Vacation thoughts

It’s time for my vacation, lasting all of July. As often before, I’ll be going to a remote spot in the Yorkshire Dales, in England, a very quiet place, impossibly gorgeous, with far more sheep than people. This is what I see when I step outside:


I won’t be isolated; I’ll get e-mail (on a very slow dialup connection); but I won’t be blogging or posting comments, until the beginning of August, when I’ll return. But before I go, I want to say how much I’ve enjoyed the conversation that developed around my last post.

Many thanks to everyone who took part. (And let me add that the comments on this blog are just as much worth reading as anything I post.)

Among much else, in this last conversation, I think we managed to highlight two issues that are crucial for classical music’s future. First: some people (for instance, Alex, who doesn’t give his last name) say that classical music will survive on its own. It’s wonderful that people think this, especially in the context where Alex brought it up — he was reacting to John Seabrook’s book Nobrow, which argues that the distinction between high and popular culture doesn’t have much force for many people any more. For Alex, this means that Mozart and popular culture can coexist, as indeed they’re doing right now.

Of course, if this is true, we don’t have to be talking about the future of classical music. I think there’s a middle ground, though, in which Mozart will coexist with Bjork and Lucinda Williams, but with some changes that make him more comfortable in our present world.

Or maybe that’s not necessary. Maybe there will always be people who want Mozart the way he’s being offered right now — enough people, that is, to sustain classical music as we know it, without many changes.

Or maybe Seabrook’s point really means that there are fewer people around who accept the unquestioned importance of Mozart, in which case we’d expect to see a smaller audience for classical music in the future, and also less funding for it. This is one of the issues I think the conversation highlights.

And here’s the other one. Is Seabrook right? Is the distinction between high and popular art gone forever? I guess there are really two questions here. First, is the distinction gone? And, second, is this good or bad? Some people think it’s a ghastly development. Not surprisingly, these people think that the distinction is as valid (and important) as it ever was. Of course they think that high art offers things that popular culture can never match — or, more strongly (and more commonly) they think popular art is necessarily shallow. (At best.)

I’d offer one important caveat, which is that “popular culture” is — rather like “classical music” — a misleading term. “Classical music” is misleading because not all the music that falls under that umbrella is really “classical,” in the sense that the word implies that it’s music from the past. Because of course there’s contemporary classical music, too. (I write it.) Similarly, not all “popular culture” is popular. Some is obscure, enigmatic, challenging, very much a niche affair. Robert Christgau, the rock critic who was my first editor at the Village Voice (when I first became a writer), offers the very useful concept of “semipopular music,” meaning music that’s written in styles that might allow it to be popular, but which in fact isn’t oriented toward popularity.

But back to the people who deplore the end of the high/popular abyss. The argument against them is that popular culture (and especially, I’d think, popular music) has evolved its own forms of art, so we no longer have to look to high art — or exclusively to high art — for everything that art gives us. Their argument, I’d guess, is that this isn’t so.

So, because I’m on the pro-popular culture side, let me offer a challenge. If someone wants to attack popular culture here, let them be specific. Since this is a music blog, let them explain what’s wrong with popular music. Let them — instead of making general comments, or flinging around the name “Britney Spears” — let them take some artist who smart people who like popular music take seriously, and, with reference to specific songs on specific albums, say what’s wrong with this person. If they want to take on Seabrook, they might start with Neil Young and the Chemical Brothers, since Seabrook specifically offers these as alternatives to classical music. Or if they want to argue with me, they might take on some of the music I often mention, Bjork, Radiohead, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, or Lucinda Williams (my current craze; I guess I’ve gotten off gospel music).

hope someone takes me up on this. I could be a brat, and say that all I’m asking is for people who reject popular music to show that they actually know something about it. But far beyond that, they’ll deepen the quality of discussion here, and, with any luck, teach me a lot.

