Monday, November 05, 2007

Missing In Action From 20th c. Masterpiece Recording Lists: Britten's War Requiem Makes Neither Paul Griffiths's Nor Alex Ross's List Of Worthies

After returning from the Alexandria Symphony's superb performance, last night, at the National Gallery of Art (FREE) of Beethoven's Symphony #4 and Brahms's Symphony #4 [a program dedicated to the excellent J.M. W. Turner exhibition] (Program Note), I glanced once more (after an afternoon of reading) at my copy of the first edition of Paul Griffiths's Modern Music and After, which pretty much summarizes, in part, what I studied in my third and final year of college music theory. My copy is from 1981, while the revised version is from, 1995, I see. Paul Griffiths is a leading Anglo-American-EU music critic and proponent of a living classical music culture. After early British university studies and research in the biochemical sciences, he has devoted his intelligences and passions to an exhaustive and serious study of new classical music as a field of inquiry comparable to that of the natural sciences, social sciences, literature, philosophy, and religion. He is also a librettist, having collaborated with Elliott Carter on the opera What's Next?; and an editor and contributor to the highly rewarding post-modernist music celebratory volume, Horizon's Touched, The Music of ECM. Last, but not least, Mr Griffiths, complemented his serious study of modern music with the 2006 exceptionally thoughtful short volume, A Concise History of Western Music; which is very insightful on the music of the 20th c. [ Note to self/others: Charles J. Hall Chronology of Western Classical Music Volume 2 1901 to 2000.]

I think that Paul Griffiths's 2006 volume should be read by those seriously interested in thinking about Western classical music of the second half of the 20th c.; in that it covers musical developments from 1950 to 2000 left out from Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise volume, which appears slightly biased to music before 1945.

For example (and please bear with me, I took, and can't now locate, notes for this just before bed -- any corrections are welcome), Mr Ross cites, at the end of his impressive volume, 30 recommended recordings. These recordings are fine for those coming to 20th century classical music from, say, rock music, "new music", politics, literature, or the visual arts; but include, I recall, from the second half of the 20th c., only Ligeti's Atmospheres, Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, Cage's The Seasons, Stockhausen's Electronic Studies from the 1950s, Xenakis's Orchestral and Chamber works, Feldman's Rothko Chapel, Part's Tabula Rasa, Adams's Harmonielehre, and the coupling of Berio's Folk Songs and Golijov's new Ayre.

Paul Griffiths's, in his A Concise History of Western Music, concludes with a listing of about 45 recommended recordings for the 20th c.; and his recommendations from the second half of the century include, in addition to the overlaps with Alex Ross of Ligeti, Reich, Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Part; such major later 20th century, highly serious, classical voices as Messiaen, Boulez, Barraque, Berio, Nono, Birtwistle, Babbitt, Wolpe, Nancarrow, Carter, Penderecki, Lachenmann, Ferneyhough, Grisey, Sciarrino, Kyburz, and Ades. [Didn't Ross include Ades's Asyla? No, apparently not.]

Briefly, Alex Ross's softer-modernist biases would appear to have led him to recommend Adams's Harmonielehre and Golijov's Ayre but not Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows [a setting of Paul Celan's Holocaust-haunted poetry] or Carter's Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei [or Carter's three outstanding song cylces from the 1970s/early 1980s, on Anglo-American poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashberry, and Robert Lowell].

I also see that Boulez's Rituel: In Memorium, Bruno Maderna, made neither list. Though he is not one of my favorite modern composers, Mr Boulez, is, in fact, a 20th c. master, and his exclusion is unfortunate, in my view [as is the exclusion of Tippett and Henze from the latter 20th c. -- where is Tippett's The Mask of Time or Henze's L'Upupa?]. [Nor is Elliott Carter one of my handful of favorite contemporary composers.... hmmm, I don't see Kristof Penderecki's Polish Requiem, Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium, Vyacheslav Artyomov's Requiem for the Victims of Stalinist Terror, or Valentine Silvestrov's Symphony #5 (1993?) on either list ...]

Let me also note, however, that while Alex Ross's soft-modernism is a somewhat helpful, short-term cultural correction (a correction earlier caught by such critics as Donald Mithell in his revisiting of his masterful, The Language of Modern Music; as well as by Edward Said) and that he is to be applauded for recommending Britten's Peter Grimes; both Ross's soft-modernism and Paul Griffith's high-modernism biases have led them to leave out such important, humanistic second half of 20th c. masterpieces as Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Threni; Britten's War Requiem (which my hyper-modernist music theory teacher told me, when I was a freshman who had recently performed the work with my Berkeley High School Orchestra and Chorus, had "problems"; and Shostakovich's Symphonies #13 and #14.)

[Paul Griffiths's latest book is published by Cambridge University Press; while Alex Ross's book is published by the comparably distinguished commercial publishing house, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, home to much of the best in serious, contemporary literature.]

Henry Moore
'Death of Mira'
Limited edition of 183
314mm x 248mm
12.5 inches x 9.75 inches

Myanmar (Burma) this autumn, 2007.

Image and photo credits: Copyright © 2002 De Lacey Fine Art, London. All rights reserved. (c) United States Campaign for Burma October 2007. All rights reserved.


For more on second half of the 20th c. classical music, see, of course, On An Overgrown Path. For an example of a dysfunctional, non-living classical music culture, see, for example, the program listings for the WETA/WGMS-FM business merger. [Though I see that the Library of Congress is apparently strong-arming WETA/WGMS-FM, into not suppressing the token contemporary, living classical music on their Concerts from the Library of Congress series.]


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