest instruments sounded, get Odyssey 32160178, which offers an early instrumental ensemble (there are some vocal numbers also) in selections from the fourteenth century by Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) and Francesco Landini (1325-1397) and of the fifteenth century by Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474). Though the music is fairly simple and listenable, it creates for our ears mostly an impression of strangeness. Also combining the fourteenth with the fifteenth century, is a fine record (which I highly recommend), Turnabout 34019, with an ensemble (harps, vielles, recorders, tambourine, et cetera) of Renaissance instruments.

By the time we get to the sixteenth century, the music sounds more familiar to modern ears. Seraphim 6052 is a three-record set that has good instrumental and vocal selections. Philips 6500293 has French sixteenth century dance music, and Philips 6500102 has Italian sixteenth century dance music. Nonesuch 71036 has a set of French Renaissance dances; Odyssey 32160036 contains a charming set of Renaissance dances of various nations. But the two albums of this period that I recommend most are Telefunken 9576-B, a collection of sixteenth century (and some seventeenth) instrumental pieces of various nations, and Nonesuch 73010, a two-record set, which contains lots of delightful short English songs and instrumental pieces of 1550-1600.

The seventeenth century nurtured at least three musical giants: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704), both French, and the greatest of English composers, Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Most of their music is vocal, but it (unlike the earlier a cappella vocal music) is accompanied by instruments which are often as important as the voices. Still, I shall also consider them later in this series in the discussion of vocal music.

If you want just one record of seventeenth century French instrumental music, I recommend Lully’s “Pieces de Symphonie” on a marvelous record, Oiseau-Lyre SOL-301. You will be delighted with the melodies and the sounds from the interesting instruments of the time. Delightful music for smaller instrumental combinations are Lully’s orchestral suite, “Amadis de Gaule” (RCA VICS-1432), his suite “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (Vol DL-1070), and his ballet music to “Xerxes” (Turnabout 34376)—each of them a delight to the ear. As for Charpentier, the works of this enormous genius are almost all vocal, but you might listen to his “Medee” on Oiseau S-300 for an instrumental sample of his “high baroque” style. Of Henry Purcell there will be much more in future installments, but for some of his purely instrumental pieces I recommend Nonesuch 71027,containing his “Gordian Knot,” “The Virtuous Wife” (featuring harpsichord and clavichord), and his Sonata in D for Trumpet and Strings, and, on London 6618, his “Chaconne” and “Pavane.” The purity and clarity of his music is highly infectious, and it is very easy to become addicted to it.

The Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli (1551-1612) wrote (among many other things) music for the dedication of Saint Peter’s Cathedral. This music is on Vanguard HM-8 and Columbia MS-7209. Though his music lacks depth, all the pomp and circumstance attaching to ceremonial occasions is there, and the trumpet fanfares are quite exhilarating.

Spanning the gap between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are the Italian Archangelo Corelli (1653-1713) and the German Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706). Corelli is best known for his “Christmas Concerto,” a lovely bit of lace; Pachelbel is best known for his “Kanon”—the perfect relaxation music, highly romantic in mood. The two compositions are available together on one record, London 6206. A pleasant suite by Pachelbel is on Nonesuch 71229; and Corelli’s entire series of concerti grossi, of which the “Christmas Concerto” is one, is on a three-record Odyssey set, 32360002. If you like the “Christmas Concerto,” you will enjoy the rest of them, as well as the Sonata for Trumpet and Strings on Argo ZRG-601.

Before we get fully into the eighteenth century, I want to recommend three seventeenth (and very early eighteenth) century albums above all others: The first is a three-record set, “Music at the Courts of Italy, Sweden, and France.” This is an array of instrumental music of the time, the quality of which will surprise even those who are familiar with this period (included is some work by the choral composer par excellence, Palestrina). The second is “Musiques Royales a Notre Dame,” instrumental works for wind ensemble and organ by three French masters, Lalande (1657-1726), Mouret (1682-1738), and Lully. This record is worth many times what it costs. It is ceremonial music, not profound, but stately and stirring, and the combination of instruments with the powerful pipe-organ represents as well as any other music the flowering of the baroque style. This record is a “must.” Third, and almost equally splendid, is Nonesuch 71009, containing stirring martial music by Lully, Couperin, Lalande, and Mouret.

And now we come to the greatest age of music, the first half of the eighteenth century. The number of first-rate works from this period, both instrumental and vocal, is simply staggering. Couperin was born in 1668, Vivaldi in 1678, Rameau and Frescobaldi in 1683, the twin giants of them all, Bach and Handel, in 1685, and, for good measure, Telemann in 1681 and Scarlatti in 1685. One scarcely knows where to begin (I spend at least half my listening time with music of this period—the choral even more than the instrumental—and, extending it a bit to include Purcell and Charpentier on one side and Haydn and Mozart on the other, it would be about 75 percent.)

The two giants of French music in the eighteenth century were Rameau (1683-1764) and Couperin (1668-1733). They were among the first major figures to write more secular than religious music and more instrumental than vocal. The best single record for introducing yourself to their music is a marvelous album (which I recommend just about as highly as “Musiques Royales a Notre Dame”), entitled “Music at Versailles at the Time of Louis XIV.” It contains selections from Couperin’s “La Sultane,” dances from Charpentier’s “Medee,” and the dances from “Acante” by Rameau. With this as appetizer I recommend continuing with Couperin’s “Aptheose de Lully,” another lovely work, on Oiseau S-300, and then, if you like this (as you will), his “Concerts Royaux” on Vanguard C-10029. This work is also part of a worthwhile three-record set, Nonesuch 73014. As for Rameau’s instrumental music, get his ballet music from “La Temple de la Gloire” on Oiseau S-302 and S-297, and the suite from the opera “Dardanus” on Victor VICS-1333. You will find this French baroque music so delightful that you will not want to leave it.

Turning from France to Italy, Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) wrote, in addition to much worthy keyboard music, some ceremonial music as stirring as Gabrieli’s: hear the “Toccata Canzoni” (Decca 79425) and the fine collection of his instrumental work on Everest 3173. The fine chamber instrumental set, “Baroque masters of Venice, Naples, and Tuscany,” has already been recommended in Part I. [Ed. Note: Available from BFL.]

But the greatest of the Italians, approaching the level of Bach himself, was Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). His instrumental music—which constitutes the bulk of his compositions—consists mostly of concertos, which possess an unquenchable verve and vivacity, and whose predominant mood is an intoxicated delight. A dozen years ago most of his works were unrecorded; today there is such a great profusion of his works available that there are more pages in the Schwann catalog devoted to Vivaldi than to Verdi or Wagner. I suggest beginning with his “Concerto for Diverse Instruments”—you will swear that the opening movement is the happiest and jolliest music you have ever heard—as recorded by Bernstein on Columbia MS-6131. Then get his equally delightful lute and mandolin concerti on Turnabout 34153-S.The third of the triumvirate of “musts” for Vivaldi’s instrumental music is his best-known work (actually a series of violin concertos), “The Four Seasons,” of which there are more than 20 recordings in the Schwann catalog. (The one to get is Philips 6500017.) His twelve concerti grossi (Op. 3), “L’Estro Armonico,” which are a worthy successor to Corelli’s concerti grossi and precursors of Handel’s, are well played on Argo ZRG 733/4.

From here on only the size of your pocketbook and your desire for some of the most vivacious music in the world is the limit: there are concertos for piccolo, for recorder, for horns, for oboe, for clarinet, for violin, for guitar, for flute, for flute and violins, for four violins, for two oboes and clarinets, for flute, oboe, and bassoon—and on and on, in an endless cascade of delight from the pen of this composer. Much of it is well done on inexpensive labels such as Nonesuch, Turnabout, Seraphim, and Odyssey. Apparently Vivaldi’s job as priest in charge of a Catholic girls’ school agreed with him!

Most professional musicians, critics, and musicologists agree that the greatest composer of them all is Bach. The majority of his compositions are vocal, but he has left an enormous legacy of chamber music and orchestral music as well. The total of his extant work (much of it has been lost) amounts to 47 large volumes. His music is not always in as happy a mood as Vivaldi’s, but it is in the “Brandenburg Concertos,” with which I suggest you begin. All six of them, with the exception of the relatively uninspired no. 6, are immortal masterpieces, which one wants to hear again and again no matter how often one has heard them before. (I have heard each of them uncountable times, yet it is always a delight to hear them again.) With more than 20 entries in the Schwann catalog, there is lots of choice, but in my opinion the very best one is conducted by the English composer Benjamin Britten on the two record set, “Bach: Brandenburg Concertos.”

Next, turn to Bach’s four great “Suites for Orchestra,” which some prefer even to the “Brandenburg Concertos.” There are several excellent recorded performances, but for the money you cannot beat the one on the cut-price Seraphim label, Seraphim S-6085, (two records), conducted by the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. And from then on, again, the sky is the limit: the suite for flute and strings; concertos for flute, violin, and harpsichord; concerto for two violins; and so on, depending on your instrumental preferences. (Next month: Dr. Hospers continues his discussion of Bach in Part IV: Orchestral Music from Bach through Mozart.)


