A Good Review (read Another Bad Review by David Hurwitz)

Considering Classicstoday.com’s review philosophy, which we’ve been over many times, how does this happen as often as it does? Here, David Hurwitz tackles a new recording of Vincent Persichetti’s 12 Piano Sonatas (for those who don’t know Persichetti, here’s a bio and some sound).

My beef today?

No. 11 is a spiky, very harmonically advanced (read atonal) essay in several linked sections that still somehow manages to preserve a sense of melodic flow.

Again, he manages to push his pointy-headed, ignorant opinions while maintaining a sense of compliment—“melody is the best measure of music and atonal music is melody-less, but this has some melody, which is surprising, because it goes against my outright dismissal and hatred of modernist harmony (read atonality); but this is good, because it has melody (read not atonal).”

It must be so difficult for him to include parenthetical qualifiers in a review that shouldn’t even be examining musical worth in the first place (see above review philosophy).

Oops. I spoke too soon.

This is in no small part thanks to [the pianist’s] extremely well-recorded and sympathetic performances, which capture the music's fundamentally lyrical inspiration in even the densest thickets of notes (and this music is packed with incident).

A period after “inspiration” would have sufficed (see above review philosophy). But noooo! Hurwitz can’t help but voice his anti-dense-thicket-of-notes (read atonal) fetish (see above review philosophy).

So, in Hurwitzian spirit, I would like to qualify my previous remarks: It must be so painful for him to exclude parenthetical qualifiers in a review that shouldn’t even be examining musical worth in the first place (read your review philosophy [see above review philosophy]).

*You'll all be happy to know that I scrapped my initial idea for this post: an awkward and extended metaphorical reference to Dead Poets Society and Mr. Prichard's essay on measuring the value of a poem. Something about a graph depicting melodic worth on the vertical and harmonic worth on the horizontal. You're welcome.


Empiricus said...

Someday, I'll link his bio for all to read. This is a threat.

Dave Hurwitz said...

Whether someone agrees with me or not isn't important, but mischaracterizing for the simple purpose of being obnoxious is sad. Here is my complete review, which I believe speaks for itself. Read and draw your own conclusions about the level of "detritus" on offer here:

"It has taken a long time for an outstanding set of Persichetti's 12 piano sonatas to make it to CD, but Geoffrey Burleson's performances certainly have been worth the wait. Although not terribly ambitious in size (all 12 works fit onto two CDs totaling approximately 150 minutes of music), their range is astonishing. In the first few pieces Persichetti works his way from a highly melodic form of 12-tone expressionism (No. 1, of 1939) through Hindemith's more tonal neo-classicism, culminating in the large Fourth Sonata of 1949, in which his mature style seems fully present and well-integrated. This doesn't mean that the early works aren't rewarding, or that the later ones all sound the same--far from it.

Sonatas Nos. 7 and 8 are brief, punchy miniatures. No. 10 is the largest of the set, arguably Persichetti's most important keyboard work. No. 11 is a spiky, very harmonically advanced (read atonal) essay in several linked sections that still somehow manages to preserve a sense of melodic flow. This is in no small part thanks to Burleson's extremely well-recorded and sympathetic performances, which capture the music's fundamentally lyrical inspiration in even the densest thickets of notes (and this music is packed with incident). His excellent technique and firm rhythmic sense serve him particularly well in the big pieces (Nos. 1, 4, 10, and 11), though the simpler charms of Sonatas Nos. 2, 5, 7, and 8 find him equally at home. In sum, this is a highly noteworthy release of some tough, intelligent, finely wrought music--a major statement on all fronts."

Empiricus said...

While yes, we are obnoxious, the points I think we've made over the course of this blog have some value.

But before I get to the justification, I'd like to say that, one, nice to hear from you, and, two, we have taken you to task many, many times and, perhaps, too harshly. But you must understand that what we are trying to do, in short, is to point out how our critics fail us as purveyors of public opinion.

We want critics to keep their jobs. We want classical music to succeed. We want potential listeners to be able to sift through the most biased of opinions, because there's something for everyone.

