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Entries in Composer (2)


Modern Music Is Not What it Used to Be (No. 1 in a series)

Milton Babbitt died two weeks ago. While his name may be known to classical-music fans, his music likely is not. He epitomized mid-century Modernism in the US: Difficult, dense, cerebral, intimidating, unpleasant. His most famous work isn't even a piece of music, but an article published in High Fidelity, "Who Cares If You Listen?". Of course that provocative title is not Babbitt's but was given by one of the magazine's editors. Many writers will point out that this replacement is a more apt representation of the article's content than Babbitt's own "The Composer as Specialist."

The gist of Babbitt's article, that composers don't write for the general public but for a select group of individuals who are already attuned to what the composer is attempting to accomplish, is not new. Both Debussy and Schoenberg had expressed similar thoughts at the turn of the century, and Schubert's circle of friends shared a similar mindset. The difference with Babbitt though is that he was writing at a time and in an environment that emphasized and rewarded scientific rigorousness — the American university of the 1950s. Babbitt's article is an attempt to place his work on the same level as math, physics and other hard sciences. Given his earliest compositions were popular songs along the lines of Gershwin or Cole Porter, it is difficult to imagine such a drastic change in style as Babbitt underwent.

I think it likely that Babbitt developed and wrote in a total serialist style because that's what was expected of him (or at least what he thought was) as a university professor. Except for Elliott Carter, all the American composers associated with High Modernism worked in the Ivory Tower. Babbitt's article and compositions are an effort to defend or explain the presence of music composition faculty in the university by showing how similar it is to the hard sciences. When Babbitt first submitted his doctoral dissertation at Princeton, it was rejected in part because there was no doctoral-level degree in composition offered.  When all the money is going to the sciences, and you want some of that money, you have to present yourself as scientifically as possible, and this is what Babbitt did, for good or ill.

Unfortunately, his scientifically rigorous compositional style held a powerful sway over how composition was taught for roughly twenty years until George Rochberg's Third String Quartet made tonality available for serious composition again. The damage had already been done, though. The mass audience of the populist works from the 1930s and 40s had been lost, and American composers now found their audience, in the words of Spinal Tap's manager, becoming "more selective."

Although Babbitt himself maintained his personal style, he did not force his composition students to adopt it. His early interest in popular song never left him, and students who wished to follow that path, he encouraged. Teaching composition at Princeton from 1948 to 1984, his most widely recognized students are jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim.

- Mike


Bach, Beethoven, Saint-Saëns?

I know, I know -- you were expecting the list to end with that other old bearded fellow. But while Johannes Brahms was certainly a great composer, he's really not hurting for exposure right now. Like Bach and Beethoven, every single one of his surviving works has been recorded multiple times, and most have been performed and recorded so often that it's impossible to quantify.

Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, has not been so lucky in the years since his death. He is chiefly remembered today for The Carnival of the Animals, a light musical joke written for friends which (with the exception of one movement, "The Swan") he did not allow to be published during his lifetime, perhaps because he had a premontion that it might distract from his more serious work. And it certainly has eclipsed everything else he wrote in terms of popularity, even his great "Organ" Symphony (No. 3)

What you may not know, however, is that Saint-Saëns wrote five excellent symphonies, ten concertos (that number is much higher if you include numerous works which qualify as concertos today, even if he did not title them as such), and twelve complete operas. Yet only one work in each of these genres has even managed to stay at the fringes of the repertoire: Symphony No. 3, Piano Concerto No. 2, Violin Concerto No. 3, Cello Concerto No. 1, and the opera, Samson and Delilah. Even recordings of the others are so uncommon they can usually be counted on one hand. In fact only three other operas of his (many of which were critical and/or commercial sucesses in his lifetime) have ever been recorded, and those three have enjoyed only one recording each.

I'm here to tell you this is a crying shame. Well, I cry about it anyway...and I'm sure that if you dare to explore his music further you'll cry too. Contrary to his unfortunate reputation (sadly shared by many a Frenchman) the vast majority of his unique ouvre is far from superficial fluff. His chamber music is profound, his requiem an unsung masterpiece. And even the most superficial fluff he wrote (most composers wrote some, after all) has a twinkle and sparkle of wit behind it that few composers of any era could match. In my ever-so-humble opinion, Saint-Saëns's music has such spirit -- almost a magical quality -- that he deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as any other great composer you could mention.

Over the rest of the month I will be using this blog to discuss his music in further detail, spotlighting five essential albums to start you down the path of enlightenment. To make things just a little easier on you, and in celebration of Camille Saint-Saëns, our first official Joel's Classical Shop Composer of the Month, for the whole of January 2011 all recordings containing his music will be discounted 10% off at the register! (This will even apply to special orders you make if they arrive after January.) Come on in and learn more about one of the greatest musical geniuses in recorded history.

Your friend in music,