PART IV: ORCHESTRAL MUSIC FROM BACH THROUGH MOZART
(first published in Libertarian Review, Volume III, Number 10, October 1974)

(This month Professor Hospers continues his discussion of Bach.) You might also be interested in the record, “Switched-on Bach,” Columbia MS-7194, an “electronic music” version of some of Bach’s work done on the Moog synthesizer. It contains, among other things, the Brandenburg Concerto no. 3, and you will find it interesting to listen to the concerto in its original form first and then the electronic version. In most cases I do not approve of transcriptions—for example, transcriptions of Bach’s organ works for orchestra—because the “silken strings” effect is entirely unsuited to this music and a great many of the architectonic details are lost. But in the case of the “Switched-on Bach” the medium is different, and every note of the original is preserved and stands out distinctly in the recording. Bach would have approved, or at least found interesting, the electronic transcription, but I daresay he would have been utterly repelled by the orchestral transcriptions of his organ works.

Among Bach’s enormous musical output, both tuneful and profound, I want to call attention to one especially noteworthy series of works: his harpsichord concertos—concertos for one harpsichord, for two, for three, and for four. We have discussed harpsichord music before, but never did a harpsichord sound better than when set off against an orchestra, especially in playing the music of Bach. I will say without hesitation that Bach’s harpsichord concertos are the greatest music ever written for the harpsichord; if you get nothing else for harpsichord, get this. It is well performed on the five-record set, “Bach: Complete Concerti for Harpsichord and Orchestra.” But the most brilliant in performance and perfect in sound is the five-record set, Telefunken SCA-25.

The endless outpouring of instrumental works by Telemann (1681-1767) lack the verve and fire of Vivaldi and the profound genius of Bach; but they possess great musical ingenuity, and are always interesting “tafelmusik.” I suggest starting with his concerto for trumpets and strings on Nonesuch 71066 and going on from there.

Still in the baroque style, but in the Italian tradition of Vivaldi rather than the German tradition of Bach, is Georg Frederic Handel (1685-1759). The greater part of his music consists of oratorios, but the quantity and quality of his output of instrumental music is also tremendous. Best known of his orchestral works is the “Water Music,” usually in the form of a selection from it by Sir Hamilton Harty called the “Water Music Suite.” There are about a dozen recordings of the complete work, of which I recommend most the one conducted by Menuhin on Angel S-36173. As for the suite, it is excellently done by Szell (with Handel’s “Royal Fireworks Music” on the other side of the record) on London 6236 and by Ormandy (with the “Fireworks” plus a Corelli suite on the other side on Columbia MS-6095.

In my opinion some of Handel’s finest instrumental music is in the Concerto Grossi, Op. 6—not to be confused with the other series of Handel Concerti Grossi, Op. 3, which is technically just as proficient, but much less moving as music. In interpreting this fine music for orchestra (often featuring the harpsichord), I believe there is no better recording than the old mono one conducted by Scherchen on Westminster WAL-403—the restrained but intense enthusiasm of the no. 5 and the slow lingering sadness of the slow movement of the no. 6 (reminiscent of the Mozart quintet K. 516) is nowhere better conveyed. Since this has long been a discontinued item, I suggest as one of the best current available recordings St. Martin’s of the Fields’ recording under the direction of Neville Mariner: “Handel: Twelve Concerti Grossi.”

Handel also wrote concertos for harp, oboe, trumpet, oboes and strings, and two wind choirs and strings—not all profound, but every one a delight to the ear. Only Bach and Vivaldi are rivals to Handel in quality and quantity of orchestral concertos. Each listener will have his own favorite instruments and his favorite concertos for each instrument. I shall only call special attention to his sixteen concertos for organ and orchestra, which are impressive works indeed; all sixteen are available and well conducted by Boult on a six-record set, Columbia D3S-777/8. If six records are a bit much, try the marvelously played selections by De Klerk and Van der Horst on Telefunken S-9437 and S-9441.

We now leave the baroque period and turn to the latter half of the eighteenth century and the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart. To get a sample of it, music which is polyphonic but much less ornate than that of the baroque period of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, try the excellent London STS-15013, which features a symphony by the early English symphonist William Boyce, as well as fine instrumental works by Purcell, Matthew Locke, and Johan Christian Bach. (Several of Bach’s sons were composers.) If you like Boyce, you will find more of his symphonies beautifully done by Menuhin on Angel S-36951. Equally delightful is Nonesuch 71123.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote 104 symphonies. Although in my opinion this enormous output does not equal in quality his 82 quartets, you will find at least the last one-third of them highly enjoyable. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are all known to the public largely for their symphonies, which is a pity, not because the symphonies are not excellent, but because much of their other work is equally excellent or more so. If you have not heard any Haydn symphonies, try the last one (no. 104, “London”). Toscanini was the conductor who above all could do miracles with Haydn; his rhythmic verve and bounding energy was transformed by Toscanini into incandescence. But all of Toscanini’s Haydn recordings (presumably because they were on mono) have been removed from the catalog. In lieu of these, I suggest Karajan on no. 104, with Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 on the other side (London STS-15106); nos. 93 and 94 (“Surprise”) as done by Szell on Columbia MS-7006; and Karajan on no. 101 (“Clock”) and no. 83, on Angel S-36868.

Enormous fun to listen to and enjoyable to anyone who liked the Vivaldi concertos are the Haydn concertos; concertos for horn, for harpsichord, for flute, for cello, for lyre, for oboe, for organ, for trumpet, for violin, and so on. Haydn—like Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel before him—wrote huge quantities of delightful music, and it is hard to choose for someone else. I particularly like his jolly concertos for trumpet and for horn, which are available together on one record, Turnabout 34031; his utterly delightful concertos for harpsichord, which are all on “Haydn: Three Harpsichord Concertos”; and his music for lute and strings on Turnabout 34227. These three are “musts”; I prefer these discs to any of the symphonies. The two cello concertos are together on Telefunken S-43092, his lyre concertos on Nonesuch 71067 and Turnabout 34055, and his organ concertos on two Philips records, 6700052. The engaging Concerto in C for Orchestra and Organ is on Nonesuch 71024.

After Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Mozart wrote 41 symphonies, of which the last three are the most famous, and constantly performed. For the lyrical no. 39 (K. 543), get Colin Davis’ excellent performance on Philips 6500559, where it is coupled with the no. 40 (K. 550). For the no. 41 (K. 551, “Jupiter”), get the Casals performance on Columbia MS-7066, both because the other side of the record has his marvelous performance of the no. 35 (K. 385, “Haffner”), which if not the most profound is (I think) his most joyous symphony. Among the best of Mozart’s earlier symphonies is the no. 29 (K. 201), done by Davis on Philips 835262 (coupled with the nos. 25 and 32).

To my mind, however, Mozart’s greatest orchestra delights are to be found in other genres: the “Sinfonia Concertantes,” especially the highly romantic one in E-flat, K. 364 (Menuhin on Angel S-36190); the “Divertimentos,” especially the nos. 10 (K. 247) and 11 (K. 251), best done for chamber orchestra on RCA VICS-1335 and for larger orchestra on Oiseau 60029; the four rollicking concertos for horn, and only to a slightly lesser extent the concertos for oboe, for flute, for flute and harp, and for bassoon. You get all of these delightful items together—the four horn concertos, the clarinet concerto, the two flute-bassoon concertos, and an early “Sinfonia”—on the four-record set, “Mozart: The Complete Wind Concerti,” which I strongly recommend.

Also worthy of mention is Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonic (K. 617). The glass harmonica, a charming instrument which was once popular and is now entirely neglected, is combined with an equally charming Mozartean glass harmonic score on Turnabout 34452, which also contains works by other composers for the same instrument.

There are five Mozart violin concertos. All are early works, fine works but minor Mozart, though you might enjoy nos. 4 and 5 (Turnabout 34186).

The really tremendous orchestral works by Mozart are the concertos for piano. I suggest that you first listen to the dizzily happy concerto for two pianos an orchestra (K. 365) on Nonesuch 71028, which has the somewhat less noteworthy concerto for three pianos and orchestra (K. 242) on the other side. Now turn to the concertos for solo piano and orchestra; there are 27 of them, Mozart’s single greatest achievement except for his operas. Where shall we begin? The slow movement of one of the greatest ones, no. 21 (K. 467) has become famous through the film Elvira Madigan, and the entire concerto is a marvel. Since the extraordinary performance of Gieseking playing and Cantelli conducting is no longer available (when will they stop cutting out a first-rate performance on mono in favor of a second-rate one on stereo?), get the Casadeseus recording conducted by Szell on Columbia M-31814—especially since you get on the other side the Concerto no. 25 (K. 491), which is another of the Mozart greats. Casadeseus and Szell join forces again for another of the fine ones, no. 23 (K. 482) and no. 24 (K.488) on Columbia MS-6194, and no. 26 (K. 537) and no. 27 (K. 595) on Columbia MS-6403. The most noteworthy of the early piano concertos is no. 9 (K. 271) performed by Ashkenazy on London 6501. Having heard these, you have reached the culmination of orchestral music of the eighteenth century. (Next month: Orchestral Music from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky.)


