Too Much Tchaikovsky

Bridges and Boundaries

Can we put Arnold S. on hold for a bit? I need to growl and shake my old chew toy, style.

For the style-obsessed, composers seem to come in two flavors: Style Aggregators and Style Disruptors. Some creative types study, prune, preserve: they aggregate music, curating its best moments. (See Bach, J. S.) Others make a contribution by blowing things up. Time for a change, they say. Check this out, they say. If you’ve been paying attention, you get the message.

Schoenberg was pretty obviously a Disruptor, born like Beethoven into an age of multiple disruptions. His music matched the times.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), by all accounts a prime Style Aggregator. His music broke no rules, introduced no new sounds whatsoever. It was wildly successful in its day and remains so. Brace yourself for a blizzard of new Telemann releases in 2017.

This is a good thing. We should be glad that the timeline for “classical” music has broadened so much in the last half-century. Everything from medieval chant to the Brooklyn School now lies at our fingertips. Case in point: a new album, Metamorfosi Trecento, from lutenist Michele Pasotti and La Fonte Musica (Alpha Classics 286). It is devoted to the Greatest Hits of the 14th Century, a style period commonly called the Ars Nova. I taught this music to undergraduate music majors for years, although I never listened to it outside the classroom. It’s overly abstract, full of intricate rhythms nearly impossible to perform, and based on poetry prized by the One Percent back in the day but ignored since then.

And yet listening to Pasotti’s way with French motets or Italian ballate, I discovered grace, charm, and profound feelings just under the (busy) surface. Pasotti and crew do a better job of turning this stuff into music than anyone else I’ve heard. Their performing style makes 14th-century Mannerist compositional manners palatable to 21st-century listeners. Let’s break it down.

First, the epoch: be glad you didn’t inhabit any part of the 14th century. Famines, wars, and plagues broke out everywhere, continually. The church suffered from scandals and power struggles; secular authorities met with revolt. Yet it was also an age of intense scientific ferment, as Richard Taruskin reminds us in his monumental Oxford History of Western Music. Patiently and at length, he explains how the “new music” (!) of the day self-consciously took its rhythmic cues from advanced mathematical inquiries:

The Ars Nova innovations were a by-product of the theory of exponential powers and one of its subtopics, the theory of “harmonic numbers.” It was in the 14th century that mathematicians began investigating powers beyond . . . the simple geometry of squares and cubes. . . . Nicole d’Oresme’s Algorimus proportionum was the great theoretical exposition of 14th-century work in “power development” (recursive multiplication) with integral and fractional exponents; but it was precisely in Jehan de Murs’s music treatise [Ars novae musicae] that the fourth power first found a practical application. [Taruskin vol. 1, p. 248]

Whereas triple meter and relatively simple subdivisions of it had dominated the 13th century, now musicians found literally every combination of rhythms theoretically available to them. The result was music just as precious, erudite, and enigmatic as the poetry it set. Pasotti’s people render it attractive in a number of ways. First, they include not only the most mathematically abstruse French music but also its Italian counterpart, which has melodies more obviously meant for singing, not algebraic meditation. Second, they vary the manner of presentation (aha, style!), making us more aware of a song’s individual qualities. Finally, they’ve gathered together texts that address a single theme: metamorphosis both literary (“I was a phoenix and my life was pure and tender / And now I am transformed to a turtledove . . .”) and mythological (“Calisto, an earthly lady / Made such a sweet sacrifice to Jupiter / That he placed her, as his true wife / High upon the throne . . .”).

Some clips are in order. First, the lively three-voice “Sì dolce non sonò chol lir’ Orfeo” (“Orpheus with his lyre did not sound so sweet”) by Francesco Landini (c1325–97):

Then, Jacopo da Bologna’s pensive “Fenice fu’” (“I was a phoenix”), which adds imitative moments and hocketing:

Last, a textbook example, Philippe de Vitry’s “In nova fert/Garrit gallus/Neuma.” Its title reflects this motet’s simultaneous use of three different texts. In Pasotti’s arrangement, what you will hear first, all by itself, is “Neuma,” a fragment of Gregorian chant used as the structural basis of the work. When it’s sung or played within the piece, it is set to an arbitrary rhythmic pattern and usually goes unnoticed. In this performance, it’s set apart as the intro, with a drone accompaniment; the music then proceeds as written, only now you’re more aware of the chant fragment’s presence in the motet, even with two chattering voices—set to separate texts—racing around above it. Nice.

Since we seldom dock at the 14th century, let me mention another new release you might find interesting: the Orlando Consort’s Beneath the Northern Star (Hyperion CDA68132), which traces English sacred polyphony during the same period. Here’s a sample:

You’ll notice immediately that the English liked full harmonies, often moving as parallel chords. It’s a pleasant medieval sound, and it made a huge influence on the French when they heard it from English musicians during the Hundred Years War. The Orlando Consort doesn’t offer the color variety or performative freedom of Pasotti and La Fonte Musica, but they illuminate an important corner of history.

I guess this makes the Trecento crowd basically Style Disruptors. Faced with the opportunity to transform their craft rhythmically, they lit out for the border. Their shenanigans—along with the full harmonies of la contenance angloise—cleared the decks for a more coherent, graceful pan-European style, i.e., Renaissance polyphony from Dufay to early Monteverdi.

Speaking of coherent and graceful, I do recall mentioning Telemann a few paragraphs ago. Let’s get back to him: If you are somehow short of good old Georg Philipp, here are two new releases and one older standby that’ll provide you with high-quality GPT for a while.

First up is a new collection, Telemann (Alpha Classics 245) from my favorite Baroque ensemble, Giovanni Antonini’s Il Giardino Armonico. Antonini made his mark as a recorder virtuoso; no surprise, then, that Telemann consists largely of suites, concertos, and sonatas with recorder. Fireworks occasionally erupt:

Such moments are skillfully balanced with the languid and lyrical—more typical pieces of pastoral style (!) for the 18th-century recorder. Antonini also includes a sonata for two chalumeaux, forerunners of the clarinet:

A couple of years ago Martin Gester directed some Ouvertures pittoresques (programmatic orchestral suites) with crack Polish ensemble Arte dei Suonatori (BIS-1979; SACD). Telemann was famous for his ability to craft charming, humorous character studies within dance types. So here we have “The Nations,” fanciful sketches of Turks, Swiss, Portuguese and others; a Suite tragi-comique depicting diseases and cures both real and imaginary; and concertos on Polish folk tunes. Telemann’s Turks sound like this:

Finally, for anyone who needs A-List background burbling, or music to accompany insomnia, I heartily recommend this aggregation: Telemann’s 12 Fantasias for Solo Flute (Alpha Classics 267), with François Lazarevitch the fully awake flutist. At 3 a.m. or thereabouts, it’s enjoyable yet unlikely to rouse your tired soul into full consciousness—no disrespect there for Telemann, who knew what he was doing. Definitely worth a shake, not a growl.