That said, it's my opinion that, when dealing with music you do not like (for whatever reason, and I'm fine with your opinion), you tend to be irrationally negative, whether with period performance practice or modernist music. This, I think is in direct contradiction to your Review Philosophy, which (on a positive note) states that we should take what you have to say with a grain of salt. When you plainly call Sciarrino "untalented," or when you dismiss something out-of-hand, because of your preferences, you're casting a certain negative light on the MUSIC you are reviewing, not the recording nor the performance, which is exactly what your "review philosophy" is against: reviewing the music so that we can't geI do not, hopefully, t to the nuts and bolts of the recording and performance. Those, I think, are three separate things, no?

So, in the end, yes, I often recontextualize what you say. But, I do not endeavor, contrary to your interpretation, to mischaracterize your sentiments.

Also, I appreciate your retorts. Please defend yourself if you think we're off-base or flat-out wrong. This is a blog traversed by critics and musicians who only have the best intentions of keeping alive what we love, through good writing.



cereal_music said...

Atonal music is not melodic.

Melos, or song, is the root of melody. If a series of sounds cannot be sung or remembered it is not a good melody, but rather a bad melody. "For unless sounds are held in the memory by man they perish" (Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) on melody). The deliberate obfuscation of a singable line is 20th serial and atonal technique. Thus, atonal music makes use of anti-melody-- or a series of sounds that cannot be readily remembered or sung even by the most able musicians. Examples of how to do this are plenty in twentieth century composition books. Charles Wuorinen devotes a chapter on "melody" in Simple Composition . In fact, Wuorinen reverses meanings of the other terms as well. For example, a regular (or memorable) rhythm in atonal music should be heard as a "dissonance." In essence, instability is stability in his style.

In contrast, Guido of Arezzo uses "Ut queant laxis," [O for thy spirit, holy John, to chasten lips sin-polluted, fettered tongues to loosen; so by thy children might thy deeds of wonder meetly be chanted] hymn from the feast of St. John the Baptist, to teach children the solf├ęge system. On memory Guido states, "[s]uppose... that you wish to commit some note or neume to memory... you must locate that note or neume in the beginning of some melody you know very well." This system has been used to teach performing musicians very successfully for the last 1000 years. 700 years later Fux writes, "As a garden is full of flowers so this species of counterpoint should be full of excellences of all kinds, a plastic melody line, liveliness of movement, and beauty and variety of form... There is nothing new that need be explained, except that one should take the utmost care to write a singable, melodic line-- a concern I beg you always to keep in mind."

There cannot be two conflicting definitions of melody, that is something is and is not at the same time. The "singable" definition has stood in writing for 3000 years. A very small body of music that most people are unaware of or openly hostile towards cannot and will not change the definition, engraved into eternal stone by the masters. So historically, atonal music is deliberately un-melodic. By definition, David is correct in saying roughly, "despite being atonal, these pieces have melody (that is, singable line)."

We don't need to invent history and the meanings of words to defend modernist music. Your write-up of his review is historical and logically unsubstantiated and therefore unacceptable. The amazing thing is, Mr. Hurwitz seems to have enjoyed the pieces!

"Thus [your] folly led [you] unintentionally to slander their profession by the assumption that in music there is no such thing as a right and a wrong, the right standard of judgment being the pleasure given to the hearer, be he high or low. By compositions of such a kind and discourse to the same effect, [you] naturally inspired the multitude with contempt of musical law, and a conceit of their own competence as judges."


And I'm out... C.M.

Sator Arepo said...

CM, I disagree (not unsurprisingly).

Dallapicolla is totally melodic. Berg is totally melodic. Even Webern (especially when he writes symmetrical trichords) can be melodic.

Hell, Schoenberg's Hanging Gardens, and arguably Pierrot have melodic moments.

The lack of diatonic scales does not preclude melody. If it did, you'd also have to exclude basically everyone in the 19th century.

Is Hindemith, in your estimation, melodic? Shostakovich?

One could make the argument that Cage is a-melodic; but what about Feldman? Glass? Even Reich (a close one)?



cereal_music said...

SA, I'm trying to clarify your definition of "melody." Melody is something that is singable and memorable (consult historical writings for this), that is able to remembered. In general, your above mentioned examples are neither singable nor memorable, and therefore decidedly not melodic. Who walks around humming the "Leid der Lulu"? Or excerpts from the Prisoner?