PART V: ORCHESTRAL MUSIC FROM BEETHOVEN TO TCHAIKOVSKY
(first published in Libertarian Review, Volume III, Number 11, November 1974)

The symphonies of Beethoven have been so extensively played that they have really been overworked in comparison with equally great works by others (and by Beethoven himself) that have been neglected. There are so many recordings of these symphonies that the listener has a large range of choice. The recordings by Toscanini are still the most inspired and, in my view, definitive, but the sound quality, especially on high-fidelity equipment, leaves much to be desired. Of the symphonies of Beethoven to which the adjective “great” is universally applied and balancing the quality of the recorded sound against the technical skill of the performers and, most of all, the quality of the conductor’s interpretation, I would say that the on-the-whole best performance of the no. 3 (“Eroica”) is by Barbirolli on Angel S-3641; of no. 4 by Ansermet on London 15055; and of no. 5, by Reiner on RCA LSC-2434 (with fine performances of some of Beethoven’s great concert overtures on part of the other side). The no. 6 (“Pastoral”) is matchlessly recorded by Bruno Walter on Odyssey Y7-30051, which, though old, makes every other recording of this work pale by comparison. If you cannot get it, get the Böhm recording on DGG-2530142. For the scintillating no. 7, Reiner is magnificent on RCA LSC-1991. The light no. 8 is most compellingly done by Casals (with Mendelssohn’s equally melodic Symphony no. 4 on the other side) on Columbia MS-6931. The no. 9 of which the first movement is one of the towering achievements of music is performed to the dramatic hilt by Solti on “Beethoven: Symphony No. 9.”

Of the piano concertos, the no. 5 is too much a pompous display piece for my taste, compared with the far greater subtleties of Mozart and his predecessors, but it is well done by Solti and pianist Ashkenazy on London 2404, four discs containing all five piano concertos; if you don’t want the whole set, get the exciting Swedish performance on Rococo 2047, or failing that, the fine Bernstein-Serkin performance on Columbia M-31807. But it is the no. 4, with its probing introspective quality, that is the giant among Beethoven’s piano concertos. The great Schnabel performance is now discontinued, and of those now available, the best done is by Solti-Ashkenazy, on the aforementioned London 2404; otherwise, I suggest Ormandy-Istomin on Columbia MS-7199. The violin concerto is a fine work, although minor Beethoven compared with the chamber works recommended in Part 1 of this series; but it is most feelingly done by Bruno Walter and violinist Francescatti on Odyssey Y-30042. For the great Beethoven overtures, get Szell on Columbia MS-6966 and MS-7068.

Schubert’s style, like that of Chopin and Schumann, is so intimately wedded to chamber music that his orchestral works all suffer by comparison—with one great exception: the magnificent Symphony no. 9 in C. This amazing work, a total masterpiece of symphonic form (which Schubert never lived to hear performed), has an inexorable rhythmic drive that is simply beyond belief. And it grows on you continuously whether you have been hearing it for days or for years. Several “immortal” performances (immortal but for the fact that they have been discontinued) are the Sir Hamilton Harty on Columbia (78 rpm), the Furtwangler on Turnabout 4364 (mono), and the Toscanini (mono). There is, however, a superlative recording available, that of Szell on “Schubert: Symphony No. 9.” The well-known no. 8 (“Unfinished”) is best done by Walter on Odyssey Y-3031.

One of the greatest of all composers is Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). His early “Symphonie Fantastique” is easily forgettable compared with his other work, but it is excellently done by Ansermet on London CS-2101. His beautifully expressive tone-poem for viola and orchestra, “Harold in Italy,” is best done by Ormandy (and Pasquale, violist) on Columbia M-30116. But if you have to select only one orchestral work by Berlioz—and I shall call it orchestral though it contains a few choral passages—let it be his “Romeo and Juliet” (Op. 17), which Toscanini called “the most beautiful music ever written.” Even though this may be a bit of an overstatement, the work is so lovely, and the entire love-music section so melting, that when you hear it you won’t be able to disagree, you will just want to hear it again and again for weeks. Toscanini’s recording on mono has been discontinued, but a worthy successor is by the greatest contemporary interpreter of Berlioz’ music, Colin Davis, on “Berlioz: Romeo et Juliette.” I shall have a good deal more to say about Berlioz later in this series, when I discuss song, opera, and choral music.

The symphonies by Johannes Brahms are too well known to require much comment. The tense and electrifying no. 1 is best done by Stokowski on London 21090/1; the more “singing” no. 2 by Beecham (with the greatest of Brahms’ overtures, the “Academic Festival,” on part of the other side) on Seraphim S-60083; for the gentle “Sunset Glow” symphony, no. 3, Stokowski on Everest 3030 is more lyrical, Szell’s on Columbia MS-6685 more dramatic (with Brahms’ fine “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” on part of the other side); and finally, the monumental no. 4, perhaps the greatest of his symphonic works, is best done by Haitink on Philips 6500389. Brahms’ violin concerto is, in my opinion, the greatest of all violin concertos, and is done with splendor by Szell and violinist Oistrakh on Angel 36032 (though the Ormandy-Stern performance is also excellent and has the lovely Mozart Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 on part of the other side). And his Piano Concerto no. 2 is, in my opinion again, the greatest of all piano concertos. This sculptured, towering work is done with equal mastery by Szell and Serkin on Columbia MS-6937 and Barbirolli and Barenboim on Angel S-36526. Not quite on a part with these, but still eminently worth hearing, is the double concerto (for violin and cello), best done by Walter, with Francescatti and Fournier on Columbia MS-6158.

A fine symphonist, and much more simple and direct than Brahms, is Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). His most powerful orchestral compositions are the popular “Romeo and Juliet,” best done by Stokowski on London 21032, and the Symphony no. 6 (“Pathetique”), best performed by Guilini on Seraphim S-60031. Very fine works too, though less concentrated in their emotional intensity, are the no. 4, best done by Barenboim on Columbia M-30572, and the no. 5 by Stokowski on London 21017. His violin concerto is one of the loveliest of all violin concertos—a genre in which there is a paucity of first-rate works, but a plentitude of good performances, especially in this case—of which I prefer the Schippers-Francescatti recording (Columbia MS-6758), with an equally fine playing of the almost equally fine violin concerto by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) on the other side. For those who like Tchaikovsky’s bombastic Piano Concerto no. 1, I recommend the Kondrashin-Cliburn performance on RCA LSC-2252.

An entirely different aspect of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral work is to be found in his ballet scores: “Nutcracker,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Aurora’s Wedding”—of which “Nutcracker” especially is filled with enchanting singable melodies. Get the complete ballet conducted by Previn on Angel S-3788 (two discs) [Ed. Note: reviewed in the December 1973 Books for Libertarians by R. A. Childs, Jr.], or the suite done by Bernstein on Columbia MS-6193.

There is a large number of famous but eminently forgettable nineteenth century orchestral works. (The public still dotes on inferior works of the nineteenth century and ignores masterpieces of the seventeenth and eighteenth.) Among them are Tchaikovsky’s second and third piano concertos, almost all the orchestral works by Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, and the almost incredibly crude and vulgar “Symphonie Espagnole” by Lalo. Most of the work of Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is also forgettable, except perhaps for the pompous but cumulatively impressive Symphony no. 3 for Organ and Orchestra, done with the greatest flair by Much non RCA LSC-2341.

Another minor figure with a large output is Rimsky-Korsakov, whose “Scheherazade” is played again and again. If you want it, get the incomparable Beecham recording on Angel 35505. Rimsky-Korsakov did write one delightful, utterly spontaneous and exciting orchestral work, “The Russian Festival of High Easter,” performed with verve by Ormandy along with other pleasant nineteenth century Russian pieces (by Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, Glinka, and Borodin) on Columbia MS-6875.

The final forgettable orchestral composer for this month is Caesar Frank, who wrote one good, but overplayed, symphony, which is passionately performed by Bernstein on Columbia MS-6072 and by Stokowski on London SPC-21061. (Next Month: Orchestral Music of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.)


PART VI: ORCHESTRAL MUSIC OF THE LATE NINETEENTH
AND EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURIES

(first published in Libertarian Review, Volume III, Number 12, December 1974)

Smetana’s symphonic cycle “Ma Vlast” (“My Country”)—of which “The Moldau” (“The River”) is the most famous excerpt—thought not up to his operas, is excellently performed and recorded by Kubelik on a two-record set, DG-2707054. Dvorak’s orchestral works, except for the second movements of his Symphonies 8 and 9 (“From the New World”), are in the forgettable category: you will enjoy them a few times and then tire of them. But there is one superb Dvorak orchestral work which is different from his other orchestral work: the Cello Concerto—certainly the greatest of all cello concertos (there are not many even moderately good ones). Since the Casals-Szell performance is no longer available, get it with brilliant sound as performed by Rostropovich and conducted by Von Karajan on DG-139044. Of the works of the more recent Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928), try his delightful “Sinfonietta” (Ozawa on Angel 36045).

