The Symphony is the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle of its day…

It’s morning and after a comical coffee mishap, I’m reviewing my email and gathering my wits for an other shaky day. In celebration of my newly accessible CD player, I loaded in Schumann’s Symphony no.1, Sir Adian Boult conducting. About six minutes in I began to be struck by the silliness of it. I think I may have no interest in symphonies…

Of course there are lots of reasons why a particular recording may not grab me. But today my beef is with the size of the orchestra itself, chasing after motifs and massing to make effects. A busy, busy piece of music that dazzles with size and technique – in other words: a blockbuster. I have very little training in music history, and certainly couldn’t take you through the intricacies of melodic development and key shift that are, to my understanding, one of the important parts of the symphonic experience. However, I do think the orchestra represents something about a concentration of power (the ability to bring together so many musicians in one place) that seems distasteful to me right now. For example, I love Schumann’s solo piano music, and Hayden’s string quartets. But today when I came to the symphony looking to be enveloped, I found myself distanced and skeptical.

Given my anxiety about not knowing enough (see any number of earlier entries)the idea that I just don’t have to bother with studying the symphony any more is a relief.

0 Comments +

  1. That’s interesting insight. I love symphonic music, but I must admit I’ve felt that same distancing lately. I want to be transported by music, not strong-armed. I’ve been more intrigued with the intimacy of chamber music the past few years. Danny and I went to see Tafelmusik a few months ago. I had not seen a Baroque orchestra perform before. It felt fresh and invigorating, and dynamics of the group reminded me of a jazz ensemble.

    I doubt that I will ever give up big orchestral stuff; I’m too deeply attached to much of the Romantic repertoire. And in live performance it is breathtaking entertainment.

  2. I can see exactly what you are saying. What then about a Cage-ean event piece, with mostly unrelated instruments and musics being played simultaneously but independently?

    I’ve always sort of liked the relative anonymity or the communal spirit an orchestra creates. I tend to get frustrated with most per”fohr”mers because of the almost bottomless hunger for attention to them personally. I can’t help but see Baby Jane in most of them. And it often seems needy and parasitic in the same way.

    Maybe if the symphony were more chaotic? Less monolithically constructed?

  3. I think that a lot of people together can make interesting music – but the things you are pointing out about orchestras are just the things that are rankling me today: the inability to hear individuals think about the music. Orchestras are not communities, and their construction seems odd and corporate. In the same way that dozens of people typing into computers makes that big wall of water crush Jean Gray at the end of X-2, the activites of the players in a symphony seem directed to shifting the musical transaction into effect.
    Again, this is just the way that the form and the instument have evolved together to produce a kind of sonic experience that left me unmoved this morning. The thing that seemed exciting to me about your suggestion was that I saw myself physically wandering among the players, making my own path through the music.

  4. PS

    i think i will definitely try to head up to SF for the short film because i want to see my face all huge on the castro screen. i assume you’ll be there? and if so when?

  5. Re: PS

    I’m conflicted – the show on the 19th is at the Castro -but I have to be on a panel in Baltimore on the 20th. The 26th is at the Roxie, not as nice a theater, but more convenient time-wise.

  6. I admit that this might very well be the case – and I’m glad that you posted, since you’re someone who really does know classical music from the inside. What’s your take on all this?

  7. I see, I think. You’re also talking about the orchestra as an institution. I was thinking of something far more isolated. Different planes. By all means!: Get yourself into the thick of things! Play like a piper right in the middle of them and break their solidity and rank. Hehehe … they’d never be the same again!

  8. I think that a lot of people together can make interesting music – but the things you are pointing out about orchestras are just the things that are rankling me today: the inability to hear individuals think about the music. Orchestras are not communities, and their construction seems odd and corporate. In the same way that dozens of people typing into computers makes that big wall of water crush Jean Gray at the end of X-2, the activites of the players in a symphony seem directed to shifting the musical transaction into effect.
    Again, this is just the way that the form and the instument have evolved together to produce a kind of sonic experience that left me unmoved this morning. The thing that seemed exciting to me about your suggestion was that I saw myself physically wandering among the players, making my own path through the music.

  9. Re: PS

    I’m conflicted – the show on the 19th is at the Castro -but I have to be on a panel in Baltimore on the 20th. The 26th is at the Roxie, not as nice a theater, but more convenient time-wise.

  10. I admit that this might very well be the case – and I’m glad that you posted, since you’re someone who really does know classical music from the inside. What’s your take on all this?

  11. Almost all of my classical music collection is chamber music. Of course, I LOVE the piano in all forms. I have a love for it that cannot be quinched. And, I’m a frustrated composer, although I’ve given it up many years ago. If I could come back as a different artist, I’d like to be Herbie Hancock. ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. bombastic or bee-sized

    I’m all about the downsizing, the delicate, the off-key and minor chords. I have a fondness for artists who made it, but are more b-level than a-superstars. And I love chamber music, pianos, violins, songs rather than operas, melodies rather than crescendos.

    I’ve got a great piano version of Rite of Spring (a cheap Naxos cd) that I prefer to all other arrangements, for example.

  13. I think Beethoven and Mahler

    or more highly thought of for their symphonies; but I’ve never been able to take them that seriously, either.

    Joan Tower is cool, though, and very interesting.

  14. But dear, individuals thinking about the music isn’t the point.  With a symphony orchestra, a composer has the broadest pallette of timbres and colors to use in communicating musical vision or message.

    The orchestra, to a composer, is one huge instrument, not unlike a large-scale organ with all its stops and manuals.  It’s this very mastery of tone colors and the challenges of orchestration that makes the symphony the sign of the true musical master.

    Chopin and Liszt, for example, were both masterful pianists, but Liszt was able to command the forces of an orchestra where Chopin was not.

    Truly enough, though, the interpretation of the composer’s intent is not one left to the individuals in the orchestra for the most part; that’s really the conductor’s choices overlaid on the players, but it’s a benevolent dictatorship (kind of socialist, when I think about it) if everyone’s on the same page as far as service to the music.

  15. Keeping in mind that Baroque music is the domain of the florid soloists all around, and gives individual musicians freer hands in interpretation than your typical classical or Romantic work…

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