Actually listening to some of these CDs…

Not so much a project as an ambition: listen to some music.

Background: I used to listen to music a lot. Classical music, that is. Used to be that I couldn’t go on holiday for a week without taking about 50 CDs with me. Now… not so much.

There are some good reasons for this. Changes in technology and lifestyle have encouraged me to only listen to things I happen to remember and then find on online sites, or occasionally to the small number of things I’ve actually put on my ancient MP3 player (a selection I’m bored of but can’t be whatevered to actually update). And in the last couple of years, I’ve actively (though not very thoroughly) tried to listen to some pop music, what with that being, you know, what normal people do.

But! I miss not listening to more good music. If nothing else, my mind is always more creative when I’ve got music around me – and while I’m far less snobbish about pop music than I used to be, the one huge problem I still find with it is the emotional monotone. Pop songs are almost all too short to really explore many thoughts: they’re moments, single images, like paintings. Whereas a good symphony or the like can take you to every corner of human existence. They’re films, rather than photographs. What’s more, in practice 90% of pop music – or at least the pop music I hear about – is basically an exploration of only two emotional states: petulant/depressed and asskicking. And as I say, I’m much less snobbish now, and I recognise that some pop music is really good at hitting those two moods. Not necessarily the best*, but good. But in terms of using music for my own thinking, it’s good I think to live in a more varied aural world.

*if I am ever made Mikado, singers of overly-bombastic rap songs about how wonderful the singer is will be made to stand in front of a 1000-piece orchestra playing Verdi’s Dies Irae/Tuba Mirum. On the whole, I prefer the Mozart/Süssmayer version (he really nails the ‘mors stupebit et natura’ bit), but Verdi’s is one of those pieces of music that could reduce a grown man to his knees with its power – if God’s Last Trumpet sounds anything like Verdi’s, we’re all in serious trouble.

Anyway, more music. You see, I’ve got a lot of it. I mean, almost literally tons! Some of it mine originally, much of it derived from other people who felt they were even less likely to listen to any of it anymore than I was. So as I was moving some of it the other day, a thought occurred: some of this I’ve never listened to. Why don’t I listen to it?

But! ‘But!’, I thought… there’s so much of it. Even if spend an hour listening to it, then…

…well why don’t I? I mean sure, there are constraints on my time. I can’t spend all day listening to music. But I easily spend more than an hour a day on my computer, or reading, not watching or listening to anything in particular, and there’s no reason I can’t do some of that with the hi-fi on.

If nothing else, it might encourage me to read more.

Now, some of you may be sighing and saying: but isn’t this another of those projects that you always have that you never really go through with? [Did I ever tell you about my plan to compile all F1 results ever to calculate the best driver in history through pairwise comparisons? Turns out that although I’d like to know the answer, I really don’t care enough to work it out. Plus, I need better maths to do it properly]. Well yes. Yes it is. But that’s sort of inherent in the idea. Obviously I’m not going to listen to all this music. I actually find the certaintly of failure rather reassuring here. That’s why I say, up above, that this is more an ambition than a project. One CD at a time!



And what am I starting with? Well, the obvious starting place, naturally: Wind Quintets nos. 1-3 and Sextet, by Franz Danzi (Naxos disc).

OK, that’s not really obvious in any way whatsoever. But it was the first on that row for some reason, so that’s what I’ve got.

For anyone (is there anyone!?) not familiar with Danzi, he was a late-Classical product of a musical family of the highest pedigree, but his career trajectory was unfortunate: from a cellist in Mannheim he moved to a vicekapellmeistership in Munich, which he left after personal clashes and the death of his mother, and then to a full kapellmeistership in Stuttgart, which he left on account of that orchestra’s legendary intrigue and debauchery, before finally spending his mature career stuck as kapellmeister to the court of Baden in Karlsruhe, where the orchestra was apparently atrocious. Nonetheless, he maintained a good-natured disposition to the end, the sort of bespectacled, plump, quietly despairing but always pleasant man that so often fills the background of the biographies of more famous figures, and he was well-spoken of by those in the industry. In particular, he maintained a long epistolary friendship with the younger Carl Maria von Weber. Apparently he was succesful in transforming the Karlsruhe orchestra, over the course of many years, into… well, into something vaguely competant and respectable, at least.

The wind quintets are… well, wind quintets. There are basically only two modes open to the wind quintet as a medium: pleasant light background music, and terrifying, ear-bleeding screeching. The time period ensures that these are the first. They’re apparently a response to the more-or-less creation of the genre by Anton Reicha a few years earlier, and were popular in their day as a simpler alternative to Reicha’s work: as the liner notes indicate, Danzi’s approach was stylistically conventional and unchallenging for the players, but illuminated by a gift for enjoyable melody. The sort of music you might expect from a serious musician stuck herding far less talented performers… but also the sort of music you can imagine being extremely attractive to amateur performers and the less notable orchestras, something easy enough to play but sophisticated in sound.

I must concede it’s hard to get excited by wind quintets – or indeed to tolerate them for an entire CD. But in small doses, this music is pleasant enough: Danzi does indeed write enjoyable tunes, though nothing particularly memorable.