The symphonies of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) are of somewhat uneven quality, with awkward transitions and “padded” passages intermixed with stretches of great lyrical beauty and cumulative powers, but his scherzos are always a delight. He wrote at least three memorable symphonies: no. 4 (“Romantic”), with its enchanting vernal quality (fully rendered by Barenboim on DG 2530336); no. 7, with its stately, slow, but finally overwhelming slow movement (best done on a three-record set with the no. 4, both conducted by Karajan on Angel S-3779; otherwise get Klemperer on Angel S-3626: and finally his masterpiece, the no. 9, with its muted dread, hope, and mystery, and ending in either mysticism, darkness, or quiet radiance (depending on what you bring to it), of which the unforgettable recording is by Furtwangler on Heliodor 2548701E. If you cannot get it (it is a foreign recording not listed in Schwann), get the fine Mehta recording on London 6462.

We come now to the composer who is, in the increasing opinion of those who have been exposed to his work, the greatest symphonist of the last hundred years, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). His symphonies are of such monumental scope, with such massive orchestral (and often choral) requirements, and with qualities of feeling hitherto unexpressed in music, that many critics did not recognize the emotional power and the symphonic inventiveness lying behind (or coming through) the sounds. Each of his 10 symphonies is in its own way a masterpiece, and some carry such elemental power that listeners remain speechless and immobile in their seats—in the case of the Second Symphony I have seen members of the audience lave the auditorium with tears flowing down their cheeks. Mahler “grabs” many listeners who are left comparatively cold by other composers: his works strike an emotional jugular, things like “the mystery of existence” and “the loveliness and the tragedy of life.” The First Symphony is exciting and monumental, qualities which are superbly conveyed in the Bruno Walter performance (still the best) on Odyssey Y-30047. For a more modern sound, get Horenstein’s recording on Nonesuch 71240.

But even this massive symphony is only a curtain-raiser. Of his four greatest symphonies—in my opinion these are 2, 3, 9, and 10—no. 2 (“The Resurrection”) is the one to start with. It carries its intense emotionality more “on its face.” With oversized orchestra, plus chorus, plus soloists and bells, it ascends to such heights of exaltation as to leave the listener paralyzed and speechless. There are many fine recordings of this work, but you can seldom go wrong with the Mahler-Bernstein combination: Bernstein has a special affinity for “the tragic sense of life’ which is so poignantly expressed in Mahler’s work. Bernstein’s performance of the Symphony no. 2, offered this month by LR, is simply overwhelming. Only after you have heard it a few times should you turn to Symphony no. 3, which I have come through time to prefer even to the no. 2. Of all Mahler’s works the no. 3 is the most affirmative in tone, and one is left levitated as its matchless end is reached. Here again get the incomparable Bernstein (available from LR), especially for its final movement. (Regrettably, it does not use a real flugelhorn in two intermediate movements, and this does make a difference—perhaps for some listeners even tipping the balance in favor of Solti’s breath-taking recording on London 2223.)

By contrast, the no. 4 is shorter and more quietly introspective; Bernstein’s lyrical rendition is on Columbia MS-6152. The no. 5, with its nostalgically intense Adagietto and its powerful, savage horn and trombone passages in other movements, is perfectly suited to Solti’s driving intensity on London 2228. For the nos. 6, 7, and 8, as elsewhere, take Bernstein for heart-rending passion and Solti for dramatic drive and heroism. Only with the no. 8, “The Symphony of a Thousand,” does Mahler (in my opinion) ever descend occasionally to the “vulgarly ostentatious.” [Ed. Note: Reviewed in the February 1974 Books for Libertarians by Mark Corske.]

In the two final symphonies, all the exhibitionism is gone and the means economical, yet the emotionality is tremendously intense. Only after hearing at least some of the earlier ones can the uniqueness and greatness of these two be fully appreciated. For Symphony no. 9, again Bernstein is overpowering. The recording available from the LR Book Service couples this with Symphony no. 5, but if you want it by itself, get the Solti on London 2220. For Symphony no. 10, get Ormandy, where it is coupled with Mahler’s song-cycle, “Das Lied von der Erde,” or alone on Columbia M2S-775. Mahler is “total experience,” and after it no one is quite the same again. [Additional note by JH (2006): Recently there have been new recordings (best ones in the Derek Cooke adaptation); at last it can be said that Mahler’s Tenth is receiving its just reward.]

Then there is Mahler’s friend Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Though his operas are his principal claim to fame, he wrote some impressive orchestral tone-poems, chief among them being “Don Quixote,” written for cello and orchestra—the best sound-plus-performance is by Maazel (cellist, Brabec) on London CS-6593—and “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”), best done by Haitink on Philips 6500048. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” seems to me entirely forgettable: after its famous first minute (celebrated in the film 2001) it deteriorates and wanders interminably. Short and light, but enjoyable, are “Don Juan,” “Death and Transfiguration,” and “Till Eulenspiegel”—all of them excellently done on Odyssey Y-30313, conducted by Szell.

A worthy successor to Tchaikovsky, whose early works resemble those of that great Russian composer, is the Finn, Jan Sibelius (1865-1957). The Symphony no. 2 is melodic like Tchaikovsky, but sterner (“the giant of the north”) and more inexorable in its rhythm and climax; its spirit is powerfully conveyed by Szell on Philips 835306. But it is his late symphonies that pack the wallop: the mysterious and probing no. 4 (Karajan, who seems to have a special affinity for Sibelius’ music, does a fine job on DG-138974, with Sibelius’ lovely tone-power “The Swan of Tuonela” for violin and orchestra on part of the other side); the joyfully dramatic no. 5 (here Bernstein’s performance is probably the best, on Columbia MS-6749); and most of all that miracle of symphonic construction, the one-movement no. 7, which is among the finest works in the entire symphonic literature (Karajan on DG-139032, coupled with the no. 6). It has to be heard a number of times; it gathers momentum slowly, like bits and pieces floating out of the fog and back again, but all coming together toward the end in a climactic vortex of great but controlled power. Sibelius’ various tone-poems and his violin concerto are listenable, but (except for “The Swan of Tuonela”) froth in comparison with his symphonies.

The Danish composer, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), is less known in the United States than Sibelius, but in his own unique idiom he has composed some powerful orchestral works. Choicest among them is the Symphony no. 5 (Op. 5), best recorded by Jenson, on London 1143. Since this is a discontinued item, try Bernstein on Columbia MS-6414.

An unduly neglected twentieth-century composer is the Englishman, Frederic Delius (1862-1934). For works of quiet beauty and rustic pastoral quality, with an admixture of modern harmonies, Delius has no peer. On one record, “In a Summer Garden: Music by Frederic Delius,” you will find some of his best: “In a Summer Garden,” “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring,” “Summer Night on a River,” and “A Song before Sunrise.” This record plus two others, Angel 36756 (continuing his “Appalachia,” based on American Negro themes) and Angel 36415 (all three records beautifully conduced by Barbirolli), will together give you the best of Delius’ music.

The twentieth-century inheritor of the Beethoven-Brahms symphonic tradition is the English composer, Ralph Vaughn-Williams (1872-1958). His early symphonies are all programmatic, but extremely evocative: no. 1 (“The Sea”), no. 2 (“London”), and no. 3 (“Pastoral”). All of them are impressive works, particularly as conducted by Sir Adrian Boult on Angel, but especially the no. 2 (Angel 36838).

But it is in his later symphonies that his great sustained power as a symphonist is displayed. Combining the drive and energy of Beethoven with the romanticism and involution of Brahms, we have some of the most moving orchestral music of our day. My own favorite is the intense no. 5 (Boult on “Serenade to Music; Symphony No. 5 in D,” with Vaughn-Williams’ fine “Serenade to Music” on part of one side), although perhaps the single most powerful movement is the second movement of the no. 6 (Boult on Angel 36469, with the lovely romantic violin-and-orchestra tone-poem, “Lark Ascending,” on part of the second side).

In concluding, let me mention three other works worth considering. Vaughn-Williams’ fellow Englishman, William Walton (1902- ), has written one symphony with great drive and suspense (Previn on RCA LSC-2927) and the enjoyable “Façade Suite” (London 15191). Gustav Holst (1874-1934) wrote a famous orchestral piece, “The Planets” (Boult on Angel 36420). And, the far more prolific Englishman, Benjamin Britten (1913- ), has written some intermittently interesting orchestral works, particularly enjoyable being the “Spring Symphony” (London 25242). (Next month: Orchestral Music of the Twentieth Century.)