In return, I can offer to say more about what I like in this music. And I might also talk more about what I like in classical music. Some people, I’ve seen, get the idea that I dislike classical music, or have some plan to destroy it. Actually, the reverse is true. In many ways, I’m hopelessly in love with classical music, and as lost as many other people are in the new world that’s emerging. I can spend hours talking about classical music minutiae, just as I always did in the years before the present crisis emerged.

So, in this spirit, I’m going to offer one classical music delight before I leave for the month. I was asked recently to contribute ideas to a radio show about great endings of classical pieces. I began with what I think is the oddest ending in all classical music, the final page of Donizetti’s opera Maria di Rohan.

This isn’t a piece many people will have seen, or heard on CD. It was one of Donizetti’s late operas. Sometimes, in his later stuff, he gets strange ideas, and doesn’t hesitate to carry them out. In La Favorita, for instance, he decides he’ll write one of the obligatory repeats in a fast ensemble in a new key. I’ve never seen anything like that in any other bel canto opera.

In Maria di Rohan, he might have wanted the ending to feel especially shocking. The situation isn’t anything special: the baritone has found out that his wife, the soprano, is in love with another man, who of course is the tenor. After a scene of apparent friendship, in which the baritone seems to be helping the tenor escape from his political enemies, the baritone and soprano are left alone. Now I’ve got you, the baritone essentially says. I’ve arranged for your lover to be killed. Yes, he’s going to die, and you — you’re going to live in infamy, unfaithful wife!

How does Donizetti set this to music? The trio, when the tenor thinks he’s escaping, is a vigorous piece in B flat. After he leaves, the music falls into D major. When the baritone brings the opera to the close with the words I’ve paraphrased, he’s singing what sounds like it’ll be a simple cadence in D. The orchestra has dropped out, for the moment. The baritone denounces the soprano, going up the scale from A to D. Under that final D, we’d expect the orchestra to rush in with a loud D major chord, to bring the opera to an end in the key we’re in. But instead, it returns — fortissimo — in B flat! The name for this is a “deceptive cadence,” and often it’s followed by music that returns the music to the proper key. Not here! The orchestra screams out a couple of plagal cadences, B flat to E flat minor to B flat to E flat minor to B flat, and the curtain falls.

The simple way to put this is that, as the baritone finishes, the orchestra screams a completely wrong chord, and that’s how the opera ends. The effect on CD is bizarre. In live performance, it might be insanely violent. If you asked Donizetti to justify this, he might say, “Well, look, the final trio is in B flat, and that’s really the final key of the opera. The D major scene for the soprano and baritone is just an interlude. That final cadence only returns the music to its home key.” Sure. And I’m the king of Siam. Nobody who’s ever heard western music before is going to expect that final chord, or think that it’s even remotely normal. I’ll go further, and say that I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else in classical music.

Does anyone know another piece that ends even remotely like this? Sure, I know pieces that end with ambiguous harmony, like Also sprach Zarathustra, with that ethereal B major chord darkened by repeated soft Cs in the bass. But Donizetti isn’t ambiguous. He’s in-your-face blatant. Hear it for yourself! For me, this really is the oddest ending in all classical music.

Have a good July, everyone. I’ll look forward to resuming the conversation in August.

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  1. Ben says

    The last chord of Ives’s second symphony is a similar idea… It seems a bit more self-indulgent, though.

  2. says

    got the 8330 on Telus as they were CDMA last March. I had to go with Telus because of their great coverage for when we go camping and on trips. Rogers sucked that way so there was no way I could go with them. Once Telus went HSPA and had a month or so to work all of the kinks out, I bought myself an early Christmas gift in mid-November: a 32GB iPhone 3GS. I already had the MacBook at home and was tired of getting my BlackBerry to work with it (never really did). My iPhone paired with MobileMe works great. I have been thinking about picking up a 9700 but it would probably gather dust. My iPhone does everything for me, quite well too. Texting is much nicer on the iPhone, as well as Apps, browsing the internet and usability. I can hand my phone to someone and they are not perplexed on how to use it anymore.