The sextet is more my sort of thing: it’s amazing what adding a horn can do for the overall timbre, and this is a much richer and less irritating sound, but a very similar style. It could quite easily, to my uncultured ear, be mistaken for uninspired Mozart, or for any of Danzi’s other more famous contemporaries.



Piano Trios by Smetana, Suk and Novak, and Elegy (under the impression of Zayer’s Vyšehrad) by Suk

Smetana’s piano trio was written in a rough time for him. It’s dedicated to his eldest daughter, who died earlier in the year at the age of four. His second daughter had died the previous year. His fourth daughter had just been born, but she was going to die a few months after the music was written. His wife had been diagnosed with tuberculosis that year, and would die a few years later. The after this music was written, he chucked his old life in and moved to Sweden. He was probably in a bad mood overall, and it shows.

The beginning of the trio is not all that melodious: clumping, thumping bleakness. But Smetana mixes that brooding quality with moments of soft, even over-soft lushness and with periods of rapidity. The result – particularly in the first movement, but throughout – is a desparate, angry effect, a portrait of a man struggling with life, despair and panic and attempts at finding peace all jumbled together. It’s fairly melodious – he’s writing this in the 1850s, and it has the same neo-classical melodiousness that I think a lot of the Czech revival era had – but it’s not happy comfortable listening.

It is interesting, though, from a musical point of view. Grief often seems to drive composers to novelty, and this is a strange blend of the old and new. In his lusher, gentler passages, he seems to prefigure Rachmaninov – for a moment there I even had a glimpse of some sort of slow jazz – and there is something modern or at least late romantic about his hammering melancholy, not exactly discordant but not wholly interested in sounding nice either. But there are also patches where you can really see an old-fashioned restraint behind the notes. And of course there is plenty of Czech revivalism here in both the harmony and the rhythms. Overall, it’s a confused but compelling piece.

Smetana, incidentally, after returning to Prague, went deaf and developed tinnitus, and it was in this condition that he composed his masterpiece, Ma Vlast, and achieved his greatest fame. After the onset of hallucinations, insomnia and depression, his mental state rapidly declined, and he was confined to an asylum, where he died. Officially the cause was senile dementia, but the Naxos notes side with doctors of his time in attributing it to “illness, occasioned, it may be assumed, by the effects of youthful excess”. Translation note: in classical music, “illness occasioned by the effects of youthful excess” means neurosyphillis. Youthful excess was a dangerous thing back then.

Suk’s trio feels like an overt attempt to imitate Smetana’s. The imitativeness shouldn’t be a great surprise: the man was only 15 when he first wrote it. The main difference is even more influence of Dvorak… again, hardly surprising, as Suk heavily revised the piece while studying under Dvorak. It’s an eminently unobjectionable piece of music, more coherent and polished than Smetana’s effort. It’s also, unfortunately, rather less memorable, for precisely the same reason: there is none of the suffering here. This is largely the difference between the angst of a middle-aged man whose wife is dying and whose babies are dead and the angst of a teenage boy who thinks that he knows the sorrows of life but in truth does not. Suk’s passion is, like a lot of teenage passion, expressed according to the proper forms; Smetana’s is slightly strange, now too wild, now too restrained – he’s not trying to look passionate, he actually is. Suk’s is therefore the more readily amenable of the two in the moment, but Smetana’s is the more memorable.

The Elegy (inspired by a novel of lost Czech glories, and likewise arranged, in this later arrangement by the composer, for trio) was composed much later in Suk’s career, and there is more maturity about it and less polish. It remains, however, a very stylistically restrained piece: it feels studiously modern enough to please the critics in 1901, but never too modern to seem radical. It’s a soft, wandering Late Romantic piece that to be honest I’ve already forgotten.

Novak’s trio is from 1902, but I find it much more appealing. He makes the trio seem a richer sound, and is full of distinctively Czech melodies, in the manner of Dvorak at his most demotic (like Suk, Novak was taught by Dvorak, although Novak, previously condemned by other teachers at the Academy for his ‘innovations’, apparently was much more ready to argue with his teacher). His style is continually restless, which I think may be his reflection of modernity – many moments are old-fashioned, but he never lets himself settle in one place for more than ten seconds. A simple reflection of this is that although the short trio is given four sections, these are played continuously as a single movement with no breaks. The combination of modern energy, Late Romantic lushness and traditional Czech melody make parts of this the closest thing on the CD to a modern film score. It helps that Novak seems to really appreciate the forces he is commanding: the piano is allowed to be thundering and violent, the cello is allowed to sing. It’s hard to explain the precise difference between this and the Suk, or even the Smetana, but I felt that Novak’s piece felt more specifically written with these instruments in mind.

From an aesthetic point of view, Novak’s work is fairly disposable, and less interesting than Smetana’s – its power, which the liner notes aptly name its ‘histrionic force’, not an easy effect to achieve when you’re working with a piano trio, is unsubtle and easy. But it is also effective, and I found this the most enjoyable piece on the CD.

One thought on “Actually listening to some of these CDs…

  1. papushisun says:

    You sound like the kind of guy who would enjoy Rush.

    *Obligatory fanboy proselytising*

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