PART VII: ORCHESTRAL MUSIC OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
(first published in Libertarian Review, Volume IV, Number 1, January 1975)

Now to Russian music since Tchaikovsky. The recorded works of Rachmaninov have already been reviewed by LR. Let me only remark that his Symphony no. 2, which I find the most inspiring of his works, has been recorded by Previn (on Angel 36954) in a performance so stunning that it would be a mistake to purchase any other recording. And do not forget Rachmaninov’s contemporary, Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956), whose Symphony no. 3 (“Ilya Murometz”) is a marvel of colorful symphonic writing (and of colorful recording by Stokowski on Seraphim S-60089).

The most prolific, and in the opinion of many—myself included—the most important of contemporary Russian composers is Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). His Symphony no. 1 (“Classical”), a takeoff of Haydn and Mozart, is a delight (Kurtz on Seraphim 60172); but his surging gut-level power is best exhibited in the Symphony no. 5, performed by Ansermet, on “Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B flat.” But this is only the beginning. The violin concerto is a vehicle in which few composers have excelled; Prokofiev wrote two of them, each in its own way a perfect gem—both beautifully played by violinist Isaac Stern and conducted by Ormandy on Columbia MS-6635. His Piano Concerto no. 3 is already a major classic of piano literature, and among many good recordings one stands out: DG-139349, conducted by Abbado and played by Argerich. Also well worth listening to are the “Lieutenant Kije Suite” (Szell on Columbia MS-7408) and the “Love for Three Oranges Suite” (on Turnabout 34463 with Prokofiev’s great cantata “Alexander Nevsky”).

There have been three great musical treatments of the Romeo and Juliet theme (if one ignores Gounod’s opera by the same name): by Berlioz [Ed. Note: reviewed in this column last month.], by Tchaikovsky, and by Prokofiev. The only one, in my opinion that compares with Berlioz’ is Prokofiev’s; it lacks Berlioz’ tremendous intensity, but it is after all a ballet designed for a full evening’s listening and viewing, and it is a melodic inspiration throughout, with a shimmering beauty all its own. Until recently only selections from the ballet were available on records, but now there are two exceptional recordings of the entire work, each on three records, one by Previn (Angel 3802) and one by Maazel (London 2312), which I prefer by a small margin because of London’s superior sound. (Samples of all three orchestral treatments of Romeo and Juliet—Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev—are well done by Stokowski on London 21108.)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906- ) is not up to Prokofiev’s standards, and many minutes of his many symphonies are cerebral contrivance, empty bombast, or careful padding. But the early Symphony no. 1 is fascinating (get Weller on London CS-6787), and the Symphony no. 5, after two arid opening movements, rises to a height of sustained tension. (Get the inspired recording by his son, Maksim Shostakovich, on Angel S-40163.) The no. 7 (“Leningrad”) is simple and tuneful, and was an inspiring wartime piece, but rather thin soup for such a long composition. The best one so far, I think, is the no. 10 (Ormandy on Columbia M-30295).

The Russian-Armenian composer Aram Khatchadourian (1903- ) wrote but one memorable orchestral work, the Piano Concerto (1936), which has a biting staccato intensity and catchy rhythms. (Try De Burgos on London 6181; different recordings of this piece have interpretations so different that it hardly sounds like the same piece.)

Claude Debussy, though primarily a composer of chamber music, wrote perhaps the most convincing work of program music ever, “La Mer” (“The Sea”), which, though it does not exactly sound like the sea, imitates the rhythms of the sea and certainly conveys powerful images of the sea. Stokowski is at his best at this type of music, and now that the incomparable Toscanini recording is no longer available, Stokowski’s on London 21059 is the one to get; it also has Maurice Ravel’s almost equally evocative suites “Daphnis and Chloe” on the other side. (The same for Szell’s fine performance of both on Odyssey Y-31928.) Debussy’s “Images pour Orchestra” (including the famous “Iberia”) is exquisitely rendered by Boulez on Columbia MS-7362. Stokowski’s performance of “Nocturnes,” on Seraphim S-60104, is equally exquisite.

Ottorino Resphigi (1879-1936) also wrote some interesting impressionistic music, such as “The Pines of Rome,” “The Fountains of Rome,” and “The Birds”—all available together on one record by Kertesz, London CS-6624 (though Much’s performance, without “The Birds,” on London 21024, has even more élan). But the pick of the crop is the “Ancient Airs and Dances” (which I recommend with Karajan on DG-2530247, because it also contains the lovely “Pachelbel Kanon.” However, once you listen to these airs in their original form on Turnabout 34195 (recommend in Part 1 of this series), you will see that in their original form they have more charm than Resphigi’s adaptation of them for modern orchestra.

A highly original composer is Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), much of whose work contains more “cuteness” than inspiration. Until we get to choral music later in this series, I shall recommend only his Concerto in G-minor for Organ, Strings, and Tympani (Angel S-35953) and his Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (Angel S-35993).

Another French composer, Olivier Messiaen (1908- ), wrote the tremendously colorful “Turangalila Symphonie” (Ozawa on RCA LSC-7051), which some have found an overwhelming spiritual experience and others a crashing bore. But his “L’Ascension” (“Four Meditations”) for string orchestra (Stokowski on London 21060) is, at the very least, a “different” experience. Listening to the dissonance-harmonies in the last section, leaving the chordal progression unresolved at the end, is a powerful and unique pleasure-pain music experience.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) is perhaps the most fertile contemporary composer, and enormously influential, though often leaving one unmoved. His “Sacre de Printemps” (“Rite of Spring”), even before it became programatized and celebrated in Disney’s film Fantasia, was clearly a powerful gut-level musical innovation, and the savage “primal scream” quality comes out best in the earlier of two Bernstein recordings, Columbia MS-6010. (There is a more structurally lucid, “intellectual” performance by Boulez on Columbia MS-7293.) Stravinsky’s “Firebird” suite is performed with fiery intensity by Stokowski on London 21026, and his ballet “Petrouchka” by Ansermet on London 6009. You can get the two suites, “Firebird” and “Petrouchka,” together on one excellent recording by Ozawa, RCA LSC-3167.

Bela Bartok (1881-1945) writes in a modern idiom with great power and conciseness. His best orchestral works seem to me to be the “Concerto for Orchestra,” carefully yet passionately rendered by Bernstein on Columbia MS-6140; the “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste,” brilliantly done by Boulez on Columbia MS-7206 (with Stravinsky’s “Firebird” suite on the other side) and passionately done by Bernstein on Columbia MS-6956 (with Bartok’s two-piano concerto on the other side); and the Piano Concerto no. 2, by Bernstein-Entremont on Columbia MS-7145.

The music of Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) is symphonic in quality, resourceful, and sometimes powerful. His most memorable orchestral work is the symphony “Mathis der Maler,” colorfully performed by Kletzke on London 6665.

The American composer Samuel Barber (1910- ) has a large output, but only occasionally forgoes contrivance for inspiration. In his “Adagio for Strings” (Columbia M-30066), moving in its simplicity, the inspiration comes out, and for a moment it is almost Mahler. A fine collection of recent American orchestral music, including the Barber “Adagio” and the fine ballet “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland (1900- ), as well as works by Piston and Ives, is conducted by Bernstein on a two-record set, The American Album.

The most controversial of American composers, and by many considered the most important, is Charles Ives (1874-1954). In spite of the ultramodern harmonies and the intricate complexity of his work, you will appreciate it more if you are acquainted with the revival hymn-tunes, passages from which (often in sardonically distorted form) besprinkle his work. His interesting Symphony no. 1 is well performed by Ormandy on Columbia MS-7111, with Ives’ “Three Pieces in New England” on the other side. The Symphony no. 4 is played simultaneously (part of the time) by two orchestras in different tempos (Stokowski does it brilliantly on Columbia MS-6775), and in spite of its raucous cacophony, it can be a rewarding experience. Those who prefer modern music in a quieter idiom should listen to Ives’ “Concord Sonata” on Columbia MS-7192. (Next month: Song and Opera from the Beginnings through Purcell.)
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#3 Roger Bissell

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Posted 22 September 2006 - 08:31 AM

A brief note from Dr. Hospers, dated 9/21/06:

More than ever there is the problem of the recordings--they are all 33 rpm which are now out of date. Some of them have been transcribed into newer format but some have not. It is impossible for me to go over all those hundreds of recordings to find which are on 33 rpm only and which now exist in the new format. I guess the reader should be told that the recordings listed are all 33 rpm.


So, go ye therefore unto all Schwann catalogs (or online listings) and find the best available CD or DVD versions!

REB
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#4 Dragonfly

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Posted 22 September 2006 - 04:06 PM

Hospers' discussion of orchestral works is of course far too long to discuss completely in a single post, but there are a few points where I disagree heartily, so I'll mention those now...

[about Bach]

His music is not always in as happy a mood as Vivaldi’s, but it is in the “Brandenburg Concertos,” with which I suggest you begin. All six of them, with the exception of the relatively uninspired no. 6, are immortal masterpieces, which one wants to hear again and again no matter how often one has heard them before.