Lack of a diatonic scale doesn't make the music any less beautiful, but it sure does make it difficult to remember or to sing. Your fault lies in definitions, not in aesthetics. I'm not debating whether modernists write pretty music. I'm calling you out on your over-generous use of the word melody.

I think you’re unwilling to let go of the words melody and melodic (especially the latter) because they carry positive connotations. That doesn't change their underlying definitions.

Gustav said...

CM, your point is certainly well taken about the historical definition(s) of melody, but you are not allowing for the inevitable evolution of that definition. Just like definitions for terms like consonance and dissonance, and what constitutes a chord or a scale have grown, become more generalized and more inclusive, so too has the term melodic.

The manner in which Guido, Machaut, Beethoven, or Stravinsky defined melody is not the only relevant factor to how we define melody today. And certainly we have all dealt with enough post-modern theory to know that words (and music and art) can mean slightly different things to different people. While melody can mean "singable" to the masses of American Idol-loving public, those of us with experience of a greater breadth of music know that there is more than one way to understand these terms. Consonance can have more than one application depending on the source of the music. The folk tunes of Hungary and those of Ireland don't agree on what intervals are consonant and which are not. Which culture should reign supreme? How about the melodies of ancient Chinese music versus those of Beyonce song? How many listenings of each do you think would be required before you'd memorize one or the other (how about for a Chinese person)? What is correct number of listenings requisite for a melody to qualify as “memorable” and “singable”?

Definitions change and are always pliable to context. Perhaps we could simply describe melody as the most significant line of a given musical texture. No? Well, something else maybe better, but "singable" should not be the only determining factor. And doesn't a term like "singable" imply some very strict range and timbral constraints that aren't applicable to instrumental music. A violin has a 4+ octave range, no human I know has that sort of range. Shall a melody written for that instrument only be confined to the limits of human vocalist? Or can we allow for melodies that conducive to human singing, and those that are conducive to instrumentalists?

Although, I think this type of discussion often gets bogged down by cultural rhetoric which places special significance on the importance of melody. I think that SA’s defense of those particular atonal works speaks to that point. Whether or not a work has a “singable” melody, or melody at all, should not be so closely tied up to our estimation of it’s value as a piece of music. What the fuck difference does that make anyhow?

cereal_music said...

The first and common definition of melody is "a sweet or agreeable succession or arrangement of sounds," as defined by Merriam-Webster. It's this qualitative subjective part to the common usage that SA and Emp have a problem with. By stating that atonal music is not melodic, one could be implying that atonal music is not sweet or agreeable.

What I am saying is that sweet and agreeable are directly related to definition of good melody be memorable and singable. By that definition... Chinese, Hungarian, Irish Folk song (of which I know about all well) and Beyonce (who's cute) all have good melodies, they are in fact what the Greeks define as melos-- the union of notes and words. And by further extension, a Paganini etude consisting of 3 octave arpeggios may be exciting and beautiful, but does not constitute good melody. I'm consistent, you can find me trashing Beethoven for poor melody on this site-- to which you guys disagreed because of flimsy definitions-- falsely equating melodic with good quality.

Obviously the second definition of melody in M-W, the technical one, "a rhythmic succession of single tones organized as an aesthetic whole" applies to just about anything including me getting a cup of coffee in the morning, when you let 'tones,' 'organized' and 'aesthetic' each have flexible meanings.

My points:
1. There is no problem if people use the subjective common definition of a word.
2. There is historical justification in calling atonal music un-melodic, that is not necessarily attached to quality.
3. Post-modern perspectives are for idiots.

Oh, and by the way, Gustav, consonance is not a hot topic. Some Greeks classified only perfect intervals as consonance, though others philosophers wanted to include the third 2500 years ago. The third won in the long run (in theory) 2000 years later, but with negotiation as we have two types of consonances-- perfect (to which our scales are tuned to) and imperfect.

Rather than trash D. H. on semantics, why don't you go out and promote the pieces you name drop by playing them for regular people? I do, and you guys make me laugh.

Love y'all,

Gustav said...

I must say that I'm torn...

"A melody is not merely something you can hum."
-- Aaron Copland


"I don't really have time to sit down and write. But when I think of a melody, I call up my answering machine and sing it, so I won't forget it."
--Britney Spears

Gustav said...

...the mind reels.