Arrgh! No. 6 is one of the best! I certainly prefer it over the rather shrill no. 2. It may be less catchy than the other concertos with its dark muted sound, but it's certainly not of lesser quality!

There is a large number of famous but eminently forgettable nineteenth century orchestral works. (The public still dotes on inferior works of the nineteenth century and ignores masterpieces of the seventeenth and eighteenth.) Among them are Tchaikovsky’s second and third piano concertos, almost all the orchestral works by Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, and the almost incredibly crude and vulgar “Symphonie Espagnole” by Lalo. Most of the work of Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is also forgettable, except perhaps for the pompous but cumulatively impressive Symphony no. 3 for Organ and Orchestra, done with the greatest flair by Much non RCA LSC-2341.

So Chopin's piano concertos, Schumann's piano concerto and cello concerto, Saint-Saëns concertos are eminently forgettable?! Gimme a break! Here Hospers is cavalierly condemning immortal masterpieces, just like Rand, who simply dismissed Bach, Mozart and Beethoven while she didn't like their music. Such almost hateful comments invalidate for me the whole enterprise, I must say that I'm quite disappointed.

#5 Roger Bissell

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Posted 23 September 2006 - 10:12 AM

I have no opinion about the Brandenburg Concerti, but I do want to respond to this comment by Dragonfly:

There is a large number of famous but eminently forgettable nineteenth century orchestral works. (The public still dotes on inferior works of the nineteenth century and ignores masterpieces of the seventeenth and eighteenth.) Among them are Tchaikovsky’s second and third piano concertos, almost all the orchestral works by Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, and the almost incredibly crude and vulgar “Symphonie Espagnole” by Lalo. Most of the work of Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is also forgettable, except perhaps for the pompous but cumulatively impressive Symphony no. 3 for Organ and Orchestra, done with the greatest flair by Much on RCA LSC-2341.

So Chopin's piano concertos, Schumann's piano concerto and cello concerto, Saint-Saëns concertos are eminently forgettable?! Gimme a break! Here Hospers is cavalierly condemning immortal masterpieces, just like Rand, who simply dismissed Bach, Mozart and Beethoven while she didn't like their music. Such almost hateful comments invalidate for me the whole enterprise, I must say that I'm quite disappointed.


When I hear "forgettable," I think of it in contrast to what is "unforgettable" (the word, not the song!), so I think in terms of melodic theme, which is the basic way I remember pieces. (Not always, of course, but for the most part.) Most, if not all, of the orchestral works by Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt are simply not melodically memorable; nor are the 2nd and 3rd piano concerti of Tchaikovsky or Saint-Saens' piano concerti. I literally ~forget~ what they were about not long after consuming them, sort of like Chinese food. :-) On the other hand, Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony and his first piano concerto are both superior works ~and~, because of their distinctive melodic themes, memorable.

And this is coming from an unabashed lover of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt. I don't feel a bit "hateful" ranking their compositions on a scale of what I better remember or not, and/or what is higher or lower quality.

As for Schumann, remember he said "almost all of the orchestral works." I'm sure he makes an exception for Schumann's piano concerto. (He should, anyway, because it's an "immortal masterpiece.") And that would (or should) be because of its ~memorable~ theme, as well as its overall coherence and beauty.

But I can like a lot of what these composers wrote, without being offended when someone else says that much of their output fell short of masterpiece quality. So, while I disagree here and there with Dr. Hospers' evaluations, I think he is on the right track.

REB
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#6 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 23 September 2006 - 10:57 AM

Boy, does all this take me down memory lane!

One day I have to get back into listening. When I "shrugged" music-wise, I stopped listening. It was too painful. Things like this are strong calls for me to go back.

I have one rather oddball comment on Chopin's piano concertos. I never liked them because I was a trombonist. There is only one trombone part in them (there are usually three in most orchestral compositions where trombones are used) and it only doubles the cello and bass line. This was a form of lazy orchestration much in vogue in the dance music of the time for things like the lesser known waltzes and so forth. This always smacked of grafting something like a 19th century equivalent of American Bandstand onto a piano concerto. After playing them a few of times and being bored out of my mind on stage, I started assigning them to the other trombonists in my section.

Dr. Hospers likes Brahms's second piano concerto. I have a mental experience with that work. When I was studying conducting under Maestro Eleazar de Carvalho, he had me completely revise my musical education. I applied some of this on my own to analyzing the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven for form-and-analysis (which, as any music student will tell you, is not done in classes - form-and-analysis is taught out of form-and-analysis books with small examples from actual music). What I learned opened my appetite for study such that I analyzed like crazy for a while. I started hearing the new concepts I was learning (the ones that are not in the books) in all kinds of music. So one night I made an experiment.

Neither of the Brahms piano concertos use trombone, so I sat out in the audience instead of backstage during the performance. I put my mind in full focus and commanded it to merely soak up what it heard, but try to put it into classifications like theme, development, counterstatement, introductory and winding down transitions, bridges and so forth. So I started listening. Ah! A theme, that was easy. There's another. Well... except it didn't continue like a theme. But it didn't sound like development either. Maybe a transition, but transition to... what? Then a new idea, but wait, that had echoes of something from before, but not really. It sort of wandered around a bit. Then a new idea, but I don't know how to call it. It is eminently forgettable. I wish it would stop. Finally, another idea. Now that sounds like a theme. But it doesn't really continue like a theme...

After doing this as best I could, fully expecting to at least recognize the recapitulation when it came around, I gradually became aware of something nagging me. It was silence. I blinked my eyes and discovered that the damn first movement was over. I had gone into a coma.

I never did have much use for that piano concerto after that. (I can hear Dragonfly groaning already...)

(Incidentally, I conducted the Double Concerto once. My concerts were usually well-reviewed and I always gave it my best shot. I remember doing very good Brahms that night. But I must confess that I always liked Brahms a lot better when I was conducting because there was something to do. Did I hear more groans?...)

Michael

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#7 Roger Bissell

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Posted 23 September 2006 - 12:50 PM

...I must confess that I always liked Brahms a lot better when I was conducting because there was something to do. Did I hear more groans?...)

Michael


Not from me -- except groans of recognition! I would ~much~ rather conduct classical music than sit, usually interminably, in the trombone section, counting measures, trying not to nod off and miss my entrance. (Which I did on occasion, back in college days at ISU and the U. of I.)

Which reminds me: several years ago, there was a very funny doctored-up photo of Ralph Nader, Al Gore, and George Bush, wearing tuxedos and holding trombones, with Al Gore saying, "What's the count?" That is the essence of trombone playing in an orchestra, which is one reason why I didn't pursue it as a career. :-)

REB, the most famous Objectivist jazz trombone player in the world
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#8 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 23 September 2006 - 01:29 PM

Roger,

I have always had a problem with authority and this is not a good thing in an orchestral musician. Once I started my analyses of symphonies, I started hearing music according to structure. I would then fit my trombone part within the structure, so I rarely had to count more than 3 or 4 bars once I got near an entrance (and I only did that to make sure, since I really didn't need it - but you never know).

As rehearsals always include a lot of repetition, listening to the same stuff over and over would get real boring, so I started reading the newspaper in rehearsals. This ticked a lot of control freaks off (both conductors - usually very bad ones - and even other musicians), especially as they would try to trip me up on entrances, which I never missed. I would always manage to come in on cue and in tune.

I don't recommend doing this day after day in an orchestra you have to conduct, though. When it is your turn to be up there, all respect goes out the window. I had to learn how to be really nasty to regain respect when I conducted, but it was always grudgingly given. When I guest conducted other orchestras, ones I did not play in, I never needed to be nasty.

I can't resist a story from back then. I had heard an old trombonists' tale (what trombonist hasn't heard them all?) and I decided to test one out on a conductor who was particularly obnoxious.

Conducting an orchestra is one of the hardest things in the world to do well because there is so much you have to have in your head all the time. But it is one of the easiest things in the world to fake because the baton does not make any sound. You can screw up royally and blame it on the musicians - and many do. The difficulty, though, causes some conductors to come to a rehearsal already prepared with what they are going to say, regardless of what the sound is. They have a little routine they go through. One of these annoying habits for brass players is that certain conductors are always asking them to play softer, even before the baton goes down, regardless of how soft they play.

One day I got fed up. We were doing something by Wagner and there was one of those sections of about 2 or 3 bars of quiet long notes to add color to what the the strings were doing. This particular conductor kept asking for less and less, so I finally told my section to pretend we were playing, but make a little production out of it: let's raise and lower our horns at the right place and pretend we are blowing them. The cue came around. I looked the conductor right in the eye, raised and lowered my horn and tried to look real intense as nothing came out. And right on cue, just like in the old trombonists' tale, he stopped a few bars later and came out with this:

"Trombones. Beautiful. That was almost perfect. Now if it could be just a little less, it would be perfect..."

:)

Nowadays, I would keep my mouth shut. But not back then. You can imagine the mess I made. I HATED bad conductors. I think I still do.

Michael

Know thyself...


#9 Judith

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Posted 23 September 2006 - 07:17 PM

I looked the conductor right in the eye, raised and lowered my horn and tried to look real intense as nothing came out. And right on cue, just like in the old trombonists' tale, he stopped a few bars later and came out with this:

"Trombones. Beautiful. That was almost perfect. Now if it could be just a little less, it would be perfect..."

Nowadays, I would keep my mouth shut. But not back then. You can imagine the mess I made. I HATED bad conductors. I think I still do.

Oh, I don't WANT to imagine. Please do tell -- what did you say? What did he say? What happened? :D
"Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
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#10 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 23 September 2006 - 07:54 PM

Judith,

I mouthed off real loud that we didn't play anything. He seemed confused at first. I don't remember the words, but I made sure I was crystal clear - to everybody. When he finally understood, he turned beet red and then tried to go on with the rehearsal. The people in the orchestra tried to hide their chuckling, but the bottom line was that discipline got shot all to hell. Nobody paid any more attention to his guidance, they wouldn't stop when he did, they talked a lot when he was rehearsing a particular section, they took way too long to start back up, they played half-heartedly, basically, they did what a bad orchestra does.

It ended up being a lousy concert and it didn't have to be. He was a bad conductor, but the orchestra was pretty good (Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo). That's why I would keep my mouth shut these days. I had my 15 minutes of glory, but it was not productive.

(btw - After that, he didn't ask us to play softer anymore - not once.)

Michael

Know thyself...


#11 Judith

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Posted 23 September 2006 - 11:57 PM

I mouthed off real loud that we didn't play anything. He seemed confused at first. I don't remember the words, but I made sure I was crystal clear - to everybody. When he finally understood, he turned beet red and then tried to go on with the rehearsal. The people in the orchestra tried to hide their chuckling, but the bottom line was that discipline got shot all to hell. Nobody paid any more attention to his guidance, they wouldn't stop when he did, they talked a lot when he was rehearsing a particular section, they took way too long to start back up, they played half-heartedly, basically, they did what a bad orchestra does.

It ended up being a lousy concert and it didn't have to be. He was a bad conductor, but the orchestra was pretty good (Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo). That's why I would keep my mouth shut these days. I had my 15 minutes of glory, but it was not productive.

(btw - After that, he didn't ask us to play softer anymore - not once.)

Sigh. He could have rescued the entire situation by laughing with everyone else and making a joke out of the whole thing. But then, if he had been that kind of person, the whole thing wouldn't have been necessary in the first place.

Yeah, I see why you regretted it. Having a bad concert wasn't worth it just to make a point. He probably didn't learn anything permanent from it.

But I just had to hear the story. As a choral singer I sometimes sit behind the trombones, and it's interesting to hear things from their perspective. Luckily for me, I haven't suffered many bad conductors. :)

Judith
"Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
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#12 Dragonfly

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Posted 24 September 2006 - 12:50 PM

When I hear "forgettable," I think of it in contrast to what is "unforgettable" (the word, not the song!), so I think in terms of melodic theme, which is the basic way I remember pieces. (Not always, of course, but for the most part.) Most, if not all, of the orchestral works by Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt are simply not melodically memorable; nor are the 2nd and 3rd piano concerti of Tchaikovsky or Saint-Saens' piano concerti. I literally ~forget~ what they were about not long after consuming them, sort of like Chinese food. :-) On the other hand, Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony and his first piano concerto are both superior works ~and~, because of their distinctive melodic themes, memorable.

Oh, come on! Chopin's piano concertos not melodically memorable? The themes of his first piano concerto have even more than once been used for popular music! The second theme of the first concerto and the main theme of the slow movement of the second concerto belong to the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard! Now I'll immediately admit that the orchestral part of those concertos is not very interesting, but that doesn't render the works themselves forgettable. Moreover, the whole notion of melodically memorable has little value. Can you remember the melody of the finale of Chopin's 2nd Sonata? It hardly has any melody, nevertheless it's one of the most unforgettable compositions ever written. Another example, one of the greatest compositions of all times is Bach's chaconne from the second partita for violin solo. Is that "melodically memorable"? The theme itself perhaps somewhat, but all those magnificent variations? (BTW, personally I hate Tchaikovsky's first concerto, now that is a work that is incredibly crude and vulgar, to use Hospers' own terms.)

Now I don't think for one moment that Hospers meant that you can't remember the melodies from those compositions. I'm sure he meant that they should be forgotten, as he thinks that they are not worth remembering. In fact he's complaining that the "public" doesn't forget them! So much for the "forgettability" of those works!

My conclusion: Hospers' article is eminently forgettable.

#13 Roger Bissell

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Posted 25 September 2006 - 02:05 PM

Dragonfly, you wrote:


When I hear "forgettable," I think of it in contrast to what is "unforgettable" (the word, not the song!), so I think in terms of melodic theme, which is the basic way I remember pieces. (Not always, of course, but for the most part.) Most, if not all, of the orchestral works by Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt are simply not melodically memorable; nor are the 2nd and 3rd piano concerti of Tchaikovsky or Saint-Saens' piano concerti. I literally ~forget~ what they were about not long after consuming them, sort of like Chinese food. :-) On the other hand, Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony and his first piano concerto are both superior works ~and~, because of their distinctive melodic themes, memorable.

Oh, come on! Chopin's piano concertos not melodically memorable? The themes of his first piano concerto have even more than once been used for popular music! The second theme of the first concerto and the main theme of the slow movement of the second concerto belong to the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard! Now I'll immediately admit that the orchestral part of those concertos is not very interesting, but that doesn't render the works themselves forgettable. Moreover, the whole notion of melodically memorable has little value. Can you remember the melody of the finale of Chopin's 2nd Sonata? It hardly has any melody, nevertheless it's one of the most unforgettable compositions ever written. Another example, one of the greatest compositions of all times is Bach's chaconne from the second partita for violin solo. Is that "melodically memorable"? The theme itself perhaps somewhat, but all those magnificent variations? (BTW, personally I hate Tchaikovsky's first concerto, now that is a work that is incredibly crude and vulgar, to use Hospers' own terms.)

Wow, where to start with this...from the bottom up, I guess. Tchaikovsky's 1st piano concerto is a masterwork. "Incredibly crude and vulgar" (Dragonfly)? "Bombastic" (Hospers)? I guess it depends upon your taste and perspective. I love the work, myself, and I experience it as being heroic and bold and insistent. I will note that the 20th century popular song rip-off of its main theme, "Tonight We Love," truly does qualify as "incredibly crude and vulgar," but only because it is transmogrified from french horns and violins (etc.) into trumpets and saxophones for swing dancing. Ugh. Please. I have probably played that arrangement a few dozen times too many. Perhaps with fresh ears?....Not! It has not ruined the original for me, but it never fails to arouse disgust and irritation when I hear that smarmy dance arrangement. It's like something out of Atlas Shrugged.

Secondly, in regard to the chaconne from Bach's 2nd violin partita...I did not say that there was nothing else about music that could render it memorable. I just said that melody was the principal factor according to which I remember musical compositions. (My words: "not always...but for the most part.) I certainly do appreciate thematic development, especially in a good theme and variations piece. My favorite such is Rachmaninoff's Variations on a Theme of Paganini. I like very much the gorgeous variation that has a lyrical inverted version of the theme, but more than that melody, I love the whole cavalcade of delicious variations that Rachmaninoff's serves up.

Thirdly, I see what you mean about the finale of Chopin's 2nd piano sonata. The Barbosa interpretation probably doesn't do it justice, because it sounds like he played it too fast, focusing on the bumblebee or storm effect to the extent that a lot of the musical detail was smeared together. If that's how Chopin wanted it to sound, so much the worse for Chopin, in my opinion. Speaking of Chopin's piano music, however, a similar effect, but much more stunning and powerful, to my ear, is his Scherzo in B minor (not the one in B flat minor, which is also good). To me, this piece sounds very Byronic (heroic striving against a world in which one is fated not to succeed), and that his how my analytic approach to melody and rhythm also interpret it. And there is nothing strongly melodic about it. It's more about mood and gesture and sheer, raw energy. Powerful stuff, and I can summon it up in my aural imagination, with great pleasure, whenever I am so moved.

Fourth, I listened to my Horowitz recordings of Chopin's 1st and 2nd piano concerti, focusing specifically on the themes you cited, and I fail to find anything that is, by my standards, memorable. It is very enjoyable, pianistic writing, though I could do without a few dozen of the trills. But half an hour later, I find myself asking: now how did that go again? Honestly, you had me doubting my own experience and memory, and I had to go back to my LP's to give you the benefit of the doubt. But no, I'm completely in agreement with Dr. Hospers on this: those concerti, while fine works, are not masterworks and are not particularly memorable. Certainly not to me, and I have a great musical memory (though not "photographic").

Fifth, you said that the themes of Chopin's 1st piano concerto have "more than once" been used for popular music themes. Please cite two popular songs (or popular music themes) that have derived from this concerto. I am well aware that Chopin, like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, has been thoroughly "mined" for 20th century popular song material, but I'm not aware of the particular songs you are referring to.

Finally, there are often idiosyncratic reasons why people cherish certain pieces of music (or artworks), and those reasons can be perfectly valid. Some people, also, are sensitive to certain aspects of music that others are not. The slow movement theme of the Chopin 2nd piano concerto, for instance, probably had aspects that you found very endearing or inspiring--but which were not to me. We can both find that theme to be beautiful, but while you find it exceedingly beautiful, I rank it way, way down the list (still appreciating its beauty). It reminds me of the Miss America contests, in which my dad used to pick the ones that didn't make the cut. Somehow or other, they rang his bell, while I just saw them as another pretty face, "eminently forgettable," and not one of the truly outstanding ones, and the judges seemed to agree. So, tastes can differ, and it's a free country, so to speak.

Now I don't think for one moment that Hospers meant that you can't remember the melodies from those compositions. I'm sure he meant that they should be forgotten, as he thinks that they are not worth remembering. In fact he's complaining that the "public" doesn't forget them! So much for the "forgettability" of those works! My conclusion: Hospers' article is eminently forgettable.


Apparently I've offended you in seconding some of Hospers' opinions. I can't imagine why you would otherwise say such a thing about one of the 20th century's leading aestheticians and a friend of Objectivism and Libertarianism, to boot. Maybe it's just the cultural gap between Iowa (Hospers and I are both from that state) and Holland. Dunno. But lighten up, my Dutch friend, or you will blow a gasket! In disagreeing with each other's opinions, I think we can, and should, be a little more civil toward each other and our honored guest here on OL.

REB
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#14 Dragonfly

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Posted 25 September 2006 - 05:52 PM

Thirdly, I see what you mean about the finale of Chopin's 2nd piano sonata. The Barbosa interpretation probably doesn't do it justice, because it sounds like he played it too fast, focusing on the bumblebee or storm effect to the extent that a lot of the musical detail was smeared together. If that's how Chopin wanted it to sound, so much the worse for Chopin, in my opinion. Speaking of Chopin's piano music, however, a similar effect, but much more stunning and powerful, to my ear, is his Scherzo in B minor (not the one in B flat minor, which is also good).

All the four scherzi are masterpieces!

To me, this piece sounds very Byronic (heroic striving against a world in which one is fated not to succeed), and that his how my analytic approach to melody and rhythm also interpret it. And there is nothing strongly melodic about it.

Well, except the trio, which Chopin based on a Polish Christmas carol. But you're right about the fast parts.

It's more about mood and gesture and sheer, raw energy. Powerful stuff, and I can summon it up in my aural imagination, with great pleasure, whenever I am so moved.

Sure, but there are still melodic elements. Not in the rising figures, which have a screwing motion like hurricanes, but in the second subject in octaves. I don't know Barbosa's interpretation of the Sonata, so I can't comment on it. But the finale is a real marvel. Except for the final chord it consists exclusively of unisono played triplets. Eleanor Bailie writes in The Pianist's Repertoire - Chopin:

...many thousands of words have been expended in the effort to 'explain' a movement which Alan Walker says 'is without precedent in the entire history of the keyboard'. It is futuristically athematic from beginning to end - no wonder Mendelssohn disliked it - and its continuous swirls of stark sounding octaves reminded Anton Rubinstein of 'night winds sweeping over churchyard graves' (p.247). Alan Walker goes on to say 'the music lies a long way behind the notes; few pianists get there' (p.248). It is formidably difficult, and needs to go very fast, and the more minimal the use of the pedal, the clearer the shape of the continual flux of tiny surges within the overall sotto voce e legato, the more skeletal the texture, and the more spectral the effect. A performance stands or falls not by whether it is good or bad, but by its relation (either as a summation or, equally valid, as a question mark) to what has gone before, and ultimately by its ability or failure to chill the spine.



Fourth, I listened to my Horowitz recordings of Chopin's 1st and 2nd piano concerti, focusing specifically on the themes you cited, and I fail to find anything that is, by my standards, memorable. It is very enjoyable, pianistic writing, though I could do without a few dozen of the trills. But half an hour later, I find myself asking: now how did that go again? Honestly, you had me doubting my own experience and memory, and I had to go back to my LP's to give you the benefit of the doubt. But no, I'm completely in agreement with Dr. Hospers on this: those concerti, while fine works, are not masterworks and are not particularly memorable. Certainly not to me, and I have a great musical memory (though not "photographic").

Well, I know the whole first Concerto by heart. Ok, perhaps I'm cheating while I've studied in the past... Anyway, I see no value in the ease of remembering a composition as a yardstick for its quality. A banal piece consisting of singalong tunes may be much easier to remember than a four-part fugue by Bach, but that doesn't make it better or even remotely comparable!

Fifth, you said that the themes of Chopin's 1st piano concerto have "more than once" been used for popular music themes. Please cite two popular songs (or popular music themes) that have derived from this concerto. I am well aware that Chopin, like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, has been thoroughly "mined" for 20th century popular song material, but I'm not aware of the particular songs you are referring to.

Ha, ha! Do you really think that I could remember any popular song? What I do remember is that around 1963, while I was still at school, I was whistling the first theme of that concerto, when one of the girls in my class said something like: Ah! That is XXX! where XXX apparently was the title of some song that was a hit at the time. She was really surprised when I told her that those musicians had stolen the theme from Chopin. Many years later I read somewhere about some group that had used some theme from that same concerto; as it was much later I'm fairly sure it wasn't the same song. Sorry, it's rather vague, but this is the kind of music that I find eminently forgettable.

So, tastes can differ, and it's a free country, so to speak.

I completely agree, and I think there is nothing wrong in telling what you like and not like. However, in an article that is meant to give a general survey of the history of classical music to instruct the reader you should be very careful with uttering strong opinions, especially if these go against those of many great musicians and knowledgeable musicologists. I'm not saying that you should completely hide your preferences and aversions, but you shouldn't utter them as absolute statements in what I still think is quite strong language. That may be fine for an essay, but not for such an overview.

Now I don't think for one moment that Hospers meant that you can't remember the melodies from those compositions. I'm sure he meant that they should be forgotten, as he thinks that they are not worth remembering. In fact he's complaining that the "public" doesn't forget them! So much for the "forgettability" of those works! My conclusion: Hospers' article is eminently forgettable.


Apparently I've offended you in seconding some of Hospers' opinions. I can't imagine why you would otherwise say such a thing about one of the 20th century's leading aestheticians and a friend of Objectivism and Libertarianism, to boot. Maybe it's just the cultural gap between Iowa (Hospers and I are both from that state) and Holland. Dunno. But lighten up, my Dutch friend, or you will blow a gasket! In disagreeing with each other's opinions, I think we can, and should, be a little more civil toward each other and our honored guest here on OL.

??? Where am I uncivil? I must have missed that moment. The only thing you could interpret as something negative is where I say that his article is eminently forgettable. But that would contradict your interpretation that forgettable just means that you can't remember it and that is not some negative qualification. Now my qualification was meant to be negative, let there be no misunderstanding about it. But is it uncivil to disagree strongly? Not in my opinion. For example, I have much esteem for my good friend Michael, but if he says something outrageous, I'll tell him what I think of that. Further I don't see the relevance of Hospers being a friend of Objectivism and Libertarianism in this case. Rand was probably also a friend of Objectivism, but that didn't stop her from uttering things about music that can only be classified as complete bullshit! No, I don't want to suggest that Hospers is in the same class, he's no doubt much more sophisticated about classical music than Rand. But when he says something outrageous, I'll give my opinion about that. And I think I did that nicely by just using his own words. Anyway, what would your reaction be if someone on this list said that Rand's works are "eminently forgettable"? Or would you just think he had a bad memory?

#15 Roger Bissell

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Posted 03 October 2006 - 08:44 PM

In Libertarian Review, March 1975, Vol. IV, No. 3, in response to letters from Emilia Nordtvedt and James D. McCawley, Dr. Hospers wrote:

Having seen “Swan Lake” several times (once in the Bolshoi Theater), and heard it many times more, I can enthusiastically endorse it as one of the great ballet scores. The omission of it from my list of Tchaikovsky’s ballets was quite unintentional.

As to Carl Nielsen, I am indeed most enthusiastic about his symphonies 3, 5, and 6 especially, but would not be willing to describe him as the greatest of twentieth-century composers, as I would unhesitatingly describe his fellow Dane, Carl Dreyer, as the greatest of all film directors.

There are many musical masterpieces of which I can only say “Space does not permit…” For example, the De Falla Concerto in D for flute, harpsichord, etc., mentioned by Michael Dunn in a letter in LR a few months back, has long been one of my favorites.


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